Once-Upon-Thyme Chapter 3

The castle was its very own ecosystem, a whole, self-contained universe. Its state of general disrepair meant that a plethora of little creatures and creepy crawlies had taken up residence within its walls. There was always something to look at—a new plant that was making a life for itself with its roots digging into a crack between two stones, or a neat little nest diligently made by a small furry creature.

“Before we go check on the mice, there might be eggs over with the doves,” Alinor said hopefully. Sometimes she acted with all the maturity of a young woman, other times she was still very much a kid, and the combination made her all the more endearing.

“All right, let's go check on them first, then,” Adrianna said as she had said hundreds of times over the years—in fact every time Alinor wanted to go check on some animal or another. 

They climbed up to the attic, and from there to a ladder that reached all the way up to the high and massive beams that supported the roof. One after the other they crossed one of the beams, walking with arms carefully stretched out to keep their balance, until they reached a small nook on the other side. There wasn't much space, only just enough for the two of them to crouch next to each other. They called this nook Dove Cove since every year doves made their nest here.

Alinor had been right. Nestled between two woodworm-chewed struts was a small nest and in the nest were four perfectly smooth eggs, the shells a delicate pink, like the inside of a shell.

Alinor beamed, turning to look at Adrianna with shining eyes. Adrianna couldn't help but smile back, her sister’s joy contagious. She slung an arm around Alinor’s neck, yanking her close, and leaned her cheek against the top of her sister’s head. They stayed like this for a moment, silently watching the nest.

Yes, moments like this really made it hard to remember what exactly was so important about bagging a prince.

Adrianna looked up at the rustle of wings followed by anxious cooing. “We should go. That'll be the mother, and she won't be happy to have us so close to her eggs.”

Checking on the mice was equally successful. The sisters waited a couple of metres away from the nest, their backs against the eaves, their noses full of the smell of the cedar chests that crowded the attic, housing old clothes and other belongings. The slightly medicinal smell of the chests mixed with that of the flaky, slowly decomposing piles of newspapers—a legacy from a crazy old uncle who had, for some reason, collected them obsessively.

The girls had to wait for a while before their patience was rewarded with a mouse coming to feed her little ones. They watched in silence as the little mouse went about her business, feeding her babies before scampering off, no doubt to go back to the kitchen in search of more treats. She might be able to steal some leftover crumbs in the crumble dish.

“See, checking on the mice and the doves is much more effective than a bottle of wine,” Alinor pointed out smugly as they clambered down from the attic. “You look happy again.”

Before Adrianna could formulate a reply, a voice called out to them.

“There you are!” Helga the maid looked positively blown as she ran over to their side, red splotches standing out starkly on her cheeks.

[ Image: Alinor frame.jpg ]

“Everything all right?” Adrianna asked.

“This arrived a while ago, but I couldn't find you anywhere.” Helga handed over a letter.

Adrianna recognised the ornate seal at once—it had also been stamped at the bottom of the invitation she had received to Charming's ball. Her heart pounded, although she wasn't sure if it was excitement or dread, or something else entirely.

“Charming wrote to me?” she asked aloud, voicing her confusion. He hadn’t so much as looked in her direction last night.

She cracked the seal and unfolded the stiff, creamy paper. The note was short, almost terse, the handwriting perfectly neat. It stated that Charming intended to call before midday.

“Shit, shit shit.” Adrianna looked around her wildly. “What time is it?”

“Nearly eleven,” Helga replied. “I looked for you everywhere, but I couldn't find you, and…”

“Not your fault,” Adrianna snapped before the maid overwhelmed herself with misplaced guilt. The last thing she needed was for anyone to panic given how little time there was to get ready. “Mirabelle!” she yelled. “I need you!”

They waited for a moment, but nothing happened. “Urgently, damnit!” Adrianna shouted again.

Again nothing happened.

“Mirabelle, I swear, if you don't get your arse over here right now—”

“What, what is it?” Mirabelle appeared next to Adrianna looking flustered as she patted her hair and rearranged her clothing.

“The prince is coming to call, and he will be here any minute now.” Adrianna thrust the letter at her.

“Prince? What prince?”

Adrianna was having a hard time containing her growing temper. “Charming, who else?”

“That damp sock? Well, I guess beggars can't be choosers, darling.”

Adrianna skewered her with a glare.

“Which storyline are you going to go with?” Mirabelle asked brightly, either oblivious or so used to Adrianna’s glares that she wasn’t affected.

“Do I have to play the evil stepsister?” Alinor asked morosely.

Adrianna shook her head. One thing she had promised herself was that she would never force Alinor into that role. She would simply have to find a way to bag herself a prince without needing a storyline involving an evil stepsister.

“Well, you have an evil stepmother,” Mirabelle pointed out. “So you could simply have her lock you away in your bedroom and let Charming batter the door down.”

Adrianna shook her head again, growing increasingly impatient. “That won't work. We didn't even speak last night. That kind of story only works if he has already had time to fall in love with me. I'm amazed he even knows who I am—I very much doubt he'll be bettering doors down to get to me at this point. But, you're right, I have to use the evil stepmother angle since it's the only one I have.”

She briefly thought back to that other princess, a mermaid called Ariel who had infamously given up her tail and her voice to make herself appealing to a prince, and then on top of that she'd had a witch trying to sabotage her. All the odds had been stacked against her, which is of course what princesses needed, since princes were driven by some baffling need to prove themselves. It made princess's lives a right misery.

A single, lowly, evil stepmother was poor fare compared to a witch, a curse, and sacrificing a part of her body—especially because Petunia was remarkably useless as an evil stepmother. But then, that was a perfect representation of Adrianna's lot. Her evil stepmother was more interested in the garden than in being evil, her fairy godmother was a jolly drunkard who was more often than not found snoring with her mouth open, and Adrianna loved her evil step sister dearly, completing the trifecta of uselessness.

But now, in spite of all this, a prince had come to call. This was her moment. Her one chance to fulfil her destiny and secure herself a prince, and she wasn't going to fail.

Find out what happens next!

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