I would also like to make very clear that the opening of this story (in italics) is lifted directly from one of my all-time favourite ‘new’ fairy stories, The Ordinary Princess by M.M.Kaye.
Long and long ago, when Oberon was king of the fairies, there was a prosperous merchant, with a healthy, happy wife and a single, beloved daughter.
They lived comfortably together in a house, neither too big, nor too small, on the side of the market square in the town of Gandry.
Gandry was a town as prosperous as the merchant, and the chief pride of the Duchy of Clearfall.
The Dukes of Clearfall were of an old line, and stories were whispered of a magical matriarch, who’s legacy was the family’s uncanny ability to know every happening within the bounds of their rule.
Not that this mattered to the merchant’s daughter, Anaria by name. Who was raised in a home free of ‘happenings’ and who’s education, while extensive, carefully omitted matters magical. Her father didn’t hold with such nonsense.
And so she grew, pampered and adored, indulged and instructed, until the years came in which marriage may start to be considered.
While she wasn’t the prettiest girl in the town, she was pretty, and rich, and trained to run, not just a house, but a business as well. So she did not lack for suitors, much to her annoyance.
Her story opens on a clear and sunny autumn afternoon, a perfect moment to indulge in a bright window seat, a cup of tea and a good book.
It was not a perfect moment for the repeated incursions of an irritating maid, insisting Anaria come away from her reading and prepare for the evening’s Very Important Dinner, with a business associate of her father’s and worse, his son. It took the intervention of her mother and the confiscation of her book to pull Anaria from the window seat, but only on the promise of the book’s return immediately after dinner.
She was bustled into a formal dress and sent down to a very early dinner, still pouting over the loss of her book.
When she saw who their guests were, her heart sank into her pretty embroidered slippers. Master Gent was on of her father’s most important trading partners, living as he did in a river port town, straddling the border of Clearfall and neighbouring Orna. He lived on the Orna side of the river and seemed to slyly look down on the inhabitants of a mere Duchy, their rulers were Princes. If Master Gent was slyly patronising, his son made no secret, he was infinitely superior to everything around him.
Sebastian Gent bowed over Anaria’s hand, with hard, calculating eyes and a blatantly false smile. Superficially handsome, he had set Anaria’s teeth on edge since they first met, many years before. She had been thankful subsequent meetings were few. Apparently that was about to change unless she took drastic action.
She retrieved her hand and, not-quite-subtly-enough, wiped it on her skirts. Sebastian smirked and offered his arm to lead her into dinner behind their parents. Instead he got a withering glare and her back as she went in without him.
Sebastian’s arrogance was compounded by a sustained and determined ignorance of anything that did not amuse him. Anaria shuddered to think of the state his father’s business would descend to when the generally wily man handed it on.
Over the course of the dinner, it became apparent Sebastian’s father wasn’t as blindly fond as assumed. Anaria’s chief attraction was her sound training and business sense. She would run the business, Sebastian would take the credit.
By the time dinner was over, she was seething and wanted nothing more than to slam the door to her bedroom, dive into her book and not come out for two days.
Her parents had other ideas. She was herded towards the front door and the maid with her cloak.
“You said I could have my book back after dinner.”
“After dinner darling, that was just a light meal to keep us going through the dance tonight. Dinner isn’t for several hours yet.”
Anaria gasped at the injustice and tried another tack. Over the course of the meal, the sky (like her mood) had turned grey and heavy and rain was now thundering down.
“We can’t go out in that, we’ll be soaked and miserable all evening.”
Sebastian oiled closer, “You can share my umbrella and I’ll help you run.”
“No you won’t, you’ll hog it all to yourself and leave me drenched and muddy, I’ll take my umbrella and you can run.”
The parents tutted, but Anaria dug in her heels. Bad enough she had to endure him for the evening, she was not giving him a chance to squeeze and pinch. All the boys did it, but his hurt.
A second glance out of the door had her changing her shoes for galoshes. She tucked her slippers under her arm, took the umbrella, awkwardly scrambled and gathered her skirts out of the wet and mud and ran for the assembly hall on the other side of the square.
By the time the rest of her party arrived, the umbrella and cloak had been handed off and she was shaking out her dress and slipping her nice shoes back on.
Aware of her father’s frowns, she tucked herself into a convenient group of young women and entered the hall, chattering and laughing.
Once clear of the entrance, the girls, who knew Anaria of old, quietly gave her a clear path to the nook she preferred to tuck into during these events. They might be prepared to be squished and grabbed by the young men in attendance, she hated it.
No sooner was she settled though, a young man approached and asked her to dance. She stared at him, aghast. All the boys knew better than to ask by now. Who was this stranger and how dare he invade her one safe spot in the whole room?
She raised her chin and looked down her nose at him, “I don’t dance with ill-informed yokels who can’t even afford a razor or a comb.”
For indeed, the young man had the longest, most unruly beard and unkempt mop of hair she’d ever seen.
To her amazement, he didn’t take umbrage at her extraordinary rudeness, simply bowing with a small but genuine smile, “Perhaps another time.”
Disconcerted by his civil response and kind manner, Anaria looked down at her hands, twisting in her lap. When she looked up again, the man had disappeared and, try as she might, she could not spot him the rest of the evening.
And a long evening it was, full of avoiding parents, rebuffing Sebastian and fending off questions and suppositions from her friends.