It was an old washing line, wooden posts holding up each end, with the four strands of line sagging between them. Cora thought a few too many blankets on there in one load would be enough to bring the whole thing crashing to the ground.
Her mind conjured a picture of Flossie, the maid most usually tasked with pegging out the washing standing amidst the ruins. A tragic heroine, undone by felted wool and grass stains. She suppressed the snort of laughter it prompted. Flossie would be sure to take it amiss and trying to explain the situation would take more patience and diplomacy than Cora had time for even on the quietest of days.
And today was not quiet. The household was in uproar over the unsettling news of the Crown Prince’s imminent arrival. Honestly, no consideration that man. Any reasonable person would give a place at least a week to work themselves into hysterics, now all the staff here had to compress the panic into two days and it was not going well.
She ducked and wove between the pristine white sheets pegged out in the hope they’d be dry and fresh in time to make the beds this evening. Cora had a mental bet going that the last of the damp would need to be removed with irons and there was little the upstairs maids hated more than ironing sheets. That was laundry work and offended their snobbery as much as anything else.
Her job for the day, as assigned by herself, was to disappear for as long as was humanly possible. It was unlikely to be long, her mother, her governess, her maid and anyone else they could recruit would be hunting her down by lunchtime at the latest in order to determine the best and most uncomfortable gown to squeeze her into for the great occasion.
In the meantime, the sun was shining and there was a gentle breeze stirring the shimmering white of the sheets to gentle movement. Cora wove through them, pretending she was a ship’s girl, high up on the mast, adjusting the rigging to make full sail for somewhere warm and exotic. She rounded the final sail and crashed into a solid warmth.
She bounced back in confusion, then stared in horror. What in the seven lands was Crown Prince Andor doing here, a day early and lurking by a washing line?
He held a finger to his lips, eyes pleading for silence. She straightened and returned the stare with a suspicious one of her own, but kept her mouth closed.
He smiled and bowed, mouthing a thanks, then gestured to the sheltered forest path immediately behind him. She glanced around and behind her, then followed him into the shadow.
Once safely out of sight, he turned and smiled. “Hello Cora.”
She scowled. “Don’t you ‘hello Cora’ me. What are you doing!? The whole place is in an uproar, I’m about to be stuffed into the scratchiest, tightest, most uncomfortable dress my mother can conjure up on a moment’s notice and now you turn up the best part of a day early.”
“Oh, I’m not here yet. Officially, I think I’m just passing through Patreville and will pause to collect a delightful lunch-to-go from that bakery in market square. They will, of course enjoy hugely expanded custom as a result.”
Her glare intensified, he sighed. “Come on Cora, you know as well as I do, there would have been almighty panic no matter how much notice I gave and at least this way they can’t order a new dress.”
“But why? Why are you visiting at all? You’re supposed to be concentrating on Princess Elsandra and buttering her up enough to accept your hand despite this place being half the size of her father’s kingdom.”
Andor looked torn between amusement and despair.