Friday, November 26, 2021

Crown & Cinder Chapter 1

 

Do you like getting books for free and cheap? Well, have I got news for you - the Indie Black Friday sale is back and better than ever, with over three hundred and fifty ebooks to choose from, all for a dollar or even free!

Personally, I've already grabbed several shiny books for my kindle, and there are so many more awesome books, including ALL of my books, even C&C's preorder, so ... go check 'em out. 

I actually have a goal to hit 100 preorders this weekend on C&C, so if you could at least go snag that one (though it's best to get RP&S as well, since it's also only 99 cents), that would be incredibly lovely. I'm currently at 39, so that's only 61 to go!

(Sale's now over, but I've made it to 61 preorders! And you can still enjoy the following chapter 1!)

And, now, to whet your appetite, the first chapter of Crown & Cinder, which, I shall warn, is not edited and extremely rough, but do enjoy just the same. 

Chapter 1

It is a fact universally acknowledged that a girl, in possession of stepmother and stepsisters, must be in want of a fairy godmother to come whisk her away to some ball, where she might fall in love with a prince and live happily ever after.

Lizzy hated facts universally acknowledged. Far too often – and as in this case – they were the furthest thing from the truth. Yes, she had a stepmother, and, yes, Lady Benne did keep her away from polite society, but she’d never felt oppressed in her life. At best, “polite” society bored her, and she was glad to have an excuse to avoid it.

Besides which, fairies were, on the whole, a pesky folk who could rarely be relied on for anything. She had certainly never heard tell of any of them with enough self-awareness to godmother anyone. And who would ask that of a creature that would barely live a decade.

No, she was quite happy with her life. She knew her place in society, and she was glad of it. She had a roof over her head, a family that loved her, each in their own way, and she didn't have to listen to people whisper about her behind her back.

"Watch out for the Cinder!" she knew they would say. "Thinks she can be one of us - but it doesn't matter who her father is, it doesn't change the fire that runs through her veins!"

As though she would want to change one whit about herself! No, she was much better off acting as a servant in their household, where Cinders were supposed to be. Her best friend, cousin, and fellow Cinder, Charrie, was among the servants, and they didn't need anyone's approval.

And, so, Lizzy naturally thought it no consequence at all to herself when her younger half-sister rushed into the room, waving a sheet of paper, crying at the top of her considerably powerful lungs.

"Oh, Mother! Mother! Janet! You won't believe it! Oh, no, you won't believe it at all - I was just talking to the knights, and they had the most delightful news. Mother!"

Lizzy twisted the rag in her hand and rolled her eyes towards Charrie with a tired sigh. They had been sharing a very stimulating conversation, as they discussed Janet's latest insufferable beau, who had been to dinner last night. Janet was far too polite to him, in Lizzy's opinion, but she was far too polite to everyone. Why, if he'd been there to court Lizzy, she would have already turned him out on his ear.

But, then, when he eventually found out that Janet's real father had been nothing but a farmer, and that Lizzy herself was Lord Benne's true eldest daughter ... well, he'd be soon on his way, the same as all the other beaus. Not even Janet's sweet spirit and quiet beauty could entice a man who was truly after a title and connections. Perhaps Janet did well enough with her politeness. But she deserved better.

"Mother!" Lavinia shrieked again, and threw up her hands in frustration as she spun around and her eye fell on Lizzy. "Oh! Lizzy! Is Mother abed with another of her headaches? Oh, but she would so unreasonable at a time like this."

Lizzy stood, giving Charrie a regretful smile as she dropped her rag in the dirty water. She chose to not comment on Lady Benne being unreasonable, be it in agreement or otherwise. She hated agreeing with her half-sister for anything, and yet ... well, she was far too familiar with Lady Benne’s headaches. 

"Perhaps your marvelous news shall do mother good enough to cure her headache," Lizzy suggested, straightening the kerchief she kept tied around her otherwise unruly black curls. "She’s in her room with Janet. We may as well take the news to her."

Of course, given that this news apparently came from the knights, Lizzy didn't know how far she trusted it, but she knew that Lady Benne would want to hear it. Much as she tried, Lizzy couldn't convince her stepmother how improper it was for a young lady to spend as much time with the knights as Lavinia did. Truly, she had no idea why her father had married the woman - but she also had no idea why he'd married her own mother. 

Her father was a man who defied understanding. 

Perhaps there was a reason that Janet compensated by being far too polite. Lizzy would be the first to admit that it was probably the only thing that saved their family's respectability among their peers.

If only she were Lord Benne's real daughter. Letting people live on assumptions was dangerous business.

Lavinia was practically bouncing on her toes as they walked to her mother's room, and Lizzy was pretty sure that her younger sister was going to burst into pieces if she didn't tell her news at once. At least she wouldn't burst into flames. Lavinia's outbursts and foolishness only hurt her dignity and caused natural damage.

Lizzy couldn't imagine the terror and disgrace her sister would have been if she were the Cinder instead. Oh, but if only her father could have had a proper heir!

They could hear Lady Benne's moans and tears a full hallway before they reached her room, and Lizzy released a pained sigh. She was never quite sure how much of her stepmother's "headaches" were real, and how much she affected in a bid for sympathy. She had her guesses, though.

But she wasn't about to agree with Lavinia and call the woman "unreasonable." 

Lavinia burst into the room with a shriek of triumph. "Mother! You can stop this right now! I have the best of news, and even your worst headache can't compare to it, I promise. So quiet up and listen." She waved a sheet of paper about that. As Lizzy slunk into the room and leaned against the wall, she wondered if she should have taken note of this piece of paper sooner. But how important could it really be, coming from the knights the way it did. 

Lavinia was sixteen - far too young to be spending as much time as she did with the knights. And far too old to be acting like a child, the way she did.

But no one would listen to Lizzy's concerns about her youngest sister. Lady Benne was nearly as childish and silly as her daughter, Janet was sure that Lavinia would grow up in time - though where she got that idea, Lizzy had no clue - and their father would only smile indulgently and say that Lavinia was only making use of her youth while she had it. 

But, really, what use was it listening to the reclusive Cinder who preferred to spend time with the servants over her own peers? But who really were her peers? As far as she was concerned, servants were far less complicated, and far less concerned over the fact that Lizzy could toss sparks from her fingertips. 

"It's Prince Liam! He's finally coming home again, after all these years away!" Lavinia announced gleefully, as she shoved the paper into her mother's eager hands. "They're going to throw three balls to celebrate - and they're inviting every eligible maiden in all of Binfield to attend!"

"Every eligible maiden?" repeated Janet, glancing towards Lizzy, as though for help. Lizzy just shrugged. After all, she was just learning this information herself.

"Well, that's what the proclamation says." Lavinia gave a small shrug. "Though, it's an exaggeration to make them sound more benevolent, or at least, that's what Sir Owen said. The actual truth is that to actually attend, Father will have to register us, and then they'll let us know if we're selected - but we're the first to know! Sir Noah promised me so! If Father makes sure to register us at once, then we're sure to be chosen!"

Mother sat up straight and then fell back against the pillows with a cry of despair. "Oh, but then we are doomed! That man will neglect his duty just to vex me, I swear he will. He cares naught a wit for the fates of his daughters, only that I am the most miserable woman in all the land! And this is such an opportunity, too! Why, a royal ball! Think of the husbands you could find there! Perhaps even the prince himself!"

"It's a royal ball, after all," said Lavinia, nodding sagely as though she knew what she was talking about. "In the prince's honor, where they're making a specific point to invite maidens. Sir Nathaniel says that means only one thing."

Mother gave a massive sigh and glanced towards her eldest daughter. "Of course - if they have our crown prince safely home again, it's high time that he take a wife." She suddenly pushed herself out of bed, clutching the paper to her heart. "And shouldn't that wife be one of our own, not some foreign princess - we were all sure that he was going to take a foreign wife, you know. Ah, but love is never sensible." She shook her head with a passion and called for a servant to help her out of her nightdress and into something practical. "I shall take this to Lord Benne, and I will have him send it in, as he ought. Troublesome man he might be, he shall do his duty, or I won't let him hear the end of it."

Lizzy, though servant in all but name, wasn't allowed to handle clothing - fire was too much of a liability with cloth. So, she quietly slipped out of the room, wishing that this would be the end of the matter, but knowing that, no matter the outcome, it most certainly wouldn't. No, they would be hearing about this ball for the end of their days, their mother forever lamenting how Janet could have won the prince.

"The proclamation says every maiden," came Janet's quiet voice, as she stepped out into the hallway with her.

Lizzy shrugged. "Even farmers' daughters, I suppose. I doubt you have much of a chance, no matter what your mother might think, but I suppose you can let yourself dream. If anyone deserves love, it's you. And, surely, someday, some man will look past your birth to see that."

"I was thinking more along the lines of a certain Cinder's daughter." Janet laid a hand on Lizzy's arm. "You deserve love just as much as I do." 

Lizzy drew in a deep breath and shrugged. "I have all the love I need right here in this house, though. Besides, I'm not just a Cinder's daughter, but a Cinder myself - there's no arguing about that." She held up a hand and let a small flame lick at her fingertips. "I don't know why my father married my mother, but he was always an eccentric. I'm not an easy person to fall in love with - and I will only accept the purest and most ardent affection in marriage. And I know that my noble birth is the only thing attractive about me."

Janet pressed her lips into a line and shook her head. "I think you care too much about what others think of you."

"I don't care a whit what others think, but I'm not going to put myself in a position that I'm at their mercy." Lizzy balled her hand into a fist, extinguishing the flame. "And I left Charrie alone, cleaning the entry hall, and you know how intimidating that entry hall can be. Or, if you don't know, take my word for it. It's intimidating."

Janet shook her head. "Lizzy, the only reason that people will never accept you is because you've decided in advance that they can't."

"That and the fact that I'm a Cinder." Lizzy glanced over her shoulder at Lady Benne's bedroom door. "You know, for someone who ran away from duty to marry a farmer in her youth, your mother is terribly determined to see both you and our sister in a high-ranking marriage."

Janet glanced down and heaved a heavy sigh. "She loved and lost and learned the error of her ways. Mother doesn't talk about it, but I know the hardships she faced because of her marriage to my father proved more than she could bear. She just wants to see Lavinia and I taken care of. We don't have fire magic to protect us, after all."

"Well, I hope you find only the truest love, too," said Lizzy, shrugging. "Maybe this ball will change things. Maybe you can find true love."

She pulled away from her stepsister and hurried down the hall.

~

True to Lady Benne's prediction, Lord Benne proved reluctant to send in the registration that, supposedly, would secure his daughters' futures and fortunes. As Lizzy expected, this boiled into an ongoing argument between them, Lady Benne pestering him to send it every moment they were together, and Father egging her on with his silence and stubbornness.

"I don't see how you say you care about them, when you won't do even this small thing for them!" Lady Benne declared one day, as Father sat in the sitting room, reading a book with Lizzy. She wasn't allowed to handle paper, so would read over his shoulder for an hour at least, every day. "Think of the opportunity, my Lord! Why, I was just talking with Lady Kalis, and her husband is filling out the application as we speak! And when we could have sent it in a full week ago! Oh, but if the prince choses their Birdie, I don't know what I'll do. A more brainless girl, their never was."

Lizzy had to agree with that statement. Lavinia's best friend was harmless enough on her own, but wouldn't even think twice about following Lavinia into the worst of her schemes. It was truly embarrassing.

"If he choses Birdie, then I will pity the kingdom, but isn't the girl's only purpose to look pretty on his arm and charm his guests?" Lord Benne gave a long, tired sigh. 

"Oh, but the brainless fool will mess even that up! Ah, and to think that he could have my Jane, but, no, you insist on sitting there, letting this opportunity slip through our fingers! I swear, I married the most unreasonable man alive!"

"Well, given that I haven't died yet, like your last one did, I think you could have done worse, my dear." Father turned the page of the book without even glancing her way.

Lady Benne gave a huff as she sauntered further into the room. "How can you deny the girls such an opportunity! It would take but seconds of your day, and yet there you still sit."

"This is a good book, and my Lizzy is enjoying it." Father finally glanced up. "You should know better than to interrupt our reading time, by now, though you're welcome to claim your own book and join us."

"You know what, I'm tired of all this! I don't want to talk about it anymore! If I hear another word about our prince and his balls, I swear I shall scream. I am going to lock myself away in my rooms, and I shan't emerge until this whole foolishness is over. I don't even want to know what poor girl he choses! If he chooses one at all."

"Well, that really is too bad, given that this came today, and you're expected to chaperone the girls." Father pulled a letter from the pile of papers next to him and held it out to her. "The crown expects to see the girls there, so there will be no avoiding it. Perhaps Lady Kalis will receive an invitation, and the girls can attend with her..."

Lady Benne gave a shriek that liked to have turned every soul in the house deaf, and she rushed forward to snatch the letter from his hands.

"You vexing, vexing man!" she cried in triumph, as she greedily read the official document within the envelope. "All this time, and you had sent it in all along."

She rushed from the room, calling for her daughters, once again leaving Lizzy and her father to their book.

"You could have told her from the start and saved yourself a week of grief," said Lizzy, wrinkling her nose as she stared after her stepmother.

"Saved myself, perhaps, but what grief would she have wrecked if today's invitation had never come?" Father glanced up at Lizzy with a conspiratorial smile. "No, it was best that I remain the sole villain in this crime. Besides, in a life as dull as mine, I have to take my entertainment where I can."

Lizzy frowned over the fact that Father considered this to be entertainment. "Well, she's happy now, at least. I doubt we'll still have any peace, but at least she's happy."

"The invitation is for all three of my daughters," said Father.

Lizzy tensed, and she smelled smoke from where she gripped the back of his chair. "Would they really miss one girl? I'm a Cinder, Father. You know I can't..."

"Things haven't been as cruel to people of your type, not as they were when your mother lived."

But Lizzy just shook her head, folding her hands together as she glared at the fingerprint scorches that she'd just left on his chair. "I can't, anyway. Not that night. I have to attend the hazel tree."

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