Chapter One                 Chapter Two                  Chapter Three             Chapter Four                Chapter Five            Chapter Six
Chapter Seven             Chapter Eight            Chapter Nine


               “The coast is clear, hurry up.  The porridge is getting cold, and it’s delightful; you’re missing out,” Willow said, lowering her voice slightly.  “Winter? Wed?  You there?  Hurry and get your behinds out here, I don’t have all day, and this is...mmmm.” 
               Winter peeked out first.  She was kneeling, instinctively, out of nerves, and her mostly unpinned hair dripped in silky coils on the carpet.  “Willow?” 
               “Come on.” 
               Winter scampered out, leaving Wednesday thinking in the shade.  What was that funny noise, and why had it set Castil off so suddenly?  None of it made sense, unless…unless Willow had done something weird and inappropriate, like kiss—
               No, Wednesday told herself firmly.  This was no time to think of such things. 
               Still.  It bugged her. 
               “Let me try some,” Winter’s voice said. 
               “Get a bowl first, you.” 
               There was a clink of porcelain, and a long pause. 
               “Mmm, this is so good.  I never knew that regular men could cook so well,” Winter said. 
               Finally, Wednesday couldn’t take being left out of the rain, and she scuttled over into the kitchen.  She’d forgotten to wear shoes, and the cold stone tiles of the floor burned icily against her bare feet, yet somehow hot at the same time.  Willow and Winter were leaning against the counter, eating out of bowls with spoons, a large metal porridge pot next to them.  The pot still had steam drifting out of the top. There was a delicious smell in the air, something like cinnamon and nutmeg and rosemary, honey and pumpkin.  Wednesday inhaled, and felt the scents soothe her nervous senses. 
               “Oh, so now you’re coming,” Willow said, swallowing.  “Well, grab some if you like, but at least leave enough for me to have a few more bowls.  I wouldn’t want all this nice porridge to go to waste.” 
               Wednesday reasoned that scientifically, if she ate it, it wouldn’t be going to waste, but she understood what Willow meant. 
               Using the big wooden spoon in the pot, Wednesday located a bowl and spooned some up.  The porridge was a light golden-ish color, sprinkled with tiny shredded bits of something that she supposed were the spices.  Its heat wafted upward and warmed her cheeks.  For a moment Wednesday just stood there, enjoying the honey-drenched fragrance of it. 
               “Wednesday, now, you better not be stealing it all,” Willow warned her. 
               “’M not, Willow,” Wednesday said offhandedly.  She was still puzzled about what Willow had done to unseat Castil like that.  Castil. What was she…
               Oh, so you yourself are on first-name terms with Lord Seigfried now? she mentally berated herself.  It was improper to be using his first name without permission, but…the fact that Willow was doing such a thing so casually already had her teeth on edge. 
               Apparently, Winter was thinking along the same lines as well; sucking her spoon until it shined, she turned to Willow and said, “Well? What could you possibly do to make a poor young man flee like that? I do hope you didn’t do anything brazen.  Father really does care about how you act, Willow.” 
               Willow shrugged nonchalantly.  “I’m not telling.  It’s none of your business, anyway.  Surely you wouldn’t be thinking of what I did?”
               “I should think,” Wednesday said, uncharacteristically bravely, though her voice was still soft, “that you would act a tad more respectful if I were you, Willow; Cast—Lord Seigfried is here as a guest, and we wouldn’t want him to get the wrong idea of how father’s little girls act, hm?” 
               Willow cheeks flared pink.  “You have no right to tell me what to do.” 
               “Simple suggestion, Willow, that’s all,” Wednesday said with a light shrug.  Her heart was in her throat, pounding incessantly, but she wouldn’t let it show.  Trying to steady her shaking hand, she spooned up some of her porridge and swallowed.  The warmth traveled down her throat, leaving a soothing, smooth feeling behind.  It calmed her instantly. “Why—why don’t you tell us what you were doing to scare off Cast—I mean, Lord Seigfried?”
               “Well,” said Willow, a sly smile twisting her rose-red lips, “if you must know, I can tell you on one condition.” 
               “Name it,” both Winter and Wednesday said sharply.
               “You two,” Willow simpered, fluttering her eyelashes and studying her fingernails idly and delicately, “have to somehow find a way to get Cassius to marry me.” 
               Wednesday’s hand smacked the counter so hard it stung.  “What kind of proposal is that?” she almost yelled at Willow.  “One look at you, Willow, and I know that you’re up to something—what are you doing, messing around with two men at once? They’re almost as young as we are.  How old can they be? Fifteen? Sixteen? And you, Willow—what are you playing at? This is no game.”
               “Do not assume what I am doing,” Willow said calmly, turning her spoon in her porridge.  “You have no idea what I am doing, for you have no business in my mind.  I can marry who I want to marry.”
               “And for whom are you marrying?” Wednesday demanded. “Surely it isn’t for Father.  You can imagine how he’ll feel when he realizes that you are directly disobeying the given laws of a young woman—do you want that?” 
               “I actually agree with Wednesday for once,” Winter snapped peevishly, though she threw Wednesday a dirty glance.  “Why, Willow, must you act so brash for a young lady ready to marry? Your naiveté is shockingly plain.  And you dare to go forth and prance around highly as if you are not sporting some ugly blotches on your conscience—how can you stand the shame? You should be mortified of your behavior, Willow.  You’re Father’s precious beauty, but even that cannot earn you a gentleman’s true love if you treat others inferiorly.”
               True love.  The two words rang in Wednesday’s ears, causing her chest to tingle.  Winter was right, she thought, there was no room for love if a heart was already full to the brim with connivance.  But you never knew with Willow; her true motives were always well hidden beyond a person’s reach. 
               Willow was wearing a scowl now.  “Well listen here, Winter, I don’t care what you think, but like I said the evening before the New Year’s Festival—we are princesses, we have free reign, and we should very well be able to use it at will.  As you’re eldest, I can’t tell you off, but there will be a day when I get you back…of course, we might as well be all together reunited by then.”  She turned her spoon over again in a rolling motion.  “However, that is beside the point.  Do you agree to my terms or not?” 
               Winter crossed her arms grudgingly.  “As long as you aren’t going after Castil, I swear to your terms.  But only if you aren’t playing two young men at once.” 
               Willow was looking pointedly at Wednesday. 
               Wednesday couldn’t help it.  She ground her teeth in frustration, staring daggers at the tabletop.  She did want to know what happened, but the fact that Cassius would be Willow’s in this agreement was enough to make her hesitate.  She did know that Cassius was someone she hardly knew, and that she had no idea if he was who she wanted, but something in her heart told her that Cassius was the right type of gentleman for her.  He was young, nice, dashing, and simply amazing.  Then again, her heart also told her that Castil wouldn’t be a bad choice either…
               The seconds ticked by.
               “Well,” Willow said loftily, “if Wednesday doesn’t agree then Winter doesn’t get the secret either.  So I guess if you’re not going to agree, Wednesday, you’re going to be letting your eldest sister down.”  There was a note of venom in her voice that let Wednesday know that what Willow was thinking was far beyond letting Winter down. 
               “Wednesday?” Winter said softly.  
               Wednesday didn’t respond, her fist aching from the clench of her fingers. 
               “Wednesday, look at me,” Winter said again. 
               Wednesday tipped her chin up, looking Winter straight in the eye.  “What is it, Winter?  I’m not going to give up my conscience and agree to Willow…”
               “Wednesday,” Winter repeated for the third time, still looking at Wednesday steadily, “you will agree to what Willow wants, won’t you?” 
               That’s when Wednesday felt it.  In the suddenly echoing quality of Winter’s voice.  Magic. 
               Winter’s magic ability.

It was like a vacuum.  Wednesday fought against it.  She wasn’t exactly sure what was going on, but Winter was using her magic—the kind that a person could use only when of age.  In the back of Wednesday’s mind, away from the pressing suffocation of the magic, she realized dimly what Winter’s of-age magic was. 
               The way it affected her was devastating.  Pressing in on her from all sides, getting dizzy, Wednesday tried to draw in a breath to clear her head and clear away Winter’s magic, but as if she was breathing in a pillow, it brought searing pain.  She couldn’t even scream.  Clutching the nearest object for balance—the countertop—Wednesday tried to fight against it, but the magic swallowed her up in a great burst, succumbing her.  The pain dissolved suddenly, leaving a blank but yet aware feeling.
               “Wednesday, you will agree to what Willow wants, won’t you?” Winter said again, her voice still echoing as if from far away. 
               And though Wednesday’s mouth was dry as sandpaper, and she didn’t want to say a word, she heard herself saying, “Of course I will.” 
               Willow, still twirling the spoon in her porridge as if she had no idea what was going on, grinned.  “So both of you promise that I will marry Cassius as I wish, and that you two will not steal him away?  Me.  Cassius.  Correct?”
               “Yes,” Winter agreed sweetly.
               “Yes,” Wednesday heard herself say. 
               Willow smiled.  “Splendid.  All right, I will tell you what I did…” 
               As Willow calmly lay her spoon on the cold countertop, taking her time and wiping a bit of porridge from the edge of her mouth, Wednesday felt the magic lift off of her, meaning that Winter knew that there was no turning back now.  With a sudden gasp as she realized exactly what had happened, the sequence played through her mind on full speed—magic suffocating her, Winter making her agree, knowing now that the only person Cassius could ever be with was…Willow. 
               “Are you okay?” Willow said lazily, noticing Wednesday’s gasp. 
               “I—I—”  Wednesday saw Winter giving her a pointed and meaningful look, and Wednesday knew that she couldn’t back out of this.  The swearing contract was fulfilled, and there was nothing she could do about it.  And Willow had no clue that Wednesday hadn’t been acting of her own free will. 
               If she had been alone, and if one of her sisters wasn’t a persuasion-controlling evil, Wednesday would’ve screamed.  She would’ve cried.  She would’ve tracked Winter down and yelled at her, demanding justice, shrieking that how dare she use such a cruel magic on her, promising revenge.  But now, in the presence of her sisters, she knew well enough that she couldn’t do that.  And so she forced the internal pain down, and steadied her voice. 
               “No, Willow, there’s nothing” was her faint response. 
              In her conscience, she knew that there was no true reason for her to act this way over Cassius.  A near stranger.  Someone she’d only really realized existed this year, hardly a day ago.  But still, something told her that Cassius wasn’t just a regular person.  He wasn’t just passerby. She would see him again.   
               “Well,” Willow said, sounding maddeningly superior, “what I did was…I licked the spoon.” 
               Everything about Cassius was suddenly wiped from Wednesday’s mind.    She dropped the rim of her bowl, which she had been holding up a bit, letting it slump. Winter’s own spoon fell from her hand as her gaze flew to the gently steaming pot by Wednesday’s elbow, where the handle of the wooden spoon was poking out the top.  The shallow metal ladle of Winter’s spoon clattered against the worn stone floor, ringing at a high pitch as it vibrated.
               “You w—”  Wednesday hadn’t gotten any farther than the first word of her vehement exclamation before Winter had sprung from her chair, across Wednesday, and seized the wooden spoon; holding it up by the stick, globs of honey-seasoned porridge slowly starting to slide down the handle, she stared piercingly into Willow’s green eyes; misty green against bright green.
               “Shame to the family!” Winter spat, stepping even closer to Willow so that they were almost nose to nose.  “Disgraceful—completely misunderstanding the rule of a woman—there was always something different about you, Father always thought that you were an exception to the rule—oh, I should have known as soon as you fell for that fool Cassius—
               But now Willow was fighting back; “Don’t you dare insult Cassius! You have no idea what he’s like—he’s a completely different person than you would think! He’s perfect for me; oh, you wouldn’t have a clue, because you aren’t in love with him, you think that you’re too high and mighty for any gentleman because you’re the eldest, you’re the lady-like one, the one who always acts like a lady, but I don’t care! As a princess I should do whatever I please—”
               “EXCEPT FOR NOT FOLLOWING THE RULES OF A LADY! That is basic etiquette, Willow, and one thing every sensible girl knows from birth is that you don’t lick anything in front of a gentleman!  Especially not a spoon that everyone is using!  So undignified—this, Willow, is what I think of you-!”
               Wednesday gasped, jumping to her feet; there was a harsh sound as Winter drew her hand back and slapped Willow across the face as hard as she could.  Willow screamed at the impact, staggering back.  She had tears streaking her face now, and she ran off, skirts tangling around her legs, yelling something unintelligible back at them, her screams echoing through the whole palace.  Winter held her hand; the sting from slapping Willow was quite strong.  She was glowering venomously after Willow. 
               “Winter—I don’t think that’s—that’s exactly what—” Wednesday clutched at her sister’s arm, eyes pleading.  Her voice came out trembling and concerned, and for a moment she wondered why she was doing this for Willow—harsh, judgmental, haughty Willow, who had mercilessly taunted and poked fun at Wednesday her whole life—but then Wednesday knew why.  They were sisters, after all.  It was only natural for them to protect each other, no matter how separated they seemed, no matter how wide the gap was from the outside.  “Don't be so hard on Willow.  You—you know how she is...she's more...more lenient about the rules than...than you are—” 
               Winter, without even a glance at Wednesday's expression, shook her off.
               “Wednesday,” Winter said in a voice so soft and deadly that Wednesday took a step back, her eyes frightened.  Winter’s own steel gaze softened a bit, and saddened into a cloudy jade color, darkening slightly, as she looked at Wednesday.  “I'm sorry.  But I have no use for a sister who won’t follow the rules.”


Willow’s throat was dry and aching, and her voice hurt from screaming.  She ran down the hall as fast as she could, and once her legs had tired and she could run no more, she curled up in a ball at the base of the stairs leading to their room, on the polished ballroom floor, and sobbed hysterically.  Her cheek throbbed and burned from where Winter had smacked her, but that physical pain couldn’t compete with the ache of her heart.  That slap meant that Winter didn’t think of her anymore as a dignified girl, as part of their family.  Winter was always the strict one, the maidenly one, the one who always acted like a perfect lady, and looked like one, too.  It felt sorely unfair to Willow, who had the looks of a lady but not the soul.  She pulled her hair out of its arrangement of pins, and the long, wavy wisps of her red-blonde hair cascaded to the floor in a glossy curtain, like willow leaves in the breeze.  Her sobs subsiding, Willow took a lock of the hair in her fingers and hated it, cursed it for being so beautiful.  If she were built more strongly, and was faster and not as doll-looking, she was sure she could get by without being a lady.  But with her slender frame and her fine features, it was easy for anyone to assume for her to be a quiet, well-mannered girl.  The fact was that Willow wasn’t elegant.  She wasn’t ladylike, she wasn’t quiet, and she definitely was not well-mannered.  Willow thought about the evening before, when she had seized Cassius’s arm so possessively at the festival, and her face burned with shame. 
               Who knew beauty could be a curse, she reflected irritably.  She thought of Jewel, the Goddess of beauty, and mentally screamed at her, too.  Even though she’d already been warned by Daelynn that they could hear her, she didn’t care.  If Jewel appeared right in front of her right now and changed her appearance to that of a wrinkled old woman, Willow wouldn’t mind.  Well, perhaps not that extreme, she decided. 
               As if reflecting her unruly, upset mood, she spotted the clouds outside the ballroom windows drawing together, closing over the sun entirely and casting the entire ballroom in deep shadow.  Even though no light came through, it was still high enough visibility for Willow to see the ballroom door opening hesitantly, and the form—though not very distinct—slipping in as quietly as a shadow.
               It must be Father, Willow thought, mortified that Father might’ve heard her weeping.  But it wasn’t Father, and as the figure drew closer in the near darkness she realized who it was with a great familiar rush of joy and nervousness and relief. 
               He knelt down beside her, face worried.  “Something not well with you, Princess?”
               Instinctively, Willow corrected him, as like at the festival, though it was not exactly a maidenly thing to do.  Well, who cared?  She wasn’t ladylike, and Cassius still liked her.  The thought cheered her up.  “It’s not Princess.  It’s—”
               “—Just Willow.”  He gave her a half-crooked smile.  “Yes, I remember.  My apologies.  Anyhow, what is bothering you at this time, Willow?  The morning should be a time of peace.”
               “Oh, Cassius,” she drew in a breath, wiping dried tears off her face.  “It''s nothing.”
                “Surely it's not nothing, since I heard you screaming running down the hall.”  Cassius studied her face, and his eyes alighted on her cheek.  Willow wasn't sure what it looked like, but she had a feeling it wasn't very pretty.  Sure enough, Cassius leaned in and brushed a finger over her cheekbone, his forest green eyes filled with touching concern.  “Willow,” he started slowly, “what happened to your cheek?”
               “N-nothing,” Willow hiccupped. 
               “Now, don't be telling me it's nothing.”
               Willow threw her hands up in surrender.  “All right.  It...that's because Winter...Winter smacked me.” She gingerly touched the mark on her face.  “Oh, my.  The skin's all tight and shiny.  It's like when I accidentally rub my arm too hard on the carpet, and burns me.”  She let her hands fall to her lap.  “Don't worry, Cassius.  It looks much worse than it feels right now.”  She tugged on his arm, and he sat down next to her, the two of them silhouetted in the bare light, shadow against shadow.  Willow's dress was pooling around her in clouds and lumps, and she patted them down.  “Why are you here, anyhow?  I thought you had to leave, after...after the festival, you know.” 
               “Well, to still be around,” Cassius said uncomfortably.  “I did see that your family is harboring another guest, no?”
               “Oh, that's Castil Seigfried,” Willow said, thinking of the almost delicate-looking dark-haired young man.  “Really, Cassius, he's only about as old as you are.  Or me.  Wednesday accidentally fell on him.”  She giggled.  “Oh, she's such a clumsy wretch.” 
               “Now don't be so mean,” Cassius protested.  “Your sister seems nice enough—though I have experienced her falling on a person firsthand.”  He changed the subject.  “Anyhow, why would Winter slap you?  Did you do something insensible?”
               “No,” Willow protested.  “I don't know why.  I just told her something over a bowl of porridge and she suddenly had a screaming fit.  Then she slapped me, and it hurt.  She doesn't trust me anymore.”  More tears filled her eyes, and she tried to brush them away, but they became caught on her eyelashes so whenever she had her eyes open she saw tiny beads framing her vision.  Willow blinked several times, but one tear escaped down her cheek.  As it rolled over the spot where Winter had hit her, it stung, the salt reacting with the irritated skin. 
               “Ah, so you're saying she was the insensible one,” Cassius clarified. 
               “Yes,” Willow murmured.  She curled up next to Cassius, and he sat there soothing her, stroking her hair, comforting her, for as long as she wanted. 
               It felt good.


Father didn’t show up until noon, an extremely unlikely thing to happen with him.  Wednesday could almost believe it was a blue moon.  Tired and with shadowy half-circles under his eyes, he trudged into the kitchen with the speed of a sloth as Winter and Wednesday watched him while they did lessons by themselves.  Wednesday guessed that he had been completely oblivious to the entire Winter and Willow episode, though Willow’s screams should’ve woken up the entire palace. But strangely, almost everyone was still asleep—the maids, the servants, all of them out cold from last night’s drama. 
               Thinking of Willow made Wednesday’s eyebrows knit slightly, and she put down her lesson papers and set her quill in the bottle of ink quietly, eyes watching it darkly as it gently swung back and forth due to the curved tubular shape of the rachis.  Winter didn’t put her quill down, but her hand paused, poised over the sheet.  A drop of ink dripped off the tip and flecked her paper. 
               “’Morning, Father,” Winter said breezily.  Father pulled himself up a chair and frowned as he noticed the steaming pot of porridge, the aroma no doubt pervading his senses.  Winter had put the spoon Willow had licked in the sink and fetched a new one.  Every time Wednesday glanced at the sink, she flinched involuntarily.  The inhumanity of Winter’s act had been shocking.  Maybe Willow wasn’t the worst one in the family after all, Wednesday reflected glumly.  She’d never seen Winter so agitated.  But Winter was the one who was always demanding about following the rules, dancing correctly, even sitting correctly.  Wednesday experienced frequent pains in her abdomen, which usually caused her to hunch over slightly.  Over the years, she had developed a bit of a bad posture, and she always made an effort to keep her back straight whenever Winter or Father was around.  With Willow, it didn’t matter.  Willow didn’t care one bit. 
               “Did one of you two make this?” Father inquired, poking the spoon into the pot and pronouncing himself satisfied before ladling up a bowl. 
               “No,” Winter said briskly, apparently hoping to avoid the question of who had made it.  Neither Winter nor Wednesday wanted to admit to a guest making breakfast.  “Anyhow, Father…everything is going smoothly with you, is it not?  It’s quite late in the morn already; perhaps you should hurry and tend to your work business, no?”
               “Always organized and precise, aren’t you, Winter?” Father said affectionately.  He frowned and glanced around.  “Where is Willow?  Shouldn't she be doing lessons with you two? Or is she skiving off once again?”
               Wednesday blanked. Neither of them knew where Willow was.
               “Oh, she said she couldn't concentrate and was going for a quick walk in the gardens,” Winter said, apparently thinking quickly.  “You know how she is.  She just left; you just missed her.  But no matter, I’m sure she’ll be right along.  It’s quite stormy-looking outside, and I think she’ll be right in.  It was a little walk just to clear her head.  She just loves the gardens.”
               “She went for a walk with her lesson book?” Father asked.  He must have observed that Willow’s things weren’t spread out on the table.
               “Actually,” Wednesday finally spoke up, “I think she did.”  It was an odd thing to say, but Wednesday decided wholeheartedly that it was better to make little sense than to hesitate for a long time and give one’s self away.  “She’s probably up on that bridge of her studying that lesson.”
               Father looked at Wednesday as if he were just noticing her presence.  “Did she?” he mused, swallowing some porridge.  “Well, we all know that Willow despises grammar.  Have either of you seen Lord Seigfried today?”
               “Um, no,” Winter lied, obviously uncomfortably.
               “No matter,” Father said, shaking his head and scooping up the last bit of his porridge and standing up.  “All right, girls.  I have official business to do, so just skip any questions you don’t know and we can go over them later.  I shall see you at tea.  Do not be late, all right?”  He swiftly exited the room without an answer, obviously feeling more awake. 
               As soon as Father was out of eyeshot, Winter sighed so hard that she threw her quill down and made a medal-sized blot of ink right in the middle of her paper.  Wednesday picked up her quill and continued her lessons.  She didn’t want to look at Winter. 
               Winter sighed again, a low growl in her throat.  Her eyes were fiery and her cheeks had two bright rose red splotches on them.  The remaining ink in her quill was seeping out, making a tributary on her topmost paper.  If the ink continued oozing, it would bleed through the rest of her papers, and Father would not be pleased.  Wednesday commented on this, but there was a tremor in her voice when Winter flicked her quill off the pages.  Ink spattered across the table.
               “Don’t protest any more, Wednesday,” Winter warned, having one of her rarer temper flares.  Willow had dubbed them ‘insult storms’ because during her rage, Winter would rant, tirelessly and remorselessly, hurling insult and abuse with no end at whoever was in front of her.  “You should just keep quiet and do what you’re told.  Now, you didn’t used to be so talkative, did you? I liked your old self better.  Oh, but what am I saying? You’ve always been far too useless to Father, to Mother, to me.  You were born in Bliss’s birthmonth of patience, Wednesday, but these days you’re just overly irritating because you’ve forgotten how to bide your time.  We can’t have that, can we?”  She twirled her quill between slender, pale fingers, a smirk crossing her usually kinder and mature face.  “Run along, now.  I know you’re about to cry and I don’t want your tears all over me, not at this hour.”
               Winter was right; Wednesday had barely enough time to struggle to her feet before the flood of tears spilled down her cheeks—fleeing like the wind, she ran as fast as she could out of the kitchen, her sobs almost inaudible but choking up in her throat, building up.  Her feet carried her faster than she had thought they would and she almost ran smack into a door but righted herself, pinwheeling her arms as she, momentum from her almost-fall still carrying her fast, burst out the door and finally fell in a heap at the entrance to the gardens when she could run no farther with the short ragged breaths not sufficient for her poor lungs and the burning in her legs, for she was not used to running at such speeds.  Hair in long tendrils over her face and splayed out in a fan over the dirt, usually white face splotchy pink with streaked tears, dress tangled in her legs, she let herself cry herself out, until there wasn’t a single tear left in her.  As she cried, her tears followed the contours of her cheekbones, curved around her jaw, and dripped to the ground.  Birds were unaware of her situation, a few stragglers fluttering overhead as they headed south. They greeted her with echoing cries, but their voices were so much more joyful.  And they should have been; they were on a trip to someplace warm, without anything to stop them—they were free in the sky.  Wednesday wished she could fly away with them; to fly away from all the rages warring in her home, the abuse she faced from her sisters every day. 
               She was always crying.  She must have cried at least three times in the past two days.  Wednesday hated crying; it snatched away what little she had of a complexion and made her eyes wildly vivid, to the point of being reminiscent of a cornered animal’s.  Willow had always helpfully commented that after Wednesday cried, she looked a bit like a raccoon because it always left shadows around the set of her eyes.  “Stop crying so often,” she would admonish.  “I don’t want a raccoon for a sister.” 
               Normally, Wednesday felt upset and sad at the thought of being a raccoon, but now she hardened her resolve and sat up, flinging hair out of her face.  Her hair was a tangled nest, her skirts were torn and frayed at the edges from tripped and falling, and there were still damp spots on the ground from when she’d cried herself out.  Now it was almost noon, and Wednesday was amazed at how quickly time could pass when one was thinking of her woes.  The ground was cold, and, putting a hand tentatively to her cheek, she realized that she was cold, too.  She wondered if her lips were blue yet, or if they were only purple.  Whatever the case, she needed to get up.
               Wednesday picked herself up, feeling cold and empty and a bit hungry from crying.  She didn’t see how crying could be as exhausting as when Willow dragged her onto a horse and forced her to do equestrian racing with her, but it was.
              Some daffodils were early bloomers, already opening up their trumpet-shaped sunny blossoms.  Wednesday bent down, wiping the last remnants of her weeping off her tear-sticky face, and let the gentle natural perfume pervade her senses, leaving her feeling somewhat fresher than she had before.  She moved over to a rose arbor to see if they had started to bloom, but was disappointed—but not surprised—to find that the roses were hardly more than tight buds.
               The sky was a roiling, soupy, hazy blue, dotted here and there with a grayish-black dash of and angry dry brush, the exact reflection of Wednesday’s heart.  Still, it didn’t stop her from moving from trellis to trellis, admiring the few kinds of flowers that had decided to open early and sighing gently in regret at the ones that hadn’t.  The gardens were always the most beautiful and glorious in the spring, but Wednesday hardly ever went out in that season because of all the sneezing the pollination caused. 
               She stumbled upon a rose arbor with one rose, a fluorescent pink, already in bloom, and laughed with such delight that she felt her cheeks warm a little.  She reached to stroke its petals, and pricked herself in the process like she did with every rose, but she squeezed the tip of her finger firmly and after a minute or so the blood had stopped oozing.  The rose’s petals were soft, and she stroked it lovingly before wistfully moving on.  The bright sunlight not hidden by the threatening clouds did nothing to make the air warmer, and her breath created tiny steamy clouds in the air before they faded; but it was all right with Wednesday.  She didn’t want to go back into that castle, where Winter surely was, calmly and innocently doing her lessons; where Willow probably was, huddled away and full of anger at Winter for launching such a dark rage at her.  It must have been a bad day for Winter, Wednesday thought. Two insult storms in one morning!  Winter wasn’t usually so fiery.  She was quiet and gentle, much like her name…though she also was regal and cold and rather ignorant of anyone she did not see fit as a partner in marriage. 
               As she rested herself on a bench with iron railings in curlicue designs, Wednesday gazed up at the swooping rope bridge, outlined in silver against the foreboding sky.  It swung, even though there was no wind, strung loosely enough that the ropes could buck like bulls in a storm.  Wednesday wondered if Willow was on one of the four bridges right now, or perhaps the central pyramid.  It seemed like a place that Willow would go if she was sad.  Wednesday recalled the elation in Willow’s face when they had come out at late dawn, and couldn’t understand why she would want to be on that bridge.  But that was Willow; daredevil and proud.  There wasn’t much else to describe Willow with.  Winter, on the other hand, was rather mysterious and clouded.
               A shadow fell over her.  Wednesday jumped, startled, looking up.  Behind her, leaning forward on the bench rail, was Cast—Lord Seigfried.  His dark hair was so shiny.  Wednesday just wanted to stare at it.  He smiled down at her, his aquamarine blue eyes a little clouded with the violet corners a tad troubled, his smile just a little sadder.  It was as if he was thinking of a memory, one he didn’t exceptionally want to recall.  Wednesday could relate.
               “You—um, startled me,” Wednesday said.
               “Sorry,” Castil said.  Wednesday couldn’t help but use his first name.  ‘Lord’ just seemed to formal a title for such a young and sweet person.  “I didn’t mean to, Miss—um, sorry, I forgot your name.”
               “Ah, so like the day.”
               Wednesday focused on his arm, sling off but still wrapped loosely in bandage.  “I really am sorry about your arm, C—”  She stopped.  “I’m sorry. I keep trying to call you by your first name.”
               “No, it’s quite all right.”  Castil said that often, Wednesday thought.  He was always saying things were all right, even when they were rather dismal.  His polite personality made Wednesday feel rude in comparison. “You can use my first name if you like.”
               Wednesday almost blushed, but she was determined to hold it in this time.  She patted the bench next to her.  “Why don’t you sit down?”  He sat down next to her, and she continued, “I really am sorry about your arm, Castil.” 
               He shrugged.  “Things happen, Miss Wednesday.  I’m simply fortunate enough to have someone so nice as you to fall on me instead of—instead of an old stubborn hag, for instance.”
               A giggle of surprised laughter escaped Wednesday before she could draw it back in.  Castil grinned sheepishly, as if he wasn’t used to making such comments.  “Well, it’s true,” he protested.  “It would be much harder to talk around you if you weren’t a sweet young lady like yourself.”
               “Oh, but I’m really not,” Wednesday protested back.  “Take a closer look at Winter or Willow.  They’re the ones who get all the admiration—because, well—because they’re the pretty ones, the ones with flair, the ones that aren’t always falling over banisters onto guests.”
               Castil raised his eyebrows.  “You imply that this has happened before.”  He said it as a question.
               “It has,” Wednesday admitted.  “I wish it weren’t true, but last year, on the same day, I toppled over the banister onto a poor fellow by the name of Cassius Wickerworth.”
               Castil smiled, humorlessly.  “I do hope you two are friends?”  There was something tighter about his voice now. Wednesday wasn’t sure if she’d done something wrong, but she decided to respect his privacy and not dig deeper. 
               “Kind of,” she replied with a little anxious laugh.  “I mean, we hardly know each other.  But he was at the ball also.  I suppose he left before you were there, but…well, he knows Willow better than I do.”  She had a flashback to Willow grabbing his arm, and nearly scowled.  Quickly changing the subject, she added, “Anyhow, why are you here, Castil?  You could get lost.  Our gardens have a maze, you know.” 
               “At the center, I noticed,” Castil answered with a little smile.  “I also noticed some rope bridges and traced them to a pyramid.  Are they ever used? They look awfully precarious.”
               “That’s what I always say,” Wednesday agreed.  “They’re Willow’s.  She runs along them all the time.  I’m not sure why she would like to be so high up—I’m afraid of heights,” she added shyly.  “But—um—well, she uses them. Nobody else does.”
               “Is that so?”  Castil looked amused at the thought of Willow running around alone on top of the pitching rope bridges.  Though right now it was rather serene by its usual standards.  “Well.  Anyhow, I’m setting off, so I thought I might take off alone.  I’d hate to rally all of you up for a good bye.  Just thought I’d make it simple and cut out all the unnecessary farewells.  But of course, I stumbled upon you and just had to say hello.  It doesn’t feel very gentlemanly of me to sneak off without thanking at least one of my hosts,” he added bashfully, with a hint of flush.
               Wednesday sat up.  “You were going to leave?” she cried.  “Alone?  You’re arm’s still hurt.”  Because of me, she reminded herself guiltily.  “Anyhow, how can you be thinking of gentlemanliness? You’re hardly more than a boy, about my age.  How old can you be?”
               “Erm, fifteen.”
               “See?” Wednesday said triumphantly.  “You’re only two years older than I am.”
               “By now Elizabeth II would have been married for years.”
               “Was it Elizabeth II?”
               “I’m not sure.  My history is not very good.”
               It was so easy to talk with Castil, Wednesday thought to herself, and inwardly smiled.  “Mine isn’t either,” she confessed. “I prefer literature.  Shakespeare was a genius.”
               “I think he was not quite right in the head.”
               “Well, then he was a not-quite-right-in-the-head genius,” Wednesday said firmly.
               Castil laughed.  “Which is your favorite play?”
               “Hamlet,” Wednesday said.  “Though I feel that Hamlet was a big strange. And why Denmark, I wonder? At any rate, I feel that he’s quite the interesting character.  Though I also like Othello…”
               “Is that not a game?” Castil asked.
               Wednesday laughed.  “It’s not only that,” she corrected him gently, “though I do believe it is a game…”  She tapped her chin with one tapered finger.  “Othello…it’s a strange one as well.  And then of course there’s Romeo and Juliet, which is also one of his most fantastic.  And yet I also frequently favor A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is one of his most absurd works.”
               “Aah, they’re all absurd,” Castil said with the frustrated air of one comparing rocks to dirt in terms of beauty.  Wednesday laughed, surprised that she could find such humor in so simple a sentence, and she couldn’t help but let a smile spread across her face, so wide it pushed her cheeks up into the first real smile she’d had in days.
               “You know,” Castil said, “I actually enjoy nonfiction literature more.”
               “Really?” Wednesday said, wondering who could not enjoy a good piece of Charles Dickens over a textbook. 
               “Just statistical things, actually,” Castil said, thoughtful.  “I enjoy politics.  And reading about history, and human development, and generational decline.  In fact, I enjoy reading about generational decline very much.”
               “Generational decline?”  Wednesday tried to imagine her grandfather, who had died before she was born, being the height of a skyscraper, then her father only a building’s height, then her as perhaps a fence post, and her children (who she placed a blank on) the height of a coffee table. 
               “The habits and disciplinary decline through the family line,” Castil explained, seeming to notice her confusion.  “From the immigrant generation to the first generation, and then from the second generation on—they have different habits that tend to decline through the generations.  It’s really quite fascinating, especially since the immigrant and first generation tend to be the sharpest, the most bright.  And from then on the qualities tend to go down and down and down.”
               Wednesday paused, feeling a little hurt.  “I’m seventeenth generation,” she said, trying not to sound offended.
               This seemed to dawn on Castil, because he said quickly, “Please don’t take that as an insult.  I didn’t mean that to be offensive—I mean, I just….”
               “Don’t mind,” Wednesday said, shrugging it off.  At least Castil was finely attuned to her feelings, and she felt a little glow inside.  “Honestly, it’s not always that way, is it?  If that were true, then maybe my grandfather would’ve had a little more sense!”
               Castil smiled tentatively.  “I suppose you don’t hold such a high opinion of his intelligence?”
               “Oh, his common sense was terrible, just terrible,” Wednesday told him earnestly.  “Father told me that—Grandfather died before I was born.  Father said that Grandfather was as clumsy as a horse, and that he was rash and always did things without thinking.  Whether it be working or just having fun, Grandfather always chose the least sensible way of doing it.  Father told me one time that Grandfather was trying to fit more books in his trunk one day when he was preparing to go away on a trip, and so he put all the little ones in first and then got angry when he couldn’t fit the large ones in.”  She smiled. 
               “That actually reminds me of my own mother,” Castil said with a little laugh.  “She would wash the dishes and then stack them on the table, which hadn’t been washed yet; or she would be washing the clothes, get all the dirt off in one tub, and then use the same dirty water to wash out extra soap.”
               “I’m sure that’s a very efficient way to do such things,” Wednesday said solemnly.  They both laughed, and she went on, “But my Lord, Grandfather.  Mother used to say that Grandfather was an interesting specimen—since he was far too strange to be human!  Father would recall memories of when he was a young boy and Grandfather would be doing the strangest things.  He said maybe Grandfather wanted to be an inventor, since he had so many weird contraptions that probably were household objects that had been melted, frozen, baked, boiled, burned, or all of the above.  Sometimes I wish that Grandfather was still alive when I was b-b—” She sneezed, and looked down at herself in surprise, realizing goose pimples were all over her bare arms.  “Oh, I—”  She sneezed again, and the effort wracked her chest, and she let out a sharp gasp.
               In a single motion, Castil swept his long swallowtail jacket off his shoulders and onto hers, covering her.  His own shoulders were so slender that it fit almost perfectly on her own.  The jacket was velvety, and while it was thin, it blocked out the cold like a wall. She looked up into Castil’s face in surprise. He smiled, even though under his jacket, he was only wearing a thin turtleneck. 
               “Aren’t you cold, like that?” Wednesday asked.
               “Not as cold as you were, in that dress,” Castil said.  “You needed it more than I did.  I should’ve given it to you earlier, but…well…I guess I haven’t mastered that level of forethought yet,” he admitted.
               “I think you’re perfectly fine,” Wednesday said as he wrapped it more closely around her.  “Goodness, I didn’t realize just how cold I was.  Thank you; this is like heaven.” 
               Castil shrugged.  “It’s a duty. A real gentleman wouldn’t let a girl freeze to death, would he?”
               Wednesday shrugged back at him.  “But you don’t qualify.  You’re not old enough to be really considered a man at this point.” She was feeling a little bit light-headed from the force of her sneezing, and she gripped the arm of the bench for support. 
               “I’m not just a boy anymore,” Castil said, oblivious to her discomfort.  “I suppose I’m somewhere in the middle.”
               “Mmm.”  Hairline cracks were fracturing her vision.  She decided she really wasn’t feeling well; pressure was building up in her chest like steam trapped in a teakettle, and it was making her heartbeat race.  And it wasn’t because Castil was there. She should tell Castil that she needed to get back in…  “Castil,” she began, “I…”
               Her vision wavered and careened sideways.  Hm? I…I feel weak.   
               She was only semi-aware of hands catching her, Castil’s face, framed with his beautifully shiny dark hair, looking down at her, some noise—a voice?—and then being scooped up into someone’s arms and being carried.  She was caught in a half-daze, with Castil’s head the only thing she could really see.  The edges of her vision were sparkly, with starbursts of blue. Castil…she thought, a little delirious. He was so pretty.  Just like a girl.  With that gorgeous dark hair swept over his brow, with jagged edges of ice-white shine, in soft swoops around his face that framed his pointed, elegant jawline and that fine-bridged nose…the most beautiful eyes, that exotic blue-green-grey with the violet rings at the far edge, close to the whites. 
               She closed her eyes and let him just carry her.  Where are we going? she wondered.  He must be taking me somewhere far, far away…and she conjured up an image in her mind’s eye, of her perception of what Castil’s home must look like; a large, homey kind of charming farmhouse with a soft-hill sprawling meadow.  She imagined sinking into this meadow, such a pretty meadow, and falling into a rich sleep…


Wednesday opened her eyes.
               She was no longer in Castil’s arms.  She was lying supine, and from here she could see the familiar ceiling of her room, and if she glanced sideways to her left she could see the antique bureau with her medicine bottle, and underneath her she could feel her large, firm pillow. Over her were her sheets.  She was back in her room, back in bed.
               Only one thing was different.  She could still feel Castil’s jacket under her back, surrounding her in a warm, ruffled cocoon.
               She sat up, and Castil’s jacket fell off her shoulders.  No dizziness attacked her.  Not a single bit of wooziness was left in her. A glance at the window, on which the curtains had been pulled back, revealed that it was almost noon. 
               Wednesday pulled herself out of bed, still clutching the jacket.  She felt mortified, as usual, of her sickliness, and that she had almost fainted in the middle of a perfectly normal conversation, all because of two sneezes.  She went into the bathroom.
               Looking into the mirror, she saw a dreadfully pale face with prominent lashes that sloped downwards and then up as if they were weighed down, lips that seemed unnaturally red in her white face, eyes that stood out, visible dark shadows under her eyes like someone had pasted a film underneath them, her hair like a rat’s nest, all shoved to one side and tangled up in snarls. 
               “You look like a ghost,” she said to herself.  “Lighten up, Wednesday, and get yourself cleaned up.”
               Splashing water recklessly on her face, she rubbed a towel over it, and ran her fingers through her loose hair.  It was coming unpinned, the pins sticking out in strange places, making her head look prickly as a hedgehog. She made a sour face at herself.  Of course, neither of her sisters (or her father or mother, for that matter) had bothered to take out her pins or comb her hair before laying her down on the bed.  Oh, well.  She didn’t need them to look after her. 
               Wednesday grabbed a brush and scraped it against her scalp, pulling out any tangled hairs with a wince.  She combed out several pins as well, letting them clink to the floor along with coiled strands of auburn.  Soon the floor was littered with pins and hair.  She pushed them all into a pile with her toes, and stared at herself in the mirror again. 
               “Oh, now I look like I’ve just gotten out of bed,” she murmured.  Her hair trailed to the small of her back, brushed and completely undone.  Her face was still pale, but Wednesday didn’t care. She took, with one hand, Castil’s jacket from where she’d hung it on a hook, and with the other hand plucked another rose from the vase sitting on the sinktop.  She’d pricked herself once again.  How had she done something like that? Frowning, she wiped her hand carelessly on a towel, leaving a thin smear of pink-red, and walked downstairs without bothering to re-pin her hair or put on some stockings and slippers.
               Winter was at the central room’s table, calmly working a needle.  A froth of yellow silk was coiled on her lap.  Willow wasn’t present, and neither was Father—though he would probably be along soon, as it was drawing close to noon and they would quickly be eating some lunch. 
               Winter looked up when Wednesday came in.  “Oh, there you are,” she said, returning to her work, “I was wondering if you were ever going to wake up.”
               “It wasn’t that long,” Wednesday said mildly.
               “It was plenty long, considering that it was induced by a simple sneeze,” Winter said casually, not even sparing Wednesday a glance.
               Deciding to ignore this pointed statement, Wednesday sat down at the table.  “Where’s Willow?” she asked, changing the subject. 
               “I honestly have no idea,” Winter said in an offhand voice, concentrating on the silk she was sewing up.  “She returned a bit before you came back in Castil’s arms, but left almost as soon as she came.  Then Castil came back.  He seemed a little bit flustered that you’d fainted for no apparent reason, and he seemed to think it was his fault.  Something about being too cold out there and something about his coat?  Then he asked me to fetch Father, which of course I did, and asked him to take you up to our room.  And then he apologized again, bid us a quick good-bye, and left.”
               “He’s left?” Wednesday demanded, completely forgetting that she was surprised about Winter also using Castil’s first name.
               “Yes, he’s left, didn’t you hear what I just said?”  Winter didn’t sound happy.
               “But I still have—he left his jacket!” Wednesday exclaimed, holding it up, dropping her rose on the floor.  “He’s already gone and he didn’t take it back!”
               At this, Winter practically flung her silk on the table and rushed over, gathering up the jacket.  “Wait—this is his jacket?  He forgot it?”
               “No, I don’t think he forgot it; I think he left it on purpose.  The poor fellow seems to think it’s his duty to be a gentleman even though he’s only fifteen. Now what should I do, Winter?”
               “Well, he’s got to come back,” Winter said, very self-confidently.  “Don’t worry, Wednesday, he’s going to come back if I have to make him and then we’ll give him his jacket.  Goodness, this is fine material! And yet he still left it, on purpose, too.  He must have a very high opinion of you.”  Winter scrutinized Wednesday carefully. “At least, that I would think.”
               At that moment, Willow came bursting it, breath in a huff, looking completely in shambles with her hair coming down and her face flushed and the flounces of her dress askew.  She stopped in the doorway, exhilarated.  “Come quick! Oh, you have to come. Mother’s back!”
               “What?”  Winter’s skirts billowed as she jumped up and ran for the doors.  Wednesday hurried after her as fast as she dared.  Mother was back?  She hadn’t even been aware that Mother had left.  Then again, Mother was so busy she didn’t ever have time to have tea with her daughters, or even come to supper.  It wasn’t unusual that Mother had left and come back without notice, but still….
               Well, at least she was back.  The three of them ran out front, Willow all messy—no doubt she’d been running about in the gardens again—and Winter pristine and aloof, and Wednesday feeling like she had still just gotten out of bed with her undone hair and bare feet. 
               A covered carriage pulled by two bridled Lippizans had pulled up on the front walk.  The carriage was a fairly grand thing, a dark scarlet with gold tasseled bordering, and Wednesday knew that the inside was just as fancy.  She and her sisters had once ridden in it to a party hosted by the McConnermans. The window facing them was covered by a golden drape so they couldn’t see Mother’s face.
              “Mother!”  Winter and Willlow went sprinting down to the front walk, their faces like sunshine, pulling up their skirts so they wouldn’t trip over the hems.  Wednesday quickly followed behind as Winter reached the carriage doors and flung them open. 
               Mother sat inside, calmly holding her seashell-shaped bag on her lap while the carriageman, who was leaning in the other side’s open doorway, gathered up her belongings to take back up to the mansion.  Despite her incessant travels, she was as gorgeous as ever, looking posh in her rich green dress with its matching stylish hat.  She looked like a woman playing as Scarlett O’Hara-in-her-curtains-dress with the green and the gold trim, which made her seem all the grander. 
               “Girls!” she said, holding out her arms, and Winter and Willow tumbled into them.  They loved Mother like a cat with cheese, mostly because Mother favored them (of course) and that she usually brought back expensive gifts for all of them.  Mother laughed; a sweet, bright laugh that always made heads in the vicinity turn—especially men’s heads.  “Oh, I’ve missed you, my precious gems.  All of you doing all right?  Willow, darling, you’re looking a little peachy.  And Winter—well, elegant as ever, I must say.  Wednesday, are you hiding back there?”  She craned her head and spied Wednesday hovering on the outskirts behind the heaps of skirts. “Ah, there you are.  Well, my girls—oh, my Willow, you really are looking paler than usual.  I’m concerned! Has anything happened?” 
               “No,” Willow said, casting a sideways glare at Winter so Mother wouldn’t see.
               “Mmm, well just give me a holler if anything’s bothering you, honey,” Mother said, stroking Willow’s hair.  She turned her attention to Winter.  “Ah, Winter.  You’re growing as fast as ever, more and more beautiful each day—you look like a goddess.  Of course, you already did, but if it’s possible for someone like you get even prettier, it’s happened in the time I was away.”
               Winter beamed.  “Oh, Mother.  I could never be as pretty as you.”
              “I don’t know about that, now,” Mother chided, touching a hand to her face.  “I’m getting old, and I won’t be the person I once was.  All this business is getting to me.”
               “You still look as young as ever.”
               “Ah, my dove.”  Mother planted a large kiss on Winter’s forehead, leaving a lipstick mark.  She quickly rubbed it off.  “Well, get off me, now, both of you!  How am I supposed to get home with you two clinging to me?”
               Winter and Willow quickly scrambled off Mother as she smoothed her skirts down and ducked out of the carriage with the sound of swishing silk. “Come to the back with me, girls.”  She led them all to the trunk (with which the carriagehand was still struggling) and picked up a stack of wrapped gifts with bows, handing a large, cylindrical one to Willow, a rectangular one to Winter, and a heavy but relatively small roundish one to Wednesday.  Holding it curiously, Wednesday ran her hand over it. The wrapping paper was full of wrinkles, as if the object inside wasn’t smooth. 
               With the carriageman lugging Mother’s belongings behind, they all started up back to the castle, with Mother chattering the entire way.
               “Goodness me, it seems you’ve gotten thinner, Willow.  That isn’t a good thing anymore!  You’re as skinny as a stick!  I’m starting to really become worried about you.  Oh, and Winter dear, I hope that you’ve excelled in your lessons with the new course I proposed to your father about?  Yes?  Ah, I was confident in you, my beautiful.  Such a gifted mind! I just realized you’ve changed your hairstyle, Winter.  It looks gorgeous like that, separating the gold and the red and the blonde and all the other colors that make up your hair.  I love those strands that just drape over.  And Willow, your hair is as famous as ever.  They’re still talking about you in Yorkshire.  Though I notice that you have a bit more curl in it now, and it looks like rolling sea waves, like this one painting I saw on my last travels—just lovely, even if you are a bit disheveled today, but no matter.  Now, where’s your father?  I need a few words with him!  He doesn’t seem to have paid enough attention to you all—and you need attention, growing girls like you. I suppose a man like him wouldn’t understand.  He’s so unsocial—no appreciation of artistry, or music, or parties, or drinking, or anything that has to do with all these festive things.  The man is so unpredictable!  Well, anyhow, at least you’ll have me to talk to.  I’m staying a while, my girls, and because of difficulties that are going on in the business world right now, I don’t have much work to do, so I won’t be cooped up all day long, thankfully.  Maybe now I’ll be able to spend time with my precious gems, perhaps take a little stroll in the gardens every day, hm? No more being isolated from my favorite beauties! And I’ll be able to have tea with you, and go to parties with you, and have our meals together. Everything’s going to be so much more enjoyable and less lonely with me back.  Maybe I’m a little self-absorbed, but, well, a girl can’t survive in life without a little pride, don’t you think? That’s my view on life, at any rate.  Now, once we get inside, then we can sit at the main table and you can open up your gifts.  Have none of the house decorations have been changed? Ah, good, they have! The way your father redecorated last time was absolutely awful—no sense of style.  Did you redecorate this time?  Oh, thank goodness.  If I see the floral-pattern chair in the parlor one more time, I really do think I am going to explode.  Honestly, who would do something like that? I trust you’ve had the artistic sense to put things into the right places. Well, now I’m off-track.  But the main table is still in the main room, is it not? Ah, good, that was what I was wondering. As long as that’s there, our house will still feel like our house, no matter if the floral chair is in the parlor.  At least none of our family is nonsensical enough to put honest-to-goodness chairs in the ballroom—now that would be a true tragedy.  Oh, I’ve missed the gardens.  Hopefully no guests have gotten lost in the central maze.  And I see that your bridges are still intact, Willow, though perhaps not for much longer.  Some of these blooms are early blossoms; though I must say, I’ve never seen so many of our daffodils so close to already withering in such early a January.  The arbors need some trimming.  Honestly, who’s been doing the work around this place?  You’d think they were dancing a mazurka instead of cutting with shears.  Maybe I can get the work running a bit faster around here; time seems to have slowed down, the efficiency is so low.  Don’t you worry; I won’t be working any of you around the clock, my little jewels!  All is well now that your mother is back and ready to hustle until everything is perfectly set.  Though I may have to leave in April, but even if I do, it will be a very short trip, only a few days instead of a long one like this one.  I cannot believe I’ve been gone for three months.  All of you have grown so much, fine young ladies instead of older girls now.  Almost marrying age, aren’t you, Willow?  And hopefully you’ll find someone who suits your fancy soon, Winter.  I know how it feels, so agonizing for the choice!  You must be dizzy with worry to find a man quickly, but take your time.  It’s quality of a husband that counts!”
               They reached the door, and Winter pulled it open graciously, as Willow ran ahead to call Father down, with Mother smiling pleasantly as she sailed into the foyer. 
               “My, my,” she said.  “It hasn’t changed that much. Perhaps that’s a good thing.  If it was completely changed, well, I suppose it wouldn’t feel like home.  Nevertheless, still a nice place, I say.”
               “Yes, it’s a nice place,” Wednesday said politely. 
               Mother started to undo the satin ribbon of her hat under her chin.  “Of course it is.  Where’s that father of yours, Wednesday?”
               “Willow’s gone to get him,” Wednesday said, still using her politest voice.  “I’m sure he’ll be right along.  Do you need help with your hat?”
               “I’m not that old,” Mother laughed, finally tugging the bow apart and lifting the hat off, then smoothing down her hair.  Her shiny coffee curls bounced into place around her face, perfectly formed, and she shook her head to let them settle.  “Ah, that’s much better.  I could hardly turn my head without my hair tickling my neck in that monstrosity.”
               “I think your hair’s quite fine,” Wednesday commented.  “Really, Mother, I think you should be proud.  You’re the only one in our immediate family that doesn’t have red in his or her hair.  It’s such a pretty color, too.”
               “You’re as fickle as ever,” said Mother, tossing her hat to Wednesday.  She caught it in surprise and hung it on the hatstand as Mother continued striding towards the main room.  “Trust you to focus on my hair color, my girl, and not my face!”
               “Sorry,” Wednesday said quickly, trying to keep up with Mother’s quick pace.  Mother was always like Willow—a bit on the different side, easy to take offense, perhaps not what one would call a traditional lady.  Mother’s skirts swished around her as she turned into the main room and almost trod on the rose that Wednesday had dropped earlier.  Just in time, she stopped short, and Wednesday backed up as Mother’s skirts curled forward and then billowed back.
               “Say, what’s that?” Mother said, bending at the knees to pick the rose up.
               “I dropped it earlier,” Wednesday said apologetically as Mother studied the rose, which was slightly crushed on one side.
               “What a pretty color,” Mother said, stroking the petals.  “Like spun glass—ah, delicate.  Much like you.  You like roses, don’t you, Wednesday?”
               “Um, yes.”  Wednesday placed the gift Mother had given her on the table.
               “Well, here you are.”  Smiling, Mother pulled a pin from her own hair and clipped the rose behind Wednesday’s ear.  Wednesday barely had time to enjoy the feeling of Mother’s silken skin brushing against her ear when Mother turned away, exclaiming, “Oh, George!”
               Father, with Willow trailing behind, came striding purposefully into the hall.  His face seemed to light up slightly when he saw Mother—a little less worn, a little less tired.  “Esthetique, my darling.”  He took one of Mother’s dainty hands in his, and kissed it.
               “Oh, you formal old goat,” Mother said, and Willow stifled a snort. 
               “Who said I was an old goat?” Father said, affronted. Winter, who arrived in the main room at this time, looked taken aback, at this strange statement.
               Mother kissed him.
               Father kissed her back.
               “A pair of love doves, aren’t you two?” Willow said teasingly, hugging her package to her chest, and Mother winked at her over Father’s shoulder. 
               Finally they broke apart, the girls hanging awkwardly at the edges of the main room, unsure of what to say at this exchange.  Mother sighed and took a seat at the main table, smoothing down her skirts again as they poofed up. 
               “It’s amazing to be back,” she said as Winter industriously started to clear the table.  Father sat down next to Mother, and she leaned her head on his shoulder.  “Both my girls have grown up so much in the three months I was away.”
               “Your three girls,” Father corrected, looking apologetically at Wednesday.  She pushed down the irritation of being “forgotten” by her own mother.  Whether Mother had done it on purpose or on accident, she didn’t know, but either way, it displeased her.
               “Oh, yes.  Terribly sorry about that slip of tongue, Wednesday darling.”  Mother held out her free arm to Wednesday, and Wednesday took a seat on Mother’s other side.  Mother gave her a little squeeze.  “Really, my girl, don’t think I’ve forgotten about you!  Now, where’s Winter?”
               “She went to go clear some of the clutter on the table,” Willow reported, also taking a seat on the other side of the circular table and primly smoothing down her dress as it billowed up.  “You know how she is—she’ll take everything out of this room and dump it somewhere else if we don’t stop her.”
              “There’s my favorite unladylike girl,” Mother said affectionately, leaning even more on Father.  Willow grinned, still hugging her present.  “I know you’re anxious to open that, Willow,” she added.  “When Winter returns we can open them.  Just like the Christmas celebrations we would have, don’t you remember?  The last time I was actually here for Christmas was—oh—goodness, that was some years ago, wasn’t it?—well, I think it was back when you were still a wee chit. Pretty as a painting even back then when you were only as tall as my waist!”
               Willow blushed.
               Winter came hurrying into the large room, still clutching her thin box.  In the few minutes she’d been gone, she not only had successfully cleared the table, but had changed into a better, more respectful dress to show her submissiveness to her mother.  She was in stark contrast to both Willow and Wednesday, both of whom were disheveled and rather untidy. Taking a seat a few feet away from Willow, she quickly smoothed her skirts down and placed her package on the table.  “Sorry, I’m a little late,” she said sweetly.
               “What matters is that you’re here now, dove,” said Mother indifferently.  At that moment, the carriage hand came struggling in, dragging all of Mother’s belongings behind him.  He dropped them off beside the hatstand and ran off, looking clearly unhappy.
               “Ah!” said Mother.  “I brought some more gifts back, too.  Most of them are in this suitcase.”  She hauled a large brown suitcase over.  “Still…perhaps you should open those three first, hm?”
               “Can we now?” Willow said, wriggling with excitement.
               “Of course, my darling,” Mother said.
               Without waiting to solicit Father’s opinion, Willow ripped the paper off her cylindrical tin, revealing…a silver tin with a cover.  She took that off, too, and peeped inside. Winter was busily taking off her paper, very neatly, so none of the wrapping tore.  Wednesday started to unravel the tissue papers off her spherical one.
              “Oh, this is so sweet!” exclaimed Willow, tipping the tin upside-down.  To the girls’ excitement, out fell a waterfall of colorful wrapped ribbon candies, the twisted kind in bright hues.  The plastic wraps crackled as they spilled onto the table. 
               “Such expensive candy,” Father said, raising an eyebrow at his wife.
               Mother pecked him on the nose.  “Yes, they were, but it’s worth it for my darlings, is it not? They are for the girls to share.”
               “Twenty-six…twenty-seven…twenty-eight.”  Willow had counted them, poking her finger and making little piles; equal amounts for her, Winter, and Wednesday.  She looked up in dismay.  “There are twenty-eight of them.  That’s not divisible by three.”
               Winter pushed her half-unwrapped box aside and re-counted the candies.  “Well, if there are twenty-eight, then we each get nine and there’s one left over.  We can give that one to Mother.”
               “What about Father?” Willow said, still puzzling over the numbers, trying to find an equal division. “Someone would have to give up one.  Then two people would get nine and one person would have eight.”
               “Wednesday, hand one of yours over,” Mother clucked impatiently.  “It’s a simple candy, girls.  And Wednesday can’t have too much sugar anyhow, or she’ll—”
               “Suffer from high blood pressure.  We know, Mother,” Willow said, rolling her eyes.  She plucked a candy from Wednesday’s small pile and pushed the two extra candies across the table to Mother and Father.  “We witnessed it firsthand.  On Thanksgiving of last year—you weren’t here, Mother—well, we had so much food between us and the McConnermans.  And after a bit of casual dancing, then we passed around all the sweets, and each of us had a bowl of that delicious tapioca pudding with a dollop of clotted cream.  And then Wednesday had a sort of seizure kind of malady—”
               “Yes, thank you for reminding me of that,” said Wednesday, annoyed with Willow for bringing it up.  She pushed around her ribbon candies with one finger.
               “Well,” Willow said, bashful.  “Well, thank you for the candies, Mother.” 
               Mother extended her arm over the table, and Willow kissed her fingertips since they were on opposite sides of the table.
               Winter finished neatly taking off the paper on her box, and she opened it to find a dress inside—nothing like the somewhat behind fashions in _______, but a modern, stylish thing that was all the rage in [somewhere else].  Winter lifted it up in wonder, letting the sky-blue creation swath the table with its silvery, light half-sleeves that succumbed into folds at the elbows, dripping off in an airy waterfall. Colors, various shades of the same family of blue, swept from the dress’s hip towards the floor, curling in seashell waves and tumbling to rest, undulated, at the floor.
               “It—it’s gorgeous,” Winter stammered.
               “A sweet little thing, isn’t it?” Mother said as Winter fingered the lace trimming of the soft corset. “I thought it’d be just you—pale and perfect and cool as the season you were named after.”
               “It is perfect, Mother,” Winter said in a hushed voice.  She set the dress down on the table, and it poofed up for a moment, showing the heavy silk crinolines before settling down and pooling silkily on the polished wood.  Winter hurried around the side of the table, squeezed between Wednesday and Mother, and gave Mother a tight hug.  “I love it,” she whispered.
               “And I love you,” Mother whispered back, smiling as Winter stood up and went back to her side of the table, still fascinated as she picked it back up and the wispy flounces fluttered to life like ghostly snowflakes. 
               Wednesday averted her eyes from the beautiful dress and tugged off the crinkly tissue papers on her own gift, and they fell apart, leaving a more-or-less round object on tiny stilts not even an inch tall.  The object was frosted glass, with a wind-up handle.  Hesitantly, Wednesday turned it a few times before letting go.  The handle was surprisingly stiff and needed a good bit of force to do a full 360 degree turn.
               The gift tinkled to life, filling the air with a crystalline song in a minor key.  It was a song Wednesday recognized—Moonlight Sonata.
               “It’s a music box,” she whispered, looking at it in rapture.  It was so beautiful, singing in a clear voice.
               “It’s a music globe,” Mother corrected gently.  “It is a sphere, after all.”
               They all watched as the music started to wind down—for Wednesday had only turned the handle twice—and finally clicked to a stop.  What a haunting melody, Wednesday thought.  The gift was perfect for someone like her.
               A loud crackling noise broke the sacred silence after the music globe had finished, and everyone turned.  Willow was calmly opening one of her ribbon candies.
               “Oh, honestly, Willow,” Winter said, rolling her eyes, but she didn’t really seem upset. Everyone laughed as Willow indifferently popped the candy in her mouth.
               “Thanks, Mother,” Wednesday said quietly, giving her a hug as a touch of ceremony ensued, with the girls laughing at one another and Father watching them, bemused. 
               “You’re welcome, my plucky darling,” Mother said brightly.  After a moment, she turned back to Father, taking a small box of chocolates out of her pocket and offering it to him.  “Would you like a chocolate, George?” 
               “I’d lie a chocwut,” Willow said, speaking through her candy, which was mangling her words.
               It was as if they were seven years old again, which was the year before Mother had started becoming extremely busy and had no time for them.  The girls were all laughing and bright, Mother had her pleasant motherly smile on her face, and Father seemed happier than he had that morning.  The entire castle seemed cheerful and ceremonious, and Wednesday preferred it over the gloomy silence that usually dominated it these days, broken only by Willow’s antics.
               Mother passed around the chocolates, laughing, and the girls seized them, shrieking with joy. 
               “Raspberries!” Willow cried, grabbing one from the box.
               “Oh, don’t stuff it in your mouth, Willow—you’re going to choke; oh, come on, how old are you, five?  Ah, cream and chocolate—that’s my absolute favorite!”
               “Give me the box, Winter!”
               “Can I have one? Honestly, you two are—”
               “Yes, yes, we’re children, I know, Wednesday, it’s just plain fun.  I’d rather be as childish as I want now before Mother boffs off to another long trip.”
               “I wish you could stay forever, Mother!”
               The girls tumbled onto the carpet of the adjacent library, laughing their heads off and tangling their hair around themselves, tossing the empty chocolate box around.  Wednesday felt exhilarated, laughing with her sisters, feeling as though nothing had ever happened between them and that their life would be serene always, since their family was all together.  Even Father was more at ease, the tightness around his jaw and controlled temper gone, leaving, an easy, relaxed posture. Their days had been terse and fitful with Mother missing, and now, now that everything was back in place and would be for a few months, Wednesday was glad.  She wanted time to freeze, to enjoy the playful, not spiteful, romping with her sisters, with no worries about her health and no teasing from Willow, no glares from Winter.  The festive season was at its peak, and this was how it should be.
               If only this would last, she thought. Because, of course, it wouldn’t.


Chapter One                 Chapter Two                  Chapter Three             Chapter Four                Chapter Five            Chapter Six
Chapter Seven             Chapter Eight            Chapter Nine