Excerpt Part 2: The Nutcracker Curse

Chapter 2

 

Clara

 

As I strode down the plush, ruby carpet, I was certain somebody was spying on me, but when I whipped around, I only found crystal chandeliers and gilded walls behind me. I sighed. For a year now, I’d had the feeling that someone was watching me, intending ill will. The sensation would come and go, lasting only for a few minutes. Each time, no one was there. Was I going insane? I shook my head vehemently, banishing the scary possibility and telling myself I was just overly cautious. And how couldn’t I be when my governess, Bernadette, constantly reminded me to sit straight, not to fidget, and never ever yawn in public, assuring me in her low alto voice that even when I was certain I was alone, somebody was always watching me, the heir of the Austrian Empire.

Thinking of Bernadette reminded me I needed to go to my dance class. I glanced at my pocket watch and cringed. It was ten past twelve, and I was once again late for my lesson. Worse, I wasn’t wearing my dancing slippers, but my favorite ankle boots with a sturdy one-inch heel that allowed me to walk fast and even run, two activities Bernadette didn’t approve of.

Cursing the current fashion, which dictated multiple layers of petticoats, I picked up my skirts and dashed down the marble corridors toward the mirrored ballroom.

Out of breath, I reached the big wooden double doors to realize the guard on duty was my dear friend Philip.

“You’re late.” With a grin, Philip opened the doors for me. His forest-green eyes roamed over my disheveled appearance without judgment, while I noticed with envy that his skin had turned a golden shade from the spring sunshine. Unlike me, Philip could do in his free time as he pleased, not having to worry about getting color that was unbecoming for a princess.

“I lost track of time,” I confessed as I slipped past him into the vast ballroom. The parquet floor shined, the chandeliers sparkled, and Bernadette glared at me.

“I’m glad you deigned to show up to your lesson, Your Highness,” she said in a dry tone. Even though she was plump and, in her fifties, her spine was straight, her shoulders were pulled back and down, and her stomach was sucked in. Compared to her, I was a sloven.

Immediately, I stood straighter and put the sweetest smile on my face. “I apologize, but I’m here now, and I’m very excited to learn the….” I tried to remember what I was supposed to be learning today, but for the life of me couldn’t.

“The loure, a danses à deux, a partner dance you will be performing at your coming-of-age ball. As you might recall, last time we learned the basic steps.” Bernadette shot me a sharp look, daring me to admit that I had already forgotten the sequence of the dance steps. “Today, we’ll dive into the more complex patterns.”

“Why can’t we do the polka?” The fast and upbeat dance always brought a smile to my face and never made me yawn.

“Because we’re learning a traditional, classical dance, not some fad.”

“It’s been popular since at least 1840. Is ten years a fad?”

Bernadette ignored my comment and nodded at the white-haired piano player, who fell into a serene, slow melody.

For the next hour, I tried to memorize as many steps as possible, stay with the rhythm of the music, and not trample all over the feet of my partner, a middle-aged man with a permanently serious expression.

When the tower clock chimed one, I glanced at Bernadette expectantly. “Are we done?”

Bernadette crossed her arms. “We’re staying here until you get the steps right.”

“But what about lunch?” I asked, my stomach choosing this moment to growl.

Bernadette shook her head disapprovingly, as if I could control the noises my stomach made and simply chose not to, then said, “We’re not leaving until you learn the loure. Your coming-of-age ball is tomorrow night, and it must be perfect. Otherwise, how do you expect any of the visiting princes to propose to you?”

I don’t. I’m not ready to marry. I didn’t voice my thoughts, knowing that doing so would get me nowhere with Bernadette and that if she relayed my inappropriate words to Father, he would be deeply disappointed. I couldn’t do that to him. I was all he had left.

In a chipper voice, Bernadette continued, “You’re of the right age to get married. Many girls in other kingdoms marry as early as fifteen. Your father agreed to postpone your coming-of-age ball until you turned seventeen due to my recommendation that you needed more time to learn everything a princess needs to know given your… restless nature.”

I pressed my lips together to stop myself from saying that it wasn’t my fault I was the only available heir. I wasn’t being difficult on purpose or to disappoint Father. My personality was simply not suited for the role I was supposed to fill. And I was nowhere ready to marry and rule Austria. I needed more time.

“Now, now, don’t look so glum.” Bernadette handed me a glass of water and rang the bell for the maid. “Please bring us some sandwiches and cookies.”

Even chocolate chip cookies didn’t cheer me up, but I was grateful Bernadette had sent for them, instead of making me feel guilty for not being excited about marriage.

Busy trying to process how much my life might change in the next few days and how I could avoid an engagement, I didn’t complain during the next few hours as Bernadette made me repeat the steps over and over again until everything was perfect and the dance sequence was burned into my mind. By the time we were done, the sun was low in the sky. I considered going to Father’s study but decided I needed some time alone to clear my mind and figure out how to talk him into giving me an extension, or at least a long engagement of two or three years.

Since I always did my best thinking outdoors, I exited the castle and went to the stables. I bypassed the horses, which neighed in protest as they were used to me bringing them carrots and spending a few minutes petting them and brushing their hair. But today, I didn’t have time to say hello to everyone; I needed the comfort of Biscuit.

Biscuit had the biggest stall at the end of the stable. Her big, brown eyes met mine. There was so much depth in them, I felt as if she understood me. As always, she was an immaculate shade of white, like fresh snow. Her horn glinted as rays of sunlight touched it, giving it a translucent, ice-like quality. Biscuit used to be my mother’s unicorn. The magic in her blood meant she had a much longer life expectancy than a regular horse and might even be immortal. Nobody knew, since unicorns weren’t native to Austria, and my mother had brought Biscuit from Ireland.

“Hey, girl.” I petted Biscuit’s thick mane, which was the color of liquid, white gold. “Are you up for a ride? I could really use one.” I saddled her and was walking her out of the stable when Philip came rushing toward me. A guard had replaced him at the entry to the ballroom earlier, so I hadn’t talked to him since Bernadette’s lesson. Even without me saying anything, he must have sensed something was wrong from my posture, because he said, “I’ll come with you.” Not waiting for my reply, he grabbed his inky stallion, Ace, and saddled him.

For a few minutes, we rode in silence. How I wished I always felt the way I did in the saddle—free, without responsibilities I wasn’t equipped to fulfill weighing heavily on me.

Philip tore me back to the present. “You should have asked for an escort. You shouldn’t be out riding alone, especially this close to sunset.”

I shrugged. “There’s a lot of things I’m not supposed to do.”

“Was Bernadette hard on you for being tardy?”

A mirthless laugh spilled from my lips. “Bernadette is the least of my worries.”

“Then what is it? Talk to me.”

“The coming-of-age ball. I’m not ready to meet my future spouse.” The words tasted like steel, hard and disgusting. If it weren’t for Father, I would run away, but I couldn’t do that to him and completely shatter his already fractured heart.

Next to me, Philip stiffened. For a while, we rode in silence until I couldn’t take it any longer. “I’ll talk to Father, ask for an extension.”

“You must marry eventually.” Philip’s voice broke, and I studied him. His chin was as strong as always, his cheekbones sharp, and his eyelashes sooty, but there was so much pain on his face. I reached out to touch his forearm, but he moved his horse away from me.

“A marriage won’t separate us,” I said. “We’ll still be friends. As the heir, I won’t leave. Whoever will become my spouse will move to Vienna.”

I tried imagining myself in a white wedding dress, smiling at my future spouse, but couldn’t. Instead, an image of another wedding popped into my mind. I was four years old and holding my new stepsister’s hand, as a heavy, golden crown was placed on her mother’s head. An overpowering floral musky scent hung in the air. The fabric of my dress itched. And my throat was parched. Even back then, I hadn’t been comfortable with my stepmother. I knew something was off about Jacqueline, and when I had been seven, she had proved me right.

I rolled my shoulders, willing the past to leave me alone. My gaze landed on Philip, who no longer looked dejected but fierce as a muscle in his jaw ticked.

“What is it?” I asked.

He gave a sharp shake of his head. “Nothing.”

I rolled my eyes. “Please, we’ve known each other since we were kids.” Our bond was special, forged by our common loss. My mother had passed away giving birth to me, and Philip’s mother, one of our royal seamstresses, had succumbed to a respiratory disease when he had been twelve.

“Fine. You want me to spell it out, then I will.” Philip’s green eyes turned on me, drilling past my title and my manners, or lack of them, to the person I was underneath.

The intensity in his gaze made me want to break eye contact and run. The tingling sensation roiling through me was too much, too strange, and I didn’t know what to do with it or what it meant.

“I want what’s best for you, and I don’t want any of those foreign princes to take advantage of you or Austria.”

My heart softened, and I put my palm on his hand. This time, he didn’t pull away; instead, he studied my skin, as if memorizing the mole above my little finger and the fine lines on my hand.

“I won’t let anyone take advantage of me. I promise. I won’t allow anyone to sweet talk me into anything or sway me with good looks and charm.”

Philip nodded, but the doubt remained on his face.

I paused, trying to come up with a way to put him at ease. An idea popped into my head, and I snapped my fingers. “I’ll invent a test for the princes. Only those who pass can court me, and I’ll insist to Father that I want to be courted for an extended period before getting engaged.” That way I would get the time I needed without disappointing Father.

Philip mustered a weak smile that didn’t reach his eyes, and I glanced away. Neither of us wanted me to get betrothed and have a husband stand between us. I couldn’t bear the idea that once I became a wife, my friendship with Philip would have to take a back seat and that the freedom I had so carefully carved out for myself would be ripped from me.

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