Characters: Ella, Areida
Genre(s): Friendship, Humor
Timeline: Finishing School
Word Count: 2026
Story Summary: Julia is not a nice person. But when she gets sick, it falls to Areida and a reluctant Ella to nurse her through the night.
Notes: Written for captainbunnicula (kradarua)for Yuletide 2016. Thanks to Kathy for the beta!
Disclaimer: Ella Enchanted is the creation and property of Gail Carson Levine. All characters and locales belong to Gail Carson Levine. I am receiving no financial remuneration from this work of fanfiction.
Honey and Vinegar
I’d found my way to the “Shores of Sleep” reading Mandy’s gift when the moans woke me. It was probably one of the other girls having a nightmare. I wondered what it was that she might find so fearsome. Perhaps, she was dreaming that she was at a ball and the only lady not invited to dance. Or perhaps, she was dreaming that while she was whirling about the floor, her skirt had risen enough that people could see the flounces on her petticoats. Or perhaps, she was dreaming that she was dancing with no skirt and no petticoats!
Giggling was cruel and I knew I shouldn’t do it. And anyway, she might be dreaming of shipwreck, or ogres, or sliding down a bannister, only to realize that there was a thorny rosebush at the bottom. No, I wouldn’t giggle, but I wanted to.
It wasn’t that I thought nightmares were anything to laugh at. It was that I could tell whose bed the moans were coming from and I couldn’t help but feel a little bit of happiness over it. No, it wasn’t nice…
…But then, neither was Julia.
If I’d thought to have some respite from torment because Hattie slept in the Daisy Room and I in the Lavender, Julia quickly taught me otherwise. It wasn’t that she was cruel to me directly. Not really. True, she looked down her nose at me when I talked too loud or laughed too much or made it clear that I preferred Areida’s company to that of any of the other girls at the finishing school. That didn’t matter much to me. Thanks to my curse, I hadn’t had a friend near my own age since Pamela, when I was eight.
Wait. Did that include Char? Could a prince be a close friend? I’d never thought of him that way. He was simply… Char. I enjoyed his company, his conversation, and his laughter, but perhaps calling him a friend was a touch too familiar. He was royalty, after all. I was mere minor nobility—though Char never seemed to care about the disparity in our ranks. And because he acted as though it didn’t matter, when I was with him, I never felt as though it did, either. But now that I was away from him, away from Frell, I had to wonder. Especially with Manners Mistress telling us constantly of the way in which King Jerrold comported himself. (Privately, I suspected that the king was nowhere near as particular or stuffy as she made him sound. For wouldn’t some of that have rubbed off on Char, as well? Then again, there was little of my own father in me—apart from my chin, my nose, and the shape of my eyes.)
Well, Pamela was long gone and, thankfully, Char wasn’t here. Thankfully for two reasons: he would, in all likelihood, find finishing school even more stultifying than I did… and a prince attending a finishing school for young ladies would be ridiculous.
Here at finishing school, were it not for Areida, I would have no friends at all. And while Julia was merely disdainful of me, to Areida, she was merciless. She mocked her accent, her hairstyle, her yellow embroidery roses, her Ayorthaian gowns, and her commoner blood. Every time Julia said something cutting to her, I felt my own blood boil. I never said anything though. First, if I started, Julia would be certain to tell me to mind my own business and, thanks to my curse, I would have to from then on. That would mean that if Areida wanted to confide in me—about anything at all—I would be unable to sympathize or give advice. That wouldn’t be minding my own business. I could defend Areida once, but the price for such outspokenness would be our ongoing friendship.
I hadn’t realized that until later, though. On my third day here, when Julia had accidentally knocked the milk pitcher into Areida’s lap, I had half-risen to my feet, about to say something. Areida had quickly pulled me down. “Let it be, Ella,” she’d whispered. “It’s not worth it.” Of course, I’d obeyed. I had no choice. And fortunately, Areida’s orders were not spiteful ones like Hattie’s. I’m sure that she had no suspicion that I was under a curse. How could she? But from that point on, I sympathized with her, and raged for her (Areida was far too sweet-tempered to rage for herself). I called Julia things in Ayorthaian like “tall girl” and “curly-haired,” and made them sound as though they were deadly insults. Julia spoke no Ayorthaian, so she couldn’t know better. And Areida giggled along with me to keep up the pretense.
So, to say that I was sorry to hear Julia having a miserable night would be an untruth. I was sorry that her moans had awakened me; I would be tired in class tomorrow. And what would I do if Manners Mistress ordered me not to yawn? Would I be able to refrain from doing so? If I couldn’t, would my curse make me ill, as it usually did when I fought it?
I pulled my pillow over my head and tried to hold it there and stick my fingers in my ears at the same time.
The next thing I knew, Areida was gently tugging my pillow loose. “Ella,” she whispered. In her Ayorthaian accent, it sounded more like ‘Eyah’. “Ella! get up, please!”
An order, though she couldn’t have known what they did to me. I sat up at once and pretended to rub sleep from my eyes. “What is it?” I groaned.
For answer, she gestured toward Julia’s bed. “I thought she was eating too many grapes earlier,” she said, speaking in Ayorthaian. “They’ve made her ill.”
“Are you certain?” I whispered in the same language. By now, I understood it fluently and spoke it well. “Perhaps we ought send for one of the mistresses to call for a physician.”
“I’m certain,” Areida replied, sounding unusually brisk. “My parents’ inn isn’t far from one of our lord’s vineyards. When it’s time for the grape harvest, people come from all the nearby villages to help. They bring their whole families. And while they tell their children to be sure to put more in their baskets than their bellies, too many of them don’t pay attention. There are always some who take rooms with us. I’ve seen indigestion before.” She sighed. “There’s no point in sending for a physician.” In the lamplight, something must have shown in my face, because she quickly clarified. “She’ll recover by morning, but it will be a hard night. Can you fetch water?”
There was a pump in the garden. We weren’t supposed to leave our room after the lights were turned down, but I was fairly certain I could do so undetected. For weeks, I had been told to step softly and gracefully, to glide and not gallop, to take care not to catch my bows and flounces on corners and nails. Perhaps, my obedience curse would help me now. I nodded. There might not be any love lost between myself and Julia, but it was Areida who was asking for the water.
I slipped my cloak off its hook; the night was chilly and my nightgown was thin. I slid into my shoes. They rubbed a bit on my bare feet, but I would be hard-put to explain dirt or mud on the delicately-embroidered slippers I’d been given on my first night, should anyone notice. Then I stole carefully out of the room.
The other two girls slept on; neither Julia’s moans nor my conversation with Areida had roused them. For a moment, I envied them their oblivious slumber. The moment passed and, abashed, I made my way through the house to the garden door.
Areida hadn’t ordered me to get the water, but her request had the force of a command anyway. She was kind and gentle and, while I was the vinegar to her honey, I loved her for her sweetness and I was by no means eager to reveal to her my own true disposition. So, I filled the bucket, pumping water vigorously enough that I didn’t shiver in the cold night air. Then I placed the bucket on my head—Headmistress had improved my posture to the point where I knew that I would not spill a drop that way—and started back toward the Lavender room.
The Daisy Room was two doors from mine and I had a sudden urge to slip in and pour the ice-cold water over Hattie while she slept. I decided against it, though. Her screams were certain to rouse the other girls and bring one of the mistresses at a run. I would be discovered. And meanwhile, Areida was depending on me. Truthfully, if she hadn’t been, I might have thought that the best use for the water was for Hattie’s rude awakening and not for Julia’s fevered brow. But then, while I thought myself a reasonably good person, I wasn’t so saintly that I felt I needed to be kind to those who had been cruel to me. Nor those who were cruel to those I cared for.
Hattie would never know how grateful she should be to Areida that she was spared an icy bath one late autumn night.
Areida beckoned to me as I re-entered the Lavender room. Julia was sitting up now and whimpering a bit. As soon as I reached the bed, Areida took a linen handkerchief and dipped it into the bucket. She wrung it gently and dabbed it over Julia’s brow. “It will be all right,” she said gently. “I know it feels like you’re dying, but I promise you aren’t. Here.” She took a china mug from Julia’s nightstand and dipped it in the water. “Drink. It will help.”
Julia obeyed. I noticed that this time, she had nothing to say about Areida’s accent.
Areida sat down on the bed and rocked Julia gently, humming a song I recognized as one she’d taught me a few days earlier. I couldn’t quite remember all the words—it was an old song and the language was grander and more formal than the Ayorthaian in which she and I conversed. But it was a long, sad ballad that made my heart ache, even if I couldn’t quite understand it fully. It seemed to settle Julia, though. Her whimpers gradually slowed and her breathing eased. In a few more minutes, she was asleep.
I looked out the window and saw that the stars were beginning to fade. Dawn would break soon. I yawned and Areida smiled in the dim lamplight. “Thank you,” she whispered.
I smiled back. “I wonder if she’ll be nicer to you from now on,” I whispered back in Ayorthaian.
She shook her head. “It would be lovely if she were,” she replied, “but that’s not why I helped her. I’d do the same, even if I knew she’d be even more awful than usual tomorrow.”
That perplexed me. “Why?”
Areida shrugged. “If someone is ill, they need help. If I choose not to help them, that says more about me than it does them.” She sighed. “It would be lovely if she were nicer,” she admitted. “But I can’t control anyone’s actions but my own. Even if she is awful, must I become awful in turn?”
I knew what she was saying, but I was not as kind as she. Had it been up to me, I would have let Julia suffer. Or, perhaps, slipped out to the garden with a blanket and tried to sleep under a tree where her moans would not awaken me, hoping to return before anyone else awoke. If it hadn’t been such a cold night, I might have dared.
I smiled to myself, thinking of Manners Mistress’s reaction. “Ella! Young ladies simply do not sleep out of doors unchaperoned. King Jerrold would be ashamed of you!”
Perhaps, she was right. Perhaps, he would be. But something told me that his son might understand.