"Miss Fleur! Stop your dillydallying immediately! Do you hear me, young lady?" Before Fleur's fluttering eyelashes the sharp, thorny form of the elderly woman went on to burble and berate, rushing through incomprehensible criticism and unintelligible accusations. A deepening frown wrinkled the brow of the slumbering girl, and she cast an arm over her eyes in hopes of diminishing the curt words aimed her way. She should have known better, of course; once old Misses Libele started, she was not going to stop until her demands were reached. After a dwindling moment of feigned sleep, during which Clara Libele's voice rose higher and higher, Fleur threw her arm aside and peered guiltlessly up at her oppressor.
"…I do hope you will listen to me this time, Miss Fleur," Clara was saying, patting daintily at her gawky nose with a lacy handkerchief. "For Heaven's sake, what were you doing out here? Oh, never mind. You can explain yourself later. That furry little critter is back again, and I need you to dispose of him before he completely ruins my lawn hedges." With lips pursed, she flung an angry look over the stony fence. "Are you listening to me, Miss Fleur?"
The fair-haired girl was sitting up now, stretching idly and absently curling her feet over the underside of the crafty garden bench. The sun was shining her way, warming her back and making her eyelids heavy. If Fleur had had her way, she would not even have awoken. The pleasant dream she had had was still lingering somewhere behind her lashes. The miraculous fantasy of the waltzing flowers and the bright-eyed fairies seemed so clear, in fact, that Fleur was tempted to lie back down and return to her own illusionary world. She could almost smell the delightful scent of honeydew; could almost see the tiny fairy folk spinning and singing over her head…. A hiding spot would be just the thing to stop Misses Libele from constantly prying into her hopes and aspirations. With the thought in mind, Fleur peeked under the bench with interest.
"I truly apologize, Madam." The girl sprang to her feet at the harsh intonation of her name. "I finished the chores you asked of me already, and I just thought I'd wait for you out here…" She trailed somewhat. "I'll go and look for Sebastian now."
"Great goodness, you named that thing? How preposterous!" Clara blew loudly into her kerchief, sniffed, and carefully folded the silky cloth. "Oh, honestly! Now I will look all blotchy, all because of that beast! That cat gives me tremendous allergies!" The woman narrowed her dark eyes as her attendant tried to slip away, and snapped a bony hand over the girl's wrist. "Miss Fleur! Just look how filthy you are! A proper lady should know better! Well, you're not going anywhere until you give your face a good wash, and your feet… just where are your shoes? Oh dear, you are not going to grime up my clean floor! You stay here, and I'll get you a pail of water…"
Fleur watched helplessly as the prim woman turned on her high heels and marched toward the back door of her home. Clara always wore high heels, it seemed, no matter what the weather. That was one of her many personal policies. Proper young ladies, according to her, were meant to walk with blistered feet and, therefore, take knitting and decent posture in high regards. This was, fittingly enough, just what the other girls did. Fleur could imagine them now; a group of five female pupils, sitting around in the dining room and snatching rumors over tea. Oh, yes – there was always tea involved, no matter what time of day.
The girl sank back upon the bench, scowling darkly. She was, in the stern eyes of her great aunt, a failure. From the start of her 'mending', she never could reach total satisfaction. The high-backed chairs Clara cherished so much made Fleur's bones creak. Her stitching was a pain to look at, and she disliked the bitter tea. The frilly, layered dress she was preordained to wear gave her a rash, and she stumbled in the high shoes. It was always "don't you fidget", and "straighten your back" and, quite recently, "stop your nonsense". The fact that Clara was a distant relative did not put the girl in the woman's favor; quite the contrary, in fact. It was quite evident that Misses Libele, who was the very site of visits from important ladies and the Queen's messengers, was shamed by Fleur.
Something slick brushed slyly against the girl's ankles, and Fleur lifted her skirts to catch a glimpse of a glossy black tail before its bearer disappeared under the bench. A feeling of comfort washed over her, and she kneeled in the dew-flecked grass to address the handsome black cat that had curled up in the shady area provided. It was partly her fault that the stray continued to return. A bait of sardine here and a fleck of tuna there had attracted the company of the feline. Clara never did track the crime to her, and Fleur was not about to confess.
"Here, Sebastian. Have you really been prowling around her precious lawn again?" She ran a hand over his glossy coat thoughtfully. "Well, you'd better get out of here before she finds you, wherever you came from…" The cat yawned, stretched lazily, and turned his vibrant eyes upon Fleur with no intended interest. Intelligence appeared to shine there, and she continued eagerly.
"Come now. She will be back any minute now and-"
"I have the water now, Miss Fleur!" As though on cue, the clipped voice of Clara filtered faintly into the garden. "Get yourself ready. Goodness only knows what they think of me. Not even bothering to watch that girl, that's what the townspeople must be saying behind my back" – a sneeze – "and you better be rid of that cat quickly!"
Sebastian was sitting up now, eyes set expressionlessly in the direction of the back door. Fleur's own heart appeared to freeze at the fussy sound of her aunt's voice. In just moments, the woman would come into the garden and spot the cat, not to mention haul along a needless bucket of water with her. Without thinking, she snatched the cat up and ran halfway across to the solid barrier. The fence was not an especially tall one, although a great number of elegant carvings lined its base and top. First thing was first; save Sebastian from the wrath of Misses Libele. Lifting herself up on tiptoes, she placed the struggling cat atop the wall, waving her arms hurriedly at him.
"Well, go on! Jump on over! Silly cat, can't you see she's going to find you if you don't?" The feline gave her a last, disgruntled look before disappearing over the side. He would be out on the streets now, perhaps already twining across the sidewalk to attend to his next order of business. At least one of them was free. Fleur gave a sigh of relief, pushed her hair away from her forehead, and leaned against the fence. Now there was only one other thing to worry about….
"Miss Fleur! I just uncovered one of your shoes! And what, pray, was it doing lying about in the hall like that? And where is the second of the pair? Need I remind you again that a proper young lady needs to look after her things?"
Fleur's skirts swept against her ankles as she hauled herself up over the wall, scraping her bare feet against the rough exterior of the barricade. She did not have time to consider her situation or personal tidings; anything was better than to be nagged at by the demanding woman. If only she were a fairy. Those tiny pixies did not need to take silly orders from their aunts, and nor did they have to scrub their faces until the skin burned. For a moment Fleur sat, balanced on the fence, before she swung her legs over the side and leaped down into the street.