There was a ringing. It was a very shrill ringing, one where you would very much rather kill the ringer rather than follow orders. It was just that little bell, ding-a-ling-a-ling.
Eli turned over with a groan, pulling his pillow over his head, trying to block out the shrill bell. But it didn't stop; instead, it became more urgent. Finally, he kicked off his blankets and tossed his pillow aside. He stumbled across the room in a drowsy haze and checked the bells. It was from Erica's room.
With a sigh, Eli hunted around his room, finding a pair of breeches that were at least partially clean, tucked in his shirt, and ran a hand through his hair. After a glance in the mirror, he decided that he was decent enough for a trip through the house and started upstairs.
The hallways always seemed longer in the morning, when he was still half-asleep and not really in the mind to comprehend what today's little chore would be, especially since he hadn't even had breakfast yet. But he had to climb the three stories to his sister's room, just like she demanded and just like he was trained.
Eli slowly opened the door and peered inside. Erica was perched on her bed, one hand holding a book open, the other fiddling absent-absentmindedly with the canopy tassel on her bed. She was still dressed in her sleep wear, which he found somewhat odd.
"Oh, don't just stand there like a peeping tom!" Erica said, glancing up momentarily. She gestured at him with a hand. "Come on in, take a seat." Eli stood hesitantly in the doorway, feeling as though he was a hummingbird about to alight on a flower that looked too sweet to bear.
"No, really, that's enough prowling around; it gives me the creeps when you stand there." Erica waved a hand at a chair next to her bed. "Have a seat." Eli inched across the room towards the indicated chair and slowly sat down.
"How was your sleep?" Erica asked, looking up from her book out of the corner of her eye.
"Er, fine," Eli muttered, staring down at the rug covering the hardwood floor. He only remembered vaguely when he had a room as grand as this one, and he was a bit ashamed at how he took it for granted. Erica watched him a bit critically at his reply and closed her book, giving him a cheery smile. He heard chatting from inside Erica's closet and he gave a small jump when he saw Betty, Erica's maid, emerge. Erica giggled and turned towards Betty.
"You gave him quite a fright," she said.
Betty blinked at him and huffed, smoothing out a dress in her arms. "Serves him for not paying attention. You can't go jumping at every little thing, you know." She finished fussing with the silk chemise and held it out for Erica. Erica grinned and looked it over, before showing it to Eli.
"How about you try this on?" she said. Eli felt his whole body seize up.
"Why?" he asked, unconsciously leaning back away from the dress as if it was a plague infested rat rather than some harmless, if not somewhat expensive, under slip.
"Oh, come now, I want to see how it looks on you."
Betty tsked and grabbed Eli by the arm, pulling him out of the chair. "Can't you just entertain your sister just once?" Eli glanced sideways at her and reached for the chemise.
Maria entered the room several minutes later, and stopped in the middle of the room to give Eli a critical look over. She was only slightly more dressed than her sister, with her long, dark hair brushed in the very least. They were opposites, it appeared at first sight, Maria being somewhat tall and imposing, commanding any space instantaneously at her own whim, while Erica was all soft curves and optimism, always accompanied by her incessant giggling. But they both had a supernatural will of their own, one that forced many to do their bidding.
Eli shifted his weight and wrapped his arms around himself. Even though he hadn't removed his pants yet, the smooth cloth of the chemise was still cold on his skin, and he looked longingly at his discarded shirt that was thrown carelessly on the chair.
"Good morning, sister," Maria said, walking over to her sibling. Erica stood and kissed Maria on the cheek.
"And what a beautiful day it'll be, I'm sure," Erica said. "I can feel it." She waggled a finger. "There's something special in the air."
"Ah, you can say that all you want," Maria said, heading towards the closet. "It won't make you more of a fortune teller than that old lady down at the town. Good morning, Betty."
"So, what'll we be having today?" Maria called from inside the closet. Eli could imagine her thumbing through dresses, picking out the one he would parade around that day.
"How about something pink?" Erica responded, and looked at Eli. "He looks 'pink' today."
"I daresay not," Maria said, half-emerging from the closet for a moment before re-entering. The sleeves of the chemise wrinkled under Eli's fingers.
"Than what would you say? Not blue, we did that last time."
"Maybe if blue didn't look so well on him, maybe not."
Maria emerged from the closet, carrying a dress. She stopped in front of Eli and held it up to him, forcing him to raise his chin from the ground.
Eli shivered as Maria hummed dispassionately and returned back to the closet, Erica arguing with her the entire way.
Eli wished to sink into the wall or floor, or become something that his sisters wouldn't care about, a rat, a dog, Henry. But, no, he realized, no matter how hard he wished, he would always be Eli, stuck in his sister's bedrooms, non consensually playing dress-up.
It was several dresses later until they found today's dress, and Eli was fitted with a corset--something he was fairly used to by then--and smothered with the dress. Erica and Maria stepped back to admire their decision, before turning around and retreating to Erica's vanity for make-up.
Eli sank into a chair as Erica and Maria bickered good-naturally about wigs. He blinked down at himself and sighed, running a hand through his hair. He felt numb, just like all the other times he was forced to do this, to dress up like some giant doll for his elder sisters. His fingers were shaking as he reached behind him and began unbuttoning the dress, quietly, so his sisters wouldn't notice. He pulled the dress slowly off and stood up, climbing out, and placing the dress carefully on the chair. His sisters didn't notice him leaving until the door clicked behind him.
He had already taken off down the hallway, darting down one, two sets of stairs and ran into his room, before whirling around and slamming the door. He stood in front of the door, shaking violently.
"How... how dare they?" he whispered harshly at the stone. He leaned against a wall and let himself slide down to the floor, holding his head in his hands. "What are they trying to accomplish from this?" he babbled nonsensically. "What--why--" He scoffed at the far wall before looking down at himself. He scowled and tore off the chemise, chucking it down on the floor. He glanced around the room, looking for a way to rid himself of it. He noticed his shaving knife sitting on the edge of the sink and grabbed it. He commenced shredding it, tossing the loose pieces into the fireplace. Within several more minutes he had the fire up and burning, the silk remains of the chemise curling up on the ashes. He knelt near the hearth, hands out, feeling the heat radiating off. His hands were covered in soot and one of his fingers was cut.
After the fire had died down some, he sighed and stood up, heading back towards his sink. He rinsed off the knife and splashed his face with water, feeling the drops trickle down his face. He felt horrid for what he had done--ruining on of his sister's many garments. He felt as though it should have been a victory on his part, but he couldn't help feeling guilty about it.
Eli was consistently horrified at his stepsisters' actions, always trying to comprehend what exactly drove them to do such things. Despite all his self-questioning, he could never figure out why they were so spoiled in that respect, why they felt as though they had the right to torture him like this. Their attitude was a far cry from how their sickly mother acted. She was always so kind to him, even though she was largely contained to her bed, unable to watch what he precious daughters were doing to him.
Eli sometimes thought that, maybe if he hadn't have acted so headstrong when he first met them, if he had been nicer to them, they would have left him be. Maybe if he didn't mock them for being female, didn't try to destroy all their silly perfumes or throw mud at their windows late at night, they would have left him be.
But, it was something that he couldn't stop now, the entire practice seven or eight years in the making. It wasn't something he could escape from now, no matter how much he could fantasize its end.
Eli stared at the ceiling, pouring cool water over his face, apathetic as it splashed to the floor. He was aware that the little bell for one of the rooms had started ringing, but he didn't bother answering it. If it was urgent enough, Albert or Betty, or Leslie the cook, would personally call for him. When the bell quit ringing and no one came to demand his attention, he decided that, whatever it was, it wasn't important enough to demand his presence. The only thing he worried about was an audience of one of Erica's or Maria's many acquaintances, most of who, luckily, didn't share the same twisted interests as his sisters.
A slight humming came in from the open window. Eli turned and peered outside, watching Henry, the half-blind gardener meandering through the plants deep into the garden. Eli grabbed a towel and dried off his face before heading outside.
The wind was blowing lightly outside, brushing against the plants and flowers in the garden, sending them into gentle waves. Eli breathed heavily, stretching upwards before letting his hands fall, slapping his thighs. Some of the anxiety and anger he felt drifted away. He started down one of the few paths through the garden, walking slowly through the plants. He always loved watching the flowers and ferns. It was calming, watching them drift and blow in the breeze if there was one, or watching ladybirds or ants climb over them if not. Or he could look skyward and watch the birds drift above, fluttering from tree to tree and cooing and cawing at each other.
Hidden in between the plants was Henry, bent over and pulling up weeds. For a man as old as he was, it was a miracle that he was able to bend down at all, let alone get back up when he saw Eli approach out of the corner of his eye. He stood up easily and gave him a little wave.
"Good morn'," he said, brushing off his paints.
"Good morning, Henry," Eli said, looking up towards the sky. "It's beautiful out here today."
"That's something I won't argue," Henry said, bending over and picking up his spade and sticking it in a pocket. He hobbled over to a stone bench and plopped down on it. "We won't get many of these now."
"Many of what? Nice days?"
Henry shrugged. "That too." He leaned back and started whistling lightly. Eli smiled and took a seat next to him. "So, what are your plans for the rest of the day?"
"Avoiding my sisters, mostly," Eli said and grimaced.
"Ah, a grand feat, I would say," Henry chuckled. "With such beautiful ladies such as those, it would be rather difficult to stay away from them."
"Hnn," Eli replied. Henry smiled and looked upwards again, and made two raspy cawing noises at the sky. One of the birds that were flying ahead floated down and stood before them. Eli watched it pace in front of them, cawing. It was a raven, strutting around like it owned the path.
"Wouldn't you agree?" Henry said. "Two beautiful doves, I say. Beautiful little things. It's a pity there's little chance of them marrying, without much to their name, except for their poor little mother."
"So you'd think they would get married?"
"Oh, of course. They have enough money to tempt any sort of suitor, but it would probably be easier for them to find a gentleman if they went out in society more often, rather than just taking the calls of their few friends."
"Maybe there's something with them that no man wants to deal with?" Eli suggested.
Henry shrugged. "Oh, you never know. Every dove has their shit that they like to throw around."
"Would you really compare sweet Erica and cunning Maria to a pigeon?" Henry tsked. "Now, that's no way to treat your sisters." Eli shrugged and leaned forward, bracing his elbows against his knees."
"So, if my sisters are doves, what's Charlotte?"
"Charlotte? Oh, dear, she must be a dove as well, a sickly one, though. Doves only beget doves, you know."
"And, what about my father?"
"An eagle, of course, never mind what happened to him. People like him are a dying species. So, therefore, he is an eagle."
"And my mother?"
"Oh, dear Anabelle. Poor little thing, very smart, very intelligent, I would say. She didn't have the beauty as, say, Charlotte would, but gorgeous in her own way, in her intelligence and cunning, as well as her good humor. That would make her, I believe, a raven." Henry gestured towards the bird hopping on the ground. The raven looked up at its name and gave a little caw, and jumped up onto the seat next to Henry.
Eli pulled a face.
"You don't like that she's a raven?" Henry asked.
"It's such a... base... animal," Eli said.
"But important," Henry said, agreeing. "Because, you know, the inclusion of humorous, intelligent people are important to society."
Eli chuckled wryly, not at all liking Henry's comparison of his mother to a scavenger.
"What am I, then?" Eli asked. "If my mum's a raven and my father's an eagle, what am I?"
"A raven, of course," Henry said simply.
"Really?" Eli asked. "So, I'm funny and smart and not at all attractive--"
"So you want to be an eagle, then?"
Eli shrugged, and admitted, "I guess I'm closer to being a scavenger than to a grand hunter, I suppose." Eli leaned back and looked back up at the sky, squinting against the sun. It was starting to heat up outside, the sun rising higher in the sky. "What are you, then, in this stupid flock of birds?"
"Yup. About to be extinct."
Eli chuckled and they both fell silent. The garden gradually grew lighter in the oncoming noon light, highlighting red and white roses, blue violets, dog roses, ivy, plenty of ivy, primroses, violets, clovers--there were only a few that Eli could name; he was never outside long enough to learn them all.
By a patch of sorrels Eli noticed Albert approaching, trying to avoid stepping on the flowers. He stopped by the bench and looked down at Eli and Henry, lounging comfortably on the bench, feet dirty.
"The madams wish to speak to you," he addressed Eli. Eli felt the tips of his fingers go cold.
"What for?" he asked. Albert shrugged.
"That was not part of the message," he said, "so I have no obligation to reveal it." Henry chuckled.
Eli sighed and stood up, brushing off the seat of his pants. He followed Albert back down the flower path and towards the house. Eli glanced over his shoulder and noticed that the flowers all seemed to be facing him, like some sort of farewell, it was nice of you to visit.
Albert lead Eli through the halls of the house, which were far more complicated than they really needed to be. Eli's sisters were in one of the front parlors, having a morning snack, as odd as it was this near to lunchtime.
"Have a seat," Maria said, nodding towards the couch opposite. Eli hesitantly entered the room and let himself settle on the seat cushions. For a moment everyone was quiet. Eli smiled slightly as he laid his head back and hooked his arms over the back of the couch. He sighed deeply, relaxing, loving the soft cushions underneath him, even though he would probably dirty the fabric.
"Are you comfortable enough yet?"
Eli was shoved back into reality and he quickly sat up and faced his sisters. Erica held up a hand in front of her mouth trying not to giggle. Maria was sitting patiently.
"This came in the mail," Maria said, holding up a pale envelope. She handed it to Eli, who turned it over in his hands. The paper was soft, with the family name on the front, a broken wax seal on the back. The seal had the royal crest on it, an elk on either side holding the shield in place. He carefully pulled the letter out.
" 'You are cordially invited...' " he started, muttering the words to himself as he read. After he was finished, he started down at the paper, silent.
"Well, what do you think?" Maria said presently.
"I don't know what this has to do with me," Eli said, handing the paper back.
"The king is looking for a lady for his son," Maria said. "It says so right here." She tapped the paper twice pointedly.
"I heard he's supposed to be very handsome, the prince," Erica added, he face turning a light shade of pink. "He's name's Benjamin."
"It says so right here," Maria said, handing Erica the letter. Her sister giggled and read the letter, perhaps for the third or fourth time.
"I still don't see why this concerns me," Eli repeated.
"What are you talking about?" Erica said, a grin spreading across her face. "A grand ball, hundreds of people dancing and enjoying themselves, beautiful music..." She sighed romantically, placing the back of her hand to her forehead dramatically. "It's definitely not something to be missed."
"I wouldn't mind missing it," Eli said.
"Oh, why's that?" said Maria, leaning forward slightly. "We could get you a new wig, if you'd like, a new necklace, and, of course, a new dress."
Eli was silent. His sisters waited expectantly for an answer, watching him stare beyond at the opposite wall. A long minute passed. Maria leaned back in her seat and crossed her ankles. Still without a word, Eli stood and left the room, mutely passing Albert in the wall.
Several minutes later he was in his room and locking the door. He found himself walking towards the fireplace, the place that provided him so much comfort when he was younger and trying to hide from other people. It wasn't a spot that worked very well anymore, since Eli wasn't as young and as small as he used to be and it was a long time since the hiding spot was affective. But it's calming feeling was still there as Eli sat carefully inside it, legs against the grate, as he pulled the fire screen across the opening.
"I hate dresses," he muttered to himself, wrapping his arms around his knees. Soon, he fell asleep, his head against his legs.