They looked like they were ready to rip each other’s throats out. Overwhelmed, I finally found my voice and stepped forward. “Stop it, both of you. Is this about the dress?”
Both fell silent, and I could feel the waves of resentment rolling off both of them. Calliope was the one who answered. “Your friend went into your room looking for something to wear, and Ella said she couldn’t. But your friend said you gave her permission, and she didn’t have anything else to put on, but Ella said there were other things, and if she just waited a little while she could—”
“I was naked, and this little bitch wanted me to leave!” said Ava, moving to stand by my side. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her glaring at Ella, whose expression was perfectly smooth now that she’d quieted.
“She was in your suite,” said Ella coldly. “No one is allowed in there without my express permission.”
“It’s my suite,” I said. “Seems logical that if I say she can be in there, she can be in there, right?”
Ella was silent. I sighed. “All right, fine, listen—Ava can come in my room whenever she wants, okay? But she needs her own, if there’s one available for her.”
Ava snorted. “The whole place is full of rooms.”
I ignored her. “And she’ll need things to wear. All of you be nice, okay? Please?”
The look on Ella’s face made my blood run cold. “As you wish, Your Highness,” she said stiffly before turning on her heel and walking away. If I wasn’t sure whether or not she hated me before, now I knew. I was doomed to be stuck in corsets and hoop skirts for the next six months.
“Here,” said Calliope in a small voice. “I’ll take Ava and we’ll find a room for her.”
Ava bristled. “I’m not a child. You don’t have to hold my hand.”
“It’s all right, Calliope,” I said. “I can do it once we’re done here. I need to explore this place anyhow. You can come if you want.”
“It’s fine,” said Irene, sounding irritated. “Just read the pages I marked for tomorrow. I’ll have someone deliver the book to your room.”
I nodded, not knowing what to say. Looking at Ava, I felt a stab of guilt; it was my fault she was here to begin with and had to put up with all of this. Maybe Ella didn’t get along with anybody, but I had to make sure Ava wasn’t completely miserable. Just because I was trapped here didn’t mean she had to pay the price, too.
The rest of the morning wasn’t much better, and the afternoon was a hundred times worse. After lunch, Ella joined us, a silent shadow as we wandered around the manor, and the tension she caused made me want to tear my hair out. Thankfully after a few well-aimed snipes, she made a point of avoiding Ava completely, and Ava made a point of ignoring Ella.
It was comforting having Ava there. She was a familiar piece of reality that I used to anchor myself, the proof I needed that this wasn’t all some elaborate hallucination. She made it easier to believe that I wasn’t going crazy. Maybe that’s what Henry was counting on.
As we wandered the halls, exploring the countless rooms, I stayed close to Ava. She didn’t seem to mind, and she even took my arm and led me from place to place, describing each room we passed as if she were trying to sell me a home. Calliope joined in, but Ella continued to keep her distance. Despite the tension, the afternoon was actually fun. It wasn’t until we were back in my suite that it became unbearable, all because of the news delivered by Sofia midafternoon.
“A ball?” I said, my heart sinking. “You mean like a dance?”
No one else seemed to mind. Calliope squealed, and even Ella looked excited. “A dance?” said Ava, clapping her hands together excitedly. “I don’t have anything to wear—what am I supposed to do?”
“Raid another closet?” said Ella. Both of us ignored her.
“A formal ball tomorrow night,” said Sofia, “hosted by the council in your honor. Most of the time it’s planned for the winter solstice, but since you’re the last and everyone’s so eager to meet you, it’s been moved up.”
“You mean it has nothing to do with the fact that half the girls were killed at their ball and Henry wanted to make sure she’d survive it before investing more time in her?” said Ella innocently.
Sofia gave her a look and turned back to me. “Consider it your introduction into society.”
I took a deep breath and tried to ignore what Ella had said. Henry wouldn’t let that happen to me. Not if I was his last chance. “I don’t need to be introduced to society. Society and I have gotten by without knowing each other for years, thank you very much.”
“The whole council’s coming this time?” said Calliope nervously.
“This is it for Henry,” said Ella with a grimace. “Did you ever really doubt they’d all want to meet her?”
“Who’s the council?” I said. “Why are they so terrifying?”
“They’re not,” said Ella as she sat down in an armchair, keeping her distance. “They’re Henry’s family. His brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews, though he and his brothers and sisters aren’t actually related by blood. More like they adopted each other since they share the same creator and are the original six gods, but it’s what they call themselves. It’s as good enough a description as any.”
“Like Zeus and stuff?” said Ava from her spot on my bed. “The lightning bolt guy?”