Disclaimer: I own nothing affiliated with Ashita no Nadja.
Today's You and Tomorrow - Prologue
I hummed contentedly as I brushed my hair. Grandfather wouldn't be pleased if he saw me getting ready for the ball on my own, but he wouldn't know. Mother might come in and see that I had dismissed the maids, but she wouldn't tell Grandfather; she wouldn't even disapprove. She would just laugh and offer to help.
I am Nadja Preminger. I was born between the daughter of Austria's Duke Preminger and a pianist called Raymond. But my father died when I was only one, and Grandfather—Duke Preminger—found Mother and myself in Paris. I hear that he told the servants to separate me and Mother, but Mother woke during the conversation and asked why they were doing such a thing. When Edna reluctantly told Mother that Grandfather thought that she wouldn't come back if I remained with her, Mother said that she would return to Austria as long as I was with her.
So Mother and I escaped a possible tragedy. Eventually, she remarried to a childhood friend, Count Albert Waltmular. I know that she doesn't love him like she loved Father, but she's happy, so I don't have anything against it. I'm supposed to call Albert 'Father' in public, but in private, I've always called him Albert. Albert is like a father to me but I don't want to replace Father, even if I can hardly remember him. Sometimes, I feel like I can remember sitting on Mother's lap and laughing and dancing as Father played the piano for me, but perhaps that is no more than my imagination, working from the stories that Mother has told me.
Mother tells me that the lullaby that I sing was something that Father composed for me. She tells me that my first words were lyrics from that lullaby, and that even before Father died, I used to dance in her lap as Father played the song for me on the piano. I still love dancing.
Mother let me go to my debut ball when I was thirteen. Grandfather was against it—he wanted to wait until I was sixteen—but Mother knows that I love dancing, and said that I knew how to behave properly, so nothing was wrong with it. I was delighted. Everything was so beautiful in the ballroom, and I danced as much as possible, and met all sorts of people. The only downside was the nickname "My Little Rose Bud", given to me by a certain flamboyant young man called Master Leonardo. I still get mildly annoyed when he calls me that, but I've grown more used to it over the years.
But ballroom dancing never was enough for me. I think that Mother knows that I sometimes sneak out of the manor to watch commoner performers' dances, but I've never been caught. A boy I met a long time ago taught me a little bit about sneaking around.
My hands froze in the act of pulling on my dress as Keith Harcourt crossed my mind. Casting my eyes to the floor, I resumed my hands' motions.
Keith Harcourt. I spent weeks watching him, but had only one conversation with him. But he's had a lasting impression on me. I've never told anyone—not even Mother—about my encounter with Keith. It was an odd sort, to say the least, and I ended up skipping all my lessons that day, and spent it talking to him. He wasn't like anyone I'd ever met before, and I felt drawn to him. Apart from Mother, he was the first person to understand how I sometimes felt caged in the world of nobles. A day hasn't gone by when he doesn't at least cross my mind, even though it's been six years since I've seen him.
I suppose that if I told anyone about this, they would think that I was in love with Keith—or at least saw him in a romantic light. But that isn't it. I'm not too sure what it is that I feel for him. It isn't friendship, though I've never talked to anyone else like that, but it isn't romantic, though I think of him more than I've ever thought of a single person who isn't Mother or Father. It certainly isn't sympathy, though I felt a little bit of that for him, and neither is it admiration, though I've never admired anyone more. I don't try to define my relationship with or feelings for Keith.
My dress was on—a gift from Masters Leonardo and Terry—and my hair was done, but as I looked at myself in the mirror, I only saw myself in a dress. I knew that some people saw someone beautiful and exotic when they looked at themselves in the mirror after dressing up. But I don't. I never have. Keith would have been proud to know that that part of me never changed.
"Wait—please, wait!" shouted a young girl as she ran after an older boy. The boy stopped and looked back. His face displayed surprise for a moment at seeing the girl running after him, but then disappeared once again behind his usual emotionless mask.
"Yes?" he asked as the girl ran up and stopped in front of him.
"I…" the girl faltered. "I wanted to talk with you." The boy snorted.
"You? A spoiled princess?" his words were sharp, but he didn't mind. He had had a worse morning than usual, and was not in the mood to be made fun of. "I suppose that you and your little friends were playing some game, and decided that it would be interesting to try and pretend to want to talk to the wordless, rude rebel?"
"No," the girl said, looking alarmed. "I just-"
"I'm not interested," the boy spat, turning and beginning to walk again. "I don't need some useless, brainless skinny little girl stalking me. Go back to your friends."
The girl stared at his back for a moment, eyes and mouth wide open in shock. But her face was beginning to flush, indicating anger at the boy's words. Suddenly her eyes narrowed, her mouth snapped shut, and she darted forward to stand in front of the boy, her face angry.
"I wondered why no one liked you," she said to him angrily. The boy stared at her in surprise. He had fully expected her to turn and run off, crying. "They all said not to approach you, because you were cold-hearted, uncaring, selfish, and violent. Well, you walk under my window every morning. I've been watching you for months, and noticed that something was odd about you. Your face is cold, but your eyes are always sad when you think no one's watching. I wanted to know what was wrong. I can't believe I actually cared! Obviously, they were right about you." She was about to turn and walk away, but the boy wasn't about to let her get away with that.
"Oh, so you're saying that a skinny little spoiled brat like yourself wanted to actually try to help someone?" he said in a mocking tone. "You people care more about looking pretty in nice dresses than you care about other people. Were you bored?" The girl spun around angrily.
"You conceited, selfish, presuming fool!" she snapped at him. "How can you expect to know people that you've never met before?"
"You nobles are all the same!" he replied, eyes flashing. "You pretend to care only when it's in your interest to do so!"
"You can't judge people by their status!" the girl shouted back. "I've seen so many people judging commoners by their status. Isn't that bad enough? Do you have to start doing the same to the upper classes, too?"
"Give me one example of a noble completely willing to live the life of a commoner, and I'll reconsider," the boy challenged with hard eyes, crossing his arms over his chest.
"My mother," the girl replied without missing a beat. The boy stared for a moment, then burst out laughing. It was a bitter laugh.
"Maybe she says so," he said in an equally bitter tone. "But people can say things that they don't mean."
"What if I told you that I was born in a rundown commoner's apartment in Paris?" she replied, her eyes challenging the boy to throw any more insults at her.
"Then what are you doing in a nobles' school?" he asked, his tone containing a drop of curiosity in the bitterness. "Why aren't you working to make your way in life in Paris?"
"That," snapped the girl, feeling the beginnings of tears in her eyes, "is none of your business." She began to storm away when she heard the boy's voice behind her. It was still bitter, but it was quieter.
"Nobility killed my mother."
The girl turned around to see the boy looking up at the sky. His eyes no longer held anger, but instead that sadness that she had become so accustomed to seeing in them. There was a moment of silence, and then the girl spoke in a tone just as quiet.
"Why don't we go for a walk?" she asked. The boy looked at her for a moment, and then gave a chuckle that surprised her.
"You'll miss chapel, and probably some of your classes, too."
"They don't teach anything useful anyway," the girl replied, crossing her arms over her chest. The boy chuckled again, and then looked at her with eyes that held a sparkle. She was instantly reminded of stars. His face was certainly attractive, as many of her roommates had pointed out, but she decided that she liked his eyes the most. They made her feel that this was someone that she could like and trust.
"I'm Keith Harcourt," the boy introduced himself. He didn't bow as he spoke, and the girl found this very refreshing. Despite his sharp tongue, she decided that she liked him.
"I'm Nadja Preminger," the girl replied with a carefree smile that had a tendency to draw people to her. She didn't know that it was that smile that made Keith decide that he liked and trusted her, just as she had decided the same of him from the sparkle in his eyes.
I smiled at the memory. That was the beginning of the daylong talk that would be our first and last conversation. He intrigued me, and I think I intrigued him. I told him things that I've never told anyone else, such as the fact that I loved to dance so much that I sometimes wished I could sneak out to watch the commoners' dances. I'd seen parts of some as we passed by performers in a carriage, but I had never been permitted to see them. He had laughed, and told me that the secret to sneaking was simply looking like you belong where you are. He told me that all I needed was a dress that looked like that of a common girl's and a hat to hide my face, and then I could quite easily slip out of the servants' entrance in the manor as long as I acted like I knew what I was doing and like I wasn't out of place.
It was only by following his advice that I've been able to see the dances that I have. When I returned home from school the next holiday, I went to bed to find clothing hidden under the covers. I'd pulled out a commoner's dress, and from inside it had fallen a card with the words 'Good luck, little dancer' written in familiar handwriting—Keith's handwriting.
I know Keith's handwriting because he gave me a letter the day after we talked. When I got back to my dormitory that night after talking with Keith all day, I was scolded and switched thoroughly. However, it seems that Keith didn't return to his dormitory. My roommates told me that Keith had not been seen all day, and had probably succeeded in running away. I said nothing, for I had been with him all day, and knew that he had not. However, he did not appear in classes the next day, either. When I returned to my dormitory that night, I found a note hidden under my pillow. It was from Keith; a thank you and a farewell.
I still had the note, I reflected as I opened a drawer of my dresser. I removed a music box from it, which I opened to hear the waltz play. I knew that it was Mother's—it fit her description of the music box that she had had made in memory of her first meeting with Father, and there was a compartment in it that opened only with the ring that was hidden within my brooch. However, I had come to possess it through rather unusual means.
In one of my wanderings outside the manor, I had met a shopkeeper who showed it to me. It matched my brooch, and I instantly suspected that it was Mother's. She had had to sell it in Paris when times were hard, she had told me. The shopkeeper had noticed my fascination with it, and asked me to do a few jobs for him. I had agreed happily, and when I finished, he had given me the music box in repayment. I had been delighted—it was only after I returned to the manor and changed my dress that I realized that I could not show it to mother without giving away my secret.
It was not that I thought that Mother would stop me wandering as a commoner if I told her—I was sure that she would worry, but she understood my need for more freedom than the world of nobles allowed. However, I learned that a secret stays secret longer when no one knows about it. While I disliked deceiving Mother, I didn't think that I could bear it if I was deprived of my wandering. I already had a number of friends among the commoners. My favorite was a group of traveling performers called Troupe Dandelion. They didn't have any dancing girl, but came into city approximately once a year. I loved their performances, and enjoyed talking with them before and after performances. I had told them about my fascination with dancing, and every time they came they asked me to join them as a dancing girl. However, while Sylvie, their singer, had actually convinced me to perform on their stage a number of times, I could not join them. I had not told them the whole truth for the same reason that I never told Mother, but I told them that I had a mother in Vienna that I could not bear to leave behind.
But at that moment, I was not simply Nadja, the girl who loved dancing. I was Nadja Preminger, heir to Duke Preminger and a noble of high class. So I stood up straight, closed the music box and replaced it in the drawer. The ball would be beginning soon, and Grandfather was hosting it. As his granddaughter and heir, I was to be there ahead of time to welcome guests. It was a condition that Mother and Grandfather had agreed upon when Grandfather decided to make me his heir rather than Uncle Herman: I got to live with Mother, but in any social functions, I was to be at Grandfather's estate early enough that it would appear that I lived there.
Head held high like any of the snobbish, spoiled ladies that Keith hated so much, I stepped out of my room to head for the carriage that waited at the front door.