Regina made a face. She sighed and threw the dishrag down.
"It's bad enough that we lost a servant," she muttered, "but this is peasant work! I should be at parties grabbing eligible bachelor derrieres and tasting wine! How revolting this is!"
Amanda was sobbing as she stared at the glass plate in her hands.
"My hair is ruined by the humidity! How will I ever get a good societal reputation with frizzed hair?"
"Stop your complaining! I've had it much worse than you two!" Carlotta snarled from the doorway.
"How so, Mother?" Regina's tone was mocking.
"Do you know what that accursed director did to me today? He said that Prince Erik recommended someone else for the lead and that I be part of the chorus!"
Amanda dropped the plate. It shattered loudly against the stone tile floor. Both girls' mouths dropped open.
"Oh, no! The chorus? Poor Mother!"
Carlotta began to sniffle. She pulled out a gaudily colored handkerchief and began to dab dramatically at her eyes.
"Yes, me! A Diva! In the chorus! Of all the nerve! I've been rehearsing this for weeks and now I'll have to start all over…in the back…"
She slumped into a chair.
"My life is ruined. My reputation is ruined. All because that stupid chit can't keep her mouth shut! No doubt she has told Erik many, many lies about us! I can't even go to the castle to defend myself!"
Regina was the only one who didn't fall apart then. She glared, cold anger icing over her beautiful face. After all, people can be "ugly" for what's on their insides, too.
"We won't go to the castle again, then, Mother. If my intuition is correct, our dear sister will be the one playing lead. We can still get her at the opera house."
Carlotta blew her nose noisily.
"That's true," she said, a demented grin crossing her face, "and Prince Erik will never let her on a stage again if we play our cards right. He loves music more than he will ever love a woman. If we take that away, he'll chuck Christine out on her little behind faster than I can snap my fingers!"
While Carlotta and her two horrible daughters were plotting Christine's stage demise, Christine and Erik were riding side by side in the country. Caesar shook his dark head joyfully. Christine's own mount was a tame, middle-aged chestnut mare with neat white socks and a blaze down the front of her face.
"I don't know why they hate me so much," Christine was saying to Erik, "they've hated me all of my life. I wanted to be friends, but I suppose they won't let that happen."
"I wouldn't want to see them again," Erik muttered, "even if they are family. I suppose her attitude really is as terrible as her singing."
"Why has she been in so many operas?" Christine asked, "She must have had some talent."
"No, not really," Erik said, stopping Caesar by the river so he could get a drink. Christine's horse moved in beside him. For a while, it was quiet except for the music of the water and the horses lapping it up.
"She's bullied so many of my patrons and my directors that they all feel as though they have to give in. I didn't find out until recently that she was blackmailing the opera singers. After last night's little incident, I decided to have her investigated. The trouble is that no one has any proof except their word against hers."
"Oh, dear…" Christine murmured.
"You have nothing to fear from her," Erik told her, "I will be keeping a very close eye on this next production. Attendance has been slipping. I will not let it go unattended."
Christine was surprised at how abruptly his mood seemed to change. He had been so angry last night that she was afraid to come to breakfast. Once there, however, he was acting as if it hadn't happened. The King and Queen were also very relieved judging by their expressions.
"Thank you," she breathed.
"Oh, and one more thing. I have a job for you," Erik told her.
"A job?" she asked, puzzled.
"When we get back, you will need your own script. Today, you start your training for next month's production."
"You will also need to be fitted for your costumes."
"But I'm only a chorus girl, or at least the director says I am. Why do I need more than one?"
"Because you will be playing the lead. You can't do all the scenes in a chorus girl outfit."
Christina felt her stomach drop.
"I appreciate the thought, Erik, but I hardly think that's fair. I haven't been to any classes at the university, I've barely been to school, and I've never had lessons. I'd be making a fool of us both."
His gaze darkened.
"Let me guess," he said coldly, "your stepmother told you that you couldn't sing, right?"
"Well…yes. She must have thought I was awful because she'd go on and on about how I shouldn't open my mouth when I was working. But I'd always slip up…it annoyed her so much that she beat me sometimes."
"Do you realize it was because she was jealous?"
Christine felt an odd tug in her stomach.
"I don't know…please, Erik, just put me back in the chorus."
"I can't do it-"
His shout was so loud that the horses jumped beneath them, spooked.
"I will not have you wasting your potential because of fear," he snapped, "especially not because of that horrible woman."
Christine felt as though she was shrinking inside her dress. She was accustomed to being yelled at, but this affected her more than her stepmother or her stepsisters. She felt her eyes stinging with tears.
Once they were back at the castle, she locked herself in her room. Squishie and Chase emerged from their napping spots in the sun on the balcony.
"What's wrong, Christine?" Squishie climbed into her lap as she sat on the edge of the bed.
"I don't know if I can do this," she answered, "Prince Erik expects a lot more from me than I thought was possible."
"Like what?" Chase joined them.
"He wants me to be the lead soprano in the next opera but I don't know what I'm doing at all. The only ones who have ever heard me sing are you two."
"Everyone gets scared sometimes," Chase told her, "but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try. Prince Erik had plans to rescue you…even if he didn't know it. Love was important to you. Now you must do something that's important for him."
"I didn't think of it like that," Christine admitted, "but my stepmother and stepsisters will be there, too. I don't want them to sabotage me."
"Then we'll be there, too."
"All right then…I'll try."
There was a knock at the door. A woman with short, dark curly hair and a plump figure holding a basket was there.
"Good afternoon, Miss Christine. I am Dawn Stevens, Head of the Costume Department. I came to measure you for your outfits."
She took the tape out and Christine stood next to the mirror so that Dawn could see all sides. Her slate-gray eyes sparkled as if she held some secret. Eventually, she started to laugh.
"What's funny?" Christine asked uneasily.
"I must say, you're a much better model than Carlotta is. That woman was forever asking me to adjust her corsets and hoops so that she'd have a smaller waist and a bigger butt. I tried to explain to her that there's only so much I can do because of the bone structure and that tight corsets are bad for her health…and her temper. I always have to lie and tell her she's smaller than she really is to keep her from suffocating herself."
"I know your pain well. I had to help her get dressed at home because she wanted to be laced so tightly that she couldn't manage on her own."
"Well, you've got a dancer's build, Christine. I don't see you needing anything special under here, so the measurements are very straight-forward. I will need you to come to the costume room later on for fittings, but that's a few days away at least."
"What opera will we be performing?" Christine asked.
"It's called Il Muto, meaning 'the Mute'," Dawn said, "it is about a rich countess who becomes bored and runs away with the stable boy, who cannot speak. Everyone knows but the count."
"That's not very fair, is it? I mean…couldn't she have just told him?"
"I suppose not," Dawn answered, "from what I've read of the script, it was a forced marriage. But it's a comedy, so plenty of things go wrong."
Christine giggled. Though the character's actions went against her beliefs, it would be fun to play a frivolous countess after being a peasant all her life.
"What does my costume look like?" she asked.
"Well, you're as decorated as a royal wedding cake at first," Dawn said showing her the picture. Christine dissolved into giggle fits at seeing the costume. The countess's powdered wig added another half a person's height to her head. The dress was overly decadent with elaborate designs, ruffles, and colors. The other costumes for the opening scenes were just as gaudy and exaggerated. Yes, this would be fun!
"I look like I have a feather duster on my head!" Christine choked out through tears of laughter.
"Yes, you do. But you'll look more like yourself shortly afterward," Dawn explained when they had calmed down a little, "I have an ice blue gown designed for you that you'll look heavenly in. Here's the fabric swatch."
Christine held the small blue square of silky material in her hand. It was a pale blue, the color of cornflowers covered in frost.
"I can't wait to see it," she admitted.
"Well, you will soon. I intend to do that one first."
Dawn gathered up her things.
"I'd stay longer, but I must get to work," she said merrily, "see you later."
It was obvious that Dawn loved her job. Christine could only hope that she would love hers as much.