Never Too Far Away

By Thriasia

Disclaimer: None of these characters have been created by my non-clever mind and all credit belongs to Ms. Levine.

o~o~o~o~o

A Distant Memory

Rambling along in the newly conjured carriage, Ella reflected on the events of the day: one catastrophic disaster, one moronic bird, and one… less-than-welcome Prince Thorn-In-Her-Side. Overall, she would have to say, this day was not a favorable one. She was only thankful that it was all over, and that she might find a way to relieve her tension once she finally arrived at Aunt Rainford's. Undoubtedly, Mandy was already there and could have unpacked a hundred times over, considering the amount of time Ella had been missing. If her coachmen had any wit at all- although she was not so sure anymore, Ella thought as she glanced derisively upwards at them, they would have informed Mandy that she was in peril. Otherwise, she knew Mandy would be fretting terribly.

As the trees and expansive fields rolled by, Ella leaned back against the plush upholstery and inhaled deeply, taking in the comforting scenery she knew well. Aunt Rainford, by far her favorite aunt, was opinionated and eccentric, and Ella adored her. Perhaps it was because Ella herself was so much like her aunt, or rather; Aunt Rainford was so much like Ella's mother. Ella heaved a wistful sigh, thinking of her mother. Although her mother had been gone for at least ten years, she still missed her with a fierce longing that could never be assuaged by her indifferent and absentee father. Aunt Rainford had a liveliness that Ella sorely yearned for in her family; a stay in Bast was a wonderful reprieve from the suffocating presence of her father in dark, solitary rooms. Idly following a skittering squirrel across the grass with her green-brown eyes, Ella gaze became distant as she remembered what her father had said before she departed Frell.

Ella lounged on a stool in the servant's kitchen, where she was wont to take her meals, as the servants were also her dearest friends. She watched Mandy pull out a freshly baked loaf of bread from the oven, and the pungent aroma wafted around the room. Idly swinging her legs back and forth, she pondered the incoming dusk and watched the leaves swirling around as the winds picked up outside the clear, glass windows. The last days of chilly winter were ending, bringing about the sunshine and frolicking Ella loved most about the spring season. How she wished every day could be this warm and peaceful. She smiled, remembering the fun she and Arieda had had in the market that afternoon, trying on all types of silly hats and perfumes and purchasing different kinds of nuts for Mandy's bread. But, thinking of the bread again, Ella felt her stomach rumble with the pangs of hunger.

"Mandy, when will dinner be ready? I'm starved and I'm waiting in anticipation for Greta and Luis to tell us about their new granddaughter!" Ella pleaded. Their oldest servants, Greta and Luis had been absent for almost a week, doting on the newest addition to their family. They were, Ella was sure, absolutely ecstatic and Ella was anxious to share their excitement.

Mandy kept her head down, focusing on chopping carrots, her fingers swift with the practiced hands of skilled years. But her eyes darted around uncomfortably, trying to look anywhere except at Ella. Mandy had practically raised Ella since she was an infant; reading her bedtime stories when she was frightened, braiding her unruly hair into pigtails so she could play with the boys, giving her tonics for her colds, and guiding her through all the times she thought it was the end of the world when she couldn't pass her sewing class. They had a special bond that not many could claim, which had only strengthened upon the passing of her mother; Ella knew Mandy like she did her own heart. And, if she knew anything, it was that Mandy was atrocious at keeping secrets where it concerned her.

Ella eyed her suspiciously, "What is it, Mandy? Has something happened?"

"Lady…" Mandy began soflty, "I'm preparing a more elaborate dinner for tonight because you will not be eating in the kitchen with the servants." She then looked up at Ella's grim face. "You've been ordered to eat in the formal dining hall… you're father is come home today," she finished with a frown.

Although normally, young girls would be elated at the return of their father after he had been away for nearly three months; however, Ella only sighed resignedly. Even before her mother had passed away, Ella's father had ruled as a despot and a tyrant, despite the fact that her mother's inheritance provided them with their affluent livings. She often questioned whether her mother had ever married him for love, and if not, then why she went through with it at all? Sir Peter was cold and bland, his clothes stiff with starch, hair slicked over to hide his balding head, and the corners of his mouth and eyes wrinkled with lines from his sneers and contempt of all others. Ella would have given all her years of finishing school, gowns, parties, and countless governesses for the affection and joy any pauper father would bestow on his children. Being an only child, the sole interaction she had with Sir Peter would be when he would hold her in his arms at balls to present a happy façade to the company he entertained. Immediately afterwards, he would hand her off to the nearest servant with a wipe of his hands on the tablecloth. Ella grew to recoil at his touch, predicting that he would again use her to gain something he wanted while he outwardly feigned tenderness, which she knew to be anything but genuine.

In the years of her adolescence, their correspondence was limited to his demands sent through letters for her to finish school faster so he could stop paying for it. He would also pass on frequent missives about whom to "meet and butter up" for him, things Mandy needed to do, or what newest luxury item he wished to be bought for the house. Ella undoubtedly always ignored him, instead setting herself, Mandy, and the servants to do as they pleased. The months that Sir Peter was gone on business, trying to rebuild their fortune he gambled away, were delightful to the entire household. The halls were brighter, as they could open the forbidden draperies, and the rooms lingered with smiles and laughter. Unfortunately, there were those few days, like this one, when he insisted on coming back to oversee the estate. Generally, him and Ella would avoid one another's paths until they could freely return again to not speaking from a distance. But, on rare occasions, Ella was forced to share a meal with her father, with her finding each time more unpleasant than the last. He always had some new plot that required her participation, which she'd rather gnaw off her arms than take part in. Thus was their tumultuous relationship, and Ella could feel bitter unhappiness welling up in the pit of her stomach. So much for a relaxing evening.

The grandfather clock chimed seven, and Ella reclined at the pristinely ironed place settings, looking around displeasingly at the drafty dining hall. The severely carved wooden panels looked morbid and endless in the dim lighting. The burgundy wall-length curtains were closed tightly once again, blocking out any semblance of a lived-in and warm feeling. It also prevented any hope for escape… just the way her father liked it. While she much preferred her normal day gowns to eat in, she knew Sir Peter would just make her go to her room to change if she dared show up in one. Apparently, dressing comfortably was only for low-class people. So, she had donned an appropriate dress of soft forest-green velvet that would hopefully pass muster. However, as a secret act of rebellion, she specifically chose a dress that had a ripped hem just as a barb to her father, who expected her to be so damned perfect whenever they met. Of course, he could not see the bottom of her gown. No one could see the bottom of her gown. But she could feel it like some secret triumph over him. Yes, she was that pathetic.

"Ella… it is always exceedingly helpful to see you in good health," Sir Peter made loud echoes as his feet presented themselves on the threshold of the entryway and began to cross the length of the room, startling Ella out of her clouded reverie.

He would be glad she was healthy just so he did not have to pay doctor's fees, she thought. Greedy bastard. Surprisingly, Sir Peter looked even gaunter and pastier than he did when she last saw him, not that she thought that to be possible. Per usual, his coat and pants were adorned with gaudy colors of purple, green, and yellow because he somehow thought they reflected his status. Her father was always one to abandon taste in favor of ostentation. And his slimy excuse for a smile was in place as well. Goody.

"Father," Ella nodded in acknowledgement. "It's been quite a while." Which was quite a relief.

Sir Peter finally reached the table, opting to sit across from his daughter at the end of the long table instead of by her side. Lifting up his coattails, a servant helped him into his seat. "You are looking very homely and thin," he began while placing his napkin in his lap. "How do you expect to attract suitors when your form leaves much to be desired?"

And so begins the good cheer and conversation. Ella clenched her teeth in a tight smile, "Well, Father, it must have been all those months away at school. They did not give us the luxury of hearty meals." More like they starved the finishing girls to get them in meticulous hour-glass shape.

Greta and Luis brought out the soup course, quietly setting the bowls in front of them. Like it normally did, the conversation -–if it could be called that—was taken over by silence. Sir Peter picked up his spoon and started to eat his soup, making unattractive slurping noises.

It had only been five minutes and he had already called her ugly and unwanted by men, Ella mused painfully. God help her. She regretted not asking Mandy to make dinner only two courses.

Maybe if she just stared at him intensely, he would feel uncomfortable enough to finish eating faster.

So she stared.

Sir Peter brought another spoonful to his mouth.

Maybe if she tried not to blink, using a direct gaze. Yes, of course! That would add more impact. Ella picked a spot on his nose.

Sir Peter wiped his mouth on his napkin.

Her eyes began to water.

She blinked. Damnit.

She then squinted, having read in a novel once that narrow looks were menacing.

Sir Peter picked up the salt, adding a portentous amount into his bowl. What a fool. Mandy's food was always perfectly seasoned.

Ella's vision was getting very blurry now. It made her father look like a comical blob. A big, purple blob. Her eye muscles twitched.

She shifted and widened her eyes instead. She never cared to notice before but Sir Peter's few strands of hair were very distracting. Every time he bent down they would bounce up and down on his shiny forehead. His head came up again with his spoon. His hairs lifted as well. What obedient little buggers. At least something listened to him.

Ella let out an inaudible huff of air. What was she doing? This was completely ineffective. Inwardly capitulating, Ella closed her eyes and then began to open one at a time, back and forth.

Sir Peter was eating soup to the left of the candlestick.

Now Sir Peter was eating soup to the right of the candlestick.

She glanced upwards and met Luis' exasperated what-in-the-world-is-wrong-with-your-face question, as he stood erect in the corner of the room for Sir Peter's summons.

Ella waggled her eyebrows and rolled her eyes, trying to respond, 'Obviously, I am a mad woman.'

She didn't think he got it.

She really was not great at the whole art of intimidation. At least she had gotten fifteen minutes worth of face exercises.

Interminable minutes later, Sir Peter pushed his empty bowl away as the servants arrived with the next course. He then looked up at Ella, assessing her face. He had hoped for a more attractive daughter that would suit the tastes of older, more distinguished men. But, luckily he had shown a portrait of her to some of his acquaintances and they seemed eager to meet her. He was growing weary of having her as a dependent in his household. She would be much more useful as the wife of a peer, and more importantly, he would be able to make a favorable alliance for his business dealings. Now all he had to do was persuade Ella to see things his way, which he knew to be much easier said than done. Ever since her mother died, she had become so unruly and wild. She was always in the outdoors and laughing loudly at every little occurrence, with a sun-tanned complexion and rosy cheeks. It just was not healthy. She did not even use a parasol. Ladies were supposed to be delicate and demure. Yes, the sooner he could get her married off, the better.

"Ella," he began strategically, "I was hoping you might be presentable in the next few weeks to, ah…, entertain some friends of mine, if you know what I mean."

Sir Peter saw her narrow her eyes as she replied, "No, Father, I do not know what you mean."

He continued more firmly, "You need to stop spending your days running about this manor and start thinking about your future. Who is going to take care of you when I am gone?" he finished with an attempted fatherly tone.

Ella rolled her eyes; she knew that it would be a long, long while before Sir Peter was 'gone.' "I'm terribly sorry, sir, but I have some prior commitments. Playing hostess just cannot be squeezed into my busy schedule. You see, I have to run about the manor, do some walking about the manor, and… oh yes, sprint around the manor," she concluded impertinently.

Suddenly Sir Peter's hands came crashing down upon the dining table, forcing the plates and silverware to rattle into echoes that spiraled towards the ceiling. Ella flinched, realizing that he was much more serious than she had thought. "I do not presume to ask your permission, Ella. I am in no mood for games and you will do as I say." Slowly, he removed his hands, trying to regain his composure.

What could she possibly do? She thought quickly. There was no chance of getting out of this predicament if she remained in Frell. She needed to go away for a while, at least until her father averted his attention to a new scheme. Thinking of a safe haven that Sir Peter would be too intimidated to question, her Aunt Rainford immediately came to mind. She had enough weight in the aristocracy that Sir Peter could not protest. She steeled herself, looking up into his face, "I apologize, Father, but Aunt Rainford has been arranging for me to visit. I would be obliged to do your bidding, however she is rather persistent, you know. She asked that I stay for at least a few months."

Sir Peter released a defeated breath. He suspected that Ella had recently concocted this plan, however, he knew he could not go head-to-head with Rainford. She had too much influence and it could end badly for him. He waved his hand dismissively, "Fine then, I do not care what you do as long as you are out of my way."

Normally her father's callous remarks usually slid off her, but his lack of caring this time seemed to reopen the pain in her heart. Sometimes she felt as though she had no parents. "Your love for me is always so touching," she said, purposely antagonizing.

Her father seemed bored with her pointed comment. "How can I love someone who is such a nuisance to everyone around her?" He snapped for Luis to pull his chair out as he stood, threw his napkin down, and walked out towards the hallway that lead to his study.

Meanwhile, hot tears pricked Ella's eyes. She vowed never to cry in front her father, and holding true to her words, she tightly fisted her hands into the velvet of her dress, watching him walk out on her, like so many times before. Sir Peter closed the door behind him. She felt a damp drop hit the surface of her knuckles, and she unclenched them as an endless flow followed its lead.

Refocusing on the passing trees, Ella looked down to again find tear-stained palms lying open upon her lap. Even though she hated to admit it, smearing the wetness away on her muslin gown, her father did get under her skin. Any daughter who said they didn't crave a parent's love was either a liar, or much stronger than she was.

Choosing not to dwell on those thoughts that depressed her, Ella felt her spirits lift as she heard the carriage halt. Finally! 'I suppose tragic thoughts rather help to past the time,' she reflected wryly. Succinctly wiping away at her face, she prepared herself to get out of the carriage. The footman opened the door and she grasped his hand as she stepped out. A small breeze picked up the strands of her hair, and she closed her eyes, breathing in the nostalgic scent of memorable childhood visits. Rainford Manor stood elegantly upon pillars of stone, arching upwards into regal towers, with oval windows glinting along the exterior. The expanse of the estate stretched endlessly, perfectly situated upon acres of manicured gardens and trees that were in height of bloom.

Ella eagerly tread down the cobbled entrance up to the front doors that were pulled open by Smith, the butler she had known all her life. A kind smile graced his weathered features, his face marked by aging but otherwise exactly as she remembered, "Welcome Miss Ella, what a pleasure to see you again. Last time I saw you, you barely reached here," he indicated with a finger at his waist. "Lady Rainford will be down shortly after—"

"Ella darling!" Smith was interrupted by an ornately dressed woman moving swiftly down the grand staircase. The voluminous ruffles of her burgundy gown billowed behind her to compensate for her quick pace. "It has been utterly too long since you have stayed with me!" She reached the marble foyer and brought Ella into a crushing embrace, which practically took the air out of Ella's lungs, seeing as Lady Rainford was not a small woman. Pulling her at arms' length, Lady Rainford examined Ella for the first time in several years, "My goodness! You are looking so beautiful and graceful; you remind me of your mother more and more. Smithy, do be a dear and see that Ella's things get put in the Ocean guest room. And, Ella, my love, you must be exhausted! If you follow Smithy, he will show you to your room. Freshen up as long as you need, but meet me down in the parlor so I can ring the bell for tea when you are finished. Mandy is already in the kitchen, putting the cook into a flurry, no doubt," with that said, Lady Rainford busily disappeared down the hallway as suddenly as she had entered, calling names of various servants to coordinate cakes and tea.

Exhaling briefly, Ella took off her gloves and enjoyed a moment to re-memorize the luxuriously furnished rooms and moldings. Her eyes flickered up the length of the staircase, meeting the portraits of her ancestors, finally ending with her Uncle Rainford at the top with a poised stance, his twinkling eyes as real as in person. She had forgotten many details of this house, just as she had forgotten how garrulous her aunt was. Honestly, she figured he aunt must be so practiced that she hardly needed to take breaths between her long strings of words. Yet, her aunt's personality brought her a sense of tranquility; listening to her made Ella feel as if she was also hearing her mother. A small grin appeared on her lips, remembering the times she and her mother had slid down the Rainford banisters, much to the scolding of the maids.

"Miss, might I take you upstairs now?" Ella turned towards Smith as he lifted an arm for her to follow him, embarrassed that she had been standing there like a fool that had never seen a house before. Smith led Ella up the steps and towards the East Wing, chatting with her a bit along the way. In a manor that held over ten rooms, Ella was relieved to find that her aunt and Mandy were also situated in the end of the East Wing. Not that she was scared easily, but come on… entirely empty wings were a little creepy, even for her standards.

As she walked into her room, Ella stared appreciatively at the ocean motif, with seashell wallpaper and a large, canopy bed draped with blue and cream covers. Neat bookcases lined one side of the walls, while a petite, ivory-colored vanity set sat in the corner. The end table by her bed held a vase of freshly cut peonies. Although Ella didn't live like a pauper in her own room in Frell, for some reason, guest rooms were also so exciting. Maybe because it had been ages since her father allowed her to go on a trip anywhere.

"I will see that the rest of your luggage is brought up during teatime," Smith bowed politely. "If you need anything, please do not hesitate to ring for my assistance." He excused himself out of the room, leaving her small cases by the door.

Hearing the click of the doorknob and Smith's fading footsteps, Ella's face became giddy as she strode to the window. The green grass and shrubbery swayed under the breeze, and white clouds and singing birds shared the blue sky. Even though birds were not her favorite animals at present, Ella could definitely be grateful for the improvement of her circumstances. She beamed and began to spin around the room in delight, imagining the adventures and fun she would have in the months to come. Stopping dizzily, she took off at a run towards the bed, jumping onto the feathered sheets face-first. Rolling onto her back, Ella sighed contentedly. Life was looking up.

o~o~o~o~o

Newly changed into a light pink morning gown, spotted with yellow flowers, Ella peeked into the sitting room to see if her aunt was already there. A delicate tea set had been laid out upon the table, along with a mountain of cakes and scones. A faint rumbling came from the pit of her stomach. "All right, all right," Ella patted her abdomen. "I'm getting you a bite to eat." She tiptoed into the room, hoping to snag a quick treat before her aunt arrived. After all, she had been on the road (whether it be in a carriage or lying on the actual road) for the better part of a day. Carefully, she extracted a scone from the cart, rearranging the others to cover the hole, and brought it to her mouth. Although she knew it was rude to eat before the hostess, she thought her death due to starvation would not be a help to anyone. Hearing her aunt's booming voice trail towards the room, Ella rapidly stuffed the remaining two-thirds of the scone into her mouth, brushing away stray crumbs.

"Dear, you have no idea how thrilled I am to have you here," Lady Rainford smoothly walked into the parlor and situated herself on a plush, green armchair. "I heard all about your frightful mess getting here, so you must know why I always insist on bringing more than one footman. Although," she pondered, "I suppose even three footmen really did not do much for you." She lightly shook her head in exasperation. "How are you after that ordeal?"

Taking the past few minutes of her aunt's speech to chew the baked good, Ella finally swallowed the last of it, nodding her head. "Oh, I am quite fine. I can hardly remember what happened anymore."

"But, however were you able to get yourself out from under the carriage?"

Ella pursed her lips. "Oh you know… a little bit of determination goes a long way." She figured it might be wise to omit the part about a disturbingly annoying (and attractive, she begrudgingly admitted) prince. That could definitely become complicated.

Lady Rainford gave her niece a tender expression. How proud she was of Ella's growth, especially under the guidance of someone as vile as Sir Peter. Even though she never understood why her sister insisted on marrying the man, she always chose to support Eleanor. However, once her beloved sister had passed, she knew that her little girl would have much need of love and a mentor. It was only until recently that Sir Peter had let Ella return from finishing school. Being a viscountess, Lady Rainford always regretted that she and the late Viscount Rainford were unable to have children, despite their more than ample resources to provide for them. So, she had been elated to receive a letter from her niece asking to visit. She hoped they would be able to strengthen their relationship during this time, for Ella's sake, as well as the duty she owed Eleanor to watch over her daughter. But, Lady Rainford thought amusedly, Ella seemed to be quite bright and capable from what she had already witnessed. "Well," she began, "you do look healthy enough, especially since you were already able to nibble some cakes." Lady Rainford laughed at Ella's shocked face. "Come now, I'm not as old as you may think! Oh go ahead, dear, you must be famished." She proceeded to compile a plate for Ella, handing it to her while she reached for the teapot.

"What about you, Aunt?" Ella questioned between bites. "How have you been? You look as lovely as the last time I saw you."

Lady Rainford chuckled, looking down at her generous curves, "That's very sweet, Ella. I've been called many things, but 'lovely' hasn't been one of them in a long while. However, there has been eccentric, overbearing, and one of my favorites," she paused for a sip of tea, "that crazy, rich old lady." Lady Rainford concluded with a hearty laugh that caused Ella to giggle. "But, dear, at my age, one should be allowed to do as they please. And I assure you, I do. Life is too short to care about what others say," and she leaned close as if to tell a secret, "especially when they probably want to break free themselves."

Any nervousness that Ella might have had shed at that moment. She felt that breaking free was all she wanted to do her entire life, and she recognized her aunt instantly as a kindred spirit.

"Anyway, tell me everything! I want to know all about these years I've missed. Who has been in your life, where you've traveled, scorned lovers," Lady Rainford sighed dramatically.

"Although I can't guarantee I'm old enough for any lovers, there is quite a bit to tell," Ella grinned. She proceeded to tell her aunt all about her horrid life at the finishing academy, Mandy and the servants, her friend Arieda, the places and seasons she loved most about Frell. She and Lady Rainford chatted for hours, laughing at jokes and retelling stories of their memories, unaware of the time that passed. Finally, in the lull of conversation, Ella stretched her back on the couch and Lady Rainford gave a slight yawn.

"I suppose I should stop chattering away and let you get unpacked! Besides, I think I might lie down. Shall we adjourn until dinner?" Lady Rainford suggested as she rose from the armchair.

Ella nodded as they two walked into the hallway. Her aunt waved merrily as she took to the stairs. About to do the same, Ella stopped as she remembered that she hadn't seen Mandy yet. Using her memory, Ella turned in the direction of what she thought was the kitchen. She walked further until she could smell the poignant scent of onions. Following it, she entered a large room, complete with ovens, stoves, wood counters, and Mandy chopping onions at the island in the center. In front of Mandy lay a chicken, tied and ready to be stuffed for dinner.

Mandy looked up to see Ella in the doorway. "Oh, Lady!" She came over to kiss the top of Ella's head. "I did not know you were finished with tea. I was so worried about you today. Thank goodness you are all right." She returned to the counter and began to slice up some vegetables. "I think tomorrow would be a good day for some spiced pumpkin soup, don't you think?" she asked aloud. "But Lady Rainford's cook doesn't have all the ingredients. Could you pick up some spices for me at the market tomorrow morning?"

Ella agreed with a smile, thinking it would be an enjoyable outing to look around Bast since her acquaintance with the town was very limited.

o~o~o~o~o

Wrapping snugly in a navy blue cape and adorned in brown boots, Ella left towards town in the brisk morning light. After yesterday's dinner, she had immediately fallen into a sound sleep, which she felt she rightly deserved. However, the promise of an excursion the next day had her up early. Smith assured her that the walk was no more than twenty minutes down the road, and Ella grabbed her satchel and set out. An airy smile was etched onto her face as she observed the townspeople beginning to set up for the day. Stable boys led the horses out to graze and be brushed, while a saleswoman prepared her cart of souvenirs and trinkets. The blacksmith put coals onto the fire, and smell of baker's bread wafted in the air. Trailing further into the heart of town, Ella admired the different wares for sale.

"Can I interest you in some fine cloths, miss?" an elderly woman displayed vast rolls of different colored materials.

Ella shook her head and moved on. Children squealed with laughter as they ran around the market, their parents running to chastise them. Ella laughed in amusement as one tried to hide behind her skirts from an irate mother until she pried away. Continuing, she mentally tried to recall the list of herbs Mandy had wanted as she walked down the aisles.

"Miss, are you in need of a pet companion?" Ella grimaced as she viewed a man advertising large cages of colorful birds, each one squawking and flying around. I will certainly pass on that one, she thought. Lately birds seemed to lead her into trouble.

Looking to both directions, Ella crossed the street, dodging ruts in the dirt. She passed a stand of multi-hued plants and flowers, bringing a burst of color to the market. Stopping for a moment to take pleasure it their fragrance, she idly watched people drift by. Giving a cursory glace to her right, Ella diverted her attention back to lift a fern in its pot. But, familiar curls of auburn hair flashed in her mind as she did a furious double take.

There, browsing nonchalantly among merchants anxious to accommodate him was the Prince of Kyrria, in all his glory.

Ella glared back at the birds.

What was he doing here?

o~o~o~o~o

A/N: I am so, soooo sorry, everyone. I deserve to be beaten for abandoning my story for this long. Moving from high school to college got me all preoccupied, but that's not an excuse. I've actually had this chapter for a while, but hadn't edited it yet. Anyway, I promise to start updating more frequently! Thanks to all that have put my story on favorites and alerts; I will not let you down! Stick around and things are about to get more interesting ;)

Cheers,

Thriasia