The Merchant's Daughter

Disclaimer: Just a girl playing in Gail Carson Levine's fantastic sandbox. I own nothing, but I sure like to dream!

A/N: Recently I've been on the roll of writing fanfics about my favorite children's books, and Ella Enchanted is one of my all-time favorites. I started this fanfic a million years ago, but I recently reread the book and decided to post this up and continue it. Not to mention, I've been on an EE fanfic binge, and there are some GREAT EE fanfics out there, guys! The only thing is, they remain unfinished, and I sincerely hope this fic won't suffer the same fate. . .

ooo

"By the way, you are a month older than the last time I saw you. Are you still too young to marry?" (Ella Enchanted, 176)

ooo

It was raining. No, raining was an understatement – Kyrria was in a state of torrential downpour. Twenty minutes ago, I had discarded my boots and now I was sloshing through the mud with bare feet, trying to rescue vegetables from becoming muck soup. I sank into the soil and slipped and fell numerous times, and as I peered up at the windows of the manor, I could see Hattie and Olive through the fogged windows, attentive with sadistic pleasure.

"Oh, sweet, dry yourself off," Mandy said, as I stepped in through the kitchen door. I tracked mud all over the floor, which I knew would be my task to remove later. I set the soaked basket of vegetables on the table, which she quickly swept up for the soup. "Go, or you'll have a fever by tonight."

I was already trudging up the stairs, my feet leaving moisture prints on the wooden panels. Sometimes I refused the curse to see how long I could last; I did it a few times a day on the hope that someday in the future I would be able to withstand it. So I practiced. But some days, I woke up exhausted with little energy or real defiance. Some days I woke up in a colorless world, with little to no feeling, just throbbing feet and tender palms.

I dried myself off in the room I shared with Mandy, twisting the water from my hair in front of the mirror. But as I stood there, wiping the mud from my face, I wondered if Char would be able to recognize me in a crowd. I was older now. I was two years older from the last time he'd written. Two years older from the time he'd proposed. That meant he was two years older, too – in a week, he would be twenty.

There was going to be a large celebration in Kyrria on the day of his birthday – by means of a ball, of course. How else did Kyrrians know to celebrate? I only knew of this because Hattie and Mum Olga only left it out of conversation when they were snoring a symphony, in deep sleep, and because a month ago I had seen a copy of the invitation in the fairy book Mandy had given me. It had been emblazoned with gold leaf and blue flowers. I had traced over his name a few times, reading by the firelight. My heart began to pound, thinking about Char finally coming back to Kyrria. Would he still remember me? Would he look for me? Or had he long moved on?

I tried to keep up with his adventures when the fairy book would let me. I read his letters to his sister, his mother, his father, and occasionally would strike gold: a page in his diary. But illustrations of him were what I coveted the most. Those came so rarely that when they did, it would take me hours to flip the page, for fear that it would disappear and I would never see his countenance again. And disappear, they did – every time.

The last image I saw was of him taking a stroll in the Ayorthan garden by himself. He had been surrounded by lush lavender and lilies. He'd grown taller, his hair had grown longer, and his jaw looked squarer. In every picture I saw of him, he always looked so serious – always too serious, for a boy his age. It made my heart ache. I longed to see him smile and yearned to make him laugh again. I even rehearsed the first joke I would tell him in years. Each time, it would be different, depending on the situation we happened to meet in. A fallen fruit cart, a spirited dance, a casual encounter in the garden. But every time, I would never fail to make him laugh and fall in love with me again.

I dreamt up impossible scenarios while I scrubbed the floors until my knuckles bled, while I hung up washed petticoats and became Olive's miserable accountant. The thought of meeting Char again, of some day being able to hear his voice, of some day being able to face him without being fettered by an unseen curse. . . it was the only thing that kept me from floating away. It was easy to be hopeless and sad. It wasn't easy to keep living.

ooo

Mum Olga begrudgingly freed me from my servant duties when my father returned from his trips. Even so, I preferred keeping Mandy's company, so my days under servitude didn't differ so much from the days I could spend above it. I did, however, like to escape to the royal menagerie when the weather in Kyrria obliged me a little sun. I secretly visited Apple, the centaur Char had given me. Today I stopped by with a ripe red apple, his favorite. I stroked his mane as he bit into it and smiled at me with his blank eyes.

"I'm glad to visit you again," I whispered to him. It had been three long months since I had been able to see him. "I wonder, do you still remember me?"

I peered into his face for any trace of recognition, but he continued to stare with a look of fond nothingness.

I moved onto the birds. The days of rain had made them restless and now they were all squawking, flying around their large metal cage, wanting to be free. As I watched them, I couldn't help but feel a tinge of sadness. Even birds, who were speculated to have brains as small as walnuts, could comprehend imprisonment.

I recited a phrase I had learned from one of the parrots here, long ago.

An orange bird with a red crown squawked back, repeating the phrase. I recognized this bird – it had been the bird that I had seen with Char, the last time I had visited here with him.

"My brother once told me about a lass that could speak Gnomic absurdly well for a human," a voice suddenly said.

I turned to see a girl, just a little shorter than me. She had long tawny hair that flowed down her back and green eyes. She smiled, and I felt the rush of familiarity. I had never seen her in person, but I knew her. She was Char's sister.

"Princess Cecilia," I said, giving her a curtsy. I nearly tumbled over, and she laughed.

"Please, call me Cecilia."

As I turned back to the bird, I could feel her eyes examining me. Did she recognize me? Did she know me? She'd said that Char had told her about my talent for speaking Gnomic – did that mean he had told her other things, as well? Suddenly, I felt frozen with panic. Cecilia rarely made public appearances on account of how she had gone abroad to a more privileged finishing school, but I hadn't even heard that she was visiting. If I had known, I surely would have never come.

"I saw you earlier, by the centaurs," she said casually. "You seemed to be especially attached to one in particular."

I stiffened. What could I say? I settled for a vapid and common justification. "Yes, that one. He's very pretty."

"Yes, he is," she agreed. She moved up to stand directly beside me. In profile, I realized that she was like a faint echo of her mother; very much like her, but still different. "How did you learn how to speak like that?"

"I have a knack of repeating what I hear," I answered cordially. "And I've learned that language has a way of getting you out of situations and helping you make friends, even when things seem the most hopeless."

As I said that, I thought about Areida, at finishing school.

Cecilia smiled at me, and I saw Char a little in her face. "That is a most advantageous way to look at learning another language."

Suddenly I wanted to ask her about Char, and if they were close. I knew that he wrote to her on occasion, never failing to play the part of a concerned and kind older brother. He was diplomatic in all of his writings with the exception of his journal, in which he allowed himself a little leeway for real honesty. I was reminded of the entry he had written after I had sent him the letter in which I had lied that I had married and run away. . . yes, indeed, his diary was the only place he allowed himself the luxury of penning his most private thoughts.

But I knew that if I mentioned anything about Char, it would give me away. I had reason to think she already suspected me, after spying me with the centaurs and eavesdropping on my Gnomic calls.

"I'm sorry, forgive my manners, but I've completely forgotten to ask for your name," she said.

"Katerina," I blurted. "I'm Katerina."

She smiled warmly, before giving me a curtsy that brought my own clumsy one to shame. "It was a pleasure meeting you, Katerina. I hope we will meet again soon." And with that, she turned and began heading back to the castle, where I could see the Queen waiting for her, on the terrace.

After our encounter, I rushed back home. That night, I flipped through the fairy book to see if it would allow me to discover whether Princess Cecilia suspected me. After reading a story about three frogs that found gold at the bottom of a pond, I finally came across a journal entry. It was from Char.

Father's insisting that I find a bride to marry. He finds the argument of my disinterest in marriage insulting – not only to him, personally, but to our country. He says that an unwed king is a bad sign for a country, that it means he has no companion, and thus is not capable of sustaining a relationship. What is friendship, then, if not a sustained relationship? But Father says that's not the point.

I do not want to grant her the satisfaction by saying that she is the reason I've resolved never to marry. At the moment, I am just not keen on the idea. As a result, father has set me up to meet a few ladies of the court that he thinks might suit me. The idea is less than exciting. I have reason to believe that all ladies of the court are all replicates of the same boring template.

I wonder if she is happy. It's been two years and I must admit, despite myself, that I still hope to see a letter arrive, in her writing. Even if she considered me a naïve fool, I miss her still.

Then again, I will be back in Kyrria in a week's time. Perhaps, if anything, with my knights gone and no conflicts to mediate, it will serve as a good distraction.

No picture accompanied the journal entry. Despite myself, I reveled in the fact that he still missed me, and that he still wished I would write. But I found myself jealous of the ladies of the court all tripping over their petticoats to meet him. His optimism was less than sunny, but what if he did manage to meet one lady of the court that captured his attention? That made him laugh?

"Lady, come quick," Mandy suddenly said, barging in. "Your father needs you."

I closed the book, hiding it under the bed, before heading to my father's study. He was sitting in a chair, waiting for me.

"Come, Eleanor, let me look at you," he said.

"It's Ella." I stood there, staring at him. "And I hope you know better than to ask me to spin, Father."

"No, no, no spinning is necessary," he said. "We've been talking about you, and I've decided that you're at the right age to become a prospect. You've grown up to be a very pretty girl, Eleanor. Not so gangly and rough like you were younger."

I narrowed my eyes at him. "A prospect?"

"Yes. We've got to clean you up. I've already mentioned your season to some of my clients and I'm expecting quite a bid."

I shuddered as I thought of the men I had seen my father do business with: middle-aged men with thinning hair and stained teeth. But they had vast properties and prevailing businesses. Could my lie to Char turn out to be a prediction of the future, after all?

At that thought, I didn't know whether to die from laughter or throw up.

My father had already tried this on me once before, three years ago, in an attempt to settle some of his debt. He had put special mushrooms in the soup to make me flirty and compliant. This time, I knew better.

I left my father's study with a hollow feeling in my chest. If my father had his way, I would be married off in two weeks' time. Could I allow that? And even more so, would I risk endangering Char with my curse by attempting to see him when he returned home?

Before I fell asleep, I found a journal entry from Cecilia from today.

Today I was at the menagerie and I met a girl who spoke fluent Gnomic to a bird and seemed to have a special bond with the centaur my brother had caught for a lass long ago. She seemed familiar to me and I immediately thought that it was she that Char had mentioned to me before – but hadn't he written that she had eloped and run away?

I used to always wonder why my brother chose to stay away from home even after his year at the Ayorthan court ended. Mother was not too pleased when he wrote to say that he wanted to join his knights at the border and ease the conflict between the ogres and the people. She said it was hardly a young prince's job – dangerous, too! – but he insisted that he owed it to Kyrria and to himself to learn alongside his knights. I wouldn't do my brother the discredit by saying that it was all just a front. . . but I did always get the feeling that there was something else keeping him away from home, as if he was running away.

The girl said her name was Katerina, and on my way home I remembered that the girl my brother had been so enamored with was named Ella. Perhaps they were two different girls, but perhaps not. How difficult is it, really, to conjure a false name when it is convenient?

ooo

"Just like your father to sell you to the highest bidder," Mandy muttered the next morning, as I watched her roll the dough for their bread rolls. "How convenient, too, that you've grown up to be such a beautiful woman." She sprinkled more flour over her board.

"Beautiful?" I asked her, dicing some potatoes. "You really think so?"

Mandy looked up with a faint look of shock, before her face softened. She gave me a warm smile. "Just like your mother, sweet. Beautiful as anything."

I sat in thought as Mandy set the rolls to bake, remembering the night before, when I had given myself a close inspection in the mirror. I had grown taller, that was certain – and my hair now ran down my back. It had grown lighter in my days in the sun, brightening the tinge of red that I had inherited from my mother. But as for beauty, I could not judge myself an expert. I was not haggish, but I was no belle, either.

"The Prince arrives in a few days," Mandy said. "The town is buzzing. It hasn't been this alive in years."

It was true. Suddenly it was as if all the flowers were blooming, the fishers had caught plenty, and all of the crops had flourished by the bushel. As if Char's homecoming had brought such convenient luck. Everywhere in town, blue and gold tapestries were being hung up to announce his return.

I only nodded, lost in my own thoughts.

"Are you prepared?"

Her question wafted to me. When I looked up, confused, she was looking at me expectedly.

"Prepared?"

"I mean to say if you've thought about the ball. Now that your father is here, he will insist you accompany them to the Prince's homecoming ball, if not just to announce that you're out in society and accepting offers."

Mandy's words sunk heavily into the pit of my stomach. How could I not have thought of it before? I was so used to being hidden away as Mum Olga and her daughters' slaves that I hadn't realized I would be expected at the ball. . . but perhaps, if I wore a mask and did my best to stay away. . .

"Oh, Mandy. What do I do?" I groaned.

She gave me a look of sympathy. "We'll think of something, Lady. In the meantime, take these cloves of garlic and strip them."

ooo

I spent the entire day trying to think of something that would prevent me from going to the ball. My smartest idea was to get ill, but the rain had let up to reveal abundant sunshine. Perhaps I could sneak in a poisonous herb from Mandy's garden? Father would never let me out in public with a green face. Or perhaps warts?

In the meantime, I avoided my father at all costs, for fear that he would unwittingly order me to go to the ball to meet some balding husband-to-be.

At the same time, I wondered how I would feel: being so close to Char, yet so far away. I loved him and I had to save him, but the fact that he would be here, in Kyrria, after two years. . . it was tempting. If I had half a mind I would go to the ball in disguise and make myself invisible, just to watch him from afar, dancing with his many admirers – or even just to brush against him as I walked past. I tempted myself with these thoughts, but the real danger lay in circumstance. What if he just happened to glance across the room? What if we clumsily bumped into each other? What if Hattie, or my father, mentioned my name and he just happened to be in close range?

Later on that night, I confided in Mandy.

"I can't go, Mandy. It would be too risky." Then I explained to her why.

"I agree, sweet, but what also endangers you is what they don't know. Your father may mention you to the Prince, or the Prince may ask your father about you. . . ."

I didn't hear the rest of what Mandy said. The blood had already been drained from my face.

ooo

That night I couldn't lull myself off to sleep. I lay in my bed, trying to sort out the battling thoughts inside me. What was I going to do? Though I hoped against it, I was almost certain that Char would ask about me – maybe he hated me, but he wasn't indifferent. One word from Hattie or Olive, or even Mum Olga or my father, and my entire lie would be exposed. He would ride over to the manor and demand an explanation, something that I just couldn't give. Or would he rather just accept things as they were – take it as a sign that I was too cowardly to face his feelings for me? And could Char, ever in his princely nature, come to recognize it as my character: a lass that was too afraid to tell a prince she did not share his affection, yet wasn't too afraid to get eaten by ogres or run away from finishing school? Char was kind, but he wasn't asinine.

If only I had more time. I would allow myself to be married off to the first client my father brought over, never mind the thinning hair or snaky smile. At least I could be near Char a good distance – not too near, but not so far away – and know that I was safe. Most importantly: he would be safe, too. He would be safe from me. Char was too scrupulous to even ever consider pursuing a married woman, no matter how passionate his love.

As soon as the faint light of the sun began to illuminate the sky, I got up and packed my meager things. A cloak, my Fairy Book, Tonic, food rations to last me a few days, and the little money I had saved from Olive's ever present greed. I scrawled a quick note to Mandy.

Mandy,

If I know Char, I know that he will ask, and soon my deception will be exposed. For him to be safe, and Kyrria, I need to disappear – if only just for a little while. Maybe this isn't the wisest move, going without you (or your permission, at least) but I figure I am old enough, now, to have my own misadventures.

I love you, and write to me.

Ella

I tore off the other half of the parchment and wrote another for my father.

Father,

In your absence I have been treated far from your daughter. I would rather survive in the free and untame world than continue being imprisoned in my own house, only to be sold off to the wealthiest client.

Regardless, I wish you well. Have comfort in knowing that I am safe.

Your daughter,

Ella.

I placed it alongside Mandy's, and with one last solemn look, I walked out the door.