On the first day of the fifth month, a parchment was nailed to the town's notice board. It announced the most anticipated event in Lantine. Few people in my small town could remember the last time a historic Pharyss celebration occurred. The last recorded celebration was held for the current king's engagement almost forty annuals ago. The ones who could recall spoke of the grandest balls, tournaments, dances, plays, performances, and feasts that were held in the king's high city. Since the celebrations required one to be the age of nineteen annuals to attend, I would be able to go to the king's city. It would be an event that I was sure to be talking about for the rest of my life, Ebony Valix's adventures in Pharyss.

So far my life had been ordinary. While stories are normally told about great heroes and heroines that do daring deeds or have outstanding moral qualities, I am not one of those people. My real father died soon after I was born, leaving my mother, brother, and me. My mother tried to cope on her own, but well-paying work is hard to find for a woman without a husband. A single woman with children and no husband had her promiscuity questioned. With such rumors circulating, my mother could not support herself and her children. Then she met Samuel Kingston, a wealthy nobleman who lived just outside our hamlet of Lyscos. Samuel was a widower of two beautiful daughters and it was not long before Samuel fell in love with my mother's beauty and the two were wed. My mother took on Samuel's surname, but my brother Andrew and I choose to keep the family name Valix in honor of our father. The union gave me, my brother, and my mother a new home in Samuel's manor and a new family.

My stepsisters, Giselle and Victoria, were known in Lyscos and the surrounding area for their immense beauty. I had lost count of all the young men arriving at our manor trying to win the hand of a maid so fair. Victoria had sparkling green eyes and flowing scarlet hair while Giselle was classically blond with blue eyes. My mother doted on the two sisters and rejoiced in having two such beautiful daughters. I, being much plainer than either of them with wild black hair and pale blue eyes, slowly faded into the background. I didn't have any suitors asking for my hand in marriage and my boyish frame made wearing pretty dresses difficult. So my mother and I grew apart the longer we lived with Samuel, Giselle, and Victoria. In the beginning, she tried to get us three girls to bond and become close. However, as we grew older it was apparent that Giselle and Victoria were becoming beautiful beyond compare and I was not. Left to my own devices while my mother took my stepsisters out into town and Samuel worked in his office, I was able to wander the small woods that grew around the manor with Andrew and learn things like archery and tree climbing. Both activities were completely scandalous for a woman to practice of course, but I enjoyed them and no one else had to know what I spent my time doing in the woods. Every day it was Andrew and I playing together until I turned thirteen and he turned eighteen. On his annual, he left to become a soldier. His patrols kept him traveling around the kingdom so I was not able to see him more than once every few annuals after he left. So I grew up, slightly apart from the rest of my family.

It was Samuel's idea that Giselle, Victoria, and I would benefit from going to Pharyss apart from our parents "as three lovely, independent women" he said. My mother instantly started to discuss with Giselle and Victoria about what clothes they would be bringing. She was convinced that one of them would surely win the heart of one of the princes, if not both of them. The eldest prince was nearly twenty five annuals and he would be the one to inherit the throne when the time came. My mother believed Victoria would end up with him as she was only two annuals younger. Giselle and I were closer to the age of the second prince, him being only an annual older. My mother paired Giselle with him and her fantasy of having two daughters in the royal house was complete. I had no doubt that Giselle and Victoria's beauty could win the heart of any man, but I secretly thought that their immense vanity would soon drive away any suitor that spent any long period time with them. Fortunately for them, no suitors ever got to spend that much time with either of my stepsisters so their arrogance remained a little known feature for the two.

Even though it was two months until the event took place, it was important to get into the city as soon as possible. With the entire land being invited to celebrate, the town filled up very quickly and once it was full they did not allow anyone else in. That gave Giselle, Victoria, and I very little time to prepare. Within the next day we were packed and the following morning saw us in the large carriage ready to depart for Pharyss. Our parents waved us off from the front steps of our manor. Giselle and Victoria waved enthusiastically and blew kisses dramatically in return as they hung out of either side of the carriage.

Once they had reentered the carriage they began whispering excitedly about what wonders awaited them in the king's city. I was left out of this conversation because I did not share their love for discussing the quality of stitching on a new dress and what the royal family would think of it. My stepsisters adored going over every minute detail of every gown with each other before wearing it, and the carriage ride gave them plenty of time to discuss their new clothes. It astounded me how they never seemed to tire of such subjects, but they were avidly discussing the same dress all day until we stopped in Glausshire, which would be the town where we would be giving the horses and driver a rest for a few hours time.

The three of us got out of the coach and stretched. It was midday so I thought we would be getting lunch at a nearby café. However, Giselle and Victoria suggested that we could skip lunch and go shopping instead. Glausshire was known for its fashion community. They were holding hands and turning their heads in all directions to see all the large buildings and shops. We rarely left Lyscos so the large town of Glausshire was completely new for us.

"Oh, look over there, Tori," Giselle said. They had pet names for each other that my mother found simply adorable. "There is a man playing the horn right on the street."

"Where?" Victoria asked. Giselle pointed and they both squealed in delight. "I wonder why he is playing on a street corner instead of indoors. How odd this place is, don't you think, Elle?"

"Most assuredly, Tori, never have I seen so many new and wonderful things. Perhaps we could find a nice dress shop or cobbler. I would love to go shopping, the trip has worn me out and I feel like relaxing with buying nice things."

Victoria nodded. "Perhaps we could find a nice pair of handsome young men to escort us around the town and carry our bags. It shouldn't be too difficult, young men are so pleasant and accommodating."

I was standing off to the side listening to their conversation and looking around. Of course they felt that all young men were accommodating because around them it was true. All men wanted to be in the presence of such beauty and would do anything to be graced with a smile from either Giselle or Victoria.

"Perhaps we should get something to eat instead of something to wear. We only have an hour or two before we must be off again." I said. I was getting rather hungry and I thought it was a bad idea to go off into a strange town alone.

Giselle started as if she had forgotten I was there, which she probably had. Victoria just laughed. "Silly little sister, don't you know Elle and I are watching what we eat closely while we are on this trip?"

Giselle smiled pityingly at me like I was not fully competent. "That's right; we do not want to look like bloated cows when we arrive in Pharyss. What would the royal family think?"

"But if you are feeling hungry then you must eat. Your figure does not take as much minding as ours do for you don't have a tiny waistline to worry about." Victoria said. They regularly spoke in turn as if they could not speak a complete sentence without the other.

Giselle continued her sister's thought. "Don't feel too bad about it, dear. Of course some men like the more full figured look."

"You may go eat, but remember don't go too far away from the carriage. We don't want to lose you." Victoria called back. They had both turned and starting walking along the street to look in shop windows as they had planned.

I was used to them demeaning me at every opportunity. They did not understand the harm in pointing out physical flaws so blatantly. However, I was not much thicker around the waist than they were. The only difference was that they had been tied into corsets since they were thirteen and it had pinched their waists in unnaturally. My mother tried to put me in corsets as well but I would scream and shout every time she did. I even went as far as to rip up the corsets with a knife I had found in the kitchens one day. After that my mother gave up on trying to make me more like Victoria and Giselle. She then turned most of her attention to my stepsisters who would suffer through the rib crushing devices with a smile.

I stayed with the carriage and not wander off too far. I bought a sandwich from a nearby vendor and returned to where the driver had parked the carriage. It was too hot and stuffy inside so I sat on the front in the driver's bench sits and ate my lunch. People looked at me strangely because divers were almost always male but I didn't pay them any mind. I just watched them pass until the driver was done feeding and watering the horses and he declared it was time to set off again. Giselle and Victoria had not returned. I hoped they would not be long. The driver had made me get off of his seat and I climbed back into the carriage where it was much hotter even with the door open.

It was not long before the pair returned with a man on each arm and two behind carrying shopping bags and boxes. I was always amazed at the willingness of men to help them no matter what the task. Fortunately, they understood that we needed to get to the king's city as soon as possible and did not waste time in long goodbyes. They climbed into the carriage with me and the second part of the journey consisted of them picking apart each man that they had found and naming all his flaws and attributes. With Giselle and Victoria, the flaws generally outweighed the attributes by a large amount. When you looked at him from the side his nose had an odd tilt to it or his voice was too deep and scratchy. The lists seemed to go on and on until it seemed they had gone over every piece of each of the six men. To me each of the men looked handsome enough but my stepsisters weren't fully happy unless they were naming people's flaws.

The second day of the three day journey was spent in much the same manner as the first. When we stopped at midday, Giselle and Victoria would wander the town and buy things. By the end of the day they had already filled the storage compartment and were starting to pile items inside the carriage which made the ride more uncomfortable than it already was. We had each gotten an exorbitant amount of money to spend in Pharyss and my stepsisters were already spending as much as they could.


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