Now, Duke Stork being here was nothing out of the ordinary, him being Blanche’s grandfather and all, but… Sure enough, the thought of coming face-to-face with one of Abigail’s likely murder suspects was rather uncomfortable. Unnoticed, I watched a safe distance away as Duke Stork conversed briefly with Miss Jeremie, who listened with her hands folded politely in front of her. A few pats on her shoulder signaled the end of the conversation and he took his leave. Hm… I wonder what they were talking about? The two looked pre~tty friendly with each other.
Miss Jeremie had gone back inside at this point so I waited a few seconds more before making my way over naturally. Blanche’s maid standing by the door spotted my approach and greeted me nervously, “W-welcome, Lady Abigail. The princess is currently having her etiquette lessons. You will find her if you head straight inside.”
“Is it fine for me to enter during her lesson?”
“Of course it is, ma’am.” After a moment of consideration, I nodded.
Leaving Clara and Norma behind, I headed for Blanche and Miss Jeremie in the study. Today’s lesson focus seemed to be on posture. I peeked in to see Blanche taking careful steps with a book balanced upon her head. Rather than looking noble, she’s… c-cute…!! Why do they not have cameras in this era?! I need to take photos!!! Sob…well, it can’t be helped…I can only attempt to burn the images onto my retinas…
As I silently cheered the girl on in my head, I heard something drop onto the ground. Mm? What’s this? Ah, the book on Blanche’s head fell, huh. It was just a book, but Blanche turned really pale for some reason. Something was a little off here…
Miss Jeremie walked over and picked up the fallen book, dusting it off with sharp, precise movements. Her unsmiling face was quite the study in chilly disapproval, as was her voice, “Let’s try that again. Since you’re Lady Miriam’s child, I believe that you can do much better than that if you try. Proceed.”
“Y-yes…!” Blanche took the book and moved back to her original position. Just like before, she began making her way across the room with the book perched atop her head. Unfortunately, she wasn’t even able to make it halfway there this time.
Miss Jeremie’s sigh was loud in the ensuing silence. She opened her mouth again, heralding another stern reprimand, “Walking to the end is important, but you need to put more effort into your posture. Beauty and posture are inextricably linked. It doesn’t matter how lovely you look in your dress: if you do not carry yourself well, you have no beauty to speak of.”
Woah, scary… Miss Jeremie is a total Spartan huh… Frankly, it wouldn’t hurt her to be a little more caring since the girl’s still young and all. In any case, Miss Jeremie’s lecture ended with this resounding declaration: “Beauty is what’s most important in a woman. Title and intelligence bedamned, without beauty to support her first and foremost, all else is meaningless.”
As soon as I heard it, my mood took an immediate nosedive. There was an unpleasant feeling in my throat like I’d swallowed something foul. Several scenes from my previous life flashed across my mind—memories of the times I’d been told the exact same thing. The laughter and snickering that accompanied all those many instances of so-called well-meaning advice on what a woman’s worth came down to: her beauty. The unwanted memories relentlessly battered my heart—bad memories that I’d much rather do without. Miss Jeremie’s not right. She’s not, but…
As I stood, quietly lost in thought, Miss Jeremie walked over to adjust Blanche’s posture. “Straighten your back, tilt your chin down a little more. And your hips… Mm?” A strange look crossed Miss Jeremie’s face as she felt around Blanche’s hips for a bit. “….Princess Blanche, did you eat anything other than the foods that I approved of?”
“You didn’t eat anything during dinner, did you?”
“Your waist got bigger…” MIss Jeremie muttered to herself before raising her head. She now wore a kind smile at odds with her previously cold expression. “In that case, we should adjust your meals some more.”
I reared back in surprise. What? Adjusting meals? For an eleven year old? For a moment, I thought I’d heard wrongly. Maybe if the girl had been overly obese, there would be less room for objection, but Blanche was thin, if anything. Surely you can’t be serious…?
“You may take a short break. We’ll resume the lesson in ten minutes.”
I regained my senses as soon as I heard this, remembering my purpose. I need to give Blanche her present! I should also ask about this meal adjustment thing. I coughed lightly as I entered. Miss Jeremie gave me a curt bow.
“Welcome, Lady Abigail. What brings you here today?” Miss Jeremie was smiling but it didn’t reach her eyes, which exuded a subtle rejection.
“I came to give something to Princess Blanche.” I held out the beautifully wrapped glass jar in my hand. “Here you go, Blanche.”
The girl hesitantly took the proffered item from me. “Um, this is…?”
“Open it.” Instead of doing so, Blanche first glanced at Miss Jeremie. Only when the woman nodded in tacit permission did Blanche put her small hands to work undoing the purple ribbon. The silk cloth fell away to reveal the jar beneath.
A faintly sweet scent spread throughout the room, detectable even from a distance. “These are cookies from my hometown. They’re quite tasty.” Thankfully, Blanche seemed quite interested in the cookies, if the glow in her eyes was any indication. She looked at the cookies with a fervent excitement others reserved for precious gems. “Try some.”
“T-thank you…” Blanche stuck her hand into the jar as soon as I gave my permission. But just as she was about to grab a cookie…
“You aren’t actually planning on eating that, are you?” Miss Jeremie’s voice was like the crack of a whip. Blanche flinched at the sound before hastily taking her hand away. Her objective achieved, Miss Jeremie bowed towards me again. “Unfortunately, Lady Abigail, Princess Blanche needs to control her diet at this time. I would therefore like to request that you take back your gift.”
So she really had been talking about dieting a moment ago. An odd feeling of suffocation rose up within me. “Princess Blanche is at the age where her growth is at its peak. I would think restricting her diet would be very unhealthy for her right now.”
“This is all for the princess’ sake, Your Majesty. Didn’t you give me leave to handle all matters related to Princess Blanche’s care at my discretion?” Blanche seemed rather confused, sensitive to, but not grasping, the undercurrents to our conversation. She looked back and forth between Miss Jeremie and myself a couple of times before carefully opening her mouth.
“Lady Abigail, I’m all right. I don’t have to eat the cookies, so… I’m sorry. I was just being greedy.” Blanche said this with a smile that sat awkwardly on her face. Only when I felt a sting did I realise I’d bitten down on my lip. I don’t want to see her smile like that; I liked her previous smile better. She was just an eleven year old child. An eleven year old child that had been genuinely excited over the sight of cookies.
“You can eat them if you want.”
“Your Majesty.” Miss Jeremie intervened with a smile. “I too, would love nothing more than to give the princess sweet things. I understand your sentiment completely, but doing so would only be poison for the princess.” The woman didn’t seem to know when to back down. Does she really think that way? Or is she simply determined to thwart me, confident in the Stork family’s backing behind her? “Princess Blanche needs to control her weight. If she wants to look good in a dress, she can’t afford to gain any weight.”
“‘Look good in a dress’? Is that really more important than Blanche’s health?” Ice dripped from each word, my voice having taken on a menacingly low tone. She must have picked up on it for I saw a glint of fear in Miss Jeremie’s eyes.
“A-all other noble children do the same. They begin a strictly-controlled diet once they reach the age when one begins wearing corsets.”
Corsets? I barely refrained from shouting at her; I simply could not believe my ears. Was wearing a corset so important that you’re able to justify torturing a child in this way? “No matter what you say, you can’t deny the fact that you’re hurting Blanche’s health, can you?” Miss Jeremie fell silent. Despite that, I could tell she was clearly not ready to admit defeat. I certainly wasn’t about to give her a chance to rally. I could not in all good conscience leave Blanche’s education to someone like this. “I had indeed left Blanche’s care in your hands, but this is getting ridiculous. In the future, someone else will be taking over Princess Blanche’s care.
“I wish to speak with Princess Blanche alone. Please get out.” I cut her off mid-sentence. Miss Jeremie seemed like she had a lot more left to say but I had no intention of listening. In the end, she could only leave with her tail between her legs. So women are just as fanatical about their weight even in this world, huh…
I ended up chasing her off but… truth be told, I didn’t feel very good about it. It’s not like I am unable to relate to Miss Jeremie. After all, I myself had pretty much been a diet fanatic during my past life. But… doing it to a child is just inexcusable. And if that weren’t reason enough, the thought of seeing Blanche making yet another face like the one before was more than I could bear.
Blanche herself was currently trying to calm me down by any means possible, believing herself to be the reason for the dispute between Miss Jeremie and myself. “I’m sorry, Lady Abigail. I won’t eat the cookies. So please don’t be angry…” The child seemed on the verge of tears.
You did nothing wrong, so why…? I spoke kindly, trying to reassure her. “No, I’m not mad. You can eat the cookies. Would you like to have them with me?” I offered the cookies to her again but unlike before, she didn’t immediately take it this time. “Try it. It’s tasty.”
“But… If I gain weight, I won’t fit in my dress…”
“So what?” I picked up a particularly sugary cookie. A bit of it stuck to my finger. “It’s alright if you gain a bit of weight. It’s alright if you can’t fit in your dress. A child has all the right in the world to enjoy good food and live life to the fullest.”
Blanche stared at me wide-eyed, clearly shocked by the words I’m almost certain she’d never heard before. Having said my piece, I offered her the cookie once again and waited patiently. After much hesitation, she slowly took the cookie from my hand and took a bite. Her eyes lit up the moment she tasted the sweetness of that first bite. I listened to the crunching sounds of her tiny jaws working to demolish the rest of the cookie. “Is it tasty?”
Blanche nodded eagerly in response. It must’ve tasted really good, huh? A tiny pause elapsed before the girl nervously opened her mouth again. “…Can I have more?”
“Of course.” When I gave her another cookie, Blanche took it delicately like a little baby bird. Her expression as the sugar melted in her mouth could only be described as pure bliss. Despite not having eaten anything, I felt so full. Filled with joy just quietly watching Blanche.
That was, until I noticed tears suddenly welling up in her eyes, much to my dismay. “I-is something wrong? Was there something bad in it? Do you want to spit it out?” I reached out and wiped the tears off her cheeks, filled with surprise and worry.
“N-no. U-um… It’s just so sweet…” Stumbling over her words, Blanche tried her best to smile even with tears in her eyes, “I’ve…I’ve never had such a thing…”
I felt my heart break at her simple confession. It’s just a cookie, something so ordinary…yet you’re crying because of it…Just how much have you had to endure to cry because of a single cookie? I’d pulled her into my arms sometime without realising it. The tiny little child sniffled in my embrace and clung to me. Like a little girl clinging to her mother. “Eat as many as you want. I can bring you all the sweets in the world if you desire.”
Blanche continued crying wordlessly in my arms. I stroked her head gently, comforting her. Now knowing why Blanche was so much smaller than other children her age, feeling just how small her tiny frame was in my arms broke my heart all the more. I hugged her even tighter. Blanche, I’ll bring more cookies tomorrow. Then the day after, I’ll bring you even better sweets. I’ll give you all the sweets in the world, so don’t you cry. Smile in the sun as you always do.
* * *
Let it be known that Abigail wasn’t very fond of this place. The Friedkin family, minus Blanche, sat on either end of a long table, eating without looking at each other. Only the sound of cutlery moving busily about could be heard in the otherwise silent dining room. They always dined separately, but out of nowhere, she received an invitation—a summons, really—to dine together with Sabelian.
She wasn’t fond of this place at all. Why did he call her? She didn’t want to see his cursed face even in her dreams, let alone reality. As Abigail swallowed back another curse with a bite of food, Sabelian finally broke the silence. “I heard you got into a fight with Blanche’s nanny. Is this true?”
TL: Soju Jimmy
Editor: Midwinter Gimlet
QC: Solistia Cosmopolitan