Sophia took the stairs up to Carmosa's sitting room, two at a time, only a little out of breath by the time she arrived. She lifted up her hand to knock on the door, but it opened before she could rap her knuckles against the wood; she just barely avoided hitting Gloria's forehead. Instead, she whipped her hands around her back. "Did you see? A royal carriage just arrived."
Gloria snorted. "Of course we did." She turned halfway around to look back into the room. "Didn't we, Mother?"
Sophia peered around Gloria to see their mother sitting at the window, pulling back the curtains with a finger. "We did," she said.
"But did you notice who it is?" Sophia asked. Before anyone could speak, she rushed out with the answer. "It's Madame Ghede."
At that, Carmosa did seem startled, letting the curtains go and moving away as they fell back into place. "That cannot bode well, after all this time. What could she possibly want with us?"
If Carmosa wasn't going to mention Cinders, then Sophia wasn't about to bring her up. She shrugged. "There's only one way to find out."
Carmosa scowled. "I doubt I want to find out. Gloria, send her on her way."
Gloria curtsied. "Yes, Mother." She brushed past Sophia and down the stairs, casting her a haughty glare on her way by.
"And you--" Carmosa shook her head. "Well, you stay out of the way. And no listening from the stairway."
Sophia rolled her eyes. "As though I might!" It was much easier to hear from the sitting room above the porch anyway. She shut the door and went down the hall.
She made her way to the chair closest to the window just in time to hear Gloria's gasp of outrage as Madame Ghede pushed her way past and into the entryway. The gasp was followed by sputterings of outrage and threats to call the guardsmen, not very coherent; Sophia tuned out until Ghede's voice cut through the wall of words.
"I am here," she said, "to see Carmosa."
Sophia could pratically hear Gloria tossing her hair in disdain. "Mother sees no one."
Ghede made an unimpressed noise. "It’s been some years since I last saw her, but last I recalled, your mother wasn’t one to ignore opportunity when it came knocking. Something tells me she won’t be too pleased if she learns her daughter got in the way of that."
Sophia had to smile at that, as she imaged Gloria wavering, unsure whether Carmosa would be more irritated to have her orders ignored, or to miss out on a chance to better her circumstances. The household had been surviving since Cinders left to go be queen, but only just -- Sophia couldn't seen Carmosa turning down any opportunity to make things better, not even to spite Cinders.
After a moment, Gloria sighed. "I'll go see Mother," she said, and Sophia heard footsteps on the stairs. She ducked back behind a curtain so Gloria wouldn't see her as she passed by; after a knock, the door to Carmosa's room opened, then closed, their words too muffled to hear from this distance. With that, Sophia tuned out -- this discussion was likely to go on for awhile. Instead, she pulled a book from the shelf and moved into the window seat to read.
So engrossed was she in the novel of political intrigue that she didn't notice Gloria looming over her until Gloria cleared her throat. Sophia started, then glanced up at her sister. "What?"
"Mother wants you to bring her and Madame Ghede some tea. Downstairs, in the office."
Sophia narrowed her eyes. "Me? Seriously?"
Gloria scowled back at her. "You, seriously. Now go, it's rude to keep our guest waiting."
"You wouldn't even have invited her in," Sophia pointed out, placing a finger in the book to hold her place as she stood up. "Fine, fine," she said, holding up her hands in submission as Gloria's scowl intensified. "I'll go."
Without looking back, she hurried down the stairs and gave the cook her orders, then stood in the hallway reading the book while she waited. Once the tray was ready, she checked the page number before sliding the book into her pocket and taking the tray. She went down the hall and, balancing the tray in one hand, pushed the office door open.
Carmosa and Madame Ghede sat on either side of the desk, in silence. Carmosa stared out the window, affecting boredom; Ghede had been looking at Carmosa, but as Sophia walked in she turned, eyes directly on her. It was hard not to flinch from the direct glare, so Sophia focused on her mother instead, placing each cup, plate, and piece of silver on the table with a little more force than was strictly necessary. With a flourish, she tucked the tea tray under her arm and turned to go. As she did so, Madame Ghede caught her eye, lifted an eyebrow just a touch, and nodded. Sophia half-smirked back, then left, making a show of closing the door heavily behind her and taking a few loud steps down the hall-- before setting the tray on a chair and creeping back to listen in.
Her mother had started talking, but the sound was muffled; Sophia had to lean closer into the door to catch the words. "You have a purpose in being here," Carmosa said, "and I would know what that is."
"Ahh, well." Non-committal, and yet Sophia could swear she heard a note of satisfaction in the words. "The financial minister has died, and a new one is needed. The King and Queen would like to offer the position to you."
Sophia lost her footing and nearly banged into the door, only catching herself along the wall at the last moment. Years of silence, and now this? Unbelievable.
It seemed that Carmosa was just as surprised, because it was a few moments before she spoke again. "You must be mistaken. The queen has little love for me. She made that clear enough, last we met."
Ghede snorted. “I never thought you to be a fool.”
Sophia could practically hear her mother straightening up, squaring her shoulder haughtily against the back of the chair. "Explain yourself."
"You made her into who she is," Ghede said. "Who can blame her for learning too well?" Sophia snorted quietly at that -- Ghede had Cinders's number there. And Carmosa's, too. "Would you have ever suffered living under another’s shadow?"
That accusation ought to hit home. Sophia couldn't even imagine the idea of Carmosa letting Cinders or Gloria or anyone else outshine her. No wonder she-- but the thought was interrupted when Carmosa spoke again. "This offer— is it in earnest?"
Ghede snorted again. "Do you really think I’d waste my time here otherwise?"
Silence fell, long enough for Sophia's back to start hurting from her crouch. She finally dared to shift before her mother replied. "I will consider it."
A shifting of a chair as someone stood up, and Sophia backed away down the hallway and away from the door as quickly as she could go without making a noise. Time to go back upstairs and pretend to be surprised when Carmosa called them down to hear the news.
The next two weeks passed in a flash, time moving as quickly as it had that week all those years ago, the last time that Cinders had thrown all their lives into disarray. Back then, she had upset the order by leaving them. Now, she had summoned them, and everything was going to change again.
A good thing, Sophia supposed, as she leaned back against the cushions of the coach that would take them away from the manor house that had been their home. Probably for the last time, unless Carmosa screwed everything up and got them banished. Even Sophia, in her endless pessimism, had to admit that scenario was unlikely. Her mother was many things, but incompetent wasn't one of them.
More likely, she thought, casting a side-eye to Gloria sitting on the bench across from her, that one of them would cause the trouble. What did either of them know about being at court? They certainly hadn't distinguished themselves the last -- and until today, only -- time they'd been there.
Gloria turned. "What?"
"Nothing." Sophia faced forward again -- or backwards, technically, since they had left the forward-facing bench for their mother. Who picked that exact moment to slide into her seat. She was dressed in her second-best gown and her traveling cloak, and the footman set a hatbox next to her on the bench. Sophia wondered what was in there. Probably something entirely overwrought.
The footman closed the door and then moved to climb up on the carriage front. Like the driver, and most of the servants who had stayed behind to finishing packing up what meager possessions remained in the house, they were on loan from the palace and would serve the family in their new quarters there. Carmosa had fired all her staff other than the cook and the gardener years ago; they had also been offered jobs at the palace, although the cook had chosen instead to retire. Sophia was a little jealous. What if she could have retired from this family, moved to town, gotten a little room at the inn? What on earth was she going to do in the palace.
Something of her thoughts must have shown on her face, because Carmosa frowned at her. "Sophia! Whatever path of relentless negativity you've started down, stop it this instant. You will not squander this opportunity you've been given." She lifted her chin and switched her glare to Gloria. "Either of you. You will be fixtures at court and you will make yourself useful -- whether by finding husbands or making some other place for yourself. And above all else, you will not embarrass me. Is that clear?"
Gloria nodded. "Of course, Mother. I will be a delight at court."
"A delight, of course." Sophia snorted. "I promise to stay out of the way, anyhow."
Carmosa leaned back against her seat with a sigh. "That's a start, I suppose." And with that, the carriage started moving; Sophia watched the manor house until it disappeared around a bend in the road, and then pulled out her book, disappearing in her own way for the rest of the ride.
An hour later, the coach arrived at the palace and the whirlwind began anew, a flurry of introductions and moving suitcases and being pushed from one room of the palace to another, until Sophia finally found herself in a small bedroom, tucked into one of the palace turrets. She closed the door and sat down on the bed, laying her small valise beside her -- enough clothes for a couple of days; the rest would come later, and it sounded like Cinders had arranged for many more to be made new. Wouldn't do to have the kingdom's financial advisor and her family looking like the poor country relations, Sophia thought as she looked around the half-bare room. Even if that weren't far from the truth.
She bent over and began unlacing her left shoe, and then a knock came on the door. She paused. That was odd -- the servant who had shown her to the room had said that dinner wasn't for two hours yet. "Who is it?"
Sophia froze, then slowly re-laced the shoe before walking to the door and pulling it open. And there stood Cinders, dressed in a simple green gown, her red hair -- still lustrous and full -- done up in a soft bun, a thin golden circlet on her head. "What are you doing here?" Sophia asked.
"Saying hello," Cinders said, "and welcoming you to the palace." She looked into the room. "May I come in?"
"Oh, I suppose." Sophia stood aside and let Cinders past, closing the door behind her. "But surely my stepsister the queen has more important things to do than talk to me. That's been my assumption anyway, after the last few years."
Cinders winced. "I deserve that, I suppose."
Sophia crossed her arms, surprised at the surge of anger that coursed through her. "I guess it wasn't any more than we deserved, either, after how Gloria and I treated you for all those years. But I thought we were making a connection, those few days before you left."
"We were," Cinders said. She looked straight at Sophia, her blue eyes wide and clear. "I swear, I felt it too, the stirrings of an alliance, maybe even friendship, beginning between us. But when I saw my chance to get out of that house, and out from other Carmosa's thumb, all I could think about was taking it, quickly and completely, leaving all other considerations behind me." She turned away, eyes lowered now. "I wasn't sure enough of my position with the prince to ask for your freedom along with my own. And I do confess that I was still not quite sure of you."
Sophia shrugged. "That's fair. Any more than I was sure of you."
"But still, I apologize." Cinders reached out her hands; after a pause, Sophia took them. "I should have stayed in touch with you, at least, if not Carmosa and Gloria. Can you forgive me?"
Sophia thought for a moment. "Maybe not yet," she admitted. "But eventually, maybe. I think I will. If you can forgive me for being cruel before, and for not reaching out myself. It's not like I couldn't have written you a letter, too."
Cinders smiled. "That's fair." She squeezed Sophia's hands, then let go. "Now, dinner isn't for a few hours. Would you like to see the library?"
"Would I!" Sophia allowed herself a smile in return. "That's the best thing about being invited to the palace -- new books to read."
"I knew you'd say that," Cinders said. "Follow me." And Sophia did, out the door and into the corridors, a strange feeling of hope buoying her steps for the first time in many years.