Author’s Note: Tufted titmice are exclusively North American birds. The geography of Hannah’s country is of questionable archetype.
Once upon a time, in a land near and far away, there was a girl whose mother died when she was young.
Her mother had been merry and loving and devoted, but these things were no proof against fever. She died and was buried in a grave at the edge of the forest, past the garden gate.
In the way of young children, the girl (who was named Hannah) mourned for her mother and then forgot her. She visited the grave dutifully with her father, but her attention strayed more and more often to the garden fence, to the tall poles of beans and the thin green tentacles of the onions.
She loved the garden, which her mother had tended, and which was now under the care of an old man from the village. He showed her how to chit out fat nasturtium seeds and the importance of soaking peas before planting, how to prepare a bed with well-rotted leaves and break up the soil so that the plants could slip their slender roots inside it. He showed her how to keep a hive of bees without being stung too often—for a beehive was, in that time, considered a vital part of any garden—and when she did get stung, the gardener put dock leaves on it and patted her shoulder until the sniffles went away.
It was perhaps not a normal occupation for a young lady of moderate birth, but Hannah’s father had little to say about it. He had little to say about anything since his wife had died. Hannah was ten years old before she realized that her friend’s name was not simply “the Gardener,” because her father never spoke to him.
The garden kept them well fed and Hannah was very proud on the days when the cook used her beets and her beans and her cucumbers to feed the household.
On her eleventh birthday, a bird flew down and landed atop a beanpole in front of her. The bird was gray above and white below, with a fine dark eye, no different than the other birds that flocked to the garden in the morning.
“Woe!” cried the bird. “Woe, child, what a state you’ve come to!”
Your mother’s dead,
Your hands are dirty,
Your father’s away—
Hannah picked up a clod of dirt and tossed it underhand at the bird, who dove out of the way.
It eyed her balefully, then settled back atop the beanpole, smoothing down its feathers.
“That wasn’t very nice,” said the bird.
“You started it,” said Hannah. “It’s not very polite to go around reminding people that their mothers are dead. And my hands are dirty because I’ve been thinning carrots, thank you very much.”
The bird had the grace to look ashamed of itself. “It’s the magic,” it said. “It, um, comes over you. No offense was intended.”
Hannah dusted off her hands. “I thought you might be magic,” she said, “because you’re talking, and birds don’t, generally. But then I thought maybe you were a parrot, and I’ve heard that parrots can talk.”
“I’m not a parrot,” sighed the bird. “Don’t I wish! Parrots are gloriously colored and they live halfway to forever. No, I’m only an enchanted titmouse, I’m afraid.”
“I’m sure you’re as good as any parrot,” said Hannah, who was basically tenderhearted toward animals when they weren’t insulting her.
The titmouse preened a little. “Well,” he said (Hannah was nearly sure that it was a he) “I have been enchanted. It’s a great honor, if you’re a bird.”
“Who enchanted you?”
The titmouse stood on one foot and waved his other one toward the garden gate. “A mother’s love,” he said. “Also the tree just behind the grave, which is inhabited by a particularly sentimental dryad.”
“Can you get seeds from a dryad tree?” asked Hannah, with professional interest.
“No,” said the titmouse shortly. “They get very annoyed if you ask. It’s very personal for them.”
“Oh, well.” Hannah sat down on the edge of one of the beds. “What’s it like to be enchanted?”
“It’s marvelous,” said the titmouse. “You’re very focused all the time when you’re a bird, you know. Here’s a seed, there’s a seed, this is my seed, give me back my seed.” He fluffed up his feathers. “But when you’re enchanted, all of a sudden you can see everything. Hello, independent cognition! It’s a transcendent experience. Pity it doesn’t last long.”
Hannah had understood perhaps one word in three of that, but said politely, “It doesn’t last?”
“No,” said the bird sadly. “Only until my message is delivered. Would you mind? It’s very important to the dryad.”
“All right,” said Hannah. “But no more making fun of my hands or talking about my mother.”
“Mmm,” said the bird.
“And no poetry!”
The bird lowered his crest a little. “Fine . . . fine . . .”
He gazed at the sky. Hannah went back to thinning carrots.
“All right,” said the bird finally. “How’s this? Your father’s about to bring home a new wife.”
The titmouse paused, nonplussed. “You don’t seem bothered.”
“Well, it’s not like I have to marry her. And the cook says it’s about time he remarried and it does nobody good to keep moping about.”
“Mmm,” said the bird again. “You may find, I expect, that it’s a little more tricky than that. Humans stay in the nest an awfully long time. But anyway. New wife, woe is you—she’ll be unkind and treat you poorly.”
Hannah scowled. “I’ll put nettles in her bed.”
“I can see,” said the bird gravely, “that you are not without defenses. But should she treat you too abominably, you must go to the tree that grows behind your mother’s grave and shed three tears and say—oh, this bit’s poetry.”
Hannah sighed. “All right, if you must.”
The titmouse fluffed out his breast and sang:
O chestnut tree, chestnut tree
Shake down what I need to me.
Hannah gazed fixedly at the carrot seedlings.
“Dryads,” said the titmouse apologetically. “They mean well, the poor dears, but they think if it’s got a rhyme, it’s high art.”
“Well,” said Hannah. “Thank you for the warning. I guess that will come in handy . . .”
“Glad to help,” said the bird. “I’m sure we’ll speak again. In factttcch tchhh tchhirp!”
He spread his wings, chirped again, like an ordinary bird, and flew away.
Hannah finished with the carrots and went to go ask the cook what the word transcendent meant.
• • • •
Hannah’s father did indeed come home with a new wife, and the new wife came with a pair of stepsisters, and things did not go as well as they could.
We will gloss over the various indignities, some of which are inevitable when households merge, some of which were particularly awful to this situation. Hannah’s stepmother was tall and lean and beautiful and her daughters were tending in that direction. Hannah, who was short and sturdy from double-digging beds with shovels that were too large for her, was given a brief stare and dismissed out of hand.
“Poor thing!” said her stepmother. “Something should be done about the dirt under her nails, I suppose, but I am far too shattered from the move to take it in hand. I suppose she is not educated? No, of course not.”
“I help out in the garden,” said Hannah.
“Yes, I can tell by the dirt on your knees. Well, I suppose it keeps you out of trouble . . .”
Hannah went out into the garden, feeling very strange and rather as if she should be angry. It is not much use being angry when you are eleven years old, because a grown-up will always explain to you why you are wrong to feel that way and very likely you will have to apologize to someone for it, so Hannah sat on the edge of the raised bed and drummed her heels and thought fixedly about when the next sowing of beets would have to be planted.
After awhile, she scrubbed at her cheeks and went to go and plant them.
The next few years went along in that vein, more or less. Her stepmother did not wish to be bothered with her and her stepsisters did not understand gardening and Hannah did not understand embroidery or boys and so they had very little to talk about.
Her stepmother instituted a “no filthy nails at the table” policy, which meant that Hannah ate in the kitchen. It started as an act of rebellion against pumice stones and nail clippers, but eventually it just became the way things were. Hannah found it much more restful.
There was talk of sending Hannah to finishing school, but nothing came of it. The joy of getting rid of her was outweighed, to her stepmother’s mind, by the exorbitant expense. So long as Hannah stayed out in the garden and made herself scarce, there was a minimum of trouble.
“It ain’t right,” muttered the cook. “She treats that girl like a serf.”
The Gardener shrugged. “We’re serfs,” he said. “We do well enough.”
“Yes, but she’s not. Her father owns the house free and clear, not the Duke.”
The Gardener was slow to reply, not because he was stupid but because he had come to a point where he considered his words very carefully.
After a time he said, “There are worse things. She’s warm and fed. No one beats her.”
“She should have pretty dresses,” said the Cook, annoyed. “Like the other two do. Not go around like a servant.”
The Gardener smiled. “Oh, sure, sure,” he said. “Nothing wrong with pretty dresses. Do you think she could keep them out of the vegetable garden?”
The Cook scowled. Hannah’s abuse of clothing was no secret. The laundry maids had to use their harshest soap on the knees of her trousers. What Hannah might do to muslin was not to be contemplated.
If anyone had asked Hannah herself, she would have shrugged. She had no particular interest in her stepmother or her stepsisters. The older stepsister was rude, the younger one kind, in a vague, hen-witted way, and obsessed with clothing. Neither understood about plants or dirt or bees, and were therefore, to Hannah’s way of thinking, people of no particular consequence.
Hannah did not have any difficulty interacting with people; she just had little interest in doing so. She went to the village school long enough to learn to read, but never particularly embraced it, except insomuch as there were herbals and almanacs to be read. People in books tended to do very dramatic (or very holy) things and none of them, while trampling their enemies or falling in love or being overcome on the road to Damascus, ever stopped to notice what was growing along the sides of the road.
There had been an incident with the priest and the parable of the fig tree. Hannah had opinions about people who did not understand when figs were ripe, even if those people were divine. She was brought home in disgrace and her stepmother spent several days having vapors about the difficulties of an impious child.
In this not entirely satisfactory fashion, they bumped along, until Hannah was seventeen and the Duke threw an extraordinary ball for his son.
• • • •
“We are going to the ball!’ said Hannah’s older stepsister when Hannah came in with an armload of vegetable marrows.
“Good for you,” said Hannah, dropping her armload on the Cook’s table.
“You should come too,” said the younger stepsister. “All the girls will be there. Everyone is wearing their very best dresses.”
The older one snorted. “Fancy Hannah being there!”
“I hear the Duke has an orangery,” said Hannah thoughtfully. She had never seen an orangery, although she’d heard of them. They were frightfully expensive and required a great deal of glass.
“An orangery,” agreed the younger, knowing that Hannah was fond of plants. She chewed on her lower lip, clearly wracking her brain. “And vast formal gardens with a hedge maze. And—oh, all manner of things! The centerpieces are supposed to be as large as wagon wheels, with so many flowers!”
“What would she wear?” demanded the eldest.
“Oh!” The younger stepsister considered. “We’d have to make her something. We could take in the hem on my green dress, perhaps—”
Hannah had not the least interest in floral centerpieces and only a vague professional curiosity about hedge mazes. She had less than no interest in hems and green dresses. But her stepsister meant well. She patted the other girl’s arm and went back outside.
She also had no interest in the ball. Balls sounded deathly dull. It might have been a good excuse to enter the Duke’s manor house, however, and perhaps there would have been tours of the orangery.
“But really,” she said aloud, scowling in the direction of the beans, “it’s probably not worth having to go to a ball. And she’s right—what would I wear?”
“Ahem,” said the tufted titmouse.
Hannah raised her eyebrows.
She was a good bit taller now than she had been at eleven, and so she and the bird were nearly at eye-level.
It looked like the same bird. Did they live that long?
Perhaps the magic ones did.
“I’m just saying,” said the bird, “you haven’t asked for anything. Not once.”
“I did too,” said Hannah. “I went and asked for a packet of nasturtium seeds. And received nothing, might I add.”
The bird sighed. “Dryads do not deliver the seeds of annuals,” it said, with a good bit of contempt. “Anyway, you’re not supposed to ask for anything. You’re supposed to take what you’re given.”
“I would have, if she’d given me nasturtium seeds.”
The titmouse rubbed a wing over its face.
“Just try it,” it said. “Tomorrow night, when your sisters are gone to the ball.”
“All right,” said Hannah. “If it gets me a look at that orangery, I’ll try it.”
The titmouse turned its head from side to side, in order to give her the full effect of its disapproving stare. “An orangery.”
“I want to see how it’s done,” said Hannah. “Oh, I can’t build one, I know—I haven’t the money for glass. Still, one might make do.”
“You haven’t got any money, have you?” said the titmouse.
“Yes, I do. I raise queen bees and sell them off. And I’ve been selling honey. The Gardener would normally take it but he hates going to the market. So I sell the honey for him and we split the money.”
“Shouldn’t the honey go to the house?” asked the titmouse.
Hannah shrugged. “It’s not like we don’t have plenty. And we’re the ones who take care of the bees. “
“You’re embezzling honey from your father,” said the titmouse. “Lovely.”
Hannah had no idea what that word meant. “Um. Maybe? They’re my queens, anyhow.”
The titmouse clamped its beak shut and gazed at the sky in silence.
“Look, Silas at the market gives me a dollar per jar. And I get five dollars for a queen.” Hannah was feeling a bit defensive about the matter.
“What do you do with that money?” asked the titmouse.
“Well, I buy seeds sometimes. Mostly I save it, though. It’s all in a tin. I won’t tell you where.”
“Sound fiscal policy,” said the titmouse wearily. “All right. Tomorrow night, don’t forget.”
“I won’t,” said Hannah, and the bird flew away.
• • • •
It was a long morning. There was a great deal of uninteresting fretting about dresses. Hannah escaped into the garden as quickly as possible and set about thinning the carrots.
Even so, she caught occasional snippets through the windows—“Now remember, my dears, eye contact. You must make it boldly, but when he sees you, look down and blush. No, dear, that’s a flush, it’s not the same thing . . .”
And, a few minutes later, when the carrots were thinned, “Positively no drinking. Not even ratafia. Unless the Duke’s son offers it to you, in which case you will allow yourself to be led by him. It is vital that you not become intoxicated.”
Hannah moved on to the beets, thinking that it was all very stupid. It was hardly even worth planting beets, come to that, since it was starting to get hot and they were likely to bolt, but there was a wall of the house that got afternoon shade . . .
She lugged the watering can over to the shaded bed and encountered the Gardener.
“Going to the ball?” he asked.
“I doubt it,” she said. “Though I hear the Duke has an orangery.”
The Gardener snorted. “Lot of nonsense,” he said. “You grow plants when theywant to grow, not when you want them to.”
“You use cold frames,” said Hannah.
“Don’t get smart,” said the Gardener. Then he cracked a rare smile. “Ah, fine. I’d not have an orangery if you paid me—too many fiddly bits. But a little glasshouse for extending the season—well, perhaps.”
Hannah grinned and went to plant beets.
Just before the supper hour, there was a great commotion and Hannah’s stepmother and stepsisters poured out of the house in a froth of lace and seed-pearls. They climbed into a carriage (Hannah was secretly amazed that they could all fit) and drove off toward the Duke’s manor.
“And not a word to her!” Cook groused to the Gardener. “Not a word! Her blood’s as good as theirs.”
The Gardener shrugged. “She’s good with bees,” he said. “Be a shame to waste her on a Duke.”
The Cook stared at him as if he had lost his mind, but Hannah, who was pulling her gloves off, out of the Cook’s sight, heard the praise and was warmed by it.
She ate her dinner quickly and went back into the garden. The back gate was overgrown, the hinges red with rust. She climbed over it instead of trying to open it, and landed with a thump in front of her mother’s grave.
“Right,” she said. “I’m here.”
The wind sighed in the chestnut’s branches. Hannah wiped her palms on her trousers.
Nothing continued to happen.
It occurred to her that she was standing on her mother’s grave. That was awkward, but flinching away seemed even more awkward, so she had no idea what to do. She gazed up at the sky and said “Um.”
The titmouse landed on a branch and looked at her. “You have to say the words,” it said.
Hannah sighed. “Do I have to?”
“They’re silly words.”
The tree gave a long, disapproving groan, as if the branches were moving in a high gale. The titmouse fixed a warning glare on her.
Hannah took a deep breath and recited:
O chestnut tree, chestnut tree
Shake down what I need to me.
The leaves rustled.
Other than that, Hannah didn’t see much difference.
“Um,” she said after a moment. “Am I supposed to close my eyes, or do I go back inside and my problems are fixed, or . . . ?”
The titmouse pointed one small gray foot over her shoulder.
Draped across the fence, looking absurdly out of place, lay a ball gown. It had enormous skirts that twinkled in the evening light. The sleeves were the color of a new leaf in springtime and belled out in enormous slashing ribbons.
“Good lord!” said Hannah, quite astonished.
“Now you can go to the ball!” crowed the titmouse.
“Um,” said Hannah. “Y-e-e-e-s. That is a thing I can do. I suppose.”
She glanced over her shoulder at the tree and the grave.
The bird beamed as encouragingly as something with a small, immobile beak can beam.
“Right,” said Hannah. She gathered up the dress. There were gloves and shoes as well, and a neat black domino mask to hide her face. Her fingers slithered over the fabric, feeling the calluses on her fingertips snag at every thread. She winced. “Okay. Yes.”
She slung the dress over her shoulder, climbed over the gate again, and went into the house.
The chestnut tree and the bird sat together in the growing dark.
“She’ll be fine,” said the bird. “I’m sure of it.”
• • • •
Late that night, the stepsisters returned. They were tired and downtrodden, and the youngest was carrying her shoes.
“A lady doesn’t go barefoot,” her mother said reprovingly.
“A lady doesn’t have blisters the size of grapes then.”
“Who was that girl?” asked the oldest, annoyed. “The one who came in late? The Duke’s son didn’t so much as glance at the rest of us after she showed up.”
“I don’t know,” said her mother. “No better than she should be, I imagine!”
“I wish I had a dress like that,” said the youngest wistfully. “No wonder he danced with her. I’d have danced with her too, in a dress like that.”
The bird was asleep with its head tucked under its wing, but the tree jostled the branch and woke it up.
It cocked its head, listening. “Oh. I see. Good for her, then. All as it should be.”
The tree creaked.
“I imagine there’ll be another ball soon,” said the bird. “And another gown. Was she supposed to bring that one back?”
Creaaaaak . . .
• • • •
The next morning was bright and glorious. Hannah slept late and came out to weed the turnips with her eyes dark and thoughtful.
“Well?” said the titmouse, lighting onto a rain gauge.
“It’s a magnificent orangery,” said Hannah. “They’re heating it under the floors, that’s the trick. The fire isn’t allowed to go out. You’d need three or four servants to keep it all going, though.” She sighed, gazing over the garden. “Not really practical in my situation.”
“Bother the orangery!” said the bird. “What about the Duke’s son?”
“What about him?”
“You danced with him all night, didn’t you?”
“I did nothing of the sort!” said Hannah.
The titmouse blinked.
“But . . . a girl showed up late in a beautiful dress . . . “ it said slowly. “And the Duke’s son danced with her all night . . . “
“Good for her,” said Hannah. “There were dozens of beautiful dresses there, I expect. Hope it was the servant girl, though.”
“The servant girl?”
“Sure.” Hannah straightened from her weeding. “The one I traded the dress to for a key to the orangery.”
The titmouse shot a nervous glance over its shoulder at the chestnut tree. “Come over by the beehives,” it said, “and tell me what you did.”
“Not much to tell,” said Hannah, following the bird obediently. The buzz of the hive made a gentle background to her words. “I met up with a servant girl over by the gardens. She was dead keen to go to the ball, and I had a magic dress, so I gave it to her. Fit like a glove, might I add—though she had to pad the toes on the shoes, they’re a little too large. In return, she smuggled me into the orangery.” She rubbed the back of her neck. “I hope it was her.”
“Why didn’t you go to the ball?” squawked the bird. “That was the point!”
Hannah rolled her eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous. What would I do at a ball? A bunch of people standing around being snippy at each other and not talking about anything of any purpose. I caught a bit of it from the servants as I was passing through the manor. No thank you.”
“There’s dancing, though!”
“I don’t dance,” said Hannah shortly. “Dancing’s not a thing you just pick up in a garden.”
The titmouse paused. “Um . . . “ It shifted from foot to foot. “You could sway gracefully? Like a tree?”
“No,” said Hannah. “Just . . . no. That is not how dancing works.”
“But you’re supposed to charm the Duke’s son!” said the bird, hopping up and down in its agitation.
“I don’t see how. Unless he likes bees.”
She picked up her hoe again. “Anyway, the orangery design did give me a few thoughts. If what the plants want is warm roots, we’re doing this all wrong. I have to experiment with some seed trays on top of the bread ovens.”
The bird gaped after her as she left.
After a moment it said, almost to itself, “I don’t dare tell the dryad. Chirrrp!”
• • • •
In the way of all good stories, there was another ball announced within the week. “So soon!” said Hannah’s stepmother. “I cannot get dresses fitted so quickly! Still—this is your chance to charm him again, my dears.”
“No strange girl is getting in my way!” vowed the eldest.
“I still wish I had that dress . . . “ said the youngest wistfully. “Even just long enough to see how they sewed the sleeves. And my blisters haven’t healed yet.”
Hannah heard all of this because she was in the kitchen, checking her seed tray. The seeds atop the oven had sprouted twice as fast as the ones outside. “Warm dirt,” she muttered. “How do I keep the dirt warm?” She fisted her hands in her hair, not caring that there was earth on them.
The titmouse was on her the moment she stepped outdoors. “Another ball,” it said. “Here’s your chance. You can go and charm the prince—”
“Yes, him. You can charm him with your—um—graceful swaying—”
Hannah heaved a sigh. “You’re talking an awful lot for a temporarily enchanted bird.”
“It’s because I’m supposed to get you to the ball. I’m your fairy godbird. Apparently. Anyway, I’m getting used to it. Now, go to the tree after your sisters leave for the ball . . . “
Hannah sighed again. “I don’t have the least interest in the Duke’s son, you know.”
“I’m sure when your eyes meet, it’ll be magic.”
“I doubt it.”
The bird thought for a moment. “If you marry him, you’ll inherit an orangery.”
This gave Hannah pause. Her finger drifted to her lower lip. “Hmm . . . that’s a thought . . . “
“And someone else can do the weeding for you,” said the titmouse.
Hannah frowned. “Will they? But how will I know if they can be trusted? You have to be very careful with the ones with taproots, you know. And bindweed. You leave even a shred of bindweed in the ground and it’s all over.” She put her hands on her hips. “And come to think of it, are Duke’s son’s wives even allowed to garden? Don’t they make you wear white gloves and do deportment or something?”
The titmouse was forced to admit its ignorance of the doings of nobility. “I don’t know.”
“I shall check,” said Hannah forthrightly. “The servants will know. I’ll ask that nice servant girl about it tonight.”
“You will?” asked the bird.
“Yes. She’s bound to talk to me. I’ll give her another dress.”
• • • •
The dress this time was the color of a summer sky and the mask was dusted with tiny crystals. The titmouse kept its grave reservations to itself. The dryad creaked approval as Hannah picked the bodice off the fence and went into the house.
The stepsisters returned an hour after they left. Their mother had a grim set to her lips.
“Where is she getting those dresses?” demanded the eldest.
“I wish I knew,” said the youngest. “I don’t even want to wear it. I haven’t the hips for the one she wore tonight. I just want to see how they fitted it together.” She chewed on her lip.
Hannah returned an hour later, carrying a sack. She dropped it in the shed and went inside, then returned a few minutes later carrying a lamp.
The titmouse, resigned to its duty, landed in front of the shed and squeezed in through a knothole.
Hannah bent over the potting bench, spilling out her sack. It contained dozens of little lengths of stem, some with bits of dirt at the bottom, some severed with a sharp knife.
“Dare I ask?’ said the titmouse.
“Cuttings,” said Hannah. She pulled out jars. “Willow water, willow water . . . ah, there we go!”
“Cuttings,” said the bird. “I might have known.”
“I think I can get most of these to root,” said Hannah. “The servant girl’s mother is an assistant gardener. She let me have free run of the gardens. Had to do it by moonlight, so some of these aren’t as clean as I’d like.”
The bird’s beak gaped in distress.
“And she gave me some nasturtium seeds,” added Hannah.
“And the Duke’s son?” the bird asked wearily.
“Useless,” said Hannah. “I asked. Apparently if you’re a Duchess, you don’t garden. You sit around and tell other people to garden for you. What’s the good of that?”
“Some people might like it.”
“If other people are doing the gardening, it’s not your garden. And they expect you to have heirs and such.”
“That’s the general way of things, yes.”
“Not gonna happen,” said Hannah, dunking a stem in water infused with willow chips. “And don’t tell me I’ll change my mind when I’m older.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” said the titmouse. It devoted a few minutes to settling the feathers on one wing. “Well. This is a fine mess.”
Hannah shrugged. “The servant girl’s happy. Her name’s Kara, by the way. She knows how to dance, too. Apparently they practice in the servant’s hall. And she has quite good manners, which I don’t, and she’s soppy about the Duke’s son. Let her marry him.”
The bird was silent for a few minutes.
Hannah carefully shook out her seeds into various jars, and labeled them in her rough, scrawling hand.
“There’s going to be a third dress,” said the titmouse finally. “Dryads like things that come in threes.”
“Poison ivy comes in threes.”
“Magic’s similar. You don’t notice you’ve run into it, and then it itches you for weeks.”
“Well, I don’t have to go,” said Hannah. “I’ve seen the orangery and I’ve got all the cuttings I’ll ever need. And Kara’s got two dresses. She can wear the first one again.”
“You’ll have to take the dress, though,” warned the titmouse. “The dryad will get very upset otherwise.”
“She’s a tree,” said Hannah. “What’s she going to do, drop nuts on me?”
“For my sake?” asked the bird. “It’s her magic in my head, you know.”
“Oh!” Hannah looked contrite. “I’m sorry, bird, I didn’t know. Of course I’ll take the dress. I don’t want her to take it out on you.”
“She probably should,” said the bird mournfully. “I’ve made a hash of things.”
“No,” said Hannah. “You’ve been very helpful. I’ve been glad to talk to you.”
She held out her hand, and after a moment, the titmouse jumped onto her thumb. Its tiny feet scratched at her skin, and it seemed to weigh nothing at all.
• • • •
The titmouse was an excellent prophet. Three days passed, and then another ball was announced. Hannah’s stepmother threw her hands in the air in despair.
“No,” said the youngest stepsister, with rare stubbornness. “I’m not going. My feet are completely raw. And he’s only going to look at that one girl anyway.”
“She can’t possibly have a new dress this time,” said Hannah’s stepmother.
“Then there’s even less reason to go,” said the youngest, and locked herself in her room.
She stayed there for three hours, until Hannah tapped on her door. “Psst! Anabel!”
“Hannah?” She opened the door a crack. “Are they gone?”
“Long gone,” said Hannah cheerfully, “and I’ve got something you might like to see. Open the door, will you?”
Anabel opened the door, and there was her stepsister, with her arms full of fabric.
The youngest stepsister let out a long breath. “That’s a dress like that girl wore! But—but that’s not—you’re not—” She looked up, her eyes suddenly wide. “But you’re not her! She’s got totally different colored hair—”
“Ugh, no,” said Hannah. “What would I do at a ball? But I’ve been supplying the dresses. It’s—well, it’s complicated. But I thought you might want to look at this one.”
They laid the dress out on the bed. Hannah fidgeted while Anabel went over the seams, inch by inch, making appreciative noises, like “Will you look at what they did here?” and “Goodness, that’s very clever. I wouldn’t have thought to do that . . . “
“All wasted on me, I’m afraid,” said Hannah cheerfully. “Anyway, keep it hidden, will you? If your mother finds out, there’ll be questions, and I’ll deny everything.”
Anabel nodded. “I will,” she said, sounding much less vague. “I can make a pattern from this, I bet. Thank you, Hannah!”
And she flung her arms around her stepsister, heedless of the dirt on Hannah’s knees.
“You’re welcome,” said Hannah. “What are sisters for, after all?”
• • • •
Long after midnight, Hannah’s stepmother came home with her oldest daughter. Her eyes were bright—not with triumph, but with gossip.
“You will not believe what happened!” she crowed when Anabel came down to meet them. “It was—oh my, what a thing! You missed it!”
Anabel put the kettle on. Hannah came from her small room by the back door. Hannah’s stepmother was in far too good a humor to protest. A story like this needed to be shared with as many people as possible. She would have rousted the neighbors if it hadn’t been nearly dawn.
“The girl came back,” said Hannah’s stepmother. “In the same dress she wore the first time—”
Hannah’s younger stepsister handed her a mug of tea, and they shared a secret smile.
“Not that the Duke’s son noticed,” grumbled the older stepsister. “Boys never notice clothes unless your neckline is halfway to your waist.”
“Don’t be vulgar, dear,” said her mother. “But yes, she was wearing the first dress. And they danced and then at midnight there was an unmasking—you know how it is with these costume balls, everybody knows who everybody is, but you have to do the unmasking—”
“And she’s been slipping out beforehand, apparently, so she never did unmask—”
“But this time the Duke’s son was watching her like a hawk, and she had to actually run away—”
“—but she left a shoe! A shoe on the ground!” finished the older stepsister triumphantly.
“And he’s snatched it up and is guarding it like it was the crown jewels,” said her mother. She grinned wickedly. “Never realized he was quite so into shoes, but the way he was caressing it—well, you wonder a bit.”
“What do you wonder about?” asked Hannah, who had been silent up until now.
There was a pause. The atmosphere in the kitchen, which had been cozy, started to cool—but her stepmother thawed, mellowed by the hot tea and the gossip. “Feet,” she said bluntly. “Some men like a lady’s feet. More than the rest of the lady. Fancy shoes are as good as ball gowns to them.”
Hannah blinked. Then she thought of her own large, stomping, mud-caked boots and relaxed. Surely there was no chance of such boots becoming objects of desire.
“Then I never had the least chance,” said Anabel, sounding decidedly cheerful. “A man who is into feet is not going to be interested in my blisters.”
Hannah took her cup of tea back to her room. She hoped Kara was all right. Of course the shoe would have come off—it was too large for her. Probably the cotton had come loose. Oh, dear.
She fell asleep wondering what the Duke’s son was planning to do with the dryad’s shoe.
• • • •
Not long after breakfast, the question was answered. It was market day, and Hannah was delivering honey to Silas, when there was a commotion in the middle of the square.
“Hear ye, hear ye!” called a man in the Duke’s livery. “Hear ye! By order of the Duke, all young ladies are ordered to gather at their homes, to await the Duke’s pleasure!”
Heads snapped up all over the market. Silas muttered something about droit de seigneur and reached under his bench for a cudgel.
“We’re not going back to those days!” cried the cheesemonger, who had three daughters.
“And the Duke couldn’t get it up anyway!” shouted the herb-wife. “Although if he wants to try some of my teas—”
“No!” said the herald. “No, you didn’t let me finish! It’s not like that! Nobody’s droiting anybody’s seigneur! And he doesn’t need any tea!”
“Guaranteed to put fire back in an old man’s belly!” cried the herb-wife, sensing a marketing opportunity.
“The Duke’s son is seeking a mysterious woman!”
“I’ve got three,” said the cheesemonger, suddenly interested.
“A specific mysterious woman!”
“All girls of marriageable age in the village are required to present their left foot to try on a shoe!”
There was dead silence in the market.
Silas leaned over and murmured, “I always thought there was something a little peculiar about the Duke’s son . . .”
“I’m sure he’s very nice,” said Hannah weakly, and slipped away.
Word spread quickly through the village. It was garbled at first, but the details rapidly filtered out. The Duke’s son was coming. He had a shoe. Everyone had to try it on. The girl whose foot fit the shoe was the one whom he would marry.
“Oh, hell,” said Hannah, staring down at her mud-caked boots. She wiggled her toes grimly.
The shoe was going to fit. The shoe was made to fit. That meant she was going to marry a Duke’s son, and that meant no more gardening and no more beekeeping and instead graceful swaying and the producing of heirs—
“No,” said Hannah furiously. The bees swarmed around her, buzzing like a tiny army. “No. Bird! Bird!”
“Eh?” The tufted titmouse landed on the fence. “What?”
“The Duke’s son is coming,” said Hannah grimly. “With a shoe to try on. You have to go get Kara. She has to be here to try it on.”
The titmouse opened its beak to argue.
Hannah leaned in close. Her large human eyes met the titmouse’s own small, dark ones.
“Right-o,” said the bird. “The dryad won’t like it—”
“I’ll take an axe to the dryad if I have to marry a Duke.”
“Kara, you say?” The bird saluted and winged away over the garden.
Hannah exhaled through her nose and settled in to wait.
• • • •
The shoe, when finally presented at Hannah’s household, was much the worse for wear.
It had stains on it. One embroidered rose flapped forlornly. It had been tried on several dozen times and was looking stretched and shapeless.
It was still far too small for Anabel, who took one look at it and began laughing. “Oh, no,” she said. “I’d have to hack my toes off. Will you look at these blisters?”
She wiggled her bare toes. The Duke’s herald averted his eyes. Hannah’s stepmother put her hand on Anabel’s shoulder and murmured, “Not in front of the Duke’s son, dear.”
Hannah lurked behind the shed, watching the road for Kara.
“She has to get here on time,” muttered Hannah. “She has to. I won’t marry him.”
The oldest stepsister tried on the shoe to no avail. The embroidered rose dangled by a single thread.
“Sorry to have bothered you,” said the herald, turning away.
“Hang on,” said Anabel. “There’s still Hannah.”
“Hannah was not the mysterious girl,” said her mother blightingly.
“She might be.” Anabel set her jaw stubbornly. “She ought to get to try, anyway.”
Her intentions were good, but Hannah could have stuffed her headfirst into a beehive when the whole Ducal procession proceeded into the garden.
“Not there!” she cried, jerking her eyes from the road. “Don’t step there! That’s where the poppies are sown, and you can’t compress the soil, or—oh, bother.”
“It’s ‘Oh bother, your lordship,’” said the herald.
His lordship stepped off the poppies and looked contrite.
“If you could just try on this shoe,” said the herald, looking at Hannah’s muddy boots with contempt. “Then we’ll get out of your flowerbeds.”
“I’d rather not,” said Hannah, eyeing the shoe. “It looks . . . used.”
“Duke’s orders,” said the herald crisply.
Hannah sat down and began unlacing her boot as slowly as possible. Wherewas that titmouse?
She pulled the boot off. The Duke’s son was chased by a bee and began waving his hands frantically.
“You’ll only get stung if you do that,” said Hannah, much annoyed. She would not marry him, that was all there was to it. She spread her toes in an effort to make her foot seem wider.
The herald extended the shoe.
Her toes slid inside. She flexed her foot, hard, and said “Look, it doesn’t fit at all. Much too . . . err . . .”
There was a chirp and a whisper of wings on her shoulder.
The garden gate slammed open.
“Wait!” cried Kara. “Let me try that shoe!”
All eyes turned to her. Hannah took advantage of the pause to yank her foot out of the shoe and cram it back into her boot.
The Duke’s son’s head jerked up.
“That voice,” he said. “I know that voice!”
He snatched the shoe away from the herald and dropped to his knees, heedless of the mud. “Kara? Is it you?”
“It is!” she said, and stuck her foot in the shoe.
It was much too big and hung like a rag around her foot. The Duke’s son stared at it in dismay.
“It got stretched out,” said Hannah hurriedly. “Because my feet are so big. Tore the stitches, I imagine. Or the seams, or whatever they are. It’s definitely her. Ask her a question only she would know.”
“What did I say to you, during the first dance?” asked the Duke’s son.
Kara leaned forward and whispered something into his ear.
The Duke’s son’s face lit up and he flung the shoe aside.
A moment later, he had swept the servant girl up in his arms and was striding toward the gate, while she laughed aloud in delight. The herald squawked and ran after them.
Hannah let out a long sigh of relief.
“Could’ve been you,” said the titmouse on her shoulder.
“God forbid,” said Hannah. “All I want is my own garden and my own bees. And perhaps to work out a cheaper method of under-floor heating.”
“I expect you may get that,” said the titmouse. “At least the bit with your own garden. Providing dresses like that—well, you’re practically her fairy godmother. I should expect a reward will find its way here eventually. Particularly if a small enchanted bird were to show up and sing about the benefits of gratitude.”
“Perhaps Anabel and I can set up together. She can sew dresses and I’ll keep bees. There are worse fates.”
“The dryad won’t be happy,” warned the bird.
“Sod the dryad.” She thought for a minute. “What about you, though? Aren’t you supposed to go back to being a regular bird?”
The bird shrugged. “Didn’t get you married. I may be stuck like this for awhile, or until the dryad gets distracted.”
“You don’t sound too bothered.”
“Once you get in the habit of thinking, it’s hard to stop. Perhaps you could throw me a worm now and again.”
“I’d be glad to,” said Hannah, and the titmouse rubbed its small white cheek against her round pink one.
“That’s all right, then,” said the bird, and it was.
Art © 2014 by Tara Larsen Chang.