The soldier sighed. “Fine. Tomorrow, then. I will find you at the market,” the Colonel said, bending the brim of his hat to Cinderella before he made his exit and walked towards a group of Erlauf soldiers who were congregating beneath an arch a short distance away.
“Erlauf. Nothing but trouble,” the Aveyron maid said before she made her way to the market where Vitore and a cart were waiting.
Cinderella watched the Colonel go and felt for the silver coin in her pocket. Tonight she would have Pierre test its authenticity. There was little she could do to dissuade the Erlauf Colonel. Her best chance was to continue stringing him along on tours and hope he grew bored with it, and with her.
Cinderella grimaced as a pig wiped its snout on her dress. After the Erlauf Colonel bought her afternoons for a full week, Cinderella suspected Marie would pay her a visit. Cinderella had hoped it would be at a time when she was not filthy and muddy.
So much for hoping.
“Cinderella, you cannot hide from me! Jeanne said you were out here,” Marie said, sounding just as imperial as she used to back when she wasn’t a merchant’s wife but a duke’s daughter.
“I’ll be there in a minute,” Cinderella shouted, skidding in the muck and mud the pigs created by dumping their water trough. She almost fell flat, but steadied herself by grabbing a great, black pig.
The animal ignored her and nosed through food scraps.
Cinderella edged her way out of the mud hole. She popped over the wooden fence just as Marie—in a clean, crisp dress—rounded the corner of the dairy barn.
“Oh, Cinderella,” Marie sighed.
“The pig boy is helping out in the high pastures today. Someone had to feed the pigs,” Cinderella said, trying not to shudder as she looked at her dress. The thighs up had remained clean, but lower, the pigs had nosed and brushed against Cinderella’s legs, making the hemline of her dress filthy and her legs coated in mud.
“Yes, but did you have to crawl into the pen to feed them?” Marie said.
“I will know better next time,” Cinderella grimly said.
“You shouldn’t have to know at all!”
“Marie,” Cinderella said.
“I know, I know. I would hug you, but I will decline to touch you. You smell like refuse.”
“I understand. What brings you to Aveyron?”
“I heard about the officer,” Marie said.
“Ah,” Cinderella said, starting for the dairy barn. “Who told you?”
“The whole capital talks of it. One of the maids mentioned when the Erlauf officer started stopping by your stand every morning. That was forgivable. Irritating, but not dangerous. But, Cinderella, is it really wise to spend your afternoons with him?”
“I don’t have a choice. Didn’t your maid tell you? He’s a Colonel.”
“He is? Oh dear,” Marie gasped. “I thought it was unusual you would even look twice at an Erlauf rat. What do the two of you do?”
“First of all, it is three of us. Even I am not so bold that I would accompany a stranger without a chaperone, so a housemaid attends to us. And it is not a true social interaction. I give him tours—although I am beginning to run out of places tied to Erlauf history to visit. I have tried to make it as business-like as possible. He even pays me for the tour.”
“You’re trying to get rid of him, then?”
“As best I can. It is not going well,” Cinderella said, stopping at a well. She dropped a bucket into well and waited for it to sink before drawing it back up.
“Do Julien and Marcus know?” Marie asked, naming the two eligible, Trieux noble boys.
“Julien must. His family is too close to Werra not to have heard of it,” Cinderella said, grunting as she pulled the bucket of water over the lip of the well.
“And yet the Rosseuxes have made no move?”
“I haven’t heard from them since I last saw them at Lord and Lady Delattre’s.”
“How unusual. One would think they would sweep in and snatch you up before the Erlauf rat ruins you,” Marie said, backing away from the well when Cinderella started scrubbing.
“I am not surprised. Lord Rosseux is bitter, but cautious. If the Colonel is petty, he might get nasty if someone tried to step in,” Cinderella said.
“But it is so dishonorable to leave you alone to defend yourself. What of the Girards?”
Cinderella considered the family for a moment. They—from Lord and Lady Girard to fourteen-year-old Marcus—were a younger sort of family. “They might step in and make an official marriage offer if they lived any closer. As it stands, it will take a good week or two for the news to reach them.”
“You could write to them,” Marie suggested.
Cinderella, pink skinned from the cold water and the spring air, shook her head. “If they make an offer, I will have to accept,” she said, studying the chateau, which austerely stared down at her from a hill. “I’m not ready to give Aveyron up, yet.”
“Foolish girl. If you wait much longer, the worst might happen—and no one will want you,” Marie said wrapping a shawl around her shoulders.