The Dog Princess — Chapter XVIII

In which Perfecta lends a hand

Philomena dragged Perfecta into one of the many tiny sitting rooms in the castle, one in which she was sure Hartwell would not think about looking for her, and told her everything in one long, breathless rush. Perfecta sat next to her and listened in silence, holding her hand.

“What do I do?” Philomena asked at the end. “Tell me what to do.”

Perfecta smiled her perfect smile. “Oh, my dear. You have so much catching up to do.”
“Can you help?”
“Of course I can help! But you need to keep quiet about it. You and Hartwell are too close, you cannot tell him what we’re doing. It’d completely ruin the overall result.”
“I’m in your hands.”
“Good. Because that’s where you need to be.”

Over the following days, Hartwell noticed that Philomena was gone a lot more than usual, and found he missed her. The wound on his shoulder had started to scar and did not hurt any more, and he was bored and lonely. He took to going down to the stables to feed and pet her mare, Phillys, and sometimes take her for short rides. Discovering he was left-handed had completely changed his balance, and he found he was a lot less clumsy than he used to be.
He wrote a long letter to his brother Hartley, unburdening his heart. He tried switching to his left hand for writing, too, but found that lack of practice resulted in a lot of smudged ink on the page, so he stuck to his right. Some things could not be undone.
Hartley sent back a small blue vase painted with stars, with a letter inside saying he would be glad to attend the Solstice Ball with his wife and child. Hartwell placed the vase on the mantelpiece in his room, the first thing in the castle that truly belonged to him.

“No, no, no. No dark blue and no straight necklines. Straight necklines are good for tall girls, you need to elongate. A v-shaped neckline is what you want here. Porporina, why don’t you show her ladyship what we had in mind for her?”
“At once, m’lady” said Porporina, enthusiastically. A visit from Perfecta meant handsomely-paid work for the whole family, and making a gown for the crown princess would establish her shop as the go-to place in town. She dove into the backroom and came back with a magnificent golden brocade sleeveless tunic that fastened at the front.
“I cannot wear that, it’s indecent!” Protested Philomena.
“Hush, darling. It’s a two-piece set, it’s meant to be worn on top of a lighter dress. It will enhance your shape and leave your arms and legs free to move for the dance.”
“You know I don’t dance.”
“You will. And you will dance with Hartwell. This is non-negotiable.”
“M’lady will look very pretty in it” offered Porporina, adjusting the tunic around Philomena’s body. It fit her perfectly, and it would look stunning on top of the light pink dress that Perfecta had chosen to go with it.
“Why are you not married yet, Perrie?” Asked Philomena, as Porporina checked the hem of the tunic. “All the boys like you. You should have married Hartwell.”
“That was never in the cards for me, but anyway I’m never getting married” said Perfecta, breezily. “I want to be a diplomat and travel the kingdoms. Marriage and children would get in the way of that.”
“Will you not be lonely?”
“Do I look lonely?” Perfecta laughed. “I have friends everywhere I go. I have money and a country house and all the people in the world to keep me company. And now I have you, dear cousin, and your scrumptious husband. What more could a girl want?”
“I don’t know, to be honest. I never thought I had options.”
“You didn’t. You’re the crown princess. But you were lucky. I don’t think your mother and father had any idea you and Hartwell would actually like each other.”
“Do you think he likes me?”
“I know he does. Everyone knows he does. Or he wouldn’t have challenged his brother like that.”
“I had nothing to do with it.”
Perfecta burst out laughing. “You really think that was the reason? Oh dear. Even if the servants didn’t talk, which they do, it doesn’t take a very sharp mind to guess that the reason why Hartwell got himself cut up was you.”
Perfecta patted her on the shoulder. “The servants talk. All of them. Except for Porporina, here, is that right, Porporina?”
“That is right, m’lady.”
Perfecta winked. “You will look fabulous at the ball. But we need to talk about the rest of your wardrobe, too.”

Philomena went to bed that night and dreamed of herself at the ball in a beautiful white dress, one with ruffles around the neckline and pearls sewn in an intricate pattern on the skirt. She twirled and danced as light as air, until she felt a hand shake her, and she was jolted awake.
“M’lady.” It was Piper. “The queen wants to see you at once.”