Sophia knew not to trust friendliness; she knew kindness could be false. She might not be able to quash the happiness that darted to the surface like fish after bread crumbs whenever Cinders knocked on her door to ask for help with something, when Prince Basile caught sight of her at one of Cinders's gatherings and smiled, but she knew better than to foster it.
She knew, but Cinders would keep scattering those crumbs. Sophia, would you like to come for a walk with me? Sophia, I'm going into town, is there anything you want? Sophia, I think the prince was really taken with you.
"I met him," Sophia protested, the first time it came up. "But I wasn't the one he proposed marriage to before the sun was up."
It was all the more galling because she had enjoyed that meeting with him. She'd thought that if only he were someone else entirely, there might be something worth considering between them; considering her looks and her personality, she could do far worse, and any man who didn't run screaming from her honest opinions could probably tolerate marriage to her. But the prince of the realm had nothing to gain from marriage to an impoverished girl from the lower ranks of the nobility, and besides, he clearly preferred Cinders. Sophia might not be the best or brightest or most beautiful in the house, but she had enough pride not to jump at second place.
"It's not as though he was in love with me," Cinders would say. That seemed to be her refrain. "He was interested. He was interested in you, too, but the difference is that I was interested back."
"Yes, and how does Tobias feel about that?"
"Tobias doesn't know all the grisly details," Cinders said lightly, and she didn't throw in any kind of comment about whether or not Sophia was going to tell him. Because Cinders either trusted her or wanted to act like she did — probably the former, because this was Cinders, not Gloria — and didn't mind showing it, and even though Sophia knew better, there was a stupid flicker of happiness when she thought about it, the flash of a fin beneath the water.
"Sophia, could you find Mary for me?" Cinders would ask her, at one of those gatherings that weren't exactly parties but hadn't quite earned the term "salon" yet, and Sophia would agree, and get up to look for the housekeeper, before she realized Cinders was trying to get her circulating so the Prince would see her, and either seek her out or send someone else to do so for her. She hated when it was the latter; she knew these smirking, bowing courtiers had to be laughing behind their hands at her, at the ugly, poorly-bred girl who probably took the prince's passing interest in her seriously. She didn't, she wanted to rage at them. She wasn't a fool. She knew better.
She knew better, even though the prince's smiles, and his shocked, stifled laughter when she was too original, seemed sincere enough. She was just a novelty, or maybe a way for him to amuse himself; maybe he hoped to make Cinders jealous? There had to be something he thought he could gain.
"His crown, of course," Cinders said, one evening. Gloria was somewhere else, probably bossing the servants around. Cinders had a frighteningly enthusiastic lieutenant in household-management thanks to Gloria, and Sophia was happy to have her older sister out of her hair. Carmosa was busy, or at least secluded, up in her study, so Sophia and Cinders had the sitting room to themselves. Cinders was sewing, fine embroidery now rather than darning socks, and Sophia was jotting down notes. She'd always been a reader, but people were so interesting — so ridiculous, frequently, but in so many varied ways — that she was starting to think of writing, as well.
"Wait, that rumor's true? He won't be crowned until he's married?"
Cinders nodded. "Why do you think he proposed to me after one meeting? My chest isn't that special."
"So that's why he moved on down the list when you turned him down."
"What do you think I'd need to do to make him switch to Gloria?"
"How would I know?" Cinders asked. "I only turned him down once, and that was enough."
"So did I."
Sophia had returned her attention to her page, but at that she looked up.
"I went to the ball that night because I wanted the whole romantic experience — I wanted to look beautiful, and get everyone's attention, the whole package. And I was infatuated with Basile, from the moment I saw him until I left the ball. He's a fascinating man, and very handsome." It wasn't anyone's business if it was irritating Sophia to hear Cinders speak of him that way. Not even Cinders's business. "And once I left the ball, the spell was broken. For him as well, I think."
It had lasted long enough for him to send the guards, Sophia thought, but that sounded suspiciously like the kind of trivial, petty thing a character in a novel might say out of jealousy. Veiled jealousy, when she didn't want to admit how she felt about the hero. "Why are you so determined to convince me Prince Basile is interested in me? I didn't think you had any intention of maneuvering someone onto the throne." Unlike Carmosa.
"That's where you're wrong, sister dear," Cinders said with a grin. "I aim to marry you off and install myself as the power behind the throne. Nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that the Prince asks about you each time I see him."
She was only smiling in response to Cinders's expression, and she was not blushing. Stupid fish, flinging themselves at bread crumbs; you couldn't count on people coming to feed you. You had to know how to take care of yourself. "You couldn't have picked a worse would-be queen, then. Can you imagine me at court, the center of attention?" The girl who wouldn't even leave her room for fear of her own mother and sister; the girl who hid books under her bed lest anyone laugh at her taste in reading material, and who reflexively hid whatever she was writing, even if it was only a shopping list.
"Could you imagine me moving out of the scullery and reaching civil terms with Carmosa?" Cinders replied. "People can change. And wouldn't it be nice to be in a position where everyone else needed to impress you, instead of the other way round?"
They might be trying to impress you, but they could still hate you. That was what Basile said; that he didn't know whom to trust at court, because everyone had an agenda. "I'm not so sure," she said. "But don't worry, if you get your way you'll be my most trusted advisor."