Green Valley School for Girls comes into view as the horse-drawn carriage pulls to the central courtyard. I can’t keep my eyes off the massive building. It’s breathtaking, with its numerous turrets and towering steeples. The walls are built of gleaming stones of varying sizes and shapes, none the same as another. From a distance, it is a uniform creamy white, but as the carriage draws nearer, I can see that it is a mosaic of humble rocks. Of them, not one would be given a second glance if they were loose by the roadside. But together, they are a masterpiece of enchanting strength and glamour.
The hushed whispers around me break me from my thoughts. I tap my sister’s shoulder. “Rose,” I whisper urgently. “What’s going on?”
“Oh, Aella,” she murmurs while shaking her head. “We’re excited because — see that line of young men? They’re our escorts into the building.”
I raise an eyebrow. “So?”
“You’re supposed to be excited, Aella. Escorts! And come on — just look at them!”
I try to see what she’s talking about, but there’s nothing out of the ordinary. “Look at what exactly?”
She gives me an odd look. “Aella… can’t you tell?” She turns away and resumes her conversation with another girl. I turn back to the castle-like building and let my thoughts wander.
No, Rose, I can’t. I never have, and I probably never will.
I’m different, and I know it.
The ancient stone walls of the highest turret provide a sanctuary for me. It’s often that I find myself making my way here, dreaming of the world outside this place. This small, rounded space provides for me what I always had to find myself when I was younger. A place to simply be.
I am often told that I’m too much of a “dreamer.” I suppose I am. I’ve always had a wild imagination, and my dreams show fanciful rides on dragons with magic at every corner. It seems only right that my haven would be here, away from everyone.
Away. For I simply do not belong.
Mistress Armelle is going over ballroom dancing. I can hardly keep myself awake. Life here is suffocating me, and I often think of myself as a blackbird trapped in a cage. Aching to soar, aching to be free.
There’s a villager boy outside. He’s dressed in torn clothes and his skin is dirty. And yet, despite being raised in such a noble household, I wish to join him. He’s going over to the stables. A stable boy then?
I long to be in his place, getting my fingers dirty. I—
“Miss Miller! Focus!” Mistress Armelle’s voice interrupts my thoughts. Humiliated, I keep myself from spacing out again.
By the time class ends, the stable boy is gone.
Time for the April Ball.
Do I want to go? Not at all.
Do I have to? Obviously.
Will I? Not if I can help it.
So I don’t. I’m “sick.” And I hear that Rose didn’t either.
What am I missing out on?
“Aella, wait up!” I pause as my sister catches up to me. “Aella!”
“What is it?” I seriously don’t have time for this.
“I’ve been noticing —” She rakes her fingers through her hair in frustration. “Why have you been off in class?”
I startle. “I’m sorry?”
She sighs. “Aella, you’ve been out of it lately. What’s wrong?”
Was it not obvious? I reply with a clipped, “My heart and mind are not the same. I'm sorry, you won't understand.” With that, I leave my sister behind.
Her look of pain does not go unnoticed.
Mother and Father called today. I knew what they were going to say beforehand. It’s always the same.
“Oh, Aella, you must stop dreaming!”
“Aella, you’re disgracing our family!”
“Why can’t you be like your sister?”
I have had it with them. If they can’t accept me for who I am, then perhaps it’s better if I choose my own path for myself.
I hear a noise to my left as Madame Corinna leads us into the ballroom for the Summer Dance. I see a thin boy scrambling away into the copse nearby, clutching his arm to his side. His shirt is bloody. I swallow nausea building up in my throat, and manage to get away from the crowd to follow him.
“What happened to your arm?” I ask once I reach him. He glances up, fear in his expression. I freeze for a moment — I recognize him. The stable boy. “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.”
His eyes, dark and wide, bore into my hazel ones. “How can I trust you? You don’t want to associate with the likes of me.”
I shake my head. “I’m not like them.” To prove my point, I yank off my gloves and hold it to his bleeding elbow. “Trust me.”
He nods after a while, slowly and carefully. “I trust you. I just never had anyone who…”
His voice trails off but I understand. Standing up, I glance over to check if the girls had come out. “Well, I’m here now. Okay?”
A small smile creeps onto his face. “Okay.”
That night, my smile is impossible to contain.
Rose has been acting strange recently. I want to help her, but I’m sure she won’t accept it. For her, family is always first and she must abide by the expectations placed on her.
Not for me. I want to be my own self. Free. Without boundaries.
And I will.
They won’t stop me.
Her words ring in my head all day. She used to support me all the time before. What happened now?
“Aella, what were you thinking?” Rose’s furious voice echoed through the empty room. “You know it’s not right to voice your opinions like that! What will Mother and Father say?”
I remained silent. Truthfully, I had no idea what came over me when I snapped at Mistress Farah. She was talking about proper etiquette and how we should not interact with people “below” us. I couldn’t take it anymore and the wall keeping me in broke.
Rose’s furious yells shattered me. Couldn’t she tell that I only said that because I had no other choice? When the world offers you no help, you have to find your way yourself. Oftentimes, that path you pave is not necessarily the right one, and it is only with trial and error that one can come closer to success.
I have learned something today. The real Aella is not welcome in this world.
So now, the new and improved Aella will take charge.
I seriously think that I’ve been cursed,
Is it possible for a day to get any worse?
It’s a dark, dark place that I’m trapped in
I never thought it would get worse than it has been.
But it has. Oh, it has. And it will only continue to fare this way.
It’s been months since the last time I “disobeyed,” and my change has not gone unnoticed. I know I’m making my family proud, and for once, I’m being the girl I’m supposed to be.
Yet, I can’t wash the feeling of unease that seems to walk hand-in-hand with me wherever I go. So many months ago, I had snapped at my sister and gave her an excuse for my actions. “My heart and mind are not the same. I'm sorry, you won't understand,” I had said, without knowing that it would one day become reality.
It became too much of a reality, honestly. There is no “me” to the Aella I am now. I hardly recognize what I see when I look at a mirror. The once fair-skinned, dark-haired girl with a striking violet gaze has been replaced by a sickly pale woman with dull eyes. I’m lying to everyone around me, and I’m not sure if I can keep up the act anymore.
And now I’ve found the worst person to lie to — myself.
The carriage was just leaving the premises of the school when I saw him.
He was running with some of his friends at the gardens nearby. His laugh was contagious, and I almost found myself joining. He turned to look at the carriage once it came closer, and I’m not lying when I say this — his dark eyes brightened like the sun when I gave him a small smile. I almost had our driver stop, forgetting about my parents and sister next to me, but I stopped myself in time. It killed me to hold myself back, and I know it hurt him too.
I’ve become a monster. Heartless and cruel. It hurt him just as much as it hurt me, and all I did — am doing — is writing it out in my diary. I wish I was different and didn’t have a name to live up to.
I wish I could be free, for once in my life.
I was at my tower this morning when I learned something.
Apparently Rose isn’t an angel either.
She entered my tower soon after me carrying a stack of books. Men’s books. About the sky, the stars, and all that. I almost started laughing at her but stopped myself when I noticed how scared she became.
Oh, Rose. My naive sister.
It won’t do you any good to be scared of me. I have been gazing at the stars all my life. I won’t care — no, I don’t care. It’s Mother and Father we have to hide from. The instructors at this school. Our blabbermouth roommates.
I won’t tell, for now.
As long as you don’t tell anyone about me.
If the stone floor of the courtyard could recall the events of today, you'd beg for deafness. Caspian’s screams of agony from this afternoon rings in my ears, over and over, an endless taunt of my failure. Blood lining the crevices, frail body thrown onto the dark tiles. leather hitting flesh in an endless rhythm. I have never seen such cruelty; I had never known it was possible for mankind to have the capability to commit such injustice.
Each time Caspian’s smooth back, only thin skin stretched over bones, was marked with another angry line, I felt my heart crack further. He was simply minding his own business. So what if he came too close to the school for a mere stable boy?
I know what it’s like to be alone. I know what it’s like to have nobody to turn to, to have all of your loved ones and people you thought you could trust turn their backs on you. I don’t want anyone to ever feel this way.
So I didn’t today, and I won’t tomorrow. I will always stand up for what’s right.
No matter how much pain I will have to face for that to happen.
I’m keeping true to my promise. I don’t mind pain, as long as it happened for the right reason. Mother and Father were furious. This time, I spoke out loud against men. I’m proud of what I did, so it doesn’t bother me.
Father hit me when I told him what I thought. Mother arranged for stricter lessons and I’m not allowed to go to the Spring Ball next month. I don’t mind, not at all.
I lied. I do mind. I now have a maid following me around everywhere to make sure I don’t “deviate” again. Mother says it’s because she wants the best for me, but I have a hard time believing her.
My lessons are no longer lessons. It’s an examination. If I don’t do exactly as I’m told, Mother and Father are immediately notified. I can’t let that happen.
Who knows what they’ll do this time?
The cycle continues. Lessons, studies, food, and sleep. The world is now divided into black and white. I turned black when I stood up for Caspian, now I’m turning white. There is no gray section, so any deviance results in a stricter schedule for me.
Rose tried to talk to me about it. I don’t buy a word of what she says. If she was truly so concerned, she could have done something instead of standing there like a fool while Mother and Father bore down on me with lectures.
I’m tempted to tell Mother and Father about her obsession with astronomy, but I refrain from doing so. The last thing I want to do is to give them the impression that I’m on their side.
At least I’m back to being at the top of my class. Rose’s grades are slipping on the other hand. I don’t care. I’m done caring about what they want me to be, what they think of me. I’m done.
I have never been more excited for the Summer Ball. First, that horrible stalker of a maid has left. Second, I remember last year, when I first met Caspian. It was the best day of my life, for I had finally made a true friend.
A friend who sent me this stunning gown for the ball. Rich red silk flowing to my ankles with a layered hem. A sweetheart neckline, with matching gloves. I know this would have cost him every penny, and I love him for it. It’s not overly fancy, but it’s not too simple. Exactly what I would wear.
Rose is jealous of me. I can see the pain and rage in her eyes every time she glances at me. It’s not my fault she wants to be the perfect daughter and doesn’t have a life other than what Mother and Father expect of her. I ignore her questions and pretend to be too excited about my gift to hear her. It’s not hard.
People like her always end up dissatisfied. People like me are rarer, but all the pain is worth it.
He’s not here. My heart lurches with fury and disappointment. How dare he? I wouldn’t even have come had it not been for the stunning dress he sent me.
Rose’s date had ditched her, so she’s clinging onto me like a leech. Begging me to open up. I resist the urge to roll my eyes. If I didn’t tell her before, why would I now?
It’s when we’re leaving the hall that I see him. Lurking in the same clump of trees we had first met. He smiles shyly at me, and throws me a perfect rose. I can’t keep the smile off my face, but Rose pulls me away before I can catch it properly. I’m furious at her, but Caspien’s gentle shake and wide eyes has me falter. I don’t want to cause any trouble for him, so I regard Rose in cold silence instead.
A petal made its way into my clutch, however, unbeknownst to my twin. I breathe its sweet fragrance at night and allow the gentle lull of love and magic to pull me into a deep slumber.
I got a letter from Caspian today. I’ve received a lot of curious glances in my direction all day due to my impossibly happy mood, but that doesn’t matter.
My darling Aella,
I know you might be busy with your lessons, but I have to tell you this. I don’t have much time to write a lot, so I’ll be upfront about this.
I know a way we can be together without worrying. Please hear me out. I know it’s a lot to take in, but I assure you, it will be worth it. If you love me, think about it. Please.
I am numb. I have been offered a choice of freedom, but will it be worth it?
The Council of Elders gave a speech today. It was all about the "dirty" people in the world, and now that us girls are about to graduate, we have to learn to distinguish between the “right” and “wrong” people. My father is one of them, and every word that came out of his mouth felt like a direct blow to me. His eyes found me too many times for this to merely be a coincidence.
I found this ridiculous and told Rose so. She looked at me sadly and told me that they're right. I strongly disagree, but I realize that in order to survive in this world, I would have to change my belief. With that in mind, I know what to write as a response to Caspian.
My darling Aella,
I apologize for not thinking. You have no idea how sorry I am. I never meant for this to happen. Please forgive me. You are not entitled to come with me, and it makes sense. I am just a commoner. It’s just that being with you gave me a refuge I never had before, and I couldn’t help it. I’m sorry.
My fingers tremble as I read his words. I know what to write now.
Don’t be sorry. I am. I’ve made up my mind. I’m coming.
With final certainty, I leave the note on Rose’s bed. I know this is right for me. I’ve never belonged, and nothing has ever felt this right.
I creep out of the castle, clutching my dark cloak to me. When Caspien’s hand finds mine, I let out the breath I didn’t know I was holding.
I will never be forgiven by my family, and I don’t mind.
I don’t know what life will bring, but I am not afraid.
I’m ready for it.
For now, I can finally be the girl I was born to be.