FRANCES KOZIAR - CINDERELLA’S HOPE
FRANCES KOZIAR is the author of the teen fantasy "The War of the Shard", nominated for iUniverse's Editor's Choice Award, and is seeking an agent for a diverse new adult fantasy novel. She has 10+ publications in literary magazines, including in Yarn Magazine, Gathering Storm Magazine, and up and coming in the Passed Note. She is an Aztec archaeologist and anthropologist and lives in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.
Author website: https://franceskoziar.wixsite.com/author
Cinderella hovered just out of sight of the guards, back in the safety of the market crowds. She looked up at the castle again. It was amazing that something that looked so beautiful, its stones glimmering in the afternoon light, could be so close to the bustle of the market and the lonely tragedy of her life.
What are you doing, Madella? her father asked, amusement tingeing his voice.
She didn’t answer, but started walking. She walked steadily, neither too slow nor too fast, her eyes on the ground where she knew to keep them. Hiding, as she often did, in plain sight.
No one stopped her at the outer gates, but as she followed a servant through a small metal side door of the castle, she was asked,
“What are you bringing?”
She stopped, glancing at the soldier before lowering her eyes. “Bolts of cloth for the seamstress,” she answered.
He flicked up a corner of the cover she had over the basket to keep the cloth clean and grunted, letting her though.
And just like that, she was in. To infiltrate a castle, it seemed, all you needed to do was wear rags and a dirty face, and play the part.
She hadn’t planned what she would do once she was inside. She wasn’t even sure why she was there, except that an anxious, restless despair ached in her chest, and the castle, like much of the world, didn’t seem real from her cold attic window. Maybe she was mad. Or maybe she just wanted something, anything, to change.
She wandered the hallways, admiring the architecture and the tapestries, thinking that her father would have liked the castle.
Be careful, Cinderella, warned the kindly butcher from the market. You know this isn’t a dream.
But she felt apathetic and reckless, and went upstairs. On a floor she knew she couldn’t explain her way to safety from, a young maid suddenly rounded the corner in front of her with unshed tears in her eyes.
“Are you all right?” she asked the girl, who looked thirteen.
The girl startled like a faun as she nearly barrelled into Cinderella. “I can’t be lightin’ the prince’s fire. The queen just gone and went mad at me for not tendin’ it and then the prince gone and went mad at me for disturbin’ him and now them fire’s still dying.”
“It’s okay, here,” Cinderella offered, taking the girl’s coal scuttle from her. “I will do it. I am Cinders-ella,” she said with a smile, as if her name were only a joke.
The girls eyes got even wider. “Will you, miss? He’ll be yellin’ at you too.”
“I’ll be fine. Go,” she urged gently, and the girl ran off.
It wasn’t hard to find the prince’s room around the corner. There were two guards stationed outside the doors, for one.
“I am here to tend the fire,” she said to them, setting down her basket of cloth.
“What’s that?” one of them asked.
“Bolts of cloth for the seamstress,” she repeated, “I did not have the chance—” But he was already waving her through with one hand as he reached for the basket with the other.
And so, without quite knowing how it had happened, Cinderella found herself in the prince’s chambers. She didn’t see the prince at first. She saw a high arching ceiling, tall rounded windows of clear glass, and a warm colourful rug on the stone floor. There was a door to another room to the right: perhaps the bedroom. This room was grander than anything she knew of course, but still it reminded her of her father somehow, of their house when it had been home, and of a past that was only a fairytale.
“What are you doing here?” a voice demanded from a corner beside the furthest window. In the light she couldn’t see him clearly. “I do not want a fire.”
When Cinderella ignored him, remembering the girl’s words that the queen had ordered it, the prince snorted. “Do you want to marry me?” he asked bitterly, incomprehensibly, and again Cinderella said nothing as she knelt by the fire. He sounded like she did, when she was really talking to someone who wasn’t there. The fire was struggling but not out, and she used the fire fork to adjust the coals. The thick metal fireback was engraved with an image of the castle.
“Answer me,” the prince muttered, surprising her.
She stood up and turned to him, smoothing her skirts and looking at his white, pearl-studded shoes.
“Any woman would be honoured to marry you, Your Royal Highness.”
He snorted, and turned away.
She had seen the crown prince once in the distance, but never this one, the younger of the two. He looked young, twenty-two she had been told, and was no taller than she was. Not particularly handsome but not hard to look at, with a neatly trimmed beard and steady, deep brown eyes that were now turned toward his window.
“I did not mean to offend you, Your Royal Highness,” she murmured.
He turned back toward her. “It is not you who has offended me,” he answered opaquely. “What is your name?”
“Cinderella, Your Royal Highness,” she answered with a curtsey.
“Like cinders from a fire?”
“I make a lot of fires,” she answered with a small, humourless smile.
“What is your real name?” he asked, looking curious now, rather than angry.
“It is my real name now,” she answered. Madella, her father’s nickname for her birth name of Madeleine, had been a young nobleman’s daughter, educated and just about to come out into the world of marriage and social functions, with a father who was her only family and her best friend. She was not Madella.
“You may finish tending the fire,” offered the prince, watching her as she did so.
“Who gave you that?” he asked when she stood again, pointing to her wrist. She tugged her sleeve down when she saw the bruise, but he was waiting for an answer.
“My stepmother, Your Royal Highness.”
“Did you deserve it?”
She looked him in the eyes. “Never.”
A moment of silence, in which she realized she shouldn’t have spoken to the prince in such a way, in which she realized, with well-conditioned fear, the danger she would be in from her stepmother if she were somehow watching this, and then the prince said,
“I am sorry.”
“I must go, Your Royal Highness,” she said, reverting her eyes to his shoes and dipping another curtsey.
“Of course,” he said, watching her sadly. She picked up the coal scuttle and left.
It’s okay, Madella, her father said comfortingly, as he had when she was young. But it wasn’t. It never was.
When she reached her father’s manor, her stepmother and sisters were arriving home. She had finished early at the market—it was why everything had happened—but she still should have arrived home before them. She slipped around the back.
She hung the basket over her shoulder and climbed the old garden trellis on the back wall as quietly as she could. She slipped in the second floor window, raced up the stairs to deposit the cloth in her attic, and came down to greet her family.
“Cinderella,” remarked her stepmother, in the tone of voice one reserved for being reminded of unpleasant things. “I hope supper is almost ready.”
“I was just about to start it, madam,” she said, dipping a shallow curtsey.
“So it is late.” Lady Jeanne was tall and fair, with a round friendly face and heartless eyes. Today she wore the emerald gown that Cinderella had finished last week.
Supper was not late: this was the usual time for starting it. “I picked up the cloth for your new dresses,” Cinderella offered.
“Does that make supper not late?” Jeanne asked, one lip curling up in a mocking smile.
Charlotte, the older and bolder of her two step-sisters, laughed. “You also have to fix my dress, Cinder-face,” she taunted, and yanked at one of her sleeves until the seam tore. Marie watched quietly with a half-smile.
“Now, Charlotte,” her mother admonished lightly, affectionately, as Cinderella retreated to the kitchen.
She took a deep breath once she was there, resting her back against the door. They wouldn’t follow her here.
She built up the kitchen fire and started preparing her family’s meal.
Are you all right? her father asked. She couldn’t answer, but she saw his sympathetic eyes.
How was the market?
“I finished early,” she told him in a whisper. “I went to the castle and met the younger prince.”
A prince! Wow! An exciting day for sure. What did you think of him?
Cinderella smiled a little, remembering her father’s enthusiasm for new experiences. Lady Jeanne had been the last of those.
“He is not what I imagined. Quite ordinary in a way, but kind. Sad about something. It was strange for him to even notice me, as a servant.”
Did you tell him who you were?
She looked at her father sadly, and the image faded into reality. She focussed on cooking.
“Who am I?” she asked bitterly. “I know who I was.”
I’m sorry, murmured her father.
He had never said those words, but then, he had died so soon after the marriage that he’d dismissed Charlotte’s antics as her “settling in”. Lady Jeanne had always taken care to treat Cinderella well around her father, and her father was too blinded by his new infatuation to listen to truth.
What happened to him? asked the kindly butcher from the market.
But she just shook her head, not wanting to speak of the past today. Instead she thought of her visit to the castle, and held on to it, as a fleeting break from her nightmare.
The servant’s bell rang impatiently just as Cinderella was leaving the kitchen to carry the platters upstairs. They’d had real servants when her father had lived—a cook, two maids, and a groundskeeper—but Lady Jeanne had dismissed them all.
She had eyed Cinderella’s simple dress up and down. “My daughters will not look like that. We need proper clothing,” she had said, “and since we cannot afford any with all these staff,” she said, dismissing them with a wave of her elegant hand, “we will dismiss them, and you will take over. I am sure you are familiar with what needs to be done around here, and will do your part in this time of grief.”
A period that never ended, as far as Cinderella’s work went, and a grief that the woman had expressed very little of. At first Cinderella thought the chores would be shared with her stepsisters, but when she found that wasn’t the case and had fought back, she had learned very quickly how little power she had.
She had had a couple friends in the village and one boy that she’d fancied herself in love with, but when she told them how her new family was, they hadn’t believe her. One had dismissed her problems as regular family squabbles that would pass with time, another had actually been angry with her for slandering her family and complaining, and the boy had thought her words just a product of her grief over her father’s death. It had only helped push them all away, and under Lady Jeanne’s care none of her friendships had lasted long. With the servants gone there were no witnesses, and as an unmarried woman she couldn’t just leave.
After delivering the food to her family, Cinderella tended the fires, tidied her sisters’ bedroom, and fed her stepmother’s cat. She didn’t eat anything herself, not yet. It wasn’t worth the risk.
“And what are you doing?” Jeanne had asked, appearing suddenly in the kitchen.
“I am eating here, so as not to disturb you,” she had replied, phrasing it as if she were trying to please Jeanne, and not thwart her.
“You will not eat until we are finished.” Jeanne had smiled, as if Cinderella was an amusingly confused child. “We do not want to waste food. It makes sense if you eat our leftovers. In the meantime, the flower bed outside is a mess.”
Lady Jeanne controlled everything: the food, the money, the rules of the house. Cinderella had gone without supper half a dozen times, and had gone without food for three days once. Charlotte had been given the happy duty of watching to make sure she didn’t sneak any, to be replaced by Marie only when she got bored. More than once her stepmother had dragged her by the arm hard enough to bruise, as the prince had seen, and more times than she could count she had been ordered to do chores that didn’t need to be done, or hadn’t until someone had made it so. She was constantly listening for footsteps and looking over her shoulder when people weren’t around, and hiding in plain sight—her eyes on the ground, her steps silent, her hands quick to work—when they were.
The prince, ha, Cinderella thought as she collected the dinner plates. That memory already seemed distant and unlikely. Would you marry me? he had asked. What would have happened if she’d said yes? Probably he’d throw her out for being crazy. He hadn’t been talking to her, not really.
Yes, she thought. She would have said yes. Anything to get out of this place, to be a real person again. And if the prince proved to be like her stepmother or like Charlotte, then she would escape him too, somehow. Someday she would get out of here. It was her mantra, her promise, her spark of light in the darkness. Someday, things would be different.
There wasn’t much food left for her to eat, but she relished it, eating slowly on the floor by the fire. She didn’t care for the cinders that darkened her clothing—they were her namesake now, what more harm could they do?
She was still hungry when she finished, but she closed her eyes and wished it away.
Why don’t they leave you more? asked the dairymaid from the market.
“She thinks I am too fat,” whispered Cinderella, looking up at the ceiling. “Only one and two sizes larger than her daughters, but they are thin and I am fat.” She laughed bitterly. “If anything, it only made it worse when she started giving me less. I do not even know how they got rid of the food. The cat? I made more and more, but so little came back.”
She heard a footstep at the top of the stairs and stood up quickly, but no one came.
“Mother, look!” Charlotte had cried when she’d found her talking to herself. “She is even loonier than we thought! Who are you talking to, Cinder-lies?”
But she was always talking to someone, these days. Sometimes it took everything she had not to speak aloud when they were near, not to let her fantasies blind her. Five years had passed since her father had died; five years had passed since she’d lost her friends and anyone to talk to. And after five years of isolation, one had to talk to the people in their head. There was no other way for her to face the void; no other way to handle her life.
Usually she spoke to her father, but sometimes she spoke to the butcher or the dairymaid who smiled at her when she purchased their wares. They seemed like kind people from afar. And it was far easier to create someone in your head, to have conversations with people who you already knew a little bit, rather than inventing them entirely. She’d tried that too, of course.
The sparrows had been her friends for a while. They would come when she called, swooping down and landing on her palm, looking for food. She had spent time with them every day until Marie had found her. That’s when they’d bought the cat.
The servants’ bell rang and Cinderella headed for her sisters’ room.
“Finally,” Charlotte exclaimed, exasperated. “You still have not mended my sleeve, and I want to wear that dress to the party at the LaMontagne’s in two days. Here it is.”
She tossed Cinderella the pink dress she had torn as she’d walked in the door. A thousand comebacks slid through her mind, from the verbal--Oh, too bad, and walk away. Or, You will have to tell them you threw a tantrum. Or And I suppose you want them to think you are well behaved--to the actions: ripping the other sleeve to match; losing or burning the dress; or fixing it but tucking in the waist so the dress no longer fit.
But she wouldn’t do any of them. She had purposely ruined Charlotte’s dress last year—making a rather large hole around the buttocks that she hadn’t noticed till Marie had shrieked—and it had resulted in a dizzying slap from Jeanne and the destruction of all of her clothing except for the ragged dress and apron she now wore every day, and her mother’s old pink dress which Charlotte had claimed in retribution. Some days it felt worth it, but some days it just made her tired to think of fighting back. She had enough problems without trying.
Cinderella had mended that dress and another for Jeanne before she retired for the night, sleeping only after the others were in bed. She resisted the usual urge to collapse and pass out instantly, but instead sat on her mattress on the attic floor, and hummed her father’s lullaby under her breath, as she did most nights.
“Sleep Madella, my darling, love
Sleep and dream away,
The wonders you’ll see and the wonder you’ll be
In that far off world for a day,
Sleep my daughter, my darling, love
Sleep then wake again
Because tomorrow’s a day for the two of us
To laugh and begin again
“Good night, father.”
“And be kind.”
She saw his laughing sternness and imagined him sit on the edge of her bed as she slid under the covers, imagined that her muscles weren’t sore or her stomach rumbling. But the fantasy faded as a memory took over, worn with five years of passing.
“Be careful and come home.”
“I will, I promise. Take care of your sisters and your mother. Do not go too crazy while I am gone. I will be back before you know it. And I will bring presents.”
A wink, a hug, and he was off. She hadn’t really believed it, till the body came home, and even then sometimes it felt like he was just away, or just needed to be found.
She might have lain awake crying, but she never had the time for that anymore. Instead, she fell asleep clinging to the faded image of her father riding away and promising to come back.
From the window, Cinderella watched the carriage with her stepmother and stepsisters in it ride away, and then she carried her sewing to the back of the house. She had to start a new dress today for Marie’s fifteenth birthday in a couple weeks. Last year she’d been allowed to garden on this day, and the year before to work on the roof, and Cinderella looked longingly at the beautiful May day outside. This year she “couldn’t be trusted”. She never felt as trapped as when she wasn’t allowed out beneath the sky.
It was Le Jour de la Fleur, the day that young men gave young women roses, and that’s why she had been ordered to stay inside. They didn’t want any men to “pity” her and feel they “had to” give her a rose, was how Charlotte had put it. Her stepmother had phrased it differently. She didn’t want Cinderella trying to “manipulate” the young men with her “lies”. It stung, even though she knew it was ridiculous. Three years ago she’d been given her first rose—if her father’s as a child didn’t count—by two different men. One was a young man in the market whom she hadn’t seen before, perhaps just passing through. He had been dressed in clean clothes and had a kind smile. He’d given her the rose with a wink, and then blushed as if he’d embarrassed himself, before walking quickly away. The other was a brown skinned man dressed as a castle servant. He’d given her his rose with a sad look on his face that at first she thought was truly pity, before he walked off with the same expression on his face. She wondered if he’d lost the girl he’d really wanted to give it to.
Charlotte had only received one rose that year, her first. Most of the girls receiving flowers were between 16 and 20, and that year Cinderella had been turning 17 and Charlotte was only 14—young to receive any—but Charlotte hadn’t taken that into account. Instead, Cinderella took the blame for how her two flowers ruined Charlotte’s one. Or as Charlotte and Lady Jeanne put it: she was punished for conniving to ruin her sister’s first Le Jour de La Fleur.
She had been made to go apologize the next day to the two men who had given her flowers “out of pity” or “because of her lies”, but had been unable to find either. She hated lying, and vividly remembered the mud her stepmother had made her eat when she’d been caught lying at 15 (when she’d said the reason she didn’t get the exactly correct shade of cloth for Charlotte had been because the vendor didn’t have it), but she’d lied that day. She told them she had found the men and apologized, and feeling generous and genuinely sorry for spoiling Charlotte’s first flower, she had added that one of the men had said that the flower was actually for Charlotte and wanted Cinderella to give it to her.
“Of course it was,” Charlotte had sneered, or tried to, but she had been happy.
Cinderella sat in a window alcove looking out over their back lawn. The yard was small—as she had to maintain it alone—with a small herb and vegetable garden to one side, and a forest flanking them on two. She looked up at the bright blue sky. The sky was a constant, painful source of hope. It had always been there looking exactly the same, even in the time Before.
On sunny spring days like this, her father had used to take her walking, pointing out the plants around them. It was a love he had shared with her mother, who had known enough about herbs and healing that the townsfolk came to her for remedies. Her mother had died, along with her newborn sister, when Cinderella was four. All she remembered of her mother was that she had been kind, and that she had made her father laugh a lot.
You look just like her, her father said again. The same golden brown hair and blue eyes. And you have her spirit.
Cinderella looked sadly at the image of her father seated across from her. “What would she do with all of this?” she asked him, waving at the house, at her life. He understood.
She would keep going, her father said gravely, compassionately, lovingly, just as you are. She would remember what matters, and who she wanted to be. She would remember to be kind, and be smart, and never give up hope. She would remember that there are always things to love in this world.
Cinderella pricked her finger with the needle as tears blurred her vision.
It was midday when a rider-less horse broke out of the forest at a canter. With only a moment’s hesitation and sting of worry that her stepmother would come home hours early, Cinderella raced out and caught the distressed horse, stepping aside as it reared up and kicked, and then pulling it down and calming it.
“Easy girl,” she said gently. Owned, tamed, distressed, and trying to escape, the horse reminded her of herself.
“Hey,” called a man from the trees. His skin was brown and he was dressed like one of the servants of the castle, the ones who wore the navy blue uniform. He stumbled once on his way to her, and Cinderella guessed he’d been drinking.
“That’s my horse,” he explained needlessly, barely looking at her. But she saw the shine in his eyes. That was what made her recognize him, even before she saw the crushed rose in his hand. It was the same man who’d given her a rose three years ago, and he still looked just as sad.
“Are you all right?” Cinderella asked, handing him the horse’s reins.
“He could have trampled you,” the man said. He looked to be in his mid twenties.
“I know horses,” she said. She had had her own, once.
“Do you?” he asked, turning his broken eyes fully on her. Interest sparked some life into them, but she could tell he still barely saw her.
“Do you need any help?” Cinderella asked.
The man swung up into the saddle and ran a hand through his hair, his eyes, for a moment, looking out at the forest with despair. “No.”
He turned the horse around. “Yes.” He looked back at her. The misery and kindness in his eyes would have broken her heart if it hadn’t already broken a long time ago. “Take this.”
He tossed her the rose.
She should have thrown it out immediately or buried it, but she couldn’t. The man had been too sad. She didn’t regret her choice as she walked toward the castle at dusk, though she didn’t look forward to what she was about to do. She had placed the rose on her bed in the attic, and her stepmother, on one of her surprise sweeps of her room, had found it.
“After dinner,” she had said quietly, with a calmness that had frightened Cinderella, “take this back to the man who gave it to you. If Charlotte finds out, then you may eat this flower, and nothing else this week.”
She knew better than to lie this time. She wouldn’t put it past her stepmother to have her followed.
For the second time in one week, Cinderella found the castle looming up before her. She went to the stables first because the man had ridden a horse.
Tell him you are a servant, and tell him he should have given it to someone else. Tell him you apologize for deceiving him.
The first man she encountered in the stables, brushing down a horse, was the dark skinned man she sought. That’s when she realized he was a groom.
“Excuse me,” she said.
The man came out of the stall with a frown, a weary despair still lingering on his brow. “The girl who caught my horse,” he said by way of greeting.
Cinderella offered his rose to him. “I must return this to you. I am sorry.”
But the man didn’t take it. He looked at the rose like it was poisoned, then looked up at her with incomprehension. “Why?”
“I am to tell you—” she couldn’t just say it straight “—that I am a servant and should not have deceived you. That this rose should have been for someone else.”
The man still looked at the rose, studying it now as if it were the one speaking to him. “You are right; I should have given it to someone else.”
Cinderella winced, but he took the rose at last. She turned to go.
“I meant,” the man stumbled, “that I wanted to give it to someone else but couldn’t. I didn’t mean that you didn’t deserve one. Who made you say that?” he asked.
“My stepmother,” she answered honestly before she could catch herself.
“Is she here?”
“No,” Cinderella replied, but she looked over her shoulder as if she might have missed her. She always felt like she were there, watching.
“Then why didn’t you defy her?”
Cinderella stared at him, the words biting deep. She had, but he hadn’t noticed. He didn’t understand what it was to not be free, to not be safe.
“It is not that simple,” she said. “Good day.”
“Wait! Forgive me. I’m not normally such a brute. It’s been a bad day.”
No worse than usual, she thought.
“You do not intend to walk back alone in the dark?”
The shadows were gathering fast. Cinderella looked out of the stable, and knew her stepmother had wanted this. A woman walking alone at night was in very real danger, but Lady Jeanne would have no empathy for her, no matter what happened. “Yes I do.”
She strode out into the night, gathering her courage and sharpening her gaze, but after a few minutes the groom rode out after her, a spare horse beside him. “Do you know how to ride?”
She took the offer before she could come up with a reason to refuse, and the old familiar feeling of pulling herself up into the saddle gave her a surge of bittersweet joy.
They rode to her manor in silence. She pulled her horse to a stop when they were at a safe distance, just out of sight of her stepmother’s assuredly watching eyes.
“You live here, in that manor?” the groom asked, surprised.
She dismounted and glanced at him. Had he not noticed?
“I…wasn’t paying attention earlier. But a man used to live here—did you know him? Vicomte Jehan du Chateau. He taught me how to ride.”
Cinderella just watched him, wanting him to stop and wanting him to keep going. She’d barely heard her father’s name since he’d died. The groom saw something of her expression in the darkness.
“Did you work for him?” And then more softly, daringly, “You aren’t his daughter?”
“Thank you for escorting me back,” said Cinderella cordially. She handed him the reins.
“I’m sorry,” he said gently. “He was a good man. He found me crying in the woods once as a boy and let me ride on his horse. I owe him a lot. He saw everything as an adventure.”
“He did,” Cinderella replied, her voice breaking. “Good night, Mr. Groom.”
“Pierre,” he replied.
Cinderella nodded without giving a name in reply. The groom would have said more but she turned away.
A flash of memory burned, flaring, and dying out like a slip of paper. She remembered the boy who had ridden her father’s horse. She remembered being jealous and demanding that her father teach her too, though she had only been six years old. She remembered that years later her father had given her her own horse for her 14th birthday. Her last birthday with him.
With nothing in her mind but the ashes of her childhood, Cinderella’s feet took her back to the nightmare that had once been a home.
As she did every morning, Cinderella set aside her gloom and got to work. If she stopped she would never keep going.
It was her 20th birthday, but Jeanne didn’t know. Cinderella knew this, because if Jeanne had, she would have made a concerted effort to ruin it every year. As it was, the day began in an ordinary way.
“And buy a new necklace for me,” ordered Charlotte as she walked by. “I need one to go with my blue dress for LaMontagne’s tonight. A gold chain, perhaps.”
“Pearls would go better,” countered Lady Jeanne, turning to Cinderella. “Remember the herring for our dinner with the Beaumont’s. Do not get cod. And buy a few apples. And do not forget the flour, or the usual things.”
Cinderella memorized everything. A couple years back she had accidentally run out of mending thread, and Jeanne had made her unravel her own dress to suffice for her oversight. Another year, when she had forgotten to buy the materials to mend Charlotte’s ornate and studded stomacher for her birthday, she had been locked out of the house until she did; which, as the market had closed, meant she spent the night shivering in the old stable.
When Cinderella was free, she breathed more easily. She heard the market long before she reached it.
She had only just bought Charlotte’s new necklace and had turned back into the throng when she felt a hand on her arm. It took her a moment to recognize the girl, but she remembered the wide eyes.
“Miss Cinderella? That’s you, right? I’ve been looking all over for you because them young prince gone and sent me and I looked through the castle first but no one was knowin’ your name—I mean, people always forget my name too, I’m Anne, but—and I gone and got yelled at for not doing nothin’ but then I told them.”
Cinderella was dragging her into a clearer area near the fountain and dais in the centre of the market. “Who sent you?” she asked.
“The prince. He went and asked about you and I said I met you once but he said none of them other serving girls knew your name at all and he askin’, he said he wanted you to light his fire.”
Cinderella was sure he didn’t need any help with his fire, and she was surprised that he even remembered her name. Though curious, she refused.
“I have shopping to do,” she said with a shake of head. “I cannot see him now.”
The girl blinked in surprise. Perhaps she never considered that anyone, much less a girl in rags, might refuse the young prince, but crossing the prince seemed the lesser of two evils to Cinderella.
“He—he said that if you couldn’t be comin’ that I could do whatever it is you need to do I can go and make your purchases, miss.”
Cinderella gently detached the girl’s still-clinging hand from her arm. “They are very important,” she said kindly. “I should make them myself.”
“He also said,” the girl persisted stubbornly, “that you might be sayin’ that and want someone older to go be doin’ it. He said there’s another servant that can be doin’ them for you. ‘Cause he wants you to tend his fire, miss.”
Cinderella looked over her shoulder, but of course her stepmother wasn’t there and she didn’t know who might be her inadvertent spies. She sighed.
“I will talk to this other servant,” she conceded, but a real fear rose up in her. She didn’t have extra time and she couldn’t afford mistakes.
Cinderella didn’t realize what was about to happen until they stepped inside the stables and she saw him. Pierre recognized her—she saw it in his eyes—but he said nothing about it as Anne explained in her rushed and disjointed way that he was to handle her purchases, on the prince’s request.
His friendly gaze became heavy at the mention of the prince and his order, but his expression was kindly when he turned to Cinderella.
“What would you like me to buy?”
Still feeling that this was a bad idea, she gave him the money and very specific instructions about what to buy. On her request, he repeated them back to her.
“Your stepmother’s orders?” he asked softly. She turned away.
“I will be back soon,” she said, and marched off, Anne running in her wake, to speak to the prince.
She found him just as she’d left him two days before, as if he were a statue frozen in place, looking out the window with a disheartened gaze.
“Your Royal Highness,” she said by way of introduction, curtseying when he spun around.
The prince smiled before he caught himself. “Cinderella. I need someone to make my fire.”
Cinderella waited a moment to see if there was more, before she said, “With all due respect, Your Royal Highness, I have other duties to attend to. I must get back to the market. Anne, I am sure, is capable of making a fire.”
Anne, standing anxiously beside her, was looking down at her own feet, her knees bent in a sustained half curtsey.
Cinderella glanced up at the prince when he didn’t reply, knowing her words had been enough to warrant a punishment, but the prince’s gaze was gentle and sad.
“You are right,” he said softly when their eyes met. “That was petty. I am being selfish. I am used to ordering people around and they usually do not mind. Forgive me. It would please me if you stayed for a few minutes, but if you are too busy, you may go.”
He expected her to go, she knew, as he turned back to the window. Cinderella gestured for Anne to tend the fire and waited for him to speak to her, but the prince said nothing, still gazing out his window. When Anne stood, finished, Cinderella gestured with her head toward the door, and with one frightened glance at the prince, Anne left.
Cinderella almost apologized for her rebuke, but she was right. A faded image of her father raising an eyebrow in amused exasperation flickered before her eyes.
“I hate glass,” the prince said at last.
When he said no more, she asked, “Why?”
“Look at it,” he said with a half-hearted wave of his hand toward the window, as if it answered his question. “It shows me the outside world. It shows me that market of yours, those free, carefree people. It shows me that world, but…” He stepped forward and placed his hand against the glass. “But at the same time it holds me back, holds me in, and keeps that world from me. It is as much a barrier as a wall, but it lies.”
“Does it?” she asked. “What would a prison be without windows? Windows are the only thing that give you hope. It is a painful hope,” she conceded, stepping forward so she could share some of the view, “but perhaps all hope is. And hope is the only thing that keeps you going when you are not free, as some of us down there are not.”
“You see it as a false hope then?” he asked, turning to her.
“I cannot believe it is false,” she said, looking out the tall broad windows herself now. “If I believed that, what is the point of anything? Glass is a hopeful thing. It lets you remember the outside world when you are captured. It lets you remember the good in the world and the past, even if it would be easier not to.”
He turned from her and they stared out the window in silence for a long moment.
“Thank you,” he said.
“What is wrong, Your Royal Highness?”
He smiled mirthlessly and glanced at her. “No one asks a prince that.” But he looked out again and surprised her again with an answer. “I am in love.”
Cautiously she asked, “Would not anyone wish to marry a prince?”
“Would you?” he asked.
Cinderella wondered if she had just been proposed to by a prince twice in one week. “There are many reasons to marry someone,” she answered evasively. “Money, independence, affection, alliances, rank, youthful stupidity.”
“And which sway you?”
“Escape.” She answered immediately, and then paused. Marriage had never been possible under her stepmother’s rule; she had never considered what she would look for if her father were still alive. “And I suppose after that I would want someone who respected me.”
A pause. “Perhaps we are alike, then.”
He said no more to her and didn’t seem to notice as she took her leave and returned to the marketplace.
Her life returned to normal, if it had ever changed, and a month passed without Cinderella hearing another word about the prince, much less from him.
It was toward the end of June when the town crier bellowed out the announcement from the platform beside the market fountain. Excitement hummed in the air, mounting with each word. It was hard to resist, even knowing the news didn’t apply to her.
“There is to be a ball in the castle,” the crier shouted, “to celebrate the engagement of our new King Louis to the Spanish princess, as well as his acceptance of his new position of king and sole ruler of France that has ended the long and prosperous regency of our beloved queen. All those of the rank or family of duke, marquis and comte are invited to the castle in a fortnight’s time, as well as any and all young and marriageable women and their escorts who are of noble blood. For the rest, a banquet will be distributed here, so that you may all rejoice on this happy occasion. Long live the crown!”
Everyone was talking at once, gossiping and planning, the excitement disrupting the normal bustle of the day. Though, like all of them, she had known of the engagement and the end of the queen’s regency, she had never expected a ball like this. To invite all noble marriageable women to the castle at once was an incredible undertaking and could only mean one thing: the queen was seeking a wife for her younger son.
The news preceded her, and Cinderella arrived home to an uproar caused solely by three people. Charlotte’s dresses were scattered about the living room as she ran upstairs, brought another down, and tossed it away for not being good enough. Marie wasn’t running around, but her voice was just as loud as Charlotte’s.
“What about this one, mother? Do you think this one will do?”
And Lady Jeanne was presiding over the ruckus as supreme judge, the same energy lighting her eyes into a calculating and determined fire.
“Of course not, Marie. That style is from last year. Not that one Charlotte—you look too dark in it. You have nothing to match that, Marie. Charlotte, you must think of the whole outfit! You have nothing suitable. Only two weeks!”
Cinderella stood blinking in the doorway, her spirits still lifted, knowing that in a moment she would lose her part in this excitement and would be put to work. For one moment she enjoyed that this day was different from all the others. When her father had married Lady Jeanne, she remembered hoping for this: that she would be part of something, and maybe, that she would find friends in them.
“Cinderella!” said Lady Jeanne with a rare relief in her voice, “You will have to make a new dress for Charlotte for the ball.”
“What about me?” Marie asked indignantly, as Charlotte started listing off ideas for dresses.
“Oh, what about you?” Charlotte asked her sister. “I am the eldest, so I have priority in wooing men. And it will take all of those two weeks for Cinderella to make me a dress nice enough for the prince.”
“Charlotte is right,” said Lady Jeanne, and before Marie could protest, she added, “Cinderella just made you a new dress for your birthday. You may wear that or you may borrow any of Charlotte’s dresses. You need to look your best too. Charlotte is seventeen—a perfect age to marry the prince—but you are fifteen now. Perhaps we can find you a marquis or a duke. You can look very pretty when you don’t pout.”
Marie’s expression was now a comical mix of pleasure and pouting. Cinderella agreed with the complement: Marie was actually prettier than Charlotte, but Charlotte had more energy and knew how to flirt and hold a man’s eye. Still, her stepmother’s aspirations were very high. Every noblewoman in the kingdom would be there. Except one.
“May I wear this one?” Marie asked, holding up one of Charlotte’s discarded dresses. It was Cinderella’s mother’s dress. Pink with ruffles at the wrists. Her father had kept it for her. Cinderella choked on her words and began tending the living room fire.
“That is too old,” said Lady Jeanne. “The one from your birthday was quite pretty. Or perhaps Charlotte’s green one, to bring out your eyes.”
Marie was looking through Charlotte’s scattered dresses and Charlotte was looking at fabrics and there was a moment of silence. Cinderella’s mouth was dry, but she swallowed. It wouldn’t work, but she had to try.
“If it is old anyway, perhaps I could borrow it for the ball?” Cinderella asked, turning.
Marie was busy holding the green dress up in front of her, but Charlotte and Lady Jeanne stared at her as if she were insane, and compared to the previous clamour, the room was sharply silent.
“Since they have asked,” she continued timidly, “for all women of noble birth to attend the ball.”
“And you think that includes you?” asked Charlotte incredulously.
Lady Jeanne was eyeing her shrewdly. “You are too fat to fit in any of Charlotte’s dresses,” she said coldly and matter-of-factly. “Or Marie’s, for that matter. All you have is a dress of rags. You would shame our family.”
Cinderella felt a twinge in her chest, uncertain whether she had just been included in the “our”. She hated that she would still care—those dreams had died with her father when she was fourteen. They were almost embarrassing now, embarrassing for being a child’s daydream.
“My mother’s dress would fit,” she said. When Lady Jeanne’s eyes sparked she realized she had walked into her trap. Her stepmother knew that dress would fit, and without adjusting any of the others, she knew it was the only one that would.
“Marie, bring that dress here,” said her stepmother.
Marie looked confused, and clutched the green dress more tightly.
“Not that one,” her stepmother admonished. “The one that used to belong to Cinderella’s mother.”
Her stepmother had set the scene. Everyone was watching, and she was the lead actress.
“This dress is rather old,” she said, bunching it up in her hands. “And it is important for noblewomen to look our best. We have no more need for it.”
She tossed it into the fire.
A cry escaped her as Cinderella flew to the fire. She snatched the fabric, but as she moved to step back and yank it free from the flames, she was shoved from behind.
She stumbled into the fireplace. She fit inside—it was a large living room hearth—but she was crouched down to waist height. Her stepmother’s arms were wide, blocking the exit.
“Let me out!” Cinderella cried desperately, the heat of the fireplace burning her skin instantly, coals scorching her shoes.
“Not until you leave the dress,” her stepmother said calmly, as if she weren’t insane, resisting with surprising strength as Cinderella tried to push past her. Charlotte stood behind her with an uncertain smile on her face.
Cinderella dropped the dress. Her feet were in incredible pain, her hair singing, her skin crisping in the heat. She pushed out, but again her stepmother stopped her.
“And apologize for thinking you could go to the ball with us or that you could borrow anything of Charlotte’s.”
“I’m sorry!” Cinderella cried, and her stepmother moved aside. She barrelled into the living room. But flames clung to her.
“Outside!” her stepmother ordered, and she went. She ran out to the garden and rolled in the dirt, across the plants she had tended, and was surprised to find someone batting her with a throw. When the flames were out, Cinderella saw that it was Marie. Her stepsister returned inside quickly, and Cinderella saw her stepmother watching from doorway. She shut the door between them.
Cinderella stood and ran. She headed for the forest, unable to stop her tears. She ran till she reached the tiny pebbled creek that ran through it. She splashed the cool water on her face before stepping into it and crouching, covering herself as much as she could. Burns spotted her dress and her hair was fried at the end. Her skin burned. She sat on her butt, letting her feet rest in the flow of the creek. They ached and were already starting to blister. The water ran across her stomach.
She was gasping, breathing faster and faster and yet felt she was taking nothing in. How could she keep living with her stepmother? How could she keep going? No one knew. No one could see how Jeanne really was.
Cinderella gasped, her hands over her mouth, tears streaming down her face. She hadn’t even cared. Her stepmother hadn’t bothered to put out the fire. Cinderella wasn’t worth even that much.
It was a long time before her breathing began to steady. Cinderella still sat in the creek, the water gurgling indifferently around her. The sun reached the forest floor in patches of gold, and Cinderella looked up at where it made the leaves glow bright green.
She could stay here. She could sit until she died. Sit until there was no difference between her and this forest. Every hour that passed was another hour of work she would be forced to do when she returned, but she couldn’t go back now. She couldn’t pretend nothing had happened. It had. They would act like it was normal, like Cinderella was crazy and they were sane, but it had happened. All of it. She couldn’t forget, couldn’t lose herself. And she couldn’t stand it. Why was she still going?
An image of her father appeared before her, kneeling on the bank of the creek and offering his hand, but she shook her head and made herself see that she was alone. She was always alone. He had died five and a half years ago. Maybe she should have died then too.
But she pulled her knees up to her chest, her breath still ragged, and wrapped her arms around them. She bowed her head and hugged herself tightly, trying to remind herself of the love she had once known and the good she had once seen in the world, and trying to give herself the comfort that no one else would.
Easy now, she said to herself, as if speaking to that horse. It will be okay. There is a point. It is possible to have something good come after so much bad.
Her burns weren’t serious. Her feet would take days to heal and she would need to cut her hair, but the rest of her burns were mild and wouldn’t blister. Her skin felt dry and half-cooked.
She tore a strip off of the bottom of her dress and tore it in two before wrapping each of her feet. The sole had burnt through completely in parts of each shoe. She stood and walked through the trees, wishing she could just walk out of her life and away.
She heard voices and stopped. She felt so alone that they seemed out of place. She hesitated, not wanting to see anyone, and yet they drew her. They were lowered, speaking quickly and earnestly.
She slipped quietly through the trees until she was quite near them, but they didn’t hear her approach. Pierre, She knew immediately. The man he spoke to took longer to recognize.
“What can I do?” the man asked despairingly. “There is nothing we can do.”
“There is always something we can do,” said Pierre fervently. “If it matters.”
“Of course it matters,” said the man Cinderella recognized with a jolt as the prince. He clasped hands tenderly with the groom. “You are the only thing keeping me going. But she will never let us be.”
“Do we need permission?” Pierre asked, but his eyes were equally troubled.
I should have given it to someone else. I wanted to give it to someone else, but I couldn’t, he had said.
I am in love, the prince had said forlornly, as if naming a death sentence.
Suddenly, shockingly, everything made sense.
And then the queen stepped from the trees, thin and tough in a dress of green. “Philippe,” was all she said, addressing her son. But her eyes burned holes through Pierre, and the hand that had been dropped like lightning.
“Mother,” began Philippe, but he had nothing to say.
“I suspected you had a lover,” said the queen, “and I suspected the ball would flush her out, but I never…” she trailed off, staring hard at Pierre.
“Your Majesty,” Cinderella said politely, stepping from where she hid. She knew she had never looked worse—burnt, soaked and in rags—but she wanted to save them. She wanted to save them because no one could save her.
“Who are you?” asked the queen sharply.
“Forgive me,” said Cinderella, looking at the queen’s feet. “I do not wish for you to draw the wrong conclusions.” A vague enough sentence that it was hardly a lie. She felt the eyes of Pierre and the prince.
“You are his lover,” remarked the queen with evident relief. Her voice hardened. “So your lover is a servant girl. That explains things.”
Cinderella glanced quickly at the prince, who seemed shocked but didn’t deny the claim, and saw that Pierre was staring at her hard, thoughts whirling behind his eyes.
“Why are you wet? And burnt.”
“It was hard to get here,” Cinderella answered honestly.
“Well,” said the queen, turning from her as an only a queen can turn from a peasant. “We can deal with this. We will find you a noblewoman at the ball, and you will marry her.”
“I have no wish to marry anyone else,” said the prince, finding his voice at last. “I love her.”
And though she knew it was an act, something in her welled up at those words. In this moment, they stood together.
“Love!” his mother exclaimed. “Love is for unmarried people, and the mistresses of married ones. It does not come in to the marriage of the prince. Your brother has never even met his fiancé.”
“Nonetheless, I have no wish to marry.”
“You will marry, and you will not marry a servant.”
“Excuse me, Your Majesty,” Cinderella interrupted.
The queen blinked at her in surprise, a well-groomed eyebrow rising at her audacity.
“I am not a servant girl. I am of noble blood.”
She felt the scrutiny. She felt every tear, every stain, every burn on her dress. She felt the rags tied around her feet, the fuzzy ends of her hair. But the queen saved her an explanation.
“This is how you have been meeting in secret. By disguising yourself as a servant,” she concluded. “Who are you, then?”
“I am Lady Madeleine, daughter of the late Vicomte, Jehan du Chateau.”
The queen was watching her thoughtfully. “This was his viscounty,” she murmured. “You’re not a baroness at least,” she added.
“Good,” she said, surprising Cinderella with a small smile in her frank face. “If you can dress like that and still speak to me, then you are not vain. And you are smart.
“Convince me,” she said sternly, her gaze meeting Cinderella’s levelly. “I will see you at the ball.”
With one pointed stare at her son, and sparing only a passing glance for his groom, the queen left.
They listened to the fading of her footsteps, and then stood in silence.
“You lied to the queen,” was the first thing the prince said, though there was only worry in his voice.
“She is the daughter of the late Vicomte,” Pierre said, stepping forward.
“You know each other?”
“He gave me your rose,” she said, “on Le Jour de La Fleur.”
The two men were looking at each other now, and suddenly they embraced, hugging each other tightly. “I am sorry,” they each said at once.
“You are a Vicomte’s daughter?” the prince asked her, when he finally tore his eyes from Pierre.
She didn’t want to answer. She didn’t want to acknowledge what she had once had, when everything about her showed that she had lost it.
“Yes,” answered Pierre, saving her. “Her father taught me to ride, as a boy. He was kind and full of life.” He watched her with compassion.
“I am sorry,” murmured the prince, but he was frowning. “Why are you like this then?” he asked, waving to her dress. “It is not for me,” he said, his features tweaking into the closest thing to a smile that she’d seen on his face.
“Your stepmother?” Pierre asked.
She didn’t answer. She didn’t need to. She looked away.
“You mentioned her,” said the prince. Then suddenly, as if seeing her anew. “Why are you burnt? Why are you wet?”
“A lesson,” Cinderella said, tears welling in her eyes again, her breathing destabilizing, but she didn’t drop her gaze. “She pushed me into the fire.”
In that one moment she felt something she hadn’t felt in a long time. Pierre and the prince both looked at her with compassion and heartbreak in their eyes—as well as a validating measure of shock and horror—and for a moment, she felt that they were like her.
A long moment passed, but they didn’t make her explain.
“Cinderella—Lady Madeleine, we have a predicament,” said the prince with unusual energy, for once not seeming burdened by life. “My mother thinks you are my lover.”
“I wanted to help you,” she explained quickly and earnestly. “I am sorry, I could think of nothing else.”
“You wanted to help me,” repeated the prince with a light in his eyes that she didn’t understand. And then, for the third time: “Would you also like to marry me?”
Cinderella blinked in surprise, looked at Pierre and then back at the prince. He meant it this time. She opened her mouth but had nothing to say.
“Do you think that could work?” Pierre asked the prince. They were both facing each other again, with such passion and such devotion that Cinderella felt for them.
“It could,” murmured the prince daringly, and smiles tugged on both of their lips.
For a moment she thought she glimpsed who they might have been, or who they could be, once the strain of their relationship was lifted. Pierre had cheery spirit, a quick mind and a strong capacity to love, while the prince had a simple openness and honesty to him. Both seemed to have a boyish playfulness to them, when they were free to express it.
Freedom, she mused. Maybe the hope of freedom, or some part of it, was what connected them all.
They sat in a circle and spoke to each other, at once discovering each other as strangers, and unearthing a connection between them that already seemed to be there. They argued and debated plan after plan—for the ball, the proposal, the queen, the aftermath—and Cinderella could hardly believe it. Here she sat, a beggar by all but her word and her father’s memory, speaking of marriage to a prince, and of love to new friends.
When she left, there was still reason enough to worry and enough misery in her home to tamper her cheer upon returning, but she felt different inside. Something new and frighteningly hopeful bubbled inside of her, and she wondered if it was possible that there was a power greater than her stepmother’s in which she could trust. They had, after all, constructed a plan. Out of the ashes and the toil of their lives, they would create a fairy tale.
She had hardly slept, but Cinderella woke on the morning of the ball with no lack of energy. Her body hummed with excitement and fear. This was stupid. Hope was stupid. Defying her stepmother was stupid. What would her next punishment be?
She bumped into a vase and nearly broke it, and burnt Charlotte’s breakfast. Her stepmother’s eyes burned holes through her. She wouldn’t do this.
This is impossible, she had said.
Everything is impossible, said the prince.
Nothing’s impossible, said Pierre, but this is crazy.
Everything is crazy, the prince had echoed. And though he had been speaking affectionately, his words seemed fitting now, on the morning of the ball.
She had no end of things to do, so she focussed on preparing Marie and Charlotte. Charlotte’s new dress was a brilliant red with white trimmings, and Cinderella felt a twinge of pride when she put it on. Her hands ached from two weeks of sewing, but it was the nicest dress she had ever made. Marie had decided to wear the pink and mauve flowered dress that Cinderella had made for her birthday, and Lady Jeanne would wear her emerald green one.
Cinderella did and redid their hair, helped them into the dresses they had chosen, then into many other dresses, then back into the first ones, and helped them match jewellery with their dresses and their Colombina masks. She was on her feet all day running errands and doing chores. She let herself forget her plans. She would help them prepare: that was all.
When it was finally early evening and they were preparing to go, Lady Jeanne gave her more chores than she could possible do. It was hard to even remember them all—dusting, sweeping, washing, weeding, tidying, cleaning the fireplaces, and more besides. When they finally left, their hired carriage carrying them toward the castle, Cinderella got to work. She decided to start on the weeding before the light faded. She threw herself into the working, hoping it would make hers forget the feeling of loss that pierced her as she watched them go, and the sick worry when she thought of the arrangements she had made with the prince.
Honesty will have to be the most important thing, the prince had said. If you have lovers, tell me. If you are mad at me, tell me. If you are going to run away and conspire with other princes in the forest, tell me. I will be jealous. Cinderella had smiled.
The prince’s wildest plan had been for her to arrive in a carriage shaped like a pumpkin.
A pumpkin? she and Pierre had exclaimed together.
The prince had shrugged. No matter what it is or how you look, when you are my fiancé they will copy you.
Fiancé. Her, the fiancé of a prince. It was impossible. Her hands ached from sewing. She was kneeling in dirt and it caked her fingernails. She had one burnt dress of rags. The prince had been crazy even to speak to her. And Pierre had just been too kind.
As she finished the weeding and went back inside, she heard the hoofbeats of horses. She closed the door firmly behind her, listening with dread. The hoofbeats stopped. She closed her eyes. What had she done?
Flames singed her feet and her skin burned. Her stepmother pushed her back in. Only Marie had stopped the flames.
A knock at the door. Cinderella stared at it without moving, but then it opened anyway.
A strongly-built woman with beautiful brown skin stood in the doorway carrying a chest, with two maids behind her.
“Who are you?” Cinderella asked.
“Your fairy godmother,” the woman replied wryly, stepping boldly inside. “I’m here to get you to that ball. They’re taking the chores,” she said, nodding over her shoulder at the other girls. The maids had been Cinderella’s idea. Now they took away an excuse.
“I’m Catherine, the prince’s seamstress. You must be Lady Madeleine.”
“What would you like me to do, my lady?” one of the girls asked. The “my lady” stunned Cinderella. It was like going back in time and forward to a future that had never happened.
Cinderella found herself telling them. It took long minutes and a brief tour of the house for her to explain everything to them, and the moment the girls got to work she turned to woman.
“I do not think I should go,” she said.
“Nonsense,” said the seamstress firmly but kindly. “I have brought you a dress which should be suitable. I’ll have to tweak it once you get it on. I also have the mask. A volto, prince’s orders.”
She had placed the chest she carried on the ground, and now opened it, removing a box of sewing instruments, and then a mask. Cinderella’s mouth opened.
The volto was a full face mask that was normally all white, with a fake mouth at the bottom. This one had a glittering golden spiral that curved up around one eye and down onto the opposite cheek. Her sisters had worn Colombinas—a new style of decorated mask favoured by the vain who only wanted to cover half their faces. But this mask would hold up even to theirs for its beauty.
“Don’t gawk at that,” said the seamstress. “Here is the dress.” And she held up the most beautiful dress Cinderella had ever seen. It looked like it had been sewn from pure gold, and glittered with precious stones.
“I cannot,” Cinderella said quickly. “I should stay here. I am not a wealthy woman, as that dress would have me appear.”
Catherine fixed her with a steady eye, and then reached into the chest one more time. She lifted out a pair of shoes.
They were gold too, but had hundreds of clear stones covering their surface that Cinderella couldn’t identify. She reached out to touch one. It was smooth, as if worn by water, and wasn’t cold like stone.
“Glass,” said Catherine. “The prince requested it specifically. He said it meant something to you two.”
Cinderella took the shoes as if taking a heavy mantle onto her shoulders. She had to go. She had to try. No matter what she suffered, she had to take this chance. It might be the only one she ever got.
A knock came at the door and only the seamstress’ quick reflexes stopped the shoes from hitting the floor as Cinderella dropped them. Cinderella went to answer it.
A neighbour from down the road stood there, an old woman she had seen from time to time.
“Cinderella,” she said. “Your mother told me you were ill tonight. She wanted me to check up on you. How are you feeling?”
“I was just about to retire early for the night. Thank you for dropping by.”
“I can make you some hot tea or soup before you sleep. It will help.”
“I am exhausted,” Cinderella said firmly. “I really must decline. But thank you so much for your offer.”
She shut the door. And waited. The woman left.
The seamstress was watching her with a question in her eyes.
“A spy for my stepmother,” she said. But she couldn’t stop.
The seamstress dressed her, pinned parts of the dress and murmured about letting out other parts, and undressed her again. While Cinderella bathed with the help of the girls, the seamstress touched up the dress.
It felt like a dream. In little over an hour from when the seamstress had arrived, Cinderella was ready to go. An elegant carriage rode up as if it had been waiting for her. The coachman dismounted and opened the carriage door for her. It was Pierre.
“You look stunning,” he said as he offered her his hand. Somehow, that hand reassured her enough to step up. They were friends. That was what this was about. Their team: her, Pierre and the prince. She had to believe it was possible.
It wasn’t a long ride to the castle, and when they arrived Cinderella wished it would take longer.
“You are late,” said Pierre as she stepped down from the carriage. “Few will notice you enter.” He winked; it was part of the plan. “But,” he added, “they will notice you on the dance floor.”
“Because I will dance with the prince.”
“Because you look like a princess.”
When Cinderella hesitated, he added quietly, “It’s almost enough to make me consider women.”
It shouldn’t have, but it made her blush, and Pierre prodded her forward with a wide grin. She climbed the steps to the castle alone, feeling the watching eyes of the male servants who lined the steps. Each step felt harder than the last. Each step increased her fear that her stepmother would discover her. With each step she knew that, for better or worse, she couldn’t turn back.
The dancing had begun. The prince was easy to find—she only had to follow nearly everyone’s eyes to the young man in the middle of the floor, the only one without a mask apart from his brother, mother and the princess on the dais—but her stepmother was harder. She wouldn’t be recognized—she wore a volto and clothing her stepmother had never seen—but still, the sight of her stepmother shocked fear into her heart. She was making introductions with the higher marriageable noblemen, all the while keeping one eye on the prince on the dance floor.
The moment Cinderella approached the dance floor she was petitioned for a dance. She accepted, taking her place opposite the middle-aged comte in a line of dancers, as the 1-2-3 of the menuet began.
She needed the warm-up. She had forgotten much of what she had once known, but as she danced, as she remembered her love and natural talent for dancing, the steps came back to her. She caught the prince’s eye a couple couples over, dancing with Charlotte now, and missed a step.
When the menuet changed to a gavotte, the prince didn’t reach her. There were too many women there creating a barricade, and Cinderella danced the steady four rhythm of the gavotte with a young marquis. There were many more women than men at the ball, and they stood along the sides of the great hall like brightly coloured birds, all a picture of beauty.
The prince reached her in time for the beginning of the next dance, a slow sarabande. Everyone’s eyes were on them as they began.
“Your Royal Highness.”
They stepped into the dance.
“There are so many people,” Cinderella murmured nervously when they came together.
“You will get used to it. They do not really see us,” said Philippe as they each turned in a circle to the slow proper rhythm of the strings.
“What do they see?” she asked later.
“A prince of France dancing with a beautiful lady whom they are worried he will marry.”
“Now they’re angry,” said Philippe, but he was smiling.
After another minute, he said, “You look stunning tonight. To many, that matters more than rank.”
“To many,” Cinderella echoed.
“My mother’s different,” he said, his eyes dancing.
“You do not seem worried.”
“Should I be?” He smiled. “Perhaps you will make me the happiest of men.”
She smiled, then sobered. She spied Charlotte on the edge of the dance floor, watching her with evident jealousy.
“Perhaps you will make me the happiest of women,” Cinderella returned, almost too quietly to be heard over the music, as the dance ended.
“I will free you,” he murmured, following her gaze.
“I will cover for you,” she teased.
Women were slipping closer again, but the prince asked her loudly for a second dance. Cinderella heard the murmurs, and raised an eyebrow at him, keeping her smile down.
“It would be an honour, Your Royal Highness,” she accepted with a curtsey.
The next dance was a pavane, a processual dance and slow allemande where the dancers held hands as they crossed the room in a wide sweep. Cinderella clasped the prince’s warm hand in hers. The band began, and she took three steps and balanced on one foot, and then took another three steps forward.
“I am not worried,” he said, “because you are the right choice. My mother will see that. She will see your kindness, your bravery, your ability to solve problems that is superior to mine.” His eyes twinkled at the latter. “She is watching now.”
“We are crazy,” said Cinderella.
She smiled. Her body quivered with nerves in the sea of bright lights, music, and watching eyes.
“Do you like your shoes?” he asked.
“It is hard to hope,” she returned seriously.
“You said so yourself: hope is always painful, but it is also very powerful. The hope of Cinderella, the hope of the hidden Lady Madeleine, might move kingdoms.”
“I just want it to move my mattress,” she returned wryly, and now it was the prince’s turn to laugh. There was no escaping the eyes, so Cinderella ceased to watch them.
“And the heart of a certain stable boy,” she added.
The prince’s dark brown eyes caught hers, tenderly grateful. In that moment she felt it again: their connection, their team, their cause.
Philippe only stopped dancing with her to dance with a few duchesses, and a few women who it would have been rude or unbelievable to avoid entirely, but he and Cinderella danced most of the night.
Toward midnight, with flushed cheeks and a happy heart, Cinderella excused herself to enact the next part of their plan. But as soon as she left the floor she encountered her stepmother.
“Good evening, Your Grace,” her stepmother said formally, giving her the honorific for a duchess in what Cinderella guessed was an attempt to learn her rank.
“Good evening, my lady,” she replied in a higher pitched voice than usual, fear lancing through her chest.
“Your beauty seems to have caught the attention of the prince,” her stepmother said frankly, yet sounding kindly. A few other women now hovered nearby.
“He has been very kind to me,” Cinderella returned, and moved off with the barest of curtsies. She had to wait another dance before she felt the weight of her stepmother’s gaze lift for a moment, and then she fled the castle. She moved quickly, stumbling as she left one of her shoes on the steps, and continuing on with only one slipper and one stocking. Once home, she would give the rest of her outfit to the maids to take away with them.
She didn’t anticipate the hail of the queen. “Lady Madeleine.”
Cinderella spun around. She returned quickly to the queen, standing in the door with her guards a careful distance away, lest she speak her name again. Her stepmother could not find out she was here.
“Your Majesty,” she replied with a deep curtsey. “Forgive my haste.”
“Where are you going?”
Excuses she had planned for others died on her tongue when faced with the queen. The queen would know a lie if she heard one.
“I am not of high rank,” Cinderella replied honestly. “And I have those near me who would wish me ruin. As such, the prince and I thought that perhaps my identity should be kept a secret, until—or if, by your leave—we might be engaged.”
The queen eyed her up and down with the same dark brown eyes as her son. “Why do you really want to marry my son? For the crown, the castle, or his money?”
“None of those, Your Majesty. I care little for such things. I mean, they would be a luxury I could appreciate, though also a responsibility, but I wish to marry him because he is good and respects me. And because I do not wish to live with those I live with.”
Thoughts flew behind the queen’s shrewd eyes, flickering in the lamp-lit darkness.
“And how do you deal with responsibility?” she asked after a moment’s silence.
“I have run and cared for a household single-handedly since I was fifteen. I have learned to never stop because of discouragement. I have learned to learn quickly, and learn well. I would learn to handle whatever tasks were laid on my shoulders.” Cinderella didn’t know why she wanted the queen’s approval and not just her permission, but she did, and she spoke in earnest.
“You are an odd one,” remarked the queen, but not unkindly. “How did you two plan on revealing your identity?”
“I was to leave my slipper, and he will find me with it. He will say I never gave him my name; all he knows is my voice and appearance.”
“Every girl in the kingdom would want to try it on.”
“He will be looking for people who look like me; he will only allow a few to try it. It is something the people will appreciate.”
The queen exhaled sharply in what might have been a laugh. “A fairy tale.”
“And what if it fits someone else?”
“It will not fit my stepsisters—their feet are too small—and they are the only ones who matter in this.”
The queen studied her again. “You must tell me more of your family.”
“Another day, I hope,” Cinderella replied, looking behind the queen at the grand open doors to the ball. She didn’t see her stepmother, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t there. “When I am safe.” The words were torn from deep within her chest without her leave.
“When you are safe then,” the queen echoed, surprising her. “I appreciate your honesty. It is a rare thing among young women looking for marriage, particularly those who chase my son. But you are the first he has fallen for, and the first that has made him laugh as he did this evening, so there must be something different about you. I would appreciate a daughter-in-law with a sensible head on her shoulders; I had begun to think it too much to ask for.
She picked up Cinderella’s discarded glass slipper and turned away from her. “You are dismissed. I believe you have somewhere to be?” she offered. “I could not quite catch you in time.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.” Cinderella dipped a curtsey with a half-smile, and then turned and darted away.
Cinderella slipped into the woods, her hands still soft and dirty from gardening. Her stepmother and stepsisters were out, and the forest always made her feel less alone.
Have you ever been in love? Marie had asked her in a moment of solitude that morning, her manner betraying her heart.
Once, years ago, Cinderella had offered. It was around the time her father had died, and he had abandoned her like the others as Lady Jeanne had taken over. What is his name?
I do not—I mean, I should not. I am not sure that I am in love: he was just very kind to me. We danced at the ball. Mother was focussed on Charlotte and we had a lot of time to talk. He said he is looking for a wife. I should not speak so. Mother wanted a marquis; he was a comte.
And you are the daughter-in-law of a Viscomte and the daughter of a baroness. You would marry up to marry a comte.
You do not understand. Mother will not see it that way. I should not listen to you. You are poor and used to being poor. I must do my best to marry well.
Cinderella ignored the slight. You might be surprised. If you bring him around she will probably approve.
And if she does not?
If he asks you to marry him, you do not need Mother’s permission to say yes.
Marie had blinked in surprise, then shaken her head and walked away.
Cinderella could barely remember living a life so normal as Marie’s: having crushes, thinking of marriage, wearing nice clothes…not being afraid. Five years seemed like half her life, and the first half was like a storybook. The first half had contained people, and family, and love, and hopes. In the first half she had been taught what home meant, what safety meant, what goodness was. For the second half, she was just doing her best to remember them.
She would never find a man living her life as her stepmother’s prisoner, and she would never escape any other way. What if the prince changed his mind? She would have to go back to living despite all hope, to questioning why she still thought that life was worth living, that the world had beautiful things in it to love.
She stepped over the glittering brook, but turned a different way than the day she had found the prince and Pierre together. She came to a familiar boulder, and sat on top. She put her head in her hands.
Madella, her father said gently, but she ignored him. He was gone, and nothing was the same as it had been when he was alive.
Sometimes the gloom came, and there was little she could do about it. Some mornings it took so much effort just to get out of bed, to decide to keep going. As if, just as her mind were between worlds, half the time spent with the dead or non-existent, so too was her body, hovering between worlds, unsure whether to live. She had no escape plan and yet held on to the dream of escape. Maybe she was foolish for getting up every day, for doing the chores, for trying to survive when there was so little to survive for, but she did. Every day she kept going, and every day she hoped that someday she would think it had all been worth it.
“Madeleine? Cinderella?” It was Pierre.
Cinderella looked around but no one else was with him.
“I didn’t see you in the square for the announcement. The prince is off searching for the owner of the shoe.” His voice lilted uncertainly, in what would have been shared laughter on another day.
“Good,” she said, because he expected a response.
“Nothing,” she said. And it was mostly true. Nothing but what had happened every day for five and a half years. She woke up alone. She talked to herself. She forgot a little more what “normal” meant. She doubted, feared, despaired.
“The prince is a good man,” he said, sitting on the edge of the boulder beside her. “He would not betray you or abandon you. And neither will I.”
“I was trying to save you,” she reminded him, unable to hold his kind gaze.
“And in doing that, you have saved all of us. This was your doing; your resilience.”
“I am so tired,” she said, though he did much to dispel that. A conversation with a real person was more than enough to make her happy nowadays.
“It is an impressively small thing for what you’ve been through these past years. Other people would died. Or maybe thrown their stepmother into the fire.” He smiled, but she couldn’t.
“Three against one,” she reminded him.
“Poison?” he suggested brightly.
After a minute, she asked, “If I marry the prince…”
“My stepmother might…I do not know. She is unpredictable.”
“She can’t reach you in the palace. She’d be thrown in the dungeons or executed for even trying. Actually…” he said with an expression of mock seriousness. “Perhaps we could encourage her…”
Cinderella smiled, then looked away. The summer forest shimmered with all colours of green and grey and brown. She would be safe after the engagement; they had discussed her stepmother in the woods that day, and the prince had decided on a guard until the wedding, not officially for her stepmother of course. But how safe she was and how safe she felt were two different things. She wasn’t sure she knew what “safe” felt like anymore.
“What about the queen?” Cinderella asked, remembering how she’d told her about her stepmother.
“The queen likes you,” Pierre said, and Cinderella spun her head toward him.
“Philippe says she’s been strangely cheery, half the time complaining about logistics—some related to you, some not—and half the time talking about the future and grandchildren and how glad she is that Philippe finally came to his senses.”
Cinderella smiled. “Or lost them completely.”
Pierre smiled. “I don’t know. I ruined him, I think. He lost his senses with me, but he regained them with you.”
“He suggested a carriage made out of a pumpkin with me.”
Pierre laughed. “As I said. The prince, with his senses.”
Cinderella grinned. When Pierre offered his hand she took it with trepidation, gratitude and wonder in her heart. He gave her hand a squeeze.
“Run upstairs, Cinder-rags,” ordered Charlotte when Cinderella lingered too long following Marie’s announcement. Cinderella wasn’t sure why Marie had been outside to be the first one to spot the prince’s entourage coming down the road, but she had a couple guesses. She obediently went upstairs, but found a window that overlooked the road.
She could hear Lady Jeanne reprimanding Marie for not wearing her best dress, as they’d planned. They were all in the living room pretending to be idle, Charlotte with needlework in hand.
The prince’s company came into sight, stopping in front of the manor, and Cinderella was filled with doubt. How could he choose her over so many other women? What if he fell for Charlotte’s charm, Marie’s beauty, or Jeanne’s tricks? She felt so small, so brave, so stupid. She was a girl dressed in rags, staring out a window at a prince, with the same hope that any girl dressed in rags would have. But then she pressed her palm to the glass, as the prince had done once. If this was being a fool, then she chose to be a fool.
The prince was announced downstairs. Cinderella was hardly breathing, her heart pounding in her chest. Her stepfamily introduced themselves. She crept to the top of the stairs. If she went down, if her stepmother saw her and if the prince didn’t take her…but he would. He was her friend, and soon, they would marry. They were a team.
She bit her lip as she heard the shoe announced, and Charlotte’s demand to try it on, accompanied by a string of lies about the golden dress she had worn at the ball. She might have smiled if she wasn’t so afraid. The prince’s daring, his youthful dreaming, had created this part of the plan, and she knew, somehow, that it would have made her father smile.
She crept down the stairs as Charlotte protested that she had been wearing thicker stockings at the ball, extra padding around her feet to make the shoes more comfortable for dancing, but Cinderella knew it was clear that her feet were several sizes too small—Charlotte had made fun of Cinderella’s large feet more than once.
When Jeanne suggested Marie try the shoe next, Marie said honestly that she hadn’t danced with the prince at the ball, so there was no point in her trying it on. Cinderella could only imagine her stepmother’s shocked fury at the remark.
“Are there any other young ladies in this house?” asked the prince as Cinderella stepped down from the stairs.
“I am, Your Royal Highness,” Cinderella replied, overriding her stepmother. The prince turned his dark brown eyes on her, and she held back a smile of nervous happiness. She avoided the livid fury of her stepmother’s gaze. For once, this wasn’t about her. For once, Cinderella would have her own power.
“Is it you?” he asked softly, playing his part. Cinderella smiled and lowered her eyes.
“Perhaps we should see?” she suggested coyly.
“She is a servant girl,” Lady Jeanne lied loudly, as the man with the glass shoe came over. But only Cinderella heard her, her heart too conditioned by years of torment to not.
Cinderella slipped her foot into the shoe and of course it fit perfectly.
The prince smiled. “What is your name, my lady?”
“Lady Madeleine. I am the daughter of the late Vicomte Jehan du Chateau.”
“And would you, Lady Madeleine, be the daughter-in-law of the queen?”
“Cinderella,” Lady Jeanne began, somewhat desperately, and this time Cinderella did look at her, and smiled.
But her stepmother only stared and fumed and wondered, her mouth slightly apart. And Cinderella knew she couldn’t touch her now.
“It would be the greatest honour, Your Royal Highness,” she replied to Philippe, grinning back at him as his eyes danced with laughter.