In the time I have been with you, I have heard many rumors about myself, as well as my past. Each time I make a mistake in my lessons, each time I pass a servant in the hall, I hear bits of my life story whispered. The highly distorted tale seems to go thus: I was horribly mistreated by my evil stepmother and stepsisters after the death of my kindly but stupid father and was forced into menial labor and given unkind nicknames concerning soot until my fairy godmother whisked me off to a ball where the handsome prince swept me off my feet. If this sounds at all familiar to you, you have been sadly misguided. I do not have a fairy godmother. My name is not Cinderella. My stepsisters and stepmother are not evil. My father was not stupid. Above all, the 'charming' prince had absolutely nothing to do with any of this. Please allow me to set the rumors straight.
My father was not a stupid man. Lonely, sad, yes, but he was not stupid. When he married Charisse, he knew exactly who he was marrying- a kindhearted, helpful woman. Her twin daughters, Morna and Mirabelle, were well-behaved young ladies who were two years older than I was. I had just turned five, and was thrilled to be getting sisters. We played together and learned together. As the years passed, we became more and more like real sisters and Charisse seemed more and more like my mother. I had never known my real mother, as she had died giving birth to me. In my young mind, a new mother just fit, and I grew up in a home full of love.
As I have said, my father was not stupid. He was, for a working class man, actually very well educated. He could read and write, as well as do basic math and accounting. He decided that if he could read, the women of his household should be able to read as well, and so taught all of us, even Charisse, how to do so. Mirabelle had no aptitude for reading, and could not stand books, but she learned how, eventually finding an appreciation for it in correspondence. Morna was indifferent, and would sometimes pick up a book if she could find nothing else to do. I, on the other hand, loved it. I would hole up for hours and read. We had a library, albeit a very limited one, and I went through every book at least twice by the time I was ten.
When I was eleven, my stepsisters left for finishing school, going off away from home and leaving me by myself. Charisse announced that I could cut back on my schooling, as I had previously taken class with my sisters and they were gone. Suddenly I had more free time than I knew what to do with, and I began to spend more and more time with my father in his work.
He was a glassblower, and he made everything from tiaras to windowpanes, all of which delighted me. I began to occasionally experiment with shaping glass scraps before they cooled, although more often than not I ended up with a deformed lump of glass, scalded fingers, and a sooty face. I remember one morning as I sat with newly burnt fingers in my mouth, a finely dressed young man walked into the shop. With a disdainful look, as though I were an unpleasant bit of something on the bottom of his shoe, he looked down his cocky little nose at me and sniffed. "You, Cindersoot, where is the glassmith?" I was indignant at being called Cindersoot, but I went to fetch my father anyway. He emerged from the back, wiping his face on a gray handkerchief, which at the day's beginning had been white. The cocky man sniffed again, but addressed my father, saying, "I hear that you have a knack for glass." I wanted to knock the teeth out of the puffed-up popinjay's mouth, but I remained silent. I could see my father's spine tense and straighten at the blatant disrespect offered by the man.
"Some might say that. Can I help you find anything?" His voice was tight, and I knew that his reaction was similar to mine.
"I was told that I could purchase a quality vase here. I... um... well, the reason it is needed is not important." The young man finally showed some sign of being human; he probably had a sweetheart who he had infuriated with his supercilious affectations.
"Right over there I believe you may find what you are looking for." The young man walked in the indicated direction, picked up a few items with disdainful fingers, snorted in less-than private derision, and walked back to where we stood. At the snort, my father's eyes hardened and he took on the look I only saw when I had done something particularly rude and embarrassing. "Did you find nothing of high enough quality for you?"
"No. These vases are an embarrassment. I could never give one of these as a gift!" The man was obviously used to getting whatever he wanted.
"You are certainly no fit judge for glasswork. I doubt you are a fit judge of any work, as it isn't likely you've done a day of it in your life!"
"I certainly can tell that your work is poor. I'll bet you couldn't make a piece of glass strong enough to withstand any pressure at all. I'm surprised every window in three towns has not broken if you made it!"
"Ha! I could make shoes for my daughter from this glass!"
"I'll bet on that!" The two men shook hands and worked out a deal which, if my father lost, would cost our family a considerable amount, far beyond our means. I hoped he did not lose.
All week I helped my father as he heated, shaped, and tempered the glass. Each time we thought they were finished, I would try a little weight in the shoe. Always, the glass would crack, and we would have to reinforce it, often starting from scratch again. On Thursday, he woke me at dawn to help him. We had one day left to complete the shoes, and I began to doubt that we could manage it.
We had tried everything we could think of to strengthen the glass, but none of it seemed to work. I was growing frustrated with the entire process, and I worried that my father had made a very foolish decision. It seemed as though we were going to lose the bet, and potentially all of our money along with it. By the end of the day, my fears had not been allayed. So far I had gone through four pairs of unsuccessful shoes, and the ones that we had just finished did not seem any more likely to win us the bet. At sunset I tried on the final pair, and as I stepped into them, they held the little weight that I put on the delicate glass. I put more and more, finally standing fully in the shoes. I stood and admired them, the way they curved, the little touches of decoration on the top that curled prettily. A huge grin across my face, I began to step towards my father to show off how well they worked, but as I lifted my foot to walk, the heel of the shoe shattered and I fell onto the worktable behind me. Looking up at my father, I could see for the first time the same fears that I felt reflected in his eyes. We were going to lose.
I collected the shattered glass and dumped it in the proper bin. As I walked inside to clean up before dinner, my father stopped me. "Please tell your mother that I will not be in for supper. I can eat later." I shook my head, trying to hide my despair, and walked inside.
I woke the next morning bruised from my fall and worried still. The likelihood of our winning the bet was so small, and all night I had dreamt about the consequences of loss. When dawn broke, I threw off my bedcover, splashed the little frigid water in my bedside pitcher across my face, dressed hurriedly, and rushed downstairs to see if there were any loaf ends left from the night before to break my fast. I gathered enough of the leftovers to feed my father and myself, then rushed out the kitchen door and down to my father's shop.
When I arrived, I found my father working there. He appeared to have slept little, if at all. I watched as he placed his tongs into the fire and removed a tiny globe of glass like a ball of burning rainwater. He placed it carefully on top of a shoe I had not previously noticed was on the table, then laid the tongs down. He stepped back to survey the work and I froze as his latest efforts were revealed.
The rough, burned wood of the worktable seemed more beautiful for the honor of bearing these shoes. They had only the smallest hint of heel, just enough to support a foot properly. The thick band across the top, to keep the shoe on when the wearer was dancing or walking, was decorated with what looked like little glass flowers, with pale blue petals and soft green centers, with the same green in the leaves and vines that wound down the sides. I stood for several moments until I began to get lightheaded, at which point I realized I had been holding my breath.
"Do you think they'll work?" I barely whispered, feeling as though I needed to be reverent in the presence of the shoes. A silly notion, but nonetheless, I remained quiet.
"I can only hope so."
My father and I spent much of the morning cleaning the shop. I did not try the shoes on so that even if they did not succeed we would have evidence of our work when Pompous Young Man arrived. We worked in silence, each keeping our thoughts and prayers to ourselves as we scrubbed down the tables, cleared out ashes, and cleaned each piece of glass. My father seemed to be thinking very hard, and counting. I still am not sure what he was doing then. As for myself, I prayed that we would win. Pompous Young Man could afford to lose; we could not.
As I completed superficially dusting a display of vases, the same one Pompous Young Man had laughed at, I heard someone enter the shop. Turning around, I was instantly filled with fear and anger- it was Pompous Young Man, back again, with a smug smile upon his face. Trying not to let my emotions show, I fetched my father wordlessly. He brought the shoes from the back of the shop, carrying them on a small blue cushion, old and battered as everything in our house was, but still somehow appropriate. The young man's eyes grew wide upon first sight of the shoes, and it was clear that we had impressed him.
"Well, you've actually done something this week. What a surprise. Pretty they are, but they could never support a girl's weight. I will enjoy winning this bet." Despite his words, I could read fear in his eyes. For the first time, he seemed to doubt that he would win. My father did not respond to the man's words, but instead laid the shoes on the floor with great care and beckoned me to step into them. I carefully slipped my foot inside one, then the other, using the table behind me for support. "She must take three steps."
I stood in them slowly, my eyes shut tightly in fear. I lifted my right foot, waiting for my fall, but it never came. I opened my eyes and took another step. And another. I continued walking, taking tiny mincing steps, until I had walked a circle around the young man. I watched his eyes with each step, but he stared at my feet, in the shoes that were slightly too big. With each baby step, he had grown more astonished and dismayed, until I completed my circuit. He finally met my father's eyes with a glare that only the spoiled can master when they do not get their way. He then walked to his horse, which was tied outside, and took a purse out of his saddlebag. He nearly threw it at my father, and with a last sneer leaped onto his horse and galloped off as if fire followed him. I turned, carefully for the sake of the shoes, towards my father, who grinned hugely at me. Slipping the amazing glass slippers off my feet, I ran back into the house, shouting, "we won! We won!" My father shook his head, placed the shoes on their cushion, and followed me back inside.
I ran into the kitchen, where my stepmother was making an early lunch. I nearly crashed into her in my joy. "We won! We won the bet!" I could hardly contain myself, and it was all I could do not to strangle her accidentally as I hugged her.
"Won what?" She looked down at me, slightly confused, before moving my arms so that she could continue preparing food.
"The bet that Father made with that annoying young man. We won!" My father walked into the room at the end of my proclamation, and his face fell.
"Charles, dear, what's this about a bet?" Charisse asked the question in an innocent voice with a cherubic smile, but I knew I had gotten him into trouble.
"Oh nothing darling, I just set a poor misguided young man straight about the quality of my craftsmanship."
"Is that so? If it was nothing, why was I charged and nearly killed by a rampant daughter? And how much was this bet?" She looked at him in a way that I recognized- I had often received the same look when I was not telling the whole truth and she knew it.
"A very snobby rich young man came into the shop last week and insulted my work, so I bet him a little that I could make shoes that Isabella could walk in. And I did."
"How much did you bet, Charles?" Her voice was growing colder the longer he dodged the questions.
"Not much at all, dearest...."
"Oh, about... maybe... a thousand golds... something like that, I believe."
"A THOUSAND GOLDS! ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND?" I excused myself at her explosion, guessing that he would not want me present for his little scolding.
Seven years passed. I grew a scant inch, my sisters returned home, and I refused to attend their finishing school, but otherwise our life was rather uneventful. My father's business prospered as word of the shoes traveled around, and many people offered to buy them but he always denied the more than generous offers. My father said that he had made them for me and so they were mine to keep. I hid them away, thinking to pass on the legend to my children and never expecting to get an opportunity to wear them.
It was a typical early-spring afternoon- chilly, but there was the promise of warmth soon to come hanging in the air. My sisters and I sat by the kitchen fire where it was warmest, Mirabelle writing a letter to one of her friends from finishing school, Morna working on her embroidery, and I reading. Our silent concentration was interrupted by a knock on the front door, which Mirabelle and Morna scrambled to answer as I walked slowly behind. There at the door stood a herald, looking rather bored of his job and disgusted at having to go anywhere where the inhabitants were too poor to have servants. He stifled a yawn and began to recite his message in a monotone voice. "Citizens of the land: let it be known that upon the night of April Third, two weeks hence, the King, Queen, and their son, Prince Ethelard, invite every Young Maiden to a Ball at which Prince Ethelard shall choose his Bride. The Celebration shall last from Sunset until Sunrise. Long live the King!" Leaving three shocked girls standing in the doorway, the disgruntled herald stumped off to the next home to deliver the news.
Mirabelle broke the silence. "MOTHEEEEEEEEER!" She took off to find Charisse and divulge the news so they could begin preparation. Morna muttered something about the royalty having lost their heads, but ran quickly after her. I stood, with the door and my mouth wide open. Surely there was at least one beautiful unattached princess for the prince to woo. Shaking my head, I closed the door and followed my stepsisters, who were no doubt yanking every garment they owned from their wardrobes and whining that they were unfit to be seen by anyone, let alone a prince.
When I arrived in the room my sisters and I shared, my assumptions were proved correct. The twins were seated on the floor with the few dresses they owned, fit to burst into tears as Charisse tried to placate them. "We can fix these up and they will be beautiful for the ball. Don't you worry, dears." They protested, but Charisse silenced them. "You know we can't afford to be buying fancy new dresses just so the prince will notice you. More than half the girls there will be dressed just the same as you, or worse." This did not soothe my sisters, and they began to wail again. Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder.
"What has my girls sitting on the floor crying?" My father looked concerned, but there was humor in his eyes.
"Charles, please tell them we can't afford to buy them dresses for some silly ball." Charisse looked exasperated, and turned to him for support against her screeching children.
"What ball is this?"
Mirabelle perked up a little, then remembered herself and tried to look forlorn. "Prince Ethelard is having a ball and he's going to pick a wife and if we don't look nice he won't even bother to look at us!" Morna nodded her agreement.
"Well then we have to get you three some gowns!"
Charisse's expression changed from exasperated to appalled. "But we can't afford that!"
"We still have the money from the bet a few years ago."
"That was for the girls' dowries!"
"We can buy gowns for them and still have more than enough for a dowry. Besides, if one of them catches the Prince's eye, she won't need a dowry." Only this seemed not to have occurred to his wife, who considered before she nodded her consent. Mirabelle and Morna instantly leaped up, grabbed both parents in fervent hugs, and ran off, making shopping plans. My father watched them go, then turned back to me. "Isabelle, you don't seem excited. Do you not wish to go?"
"I just wonder why the prince doesn't marry some prim roses-and-cream princess. I certainly don't expect to walk in, be seen by him, and be swept off of my feet and into a royal wedding chapel- I'm under no illusions as to my comparison to the kind of people who marry royalty."
My father took hold of my shoulders and turned me towards him. "Never, ever deceive yourself like that. When I married your mother, I thought she was the most gracious, lovely woman ever to walk the earth. You inherited her loveliness. If I saw you up against any princess that ever lived, I would pick you out as the most beautiful of all."
My cheeks burned red. "You are my father- you have to tell me things like that. Even if I had a face like a potato, all lumpy and pockmarked, you would still say that."
"No I would not, sweetheart. But you will never believe me. At least go for me, to have a little fun." He paused for a moment, and then smiled with mischief. "And you can wear the shoes."
The mention of the shoes clinched it for me. I had had no intention to go, but just the thought of wearing those wonderful, amazing, glorious shoes made the prospect irresistible. "I'll go."
A week and a half later, I was up to my neck in fabric. Quite literally, actually- I was being fitted a final time for my gown. My sisters had spent the entire day after the announcement doing what every other girl was doing; they went shopping for fabric and dragged me along. In the end, the twins had settled on matching dresses, one in blue and one in pink. I had been forced into purchasing a grassy green fabric that matched my eyes exactly and accented my auburn hair, but it had begun to grow on me. The tailor that was making the gown made many comments, both on my petite stature and the ease of making dresses for small girls, until he began taking measurements. All the shortcuts he could use for most girls were useless for me- I was shorter and built very differently from them. Where they were tall, I reached their shoulders. Where other girls could fit into corsets, I stretched them and no amount of tugging could make me fit into what most considered the proper size for my stature. The tailor noted all of these things, and when he pinned the gown I could hear him muttering about how some girls were not built to fit fashion. I ignored him, knowing that at least I would have gorgeous shoes.
When he finally finished pinning, he led me to a mirror. My eyes grew wide as I saw what he had done. I had never thought I was pretty. Too short, too fat, dark complexion- not pretty at all. However, the girl in this dress was not fat- she was curvy. She was not short- she was petite. Her complexion was not too dark- it was golden.
I was going to a ball, and I was pretty.
On the day of the ball, the village was all in a rush. Every bathhouse was full, after noon, which I avoided by bathing early in the morning when I knew no other person would come. Dressmakers hurried to finish gowns; the cobbler sold off every pair of dressy woman's shoes. Every beauty product known was completely sold out, even some that no girl would have tried before she got her chance to catch a prince. I protested firmly that I would not have anything put on my face, as I did not wish to turn purple or blue the night of the only social event I had ever attended and ever intended to be seen attending. Unfortunately, my stepsisters took other ideas into their heads and pinned me down so that they could apply various creams, potions, and compounds to my face. I came out of it looking not much different, having later realized that most of the concoctions were merely lotion, and so colorless. They did manage to add something that made my eyelashes darker, put silvery powder on my eyelids and cheeks, and rimmed my eyes with a kohl color, at which point I tricked them both into leaving me alone by informing them that their own colors were smearing. I twirled my hair up so that it was off my neck, but could not keep some of the curls from spilling down to just above my shoulders. I dressed with care, making sure I put not one hair out of place and got not a spot of silver powder on my lovely dress.
As the hour of the ball approached, my stepsisters fought over the mirror, trying to outdo one another in beauty. When they had finished, I stepped in front of the mirror, checked that I looked just as good as my stepmother and sisters loudly proclaimed, and went to my trunk. I took out layers of old dresses and memorabilia, finally reaching a small box in the corner. I lifted it out slowly, careful not to jostle the delicate contents, and laid it on my bed. Removing the lid, I gasped, for within this box lay my glass slippers. Over the years, I had never taken them out, and had forgotten just how exquisite they were. The green of the vines complemented the green of my dress, and any other pair of shoes could not have rivaled them. As long as they still fit of course. My feet had grown a little since the creation of the shoes, but I hoped still that my memory of their being just a little too big was true. I placed them gently on the floor, stood, and dusted my dress, then carefully placed my foot inside one shoe. By some divine miracle, they fit perfectly, as though my father had known exactly what size my feet would be when I finished growing. I slipped my foot into the other shoe and picked stepped up to the mirror once again.
The glass slippers completed the outfit. I stood taller in them, and looked slimmer. Perhaps even... pretty. I could go to the ball and not be ashamed, but look everyone in the eye and know that I was fit to be there. Suddenly my reverie was broken my father, warning the three of us that the ball commenced in thirty minutes. My sisters panicked. How were we going to get to the palace in thirty minutes? We did not have a cart, and to walk would take us nearly an hour. We hurried out of the room to ask him what to do.
When we arrived in the kitchen where our father waited, he let out a low whistle. Morna, who had her mother's dark hair and pale skin, looked resplendent in a high-waisted gown of palest blue. Mirabelle, however, had worn a similar dress of pink, which coupled with her golden hair and ivory skin to make her look like a rosebud. I, on the other hand, had brown-red hair and a green dress; no prince would ever choose the brash, brightly colored bird-girl that I looked to be over the sweet spring flowers of my sisters. I reminded myself that I was not going for the prince.
"So how are we going to be there on time?" Mirabelle looked positively frightened that we would be unfashionably late or arrive muddy and punctual.
"Well you couldn't very well walk." He took her hand and mine and led us to the front door. There stood a great orange carriage, pulled by four plain farm horses, with an old farmhand wearing his work pants and a leery grin in the driver's place.
"It looks like a pumpkin," whined Morna.
"It was the only carriage left for hire. Only by some providential hand did I get one at all."
"It's lovely, Father!" I hugged him about the neck, careful not to crush my dress, and started to get into the carriage, but he held onto my hand while signaling the other two to get in. "What?"
"I just wanted to tell you... You're lovely. And I shall be sad to see my little girl go. Even if this prince is too silly to see your inner beauty to match the outer, one will someday. Look carefully at the princes, be they farmyard princes or princes by birth. Pick wisely."
I laughed. "Oh, Father, you have the strangest sense of humor. No prince, real or imagined, is going to win me with anything but real, true love, so don't you worry. We're going to be late." I climbed into the carriage, waved out of the window at him, and we pulled away into the night.
Mirabelle and Morna wailed inconsolably until I informed them that it ruined their complexions to cry. The carriage had lost a wheel ten minute's drive from the palace, which meant that we would take nearly thirty minutes to walk there. The driver apologized, but from the size of the pothole in the road, I could tell that it was none of his fault. Instead, I helped the twins up and we began to walk. If we took it slowly, we would not soil our gowns and we could possibly arrive before the line of ladies was finished making introductions to the prince. I did not intend to join it, but the thought of not having to wait seemed to cheer my sisters. We walked on slowly.
When we arrived, it appeared that my prediction was right. There were still ten girls waiting to present themselves to a bored young man in a golden circlet, who I took to be the prince. Dusting themselves off, my stepsisters joined the queue. I walked over towards the area where it seemed that most of the chaperones stood. They would not bother with a simple peasant girl.
"Excuse me, miss."
I looked up, startled. "Yes?"
"Before you stand by the wall, perhaps you should be introduced to the prince?"
"Really, I-" before I had time to finish my objection, the page had taken me gently but firmly by the arm and led me to the line, where only my sisters remained. "No, I don't want to...."
"Don't want to what, milady?"
I whirled to face the prince, who had asked the question so simply. "Oh nothing." I smiled politely and curtsied, then looked up again when the familiarity of the face registered in my mind.
"If he has accosted you in any way, it shall be put to rights. And what is your name?" He spoke with only slightly less arrogance than he had the last time we had met. Did he not recognize me?
"Isabella, my lord. He has not offended me." I curtsied once more, avoiding lifting my skirt at all in hopes that he would not notice my shoes. Indeed, this same young man was responsible for their creation, and would certainly want to know where I got them if he saw them.
"Well Isabella, to rectify any harm that he may have done, would you accept my offer to dance?" He asked the question with no apparent emotion, but something in his eyes compelled me unwillingly to give my consent. He took my arm and led me onto the floor, where I gathered many enraged looks from other prospective princesses. It was only then that I remembered that I had never learned to dance except for the simple teachings of my stepsisters.
"I shouldn't do this."
"I um... I... well, I can't dance very well."
Prince Ethelard laughed. "Well then, I shall have to teach you." He seized my hands and placed them correctly, then guided me slowly through the steps of the waltz. Soon we were fairly flying, but I noticed only his eyes, which stared into mine in a most unsettling manner. When the music faded, I realized that we had danced our way onto a terrace, with many tall flowering bushes and trees.
"Would you like to sit down, Isabella?"
"Oh, um, yes, I suppose..." I faltered. He took my hand and seated me on a stone bench, then sat beside me.
"You really are a very beautiful girl."
"Uh... thank you." I was nervous. He was sitting rather closer than I had seen two people who were courting sit, let alone those who had just met.
"You have wonderful eyes, like sunflowers in spring. Quite exquisite." At this point, he leaned in as though to get a better look at them, brushing his fingers over my cheek in a familiar manner. I leaned back a bit.
"Yes, well, um... yours are pretty too." I regretted the clumsy comment the moment I made it, but his gaze had changed from kind to something else, nearly that of a cat watching an oblivious lark."Oh, you silly girl..." he whispered, then suddenly leaned forward and kissed me firmly as his hands wrapped around my waist. Shock ran through me, and I turned my face away although his arms held me trapped against him.
"Pardon me! That was...." I could not speak any more, as he had covered my mouth with his, and I tensed against him. He began running his hands along my back, and I tried to shove him away. He proved stronger than I did, and although I shook my head, kicked, and hit, he would not let me go. Our terrace was rather secluded, and no chaperones had followed us outside.
Finally, I managed to wriggle out of his rather inappropriate grasp and set off at as much of a run as I could manage. One of my shoes fell off, and I turned back to get it, but as I reached for it, Prince Ethelard came running after me. When he saw the shoe lying on the stone walkway, he stopped. "You're the girl. The one with the shoes!"
"Yes, well, a lot of girls do own shoes." I left the slipper where it fell, wrenched the other one off my foot, and set off at full tilt for home. As I ran, I could hear the clock in the palace chapel chiming the hour of midnight, and only then did I realize how long we had danced. I could hear voices echoing down the path behind me, shouting for someone to fetch a horse, and I knew that unless I took the shortcut home I would never escape the prince. Without thinking, I darted off the road and through woods I had played in as a child. My dress tore on brambles and branches, but I ran on blindly, praying that he would not know which house was ours.
After a thirty-minute eternity, I stumbled back into the kitchen and ran to my room. If he came, I would be a servant, a cinder-girl. I would be unrecognizable, not someone who would be able to come to a ball in a lovely green gown and glass shoes. I changed into the gown I had worn seven years before when he came, now ragged and full of holes. Rubbing cinders on my face, I dropped to my knees and prayed to God that he not find me.
Apparently God was answering someone else's prayer, for within minutes, the thud of hooves sounded and my father woke to someone pounding at the door. Running down the hallway, he saw me curled on the floor, sobbing in fear, and took my hands just as someone began to force the door open from outside. "Cinders, Ella," he whispered, then stood to step in front of me and shield my trembling form from the Prince's view as the door burst wide.
"Where is she?" Prince Ethelard looked comically out of place in our humble house, his fine garments drenched with sweat from a hard ride, framed against the simple wooden walls.
"Who? My lord, I do not know...." My father acted genuinely confused, and I blessed him for it.
"Isabella! I know she's here.... Isabella?" He had spotted me, hiding in the corner with tears cutting through the soot on my face. He came and took my hands, looking straight into my eyes. "Yes, it is you. But how did you get here so quickly, and why are you covered in cinders? You could not have fooled me, not with those sunflower eyes."
Those same "sunflower eyes" filled with tears as he spoke. Did nobody know what a bandit he was? Did they not understand? He took my hand and pulled me to my feet. "I am taking Isabella to be my bride. She will be the happiest woman in the kingdom with me, with fine clothing and servants and my utter devotion." He smiled confidently, but I shook my head and muttered at my father.
"No, no, no," I whispered. More tears came, and more of the cinders were washed from my face. My father began to protest, but before he could argue, the prince had taken my hand and dragged me out into the night once more. He vaulted onto his white horse, taking care not to let go of my hand, and lifted me up to a seat me in front of him before nudging his horse into a sedate walk.
The entire hour-long ride, I cried, and the prince still insisted that I would be happy with my fate. Every so often, he would place a kiss on the back of my neck, at which I shuddered and cried even more. The hand that did not hold the reins was wrapped possessively around my waist and stroked my side gently, an ever-present reminder that he was stronger than I in more ways than one and I could not deny him my hand. When we arrived back at the palace, he took me inside and brought me up to the King and Queen still dirty, barefoot, and wearing a dress that was little more than rags. Hastily he conferred with his parents, and then turned me around to face every girl in the kingdom.
"Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention. Doubtless you know the purpose of this ball- to find myself a worthy bride, and I have achieved just that! May I introduce the lady Isabella!" As all the maidens of the kingdom glared daggers at me and clapped politely, I burst into tears once more.
After the prince's- or rather, my fiancé's- announcement, the ball ended, and the various disgruntled maidens drifted out of the ballroom one by one. I, as another disgruntled maiden, was not so lucky as to be allowed to leave. Instead, a messenger traveled back to town to congratulate my parents on my engagement, and I was whisked off to new chambers in the palace. The room reminded me of a prison, albeit a gilded one with a proper bed, a stone fireplace, and a window without bars. Soon I was to find out how much of a prison it really was.
The next day I woke with dawn to find a servant girl stoking the fire in my prison- er, bedchamber. When I started to speak to her, she shoved a letter at me, curtseyed politely, and left the room. I tore it open to reveal a note from my father. It told me of his attempts to free me from the hands of the prince, but no matter whether he could stand up to a pompous young man, princes were a completely different matter. Despite his efforts, I was to be married. A few minutes later, another maid entered the chamber and informed me that she was to help me dress. "What on earth do I need help dressing for? I have done it on my own since I was five years of age, and I believe that I have not regressed overnight to the point that I would once again need assistance!" There began my instruction on how to properly behave like a princess.
"Milady, you are a princess now, and princesses do not dress on their own." She told me this as if I were a simpleton, and should already have known that princesses were too incompetent to dress on their own without having the bodice in the back. I glared at her, but she won the battle of wills when I realized that she would not allow me to dress on my own or leave the room until I was properly clothed. It took nearly an hour to make myself presentable, as the dressmakers who had made gowns for the new princess had obviously expected a girl of slightly larger stature. The gown's waist was nearly level with my knees, and to walk would have meant treading on nearly a foot of hem. Finally, she stitched it up and sent the rest of them back to the dressmakers to be shortened. Then I was allowed to leave the room, only to find a page waiting to escort me to the dining hall.
I recognized him instantly. "You!" I found it difficult to restrain my hands from strangling the lad, and settled instead on a heated glare.
"Yes, milady?" He looked at me quizzically before taking my arm and attempting to steer me in the direction of breakfast. I had allowed him to steer me once, and had no intention of doing it again, as it had gotten me into the mess I was in at the moment.
"You're the one who made me go meet the prince. Do you remember? I wanted to stand at the back, but you dragged me up to him. And now I'm engaged, thanks to you." I glared at him, but he only looked pleased with himself as he attempted to drag me down the hall. He was taller than I was, but in my anger, he found me hard to budge.
"You're welcome, my lady. I'm glad that you're happy."
"What are you talking about? My fiancé is disgusting! The scum of the earth would be ashamed to be associated with him! And it is entirely your fault that I am now miserable!" Several servants had stopped in the hallways to stare at me while I ranted, but I did not care, wanting only to communicate my anger to this poor, stupid boy.
"Oh." This response only angered me more. One word in recompense for the anger, the tears, the imprisonment, the life of misery? Just "oh?"
"What do you mean by that, you fool? Don't you understand what you have done?" He began backing down the corridor as I shouted, and I followed him. "Do you know that I will have to be married to that crowned slug? That I will be expected to be a good and happy wife, so that we might have a good and happy kingdom? That each and every day I live that I will hate myself and him, and you? Do you realize that?" Suddenly I looked up. We were standing in the great hall, in front of the King, the Queen, and my disgusting fiancé- not to mention half of the courtiers residing in the palace. Silently I allowed the page to bring me to my seat at Prince Ethelard's side.
"Good morning, dearest. I trust you slept well?" The slimy little man dared to smile at me with all the oil he could muster, although I could see the reproach behind his supposedly adoring gaze.
"Seeing as I cried myself to sleep, trapped in the prison you call my quarters, I would not say so." He seemed to ignore this comment. "Good, but you did not seem at all yourself. Shouting at that page in such an unladylike manner. Are you feeling ill?" He appeared mildly concerned, but I have certainly seen better actors. I also knew that if I answered in the affirmative I would be allowed to escape his presence, but would be confined to my quarters. Still, anything would be preferable to sitting within reach of a human snake.
"Yes, I believe that I should like to rest." He signaled for the offending page, who escorted me from the room.
Walking down the halls, he broke the silence. "I understand how you feel, milady." I was shocked. How could this inconsiderate little boy know how miserable I felt? "My father made me come to the palace and become a page. He hoped that one day I would be strong enough to be a knight. At home, I did not like learning to master weapons like my brothers. They were his pride, and I was the disgrace. Nevertheless, my father had been a knight, and... well...." I began to sympathize with him. He could fight his father's will no more than I could fight the prince's wishes.
"So why do you stay? I'm sure that once you got here he could no longer dictate what you could or could not do."
"Where else would I go, and who would go with me? I'm just a boy. Here we are, milady." The page left me at my chamber door and hurried back down the hall to his next duty. I entered the room, shut the door, and laid on my bed, feigning sleep and illness. Though my eyes were closed, my mind was wide awake, trying to hatch a plan. When I had thought of as many routes of escape as were possible, even if highly improbable, I fell into real sleep.
I woke at dawn once more, but this time the fire was already stoked. I let a servant dress me with a minimum of resistance, owing to the fact that I had missed all meals the preceding day and wanted food. The page waited outside the door to escort me once again, and I wasted no time. "What is your name?"
"Trey. I'm the third child."
"Well, Trey, I have an idea."
"Yes, milady," he answered absently.
"Listen, I've thought of a way to get the two of us out of here." I stopped and looked around for any servants that might be listening, then dropped my voice to a whisper. At the mention of the word out, his eyes glowed and he began to listen attentively. "As you appear to enjoy being a page only slightly more than I enjoy being a princess, I have decided that the two of us should escape together. I will send a letter as your father to your instructor, requesting your immediate but temporary return home because of a terrible accident. In the meantime, you will bring me page clothing, and I will sneak out with you as a friend your father has allowed you to bring along with you. We can travel to my father's house, and he will most certainly give us food and perhaps a bit of money. Then we will go, together, as far away as possible." I was pleading with him, but it was unnecessary. He looked positively rapturous- hopeful but a little frightened. Just as he began to reply, we neared the great hall doors. "We can discuss this later," I muttered hastily before I went in to break my fast.
Prince Ethelard stood as I entered, smiling in a cold, possessive manner. "Ah, my princess is here at last." He stretched out his hand, and when I did not place mine in his, he took it anyway and guided me to my seat.
"I could have found it on my own," I snapped under my breath, accompanying the words with an insincere smile. He did not release me from his grasp as my plate was loaded with fresh fruit, bread, and cheese. I looked down at the utensils on the table dubiously, then freed my hand from his and began to eat with my fingers. His eyes widened in shock, and he hastily grabbed my hand and placed it in my lap under the table.
"Have you no manners, or do you simply choose to shame your finishing school mistress?" I smiled at him, the image of angelic submission, and resumed eating with my fingers. I hoped that I would disgust him thoroughly and he would break off our engagement. Instead, he had my plate taken from me. I sat, stomach complaining loudly at my insolence, and spoke with him and his parents for the hour and a half that it took for the meal to conclude. I hoped that Trey would escort me back to my quarters, but instead I was descended upon by a flock of ladies-in-waiting who were to educate me. I was going to learn the proper manner and deportment of a princess whether I liked it or not.
In the weeks to follow, the highlight of my day was the five minutes before the first meal that I spent with Trey. He had a dreamer's spirit much like my own, and the idea of escaping seemed to make his dreary existence a bit more bearable. Soon he had acquired a page's uniform for me, stolen on laundry day from a particularly unpleasant companion of his. I hid the garments atop my bed canopy after clearing away the dust, and the knowledge that it was there made manner class manageable and embroidery less mind numbing. Still I was forced to fake deportment and civility through day after day of Ethelard, his parents, and the denizens of the court, all the time wishing that I were home. Finally, under the guise of practicing my penmanship, I was able to present Trey with a letter to his instructor, informing him of a tragic horse accident, and the requirement of Trey's immediate presence at home with his dying father. When he was informed that he would be allowed to leave in two days, I very nearly floated. Finally, I could see an end to my misery, an unlocked door in my prison of gold. Some other girl could wear the bejeweled shackles of Queenship, but I would be free. The final two days were perhaps the most difficult, freedom within sight but as yet unattainable, as I continued to pretend my smiles and act through my days.
My plan worked. As you read this letter, I am most likely leaving my father's house on my way to the sea. We have escaped the gilded cage. Finally, like the hero in one of my own much-beloved books, I am going to find an adventure, or perhaps many. I may write to you of these adventures, but only to prove that you cannot imprison a free spirit. I daresay that if you go over to the window now, you might see two peasant boys with heavy packs leaving this town. If so, wave to them, for that will be the last glimpse you get of your princess.
The Ex-Princess and Adventurer Isabella