Once upon a time, Cinderella found her handsome prince.
They danced at the ball until the clock struck midnight, at which point she ran away. He found her slipper and pored through the entire kingdom until he at last located its owner, a quiet maid in a humbly aristocratic household with ash on her face and flour in her hair. With the early morning light shining hard and bright through the windowpane, the handsome prince was forced to acknowledge that the woman before him was not a princess.
Her hair was dirty, her skin was ruddy, and her hands were hard and calloused when he grasped them between his own. The dark circles under her eyes prevented him from noting any pleasantness to her features he had previously seen, and her dress was absolutely in tatters. As he brought her hand to his lips to kiss its back, he noticed that her nails were cracked and yellowed, and an unbecoming scar marred the skin of her thumb. Truthfully, he thought as he drew back, the only lovely thing about her was the shoes, glinting like diamonds in the sharp, searching light. The prince thought that—
Once, the prince had broken his leg after falling off of his horse when he was eight. Unable to ride, the Queen had presented him with a large, wooden horse that stood as tall as he had. The prince had bid a servant to pull him around on the horse's wheel-hooves for hours on end. The horse had provided endless amusement for the weeks he had been forced to remain in side. Weeks turned to months, and by the time he was allowed to walk on his own again, the horse was in tatters. The wood was grimy, the mane was ruined by globs of unidentifiable food, and one of the wheels was slightly off-center, making the horse wobbled when it moved.
So the prince had polished the wood, and refinished it. He had washed the mane and combed it out until he was satisfied it looked even better than before. He removed and replaced the wheel. When he was finished, the horse stood tall and proud in the corner of his room, restored to its previous glory—which was where it stayed: pristine, in the corner of his room.
—she perhaps had potential. He knew that his mother kept a gaggle of women all too eager to chat about appearances, and so he was sure that at least one of them would be willing and able to improve upon her. And, honestly, the king had spent a good hour explaining to the prince the ramifications of seeking out the beautiful, but nameless and totally unknown woman, from his ball. The subjects of the kingdom would surely find out that the prince had gone to seek her out, and the peasants would surely never forgive the prince for the slight if he found one of their own to be lacking. Politically, it was a horrendously bad idea to turn Cinderella down now. So, really, he had no choice.
The prince led Cinderella away from her churlish stepsisters, clawing at each other at the window as they watched, sneering, the prince and Cinderella depart; away from her stepmother with the avaricious eyes, the hands forever clenched to resemble the foot of a bird, as though she were at any time ready to extend one and accept some gift falling into her palm; away from the ramshackle house that hinted at fallen graces, with the dilapidated fence that leaned even further to the right as he opened the gate.
As they stepped into the ornate carriage the prince had arrived in, he worried that Cinderella's clothing would make the cushions of the carriage smell. As she looked out of the carriage, her fingers left soot in the shape of hands on the white curtains, and he made a mental note to have them cleaned the moment they arrived at the castle.
She chattered quietly about this and that, about how happy she was, how excited, how nice it was to be with him again. He smiled indulgently, patting her hand absently as she placed it on his knee and thinking about how long it would be before he could allow her to be seen in public. Her story was already famous—people would expect a formal announcement. They would expect to be introduced to their former queen. He wondered vaguely if he was going to have to propose to Cinderella. He thought that the proposal was implicit in his arrival at her house, and there was something so very undignified about kneeling at the foot of a peasant, even one he would later marry—he hoped she would assume. He leaned back in the seat and closed his eyes.
"What will we do, once we arrive?" Cinderella asked.
"Foremost," the prince responded with a yawn, "we will need to find you new clothing."
"And then, dear prince?" He could hear the smile in her voice.
"And then you shall be pretty as a picture." He responded with an answering grin. He settled comfortably into the cushion, intent on sleeping until they got to the castle, and Cinderella's gaze did not leave him. Her eyes, reflecting the light off of the glass, appeared glassy, watery—her lips parted slightly, as if she were trying not to drown in the meaningfulness of his thoughtless words.
Cinderella did not like the castle. It was far too large and far too cold—at least at home, everything had been familiar, and she had been intimately acquainted with every aspect of the house, as she had been in charge of the upkeep. At home, she had been occupied every moment of every day.
Here, in the castle, she wandered around like a ghost in her new clothing with her hair perfectly coiffed on top of her immaculately clean head. The prince had given her no chores (she thought she should have expected as much—she wasn't a servant anymore) and in fact the queen had insisted one evening that she hide any inclination to be helpful in the household. She wasn't allowed to bring her dishes into the kitchen, nor was she to help wash them. She was allowed to make requests as for what they would eat for each meal, but she was not to lift a finger to cook. Fresh, clean clothing was brought to her room every morning. Her hair was washed by a pair of gossipy aristocrats with hands like butter. There were horses in the stable, but she was discouraged instantly from going to the stable by herself—it smelled, the queen said, and was far too dirty for the presence of a princess—and then eventually told that she was only permitted to ride sidesaddle, which was uncomfortable and really, she thought, impractical. There were gardens she was permitted to walk through, but she wasn't supposed to touch anything, or bend down to smell any flowers—such nearness to the ground might sully the clothing the queen had gone through so much trouble to procure for her.
On a whole, Cinderella was monumentally bored. She wasn't allowed to speak to the hired hands. The queen was condescending on a good day, and downright hostile if caught in a poor mood. The king had more important things to do that deal with his son's political pawn, and the prince was always out doing this and that. Occasionally he would come to see her, and they would sit in one of the many rooms in the castle while the prince inquired dully about her day. She responded to his queries in an equally bored fashion, for nothing interesting ever transpired, and then he would kiss her hand politely and depart.
The prince was nothing if not cordial, and he never said a word against her. He smiled whenever she started to stand following a meal, as though she would clear the table. He patted her hand whenever she said something he found charmingly common. When she spoke he mostly listened, and only ever entered in when he was sure that she had finished speaking. Cinderella found his politeness endlessly irritating—he treated her like a small, dull child. The gallantry she had found so charming at the ball now grated constantly against her nerves. Perhaps, she sometimes mused, it had been the stark contrast between the treatment she received at her stepmother's house and the perceived kindness of the prince. He had been charming, she thought, dashing in his chivalry and fastidiously polite. Now, she sometimes felt as though she was still at the ball, spinning and spinning in circles, led by his sure step.
But, she reasoned, she didn't want to be led. She wanted to be able to speak with him. She wanted him to speak with her. She didn't want to be unceremoniously shooed from the room with the queen when the king and the prince began to debate the politics of the kingdom. She didn't want the prince to laugh when she posed a legitimate question. She didn't want to be coddled and placated and protected from every aspect of the world. Cinderella wanted to be able to get dirt on her dress, to be able to smell the flowers of the garden, to ride a horse unhindered, to have a conversation without being confined to topics befitting a princess. Cinderella wanted to stand beside the prince, and the prince wanted her to stand behind him.
Despite her misgivings, Cinderella was trapped. To snub the prince would certainly mean imprisonment, if not death. And so within the month she stood before an altar, shining like the angel atop a Christmas tree, a carefully cultivated smile on her face. The prince took her hands and said his vows, slipping the ring onto her finger with a white-toothed grin. Afterward, Cinderella didn't recall whether or not she had been asked to say a word.
"How is Lord Fleetwood? And his wife?"
"Was your time with them enjoyable?"
"It is nice to be home though, is it not? I always enjoy returning to the castle after weeks away."
"Lady Fleetwood is a silly thing, if I recall… where is she from?"
"I'm sure I don't know."
"Not a very clever, I think, even for a woman."
"But I suppose after spending so much time here, most seem a little dull."
"Well, the tutors provided to my family are the best in the realm—the intellectual climate here is far warmer than that in the households of my vassals." The prince chuckled. Cinderella thought for a moment that he must have been joking, but quickly ascertained that he was entirely serious. When she didn't immediately respond, the prince gave her a look, as if to say you may not have noticed, being a commoner.
"Were you half as clever as you suppose," Cinderella said, looking down at the clumsy needlework in her lap with a small smile, "you would be twice as clever as you are." She pursed her lips and left the room before the prince could react. The next morning, the queen called Cinderella into her rooms and lectured her on respect and propriety, her chin wobbling with anger and her hands trembling as she clutched the teapot. She did not offer any to Cinderella.
A year passed, and Cinderella remained quiet in her disdain for the life that she had dreamed of since her stepmother had first descended upon her. When summer returned, and ball season commenced, Cinderella attended the annual royal ball as the smiling ornament on the prince's arm. Dresses swirled around the dance floor like wrapping paper blowing in the wind, and Cinderella couldn't help but feel that she was looking at the image, at the ball, through a frame of cracked glass—the rose-colored lens through which she had previously seen her first, scintillating evening with the prince had shattered beneath the pressure of reality. The fissure existed between she and the prince all evening; when they danced, they held on another at arm's length. His usual, polite way of speaking made her waspish, and he in turn snapped. Instead of presenting to society the pinnacle of happiness, the lodestone of idyllic romance, they were a collage of frowns and narrowed eyes, of rushed words delivered in harsh whispers that brought disapproving glances from even the most subservient of nobles.
Towards the end of the evening, the king stood before the broad window in the front of the room, raising his glass and clearing his throat loudly. Instantly the room fell silent, all eyes upon the king. Before he could get a word out, however, there was the deafening sound of shattering glass—Cinderella wondered if it was not in her head—and the thunderous crash of crumbling rock as a giant, shadowy form burst through the wall of the castle. The king gave a shout, and his hand flew to the sword at his side, but the approach of the creature was too quick—it descended upon him, enclosing the king in claws half the size of his body, and the ruler of the kingdom was definitively silenced.
The dragon, gleaming dark red like dried blood, stood in the gaping hole it had created in the castle wall, its teeth bared in a beatific grin. Sharp, upright scales lined the creature from its horned nose to its tail, poised over its head like a scorpion. It roared, and half of the aristocrats fled, cowering to the corners of the room. Many remained frozen, shocked, feet rooted to the spot where they stood.
Cinderella watched a little dumbly as the prince shouted something, and several of the nobles in the room drew their swords with answering cries. The room became a muddle of terrified shrieks and the clang of metal against the scales of the dragon. Cinderella was dragged backwards by someone—she didn't know who—and in the collective rush away from the dragon and the battling men, she stumbled and fell backwards onto the ground. A claw swept towards her, one long, ivory nail clinging to the fabric of her dress. She scrambled away, and the dress tore—the prince turned, moved as though he would defend her as she stood—he was in front of her, suddenly, the other men swinging at the angrily flailing creature blindly, desperately with the swords, batted to the side like mice at the paws of a cat—the prince bared his sword, and the bleeding, stumbling dragon traipsed clumsily forward, roaring in the prince's face as he held his arm out across Cinderella's body—
—the prince swiped the sword across the dragon's nose, and blood stained the white of her dress, the skin of his face—the dragon lunged again, and the prince's sword flashed; it was like a dance, back and forth, back and forth—
—Cinderella, the statue of Andromeda, the cowering damsel—
—the realization, then, the fury at her own predicament, her own inability to act—the dragon's teeth came down on the prince, and the sword went through the roof of its mouth. The prince's cry of triumph went through her like ice water, because it was a strangled, abruptly vanished sound as the dragon's teeth sliced like butter through the prince's extended arm—the crunch of bone and feeble last breath, the clatter of the sword against the tile as it fell from the dragon's open mouth—
Cinderella picked it up without thinking, stepping over the mangled, motionless body of prince charming. It was heavy and foreign in her grasp, and she almost tripped as she lifted it. The blood from the blade dripped down her arm as she used every ounce of strength in her numb, trembling body to bring it violently across the dragon's nose as its head bobbed downwards as it flailed in blind pain—blood, dark as pitch, splattered the shocked, pale faces that peopled the room, turned the white of Cinderella's dress to black—the loudest sound yet, that of the dragon's body collapsing onto the ground, shaking the bedrock of the castle—
There were several moments of silence.
Cinderella turned around, sword still poised in her hand. Her dress was as tattered as it had been the day the prince had come to retrieve her like a lost toy. Her hair had come out of its fastenings and hung, stringy and matted, down her back. Her skin was dirtied with rubble that had flown into the room as the wall shattered upon the dragon's entrance. Blood marred every visible bit of her. But still she stood.
The people before her looked terrified, all wide eyes and pale faces, clutching to whoever stood beside them, as though they were lifelines.
Still, Cinderella stood.
Still, it was silent.
Her head reeled, and her body quaked with sudden exhaustion as the adrenaline faded away. Cinderella's feet stuttered a little, and her arm fell, the sword with it, to her side. A man stepped forward, one who had retreated to the shadows instead of fighting, pausing a yard from Cinderella and dropping slowly to one knee. He looked at her, and she could not fathom what it was she saw in his eyes—her stepmother had only ever showed loathing. Her stepsisters had only ever showed greed. The prince had only ever showed irritation or belittlement. The expression the man before her had on his face was one that she had never seen before.
He bowed his head. Within moments, all who remained in the room had fallen to their knees and bowed their heads before her.
The silence remained, and Cinderella just stood.
In light of the king and prince's death, a new ruler had to be appointed. The queen declined.
"I am a queen," she had said with a lift of her chin and purse of her lips, "not a ruler."
"I do not understand." Cinderella had said.
"I am a lady, foremost," the queen had responded, her voice resigned as she had poured the tea and proffered a cup to Cinderella. "I organize balls. I pick the tablecloths. I select the china patterns. I dictate the menus. I decide who may or may not attend. I greet guests. I chose what is and is not in fashion. I am a woman above all else; my world is one of domesticity. I am queen because I married the king."
Cinderella had sipped her tea, trying to put words to her objections, but coming up with nothing that the queen would not find offensive. Regardless, the queen did not seem to be completely done speaking.
"You, however, are a horrible lady. Your tongue is too sharp, your habits decidedly and unbecomingly masculine. You slay dragons when you should be worrying about your hair." The queen appraised her with narrowed eyes, and Cinderella met her gaze with her back straight and her face schooled into impassivity. "I do not like you, Cinderella, because you are constantly challenging all the rules of my world." She paused. "But perhaps my world ought to die with the dragon. Perhaps the same hand that laid the beast of the past to rest should be the one to lead us into a new world."
The crown was bestowed upon Cinderella within a week. Within a month the whole kingdom had heard the tale of her bravery. Within a year, she was the most beloved ruler the people could remember.
And they all lived happily ever after.