The slipper didn't fit.
Good, I thought.
It will soon be my eighteenth year; and with it, a coveted audience with the Fairy Godmother.
I will not ask for a sparkly ball gown, or a handsome prince. I will not ask for wealth or a horse-drawn carriage, beauty or friendship.
I want nothing to do with romance, wealth, or popularity.
When the time comes for me to redeem The Wish, I know exactly what I want.
Power. Gobs of it.
"Stuff your corset, so your bosom looks fuller," Mother said with derision, pitying my flat chest.
"The Prince shan't covet a stream when he could have a waterfall," she nodded to Fawn, my twin sister, in front of the neighboring mirror, shoving rags hand over fist behind the boned brocade of a new corset.
"The Ball is in three weeks," she stated with some newfound regality as she rose from her seat.
"The Prince must find a bride before the end of the season, or the Queen Mother will arrange a suitable choice from among the nobility."
"Either way," Mother tightened the laces behind me, boring a hole into my messily coiffed mane with her greedy eyes, "one of you is going to marry that Prince."
Turning her attention back to Fawn, she sighed, "One of you will have a better chance than the other."
I was never the prettiest twin, but thankfully for me, I was never the most compliant, either.
"A lady musn't," Mother would say.
"You shan't," Mother would say.
"Dreadful," she'd announce, at the moment anyone did anything she deemed less than appropriate.
Fawn, unfortunately, made it her life's mission to please Mother. I say 'unfortunate', not only because it's a waste of a perfectly good life, but because Mother is a woman impossible to please. There is no one, and nothing, good enough for her.
My entire life I'd been plagued by Mother's demands. I resolved at the age of eight that I'd never spend my life bowing to her whims. I would strike out on my own. I was not made to be stuffed, plucked, and escorted. I was born for adventure and enterprise.
Unlike my pitiful, reprehensible twin sister, I had not mutilated my foot in the hopes of somehow making it fit into a tiny, too-delicate-to-be-plausible, solid gold pump.
I had not waited with bated breath for the handsome and charming Prince to come bursting through our front door with his entourage of mustached elderly gentlemen, with the anticipation of a marriage proposal and lavish celebration.
I had not, like so many girls in our quaint, ethnically ambiguous village, clamored at the invitation to the Prince's ball. In fact, the only reason for my attendance at said ball, was Mother's incessant nagging and threat of poverty. No matter, however; I knew the money (both ours and that of her 'dearly departed' husband) was all dried up. Mother has a penchant for the finer things in life -- and poor choice in horses.
No, I did not, like Mother, sob uncontrollably at the feet of the Prince's guardsman when he elegantly slipped the gilded footwear upon Cinderella's impossibly small foot. And I didn't care much as I watched my stepsister sing and dance her way out the door and into the Prince's carriage. (Nevermind the odd abundance of forest animals that always seemed to follow her wherever she went...)
I was the last to try on the slipper before her, and I sighed with relief when it didn't fit. I never wanted to marry the Prince! That was Mother's dream. A life of luxury for her 'frail and pathetic daughters'. It was Fawn's desperate desire to become a princess. She'd bought into all those lies Mother told us.
Doomed to a life of legality and stuffed shirts? No thank you.
That was the day the plot was hatched.
Despite Mother's distaste for Cinderella, Fawn and I didn't take ought with her. She was quiet enough, and kind, and had a relentless optimism that was nice to have around after Father died.
Although Lord Quimby was not our natural father, he reared Fawn and I from the age of six to eleven, until his untimely (yet probably completely planned) death a few years ago. We'd grown fond of him, his kind nature (much like that of his daughter), his generous spirit and bright eyes...it was a pity Mother did what she always does, and left us fatherless again.
Out of all Mother's husbands, we liked Lord Quimby the best. Before him was Lord Deveroux, the drunken antiques dealer; Lord Hamby, the obscenely old fellow who claimed to be 'three times four paces from the throne'; and our poor, poor, unfortunate father, Charles. No title, of course. Just Charles.
It was Mother's hope that she'd ensnare a man of noble blood, but they all 'mysteriously' passed away just before discovering her enormous gambling debts. 'Twas not ladylike to place bets, Mother touted; so she called it 'equine speculation'...but it was more like an excuse to buy fancy hats and gossip with the younger wives at the stables. Perhaps she had a genuine gambling problem, but it's not my place to say.
When Father died, Mother sold everything of his she could in order to pay her debts. At first, Ella (or as you've come to call her, Cinderella), was just as much part of the family as we are. With Mother scuttling about, too self-involved to care, we girls looked after each other and grieved together. Long strolls in the gardens, late nights by the pond, practicing penmanship or reading poetry by lantern; all deeply loved past times of the Quimby sisters (both natural and honorary).
Fawn and I couldn't imagine a life without Ella in it. She had become just as dear to us as Lord Quimby had. She was our sister, and we'd spent the last five years that way.
Everything changed when Mother could no longer keep up with her debtors. A choice had to be made to fire the waitstaff. A shameful thing, no doubt, the house of a Lord and Lady without servants! What would the court think? Mother couldn't stand it. All this conniving and deception, for what? I imagine she was terrified of losing the reputation and social regard more than the estate or Father's business (which she was steadily driving into the ground).
Then came the tally from the posh finishing school Lord Quimby had insisted upon enrolling us in..."nothing is too good for my girls," he'd say with a wink, as quill met parchment to ink the substantial payment. Mother wouldn't tolerate her own daughters being kicked out of finishing school for lack of payment. But she couldn't afford to keep all three of us in school, and she found herself without a housekeeper.
That was the beginning of it for Ella. Mother stopped paying her way for school, restricted her to the estate and forced her to clean, cook, and wait on her. At first, Ella complied out of kindness. She understood our situation - and being benevolent like her father, she'd do anything to better the family. She trusted that soon, Mother would recoup monies lost in the family business, and return her to school. This was only temporary.
Ella's days were spent primarily in the kitchen, cleaning and cooking at Mother's every call. The poor thing found herself taking breaks by the fire to read and rest. Her beautiful dresses, once the same quality brocade as ours, were reduced to rags covered in soot and cinder. In Mother's cruelty, she began calling her "Cinder-Ella" as a taunt.
Unfortunately, it stuck. My compliant sister followed suit, demonstrating herself again to be the weaker vessel of the two of us. (I have never understood how two humans, grown in the same womb, bursting forth from the same woman, can become so different).
The day the invitation came from the royal consort, announcing the Prince's Ball and imminent betrothal, Mother nearly fainted upon the marble floors (which were spotless, thanks to Ella).
Any chance she had at resuming her normal life and being treated like a daughter instead of a handmaid went out the door and down the driveway along with the King's footmen. And any hope I had to become more than just a marriage of convenience was dashed with every click of the hooves on cobblestone. Or so I thought.
Being the self-absorbed jackalope my mother is, she'd completely forgot about Ella's birthday.
The Prince's Ball just so happened to fall upon the eve of October 16th; Cinderella's 18th birthday. Upon such date, each young woman is entitled to an audience with The Fairy Godmother. It was an event that every girl dreamed of; the day she'd be allowed one wish from The Fairy Godmother herself.
One wish. Any wish.
Apparently, Ella's wish had been to go to the Ball. Seems like a waste of a wish to me, but to each their own. I was happy to see Ella happy after the pain we'd put her through since Father's passing.
Three weeks before the party, Mother began ordering Ella to complete lengthy lists of chores, over and above her normal workload. I'd tried to help as much as I could, but Mother would of course, demand that I return to my studies, or powder my nose, or some other frivolous activity I cared nothing about.
Secretly, I'd sneak about reading Machiavelli or Tzu. I found military strategy and political philosophy fascinating; not appropriate reading for a young girl in my mother's (or anyone else's) eyes, but it just felt intuitive to me. While the other girls at finishing school were gossiping or exchanging makeup recipes, I was devouring anything I could find regarding geography, cartography, weaponry and politics.
Distracted by a new biography I'd found on Alexander the Great, I'd completely forgotten about Ella's birthday myself. So when Mother announced Ella could not attend the Ball and would have to stay at home, despite the Prince's invitation extending to all eligible maidens in the land, I felt fraught with guilt and anger. Mother was despicable for doing such a thing.
I spent the better part of an hour trying to unlock the cellar door, so she could follow behind us, knowing that Mother would never make a scene in front of the court. Had I remembered Ella's birthday, I wouldn't have worried so much about my failure to break her out.
It's not how I'd use my wish, admittedly; but Ella chose to use hers for a night of beauty and magic...and I can't say I blame her. At eighteen, she'd made the choice to pursue love and whimsy. Although, surely one cannot fall in love in one night...right?
Regardless of 'true love' or not, Ella was finally free and happy. She maintained her glowing positivity even in the midst of a terrible situation, and she never stopped being kind. Even if the Prince wasn't 'the one' for her, she'd managed to escape her very own tragedy. She found hope. And for that, I was grateful.
Fawn was devastated, understandably so. She'd wrapped her future up in marrying well; Mother never taught her she was capable of anything different. After all, there weren't many options for women in that day. Marry well, bear heirs, hope that your looks hold; shop the markets for fine silks and quality pastries, drown yourself in imported wine, and hope your husband doesn't replace you with a courtesan. C'est la vie.
She was only five minutes older than me, but I felt ages ahead of her. Immaturity is more than a number, no doubt; for Fawn, it was a state of mind. I'd attribute that to being coddled by Mother, as if she's a rose petal too precious to bruise. Mother saw Fawn as her best chance for true nobility; husbands die and can be replaced, but her daughter as a princess? That's the ultimate rung of the social ladder -- short of becoming Queen herself, which was an impossibility, all things considered.
Shortly after the Prince's Ball, Fawn had come home on air, deciding she'd be crowned Princess any day now. She'd convinced herself she and the Prince had some stunning moment -- as if we didn't all watch him dance with Cinderella, a magical spotlight and glimmering fairy dust swirling around the ballroom, as cherubs sang and baby deer swooned. To say that my sister's head was in the clouds was an understatement; but I suppose you can't expect anything less from a girl who has been deprived of oxygen for several hours because her corset is so tight she can't breathe.
A knock on the door from the Prince's courtier the next day caused an uproar in the Quimby home that I was unprepared for.
"I can't believe he didn't pick me!" Fawn moaned, tears smearing heavy makeup in abstract shapes across her face.
My sister's angelic face, with its fair skin and constellations of freckles, was now marred with the evidence of her defeat. Cinderella had gotten the Prince...as if he was a prize to be won, and not a human being. Fawn cried all day. And the next. And the next.
Mother shut down completely. Like a ravenous wolf, she paced through the house mumbling to herself obscene, very unladylike curses and threats toward the newly minted lovebirds. I'm not sure which she was more upset about -- the fact that Ella would now become royalty, or the fact she'd lost.
Either way, the next few months of cohabitation with them was unbearable. I quickly picked up Ella's chores, simply to prevent any further tension in the house. I knew I'd be turning eighteen soon, and like Ella, I'd have my chance at happiness. I would make my wish and become the most powerful ruler who ever lived. I'd see the world, plot and strategize, make the seas and the mountains my palaces. From every corner of the globe, my name would be known and respected.
My love for military strategy and the idea of ruling an empire began when I was little; far before Mother married Lord Quimby. I suppose a psychologist would conclude I felt powerless, and am trying to make up for that now. And, I suppose they'd be right. But it's not just about exerting dominance over my domineering mother, or avenging my father's disgrace.
I love the idea of adventure, of playing the game and winning. Finesse, discipline, inconquerable odds, harrowing victories...living the battles Plato wrote about, being the tragic hero of my own story. Thus far, I feel as if I have been a background character my whole life. I wonder often if people even remember me, or my name. Fawn is popular; Ella was less so, but will certainly outshine the both of us now that she is Princess. Where does that leave me?
I must make room for myself. I am not content to be a footnote in the pages of history, a woman standing by a buffoon of a man who can't even properly chart an ambush route. I belong on the front pages of textbooks; carve my face into a bust made of stone, inscribe my name on the halls of your universities. I will leave a legacy.
But first, I have to get through my sister's birthday party.
Stay tuned for part 2. For more information about me or my work, check out jeryncambrah.com. <3