I have heard the stories that the common people tell about me—some near the truth, but as time as gone on the tales have become increasingly absurd. Poor princess, someone said recently, thinking I couldn’t hear her. Her evil stepmother tormented her until her fairy godmother rescued her. It took all of my self-control to avoid striking the woman; it was only by reminding myself that she meant no harm that I stayed my hand.
They speak ill of my sisters as well. Perhaps that is my own fault, I shouldn’t have let them go to other nations so soon after the wedding—I’ve heard it said that they were banished! And I’ve heard worse as well. Her nasty sisters treated her as a slave even though the princess was born noble! Or even, the princess’ step-sisters tried to fool the prince into marrying one of them—and they almost managed it! Ridiculous. So here and now I set down the tale of my life, the tale of Cinderella.
Which is also rather silly. What kind of name is Cinderella? My parents were more sensible than that, they gave me my great-grandmother’s lovely and traditional name—Elniorae. Which I always thought was too much of a mouthful, so when I was still little I began to introduce myself as “Elnie.” Unfortunately, I had difficulty speaking as a young child, so my parents thought I was calling myself “Ellie.” Over the years I was encouraged to behave more like the Duke’s daughter I was, and eventually was called the less-diminutive “Ell.” However, I am telling my story out of order.
For when I was only three years old, my mother died giving birth to my younger brother. That brother, Elixendre III, passed on only a few weeks later. My father, Elixendre II, was devastated. Those months are my earliest memories—my father, who had always made time to play with me, would not leave his study even to sleep. He rested little and ate almost nothing, which left him ill in ways I don’t believe he ever truly recovered from. It was not until my fourth birthday that my father, exhausted and grieving, emerged from behind his locked door to care for his lonesome daughter.
Papa could deny my nothing after that. Horses, gowns, tutors, candies, all were lavished upon me at my slightest whim. The servants sniffed at the way I was being spoiled, but they said nothing, and for five years I was petted and played with, nannied and nursed, served and sung to. I suppose I was something of a terror to my five—five!—personal maids. Thankfully, I did not remain my father’s beloved doll daughter. When I was eight, my father came into my bedchamber as I was preparing to sleep.
“Did you say your prayers, Ell?”
“Good girl.” He kissed my forehead.
“I must go away again, Ell.” My father was often required to ride to his other properties, far out in the country. He had never left for more than a few days, but I often stormed about his leaving—the servants did not dote on me as my father did. I scrunched my face and used my best near-tears whine.
“For how long?” Papa could hardly refuse someone with such a sincere tremble in her voice! Papa sighed.
“That is what I wanted to talk to you about, Ell. I must ride out to all of my lands and inspect them thoroughly. This happens every few years, you were too young the last time to remember. I can leave for such brief visits at other times only because of these long, exacting trips, and I’m afraid—“
“How long, Papa?” I demanded in a strident tone.
“Now, pet, don’t scream.”
“How long?” I truly screamed then, furious at not getting my way. Papa and I stared at one another in silence.
“Eight months. Maybe as few as six.”
It was more than an hour before the maids could get me to stop throwing things, and another two before I consented to get back into my bed. When Papa tried to talk to me the next morning I only glared and threw my porridge spoon at him. When he left a few days later I only allowed him to kiss me because he promised to bring me back a wonderful present. And it was with a sullen stare from his daughter that my father’s carriage pulled out onto the road.
My life altered radically after that.
Papa had left my care and education in the hands of our bossy housekeeper, a woman I referred to as Cook, despite the fact that she did little of our actual cooking. She was not a woman with patience for peevishness, and had utterly disapproved of my father’s manner of raising me. She was a good woman, generous to those in need, gentle to those in pain, and more stubborn even than I. I despised her. After my father left I went straight to my bed and stayed there for several hours, nurturing my wrath and promising myself that I would not step outside my chambers until Papa came home. This resolution did not endure for very long.
I rang for a servant around noon; Cook herself entered quickly enough that I suspected she had been awaiting my summons. Good, I thought, she ought to be attending me so well. After all, Papa has abandoned me and I am miserable.
“Cook, be a dear and bring me some lunch. Cold pheasant and hot bread would be best. And an apple.”
“No, milady.” I stared at her for a moment. No? I was Ell, daughter of Elixendre II, and I was not accustomed to being denied my whims.
“Oh, Cook, I see,” I said after a moment. “We have no pheasant, is that it? Lamb, then, I know we have some of that.” I felt that I was being, after the ordeal of the morning, very kind and accommodating.
“No. When you want your lunch you will get out of your bed. You are not ill, and I will not see you lounge about all day like a cripple. When you get out of bed to eat your lunch, you will change your dress, because tossing about on the one you are in now must have wrinkled it terribly. You will then come down to the kitchen, and the kitchen servants will assist you in making your own lunch. “
“My own—“ I began to wail, but Cook clapped a hand over my mouth and continued.
“You will then return here, to your room, where your one maid will teach you how to iron the dress you have mussed by lazing on it. After that you have your lessons in grammar and mathematics with your tutors, supper, and time to yourself to read or embroider as is proper for a young lady of your station. However, I should warn you that if you should misbehave again today, that time with be allocated instead to assisting a maid in scrubbing the entryway floor. You will then return to your room for your night’s sleep in your nightgown. Have I made the day’s schedule clear?” Cook said all of this very fast, staring into my eyes, her large hand still clamped tightly, if not painfully, over my mouth.
I bit her finger.
To Cook’s everlasting credit, she did not strike me or scream. She simply wiped my spittle on her apron, froze me with a stare that took at least three inches off of my height, and said,
“Milady, you have not been behaving in a way that befits your station in life. As a noble, it will someday be your duty to oversee and care for many people. Perhaps you will even be a Queen. A Queen does not throw porridge spoons at her father, or scream when her meat is cold, or bite people’s fingers. A Queen is gracious and wise and kind and good.”
“A Queen does not make her own lunches!” I shouted.
“No, but she does have discipline, she knows how to work—even if her work is not scrubbing floors or ironing gowns, it requires as much focus and diligence—and she does not depend on her servants to do every tiny thing for her. A Queen is a worthwhile human being. Like a noble. Like your mother was, God rest her soul. And like you will be, if I have any say in the matter.”
I screamed and screamed until my throat hurt, long after Cook left my bedchamber. I remained in bed all day, and all the next night, and well into the next day’s morning.
I rang for a servant again. And again, Cook entered.
“Cook,” I said as plaintively as I could manage, “I’m awfully hungry and weak. I think perhaps I’m ill. Would you bring me up a large slice of lamb and half a loaf of fresh bread and a few apples?”
“Lady Ell,” Cook said, “if you have the strength to eat all of that, you have the strength to come down to the kitchen and learn to make your own lunch. Be sure you change your dress first; the one you’re wearing must stink by now. I suppose you’ll have to learn to wash it before you learn to iron.” She turned and left the room without another word.
“I hate you!” I screamed. “I’ll never do your worthless servants’ work, I’ll stay here, I’ll starve until I die and my father will have you executed for my murder! You’ll be sorry you treated me so then, when your head is on the chopping block!” My stomach growled and tightened painfully. “You’re killing me!” I wailed, shrillest of all. “I’m dying!” Then I turned and sobbed into my pillow for half an hour.
An hour later I stood in the kitchen, a clean dress flung over me, my stomach roaring its displeasure at being truly hungry for the first time in my life, and a scowl that could darken the sun on my face. Cook entered the kitchen, looked me over briskly, and smiled.
Looking back, it’s surprising how quickly I adjusted to the life Cook planned for me. After only four months, my evenings were mine—prior to that, every night had been spent cleaning, sewing, cooking, or doing whatever else Cook ordered me to. I was even reasonably good at my work.
At first, of course, I was convinced that Cook wanted me lowered to her own station. When I discovered the first callouses on my hands, I showed her sullenly, expecting her to clap for joy and laugh in my face. She did neither.
“Ah, little Ell. I didn’t think of that. What would your mother say?” I looked up at her, not understanding. “We can’t leave you with the hands of a serving-maid, it won’t do. From now on, as soon as your skin is sore, rest, and wash your hands. And you’ll sleep with a treatment slathered on them.” Cook found a very old pair of my mother’s formal gloves, and instructed me to sleep with them on, over puddles of ointment, every night.
My hands were only the beginning. Watching me stumble in the kitchen for the fourth time one day, Cook looked at me with that same ponderous look in her eyes.
“M’lady, we’ve missed something very important in your upbringing.”
“What is it?” I asked, pausing as I kneaded bread.
“Dancing?” I scoffed. “When will I use that?” Cook threw her hands in the air and stared up at the ceiling.
“Forgive me, Lali.”
“Your mother, Lalliana.”
“I didn’t know you knew her so well.” I wiped the dough stuck to my hands off, stepping back from my rising bread. Slowly, I sat on the old wooden table. “Papa doesn’t talk about her much.”
“I knew your mother almost her whole life. I can tell you whatever you’d like to know.”
Things changed again after that. Months of hard work—not too hard, of course, but difficult enough to teach me—were now invaded with hours of lady lessons. Dancing, playing the harp (my mother’s) and singing, drawing and painting, etiquette, and training in social interaction. It was an entirely different kind of hard work, and I started to miss the simple routines of cooking and dusting and even beating rugs. I often spent my free time helping Cook with her chores, stretching my back after hours of sitting straight.
It was during this time that the letter arrived from my father. Once again, my life was turned on its head.
My dearest little Ell, I feel certain that you must have missed me these past nine months, for I have surely missed you, my little angel. I write now to tell you that I am coming home to you on the ninth of March, should God allow it, and bringing you a greater gift even than I had originally planned. A young girl needs a mother in her life, as well as friends and confidantes. I come to you with both, with all speed.Love always,Your fatherElixendre II
I spun where I stood—or perhaps the room turned around me. What did he mean, a mother? Was he married again, then? What would that mean? My life had changed so much in the previous months, I could hardly imagine it returning to the way it was, let alone changing into the life of an ordinary noble girl. For one thing, I would never again be able to ignore a mess! More importantly, I had no idea anymore how to interact with such a person as a mother. All I could do was wait.
The days melted together into one long, suspenseful, syrupy month. At times I was excited—a mother, and my father returned! No more floor scrubbing, and a woman in whom I could confide! At other times, I was afraid. What if the new woman didn’t like me? What if she was a nasty, wicked stepmother? I had Cook to confide in and cry to, what did I need a mother for?
And what did Papa mean, he was bringing me confidantes? I asked Cook; she guessed that the new Lady had daughters of her own.
That was a month of nightmares. Fearful dreams from which I woke in a panicked state; I was forced to be a servant in my own home, my stepmother was cruel, my step-sisters wretched. I saw them as severe beauties, towering over me, stepmother with whip in hand. In these dreams, I could never perform my tasks fast enough—tasks that I could perform very well when waking—and was beaten, shouted at, kicked, and turned away from the life I was owed. My stepmother sending Cook away from the manor, locking me in the tallest tower for months. Papa, cowed by the new woman, powerless to protect me.
I was a bit nervous to meet my new family.
However much I might have willed it otherwise, the ninth of March dawned—clear and cold, with just a hint of the smell of spring in the air.
“Do you smell that, Cook?” I asked her as she was preparing my bath—I would be clean to meet the new ladies of my house!
“Smell what, little cinder-girl?” Cook asked, laughing. I’d fallen asleep on the rug by the fire the night before, and I was streaked with soot. I knew as soon as I climbed into the tub, the water would turn black.
“Spring coming. The ground is starting to thaw, and soon there will be blossoms, and we can plant the peas.” I had been very excited to work in the garden—winter had been long, and I ached to run about on the manor’s grounds.
“I only smell you, reeking of woodsmoke,” Cook said, still laughing at me. “Now come here, cinder-girl, before the water gets cold.”
I was not quite nine, hardly a lady, but Cook had fancied a dress for this occasion. She put my hair in ringets and twisted it up. When I inspected myself in the looking-glass, I was quite pleased—I looked like a little lady, a miniature of my mother’s portrait.
“Except your eyes,” Cook said when I commented on this to her. “Your father’s blue eyes, not your mother’s brown ones. But her soft, pale skin, and her black hair, yes.” She looked up, as she often did. “Oh, Lali, look down at your child now. You would be so proud of her.”
“You really think she would?”
“Of course!” Cook said, making a face that meant she wanted me to think she was offended. I laughed.
Just then a shout came from downstairs. The carriage had arrived! Heedless of my unstable hair and dangerously long skirt, I dashed down the staircase, skidding to a halt in my bare feet in front of Clyde, the doorman.
“Are they here? Is it them?” I demanded of him.
“Now, milady,” he said in a voice so low it felt like thunder, “you know as much as I do, and perhaps more. A carriage is approaching. Patience.” I scrunched up my nose and bounced from foot to foot, anxious to get outside, but knowing there were still eternally long minutes until the carriage stopped at the door.
Cook came down the stairs in her half-gliding, half-bouncing way, shaking her head and holding my shoes. Rather than wait for someone to help me with them, I sat down on the floor, there in the entryway, and buckled them myself.
“Ell—“ Cook began. Clyde chuckled. Shaking her head over me, Cook began calling out to the servants.
“The master is home! Come line up to greet him! You, Thomas, re-tuck your shirt in the back. Pierre, Artur, you’ll be escorting Her Ladyship, and George, you’ll be helping her daughters, assuming she does have some.”
“By myself?” George protested—he was rather skinny.
“No, no, have John help you,” Cook replied. “Maude, Catterine, Anne, and Jane, remember, you’re to serve as personal maidservants to the new women of the house. Ell—“
“Yes?” I asked, now standing as near to the door as I could.
“Remember everything you’ve studied in the last few months. No jumping, running, or shouting, no matter how pleased you are to see your father. And be on your best behavior with the new ladies—it would be best for everyone if they like you.” Cook surveyed the staff. Nathanael, the butler, caught her eye. She blushed, embarrassed at having done his job for him. He just smiled.
“Everybody turn out!” Nathanael said. I yanked the door open and flew down the front steps to where the carriage was just stopping. I opened my mouth to shout with joy to my Papa, but just before the sound came out, Cook spoke quietly behind me.
“Ell.” I swallowed my shout and took a step backward, waiting for the carriage door to open.
My father stepped out.
“Papa!” I squealed, heedless of propriety. I heard Cook sigh behind me, and then I was swept up in my father’s arms, while he cried,
“Little Ell! No longer so little! Well, my little lady, would you like to meet your new family?” Apprehension shot through me like a sudden cold rain as my Papa put me down. I stepped back.
“Yes?” I managed, wishing I sounded more certain. Cook poked me in the back to remind me to keep good posture. I stood straight as a house and looked the carriage door square in the eye. “Yes.” I said.
“Good!” my father said, and turned to offer his arm to someone waiting inside the carriage.
My first impression was that this woman was impossibly lovely—from her beautiful blonde curls, her wide green eyes, and her button nose to her violet dress and matching shoes.
“Thank you, Elixendre,” she said, and kissed my Papa on the cheek. She then looked at me. “You must be little Ell,” she said. She cast a mock-resentful eye on my father. “Elixendre, you didn’t tell me she was a little lady.” I smiled and dropped a curtsy—without even Cook’s whispered suggestion.
“Yes, milady.” She smiled at me, then turned to the carriage.
“Come and meet your new sister!” she called. Then she turned back to me and gave a polite nod. “Now, we’ll have none of this ‘milady’ nonsense,” she said. “Call me Mama.” I paused, considering, oblivious to the commotion at the carriage door.
“I’ve never had a Mama that I remember; I might not know how to do it. Are you sure you want a daughter who doesn’t even have practice?” Mama giggled, a friendly, girlish sound.
“If you’ll give me a hug right now, I’ll take every bit of you,” she said. I decided that I liked her. I rushed into her arms.
“Thank you,” I said.
“For what?” she laughed.
“For taking me and not being a scary evil stepmother.” Mama wasn’t the only one; a boy’s voice from behind our embrace gave a snort, and two matching, chiming chuckles rang out at a higher pitch. I looked around my new Mama; there stood two girls who looked about my age, and a boy who looked a bit older. I stared at them, even though I knew it was rude. Silence sloshed between us, in a sort of conversation made of first impressions.
The boy had his mother’s blonde hair, and he was going to be handsome when he grew up—I could see it. The two identical girls had their mother’s curls, but they were darker. All three had the same wide green eyes, and while I was absorbing and guessing about them, they were staring at me with those eyes, probably doing just what I was.
“Ell, don’t stare,” Papa said. “it’s rude. These are your new brother and sisters. Girls?” he glanced between them with a focused stare. They tittered again.
“I’m Sarah,” said one, offering her hand. I reached out my own hand in confusion; surely she didn’t expect me to kiss it? But she just sort of crushed all of my fingers together and shook my hand like she was trying to get it off of my arm.
“Ell—I’m Ell.” I said, pulling my hand away. I heard a sigh from behind me.
“Sarah, women don’t shake hands, you know that,” Mama said. Sarah just smiled at her innocently.
“I’m Suzanne,” the other girl said, blushing rose pink across her whole face. “It’s very nice to meet you, Ell. I hope we will be friends.” I smiled and nodded.
“I’m eight going on nine in about three months,” I told Suzanne. “How old are you?”
“We turned nine just two weeks ago!” Sarah exclaimed. I grinned broadly.
“Pardon me, ladies, is there room for me in this party?” The manly voice would have intimidated me, except that it cracked into a high pitch on the word “ladies,” making everyone laugh. The boy I’d noticed before was grinning rather shyly at us all. He, like Sarah, extended a hand to me. I shook it.
“My name is Antony,” he said. “I’m twelve.” His voice cracked again on “twelve,” and his face reddened like his sister’s had a moment before. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“You, as well,” I responded automatically. The four of us stood there, not sure what to do, and our Papa and Mama beamed at us.
“Would you like to see the house?” I blurted out. “We weren’t sure how many of you there would be, or what you would want in terms of rooms, so we just got all of the guest rooms ready. Cook says you can pick your favorite and we can make it more personal to you. Is that okay, Papa?” I glanced up at my father at the end of this rapidly uttered speech. He smiled and nodded.
“Go ahead, Ell, but—“
“Come on!” I said to Sarah, Suzanne, and Antony, rushing toward the house.
“Don’t lose anyone!” Papa called after me.
“And don’t run in the—house.” Cook shouted, too late.
Sarah and Suzanne turned out to be excellent at just about everything. Sarah was bossy, taking charge when we took walks, despite not knowing the grounds, and telling Suzanne and me what to say when we played dolls. Suzanne was sweet, and followed Sarah around like my puppy Brownie used to follow me. But they were both good company, and happy to join in games of make-believe (Sarah was a fairy princess, Suzanne and I her attendants and sometimes hopeful suitors,) dolls (Sarah was the Mama and we her daughters,) and exploration (Sarah led the excursion, with Suzanne as cartographer and me as the chief magician, defending us from lions and manticores.) They both excelled at what Cook termed my, “ladyship lessons,” dancing, embroidery, drawing, and the like. However, I could beat either of them in a foot race, and kept my bedchamber neater than theirs.
Antony was just what I’d always wished for and dreaded in an older brother. He mussed my hair, helped me pick up dolls, laughed when I was sooty, complimented my dresses, robbed me of my dinner rolls, and dried my tears. Sometimes he would play with Sarah and Suzanne and me (he was fond of playing the wild creatures when we went exploring, jumping out from behind trees to our startled screams,) but he was often engaged in lessons of his own, learning to fence, to dance (sometimes he joined us in those lessons,) to ride, to hunt (he had his own dog, who was expecting puppies who would make up a whole pack of Antony’s hunting dogs,) and manly etiquette. He was also soon caught up with his own friends, playing the games that young boys do and running as wildly on the grounds as Mama would let him.
Mama and Papa were wonderful, too. It took me about two seconds of living with the pair of them to realize that they were well and truly in love. They loved us children too, and in many ways, my life was perfect. In the evenings after supper, Mama read to us from books she’d brought from far out in the country. Sarah swooned to hear about dashing princes, and Suzanne sighed over gleaming knights. I always thought fairy stories were a little silly—the princesses never seemed to do much for themselves. Antony agreed with me, preferring to hear about the great deeds of powerful wizards and pious priests.
On days when I just couldn’t stand to be a lady for one more minute, I sneaked down to the kitchens to help Cook. The third time Papa caught me doing this, he gave me a long look.
“You really like spending time with the servants, don’t you, Ell?”
“Yes, Papa. It’s nice not to have someone constantly remind me to sit still or asking me to strum out a tune for the fifteenth time.” Papa chuckled, then sighed.
“Very well. You may work with Cook as long as it doesn’t interfere with your lessons—“
“It won’t, Papa, I promise—“
“And so long as you remember your station.”
“Cook won’t let me forget.”
“Oh?” He raised an eyebrow at Cook, standing quietly—for once—behind me.
“We all remind her that she’s to be a lady, m’lord, even though she acts like our little cinder-girl.”
“Cinder-girl?” Papa asked. I blushed.
“She’s ruined two dresses standing too close to the fireplace, m’lord, we call her cinder-girl because of it.” She paused, then quickly added, “we can stop, if you like.”
No,” Papa mused, “but I think she needs an apron to cover her dresses.” He looked at me. “See to it that someone makes her a servant’s uniform.” He wiggled his eyebrows at me.
“You asked for it, little Cinder-Ell,” he said, and laughed. “Now off to your dancing with you, your sisters are waiting!” So I made myself a uniform (Cook refused to let me get away with passing it off to someone else,) and continued to help out in the kitchen. Sarah and Suzanne each tried a day, but detested it.
“How do you stand it, Ell?” Sarah asked.
“The kitchens are so dirty,” Suzanne said.
“And hot,” Sarah added.
“And full of delicious things!” Antony put in, walking into the room.
“Antony,” pouted Sarah, “One does not simply walk in to someone’s conversation, it isn’t polite.” Sarah’s voice pitched on the word polite, and I looked around to see why. Another boy had quietly followed Antony into the room, and was examining a tapestry, hands behind his back, chin high.
“Ah, ladies,” Antony said with excessive elegance, “This is Henri.” He paused.
“Crown Prince of Fresnia.” Sarah gaped until Suzanne poked her in the side, and all three of us curtsied. The prince, who looked about Antony’s age, stepped forward.
“Please don’t,” he sounded a little weary, but his voice was commanding nonetheless. “You’re nobility, after all, and I’m here as Antony’s friend, not as your prince. Please, don’t curtsy to me unless we’re at some sort of formal affair. Really. I’d like to be friends.” He smiled weakly, and I got the impression that most people were too afraid to be his friend, like not wanting to play with a china doll in case it broke. So I smiled widely at him, stepped forward, and grabbed him by the hand.
“Come on, Henri, let me show you our teepee,” I said, referring to a quilt we’d hung around a tree nearby. “You can play American Indians with us!” I tugged on his arm once, then stepped back to the safety of my sisters’ companionship. Suzanne looked utterly appalled, but Henri’s face cracked into a handsome smile.
“I’d love to, miss, but I’m afraid you’ll have duties to attend to…?” I stared at him, then smacked my head playfully. I was in my servant’s uniform. Antony laughed.
“Oh, no, Henri, that’s my sister, Ell. She likes to help out in the kitchens, as you can see from the enormous streak of soot on her face.” He laughed again while I blushed and covered my face in my hands.
“Really?” Henri asked. “Well, then you can take the lead as Chief Indian—winter is coming, and we must prepare food! As our resident expert, would you care to direct me?” I smiled at the thought of directing a prince.
“Actually,” Sarah interrupted, “I’m usually the Indian Chief. But you can help us track down the bear we’ve been hunting!” Antony winked at her; he was the bear in question, and he left us little clues about how to find him. I was sure once we did, Sarah would reveal herself to be not only the Indian Chief, but a fairy princess who could speak to, and mollify, the bear.
So it was that Henri, Crown Prince of Fresnia, became my brother Antony’s friend, and my friend too. Usually the boys played by themselves, but sometimes all five of us would play together, even occasionally at the palace—the palace! Henri was a loyal friend and an expert bear-hunter, explorer, and fairy soldier extraordinaire.