Chapter 04 | Cinderella and the Missing Prince
Catherine Heywood couldn’t believe what she was reading.
The old book she had found in the locked part of her mansion of a house sat before her the day after her birthday, post-breakfast. Jeremy Cricket sat on her bedside table, gazing at her with some interest.
She finally looked up at him. “I don’t believe this,” she whispered. “The title this… this doesn’t make sense!”
“Oh? What’s it say?”
She turned back to the book. “‘Cinderella and the Missing Prince’. Whoever wrote this story? – or, this book, for that matter.” She held the edge of the page and tried to turn it, but it wouldn’t budge. She didn’t try harder for the fear of tearing the delicate-looking paper and instead, held down the current page and turned back. “Nothing to say about the author or the publisher of this book. How strange!”
The little cricket nodded thoughtfully. “Strange is one way to put it, all right.”
She looked at him again. “Why – how else would you put it?”
Her mouth formed an O. “Right, I forgot,” she muttered. “So – what do we do now?”
“Simple – the only thing we can do, actually: read it. Out loud.”
Catherine swallowed, nervousness getting to her. Just like yesterday, she and Jeremy were all alone in the great mansion—her mother had gone to attend to a restaurant the family owned because of some problems that came up last week and her father went to work in the court; he was a judge.
The young girl, however, didn’t feel quite so alone now that she had someone to talk to, albeit he was still a little suspicious to her. It wasn’t like she told him her deepest darkest secrets—yes, she had those—but, he was a good listener and never seemed to openly judge her immediately.
Now, three days after her most important birthday, she finally decided to open the magical book again and found just one story in it, with the rest of pages apparently stuck to the end of the book.
At Jeremy’s behest, she began to read the story:
Once upon a time, there was a young girl who lost both her parents. Her name was Ella. She lived in a small village just outside the capital city, where the king and his son lived. When her parents died, her neighbour took her in. This neighbour was a widow with twin daughters. Even though she was given food and clothing, and treating like the two daughters, Ella still felt alone, because she missed her parents very much.
On the evening of her eighteenth birthday, the widow’s daughters burst into the cottage after their routinely walks round the village and exclaimed:
“Mother! Ella! The king is hosting a ball!”
The widow and the young foster girl came out of the kitchen, where dinner was almost ready. The four of them set the table and sat around. Amidst eating, the twins explained that there was a ball held by the king of their land for his eldest son, and that they intended to go. They invite Ella along with them and with some encouragement, she accepts.
The ball came in five days and the three girls were ready; the mother fished out three old but very beautiful costumes for them to wear at the ball. The eldest twin had a yellow outfit with diamonds glittering off it, the youngest wore a shimmering violet dress, and Ella wore a blue laced dress. Satisfied and with a promise that they’d be midnight, the mother sent them all to the king’s palace in the carriage that came to the village to take them.
During the ball, the twins soon lost interest in the prince as they found other men to dance with after their turns with him. Soon, it was Ella’s turn.
Ella was very shy to be in such a huge grand place with a lot of people; she wasn’t used to being around so many people. This chamber was packed. But, when she saw the prince and he requested for a dance, amidst hesitation, she finally accepted.
And oh, when she was dancing, all she could see was the prince before her, smiling and looking truly happy. It seemed that for just that moment, there were only the tow of them in their own world.
Their bubble burst when the song came to an end, but the prince didn’t let go of her hand, though he stopped dancing. He gazed her longer than was appropriate, before realised and let her go.
He bowed low. “Thank you for this dance, my lady. It was wonderful.”
Ella curtsied the best she could, for she wasn’t used to doing that in the village. “The pleasure is all mine, Prince.”
“I hope we shall meet again.”
“My lady, may I know your name?”
However, just then, she heard a terrible sound coming from somewhere in the palace: the gong of a grandfather clock. It rang so loudly that she couldn’t hear anything else in the ball chamber.
Suddenly, she felt a yank at her arm and she started into alertness. It was the twins pulled her, fear written all over their faces.
The loud gonging stopped just as the three young girls made out of the palace. Ella’s hand was free now, but she was not a very good runner. Every now and then, she stumbled and tripped, but the others always ensured to help her and let her move. One time, she thought something below her gave way, but she didn’t turn back to see what it was. For, by now, she realised why her companions were in such a hurry: the clock had struck twelve times, indicating midnight!
Finally, they found a carriage that was filled with other young women and girls who had come to the ball and was about to leave. They stopped it, got in, and the carriage left.
When Ella could finally gather her thoughts, she realised that the prince had asked her for her name and she hadn’t given him a response.
’Oh well, he’s a prince,’ she thought. ’I’m no royalty. I’m sure there’s another woman out there who’d be best suited for him. Not me – an orphan from a village.’
The next day, the twins went out for a walk around the village as usual, but now, they took Ella with them. In a silent place where nobody was around – inside the bark of a tree – the twins began to bombard her with questions at the same time:
“You danced so long with the prince!”
“What did you talk about?!”
“Did he ask you to marry him!?”
“Did he step on you while dancing?!”
“Hey, hey, slow down – one by one, please!” Ella waved her hands. “I’ll tell you all about it.” And so, she proceeded to tell her foster sisters about how she had spent her time with the prince. “Also, I noticed this morning that I lost my slipper somewhere on the way.”
“Oh, is that why you asked to borrow mine?” asked the elder twin.
“Well, so he doesn’t know anything about you,” remarked the younger twin. “How do you expect he’ll find you now?”
Ella shrugged. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Anyhow, a prince always looks for a princess, not a common girl like me!”
“Hey, that sounds familiar!” interrupted the cricket.
Catherine stopped abruptly and blinked at him. When she realised what he said, she frowned. “It was mentioned as a thought a few lines ago – that’s why!”
Jeremy shook his head. “No, no, I don’t think so. It struck me as familiar when you said it the second time.”
She rolled her eyes. “Whatever. Should I read the rest or not?” She really hated being interrupted.
“Yes, yes.” He waved his little foreleg dismissively. This gesture ticked her off, but she chose to ignore it and go on:
“No, no, that’s not true,” said the elder twin. “If that’s the case, then why did he invite girls from small towns and villages? Of course, he doesn’t mind commoners!”
Ella was on the verge of tears, but when she heard this, she sniffed and said, in a quiet voice, “You think so?”
She shook her head. “I know so. Listen, we can only do our duties and hope for the best. You did well there, Ella. You did well.”
Ella blushed at the praise. “Thank you. But, I’m competing against the both of you now, aren’t I?”
Both the twins shook their heads.
“No,” replied the younger one, “the prince’s good, but there are better men – men who aren’t royalty.” She exchanged smiles with her sister. “We don’t need royalty to be happy.”
“But, it’s the man you want, right?”
“Well then, we’ll just have to wait.”
“Actually… he doesn’t even know my name.”
“What?!” cried the twins in shock.
“We can’t expect the positive now, can we?” asked the younger sister.
“No, there’s still hope,” said her older sister, thoughtfully. “What are the chances that she lost her shoe in the palace?” This question she directed at her younger sister.
The latter frowned. “I don’t know. It’s likely. Do you remember where you lost your shoe, Ella?”
Ella looked thoughtful, but shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
A few days passed and the three friends eventually forgot about this conversation. They laughed, played, sang, danced, and did everything they used to do before they went to the ball.
One fine day, when winter passed and spring hit, one of the villagers coming back from selling his wares rushed to the plaza and rang the temple bell as loudly as his sore arms allowed. This brought all the villagers to the spot; for, the ringing of the bell signified one thing: there was an important announcement or visitor passing by. So, naturally, there was excitement all around:
“What’s the matter? Who rang the bell?”
“That must be the man who did it!”
“Hey, Will, did you see or hear anything?”
The man named Will, who rang the bell, rang it again. This time, everybody fell silent at once.
“The prince of the kingdom is visiting this village!” he announced. “I saw him speaking to one of his men and they’re all headed in this direction! They’re sure to pass by this village!”
Instantly, the chatter picked up again:
“Oh my – the prince?!”
“The prince who conducted the ball – that prince?! Why is coming all the way here?”
“But, I was sure I heard rumours about him choosing a woman already! Did he perhaps change his mind?”
The three young friends who were the only ones to have attended the ball suddenly perked up at this announcement. They speak anything, but glanced at one-another as if in conversation.
Not till they went home did they speak again:
“The prince!” cried the younger twin. “He’s not found his woman, after all! – he couldn’t have!”
Ella didn’t say anything, but she knew quite well what was going on in the girl’s mind.
The older twin, however, was frowning in thought. “Or, maybe he’s just passing by,” she reasoned, “on his way to the port. This is a sure-shot way in his path.” But, even she knew this wasn’t the case at the moment.
When the prince arrived, they all knew. From the window of their cottage, they could see him dismounting his horse and making his way towards where the houses stood.
What was most astonishing was that he didn’t knock on any of the doors. He directly came to theirs and rapped smartly on it.
“I’ll get it!” whispered the elder sister and rushed to the door. She opened it with a polite smile.
“Ah!” the others could hear the prince remarking. “We’ve met before, haven’t we?”
“Indeed!” replied she. “I came to the ball with my sisters the other day! Oh, what a marvellous time we had! Thank you ever so much!” She curtsied gracefully.
“Thank you for coming,” he said, ever so charmingly. Ella’s face burned as she heard his voice. It was so familiar, even after meeting him for just a day, it still managed to make her heart flutter. “May I ask to meet one of your sisters? See, she was dancing with me at the ball, before she was suddenly whisked away. Here, she left her slipper behind.”
“Oh! Yes, yes! This does belong to us! Please wait here, will you?”
The elder twin closed the door though she left it ajar and went to where her sisters hid.
“We heard it!” the younger twin exclaimed in a fierce whisper. “And I’m going!”
“Wait!” The older sister stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. “It’s Ella’s shoe.”
“But, we can’t let him have her that easily now, can we?” winked the younger sister, before kissing Ella on the cheek and dancing away to the door. She opened it with a look of absolute delight and exclaimed, “Ah! My shoe! Did you find it?! I was looking all over for it for several days!”
“I’ll admit, she’s a good actress,” commented the elder sister to Ella. “Don’t worry, we won’t let you go so easily to him. We love you too much for that!”
Ella blushed gracefully but remained silent, wishing to hear the conversation:
“Ah, but, pardon me, you aren’t the woman who left this shoe, I’m sure of it! It was another woman! Perhaps your other sister?”
“You mean, the one who opened the door first?”
“Oh no. The other one.”
“Ohh! You mean, Ella! Right! Hold on.” She turned around to where the other sisters stood quietly. “Ella! Somebody’s here to see you for a shoe!”
Suddenly, Ella’s heart began to thud violently in her chest and she didn’t want to go. But, at the same time, she wanted to see the prince one last time. Of course, it would be her last time, since which prince in his right mind would marry an orphaned pauper like her?
But, the twins wouldn’t hear of it. They pushed Ella directly in front of the prince. He stumbled back a little and Ella at once felt guilty.
“Oh goodness, did I do something? – step on your shoe?!” she exclaimed.
The prince suddenly laughed and waved his free hand in dismissal. “Oh no, absolutely not. I was simply stunned at seeing you again – I honestly never thought I would! How have you been?”
Warmth began enveloping Ella and she smiled. “I’m doing good, thank you. I’ve been wondering about you, too.”
“Well, I suppose this belongs to you.” He held up the shoe he had been holding in his right hand.
Ella gasped and nodded. “Y-yes. I lost it sometime on the night of the ball, but didn’t know where. Glad you found it. Thank you.” She accepted the shoe with a curtsy.
This time, it was Catherine herself who interrupted her own narration: “Why are they curtsying so much!? Don’t they have any other ways to do things?!”
Jeremy chuckled. “Now, now, it’s a custom in some places of the world. You mustn’t judge people with their cultures! Read on!”
With a grumble and a mumble about how she could never understand the ways of the world, she read on:
It would a great thing at this point to say that they lived happily ever after. However, a nightmare was to befall Ella, her two adoptive sisters, and the prince. The day Ella and the prince were to marry, a year after their joyful reunion, the prince disappeared.
Catherine turned the page, but it wouldn’t budge. She tried harder, before realising that it just didn’t turn.
“Hey, what’s with the book!?” she cried.
Jeremy had his foreleg under his tiny chin in thought. “The story probably ends there.”
“What?! How am I supposed to know what happens next!?”
“We should find out.”
“Find out? How?”
“I’m starting to wonder if this story – all the stories in this book, as a matter of fact – are about actual people and not just some fairy tales. You know what I mean?”
The young girl shook her head.
“Well, have you ever read the story of Cinderella?”
“Of course – who hasn’t?”
“Can’t you see how similar this story is to it?”
A moment later, Catherine’s eyes went wide. “Oh goodness! I thought it pricked my brain with the orphan and the ball and the missing shoe –”
“Exactly! So, we need to find these people and see how their story ends.”
“But, can’t we just read it in the book here? More pages might open tomorrow or the day after.”
“But, what if they don’t?” The young girl frowned, but the cricket went on: “What if their story didn’t actually end? What if… it has been frozen? And what about the men the twins found? Did they find them again?”
Catherine frowned thoughtfully now. “That makes sense – in an insane kind of way.”
“Exactly! So, now, it’s time to find the prince!”