Once upon a time ...
In my world—this land of fairy tale—things are not as the story books would have you believe. The versions you know are those of the original magic-touched girls, or that’s what most of you believe. The fairy tale lives we live aren’t like the ones you are most familiar. The original girls had it pretty hard in most cases. Poor Sleeping Beauty ended up with two kids and no idea where they’d come from. Your popular versions—and they existed, it’s true—had it easy.
In the last ten years, there have been fifty Rapunzel, a hundred Thumbelina, and ninety-three Swan Princess girls with and without the black’s appearance. Beauty and the Beast is the rarest of the stories to be lived out entirely. There are not so many people with the kind heart the first girl had. Many poor souls died a beast.
I know my fairy tale. I dread it. Though fairy tale lives are ample in our world, happily ever is not. I am a cinder-girl. My circumstances, like most, is different from what you know. I have three stepsisters. Two are awful. The third is kind. Our kingdom has one prince. Most telling’s of the tale do. But the chances of me being his princess, however, is slim. Why? Well. I am a noble, low on the ranking list but still a noble. That isn’t the problem.
First, do you know how many fairy tale lives are being lived right now? And how many of them call for dashing handsome princes? A lot. Furthermore, royalty doesn’t find their spouse in the original way in this kingdom. Balls are not thrown for them. We don’t have fairy godmothers. We have sorcerers. A handful of them are under the command of the royal family. It was once decided that they would be used to find their child’s spouse. The spell is meant to find the person whom the prince or princess would love best and who would love them best.
A lovely idea. Sure. But I’m not interested in marrying a prince. Even if I am his Cinderella.
Nicolette shifted the basket on her hip full of red apples picked from an orchard near her home. She looked down at them, grinning at their smooth texture and bright color. Rose, a Snow White, had been kind enough to let her have some. Her kingdom was only a three hours walk from Nicolette’s home, a walk of perfect solitude she did not mind. To get back, she traveled a dusty road empty of travelers save for two people she knew. Seeing them meant her cottage wasn’t far. Her eyes lifted away from them to watch a bird fly up and over her head, and she pulled a wheat colored curl from her brow.
The couple turned away from her as they passed. They were nice people who lived in the farm down the lane from her father’s estate. She grinned and nodded in polite acknowledgment to them despite their cold indifference. She knew they despised her for the lies her stepmother had told them. For this reason, and because her stepmother forbade it, she did not speak to her neighbors or to anyone else. She didn’t mind her social restrictions though, she was shy and expected cruelty. To talk to strangers frightened her.
She paused at the white gate where a fence circled her father’s cottage. It was currently the only functioning building on the estate. Her stepmother, Claudette, would have preferred to live in the mansion. But there were not enough servants to keep it up.
Nicolette paused and then sighed to hear the sudden sound of shattering glass. With that one noise, the joy the sun had brought her that morning faded. She would be called to clean whatever mess had been made and so mentally prepared herself for the task.
“Where is that girl?” Claudette screeched, her voice seeming to scratch at the very air.
Nicolette loosened the shawl around her head so it rested in soft waving folds on her shoulders. And then she turned and shut the gate behind her, it resonating with a metallic click. The last thing she wanted were the goats to wander in and eat her mother’s flowers.
Claudette shouted again, making Nicolette hurry a little faster. If she put real effort into it, she could be heard for miles. Nicolette took a steadying breath of the spring air to get her bearings, gave her garden a quick longing glance, and then stepped into the house. There, she slipped off her outdoor shoes and put on her indoor slippers. It was a relief to know no other lady in the house had her size foot. All her stepsister’s feet were bigger than hers. And because one had arches that required she have custom shoes, it meant the others had to have them as well. It was just as well. They had stolen all her other possessions.
“Nicolette!” Claudette shrieked, her pitch and volume rising this time.
“I am here, Madame,” Nicolette called. She did not refer to Claudette as stepmother or mother, for she would not allow it since her father had passed. She’d made it clear she wouldn’t tolerate being called anything so sentimental by one who was not her blood.
“Clean this up.” She flicked her wrist at the broken glass when Nicolette entered the kitchen. She looked the way Claudette gestured and nodded with a quick glance between Melody and Honey. Neither girl looked at her before they and Claudette disappeared, each gone before she had even brushed the bristles of the broom against the wood floor. She was used to it though. And since she’d gotten so good at cleaning after all these years, she didn’t mind the work anymore.
She listened to the sound of the glass she swept chime together and then the music that started up in the other room where Melody and Honey now sang. She paused to hear a clever twirl on the piano keys and smiled at it as she went on with her work. Alexis had come, a sorcerer that worked at the palace and was a childhood friend of hers. She glanced out the window a moment and wondered where Estelle, her last stepsister, had gone. All her stepsisters were in love with Alexis, and Claudette did her best to persuade him to fancy one of them. A sorcerer in the family would give her incredible power. Power Nicolette silently prayed she would never possess.
Melody and Honey abused him with their infatuation. Thinking of it made Nicolette smirk to herself. She was glad to know that the only thing she had to endure was service to them. Their poorly recited sonnets made her pity the authors who had written them and the listener who was too kind to run away.
Estelle was different though. She often went to the garden when Alexis came, usually with a book Nicolette had suggested. For some reason, Alexis couldn’t get along with her like he did the other two. So she hid to avoid him as he was hunted by her sisters.
Honey did a lute-like trick with her voice. To hear it could have fooled one into mistaking she was the heroine of some romance. It reminded Nicolette that the sisters were wrongfully named. Honey had the voice of a lark and Melody was tone deaf, though she could call neither girl ugly. Melody was too attractive, and Honey was fair in every meaning of the word, at least, when it came to looks. Estelle could be as wonderful in her appearance, but she did not play up her features as they did.
Nicolette finished cleaning the kitchen and then ascended the stairs to the bedrooms. In Honey’s room, she plucked up a nightdress and put it away before making the bed. Then she straightened the furniture that always seemed to find its way out of place. Putting it back, she felt glad that the girls didn’t spend much time in their rooms. It made it easier to pick up after them––especially when she had to fix their chairs and things.
She took the dishes she had brought in that morning for Honey’s breakfast and set them outside the door. She would collect them on her way down to the kitchen again but wanted to finish upstairs first. At the next room, she paused. It was Melody’s. She frowned while taking a shallow breath. It had been hers before her father died so going in and seeing a stranger’s things there always unnerved her. She tapped her fingers against her skirt and then forced herself to go in.
Upon entering, she noticed the window was open, so she crossed the room and reached out to close it. She paused before she did, though, and let her eyes dart across the view. She could see the road to the city where the golden castle sparkled. It was further away than Rose’s in the next kingdom but still near enough to see. She remembered the foolish little girl she’d been who’d dreamt of marrying the prince. That was before she realized what she was. Now, she wouldn’t let the fairy tale control her life or persuade her desires. She couldn’t let it. With a sardonic twist in her lips, she shut the window and turned away from that dream.
She went to Melody’s bedside then but frowned deeper as she lifted a knife and bowl. There were smears of blood on both. Seeing them made her lips purse tightly together. This wasn’t the first time she’d come across such a strange pairing here. Had Melody been sick again?
Nicolette worried. Though Melody and Honey treated her poorly, she couldn’t help but be concerned for them. She’d noticed some suspicious things about the two. Both had quirks from when they were children that they hadn’t grown out of.
Melody would stay in bed sick or look pale and fragile. And sometimes Honey would walk with a limp or wince if something pressed against her arm or back. Nicolette thought of Melody again and remembered glancing at her in the kitchen. She hadn’t looked well. But rather than remain in bed, she seemed to have forced herself to feign strength enough to pick a fight.
Nicolette lowered her brow and looked around at the window. She stared at the castle again, thinking of how things weren’t at all as she imagined them as a child. And then a light shone through the window. On top of the tallest tower of the castle was a star. It grew brighter as she stared, the light pulsing like a flickering candle and then it flashed. She covered her face and stumbled back. There was shouting outside the room, at which she frowned as she glanced around at the door.
Strange, the light which penetrated the room did not hurt her eyes. She looked about. The chamber drowned in its warmth and made her feel something she hadn’t since her father passed away. But it couldn’t be. How could light make her feel love? She twisted her head over her shoulder where the door was shut. She went to it, calmly putting her hand on the cold knob and trying to turn it, but it wouldn’t move––as if it were locked.
Outside, Claudette shouted threats and banged on the door. Nicolette frowned, for she could do nothing to answer her. She pressed an ear against the wood and listened to the sounds of the others. Their voices faded to be replaced by the ringing of bells. That’s when she smirked to herself. Was she finally going mad?
“Calm yourself, Claudette.” Alexis’s voice came from the other side, sounding as if in a cave. How strange since his tone was often soothing in a tenor range.
She stepped back and stared at the knob and then there were no voices at all. She turned to the window again, still hearing bells but seeing none. There was only light.
“What magic?” She knew it was sorcery, but why? Was Alexis teasing her? He did sometimes. He had used magic to jest since they first became friends as children before Claudette came. Now he was there to protect her how he could, or so he tried.
The light flickered out and Nicolette gasped. She turned in a slow circle, but there was nothing peculiar in the room anymore. And then a knock sounded at the door. She stared at it, her face barely moving to show surprise. In a world of magic, she thought it foolish to be worried by any of this. So, she went to the door and pulled.
“We’re invited to a ball!” Estelle exclaimed when her face appeared. She looked so excited. More than Nicolette had seen since she revealed to her she’d gone behind Claudette’s back to get a job.
Nicolette blinked, and the blood drained from her face as she stared at her stepsister. She sometimes wondered if Claudette’s daughters were from different men. Honey was pale, her hair so blonde it was close to white. Melody was pinker, with a gold dusting of freckles and golden hair. Estelle was dark, her skin porcelain, and her hair jet black. Their only similarities were their beauty and blue eyes. Features that undoubtedly came from Claudette.
“A ball?” Her voice wavered. She looked back at her old room and then found Estelle’s face again. “But Claudette will not let me go.” Of that she was certain.
Estelle grinned with a shrug. The movement sent the smell of lavender wafting about. “Alexis convinced her that having you present would be a benefit. I’m not sure how he did it, but I wouldn’t put magic out of the question. He knows his stuff, and mother would do anything to please him.” She sounded so cheerful it put Nicolette to shame for hating the idea.
She forced a smile. “How wonderful,” she managed.
Estelle took her hand and squeezed it. “I know you have nothing to wear, but you can leave that to me. Mother said to make it simple, but I will fit you for a ball still!”
“Thank you, Estelle,” Nicolette said. It felt as if strings were fighting to pull the corners of her mouth down, but she managed to keep them up. Estelle did not take her quietness for worry and left looking giddy. Nicolette watched her glide down the hall and then continued her chores, letting these strange happenings turn over in her mind.
It was dangerous to let the fairy tale carry one away when the odds of happily ever after was so slim. Even if Estelle put her in glass slippers, her chances of meeting the prince were poor. He wouldn’t likely be there, the event being no benefit to him. But even if she did meet him at the ball and was somehow magically chosen to be his bride, she wouldn’t marry him. Not even if the sorcerers came and dragged her to the castle themselves. Royalty was not what she wanted, and real princes were never as good as they were made out to be. History proved a disappointing pattern.
Living in a cold room that forced her to sleep by the fire was better than a cold castle full of strangers who would love her even less than those she served. But as badly as she didn’t want to marry a prince, she even more desperately wanted to avoid the cursed nickname of her fairy tale. Because of her sleeping arrangements, she was often covered in soot in the morning. To avoid the others noticing, she washed herself every day upon waking. The last thing she wanted was to be called Cinderella.