There once was a princess who was doomed to be queen. From the time she was a young girl, her noblewoman mother worked to throw her in the way of the prince and unfortunately for the girl, this scheme worked.
The two were married at a young age and everyday after was agony. At the time of their wedding, the prince was but a second son with aspirations, but the death of his older brother signaled certain doom for the kingdom. The prince had not been raised for politics, but rather for pleasured, and he expected everyone to comply. His boorish nature and cruel temper did not bode well for the fate of the nation. The princess feared for the future of her subject, but worried even more for herself. The king was the only one who could control the prince, but the old man's health worsened with each passing day. He knew he was not long for this world, and wished for his remaining son to ascend the throne sooner rather than later.
The princess’s last hope had been that someone would contest the coronation, but no one dared to defy the king. She understood that as soon as the crown touched her husband’s head, hers would be soon for the chopping block so the king could make a more political marriage.
The princess decided to make use of her numbered days and called for a grand ball the week before the coronation. “This way,” she explained, “all the eligible maidens in the land have a chance to find grand suitors and make a union as happy as mine.”
The affair was a lavish masquerade, and the princess spared no expense on her gown and elaborate decorations for the ballroom.On the eve of the ball, the princess appeared to be covered in satin, lace, and pearls. A large mask covered the entirety of her face, and her hair was practically hidden under a golden headdress. When the prince commented that she seemed to be wearing all the crown jewels, she just smiled a bewitching grin. “It’s all for you, my love.”
The pair danced to the opening waltz, but the princess soon disappeared into the crowd. The prince did not mind, for it meant he got the chance to take a turn with many beautiful women.
At the stroke of midnight, the crowd unmasked. Everyone cheered and headed to the great hall to dine. But no one seemed to be able to find the princess. None of them realized that she had traded gowns with a lady-in-waiting and left the party an hour prior.
The princess ran along the side of the road, desperate to make it to her late father’s country home before anyone set out to find her. Suddenly she came upon a peasant woman tending to a horse along the side of the. The old woman was startled to see what was obviously royalty wearing a king’s ransom of gold. The young princess fell to her knees and told her miserable tale between sobs. How she despised her husband’s mercurial temperament and how much she feared for her future. The old woman nodded and agreed not to turn the princess in to the palace guards, who were surely on their way. “But anyone could see that you are a royal. You must remove the fine gown and jewels. Here, put on this old dress and hide your things in an old pumpkin.” She pointed to a nearby vine. “No one would ever look inside.” The princess embraced the woman, professing thanks for her kindness. As payment for the help, she left the old woman her pair of golden slippers.
The long trek finally resulted in the princess returning to her family home. She knocked on the door and was greeted by the woman her father had married after her mother’s death. Her stepmother was confused at first, but after seeing the bounty hidden inside the pumpkin believed the tale. She too understood about odious husbands, and decided to help the young woman with fear in her eyes. “You may stay here,” she said, “but we cannot trust the neighbors to keep you safe. You will have to stay inside the house until the situation dies down.”
The next morning her stepmother’s two daughters were introduced to their visitor. The princess had not been allowed to attend her father’s second wedding, as the prince did not want her interacting with commoners. The three young women were virtually strangers, but they felt a strange kinship in this time of need. The two stepsisters made a visit into town and learned that several courtiers were on the hunt for the lost princess, and would be checking the home of every maiden in the land. The women quickly covered the princess in ashes and soot, and tried to disguise her beyond recognition. She set about scrubbing the floor in the kitchen so her hands would be chapped and red.
They soon heard a knock at the front door. A grand duke entered the sitting room and asked to see all the women in the household. The stepmother presented her two daughters, to his chagrin. “Are you sure these are all the maidens in your home?”
“Why yes, of course. Except of course for our servant girl, my stepdaughter.”
The duke didn’t give her but a moment’s glance, and huffed as he headed out the door. He gave not a thought to the little ash girl, and resumed the search for the missing princess.
The women waited until the dead of night to pack up their valuables and essentials into the carriage. They were fortunate that it did not have the family crest adorned on the sides, for anonymity was essential. The horses were hitched at first light, and they began the journey out of town.
They traveled just far enough that no one would recognize the stolen gems as the crown jewels and set about finding a new home.
One day, the former princess ventured into the village market. Everyone was a bustle with news that their dowager countess was to travel to a neighboring country and marry the prince.
“The official story is that his wife died” a gossiping fishmonger told the young woman, “ But my sister lives there, and she claims the princess disappeared one day. Just vanished! Can you imagine such a thing?”
“I could try,” the young woman supposed.
“A person can’t just vanish!” an older woman interjected. “She must have had help from a fairy or something.” She turned to the former princess, as if expecting a consensus.
“I don’t know,” she said with a small smile, “stranger things have happened.”