Oh, I hate her.
Actually, I hate everything about my life. Even this street I’m walking on to get to the wretched cloth merchant. It’s so quaint and cutesy you would throw up if you saw it. Rows of charming houses, all with pointed roofs, painted shutters, and window boxes full of flowers. Tacky flowers like poppies and geraniums. No sense of style whatsoever.
Hmm.... I straighten the dull gray skirt of my dress as a smile pricks my lips. The royal palace is probably just as cutesy. But that will change when I am queen. Frigid elegance is what I go for. Black marble floors. Silver chandeliers. A throne made of... crystal. Yes, I would like that. A solid crystal throne where I’ll sit and wield terror to the people of this paltry kingdom. You’re not a true queen unless they’re all afraid of you.
“Good day, my lord.” I smile suggestively at Lord Burton strolling past, his wife on his arm. He nods uneasily. The wife’s eyes are like daggers, first on me, then on him. Jealous, of course, they all are.
I’m not ashamed to say that I’m beautiful. Why should I be modest about it? It took years of stowing up white magic to perfect my appearance. I had to scrub floors for a year to get my hair this golden. Scrape out fireplaces for two winters to straighten the slope of my nose. Mend mountains of stockings and petticoats to shrink the size of my feet. Here, perhaps, I was overly enthusiastic. My feet are really too small now, almost like a child’s. But I don’t mind. Something else for women to envy.
Which brings me back to Stepmother....
I said she treats me like a servant. That’s true, of course, but I have to admit it’s largely my own doing. Once I discovered that acts of servitude gained me more gooey globs of white magic, I began offering to do chores for my stepmother and stepsisters. The more cheerfully I performed the task, the more white magic I earned. And when Stepmother saw me happily shouldering the work she once paid servants to do, well, why not? She let the servants go and cast it all on me. My chores mounted, my beauty blossomed, but hate curled like briars around my heart.
Because Stepmother changed. I don’t see why sweeping stairs and washing linen should suddenly make me inferior, but that is how she acted. And her dimwitted daughters followed suit. Faster than a baby bird plummets from a nest, I became an object of mockery and contempt. The work was no longer requested but commanded. They even seized my bedroom, claiming it would make an “excellent library” and banished me to the empty end of the attic. It’s not even a proper room. Just the side where their junk isn’t piled.
I reach the cloth merchant, a quaint little shop squished in between the milliner’s and the cobbler’s. All the shops have red painted doors, big square windows with little square panes, and happy signs. I get in the door and that’s as far as I can go.
Ugh. Stepmother was right as raisins. The shop is wall-to-wall women. Bumping, churning, grabbing, yelling, haggling. The floor is lost beneath their skirts, swishing and sliding around each other. One glance at the heavily-shelved wall tells me the red cloth is already gone. No matter. My stepsister Lunilla will be mad but she’s always mad. I call her “Loony” to myself.
I inch along the back wall behind the crush of customers, hoping no one treads on my tiny feet. I suck in my stomach and slip around the cumbersome rump of Lady Odelia who can’t decide whether to buy pink silk or blue velvet. Puh! As if she’s got a chance for the prince in either.
My shoulder bumps the far wall of shelves and here I find some breathing space. No one is interested in the bolts of black and somber gray. My eyes rove over the fabrics as I patiently wait my turn (patient waiting gains more white magic). And that’s when I see it: a roll of satin, dark as midnight but luminous as a black pearl. The room behind me fades into mist. I see myself entering the royal ballroom in a gown made of this shimmering darkness, my golden hair glittering above it, the only woman in the whole room wearing black.
Something striking, Stepmother had said.
How could the prince fail to notice?
I curl my fingers around the heavy roll and ease it into my arms like a baby. Somehow, someway, I am going to that ball.