Cinderella woke later than usual, the stabbing sensation in her right temple a reminder of the Royal Ball the night before. As always, it had been a lavish event, with beautiful gowns, important guests, and enough champagne to make the Duke of Worthington look borderline handsome.
Cinderella looked about the room and saw her silk gown crumpled across the foot of her bed and two glass slippers strewn across the floor. “Oh, my head,” she said, rubbing at her angry temple and trying to reclaim the memory of how she had found her way back to her room. Even after five years of living in the castle, navigating its endless corridors at night was still a challenge (especially when she’d had a sip or two of champagne). Perhaps the Prince had escorted her back? She frowned and dismissed the idea. She had lost track of her husband sometime after the fourth waltz and he rarely stayed till the end. She took a sip of water from a glass sitting on her nightstand and decided to puzzle it out later.
Cinderella stretched then reached for the fallen pins that lay on her pillow, carefully pushing them back into her hair. She located her tiara under the blankets and placed it on her head. It felt tight somehow, constricting. Still in her nightgown, she tumbled from her bed and walked barefoot towards her window. Squinting her eyes to avoid the impending sunshine, she threw open the shutters. The smell of spring air was crisp and inviting. She felt revitalized as she took in the majestic view of the kingdom: rolling valleys and winding rivers, bountiful orchids, towering trees and neat little cottages for as far as she could see. The scene never failed to astonish her and she forgot about her headache.
“Good morning, Miss. Lovely day, isn’t it?” Cinderella turned to see Sophie, the wild-eyed, dark haired, serving girl standing in her room. “Sorry, I am running late. I was in the garden.”
“Yes, miss. Before I came here I had an eye for growing things. I do miss using my…abilities.”
Cinderella nodded. She missed things from her old life as well. “I just need to have my room straightened a little. I’m afraid it’s quite a mess after last night.”
Sophie picked up the glass slippers from the floor, turning them over in her hands. “Was the ball nice, Miss? I’ve always wanted to go to one.”
“Oh, the first few are nice,” Cinderella said, staring out the open window and rubbing her shoulders, “but after a while they can just feel like work.”
Sophie’s face fell and Cinderella regretted her comment.
“But last night’s was wonderful!” Cinderella continued. “I danced with the King and a few of the noblemen, and Sir John…”
“Sir John!” Sophie’s face lit up at the mention of his name.
Cinderella surveyed the girl. Though she was sweet and pleasant, her chances of meeting any of the nobles were very slim. “There is another ball this week, Sophie. I have a gown and shoes that would probably fit you. Maybe you can attend as my guest. If you like, of course.” Sophie squealed and Cinderella smiled, stepping into the pink dress she would be wearing for the day. “Then it’s settled. Now, I must go find my husband.”
Cinderella excused herself and made her way into the dining hall where The Prince would be having his breakfast. “My Dove,” he said, rising to his feet as she entered. “I’m not sure how you do it. All these years and you are still as beautiful as ever.” The Prince took her hand to kiss. “Sit. Eat. I missed you.”
Cinderella slid into the seat next to The Prince. “Husband,” she whispered, as the table filled up with hungry guests. “Perhaps we can go for a nice walk in after breakfast? I hardly saw you at the ball last night and I was hoping for some time with you today.” Cinderella blushed and looked down at her folded hands.
“Not today, I’m afraid.” Said The Prince, swilling down his juice. “Today Sir Rodney, Sir John, and I are going fox hunting. We leave in a few minutes.” Cinderella looked towards the entry way and sure enough her husband’s friends were there, motioning for him to join. “We will do something later. Perhaps take in a sunset.” He gave her a wink before disappearing out the door with his friends.
Her mother-in-law, The Queen, settled into the empty seat beside her. “There, there dear. At least he’s only hunting foxes. I don’t want to tell you the things his father used to hunt.”
The Prince returned that afternoon, smelling of horse and whiskey. “My Dove,” he said, entering her bedchambers. Sophie, who had been brushing Cinderella’s hair, excused herself and hurried from the room. The Prince removed his feathered cap and flung himself onto Cinderella’s bed, closing his eyes as he sank into the mattress.
“Was it fun?” Cinderella asked, joining him on the bed and rubbing her hands along his stubbled jaw.
“It was. I was the top foxer again.”
“You always are.” Cinderella kissed him on the cheek. “Shall we go take in that sunset now?”
“Soon, My Dove. It will take several hours for the sun to leave us. First, I must take a nap. Foxing is hard work.”
The Prince closed his eyes and within minutes fell into a deep slumber. Cinderella lay very still, listening to the sounds of her husband sleeping. Though she was disappointed they weren’t watching the sunset together, she liked having him in her bed. It was only then that she felt he was completely hers. The hourglass emptied several times and the room grew dimmer. Finally, his eyelids fluttered awake.
“What a great nap!” he said, scratching at the side of his face. He patted his mop of brown hair into place. “If we hurry we can catch the end of the sun’s journey today.”
“I will get my shoes,” Cinderella said, excitedly.
“No, come look at it from this window. Isn’t it glorious?”
“But, I thought we would take a stroll…” Cinderella looked out the window to a trail they used to walk together.
The Prince kissed her on the forehead. “I fear I cannot. I have another hunt I must attend to. We can’t let the Sirs get in any practice without me.” He took her hands in his. “Perhaps I can escort you back to your room after tonight’s ball?” The Prince winked and deepened the dimples in his cheeks, then dropped her hands and grabbed his feathered cap to leave.
Cinderella felt the tears well up in her eyes. She tried to stop them but before she knew it they were sliding down her face and she was making strange huffing noises like a forest animal.
“Now what’s wrong?” The Prince asked, throwing his cap to the floor. “You are acting so strange lately. Is it your moon time?” Cinderella held her breath, trying to get the tears to stop. She shook her head no. “Then what?” The Prince continued. “Are you upset because I’m going out with the Sirs?”
Cinderella collected her thoughts, trying to articulate her feelings before she gushed out gibberish. She hated confrontations with The Prince. No matter what she said or how she said it, she always ended up feeling like she was in the wrong. “You went out with the Sirs this morning. You went out with them yesterday. And the day before and…”
“And..?” The Prince leaned against the wall, folding his arms and crossing his feet at the ankles. “Do you suddenly have a problem with the Sirs?”
“No, I just…miss you.” Cinderella gulped back a tear, trying to get her lips to stop trembling. “Can’t I come with you?”
“Come with me? And do what? Cheer me on? A fox hunt is no place for a Princess. You stay here where it’s safe.” The Prince reached inside the pockets of his pantaloons. “Here are two gold coins. Take Sophie to the Market tomorrow and buy yourself a new dress.”
“We never do anything together, anymore.”
“Dammit, Ella!” The Prince marched towards the window and slammed both of his hands on the sill. “We have breakfast together. We take naps together. I waltz with you at the balls. Do you know how much I hate waltzing? Do you?” The Prince turned towards her, his face reddened with anger. He looked like he was trying to wring out an invisible towel with his hands. “What more do you want from me?”
Cinderella’s tears went from a trickle to a river and she rushed to her bed, plunging herself face down into her covers. “You would rather be with the Sirs than me.”
The Prince turned to her, throwing up his hands in frustration. “You know what I think? I think you have gotten too princessy all of a sudden. You buy expensive gowns. You have a servant girl who cleans up after you. You eat Golden-Fricken-Goose for supper. Now you think you can have anything you want.” The Prince snatched his cap from the floor, threw open the door, and paused. “Just remember - when I found you, you were scrubbing floors and talking to rats.”
He left, slamming the massive wooden door behind him, and Cinderella melted into a puddle of tears. Sophie slipped back into the room and lay beside her friend. “No more tears, I promise you,” she said, stroking Cinderella’s cheek until she fell into a deep sleep.
“This way, My Lady.” Sophie escorted Cinderella onto a cobbled path, hidden beneath layers of sticks and moss. Around them the forest darkened, and the trees, barren of leaves in this part of the woods, seemed to lock them in with their long, twisted branches. A howl from somewhere deeper in the forest made Cinderella jump.
“Sophie,” Cinderella said, squinting against the darkness, “are you sure this is a shortcut to the market?” The Princess paused, removing one of her slippers and emptying it of the jagged pebbles that had accumulated. Sophie nodded and encouraged her forward. At last they arrived in a clearing, a lush green meadow with a babbling brook and jumping fish, and the darkness dissipated like a dream. It wasn’t the marketplace but at least Cinderella wasn’t afraid anymore. “Where are we, Sophie?” Cinderella was about to remove her shoes and place her feet in the creek when she caught sight of the most perfect apple she had ever seen, plump and ripe, dangling enticingly from the branch of a tree. She went to pluck it but Sophie stopped her, pointing to an old woman with a long hooked nose, dressed in rags, resting in the shade.
“Excuse me,” Cinderella tapped the woman softly on the shoulder, hoping she wasn’t being too impolite. “May I buy that apple?” Cinderella removed the velvet money pouch from the pocket of her skirt and pulled out two copper coins.
The woman stirred, her dark, birdlike eyes fastening upon the Princess, and staggered to a standing position with the help of a cane. The old woman shook her head, motioning for Cinderella to put her coins away. When the coppers were back in the money pouch, the old woman took Cinderella’s hand and traced the lines that crisscrossed her palm with her index finger. “I see…” she said, a thin, knowing smile snaking across her weathered face. She closed Cinderella’s palm and squeezed it shut. “You have known magic already, my dear?”
Cinderella turned to Sophie, and her friend nodded that it was okay. “Yes.”
“There are many types of magic,” the old woman said, lowering her dark eyes. Cinderella felt the chill of a wind sweep through the clearing and touch her shoulders, raising small goose bumps on her flesh. “And not all magic comes from fairy godmothers.” The old woman pulled the apple from the tree and offered it to Cinderella. “Do not eat this apple yourself,” she continued. “Give it to your Prince. With one bite all that has been troubling your heart will be resolved.”
Cinderella held the apple in her hands. It was as smooth as glass and as inviting as the first rays of sunlight after a long night. Her stomach roiled as a powerful hunger swept through her and she wondered if she could avoid the temptation to eat it on the ride home. But with a snap of the old woman’s fingers, Cinderella was back in her bedroom with Sophie by her side.
“Look!” Sophie pointed to three cloaked figures through the Princess’s bedroom window, “Your Prince returns.”
Cinderella looked at the apple and then out at her husband, laughing in the company of his friends, and nodded.
Cinderella patted her stallion’s head. He snorted happily in return, and she climbed on, grabbing his reins and giving him a gentle nudge in the side to set him galloping. Sophie’s horse ran alongside hers and the two women whooped with joy as they raced towards the group of trees where the little fox had scurried to. Ahead of them Sir Rodney and Sir John ran with the full force of their youth, but had missed their mark.
“Shall we let them win this time?” Sophie asked, bringing her horse to a full stop to drink from a creek. “I’m starting to feel bad for them.”
Cinderella grinned, raking her hands through the mane of her stallion. “Not a chance Sophie. Not a chance.” The sky turned pink and Cinderella let the last kiss of the sun settle over her cheek. “If only my husband were here to enjoy this with us…” she let the words trail on, and for the first time in weeks felt a hint of sadness.
“You know, you can wake him up at any time.” Sophie said, gathering the reins in both of her hands. “All it takes is the kiss from his one true love.”
Cinderella shrugged. “I’m not sure it would work yet. Maybe in a few more weeks.”
“Still sore about the ‘rats’ comment?”
The Princess smiled. “Maybe a little. Anyways, we have a fox to catch.” Cinderella pulled the tiara from her head and tossed it to the ground, letting her dark blond hair spill across her shoulders. “Last one there has to dance with the Duke of Worthington at tonight’s Ball.”
Sophie wrinkled her nose and pushed her horse into a trot but Cinderella was already ahead of her, hair flying in the wind, a laugh echoing through the valley, urging her horse to push through the long shadow of the castle and into the lush clearing ahead.