“Not bad, Cindy… Actually, pretty good.”
Cinderella hummed while admiring her reflection in the mirror. Preparing for the ball, she turned to see the dress from every angle.
She’d filched it, piecemeal, from her stepsisters, and Eve, her stepmother. The outfit came together like something from a catalogue. She looked great.
An advantage to being at everyone’s peck and scratch, free access to closets-full of rarely worn (if ever!) clothing and jewelry.
‘Eve’ was short for Evil. Her stepsisters’ names were Moonshine, and Starlight. Cinderella called them Bootleg and Starfish. She once called them that to their faces. But since they never listened to her, they also didn’t notice.
Eve specifically told Cinderella she could not attend the palace grand ball. All the more fun to crash it. Rumors were, Prince Phillipe needed a wife.
Eve warned, “If you know what’s good for you…”
She always spoke in ultimatums. Cinderella received her warnings like gilded invitations to act as she pleased. Of course, there were always consequences. Cinderella warmed herself from them in the glow of embraced liberty. When would Eve learn her dictates smelled like flowers to a bee? Maybe tonight.
She remembered the purloined invitation. ‘Can’t forget that…’ She slipped it into the pouch kept beneath her skirts.
Another perk to being the sole servant, she had a room to herself. Moonshine and Starlight would never deign to share sleeping space with her. Cinderella cherished her privacy. Despite Eve’s constant demands, she jealously guarded her personal time.
Her attic room provided an expansive view of the city. She cherished that rare sight, as her daily chores kept her down below. In winter, when heat failed to reach her, she’d sneak down to the kitchen and sleep by the oven.
Cinderella heard voices approaching. She doffed her pilfered party clothes and stuffed them under her straw mattress.
Eve entered (she never knocked) and did a turn showing her dress. Her daughters watched from the doorway.
Eve interpreted Cinderella’s “Oooh…!” as fulsome praise. Cinderella let it pass. Astonishment at a carousel’s gaudiness doesn’t imply wanting to look like one.
“Come girls, we’re late,” Eve said. “Don’t wait up.” The girls laughed. She stepped toward the door and turned with a dramatic flourish. “Must I tell you again? The tile grout behind the stove is dingy. Scrub it after your other chores. Bye now…”
She pranced out like a show horse. Shrieks of laughter echoed as they clambered down the stairs.
Cinderella smiled. “Right away, Milady…” Something must change. How could she escape the weight of Eve’s thumb?
She watched their carriage leave before dressing herself. One last glance in the mirror ensured she had every hair in place. Her carriage arrived and left with her inside.
She arrived at the palace in time to see Eve, Moonshine and Starlight ascend the steps and pass through the wide doorway. Torches lit the path.
Cinderella took her time and made an entrance. Every eye turned as she paused in the doorway. The point of being ‘fashionably late’ was clear.
The multitude of guests observed her dispassionately. She’d never seen such well-practiced, blank stares. But she’d achieved the desired effect. They strained to see her. Who wouldn’t want to look their best?
Cinderella shifted her gaze. Careful not to slip, she found she could see herself in the polished marble floor. She straightened an errant hair.
She couldn’t believe the opulence. So much light! Carved stone pillars supported the sparkling ceiling. Was it festooned with jewels? Who would do that?
‘I’d hate to have to clean it,’ she thought.
The palace had hot and cold running servants. Those not attending some task, awaited a fateful snap of fingers. They stood, ever ready to address an urgency their entitled masters could not or would not do. Pull down the bed. Draw the blinds. Polish the shoes. Dust the picture frames. Hang the clothes…
Their betters had no time for menial tasks. They spent their precious days ruling the uneducated, the incapable, and those on whom they depended.
Cinderella recalled accidentally making Eve’s bed with the sheets turned the wrong way. Her fury almost melted the gates of hell.
Everywhere Cinderella turned, a servant stood at the ready to take her wrap, offer a drink, or point the way.
How many times could she say ‘thank you’? One servant gave her an odd look. Had no one ever thanked him? Fulfilling basic duties expects no acknowledgement?
She realized, ‘No one thanks them.’ A servant’s graces are accepted as due. Gratitude would distract them from essential chores.
Of course, Eve never thanked Cinderella. But that was different. Eve was ‘family.’
A young voice whined. “Where’s the prince? I’m bored…”
A woman corrected her fidgeting daughter. “Stand and look pretty. Is that so difficult?”
‘How can one acquire a royal life? A free, undemanding life. Can one only be born to it? Or wed…?’ This was her chance. She must act by midnight. There would be no tomorrow.
To Cinderella, it seemed the challenge to stand and look pretty paled against the alternative. What if someone can do more and is forbidden to act?
Cinderella watched and listened. Imaginary conversations competed with the chatter around her. ‘How much is that bauble? That’s no bauble, sir, that’s my wife…’
The mood shifted. Anticipation rose. ‘What could turn a crowd of pretty dresses into a mob?’
Someone spotted Prince Phillipe. They moved as one. Cinderella lifted her skirts to avoid getting trampled by jeweled slippers.
Everyone lined up to greet the honored guest. The receiving line inched along. With no more emotion than a marionette, he briefly took countless hands in his. He smiled methodically at each eager face and gave their hand a squeeze. Next.
When she stood before him, his eyes flashed. He took Cinderella’s hand and held it. Breaking protocol, he bent to kiss it, and lingered.
She was thankful her gloves covered her work worn hands. His warmth penetrated the fabric.
An attendant made a noise. Prince Phillipe pulled her to him and whispered, “I must talk to you.”
She nodded and felt faint. She found him impossibly charming.
He said, “Your name?”
“Enchanted. I’ll remember. Wait for me.”
She did as told and avoided prying eyes.
This would be her escape from drudgery. She could snag the prince.
Eve came from behind and growled into her ear. “So, you came… If you know what’s good for you… do us all a favor and marry the prince.”
That cinched it.
Eve needed her. The scales of power shifted slightly toward Cinderella. Once she’d leveraged her emancipation, she’d allow Eve to imitate a lapdog begging a treat.
When the prince had greeted the last guest, everyone drifted to the ball room.
Prince Phillipe waved her over. But for a dozen attendants, they were alone.
The prince leaned in. “Don’t you just hate these soirees?”
Cinderella noted he said ‘soirees’ with a perfect accent. ‘But why not? He’s French…’
“Yes, they can be tedious, Prince...”
“Call me Phillipe…”
“But these people came to honor you… uh, Phillipe.”
“I know. But I’d rather sneak out the back.”
“But what then?”
“Spend our lives basking on the Riviera. Gamble in Monaco. Look at Facebook. I have like a gazillion friends.”
“Or make the world a better…”
“Screw that. Been there, done that. The world is deaf. It’s on its own.” He smiled. “Or we head north. I’ll teach you to shoot. My estate has spectacular hunting grounds. You haven’t lived ‘til you’ve taken a buck with a single shot.”
Cinderella swallowed and retreated a step.
“…And buy a tabloid. Have it report my exploits on every page. That’ll be fun.”
“I like my privacy, Phil.”
“Me too.” He laughed. “It wouldn’t publish anything real about ‘us.’ You understand. It would be an amusing diversion while relaxing under our beach umbrella.”
This could be her break from Eve and her brood. But should she escape servitude only to benefit from others trapped under that yoke?
Phillipe continued, “…And pictures of the happy couple, us, would dispel the rumors.”
“You haven’t heard them? Malcontents and buffoons scheme incessantly. They say I’m fatuous…” He did a turn for her. “I could lose a pound or two. Who couldn’t? But fat? Never!”
Cinderella thought, ‘So I’ve finally met the putz. I mean the ponce. I mean the priss... The prince!’
She wanted autonomy. Not a laced, starched, and pressed prison uniform. However pretty.
Phillipe said, “We should dance. But one can best disappear behind the screen of everyone’s distraction.”
He directed her to wait while he bid farewell. He whispered something to his chief of staff, who nodded and directed Cinderella to a chair.
She curtsied and mimed that she would return in a moment. Taking care not to draw attention, she walked to the nearest exit. The doorman hailed a cab.
She knew what was good for her.