The most beautiful woman at the ball wore a gown the green and white of the leaves and blossoms of an apple tree in spring, and a long flow of tiny black braids laced with gold, and a lost look on her applewood-brown face. Edmund fell instantly in love.
Of course there was quite a line, between the doors the apple woman had just entered and the ballroom floor. Young men, and older men who thought they might seek a young bride, thronged around the ballroom, some in conversation with already-announced young women in whom Edmund had seen nothing instantly intriguing. At the head of the line were two young women, plainly sisters from the shapes of their lily-white faces: the taller one, black-haired, wore lipstick in the same blood red hue as her gown, and the shorter, golden blonde, was gowned in pastel blue to match her eyes.
The sisters’ attendant, doubtless their mother—a woman in mourning? she wore lilac and black—handed a slip of paper to Squire Marianne and curtsied to Edmund, dipping not an iota farther than courtesy of noblewoman to prince demanded; the sisters followed, a heartbeat behind. Edmund bowed, for the thirty-fourth time that evening.
“Miss Charlotte Prescott,” announced Marianne, and the blonde fluttered her fingers nervously, “and Miss Angelica Prescott,” and the brunette tilted her head and smiled, “accompanied by their mother, Lady Elizabeth Prescott.”
“Charmed,” said Edmund.
Charlotte, recognizing a dismissal fastest, dipped another, shallower curtsy and turned away—she stopped short, staring at the entryway, but Edmund could not see her face now: she turned to Angelica, face carefully blanked, and tugged her sister away. Angelica, blushing rose-red, bowed hastily and went.
“I think you will find my daughters most accomplished,” said Lady Elizabeth. “Angelica paints portraits, and—”
Marianne glared at Lady Elizabeth, who shut up and moved gracefully out of the way. Marianne then, reading off the slip of paper the gentleman behind Lady Elizabeth had handed her, announced, “Miss June Gold, accompanied by her father, Mr. Mark Gold.”
Eleanora waited patiently in the receiving line, clutching her announcement paper so tightly it crumpled. This might be her best chance, and Charlotte’s and Angelica’s best chance.
If not their only chance.
Name after name, woman after woman. Some were clearly poor noblewomen, from the quality of their worn gowns; some, equally clearly, wealthy merchants’ daughters—or wealthy merchants in their own right, Ella thought, hearing the prince’s squire announce Miss May Wright, unaccompanied; Miss Wright, whose embroidery traveled as far as China, Arabia, Nubia, and Turtle Island, was surely a far better match for Prince Edmund than she or Charlotte or Angelica could possibly be.
She was daydreaming, surely. The finch in the apple tree planted over Ella’s mother’s grave had sung a song telling her to attend this first of three balls where the prince would seek his bride—but the bird had sung nothing of marriage.
Ella reached the front of the line and—of course—put a foot wrong, lost a shoe, and almost fell: strong arms brought her up short. She looked up and blushed, she was sure, apple-red: the prince himself had caught her.
“Thank you, Your Highness,” murmured Ella, and straightened up, slipped her foot back in its leaf-green slipper, and handed her announcement paper to the prince’s squire.
The squire frowned at the paper for a long moment. Prince Edmund glanced at the young brown man, who pinked and announced, “Miss Cinderella, unaccompanied.”
Prince Edmund regarded Ella silently for a long moment. She began to turn away, face still burning—of course it was a false name, but if her sisters were listening, they would know her, and Stepmother should not—
“My lady,” said Prince Edmund, and bowed. “May I have this dance?”
Charlotte watched the prince and the mysterious woman in green—oh, look, she’s been sleeping in the cinders again! Cinders-Ella! rang her own mocking words in her ears—revolve around the ballroom floor. Angelica had, naturally, brought a small sketch pad and a few pencils and her reshapable eraser in the little red purse slung around her hips. The pencil skimmed across the paper.
Angelica nudged Charlotte and tilted the pad her way, away from Mother, who stood on Angelica’s other side. Charlotte flicked her eyes toward the pad without moving her head. Angelica had sketched two dancing figures, mannequin-like, with lines hinting at the swirl of the woman’s gown; at the hem there were lines in a pattern that Mother would likely take—had always before taken, to their knowledge—for mistaken lines soon to be erased.
How did she get here? it read, in the sisters’ written code.
Charlotte lifted her shoulders a hair and settled them again, humming the two measures that, in the sisters’ vocal code, meant I don’t know. Eleanora had tried to accompany them to the ball. Mother—
Mother had torn Ella’s mother’s carefully reshaped goldenrod gown from her stepdaughter’s shoulders. Angelica had slapped Ella across the face, smearing the cosmetic that Angelica herself had helped Ella apply. Charlotte had yanked the star-sapphire pendant she’d lent Ella from her sister’s neck, snapping the fine chain.
It was good that Ella was here. However she had gotten here—and wherever she had found that gown—
“Who is that girl?” whispered Mother. “It should be one of you two out there with His Highness!”
Mother didn’t know.
“I’m afraid I’m here under false pretenses,” said Ella to Prince Edmund under the cover of the music and the dance. “I don’t care to marry anyone. All I want is freedom, for my sisters and I—but it’s my stepmother we must be free of.”
“Only tell me what I can do for you,” the prince answered, looking disappointed, “and it will be done with speed.”
“I do hope you’re not enchanted by my face and figure,” said Ella, realizing as she said it that that was actually a distinct possibility.
He smiled. “You intrigue me. That is all I was hoping for from these balls, truly—someone to intrigue me.”
“Your royal father seems to think you’ll marry someone you meet here,” Ella observed.
Prince Edmund leaned closer to whisper in her ear. “My royal father has some peculiar ideas sometimes.”
Ella grinned and nodded. “My father was much the same, when he and my mother were alive.”
“I should like to hear of your parents,” said the prince, and the music came to a close. Bowing as she curtsied, he said softly, “I would dance with you again, if I may.”
“Tomorrow?” whispered Ella. “Perhaps you might dance with other women you might marry—and my sisters, Charlotte and Angelica Prescott—but dance with others first, please. I don’t want my stepmother to think I’m—me.”
“As you will,” said Prince Edmund.
The prince returned to his place of greeting each woman who reached the head of the receiving line. Angelica watched Ella vanish through the crowd; she murmured something about powdering her nose to Mother, and slipped away to follow Ella.
Angelica caught up with her sister in the courtyard. Looking around to be sure Mother hadn’t followed, Angelica whispered, “What are you doing here? I thought Mother—”
“I have to be home by midnight,” Ella said flatly. “I don’t want to be outside our grounds when the magic wears off.”
Ella looked at Angelica strangely. “You knew about the apple tree.”
Now that Ella mentioned it, Angelica had. “Oh.”
“I asked His Highness to dance with you and Charlotte,” Ella said. “I think he thinks he’s in love with me.” The sisters shared an exasperated glance. Charlotte might float about the town in a blissful daze whenever a handsome young man or pretty young woman smiled at her. Angelica and Ella didn’t care for such nonsense—though seeing Charlotte happy, neither had ever tried to puncture that.
“We can work with that,” Angelica said.
Ella nodded, and smiled, and fled.
At the second ball, Ella wore sky blue, and whispered with Prince Edmund through a series of waltzes and pavanes, alternating each dance that he danced with Ella with two dances with other women—favoring Angelica and Charlotte somewhat, and he whispered with them a great deal as well. At eleven-thirty, Ella slipped out unnoticed.
At the third ball, Ella wore goldenrod, and stayed a little too long—the first bell of midnight rang out in the middle of a galliard, the second as Ella shot out of the ballroom. She slipped on the staircase as the third bell rang, caught herself on the railing and ran, one foot bare, across the courtyard through the peal of the fourth bell.
A bird chirruped just after the fifth bell—her bird, the finch of the apple tree, and indeed there was an apple tree planted in the courtyard. Ella flung herself behind it at the sixth bell, trusting to the birdsong, and the tree reshaped itself through the seventh bell to have a long hollow in which Ella just fit; again through the eighth bell, to hide her altogether, except—if someone should look for the crack in the bark—for her eyes.
Thunderous steps rushing this way and that almost drowned the ninth, tenth, and eleventh bells. At the twelfth, the goldenrod gown melted away, once more the rags that were all Stepmother felt the need for Ella to keep.
At last, silence; the tree released Ella. She whispered a word of thanks to the tree, another to the finch, and slid her mother’s slipper off her other foot and tucked it in the worn bag slung over her hip.
Barefoot in the shadows of the trees beside the road, she walked home.
Elizabeth heard from one of Miss Wright’s apprentices that Prince Edmund was desperate to find the mysterious Cinderella. “He’s searching everywhere for her,” said June, wide-eyed. “Every single home in town. The only clue he has is that golden slipper.”
“He doesn’t even know her name?” asked Elizabeth, curious. ‘Cinderella’ was a false name, that was obvious…but who would have dared give a false name to the prince?
“He doesn’t even know her name,” repeated June, her eyes dropping and her tone sad.
“Are you sorry he didn’t choose you?” asked Elizabeth kindly.
“Well—yes and no, Lady Elizabeth,” said June. “Who wouldn’t want to be a princess? But I knew he wouldn’t choose me. I’m not…” She hunched down a little. “Not special. I mean. Miss Angelica and her stunning paintings. And Miss Charlotte dances so beautifully.”
“Says the best embroiderer in the shop,” said another of Miss Wright’s apprentices. The girl grinned at June, who blushed. “What sort of person gives a name like ‘Cinderella’, though?” the girl went on. “Is she trying to say she’s sinful, or that she’s sooty?”
Elizabeth reached her late husband’s country house deep in thought.
Stepmother kicked Ella awake. Ella, smeared in ash as was usual when she fell asleep by the kitchen fire, blinked up at her tiredly and said nothing.
“What are you trying to accomplish by ensnaring the prince, you foolish girl?” demanded Stepmother.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ella said sullenly. “I tried to get to the ball to meet him, and you wouldn’t let me. Remember?”
Stepmother glared. Behind her, Charlotte and Angelica watched silently, blank-faced.
“The punishment for your insolence,” Stepmother said, each word precisely enunciated in the way she did when she was most furious, “is to be locked in the cellar until the prince has gone.”
Ella tried to escape Stepmother’s grip on her shoulder, but Stepmother, as always, was stronger.
Squire Marianne knocked on the Prescotts’ door. It wasn’t the last house in reach of town, but Edmund had made a point of starting with the homes closer to the palace in order not to rouse Lady Elizabeth’s suspicions.
Angelica Prescott opened the door—gasped—curtsied—turned and shouted, “Mother! Charlotte!”
“His Highness Prince Edmund desires an audience with every woman of this household,” said Marianne belatedly.
A few minutes’ bustle later, Marianne was seated on a stool in the parlor, holding Eleanora’s goldenrod slipper for Angelica Prescott to try on as Edmund watched. The slipper was enspelled—this was perfectly obvious from how its common size had fit not a one of the women who had tried it on, even had Eleanora not assured him her magical bird had ensured it would fit only her own foot—and fitting it on Angelica’s foot appeared a struggle, as it had been with all the others.
“Enough, please,” said Angelica at last. “I shouldn’t care to be a prince’s bride, anyway.” She smiled at him, friendly. “I would hardly have time to paint.”
Charlotte took Angelica’s seat. She fixed her gaze on Edmund, humming, as if trying to tell him something.
Angelica, opening the window, went very still. “Mother?”
The shoe slid easily onto Charlotte’s foot and fit snugly.
“Mother, what—” began Charlotte.
Lady Elizabeth’s face was smooth, only the edge of a smile.
“That can’t be right,” said Edmund, sensing something had not gone according to plan.
“This slipper is too snug,” said Marianne. “It must have come easily off Cinderella’s foot, and it fits Miss Charlotte too well.”
“There are no other people in this household,” said Lady Elizabeth, a hint of chill in her voice. “Unless you should like to try the slipper on me?”
“Are there no servants?” asked Edmund.
Lady Elizabeth’s expression could not quite be termed a glare. “We are not that wealthy, Your Highness.”
Marianne turned to Edmund, face pleading. Of course he had told her what they were about here—and of course she had no idea how to proceed.
“Search the house,” Edmund told Marianne. “There’s someone else here.”
Charlotte yanked the slipper off her foot and held it out to Edmund. Lady Elizabeth snatched it from her hand.
Edmund stared Lady Elizabeth down. “You will return to me my lady’s property,” he told her.
“I know this embroidery,” Lady Elizabeth returned. “The slipper is—Charlotte’s.”
“Mother, you liar!” exploded Charlotte, pink-faced. Angelica moved to stand beside her sister, her face bloodless white.
“And what shall you do if I am?” said Lady Elizabeth, voice like ice. “I might have lied when I told you both you are heir to what wealth I possess.”
Charlotte stiffened. “All I want is enough money that when I marry, I won’t be living only on love. That needn’t come from you.”
Angelica waved a dismissive hand. “I think I should prefer to be a starving artist than to inherit a penny of Father’s or Stepfather’s.”
“All you’re trying to threaten here is Ella,” said Charlotte. “We’re done with that. You do not get to hurt any of us any more.”
“Your daughters, Lady Elizabeth,” said Edmund, “are under royal protection—as is your stepdaughter.”
Marianne returned, out of breath. “Your Highness, the cellar door—it’s locked. And enchanted.”
No one in the Prescott household was a mage of any description. Angelica had told Edmund that. Eleanora’s mother had been a greenwitch, but Ella herself was not. Nor Angelica, nor Charlotte.
Edmund started toward Lady Elizabeth and found himself unable to move. No one else seemed to try.
“You will,” said Lady Elizabeth quietly, “marry my daughter. And you, and you, will not disobey me any more.”
A shriek—a drawn-out scream, from below, from the cellar—
A small brown bird shot through the open window, scratching at Lady Elizabeth’s face. Ella, clad in rags, leaped through after, wielding a large stick—she swung it at Lady Elizabeth—
The woman collapsed, bleeding from the head.
“Oh no,” said Ella. “I didn’t mean—not that hard—”
Marianne moved first, to check Lady Elizabeth’s throat for a pulse. Ella stumbled sideways and Angelica and Charlotte caught her. The bird perched on the mantel.
“We’re free,” said Angelica, staring at the blood flowing from Lady Elizabeth’s wound. “This wasn’t—how we meant it. I know. But think. We’re free.”
“Ella,” Charlotte said, in tones of hope. “You can keep the house.”
“My mother’s home,” Ella said slowly. “My mother’s grave. I hadn’t thought—”
“She’s alive,” said Marianne grimly. “Miss Charlotte, please fetch a proper healer. Miss Angelica, please fetch a proper mage.”
“Oh,” said Ella, and sank to the floor.
Edmund moved to Ella’s side as Charlotte and Angelica dashed out the door, Charlotte with one stocking foot. “Perhaps you didn’t hear, from the cellar,” Edmund told her. “You are under royal protection—Lady Elizabeth shall not escape penalty for what she has done to you and to your sisters.”
“That’s,” said Ella, trembling, “That’s good.” She stopped, watching the purple flame flicker around Marianne’s fingers. “I didn’t want to kill her,” she said. “I wasn’t trying to. But it would be so much easier if she died.”
“Imagine the fun you might have ordering her around,” Edmund suggested. “I feel she would learn well as a palace scullery maid, don’t you?”
Ella shuddered all over. “I’m not like her. I will not be like her.”
“Then we shall find some other appropriate penalty,” Edmund said at once.
Ella turned her head a little, far enough Edmund could see her green eyes. “We?”
“We might speak of this later,” Edmund said hastily. “It seems entirely the wrong moment to speak of love and marriage.”
Ella lifted her shoulders a little and let them fall. “I know only the love of a daughter for parents and a sister for sisters,” she said quietly. “And I have no wish to marry, or to lie with another as one must to bear children—and you, Your Highness, must marry for heirs. That was, I understand, the whole point of the balls.”
“Well, yes,” Edmund admitted.
She smiled a half smile—nothing like the vibrant happiness Edmund had seen on her face when he had told her he could help with her cunning plan, but a smile nonetheless. “Marry Angelica, if she’ll have you. She won’t love you or any man, but as long as she has the freedom to paint, I doubt she’ll mind being mother to your children.”
Ella considered. “Charlotte might love you, or come to love you,” she said, “but she won’t care for the lying-with-you part of marriage.” The brown bird trilled. Ella looked up at it and smiled more brightly. “I told you,” she continued, “my only goal was freedom for my sisters and I.”
“Then that,” Edmund said, as a clatter at the door announced Charlotte’s or Angelica’s return—a caged bird never sings as vividly as one that flies free; this was the only thing, after all, he could still give to the woman he loved— “you shall have.”