It was half past four on a Thursday afternoon, midwinter-dark. Outside the tea-shop, the wind howled and the snowdrifts were building. Inside, it was business, or, rather, leisure, as usual.
'So how many of yours are orphans?' The Lilac Fairy fanned her tea gently with her right wing.
'Ninety per cent, at a guess,' said the Godmother-in-Chief. 'And the parents of half the others are inadequate. Neglectful, to say the least. The Hardups, for example... I don't believe a word of what they say about stepmothers, by the way; I've known some fantastic ones, but their step-daughters aren't the ones who need fairy godmothers. Anyway, appalling as Baroness Hardup is, the good Baron really should have told her that he had a daughter before they married. Still, I wouldn't say that ours is entirely a parental role.'
'Well, hardly,' Lilac agreed. 'We show up at the christening, bestow expensive and symbolic gifts, and then bu- - flutter off until the girls hit sixteen, or real life, whichever comes sooner, at which point we step in to sort out whatever mess they've got themselves into, or send them out into the uncharted waters of matrimony, as appropriate.'
'Apart from Sugar Plum, of course. How old was that one she brought along to the party this week?'
'Clara? She's eight,' said a sweet, if currently rather acid, voice behind them.
The two godmothers spun around. 'My dear Plum! We were just talking about you - and how you spoil your girls rotten,' Lilac explained, with a apologetic grimace.
'Well, the poor things; they might as well enjoy themselves when they're young. Dance like nobody's watching, sing like nobody's listening, eat like there's no tomorrow, and all that. How long until they come up against the patriarchy, and calorie counting? If I can give them a couple of nights away from all that, well, why not?'
'But you ought to help them learn their responsibilities,' Lilac said, worried.
The Godmother-in-Chief shook her head. 'Plum has a point. And she doesn't even do princesses. Youth doesn't last long. But then, you have a point too. The sparkly tiaras are all very well, but sooner or later your girl is going to have to rule the kingdom while her spouse is off slaughtering the invading hordes, or whatever, and she's going to have to know how many beans make five, as it were. But, by Grimm and Andersen, it's tempting to let them have their fun while they can.'
Lilac looked at her in some surprise. 'I thought you were the hardcore, no-contact-until-time-of-dire-need, sort.'
'Well, I used to be,' she admitted. 'Now that I'm getting on for my seven hundred and ninetieth birthday, I'm mellowing. All the same, I think my reputation has been exaggerated – just a little. Even Cinderella wasn't as surprised to see me as the media made out.'
Sugar Plum laughed. 'Don't get me wrong, ladies; I can see the temptations of the delayed grand entrance. I just – oh, I don't know. I want Clara to get used to me, so that when it comes to the difficult stuff, she won't worry too much; she'll have learned to trust in a benevolent universe.'
'There are arguments in favour of that approach,' Lilac said, in a tone that suggested she didn't think much of them.
'Lighten up, Lilac,' the Godmother-in-Chief said. 'Just because you didn't see your charge for one hundred and sixteen years, doesn't mean we all have to do it your way.'
'I kept an eye on Aurora,' Lilac retorted. 'It was more that she couldn't see me, being asleep and all. I was there when it mattered.'
'I think,' said Sugar Plum, sweetly diplomatic, 'you're probably better than I am at knowing when it really matters.' She patted her candy-floss hair.
'Once upon a time,' the Godmother-in-Chief said, inconsequentially, 'there was a princess, for whom her parents threw a birthday party every year, when the winter was coldest and the night was longest. And every year her godmother came to the party, and every year she brought her the same present: one perfect pearl.'
'Each pearl was identical to its neighbour, flawless and regular. While the princess grew up, the King, her father, kept them safe in a box fastened tight with iron bands. “When you marry,' he told her, “you shall wear them, and they will not be half so beautiful as you.”
'But year after year passed, and the string of pearls grew longer, and no prince came to marry the princess. “It's those pearls,” the people said. “Pearls stand for tears: our princess will weep as long as she lives.”
'Nobody had noticed that the princess had never cried. Indeed, she shed not a tear until her twentieth birthday, when, to the King's delight, a prince came riding up the snowy path to the castle to claim her, for he had heard of her beauty, and was seeking the girl who would be his queen.
'“At last, my child,” the King and Queen said, “your prince, and your husband.”'
'She said nothing, but a tear dropped from her eyelashes, and froze as it fell to the icy ground.
'“What is wrong?” they asked. “Why do you weep?”
'But before she could make reply, her godmother arrived. A fairy of considerable experience, she took in the situation at a glance. She swept a curtsy – she was always good at the really impressive, floor-sweeping curtsies – and, having once greeted the King and Queen, spoke the words that changed their daughter's destiny:
'“Your majesties,” she said, “the dead of winter is an ill time for wooing, and a worse time for wedding. Do not press your daughter to speak until the spring, for how can a heart melt when the land is frozen?”
'And to the princess, she said, “Dance, my child, dance, but speak no word that will keep you from returning to where you stand now. There will be a time to speak, but it is not today.”
'And with that she was gone. The princess thought that this year her godmother had forgotten to give her the pearl, but the next day she found it in the garden, lying on a dead leaf. And she thought that now there was one day less until the spring, and another tear fell, and froze in falling. She took the pearl to her father, and he locked it in the box.
'The next day the spring was another day nearer, and she walked again in the garden – and there again was a pearl, lying on the same dead leaf. And again a tear fell, and froze in falling. But she did not take this pearl to her father, but kept it under her pillow.
'Every day of that winter she wept, and every day of that winter she found another pearl, until there were as many pearls under her pillow as there were in the box. And she knew at last that, if she married the prince, kind, and gentle, and gallant as he was – and he really was a most unobjectionable chap; I got to know him quite well, afterwards – she would wear a noose of tears around her neck for evermore.
'On the first day of spring, her godmother returned, which was unusual. As a rule, she only showed up for the birthday parties. But the princess was glad to see her – oh, I can't tell you! - and she showed her the collection of pearls under her pillow.
'Her godmother nodded, as if she had been expecting this. “Every year,” she said, “I brought you a pearl. On your first birthday, I brought you the pearl of love. On your second birthday, I brought you the pearl of laughter. On your third, the pearl of joy. On your fourth, the pearl of learning. On your fifth, the pearl of kindness. On your sixth, the pearl of common sense. Then that of gentleness, then that of wisdom, then that of grace. Then beauty, confidence, strength, and riches. Friendship I brought you, and solitude. Courage I brought you, and patience. On your eighteenth birthday, I brought you gratefulness, and, on your nineteenth, hope.
'“This year, you have found the pearl of sadness for yourself, and with it, the pearl of self-knowledge. The one I could not bring myself to give you, and the other was not in my power to give you. Take them, then, and use them: they are yours.
'And so the princess went to the Queen and said, “Mother, it is the first day of spring, and I must grieve you.” And she went to the King and said, “Father, it is the first day of spring, and I must displease you. For I cannot marry this prince, nor any man.”
'And now the King and Queen wept, that their hopes were gone, and the Queen said, “Wait, my child, until the summer sun is high, and see if the blossoming flowers have not awakened love in your wintry heart.”
'And so she waited, and on Midsummer Day she went to the Queen and said “Mother, it is Midsummer Day, and I must grieve you.” And she went to the King and said, “Father, it is Midsummer Day, and I must displease you. For I cannot marry this prince, nor any man.”
'And the King and Queen wept again, and the King said, “Wait, my child, until the leaves fall from the trees, and see if you do not wish to go to life and warmth while they can be yours.”
'And so she waited, and when the days grew short she went to the Queen and said “Mother, it is autumn, and I must grieve you.” And she went to the King and said, “Father, it is autumn, and I must displease you. For I cannot marry this prince, nor any man.”
'Now they wept, and her eyes were dry. At last the King said, “Child, this was not our will for you. But if it is your will to seek happiness where we cannot conceive of its being, so be it. Go, with our blessing. But yet stay, until your twenty-first birthday, and for these last months let us be happy; we have spent too long weeping.”
'The King had her pearls strung, and at her twenty-first birthday party she wore them for the first time, though, if she wept, it was for happiness. She danced with the Prince, and bade him farewell. He asked where she was going and what she was doing, and, when she told him, he smiled, and said that, this being so, they would surely meet again. He kissed her hand and wished her well.
'And, when midnight struck, there was her fairy godmother. This time she brought no pearl; indeed, she brought no gift at all. But she held out her hand to the princess, and the princess stepped into her carriage, and off they went into the night.
'Off she went to learn, to work, to love, and to make other girls happy - and, learning that, to be happy herself. Off she went, to find out and to become who she was born to be.'
There was a pause.
Behind her, the waitress cleared her throat. 'The usual, ma'am,' she said, and laid on the table a cake blazing with candles. 'A very happy birthday, from all of us.'
In the golden light, the double string of pearls gleamed around the throat of the Godmother-in-Chief.
'How lovely,' she said, and drained her teacup. 'You know,' she said, 'I flatter myself that I've made my god-daughters' ever-afters happier than they would have been had I not been around. But still, I'm not convinced that I didn't have the happiest ever-after of them all.'
And she blew out her candles.