T the height of the ball, Cendrillon and Noémie slipped out to meet in the castle gardens. “Are you enjoying yourself?” Noémie asked.
Cendrillon’s cheeks were glowing. “Oh, yes,” she said. “And you, sister?”
“Well enough,” Noémie answered cheerfully. “Though Maman made me present myself to the Queen and sign my name in the register of potential brides.”
Cendrillon looked troubled. “It may be nothing,” she said slowly, “but I was watching the young ladies being presented to the Queen. I was standing beside a potted orange-tree, and no one noticed me. Each time, she smooths the maiden’s hair or strokes her cheek or adjusts the folds of her gown, exclaiming how young and beautiful she is.”
“Yes, she did the same for me. Such nonsense!”
“But every time,” Cendrillon went on, “she either removes a loose hair that has fallen upon the lady’s garments, or she somehow contrives to pluck a hair from her head. And she has been gathering them in a handkerchief.”
Noémie bit back an exclamation. “I did not even notice. But why would she wish to do such a thing?”
Cendrillon moved closer to the glass doors that gave access from the dancing room to the gardens. Noémie moved to stand at her side. Standing in the darkness, they both observed the swirl of motion in the brightly lit hall. The Queen was visible at a distance in her crimson dress and glittering crown. Not only the ladies of marriageable age and their parents came to pay their respects, but the most powerful nobles of the realm clustered around her. “Queen Olympe has ruled the kingdom as Regent ever since her husband died,” Noémie said. “She does not look like a woman who is preparing to give up power.”
It was close to midnight when Cendrillon touched Noémie’s sleeve. “I heard the Queen order one of her servants to bring the register of potential brides to the Count de Rochambeau in the small library,” Cendrillon whispered. “She was very particular about it.”
Noémie’s eyes sparkled. “Then we must go there too.”
Shortly thereafter, the two were crouched in a window seat, hidden behind thick velvet curtains, watching the Count’s peculiar dealing with the register. With a small bone-handled knife, he carefully cut each page from its bindings, then drew strange symbols around the names.
Queen Olympe swept into the room while he was still at this task. She locked the door behind her. “Is everything ready?” she demanded.
“Very nearly, Your Majesty,” the other replied calmly. He scrawled a final notation in the margin and stood.
Noémie afterwards remembered what followed only in snatches. From that moment, when the Count de Rochambeau began to chant words in an unknown tongue, a strange lassitude seized them. They had no desire to stir, but could only watch as he marked out circles on the marble floor with chalk and charcoal, added symbols outlined in mysterious powders of red and blue and green. Meanwhile, the Queen was not idle; from a hidden compartment behind a bookcase, she drew forth a life-sized wooden doll with jointed limbs, and dressed it in clothing such as the prince wore.
Where the lines of colored powder crossed the floor, a strange steady flame sprang up, encircling the doll. The crudely carved face and limbs took on a hue like flesh. The sorcerer took up the pages of the register, where each girl had written her name in her own hand, and fed them to the flames. And the doll stirred.
The world went dark before Noémie’s eyes, and when her vision cleared the prince himself was in the room, his sword drawn, though she could not say how he had gotten there. He shouted words she could not make out; the sorcerer’s chanting seemed to echo in her ears. Cendrillon gripped her arm tightly. “Noémie, you are so pale!”
The Queen moved to block the prince’s path. In his hand, the sorcerer held the hairs the Queen had gathered, of every possible shade. Those too, he fed to the flames.
Noémie gasped as a sharp pain shot through her. Across the room, the prince fell to his knees.
“Your hair!” Cendrillon realized with horror. “And your writing. He is using them --!” Her gentle sister’s face bore a look of resolution Noémie had never seen before. And then, before Noémie could stop her, Cendrillon slipped through the curtain.
“Stop!” Her clear voice rang out.
“Whoever you may be, mademoiselle,” Noémie heard the Queen’s voice reply, “you will be wise not to interfere.”
The sorcerer’s chant rose higher. Noémie let herself slide forward through the curtain, landing in a heap on the carpet. She had to see what was happening to her sister –
She was just in time to see Cendrillon draw off one of her shoes and hurl it squarely at the sorcerer’s head. The sorcerer stumbled as it struck him and fell to one knee, breaking off his chant. His hand smudged the carefully drawn diagrams. Desperately, he tried to resume his place in the spell, but his voice was drowned out by a hissing sound that gradually grew louder. Suddenly, a burst of flame shot up from the circle. The sorcerer screamed. When Noémie’s vision cleared, there was nothing left in the circle but a scattering of ash.
Cendrillon dropped to her knees beside her. “Noémie, Noémie! Are you well?”
“Yes.” She drew a deep breath. “I am quite well now, thanks to you. Where is the Queen?”
“She ran away when --“ Cendrillon’s voice faltered. “When that man caught fire.”
Noémie nodded. “We have to leave. The guards -– we can’t be found here.”
“But the Prince –“ Cendrillon stretched her hand anxiously toward the young man’s unconscious form. As they watched, he groaned and stirred.
“The guards will look after him. We have to go,” Noémie urged. With a final glance back at the prince, Cendrillon let herself be drawn from the room.