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the rope you began with (was never that straight)

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"Oh, now don't you start."

Tom's lip wobbles like a lilypad in the rain.

"I told you, I'm busy."

Old enough to walk and smart enough to prefer being carried, Tom keeps his eyes fixed on her and opens his mouth to let out the first gurgling thunder-cracks that mean he's building up to a storm. Cinderella shakes the nearest utensil at him before realising that it's the largest bread-knife. She sets it back on the bench with a guilty clack.

"Everything all right?"

"Everything's fine. No problems."

Daniel, whose name Cinderella will never quite be able to stop parenthesising with The Baker even though it's kind of creepy and impersonal and entirely his own fault for gadding anonymously around the woods when everyone else was sharing, smiles at her through the open door of the house. "I'll be right in once Marigold's put away."

That was a bit of a lie she told: there is one problem, but she feels stupid about it. The problem is that every time Tom cries, Cinderella is convinced a narrator will spring out of the pantry and shout "Evil!" and that'll be that. This conviction stands as a staunch nemesis to her healthy belief that Tom can be a bratty miniature troll of a child and as such needs the occasional bread-knife pointed in his direction.

Stepmothering is a precarious business.

"Nobody for him to play with today?" Daniel asks, stomping dust from his boots. Tom, now in the wet-sobbing stage, wheels around and rushes at his father.

"Jack's on a call with Doc Fadden -- a lame horse, I think -- and Red's gone into town to buy candles and argue about the butcher's bill."

"Again?"

"I think she's got her eye on his apprentice."

"Ah." Daniel shifts Tom from one hip to another. "Is it odd that I feel odd about that?"

"Why should you?"

"She's practically -- well, you know."

"I know," she says, but she's not sure she does. Family, in Cinderella's opinion, is a lot like the colour green. You can throw the word around and even build perfectly reasonable conversations around it, but in the end you can never be sure that any two people using it mean the same thing.

"Any mother is better than no mother at all," Jack said once.

And Cinderella said, "You really don't have much of an imagination, do you?"

~

"There's a strange woman outside," says Red.

"Is she a customer?"

"She was. I sold her a cherry tart. Now she's eaten the tart and she's just standing there."

Cinderella wipes icing sugar from her hands onto her apron. This causes a cloud of more icing sugar, as well as some flour, to puff into the air, which is usually a sign that the rest of her is in a similar state. Time for a bath, once this batch of pastries has cooled.

"Well, have you asked her what's wrong?"

Red -- real name Edith, which she despises and claims she's never answered to -- looks uneasy. "I think she's about to start crying."

"And?" Cinderella says encouragingly.

Red takes her by the shoulders and pushes her towards the door leading through to the bakery's shopfront. "You're the one who's good with feelings! Do something!"

Good with feelings, Cinderella thinks, what a depressing thing to have carved on one's grave. Even worse: good with other people's feelings, but still not that great at her own.

The young woman is loitering, more or less, near the fence between the bakery and what used to be the witch's cottage. Cinderella notices her hair first: it's glorious, not corn-yellow but a pale ashy blonde, spilling down from under a loose linen scarf.

"It's clever," she says, not looking at Cinderella, "how they've convinced the tomatoes to grow like vines so that there's more room for the rosemary."

"Thank you," Cinderella says.

"Oh, it's your garden?" Now she glances over. The second thing that Cinderella notices is that the woman has a cherry-juice stain at one side of her mouth, sticky and scarlet. Not quite the colour of blood. "You came out of the bakery, I thought --"

"I work here," Cinderella says, "but we live there."

"Convenient." She gives a shaky smile and, thirdly, Cinderella notices that Red was right about the imminent tears.

"I'm Cinderella," she says, extending her hand. "Or just Ella, to most people."

"Griselda." A firm handshake. Griselda's fingers are lined with what feel like new calluses.

"Is there anything I can help you with?"

"I'm a bit lost."

"Did you come through the woods? Or are you from the town? Where do you want to be?"

"No, it's all right," Griselda says glumly. "To be honest, I'd rather be lost for a while."

There are only so many stories in the world. Cinderella gets a taste in her mouth like cream with far too much sugar, and her ears ring with an ominous chord.

"Don't tell me," she says. "There's a prince involved."

They lean on the fence, watching the shadows of the tomato plants lengthen, and Griselda tells her tale. She's obviously been dying to unburden herself for a while. She's actually a princess -- "I'm shocked," Cinderella says, not managing to suppress her sarcasm entirely -- and she journeyed to this land with only her favourite maid for company, because her parents wanted her to marry a prince she'd never met. Along the way she and her maid Aloise decided to switch places; Aloise wasn't fussy about spouses if it meant she could marry into money, and Griselda wanted to be able to live her own life. Then there's a bit about a talking horse who kept going on about how disappointed Griselda's mother would be if she knew what was happening.

"So we had the Prince's butcher cut his head off," Griselda says.

"Um," Cinderella says. "I see."

"Everything's been great. Aloise says the Prince is a bit dull, but charming enough, and I've got a job herding geese, and -- well." Griselda blushes. "I've met someone. Connie. She brings her geese out to the same pasture as mine."

"That all sounds like it's going well," Cinderella agrees. "So why are you here?"

"Falada! The damn magic horse! We had his head cut off and the son of a bitch still won't shut up," says Griselda. "He talked the butcher into hanging his head up on a city gate so he can spy on me, and he keeps making snide comments about my mother, and Aloise hasn't been able to get him taken down. We're happy! We don't want the Prince to find out! He'll get all offended that he's been wooing a fake princess, and then my father will have to come all the way here and apologise and he'll kill me."

Cinderella pats her on the shoulder, trying not to leave a floury patch on the fabric. What to say to that? I'm sure he won't actually kill you? Imagination takes you along the whole gamut of mothers and fathers. And she feels for this girl and the familiarity of her emotions: longing and duty, freedom and guilt. Even those who are born with them can feel the urge to toss aside their crowns and seek out the feeling of grass between their toes.

"Are you sure the Prince won't be sympathetic if you let him in on the plan?" she says. "I've met a few princes in my time, and they can be a bit more...flexible...than you'd imagine. And it sounds like he's already taken with Aloise."

"I don't know," Griselda says, resting her forehead on the top of the fence. "Maybe. I just need to be away from the town for a while, I think."

"Why don't you stay with us tonight?"

Griselda gives a sort of sniffle and looks at her. "Are you sure?"

"We're a bit cramped but we've got lots of pillows, and there's sausages for dinner. And other things, too, Jack's a vegetarian." She pauses. "It'd probably be best if you didn't mention that you had a horse's head chopped off."

"Got it," says Griselda.

~

They didn't know what to do with Jack, if Cinderella's honest. He and Red moved happily into the bakery and then, when they realised there wasn't nearly enough space for four-people-and-a-baby and a functioning business, and they were more or less certain that the Witch wasn't coming back, helped just as happily with the move into her cottage. And then they sat around, playing with the infant Tom, and waiting for -- Cinderella doesn't know what. The next adventure. True love. Parents.

Daniel, ever unwilling to do anything that might cause someone he likes to be upset with him, kicked his heels for a long time; but money got tighter and tighter, and finally Daniel called in a favour with the local vet and had Jack apprenticed to him, and then hired Red to sell bread so that he and Cinderella could focus on making more of it.

It seems to be working out, even if Jack spends entire evenings disconsolate and sullen whenever an animal has to be put down, and Red has to be scolded on occasion for insulting customers to their faces. Money is still tight. But they make do.

"I could be drinking champagne out of my shoe right now, you know," she tells Tom. "Apparently that's a thing that princesses do. They drink pearls, too, but that sounds even more difficult."

Tom lifts a fist full of dandelions for her perusal.

"Very nice," Cinderella says. She's brought her basket of washing out into the small patch of garden not overtaken by vegetables and herbs, and is folding things peacefully in the sunlight. To look at her now, she could be the same old Cinderella of her first life, filling her days with domestic chores. But this morning she went for a long walk and picked berries simply because she wanted to, and next week she's going to a class in cake decoration hosted by one of the rich ladies in town, and nobody in this house calls her names or holds things out only to snatch them away. This, she chose.

Besides, champagne or no champagne, she couldn't go back to a life where the only things she was allowed to do with her own two hands were embroider delicate flowers onto a cushion, or paint delicate flowers onto an equally delicate china cup. She's a terrible painter, and most flowers make her sneeze.

"Please move," she tells a pair of magpies on a branch overhead. "If you have an accident on my clean washing, I will be very cross."

They glance at each other and flap to a different branch. One of them informs her that they're thinking of making a nest in this tree for the coming spring, and does she know if it gets a lot of strong wind?

"Thank you," Cinderella says, folding a towel. "You might want to try the garden of the farrier's house, down the road; the trees there are smaller and get more shelter from the wall."

But the magpies like it here, where they can chat to a human, and the farrier keeps cats and has a garden that's too noisy for a chick.

"Suit yourselves," she says. "No swooping, mind."

"I do wish I could do that," says Jack, leaning against the front gate. "It would make my job easier."

Cinderella smiles a greeting. "Do you get called to see many sick birds?"

"Chickens," Jack says solemnly. "You'd be surprised how many diseases they can catch."

"Come and put this lot away for me," Cinderella says, holding out a stack of folded linen. "And I expect Red will give you more leftover buns than are good for you if you help her clean the bakery before closing."

After dinner that night Cinderella tries to have the discussion with Daniel about where they are going to keep Tom's ever-increasing amount of clothes and toys. Storage space is almost nonexistent in the house, and there are three large trunks tucked against the wall that could be used if Daniel were prepared to sort through what they contain: his wife's belongings.

"I don't want to unpack those," Daniel says. "We'll work something else out."

Cinderella looks down at her book and swallows her annoyance. "When? I understand it's not something you want to think about, but we can't keep stacking and shoving forever."

Daniel shifts in his chair as though he can wriggle himself out of the need to disagree. "Just -- forget it for now. Don't worry."

Cinderella doesn't like arguments either, and has had to train herself into simply being able to express her opinion with force; she'd be very happy to drop the subject and get the tension out of the air, but that's a good recipe for never getting anything done. Never moving forwards.

"You'll have to make a decision at some point," she says.

"I'm tired," Jack blurts out. "Good night!" He gives Red a meaningful look and jerks his head towards the door.

Red, the only person in the house to actually enjoy an argument, glares back at him as she stands up. "I guess I'm tired too. Very tired."

"Fine," Daniel says. He sounds petulant enough that Cinderella's annoyance comes back, prickling her all over like nettle-rash, and she snaps her book shut on her lap.

In the doorway Red stops and looks between the two of them in that blunt assessing way she has. Cinderella braces herself.

"You two can have sex, you know," Red says. "We won't care."

Jack's eyes go very wide. "Yes! You could get married!"

Red elbows Jack hard enough that he winces. "No pressure or anything," she says.

The two of them disappear into their rooms and Daniel coughs hard into one of his fists, not looking at Cinderella. His face is pink. "I've changed my mind," he says finally. "I'm pleased Red is courting the butcher's apprentice. It's about time she got married and moved out."

Married, married. Him and Jack chanting the same song. Cinderella wonders if it's got something to do with losing a father, this preoccupation with sorting people into legal pairs. Not that she can cast stones: it took a whole marriage of her own for Cinderella to work out that saying the words in the right building, while wearing the right colour dress, was neither an ending nor a guarantee. If she ever runs into her fairy godmother again, she's got a long speech stored up and not much of it is nice.

When Daniel does glance her way she's expecting embarrassment, perhaps anger or an anxiousness that she not feel insulted, but instead there's a glint of laughter in his eyes that makes her smile back at once, and it's quiet and warm and not as awkward as she'd feared. This isn't -- well, what is this? It's not an exciting story, the Ex-Princess and the Widowed Baker. There's no drama in their day-to-day existence more serious than Tom's scabbed knees and the occasional charred batch of loaves.

They've reforged their lives side by side and they know each other so well; Cinderella's heart doesn't flutter with excited destiny the way it did when she danced with the Prince all that time ago. When her fingers touch Daniel's her heart just beats on, steady and sure.

~

The next tearful visitor to the bakery manages to make it all the way to the crying stage. Cinderella hears the sobs and starts removing her apron even before Red appears at the door separating the shop from the bakery itself and mouths, HELP.

"I've got it," Cinderella tells Daniel.

"Why do they all walk in here?" Red mutters. "Is it the smell of bread that sets them off?"

Tom is sitting at his usual stool in front of the counter, picking raisins out of a torn-up pastry snail with great concentration. They've found that the cuteness of a toddler goes a long way to mitigate Red's lack of friendly customer service skills.

Today, however, there's a young girl gazing at Tom with her hands clutched to her chest, her eyes red, and her face splotchy. She's dressed warmly but she seems to be missing her shoes.

"S-sorry," she says, when Cinderella appears. "He just reminded me of a f-friend, and I'm tired," and then her face screws up and she starts crying again.

"Oh dear," says Cinderella, looking around for inspiration. "Would you like a bun?"

The girl stops mid-sob. "I like buns."

"Great. We make the best buns in the kingdom," Red says, holding one out in front of her like a shield. When the girl takes it, Red says, "I'll go and make sure we've got spare blankets, then, shall I?"

So the girl called Gerda stays the night, and in between inhaling bowls of tomato soup at the dinner table she tells them that she's trying to find her friend, a boy who had what sounds like a particularly nasty pubescent personality change and ran away from home. So far she has, miraculously, neither been robbed nor frozen to death. Apart from her blithe disregard for what her poor grandmother might think about her running off for months on end, Gerda is a tooth-achingly sweet child.

"I'm afraid we don't have any shoes that would fit you," Daniel says. "But you could call at the cobbler's in town."

Gerda looks down at her feet in surprise. "Oh, I've stopped noticing."

Maybe word gets around. Maybe Red was right about the bread-smell. Or maybe there's a magical leyline forming right through their village and their lives, and anyone on a Quest is going to find themselves channeled past this spot; either way, Gerda is far from being the last visitor. There's the dejected-looking young man who smells a bit like pondweed and tells them he's trying to find someone to turn him back into a frog again, because at least then the girl he loves would let him sleep on her pillow and talk to her at dinner. There are more children, two of them this time, who spend a lot of time poking the loaves and asking which of them would form the most sturdy breadcrumbs. There's a bewildering stream of princesses -- Cinderella wonders where they come from, as they can't all be blamed on the serial monogamy of princes -- including the poor pale one with dark circles under her eyes who can't sleep at all in the attic bed because her royal skin is so sensitive.

Servants and dukes, thieves and troubadours, boys in love with girls and girls dressed as boys. All of them searching, all of them hoping that if they walk far enough they'll be able to pin down the happiness they've been promised.

Red hangs a small set of bells up near the counter, and gives them a tinkle to summon Cinderella whenever an unfamiliar customer lingers tellingly near the shop. They take to laying an extra spot at dinner, just in case, and clear a cosy spot in the attic where the pile of spare blankets is always laid out for a bed.

It keeps things busy, and different. For all of her happiness, part of Cinderella is afraid of being stuck in a small story with the same few people for the rest of her life. She's glad to do cameos in the tales of strangers, and it's a good solid role: dispensing wisdom, helping people back onto their paths. She suggests to most of them that it would be easier to avoid the woods, but she's never surprised when they set forth anyway. That's how it goes. You don't learn except by doing.

"What a nice house," most of them say. "What a lovely bakery. How wonderful it must be to live always in one spot, with such kind people."

And then they set off towards danger, with bread in their pockets and the Quest driving them forward, and Cinderella finds that her envy has usually vanished by the time they are out of sight.

~

"What else? Tom's been playing with some of the other children in the village and he's just managed to catch his first bad end-of-winter cold. The festival is in two weeks and we're going to have a stall in the market square, so I've been practicing making sugar flowers for my lemon cakes. Jack delivered the farrier's cat's kittens and they let him take one home, so now we've got a ball of white fur around the house and the birds are complaining. Red's made a guestbook for all of our visitors to write in. And Daniel..."

The tree on her mother's grave does nothing but sway gently in the breeze, for which Cinderella is thankful. She knows better now; she's careful with her wishes, even the casual ones.

"Daniel caught Tom's cold, too, so I'm the one handling all the baking at the moment. I should get back," she adds, standing up. "Goodbye, Mother."

Despite looking as pale and miserable as an underdone pudding and having to blow his nose twice a minute, Daniel insists on helping her with the bread, though by 'helping' he mostly means sitting near the soothing heat of the ovens and calling out yeast quantities in a nasal voice. Cinderella stirs some lemon juice and honey into a mug of hot water, hands it to him, and then forbids him to touch or even breathe on anything else.

"And sort of -- punch it down. That's it." Daniel inhales deeply and then sighs into the steam from the mug. "I'm sorry this all got pushed off on you, Ella."

Cinderella punches at her dough. She likes the rolling, semi-sticky feel of it under her hands, and the looseness of action in bread-making compared to her fussy icings and buttery pastry crusts. "We might have to pretend we're experimenting, if this batch doesn't turn out right."

"It'll be fine. We can always distract the customers with your custard tarts. You're much better at cakes and pastries than I ever bothered to be."

Cinderella laughs. "That's me. Good with feelings and also with croissants."

He gives her a smile that banishes the misery and the lines of worry from his face. And it's very warm in the bakery, and she could have caught something too, it's possible, this doesn't have to be their destiny, even if she does want to stroke her hands through his hair and maybe buy him a new coat so he can take her dancing at the festival until many hours past midnight. It could be love. It could be whatever she wants it to be, whenever she chooses to complicate the story again.

So when Cinderella's heart gives a tentative flutter and a bright new melody floats through her mind, she just smiles and turns back to her bread.