''Here, your ladyship. I am afraid Her Majesty has fallen asleep. Perhaps you would like to come another time?''Servant spoke, clearly hesitating. Sweat dripped from his brow, he bit his lips, his hands shook little and his eyes spun left and right as he avoided looking directly at her. Why would the dowager queen choose such incompetent and transparent servant was beyond Clorinda's understanding. Servants who couldn't even keep straight face were utterly useless.
But then, her stepsister was always so charitable. Young man in front of her probably had nowhere to go when he was a boy and the queen's soft heart couldn't stand seeing orphan in pain so she got him. Tragic, really. And so utterly predictable.
''No matter. I will stay here until she wakes up.'' Clorinda said, her nose held high, her voice flat and even. Then, because she was feeling particularly good-tempered that day, she glanced at him sideways and continued.
''Don't worry, I will be quiet. And if she needs anything I will immediately call you.'' Boy stopped for moment, looked from queen to Clorinda, then walked out of room. At least he understood concept of privacy. She didn't know what she would have done if he wasn't able to pick up on subtle social cues. As he was exiting, he murmured an answer.
''Of course. Thank you, your ladyship.'' Clorinda absently nodded to thank him. She didn't know whether he saw that or not, and didn't particularly care. She sat on chair located next to the bed, not paying attention to sound of doors closing. Foolish man. If he was nervous about leaving her alone with her sleeping stepsister, he shouldn't have left them alone in first place.
Not that Clorinda was trying anything. It has been decades since she harbored grudge against her stepsister. They have surpassed problematic disagreements of their youth. Besides, Clorinda had no intention of getting charged with high treason and dying before her time, especially when the queen in question ensured Clorinda had wealthy nobleman who was also far more respectable husband than most, enormous amount of money left for her golden age and personally dispelled all rumors and gossip about Clorinda's loyalty-all she could find, at least. No noble was willing to harm Clorinda's family to get closer to the queen after that. Attempting to assassinate the queen, especially now when she was so weak and old, left alone only with Clorinda.... It was unhonorable and painfully obvious. Jovette might have tried something like that (and who knew what mother would have done, had she remained of the sound mind, hadn't coronation driven her to isolation and madness).
The queen had even insisted on acquainting herself with Clorinda's three sons. But only if Clorinda and her husband allowed it-which they of course did. Even if the queen surely thought of nothing like that, when the royal asked for something, even if it was done politely ( or in some cases, especially if it was done politely), you scrambled as fast as possible to fulfill their wishes, even if they were most inane things.
But much good came of it. Her stepsister cared for Clorinda's sons as if they were her own-which given how much involvement she had in rearing them, they could as well be counted as part of royal family. Family dinners, holidays, birthdays... It was wonder the queen didn't offer to breastfeed them. She even allowed Clorinda's sons to ask her for advice, tucked them in beds with stories when they had nightmares, and during their transformation in men, had no problem with boys coming over to talk with her about emotional problems.
Honestly, she probably had more involvement in raising them then either Clorinda or her husband did. Such was way of nobles. Too much work and enough money to hire nanny. Not that she didn't love her children, but she could never care for young ones as much as her stepsister could. She knew how to clean them, how to calm them and how to tell stories (ones about fairi-gentry she knew best). Most of all she knew how to deal with petulant behavior, for which Clorinda supposed her stepsister had to thank her and Jovette. Prince and princess treated Clorinda's sons as if they were siblings, which was another favorable thing. It raised standing of family even more, increased already wide marriage prospects and most of all put them in direct line for inheritance of throne should something unfortunate happen to heirs.
Not assassination of course. Her stepsister and late husband the king were beloved rulers. And even ambitious,greedy schemers knew better than to attempt to remove one of heirs after what happened last time, with nanny who turned out to be accomplished killer. Clorinda could still see it, as if it was happening right in front of her eyes, and memory chilled her down to bone. A woman, so perfect and beautiful and shining that it hurt to look at her, her magnificent face both young and old, perfectly calm and yet twisted in grimace of perverse bestial joy, wings spread wide and wind burning bright blue and white as day became night and palace shook, it's walls painted red with blood of family who ordered assassination. A flick of stick, and limbs were flying left and right as people became grotesque statues of glass and collapsed in shards and dust, the ancient creature holding infant prince in too long white arms and humming a lullaby that brought tears to eyes with it's beauty. Every mirror and window and jewel and drop of water and any reflective surface showed scene to nobles, reminding them of price of harming the queen's blood.
There were worse things than death, and Clorinda remembered her stepsister's tales, and knew that horseshoe wouldn't save her from this creature should she harm her stepsister again.
She glances around room. It is smaller than she expected, not as opulent and rich as she imagined, yet everything is of better quality than anything Clorinda has. Wardrobe and table and chairs are all bland and undecorated, yet wood is old and strong and masterfully crafted. Mirror and curtains and candleholders and cloth on her stepsister's bed are all simple, bland things, but they are silk and gold and ancient oak, and must have costed fortune.
When Clorinda was fourteen, Papa's ( for her he was Papa, not stepfather, as for Jovette, while her stepsister, his flesh and blood bowed head and called him father and said nothing of their mother's treatment) job took bad turn, and they had less money than ever. As poverty came closer and closer, Clorinda learnt to treasure everything she had, and bought something whenever she could. Bare walls were terrifying to her then-after them, it could be a plate that would be empty next time. The queen obviously didn't have these fears, so she could afford not to buy much.
She stared at her stepsister's sleeping face, now finally not so different from Clorinda's. Pale, saggy and wrinkled, filled with spots and even few warts, without any make up to conceal it. And yet it shone with some quiet dignity, with inner peace and elevated holiness that, without trace of stiffness and arrogance, making her seem both young and ancient, endlessly timeless. Her sleeping dress was plain, almost tight thing, creamy with pink bows. She always liked such things. Even now, when fashion was much more comfortable, thanks to the queen's efforts, layers and petticoats were so popular.
She remembered her stepsister's dresses. One from first ball, satin and silk, pearls and golden thread, green and rose thing that made her seem as if she dressed herself in flowers and leaves, silken and silver slippers with gems and pearls. One she wore when she exited her home, after she tried the slipper, sunlight and gentle flame and black ash. One she wore at her wedding, green and blue and white, foam and salt and sea. And one from final ball, one that stopped entire court and forced even insects and frogs and wind to be silent. Simple, thin thing, no coat or underskirt or jewelry, only veil that went to her feet. Shining like heavens above, breathe-taking like moon, piece of darkness she wore, making her seem like angel of Lord sent to forgive and punish sins. Clothed in night sky and covered by stars, she was a goddess and even queens had to bow to her. In silence, only thing we could hear was click-clack of her glass slippers as she descended, as we parted before her as if she was a storm, a hurricane that could and would tear us all apart should we stand in her way.
''I never even considered it could be you. Now I see I was stupid. Who else could walk with such grace, proud but not condescending. What other beauty could charm even blind prince?'' She sighed.
''Nobody told us that, you know? We spent so much time preparing, trying to look our best, and it turns out he is a blind man. All we could do was try to talk sensually. Bu then you came, in those magnificent dresses.... You must have been first thing he saw, right? their magic cured his sight but only for you. That was how you danced, right?"' Clorinda smiled, sour, thin smile.
''Mother always told us not to worry. Told us that you had ugly red hair of foreigners, Bruttons of all people. That your eyes were dull brown while ours were stunning blue and green. That you had hair of witch and whore, while we had hair as dark as night and as shining as gold. And suppose she was right, but that made you even more interesting. You were different, rare, exotic while we were plain and boring.'' Her stepsister's hair was white now, and fragile, spilling over pillow like halo.
''We were never ugly. I suppose you could say we were nice to look at. We had nice skin and good hair and fine faces. But my face was too long and I was always little pudgy while Jovette's nose was too big and she was too tall. You on other hand? You were perfect in every way Even our clothes, nails, jewelry and latest fashions couldn't put us at same standing. I heard you don't care about your age. I believe it, I've seen how you treat your face. I do care. I do everything to make myself seem less old. you spent your entire life as beauty, you can afford to part with it now.'' At least now she was prettier. Now her cosmetics paid off.
''How long were you planning it? The ball I mean. I asked you if you wanted to go, and you said no, that it wasn't for you. I was joking, I never thought you would answer. But then you asked mother. Did you think it would be strange if you didn't. Was that why you asked Jovette for her yellow dress? To throw us off your tracks? What would you have done if we allowed it?"' Clorinda put her hand on bed.
''When you gave us that fruit, were you playing with us? Did it make you feel better, to see us thanking and pleading for food? Did you feel that it was finally as it should be? That you returned to your rightful place? Riches to rags to riches? Did you have hairdo and dressed sketched, and did your best that we look different from them as far as possible?'' Nails scratched cover of bed.
''Do you know how it feels? Not being perfect? Trying so hard to be beautiful, to catch right man? How much work it takes to be presented as finely dressed as I was? To see his eyes go from you to other girls? Even on one that is working, one that has Brutonn blood of all things? Seeing man who is courting you staring at another's breasts in front of you, servant's breasts, breasts of witch, of town's leveur de sorts,devin-guérisseur, the cunning woman, the fairy doctor? They mocked me for that, you know. My friends. Said everybody would rather have our Bretunn witch then me and Jovette.'' Her palms curled in fists.
''Mother always had to fight because of that. Town priest gave her no rest because of you. Never mind that everybody went to you for herbs, even he. That they asked you to heal and care for our crops and animals and banish bad spirits. And oh, you always said that there was no true magic, just herbs and knowledge. Then you taught some others how to do it and we lost so much money. There were more of them, and they weren't foreigners like your mother was. Did you think of that? What we would do when money lessened?'' Clorinda took away her hand from bed and caught her own wrist.
''They still speak about how we treated you? Me and Jovette and Papa and mother. It wasn't so bad. You didn't have hard job, you just cleaned. You had food and roof and everything else. We had lessons. And you could have just said so to Papa. And mother never treated you like us. You didn't have to try to be perfect, weren't piece in her game to have perfect life. Oh, she spoiled us, but she never loved us. I realized that few years after I married. We were just tools to her, to get enough to lavishly live after we went away. But I still loved her. And she ended up mad. Was that your fault too? Your magic?'' It was the queen who stood with her stepmother while she was on death's door, she who was present on funeral of all daughters of house. Clorinda and Jovette didn't go, couldn't and wouldn't. They had much to do and they couldn't bear looking at grave.
''And your magic. You always told us fairy tales, and legends. You seemed to believe them. Was that why she helped you? Your godmother. Why she gave you all that gifts? Or was it because you were beautiful girl crying near hearth? Why didn't she help me, or Jovette, or any other poor girl? What made you better but your face? What made you worthy of being queen?'' In Brutunna, they said that people with red hair were descendants of fair folk. They said same for people with green eyes, but there was no chance Clorinda was descended from one. That would explain many things about her stepsister-her beauty, her knowledge, her charm, her patience, her godmother.
''Everybody says that you are so nice. So charitable.You always were like that, so cheery and bubbly. So happy and helpful and good. Nice and kind to everybody, always ready to lend hand. You were feeding bluebirds for sake of goodness! And all things you did when you became the queen. How people loved you, commoners most of all. As if you were one of them. Everybody always says that good people are beautiful, and so they treat you like that. Of course you were good, when everybody loved you. What you know about hatred? You would have shriveled like leaf on frost at first harsh word.'' The queen brought period of enlightement to Freneska, establishing trade routes and peace and alliances with surrounding countries, promoting science and art, establishing schools and laws for commoners. Clorinda sighed and put hand on the queen's head.
''But you were the pretty one. That is why you always had it so easy.''Clorinda says, stroking her stepsister's white hair.
Queen Cendrillion's eyes snap open, burning with rage.
It lasts second, but to Clorinda it seems like thousand years. She stares in deep, perfectly round brown eyes, burning like coal and embers, sees frown and bared teeth and feels rage hot as bonfire press against her, rage so hot that it hurts to breathe. She stares, and tries to pull back, but Cendrillion, blazing with fury is too fast. She strikes her across cheek with strength she shouldn't have, causing Clorinda's head to twist, breaking skin. Flesh stings and turns pink, and blood flows across powdered cheeks.
''You...hit me. You.'' The surprise stung more than injury. Cendrillion, sweet, gentle Cendrillion, mistress of manners and apologies for smallest inconvencies, had struck her hard enough to draw blood.
''Yes.'' Cendrillion said, voice cold but furious, eyes narrowed and gaze sharp as daggers. She stood rigid and straight as arrow, and her face resembled that of merciless general.
''Were you pretending to sleep? Was this why you called me here?''
''Not at beginning. I wanted to have talk with you, to try to spend some time as sisters.'' Cendrillion snorted.'' I was half-awake when you walked in and started talking. I wanted to hear what troubles you have, what do you think of me. But I couldn't restrain myself anymore.'' She wouldn't apologize. Not for this, not after everything. CLorinda was steaming, snarling. She got up and turned to door.
''Well, good for you. Now excuse me, I am going.''
''Sit down. Your queen orders it.'' And so Clorinda did.
''So now you are starting to order people around?''
''If there is no other way to get you to sit down and listen. Besides, I don't have much life left in me. Might as well indulge myself. You and I will talk, and you will be honest.'' Clorinda looked at Cendrillion with proud face and straight back, though she shivered. She had no intention of visiting dungeon, or worse, the godmother.
''So what do you want to talk about?'' She spat out.
''Us. Your problems. My side of story.''Clorinda cackled.
''Your side of story? believe me, at this point I know it better than you. Evil stepfamily, chores, fairy godmother, ball and slipper.''
'' I don't mean that. I mean my feelings. My servitude.'' Clorinda bowed head. Despite everything, she couldn't stand shame. Cendrillion started.
''First of all, Clorinda, I want to say that you aren't ugly. Not now, not when you were young, not ever. Beauty.... That stupid concept is so abstract and unclear when applied to humans. More often than not, it is simply way for rich to lord over poorer. In Freneska pale skin is prized because it means you are rich enough that you don't have to work in sun. Do you know that there are lands in which being thin isn't appreciated? Because it implies you don't have enough money to eat much? Beauty in people encompasses so much more than any of us can think of. Perfect beauty doesn't exist, at least not among mortals. Even me-my hair and eyes weren't what Freneskans considered beautiful. And people love different things. You loved blonde men. My husband had black hair. But you always talked how beautiful he was.''
And it shouldn't matter. Beauty is superficial, and easily lost and so fleeting. You injure yourself, or fashion changes, or few decades pass and when once you were paragon of everything beautiful and magnificent, you are then just another ugly bitch. You should care for your talents, actions, behavior, not beauty. If you love being pretty and following fashion, that is all right. But you should do that for yourself, not others.I learnt that hard way.''
''Oh Please!'' Clorinda shouted. ''Don't give me that talk! All that internal beauty talk! It is easy for you to say! You were always beautiful! What did you have to wish for?''
''Everything. I wasn't beautiful for more than decade. I was only a child when stepmother made in maid I slept in attic during summer and rolled in ashes during winter. I washed and cleaned and built and rolled in mud and shit. She gave me cheapest, dirtiest clothes she could find, and when it tore I had to fix it myself. Do you know how fast I outgrew it? I had no shoes and my legs were bare till knees. I worked outdoors and pricked and scarred myself so many times. Do you want me to show you ones I got from work? Not from lashing, work. Sun burned my skin, and I wasn't allowed to bathe. My hands were calloused, my fingers needle pricked, my nails dirty and broken, and my limbs were muscled from all that work. Do you know how they treat woman who has muscles like man, do you? What they said when I went to market? My hair was cracked, tangled, frizzy. Nothing to shield her from dirt,wind,humidity,bugs. I was starved, underfed, my ribs showed through clothes. And oh dear god, I was always so filthy! That is why you called me this. Ash girl. Better than ash whore anyway.
Do you remember, when you caught me bathing in river at end of autumn? I was afraid that I will freeze, that some man will walk by and see me and assault me, that I will get sick. I rolled in mud when I saw you even thought I knew she would believe you over me, but you didn't tell. That is why I always believed we could be sisters someday. Bathing in that freezing river was what I enjoyed most. I felt like a pig, like idiot. I was ashamed to go out of house, but when you sent me somewhere, I walked whole way, so that everybody could stare and laugh.
I envied you so much for your lessons, your pretty dresses and your gentlemen. I knew nothing of high society, was half nude and only reason why I knew how to count and read was because it was easier for stepmother. I wanted to be like you for years.'' Clorinda was pale and gasping, and Cendrillion curled her fists tight enough to draw blood, but continued.'' I knew how hard you worked to look as you did, because I was your maid. And more. I ordered dresses and bought them, resewed and redecorated them if there was need. I bathed you, and clothed you, and cleaned and washed your shoes and jewels and dressed, and put on your cosmetics and ornaments, and made your hair and gave you advice on what to wear. And you were always stars of party, you have been in newspapers five times as prettiest women on whatever major party you went while I was whore and witch and dumb servant.''Clorinda couldn't look at her in eyes anymore. What fame you had, I provided, Cendrillion seemed to say.
''And work! Do you think it was easy? It was as hard as dancing and leading country. Everybody always says that maids and cooks and all others are stupid and lazy, but we need them to live comfortably. And you lived comfortably, but there was only me. I fixed windows and mended pots. I worked on fields and cared for animals. I made sure your rooms were in order and tended you when you were ill. I chopped wood and cooked your food. Do you remember how much you loved it? how you never said thank you to me? Each night I felt as if every bone in my body was broken. When she didn't have me lashed because of misbehavior.''
Cendrillion's eyes were starting to water, and she grasped cloth on bed, while Clorinda curled in her chair, arms around waist.
''I won't try to say that you didn't have hard time with men. Looking at you as if you were portrait to be bought, a pet to have until they get bored, bargaining chip. Looking away from you because of such minor things, because they found some other girl their eye found more pleasing. I won't try to say that it wasn't hard for you. But you were lady. You didn't have to bear their insults and threats, were never groped. You didn't fear staying alone with men, and if something ever happened to you, you would be defended. I would not. I was exotic whore, some wild, stupid animal that served to be weird and pretty and useful for them. That is all I was. Poor, defenseless and exotic.'' Tears started to fall. She wiped them away.
''I didn't hate you and Jovette. You just did what she demanded. I knew she didn't rally love you. She was horrible woman, right until she died. She wasn't fit to care for anybody. After she saw that we left, that we were free of her, she couldn't bear that and so she retreated in her own house, bitter and angry. She convinced me that she loved me too. That I deserved what she did to me, that I wasn't fit for anything better. And I wanted to please her so much. I believed that if I didn't disappoint her, she will let me to be like you.
I tried to tell father at first.'' Father, not papa. Another thing they took away. Guilt twisted in Clorinda's stomach like fat, grey worm. ''When she came. But he didn't believe, and she threatened me, and soon I believed I had no right to complain. Not to mention that whenever he was around, she would dress me up and give me room and be so nice. And I believed her.''
''It wasn't your fault.'' Such stupid thing but what else could she say. She had no idea...Cendrillion always seemed so happy, taking everything in stride, and she accomplished all mother's tasks. Clorinda thought they must have been easy. Because I thought she was idiot. That she was used to getting everything by her beauty.
''Thank you. Some days I wanted to be ugly. To have warts and everything. Thought then it would be easier. But she would have been cruel no matter what. Other days I wanted to look different. I didn't want to have red hair or freckles. I hated what people said about me, about mama. And she told me what troubles I caused her, pretty much every week. I was foreigner even if I spent my whole life in that town, even if my father was Freneskan. I thought that if taught people what I knew they would be kinder to me, and that life would be easier for them. But they still called me witch, and blamed me when they messed up dosage or something else, and stepmother was so angry that I brought her less money. My money, earned with my witchcraft. She said that was one of reasons why she put me in kitchen to heal me of sin. Said that when she heard what stories I was saying, when she learned that I knew how to assist birth and heal.'' She didn't know about buried charms, and milk and honey and bread left for the fair folk, for gifts brownies and sprites brought her.
''I didn't plan anything. I really thought that I didn't deserve to go to ball when you asked. But I wanted to. To dance and see palace and maybe find some help. I admit that it was fun when we talked on ball, mostly because you didn't recognize me. But I didn't plan anything. I thought that would be worst night of my lift. It was first time in fifteen years that I cried.''
''I had no idea.'' Cendrillion crying... If Clorinda hadn't seen it now, she wouldn't have believed something like that was possible. Cendrillion has always been such beacon of hope and joy. She could turn funeral in party with her mere presence.''You always looked so happy.''
''I did, didn't I?'' Cendrillion smiled and looked up, staring to who knows where and when. '' I had to. I didn't have other choice. My life was work from morning to deep night. Work, work and only work. Sometimes I felt as if I would break. I could find nothing worth living for, only sorrow and pain. My head felt as if it would explode, and my chest as if it contained storm cloud. Other days I felt completely empty. Nothing touched me and I cared for nothing. But I felt as if I gave in, as if I acted on that, I would forever become like that. That I would take my own life someday.
But I couldn't. I had to live. I had to dream and hope. So I tried to find joy and happiness whenever I could, to distract myself. Because if I tried, I would make myself truly happy. I could hope and manage to escape someday, escape from that house without becoming beggar or servant. If she wouldn't drag me back and proclaim me insane and incompetent to care for myself. And I couldn't allow that.
I was so angry, at her, at myself, at you and Jovette, at father and world. I hated myself and everybody and everything, and I was always so sad. But I didn't want to become bitter, vengeful person.''Like me. '' I didn't want to allow her to make that of me. I didn't want to take it out at other people, people who also needed kindness. And I knew that if I become like that, she would have more excuses to harm me. besides, being kind and happy was best revenge I could imagine against her.
But I went to ball and liked my prince. There was no magic there. We simply loved how other talked, fell in love with each other's voice and words. I left him slipper to find me-because glass cannot fit everybody, you know, it must be custom made- and rest you know.''
Clorinda blinked slowly. Then her mouth fell open. ''You became kind out of spite?'' Cendrillion giggled.
''Partly. But mostly because of myself. Perhaps we should have talked about this before.''
''Yes.'' Clorinda admitted. ''We should have. I'm so sorry. For everything. Now I know it isn't enough but..'' Cendrillion put cold hand on her lips.
''Shhh. Let us start from beginning, as true sisters this time. Would you like that?''
''yes! Of course!'' Clorinda almost screamed and hugged Cendrillion, tears flowing from both of them, their eyes burning, drops shining like diamonds in sun.
''Now please, can I sleep? And can you come again tomorrow?''
''Of course. Sorry to disturb you. And thank you for forgiving me-again.''
''No matter. Sorry for slap.'' Clorinda smiled. She really deserved it. But there was one more thing...
''About your godmother... If I can...''
''Of course. You remember stories I was telling you when you were young? About Good People? They can help you, if they want to. For a price. Sometimes price is sacrifice, something dear to you...And sometimes it is just kindness to stranger.''
The fairy woman stares at Cendrillion. She is tall and short, fat and thin, dark and shining at same time. Half of her body is that of withered crone, other of healthy maiden. Her smile is that of dear grandmother and loving mother, full of sorrow and pride. Her skin, eyes and hair are as white as bleached bones and giant wings of broken glass rise from her back. She wears simple blue tunic, and there are stars woven in her hair. In one hand she holds wand, straight white stick with crumbling azure elf-shoot at top. Cendrillion finds herself drowning in her compassion, shattering under weight of her age, deeper than very time, bowing under her power, greater than that of very stars.
''You are so strong and gentle, my dear girl.'' She says and jeweled tears roll from her empty eyes that hold no trace of soul or humanity. '' I would sacrifice so much to help you, but you know the rules. I'm one of Gentry and handmaiden of the High Queen of Seelie Court. Help requires price. More powerful and important we are, greater is price. More important wish is to you, heftier the cost.''
''I know. But I have nothing left to give. She took away everything. And I need to pay all help you have given to me. Your advice, your healing, your lessons.''
''But you already paid them. With very precious gift. Your kindness. That she can't take away if you don't throw it away. And that kindness is your greatest strength. If you nurture it, you shall arise as grand queen, and she shall kneel until her knees bleed.''
''I don't want that. Or tear out her heart with my bare hands. Or stick her head on pike. Or bury her alive. Or imprison her inside dark hole.''
''Black hole, my dear. And of course you wouldn't. You are so kind. And don't worry. If there is anything my people understand, it is finding loopholes. This is bargain I offer you. Until chance to escape that horrid woman presents itself, you shall do your chores and do your best to remain as kind as you are. If you do so, in moment of need I shall come and assist you. And when you are free I shall continue to assist you, with price being that all creatures will forget your true name-one by which they could control you with magic- and be forever known as Cendrillion.''
''I..I accept godmother. I'm gracious for your help.'' Godmother smiled, bright and heart breaking, and kissed her on forehead.
''Just don't harm my stepsisters. I know there is good in them.''
''Of course my dear.''