Her name was Cendrillon, but everyone called her Ash, and the reason will be revealed shortly.
Ash looked like her mother, who had passed away when she was just a child. Her father remarried another woman who looked nothing like his wife or daughter, with two daughters who looked even less like her. The step-sisters would have been lovely, if they had ever had a kind expression on their faces. But their hearts and minds were hard.
Her step-mother hid her own cruel heart well, until Ash's father passed away. It was then, to keep the young girl from realizing that her father's fortune belonged to her, that the wicked step-mother began her campaign against her step-child.
Ash was thrown from her room and forced to live in the kitchen, by the hearth. All the servants were fired to preserve the inheritance and she was forced to do all the tasks. Because she had to sleep by the hearth to keep warm at night, ashes fell out and turned her beautiful black hair grey and drab. That was when they began to call her Ash.
"Ash," a step-sister would say with a snicker, "fetch me my shoes."
"No!" the other step-sister would interrupt, "Ash, get me a boiled egg!"
If a witness had seen it, it would have seemed like nothing. But it never stopped. Ash never had a moment to rest. Everytime she finished one task, her step-family would come up with a new one. Her body ached from it.
Before Ash's mother had died, she'd told her daughter all about the world she had travelled before marrying Ash's father. Strange ports, dense jungles, bustling marketplaces. Ash had wanted to visit them all, and her mother had said they would go together. Then her mother died. And her step-mother 'took her in', changing everything.
And all of Ash's days were so filled with petty tasks she soon lost time to think to herself and began to forget what it was like to have had dreams and freedom.
Her step-mother presented Ash as a lost cause, if people would ask after her. "Oh, him? My step-son from my second marriage. A lazy layabout. It's everything we can do to keep him on task, and all with our own charity."
One of Ash's few pleasures was that she was thin enough to fit into of her step-sisters clothes. They came up high on her legs, and loose on her chest, but they fit as much as she needed them to. So when she was mending the step-sister's gowns, for her step-sisters took poor care of their possessions, she would sometimes try them on, careful to wipe off any ashes after.
Ash would admire herself in the mirror as she wore them. It was her secret thrill.
It made her want for more in her life even though her step-mother said that was wicked and greedy. Hadn't her step-mother given her enough, she'd say? Taking Ash in after her father died instead of sending Ash to the streets.
Then the invitation to the prince's ball came. Ash picked it up first, as it was her duty to pick up the mail. It was on the prettiest paper she had ever seen, embossed with gold and written in beautiful flowing script. It made her feel elegant just to hold it.
Ash read it as she went back inside the house. A ball, for all the eligible noblewomen to come present themselves to the prince. She realized that at this ball, there would be the most beautiful gowns she could ever imagine. She realized she'd never get a chance to wear them, but perhaps seeing them would be enough? A plan began to form.
"Step-mother," said Ash when she came inside and attended to her step-family at the table. She made sure to use her most 'I am so honoured to live with you' tone that they ate up. She had used it in the past for little manipulations, and was growing more bold. In fact, she had started to feel more like herself lately than she had felt in years. She felt almost… rebellious.
"What is it, Ash?" said step-mother in a bored tone.
"There's an invitation from the palace," said Ash, laying it down. "I was wondering if perhaps I could be allowed to come along as an escort?"
The step-sisters burst into mean laughter.
"You? In the palace? You're covered in soot! You're a clumsy beast! No one would buy you as a noble in a second!" they crowed.
Ash's face grew hot. "My father was a duke," she stammered.
"And your mother was nothing," said the step-mother with finality. "Haven't I told you that's why we had no choice but to take you in after your father's passing?"
"Yes, but--" began Ash.
The step-sisters were still laughing. And their laughs annoyed their mother so much she decided to needle them at Ash's expense.
In a considering voice, she said to Ash. "I am not a cruel woman. If you can sew yourself a suit, and complete all the work, including the firewood and mending the roof, you may come to the ball." The step-mother assumed it would be impossible to complete these tasks in the short time before the ball.
The step-sisters looked aghast.
"Mother!" said one. "You can't really be considering letting him come to the ball!"
"It will be an embarrassment!" squawked the other step-sister.
"My word is final," snapped the step-mother.
Ash was ecstatic. She quickly went to work, though the step-sisters found more and more pointless tasks for Ash to do to keep her from her task. But she persevered. She chopped the wood like a maniac, she mended the roof like an expert and flung out iron horseshoes she found in the eaves as an extra bit of work, she mended the dresses her step-sisters kept destroying to slow her down, and used the scraps from old sewing projects for them to make a smart suit for herself.
On the night of the ball, Ash had completed her suit. It was lovely, as Ash was quite talented with a needle and thread. She put it on and rushed down to where her step-mother and step-sisters were waiting for their carriage.
"I'm ready!" said Ash. She had never felt so excited. The things she was going to see tonight!
The step-mother turned and regarded Ash coldly. "You did not sweep up the kitchen," she said.
The kitchen? Ash was confused. She hurried over to look. In the time it had taken her to get dressed, her step-sisters had smashed all the crockery.
"Step-mother, I'll do it when I get back, I swear!" said Ash, eyes wide and panicking.
The wicked step-mother slapped her. "Lazy. After all we do for you. No, you will attend to it immediately, and that is final. Come, girls."
Ash held her hand to her cheek, shocked by how unfair this was. And inside of her, she felt a flicker of anger and stepped forward. "You promised me," she said.
"I have said no and my word is final," said the step-mother. The step-sisters stood in front of Ash.
"Stop being ungrateful!" said one step-sister.
"Don't be a brute!" said the other.
"But it's not fair," said Ash.
"Besides, you would just embarrass us," said the first step-sister and took a hold of the collar of Ash's suit and yanked, ripping the delicate fabric. The other step-sister laughed and joined in.
She stood there in shock as her step-sisters destroyed her beautiful suit, and never once considered hurting them. That would be unthinkable. But each rip of her suit felt like a blow. They left laughing.
Ash saw how they looked at their mother, who nodded approvingly.
She held back a sob.
Her step-mother egged them on. Ash saw it and there was nothing she could do yet.
She grabbed a broom and went to sweep up the crockery with a vengeance, still wearing the tatters of her suit.
She'd just finished with the biggest pieces, which she threw into the garbage with a satisfying smash, when the room began to glow. Shimmering into being at the end of the kitchen table was a tall, beautiful woman who, with her wings and long pointed ears, was mostly definitely not a human.
"Hello, Cendrillon," said the woman. Her voice was like tinkling bells, each note perfect in the air.
Ash hadn't heard that name in a very long time. She stood there, holding her broom like it was the only real thing in the room.
"You've been very good, you know," said the woman. "But I fear it has not been appreciated. I've come to help you."
"What do you mean?" asked Ash. "If… if you mean cursing my family, please don't. They're not kind, but I don't want to have them hurt. Are you a witch?"
The woman laughed and shook her head. "I'm your fairy godmother. When you threw out all that iron in the roof while you repaired it, I managed to come back. Your mother asked me to help you, in her last moments."
"Oh," she said. That was all that came to mind.
"I'm here to change your fortune," the fairy godmother said. "What is your heart's desire?" Her voice was kind and she leaned in eagerly to hear Ash's request.
Ash felt incredibly shy faced with all the possibilities, but said: "I… I would like to go to the ball, fairy godmother. Just to see it. Please."
The fairy godmother nodded. "I can do that. Come outside, out of this mess." She floated out the kitchen door into the garden. Ash followed quickly. The garden was Ash's secret pride. It had been her mother's undertaking, and Ash worked in it diligently whenever she had a spare moment. The vegetables she grew kept her fed and healthy.
Her stepfamily, who abhorred dirt and anything 'low class' never ventured out to see how it flourished.
The fairy godmother stopped at the pumpkin patch, where a particularly fine harvest was growing this year.
"First off," said the fairy godmother, "we have to do something about your clothes. It just doesn't suit you at all, pardon the pun."
"I… my step-sisters tore it," said Ash, embarrassed. "It really looked better before."
"That's not what I meant at all. Close your eyes and hold out your arms," her fairy godmother said. Ash obeyed quickly, arms straight out to the side.
She could hear the fairy godmother saying something that was almost like words, almost like bells, and almost like wind against her skin. And then she felt her suit shift and change on her, getting heavier and larger.
"You may open your eyes now."
When Ash looked down, except for the striking blue fabric she'd chosen, her suit was gone. In its place was a ballgown, with full skirts, embellishments of gold and silver, and a high neckline. When she caught her reflection in the pond, she was taken away by how beautiful she looked.
"This isn't a suit," said Ash nervously.
"But it's the right outfit, isn't it?" said her fairy godmother.
Something else felt different. Ash reached up and touched her hair. It was no longer weighed down by ashes and disrepair from how her family worked her, but floated freely around her face again, a rich black. Her heart skipped a beat. She felt beautiful again.
"Now, we have to get you there," said the fairy godmother, glancing around the garden. "Ah! This will do!"
She waved her wand at one of Ash's fine pumpkins and it pulled itself out, its vines turning to wheels, its leaves turning to a horse and carriage driver, and the pumpkin changing from orange to a golden carriage, covered in carvings.
One of the leaf horses, now a beautiful roan, snorted and stomped its hooves. Its harness was the deep rich green of the vines.
Ash stepped forward and nearly stumbled. Quickly she pulled up the skirt of her gown. On her feet were a pair of glittering glass slippers.
"I can't wear these," said Ash, "they'll break!" Then she stopped herself, afraid she sounded ungrateful when she had never felt more grateful in her life.
The fairy godmother leaned in and touched Ash's cheek in a comforting gesture. "For you, these will never break. They are your virtue. I've watched you. You're a kind soul, Cendrillon."
She tapped Ash on the nose with her wand, and from the spot flowered a golden mask to cover her upper face.
"For added protection," said the fairy godmother. "Now go and have your night. But I have to warn you - midnight is when my powers wane, and everything will return as they were. Be home before the clock strikes twelve, Cendrillon."
"I promise," said Ash, her heart beating hard in her chest. She climbed into the carriage, helped by the leaf driver. His coat was green, with vine stitches along the edges.
When she got to the ball, the crowd was unimaginable. In all her time kept in the house away from the world, she hadn't seen this many people in years. She was overwhelmed. But this was a gift, and she was determined not to waste it.
As the driver helped her out of the carriage, she craned her neck every which way to see the other guests. It was as she'd hoped. As beautiful as she'd dreamed it would be.
But then she got to the door and realized her mistake.
"Madam," said the doorkeeper stuffily. "I cannot allow you in without an invitation."
"Oh," said Ash. Disappointment filled her heart. Of course she would need an invitation!
But something else flickered and pushed aside her sadness. She remembered the kindness of her Fairy Godmother and how beautiful and right she'd felt seeing her reflection. Letting that gift go to waste would be a greater loss than not getting to attend at all. She must get into that room! She started away from the entrance, her mind quickly planning how she could sneak in through the kitchens, surely too busy to notice her--
As it was, fate intervened. In the form of a handsome man, in traditional dress. A shiny long coat, with glittering buttons, and a turban with a long dyed ostrich feather on the top.
"Come now, she clearly belongs!" said the young man. "Royalty incognito, I'll wager."
He smiled and offered his hand to Ash. "Would you accompany me?"
She looked at the doorkeeper, but he said nothing. Well, at least she wouldn't be breaking into the ball now. She walked in with the young man.
Immediately, whispers sprang up around them. "He's been ignoring everyone all night!" she heard someone hiss. "Why this one?"
"She looks rich," said another voice.
"She looks beautiful," said another.
Ash's hand tightened involuntarily on the young man's hand.
"Will you do me the honour of dancing with me?" he said. Ash nodded.
Problems immediately arose. Ash had been instructed in dance as a child, but had been taught only how to lead. A role she was most certainly not supposed to be taking here. But the young man was not annoyed, he only laughed and kept trying again, even as they both mutually trode on the other's feet. The fairy godmother had told the truth, nothing seemed to break those glass slippers.
Ash wasn't stupid and realized, from the looks of the other guests, that she was dancing with none other than the prince. But as he hadn't mentioned it, she felt she would try not to make a big deal out of it.
And so they danced, getting smoother and knowing each other better throughout the night. And they talked. Ash may not have known much of the world, but she had a sharp mind and could keep up with thoughts on whatever the prince told her. Soon she was leading the conversation as much as following it.
Finally, after some hours, the prince leaned in close and whispered in Ash's ear: "May I see you without your mask?"
She nodded, and with shaking hands lifted up her mask for him to get a look.
Just then, the clock started striking twelve.
She froze. She couldn't be seen here, not in her normal clothes, or the tatters of the suit. Without a word, she turned from the prince and ran. He had only seen her face for a half second.
She knocked people aside as gently as she could as she bolted out the doors and down the steps. She was in such a hurry that one of her shoes went flying off, but she didn't even look back. By the time the clock finished striking, she was in the suit's rags and barefoot except for one glass slipper.
She pulled it off, put it in her pocket, looked mournfully at her perfectly edible pumpkin which she would have to leave by the palace steps, and made her way home as unseen as possible.
When her family came home, they were incensed. Ash didn't come to greet them at the door, she just curled up tighter by the hearth, wondering at the strange hollow feeling that was in her since she'd left the prince. But she listened to them rant.
According to them, some painted trollope had stolen the prince's attentions all night through trickery, and then rudely snubbed him. Probably, as one step-sister suggested, when he found out she was nothing but a scheming commoner.
They ranted about the mysterious girl and through their insults, Ash came to realize she had been as beautiful as she had thought, looking at her reflection.
It felt good.
As she lay there while their complaining died off, she began to think to herself that perhaps, just perhaps, the world was a lot more forgiving than her step-mother had told her. And that after tonight, she couldn't bear to live with these people any longer.
She began to plan her escape. Whenever her mind drifted to how it might be impossible, she reached in her pocket and touched the slipper.
In the morning, to be safe, she hid it behind a loose brick on the hearth. The last thing she wanted was one of her step-sisters or God forbid, her step-mother, finding it. Sometimes she wondered what her step-sisters would have been like if their mother had been kind like her mother had been.
After she made breakfast for them, she started looking for something out of which she could make a pair of shoes that would stand a long walk far far away from this home. While she was considering the use of some leather she found, the door was knocked.
"Ash!" yelled her step-mother. "Get the door, you lazy good for nothing!"
Ash hid away the leather and went to open the door, when her step-sister suddenly shoved her out of the way and onto the ground.
"You idiot," hissed the step-sister. "That's a royal party out there! Get out of sight before you embarrass us!"
Ash was shocked, but retreated to the kitchen. A royal party? Had the prince come hunting for her? Was she going to be punished? Did he think she'd tricked him?
She put her ear against the door of the kitchen to listen.
"My ladies," the prince's voice said. "I come here on a mission of love."
"Ohhh," sighed the step-sisters. Their step-mother kept them locked up almost as tight as Ash - except for the ball, they had never really had a chance at being courted. A kinder disposition, however, would have aided them greatly.
"Unfortunately, all that was left was her shoe. It's… a unique size," said the prince. "My father has decreed that whoever fits it must be my mystery woman and I am to try it on every girl in the kingdom."
Ash snorted. Surely the prince could see she looked nothing like her step-sisters.
But the step-sisters didn't seem to think so and were already fighting to try on the shoe.
Ash nudged open the door, to see the prince. He was even handsomer in more common clothes, to her eyes. She could see him without pomp and circumstance. His tight turban, small well-groomed beard, soft brown eyes. Her heart tightened.
It was not going well for the step-sisters. Their feet were both much too small for the shoes.
"What is she, a monster?" hissed the step-mother.
The prince looked up at her coldly. "She's the woman I love."
Ash gasped, and in doing so, lost her grip on the kitchen door and it swung open with a bang. All eyes turned on her.
"Get back to work!" snarled her step-mother. "I apologize, your highness, he is our servant boy."
The prince didn't answer. His eyes were fixed on Ash's face.
"Come here," he said. "Please."
"Your highness, this is not necessary, I will punish him myself," said the step-mother.
"Be silent," said the prince, and held out his hand. "Please?"
Ash stepped out from the kitchen, her head held high. Whatever happened, she was going to face it. The prince gestured to an empty seat. With butterflies in her stomach, she sat. The prince took her foot and held it up, then slid on the shoe.
It fit perfectly.
"I knew I knew your face," said the prince. He stood, beaming like he'd just been given a great gift.
Ash's family was staring. Ash ignored them.
"What's your name?" said the prince, holding out his hand to her.
"As--Cendrillon," said Ash, as she stepped forward. She felt as if her legs were going to give out.
The prince nodded. "Please wed me."
"You can't!" said the step-mother, shoving her way between them before Ash could take the prince's hand. "I forbid it! It's not possible!"
But she couldn't stand in the prince's way.
"I am prince and I can do as I please," he snapped, taking Ash's hand. "Where did the other shoe go?"
"I can get it. It's behind the hearth," she said, holding tight to the prince's hand. She wanted to kiss him so badly. And find out his name. At some point. But holding hands right now was all she needed in the world.
"Oh good. I think they'd look good with your gown. Or suit. Whichever you prefer," said the prince.
"Gown," said Ash.
The prince kissed her.
And they lived happily ever after. As for her step-family, despite the prince's urging, Ash did not have her family imprisoned, but did see about them being placed far away, with good influences.
The king and queen approved quite heartily of their youngest son's choice, after meeting her and learning that she was a duchess inherited from her father, with a fortune of her own. "Quite the match!" her father-in-law said.