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Ex Tenebris, Lux

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She had thought that when she became a Princess, when she escaped, that it would be over. Her fight for the ball, and then her fight for her Prince, and then she would be free. She didn't realise how hard it would prove to be for her.

Her husband doesn't understand, though he tries. And she doesn't have the words to explain why she wakes up crying sometimes in the night, or why she hates locked doors, or why it is so hard for her when the ladies of the court sneer behind their fans at her clothes, although they treat everyone to exactly the same scorn. He doesn't understand why the smallest of marks can bring her to tears, or why she becomes so furious when Prudence nitpicks and fusses over everything that the servants do.

He tries, though, and it becomes easier with time. It is easier when he is there to stroke her hair, and to promise her that everything is going to be all right, and it helps to know that she can go wherever she wishes in the Palace or the town, and once she has proven herself capable even Prudence becomes gentler in her manners. Anastasia has her own happy life, and both are free, and it becomes easier for Cinderella to accept her life. After a while, she even stops flinching when her name is used, and stops thinking of the times that she spent kneeling before a filthy fireplace and scrubbing until the soot was ingrained into her fingers. No, she is far gone from then, and she will live freely and happily now with her husband.

When she tells him that she is with child, his face lights up and he spins her through the air. His jubilation is infectious, and when they tell the King a few weeks later – to be safe, to be sure - he too is delighted, and capers around and tries to pick Cinderella up only to fail, puffing and red-faced, and instead end up declaring his adoration and hopes to her still-flat stomach. She giggles, and her husband kisses her on the cheek, and all of her handmaids coo and clap when they find out, and at least she does not have to wear corsets any more.

At first, she cannot explain why she cries that night.

Her husband finds her kneeling by the fireplace, leaning on the wall, her knees covered in soot and tears streaming down her face as she sobs hopelessly. When he first tries to kneel beside her she pushes him away with an incoherent cry; at his second try she begs him not to dirty his beautiful clothes, that she has already done badly enough with her nightgown; finally, the third time, she allows him to kneel and he holds her while she weeps and sobs until her eyes are red and puffy and she can hardly breathe. Then he leads her to sit on the bed, and pushes her damp hair off her cheeks, and tries to kiss the tears away but she turns her face away from him as if ashamed. He does not ask, simply waits, and eventually she finds the strength to whisper.

"I am so afraid."

Afraid of the child she can feel like a weight in her belly, afraid of herself. Suddenly her every resentment of her step-sisters weighs heavily on her, her every snap of temper at Lucifer seems inexcusable. How can she love a child when her memories of her father are so distant, and those of her mother barely exist at all?

But her husband whispers, "Do not be. You are a good person. You do not need to fear."

The months pass, and she pretends not to be afraid, though it is fear as well as morning sickness that makes her weak with nausea and causes her to toss and turn in the night. And when she is confined to her bed there is nothing else which she has to think about, and she rests her hands on her swollen stomach, cradling the life within, and prays to something she cannot quite define that she will do right by the child.

The labour is long, and painful, or at least so it seems; the midwife says that her young strong body bears it well, and will recover quickly. And the tears on her face as she holds her son for the first time are pride and happiness and completion, and for a moment she believes that she can do this properly.

She refuses to have a wetnurse, though apparently this is all but a scandal, and suckles the boy at her own breast for the first year of his life. She accepts his name as Maxwell, and calls him Max, and dotes on him so strongly that the sight of his smile sets her glowingly happy and at the slightest cry she goes running to him. Max is only a couple of years old, now walking and talking and interested in the world, when she finds herself expecting again, and this time when her husband cradles her face and asks her, will she be all right?, she swears that she will be.

The pregnancy is difficult, and she is exhausted. Without thinking, she spends more and more time abed, waiting for her strength to come back, and it is only after a couple of weeks that her husband tells her Max has been pining for her attention. Baffled, she asks why no-one told her before; he replies with a shrug that he was well-enough looked after by his nurse, and they did not want to worry her. Tears in her eyes, she becomes furious with him, struggling to get out of bed only to double over as pain sears through her belly, and this time tears of pain mingle with her upset at having left her son, abandoned him, and her mind screams to ask her how she could do such a thing even as she hears the Prince calling for a doctor.

She loses the child. It takes the whole night, and she remembers little, and her husband does not tell her of her tears and pain and the things that she said in her feverish delirium. Weak and pale, she can barely raise her hand to his cheek even the following night, can barely whisper her apology. And over and over again he says that she is not to blame, that it is fine, and he gently helps her to drink water and sits beside her even as she slips into sleep again. Briefly she wakes in the night, only to find her husband seated beside the bed, and Max curled in her arms, and she manages a weak smile and holds her son closer to her.

With time she recovers, and can play with her son again, dressing in her servant's clothes to roll in the grass and chase him through the gardens, reading to him or making up her own stories for his bedtime. The midwife says that she is not sure whether Cinderella will have more children, and the thought saddens her, but it makes her all the more determined to do things right for her son.

It proves difficult.

Max grows to be rambunctious, full of life, vibrant and loud. She adores him for it, but she worries that her husband allows him too much freedom in his behaviour, and that he will not learn. She does not want him to hurt himself. And so she is left trying to be the one to tell him what he should and should not do, to get him to stay at the table for his meals and eat nicely, and her hands try to shake as she wipes his face clean and tells him to behave himself and not to throw his food on the floor even if he thinks it is funny when the servants have to pick it up.

When she tries to talk to her husband about it, he says that it is fine. She is doing nothing wrong, and he sees no need to step in. Besides, child-rearing is a woman's job. The responsibility which he so casually places upon her scares her almost to tears, but it has been years since she cried in his arms over her childhood and its loss, and perhaps he does not remember.

Or perhaps he thinks that it becomes easier. She wishes that she has the nerve to tell him that it never does.

It takes him a while to realise that something is wrong. Cinderella is sure that she does not do it deliberately, that she cannot help it, but part of her mind whispers that she could never be so simple, could she? Because she can never be sure that what she does is honest; she finds herself double-guessing over and over. When Max misbehaves, she steels herself to punish him, then finds herself terrified that she has done the wrong thing; if he sees her hesitation, it makes him wilful, more likely to ignore her, but he claims that anything is unfair and she has no idea what she should do. It is not until, when Max is seven and attempting to go riding instead of going to his lessons, that she loses her temper fully. She grabs him by the arm when he goes to run off, and the shock makes him wriggle, but with temper burning in her she shakes his arm, and he starts crying, and she is not even sure what she is saying such is her anger.

A hand on her shoulder makes her startle, going to strike it away, but then she sees her husband's face and the mist clears from her vision. Her anger turns to horror as she sees the grim look on his face, and all he says is, "Max, go to your class," and their son runs indoors again. She begins to shake, then the Prince's eyes soften and all he says is, "What happened?" and she bursts into tears in the middle of the courtyard all over again.

He leads her inside, and sits holding her hands, and waits for her to be calm enough to explain herself. How she is never sure of how to talk to Max, or how to treat him, and she does not want to spoil him but never knows how to punish him when he misbehaves. She feels like a child again, trying to explain herself out of trouble for breaking a plate or glass or dropping some food, trying to avoid the flat of her stepmother's hand or another night sleeping on the cold kitchen floor. But the Prince listens, and then softly he apologises for what he has - or more rightly has not - done, and she looks at him with a mystified gaze.

"I was wrong," he said softly. "I should not have made you feel as if you were doing this alone."

The words fill her with relief, but still her fears remain: has she done wrong? Will Max some day feel this searing shame, this sense of helplessness and rootlessness? Will he want to run away as she did? But now she has the promise of her husband that he will help, and in the coming weeks and months it does become easier, and she can be sure that her love for her son is not tainted by her past.

It is not long after Max's eighth birthday - a fine affair, a beautiful party attending by nobility and commoners alike, spilling out across the garden and continuing beyond sunset until Max had to be carried back to the Palace by his father, red-cheeked and fast asleep - that Cinderella's time comes late and a familiar heaviness and sickness starts to fill her. Her first feelings are of fear, not joy, remembering the midwife's words, and she waits as long as she dares before telling her husband. He is delighted, goes to smile - and then sees the terror in her eyes and his expression softens.

He kisses her forehead. "Everything will be all right," he says, and she knows that it is a promise. They fought their wars to be together, he said. And then he adds that he hopes this is a girl, a princess to brighten up the Palace, and she laughs through the tears in her eyes and lets herself be held by him.

For some months longer, she is fine, but she starts to feel pains some two months before the child is due, and is ushered to bed where the doctor and midwife fuss constantly over her. She must rest, she is told, and eat well, and things will be all right. She knows that they are saying that to try to calm her, and tries to make herself believe them.

One night, Max comes in to say that because she cannot read him bedtime stories any more, he is going to read her one instead. She laughs and kisses his forehead and ruffles his hair, and pretends that she has never before heard the story he has chosen. When he falls asleep on her shoulder she has one of the servants go to take him to his bed and tuck him in, and feels a beautiful pain around her heart.

"He's such a good boy," one of the maids says in passing the next day, when she is bringing in food. Cinderella looks round, surprised by the audacity, made hopeful by the words. The maid must read the look wrong, because she adds quickly: "If I may make so bold, Your Highness."

"What is your name?" says Cinderella softly, because she knew most of the servants' names once but the years have forced her further and further away from the world below-stairs.

The woman blushes. "Hettie, Your Highness. Honest, I meant no ill, just-"

"Hettie, those are the kindest words I have ever heard," Cinderella says through the lump in her throat, and she probably surprises them both when she embraces the girl. "Thank you."

Hettie bobs a curtsey that almost makes her fall over, and flees. She returns not long after for the tray, and Cinderella laughs fondly when she goes, and puts one hand over her heart for a moment before letting it settle lower, across her stomach. The midwife says that every day is better, that every day is safer, and she has had no pain these last two. More than that, she feels a desperate, final relief.

That evening, Max brings her a bunch of flowers that he picked for her in the gardens. The gardener was furious, her husband said, but Max had simply said that they were for his Mother, because flowers grew back but his Mother was the best one in all the world, and so she was more important.

She thanks him with emotions in her voice that she hopes he will never understand. And then laughs when he says to her belly that the baby should stop being so awkward, because it wasn't nice to their mother.

Hope overflows her heart. And when the Prince asks her later if everything is all right, she answers truthfully when she says yes.

He rests his hand on her stomach. "Do you think it will be a girl this time?" he asks.

"I think so," she replies. "And I think we should name her Liberty."

Part of her is grateful that he does not ask why, simply chuckles and kisses her again, and when their daughter comes into the world does indeed name her Liberty. Because when she sits with her daughter in her arms and her son peering over her shoulder making an unimpressed face that this was what all the fuss of the last few months has been about, she is not sure that she could have ever found the words for the freedom that she realised she really had.