Ella, born of kindness and cinders alike, had never been one to ask for help.
When the plague claimed her mother, she mourned, but she did not cry. When her father asked for her aid, she did all he asked and more with never a complaint. When her father announced his engagement to a wealthier woman, a woman who could provide for them while their own funds dwindled, the promise of a dowry on the horizon - she wordlessly began work on cleaning what would be her new stepsister’s beds.
They had no money for servants. No money for exterminators for the mice that ran afoot. No money for beautiful sapphire blue gowns or fancy slippers or costumed balls. Just hard work and a strong arm.
Ella, strong of mind and body, had never been one to cry. But when her father’s death is announced, she was strong enough to cry.
Her stepmother, Lady Tremaine, did not. She had no love for the man, but she had loved his estate. Her stepsisters, Anastasia and Drizella, did not. They had never been his favorites, never knew love in the first place - how could they understand love from him when they had never known it?
But Ella cried briefly as she knew she became an orphan at heart, for there was no love from her stepmother. And as she was thrown from her room to make spare beds for guests, and as her things were split evenly between her two sisters and she was left nothing but ash and servants rags, her tears stopped falling. And she never once asked for help.
The ball was the talk of the town. Ella did not hear it in town, but her step family (for lack of better terms) certainly did. She heard them tittering about the house, chirping in high tones like the birds in the trees around the house. And Ella felt something in her.
Ella had never longed for much. A warm bed and warm food. Someone holding her at night, perhaps, and most of all a feeling of love. But dancing? Balls? She used to dream of them as a little girl, but they were a fantasy.
But the king did say all eligible females were to attend. And who was she to disobey an order from the king?
Her list of chores grew. She did not ask for help. She had to find a gown, shoes, an outfit to wear. She did not ask for help. She had to look presentable. She did not ask for help.
She would do this on her own.
She was neither naive nor childish, despite her smaller stature and kind heart. She knew her step family would never allow her to go. She could only imagine what would have happened if they discovered the days she had spent without sleep, working nonstop without aid, had been enough to finish the job and finish her gown. It was simply smarter to lie.
Ella, kind hearted and, as her stepmother was keen to remind her often, blunt to the point of offense, had never been one to lie. But perhaps, just this once, it was necessary.
“A shame,” she said meekly, mousy in every way. It was not hard to pretend when she’d covered herself in soot from the fireplace, used nightly for the past month since the ball was announced, solely to force her to clean it. “Too much work - the dress couldn’t be finished - have fun - enjoy yourselves.”
Her demons fled the house, and so intelligently allowed their victim to her own devices.
She quickly got to work.
The dress was old. It had needed to be hemmed - brought in at the chest, shortened greatly, a sash tight round the middle to cover her starved-thin body. She’d stolen from her sister’s discarded piles of accessories, the fanciest things on her gown. It was most certainly out of style, but her mother had managed to teach her some things before she’d passed. Sewing was an easy enough task, and only a few pricks of the fingers wouldn’t be noticeable.
The shoes were harder. Drizella’s feet were enormous compared to her own, and Anastasia had Drizella beat. Their mother had smaller feet, but Ella’s feet were the smallest of all. She was certain no guard would allow her into the ball without shoes on. Without much else to do, she took an old pair of red shoes, worn and not fully matching the dress she was wearing, but ones that still fit her.
They weren’t fancy. They weren’t enough. But Ella had never been one to back down from a challenge.
The horses trusted her. She’d ridden with her father on many occasions, though the dress was new. She pulled herself up with only slightly more effort than normal, and into the night she rode.
And here, she argued fiercely at the castle gates, long after the party had started, and her fierceness combined with the purity in her heart moved the guards. Why shouldn’t she be allowed entry? Every eligible maiden in the kingdom was to attend, even scullery maids without money for gowns and shoes and balls. And she refused to disobey an order from the king.
And here, she continued in, and suffered the stares of the nobles who gawked at her outdated, mismatched outfit. Unflattering bows, a figure that couldn’t be hidden no matter how many accessories she used, hair left unstyled and free, untamed. But she stood taller than she ever had, and felt a warmth she had always longed for in her heart, but one she had not known was there for some time. This was love - for herself and her strength. And as she strode forward, despite the stares and mutterings and questioning air that seemed to breathe “who is she to do this,” another voice simply said in awe, “who is she?”
Ella, poor of wealth but rich of wit, had never been taught to curtsy. She was no noble, not one of the gentry (or at least not anymore). She stood taller as the Prince strode forward, and she did now bow her head. “Hello, your highness,” she said softly.
“I’m pleased you could attend,” he said, in a clearly practiced tone.
“I’m sure you say that to all the young maidens that were ordered to appear here for you.”
She revelled at the shock in his face. Had no one spoken to him as such before? It wasn’t likely, but this was who she was. And, while she was pleased to be out of that house and in a place of such grandeur, the king’s invitation still grated on her mind as what it was - an order. She was terribly tired of orders.
“You’re right. I do. Maybe I should try to mix it up a little.” He smiled. That part was different. She was used to shock, but it was always followed by something negative. Usually a frown, often a shout or discipline. The short sleeved gown did nothing to hide her bruises, nor the muscles she’d earned through her punishments. A smile was unusual, to say the least. A hand offered to her and the phrase “will you dance with me?” was just as unusual.
As was her response. A pause. A stare. “I can’t dance,” spoken clearly over the now silent crowd.
The prince once again took a turn to be shocked, and then did the most unexpected and most unusual thing so far. He laughed. “Honestly? Me neither. It’s mostly swaying.”
Ella smiled. “I will happily sway, then.”
The music began again - she’d not noticed it had stopped as the prince sought her out. But now, it played, and they swayed rather sillily, though from outward perspectives they looked downright graceful. They were dancing, flying, even if their feet never left the floor. And they talked.
“I never knew you had a double chin.”
“I never knew women came with arms like guards.”
“You clearly haven’t met many servants then.”
“My female servants are some of my closest friends.”
“I’m sure they value that friendship as they scrub your undergarments clean.”
The king had never heard his son laugh so much. He took a good look at the maiden and knew in an instant his son had found a bride. And he sighed. “Why does he always choose the oddest ones?”
They danced together, just the two of them, all night. Ella wondered why it was taking so long for her step family to do anything, to tear her away, but only as she heard the clock strike midnight. “Oh. It’s gotten so late.”
“Time flies when you’re being insulted.”
“You seemed to enjoy it.”
“Almost as much as you did, Miss.” He made a face. “I’ve forgotten to ask your name, haven’t I? I was so caught up in your personality, I forgot the little things like that.”
“Are you sure you want to know it? The name of a scullery maid must mean nothing to a prince.”
“You’ve got it all wrong. Status means nothing to a prince. But forget a name, and it’s practically signing up for next in line at the guillotine.”
She cracked a smile. And surprisingly, she had enjoyed dancing with the prince. She hadn’t expected to - but it seems she’d been as biased against princes as nobility was against servants. He’d been just as kind and good as she was at heart, and he’d laughed at her bluntness and intellect. He’d marveled at her oddities, and in turn, she marveled at his.
Ella, orphaned and alone in this world, had never been the kind to have friends. Mice and birds didn’t have much to say, and imaginary friends always leave in the end. But perhaps it would be nice to try, just this once.
“My name is-”
Anastasia and Drizilla had seen their sister walk in almost immediately. And they’d frozen as the prince came to her directly.
Cinderella was not the only one in a difficult position. Anastasia and Drizilla were as well - they were owned by Lady Tremaine just as much as Ella was, moreso even by blood. They were her children, and they were expected to act like it.
Kindness is weakness, and thinking is frowned upon. Young ladies don’t think. Young ladies don’t socialize unless spoken to first. Young ladies don’t warble, don’t eat, don’t snore, don’t slouch. Young ladies don’t do anything but be young, beautiful, and subservient to whoever gives them orders.
The two girls, beaten and cowering, had never been ones to question orders.
“Don’t you dare go to her,” their mother had growled as she pulled them both back by their hair. They’d both been ordered long ago not to make a noise (young ladies don’t whine, after all). “If you make a scene, so help me, we’ll be absolutely ruined. Let her ruin herself.”
And so Anastasia and Drizilla watched in growing, gnawing despair as Cinderella, the girl they’d hurt for years, flourished before their eyes. “It’s not fair,” Ana said quietly to her older sister, now that they were out of earshot of their mother. “She’s nothing like what a prince should love.”
“That’s probably why he only wants to dance with her.” Drizilla, Drizzy to her sister and herself, had always been the wiser of the two. She could see what was happening, clear as day. Two souls, both constantly chained down, had been given a single night of freedom. It was only right that they’d found each other.
“Mother will be angry at us. We didn’t give her enough chores. What will we do?”
“We can’t do anything. Mother said not to.” Disobeying their mother would have bigger consequences than the ones they already faced.
Ana didn’t like that answer. Neither did Drizzy, but they both knew they had no choice.
But as the night dragged on, and they danced with other men, and Ana and Drizzy both had plenty of time with their thoughts, they came to their own conclusions.
Drizzy was the oldest. She knew it was her obligation to marry rich, to provide for her family, to give her mother a proper trickle of wealth in her older age. But she found herself so bored of the men she danced with. Her only job was to marry rich, but she had no interest in that job. Her eyes lingered on the gowns of the women around her, so gorgeous, and their carefully styled hair and delicately applied makeup. And she came to the conclusion that, even if she were punished for it for the rest of the night, all she wanted was to dance with the most gorgeous woman at this ball.
Ana was the youngest. As she passed from man to man, she felt herself just growing dizzy. She didn’t like dancing. She never had. Her feet never cooperated, and she left a string of aching feet and disgruntled suitors behind her. And all the while, her body ached from the gown that constricted all her movement, and she longed to be home in bed in her pajamas, maybe with a dessert stolen from the far end of the table her mother had forbidden her from going to. She gazed at it and she could smell the seasoning on the meals from here. Ana had always had a mind (and stomach) for food. She loved the baker’s down the street, and had often asked how the pastries Cinderella bought had been made. She vowed that before the end of the night, she would be able to sneak one of the pastries she saw in the distance.
And the stepsisters were content with their personal goals. But the stepmother, seeing this, had other plans. And in the end, it was her who broke.
Ella froze and sighed. It had taken long enough. The prince looked curious as Lady Tremaine walked up, curtsying with grace she had sadly been born with. “I am so sorry to interrupt, your highness, but the hour grows late, and Cinderella should be going home soon.”
“Oh? Is this your daughter, my lady?”
Ella snorted, a very unladylike thing and something that made the prince’s smile come back to his face. “My parents died. This-”
“-I’m her current employer,” Lady Tremaine interrupted before Ella could say anything even more unladylike, which was certainly a good decision, given what Ella had been about to say. “Cinderella must wake up early to fetch eggs for breakfast, and water for the baths, and all the other chores she takes care of. I didn’t want her to forget.” The T of forget had an edge to it that Ella knew was intended to be a dagger. But Ella had calloused skin and a hearty backbone that meant her daggers had never pierced deep. Tonight, they seemed to sting just a little bit more.
“I see.” He glanced back at Cinderella, looking confused. “But surely those duties-”
“I’ll just go home now.” She felt her heart sink. Ella had never been one to give up. But right now, it seemed hopeless. If she made a scene, the prince would surely start to understand he was pretending he saw something more in her. He would see her for what she was - rude and brash, too strong and blunt to be ladylike, too uncultured to be at a ball. And Ella had always been good at cleaning the fireplace and fetching the eggs.
The night had many more unusual things in store. Ana strode up, stumbling on her shoes which she had never gotten used to. Ella couldn’t find the space to say it here, but it made her look distinctly like an ostrich whose legs had been swapped with a flamingo’s. And in her hand she held two pastries. “Cinderella can’t leave yet, Mother. She has yet to try the desserts.”
“Here, Cinderella, you must try this,” Anastasia said, handing Ella a pastry as she ate her own. Ella couldn’t help but bite her lip and smile as she saw crumbs get all over the gown Lady Tremaine had spent hours primping and preening on her daughter like she’d been setting up a mannequin.
“I- Thank you, Anastasia?”
“Cinderella!” Ella felt winded. Drizilla came up, hand in hand with a dressmaker from town that Ella knew well. Miranda was the one who’d been tasked with hemming all of Drizilla and Anastasia’s gowns. Ella remembered picking them up and laughing with her about how hideous they looked. “Miranda tells me she knows you?”
Miranda interrupted Lady Tremaine with a startled curtsy. “Your highness!”
“I’m confused,” Ella mumbled as the prince bowed.
Drizilla winked at Ella. Ana nudged her and started to tug her arm towards the food. And Lady Tremaine huffed. “Girls!”
The command in her voice was clear. Drizilla and Ana froze and Lady Tremaine replaced her stern look with a soft, if forced, smile. “We’re going home and getting us all in bed. I think you’ve stayed awake long enough.”
“Thank his highness for the invitation.”
Drizzy and Ana looked at each other before looking down and clumsily curtsying to the prince. “Thank you for your invitation,” they both said meekly, deflating some.
Ella took one look at this and felt a different warmth in her. She looked at the prince with a fierceness in her eyes, and he gazed back at her with the same wonder as before. “Thanks for the swaying. Here.” She held up the pastry for him. “I hear they’re good.”
“Oh!” He took it, looking bewildered.
“C’mon, Drizzy. Ana. Let’s go follow mother hen’s orders.” Then, completely disregarding the gaping mouths of her sisters and mother, Ella strode away from the prince confidently.
It was once they were alone, walking past the royal gardens towards the carriages and where Ella’s draft horse stood waiting, that Lady Tremaine grabbed her arm tightly. Ella had never been the kind to wince. She wasn’t about to now. “Your behavior tonight has been inexcusable.”
There were plenty of remarks she could make about behavior of people she had seen tonight, but she settled for “I think the prince liked it plenty.”
This was the wrong (or, arguably, perfect) response. Ella gasped as she felt a slap. A hard slap. One that stung and left a mark.
“Quiet. I have put up with your insolence for too long, Cinderella. From now on, you will not be leaving the house. You’ll sleep by the fireplace. I’ll put a bell on you if I must!”
“I’m sure you can find leashes in town,” Ella said bitterly. This earned another slap.
“I told you, quiet! Listen to your mother.”
“Why should they listen to someone who never does the same?”
Ella saw the hand raise once more. And then fall, majestically, along with the rest of the person, into the thorny rose bushes. And proceed to go tumbling further into the garden, down the incline, into the fountains with a startled, loud, sputtering splash. Ella felt a tug on her gown as the old bat went down, tearing it, and she too fell into the thorns. But she was smaller, and the bushes were enough to hold her there, stuck and prickled from every corner.
And there were moments of silence between her and her sisters, who both still had their hands extended from where they’d pushed their mother over the edge. Their eyes were wide, horrified, and awestruck of what they’d done.
And then the words began.
“She forced us-”
“-hated every second-”
“And I can’t sew to save my life-”
-beaten if we said-”
All summed up with a bow and a cry in unison. “We’re so sorry Ella!!!”
Ella blinked and began to smile. She had never been childish before, but she felt like giggling. And she began to cry, despite never being one to cry. Her sisters watched, bewildered, and a little scared. She laughed and sobbed and, of course, this was the moment the prince ran out after them, after having told his father just exactly what he felt for the scullery maid. Only for him to stop and be even more bewildered than he had felt the entire night, seeing two young maidens bowing before a girl in a torn dress who was sobbing and laughing.
And Ella, never one to shy away from what she needed anymore, looked up and laughed brighter. “Little help?”