“Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there lived a beautiful girl . . .” she began the story. Her voice bounced off the stone walls, echoing loudly in the dank and damp darkness they sat in.
“No, no, please. Not that one again,” the first woman croaked. “We’re so bored of that one.”
“Tell us a new story,” the second woman added.
She tapped her fingers on the cold floor, her nails grating on its coarse surface. The sounds of her minutes, scratching away like the claws of a cat. But cats could see in the dark, lucky things.
To fulfill their wish, she agreed to tell them a new tale. After all, what else was she going to do with her time?
“The winner tells the story, so they say. And often, beauty helps convince the listeners of the teller’s tricks. But listen not to what you’ve heard, for stories often twist and change. Here, for you, a fairy tale of what truly—maybe—happened on that day.”
THE MORNING AFTER THE BALL
Though she wasn’t much of a sleeping beauty, Fredegonde’s eyes were sealed shut, as if she wished to sleep for the next hundred years. Like a lion’s mane, that sun-kissed hair of hers spread across the cushion, its long strands curling at the bottom. Even in slumber, her eyes darted around, always thinking. Under those eyes, her arched nose pointed upward, expressing its strong opinions even as she slept. But this was not the moment to rest.
“Fredegonde, wake up,” Marceline ordered her daughter. This late rising was unusual for her eldest girl. Undoubtedly, this change in manners was due to the disappointment of the night before. But Marceline had a surprise yet for her child.
“Get out of my chambers, Mother,” Fredegonde groaned. “I need my beauty rest.”
Marceline’s eyes narrowed into slits. Like her stepdaughter, Marceline had the right height, the right eyes, the right lips, the right everything. Fredegonde did not. She had, however, gotten one attribute from her mother: her hair. It was a flaming hue that caught the sunshine when she was outdoors. But that color was considered a sign of ill fortune in women, possibly even witchcraft. Fredegonde always quickened to anger at the town’s superstition that her mother’s hair color had anything to do with her double widowhood. Marceline’s hair was more white now than any other color, and being a widow, she had to keep it veiled. To Fredegonde’s annoyance, Marceline insisted that she also cover her locks.
“Fredegonde, I understand you are disappointed after last night. But I have a surprise for you.” Her mother continued, “This very day, you still have a fair chance of marrying the count. Count Galant’s envoy, Monsieur de Witt, is going from manor to manor to find the damsel whose foot will fit the slipper left behind by the mysterious maiden. Your moment is not yet lost.”
“But that shoe looked so tiny!”
“No matter. Once the count realizes the vulgar family the maiden comes from, he will be delighted to switch an elegant, educated maiden such as you into her place. Besides, though some are convinced that the shoe is made of glass, I got a good look at it, and I’m sure it’s gray squirrel fur—it could easily be stretched out.”
Hearing this, Fredegonde poked her huge foot out from underneath her delicately embroidered quilt and yelled, “Pedicure!” Fredegonde had a naturally booming voice, very deep for a maiden’s. She was slightly past marrying age, though Marceline had taught her to never be specific regarding her years.
At the ball the night before, the count had danced all evening with a beautiful maiden who was a stranger to all. And yet, that lady had looked so familiar, Marceline pondered. She reminded herself that all beautiful ladies look familiar, because all beautiful ladies are beautiful in the same way—skin as pale as a jellyfish, sparse eyelashes under a forehead full as the moon, and lips so thin that one wondered whether they even existed. That young damsel’s bombastic departure had been, Marceline felt, vulgar and completely unmaidenly. No true lady from a proper family would have left the ball at midnight in such a rush, leaving her slipper as a calling card. One could only imagine what kind of disreputable family would raise such a girl.
Marceline, on the other hand, had raised her daughters with true breeding, even her stepdaughter. She had tirelessly toiled for their refinement. They had grown to be very fine ladies. Dance. Song. Poetry. True, they might not have been virtuosos at anything, but they were surely accomplished enough to meet the minimum requirements of being a lady.
“Mother, think how amazing it would be to be united to the duke’s family. We wouldn’t have to pay such high fees for our land, and I, as his daughter-in-law, would implement a few simple innovations in the duchy—innovations that his stupid adviser, de Witt, has consistently ignored without the smallest consideration.”
Fredegonde was keen on the idea of marriage. She naïvely assumed her liberties would multiply once she had a man to boss around and send on errands. She thought she could accomplish all her goals through a husband, like a puppeteer with a marionette. Marceline did not want to tear down her daughter’s dream. Fredegonde’s father had given her all the freedoms that he would have given a son. After her mother had remarried, Fredegonde had retained her status as eldest child, and when her stepfather had died, she had taken on the role of head of the household, though as a woman, she unfortunately could not inherit the estate. Still, she had gotten used to making decisions and did not understand that, once married, she would have to defer to her husband on all matters.
Sounding her bell with all her might, Fredegonde summoned Bea, their one and only remaining servant. Though hard of hearing, Bea heard Fredegonde’s bell, rung as loudly as a gong, and came rushing in. At least, she attempted to rush in, though even her rush was slow at her advanced age of almost fifty years.
“Bea, I need a pedicure,” Fredegonde said.
Upon hearing her favorite lady’s request, Bea instantly grabbed her basket of utensils, then sat at Fredegonde’s feet.
Ever committed to her goals, Fredegonde ordered, “All must admire my naked feet when the count’s envoy visits today. Clean them well. Make my nails look more beautiful than usual. If that’s even possible.” Bea used quite a bit of her strength to pick up Fredegonde’s huge foot, whose toes had a little hair on them.
Though the foot was large, it had a pretty shape, Marceline noted with hope. The arch was curved; the toes were round; the skin had a healthy rosy color. Now, the nails were disastrous, but a strong red tint could mask their uncomely hue. While the sumptuary laws forbade women of their class to wear red nail tint, those rules were not strictly enforced. Besides, it was better to break the law a little than to horribly offend Monsieur de Witt’s eyes.
As Bea painted, Marceline remarked, “I hear in the Far East they make a more durable nail tint.”
“Ha!” answered Fredegonde. “Try getting your hands on some of that! Those lands are so far away that such a treat is only allowed to the empress and her daughters.”
The red was looking excellent on Fredegonde’s toenails. With new ambition, Bea plucked a clump of Fredegonde’s dark, coarse toe hairs.
“Oww! I’ll have you flogged!” Fredegonde bellowed.
“You want the count’s envoy to see that hairy paw? He’ll think it’s his own!” Bea retorted as she snatched Fredegonde’s foot back into her lap. Fredegonde shrieked as she tugged her foot away, and she was readying her leg for a mighty kick when Marceline held up her hand.
“Fredegonde, I will not allow you to show your bare feet in such a state. Suffer through it or no slipper.”
Fredegonde begrudgingly placed her foot back in Bea’s lap.
Marceline looked upon her child’s foot and, with an unexpected nostalgia, recalled how smitten she had been the first time she had laid eyes on Fredegonde’s father’s naked legs. Though repulsive in a way, they had at the same time been quite alluring, for they’d had a certain je ne sais quoi that had made her shoulders slump, her knees bend, and her skin shiver. She had felt like a beauty with her beast. And what a beast he had been.
Marceline was grateful that Bea was always good at sweetening Fredegonde’s sour moods. “My lady, will you honor me by singing one of your songs?”
Fredegonde loved to sing, though none loved to hear her. On the high notes, she sounded shrill. On the low notes, she made the house’s stone foundation shake. Bats awoke, rats scampered, and cats hissed. Sitting up on the edge of her bed with her legs swinging back and forth, she began:
Pretty little feet,
Petite petite petite,
I can hear him call my name.
Sweet, so sweetie sweet,
A nice piece of meat.
Maybe I’ll feel the same.
My praises he will sing.
The wedding bells shall ring.
My beauty will rise to fame.
IF THE SHOE DOESN’T FIT . . .
Down the wide, cold hallway, nestled in her covers, slumbered Javotte, Fredegonde’s sister. She could sleep blissfully through any commotion. Her sleep was even deeper than usual this morning, as she dreamt of the ball from the night before. In her dream, the mystery maiden was no longer dancing with the count. Instead, in his arms was she, Javotte! As they danced, the count complimented Javotte on her one tooth, saying that, though it was just one, it was possibly the most beautiful tooth in all of Normandy. Javotte blushed at such a compliment. He twirled her across the balcony, until she tripped over the edge and felt she was falling, falling, falling until—
Javotte fell off her bed and onto the floor. She tried to open her eyes by rubbing them with her delicate hands. Her eyelids were always dry and her eyes full of gunk when she woke up in the morning. As she rubbed the sleep out of them, she looked up to see her stepsister hovering over her.
“I guess I fell out of bed,” said Javotte in her high-pitched, nasal voice. “You look so pretty today, Cindy,” she said.
“You didn’t fall out of bed. Someone pushed you out,” retorted her stepsister. “You were mouthing in your sleep, ‘Oh, my count. Oh, my count.’”
Javotte admired her stepsister’s beauty with sadness. Everything about her appeared so delicate, yet she was actually as tough as forged iron.
“You know how the beautiful, elegant, sophisticated mystery maiden from last night lost that beautiful slipper?” her stepsister asked rhetorically.
“How could I not?” Javotte answered.
“Well, the count’s envoy is going from house to house to discover whose foot might fit in that slipper.”
Javotte had stared the entire night at that slipper as it poked out from under the mystery maiden’s long skirt. She was sure it was made of glass—but Freddie had insisted it was merely squirrel fur.
“You mean, I still have a chance to marry the count? But that slipper is huge! How will my foot ever fit in there?”
Her stepsister was eating a carrot and tossed it to her. “Here,” she said, “tie this to the end of your toes to extend them. I’m sure Monsieur de Witt won’t even notice.”
Javotte gratefully took the carrot and, using her utensils from her embroidery pouch, cut the carrot into five little nubs. She then shaped them to look—as much as was possible—like five little toes. Taking some pale pink ribbon, she tied the orange pieces to the toes on her right foot to extend them. “There!” she announced, incredibly proud of herself, and slipped her feet into a pair of slippers that was slightly too large for her.
Suddenly, they heard a shriek from Fredegonde’s room. “Freddie!” Javotte sprang out of bed and rushed out of the room, tripping over her own feet in her haste. Her stepsister followed.
Arriving outside Fredegonde’s room, her stepsister stuck her nose in curiously.
“I want to see! I want to see!” cried Javotte as her stepsister placed one hand on Javotte’s head so that she couldn’t look.
“Just like you want your foot to be bigger, Fredegonde wants her hoof to be smaller,” her stepsister said, “and Bea is doing a ‘procedure’ to make the poor thing’s ogreish foot fit.”
“A ‘procedure’?” she gasped with mixed feelings of terror and fascination.
“Yes. Bea is chopping off her toes!”
Javotte managed to pop her head into her sister’s chambers just long enough to see Fredegonde’s foot drenched in red.
“All that blood! Fredegonde, stop!” Javotte cried.
Fredegonde looked up. “Mother, get them out!” she hollered. The tension in Fredegonde’s voice made it more high-pitched than usual—it almost sounded maidenly. Their mother rushed to the door, pushed Javotte into the corridor, and locked the bedchamber.
“Poor Freddie,” her stepsister sighed as she fiddled with a strand of her shiny golden hair, then waltzed back upstairs toward her bedroom. “I suppose once her toes are cut off, you can sew them onto your feet—that should make them big enough for the shoe.”
As her stepsister walked away, Javotte continued to bang on the door. She was so upset that large, beady drops of sweat formed on her unibrow. At the sound of another of Fredegonde’s shrieks, Javotte cried, “Mother, please make her stop!”
Just then, there was a knock at the front door, barely audible over the cacophony.
MONSIEUR DE WITT
As Monsieur de Witt stood in front of the door of this final house, he shut his eyes, hoping that here he would at last find the count’s darling. Lifting his fist, he was about to knock, then hesitated when he heard one woman’s shrieking and another one’s weeping. Such an uncivilized household can’t be where the count’s mystery maiden lives, he thought. Perhaps I should leave. But he was meticulous and did not want to leave any loose ends. He knocked loud and long, trying to make sure he was heard over the shrieks. No one answered, and with a touch of relief, he was turning to leave when the door began to open. He watched as an elderly servant pulled the door so slowly, he wasn’t sure it was actually opening. He offered to assist her, but she shooed him away. After minutes that seemed like hours, she finally completed her task.
“Ah!” she sighed with satisfaction. “Welcome, monsieur,” she said, and motioned for him to enter. He looked into the house, searching for the source of the yelling, but the penetrating sounds had subsided. He stepped in, followed by his footman, who carried the coveted shoe.
“Good day,” de Witt said. “How many maidens live in this home?”
“Three, monsieur, one prettier than the next. Please, sit, and they shall be down shortly.”
“I prefer to stand. But thank you.”
“As you wish,” she answered. As he waited, the servant lady gawked at him, not even attempting to hide the excitement in her large smile.
Suddenly, a small maiden, still in a nightgown, came running, almost rolling, down the staircase. She fell into de Witt’s arms.
“They’ve cut off her toes!” she shouted hysterically.
“What is going on, my lady?” He held her small hands, trying to calm her.
“My sister’s toes, they’ve been cut off so that her foot will fit into that slipper,” she said as she pointed to the box that de Witt’s footman carried.
De Witt tried to make sense of what he’d heard. Surely, no one would maim herself just to marry the count. Besides, how could she think he was foolish enough to fall for such a ruse? When Count Galant had described the mystery maiden, he had not mentioned that she was missing her toes. Or any teeth, for that matter. Then again, de Witt had heard of stranger things.
A tall maiden came thundering down the stairs followed by a woman he assumed was her mother. The image they created was not unlike that of a wild boar being chased by a hunter.
As de Witt attempted to introduce himself to the lady of the house, she interrupted him. “Of course, you are Monsieur de Witt. A man of such reputation needs no introduction. You are here to test the slipper, oui? Behold, my two lovely daughters.”
“Each is lovelier than the other,” de Witt forced himself to say. “The servant had mentioned a third?” He noticed the mother shoot the servant a deathly glare.
“She is merely my stepdaughter. She was my late second husband’s child. She was ill the night of the ball and unable to attend, so the shoe could not possibly be hers. Now she is shy and refuses to come out of her room.”
He cleared his throat. “There was some concern by one regarding the severing of toes?”
“Please ignore little Javotte. She lives in a dream world. We were merely painting my eldest’s toenails red. It’s very fashionable this season. Shall we proceed?”
“Yes, yes we shall.” He looked at the two maidens then back to the mother. “Let us begin.” With a snap of his fingers, he signaled the footman to bring the slipper.
As if out of the heavens, a divine voice resounded in the room, “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting. It seems I got trapped in my room—almost as if someone locked me in there.” A yellow-haired girl tiptoed into the hall; her worn-down leather slippers swept the fancy parquet floor beneath her feet. Her step was as light as air, the sides of her yellow linen dress spreading like a bird’s wings lifting her higher as she entered. The sun shone through the lattice window, its rays striking her pale skin at just the right angle to highlight her small nose, her thin lips, and that endless forehead—an angel from the stained glass of a chapel.
De Witt looked at the women standing in a line: one tall, one medium, one small. The mother sat, making her the shortest of all.
“If all are here, let us begin then,” he said, wishing to complete the day’s mission.
The yellow-haired one spoke up. “The oldest among us first. It’s only respectful.” She gave way to the tall one, who did not seem to appreciate the honor.
Taking the box from the footman, de Witt presented the famous pantoufle to the ladies. His fingers got lost in the odd slipper. The night before, at the ball, that same slipper and its missing partner had been worn by a masked maiden who had captured the count’s heart, and all of the town and the countryside had been gossiping about it. Many a maiden claimed that it was her shoe; thus, de Witt had been sent to discover whose foot was a match for the strange slipper. This was his fortieth house and final fitting. As he passed along from house to house, the shoe hidden in a protective box, he had heard villagers who had not been invited to the ball argue about whether the maiden had worn pantoufles de verre—glass slippers—or pantoufles de vair—gray-squirrel-fur slippers. French was such a romantic language, yet so misleading.
The tallest maiden took a seat in a wooden barrel chair, her hands clutching its round arms. Though she sat, she still towered over the others. All stared at the shoe. She removed her own slipper, revealing a large, naked foot. De Witt was relieved to see all five toes were intact, though a red nail tint had been applied in a splotchy manner. He kneeled as he held the slipper in front of the long foot. Still sitting, the tall lady placed her foot in the opening of the shoe. She pushed against it, but the ball of her foot was broad, and the shoe stuck on it. Her eyebrows and mouth scrunched toward each other, and he read the disappointment in her eyes.
She stood, straightening her skirts with wounded pride, and the small one took her place. This maiden’s foot was appropriately sized for the rest of her body—a small foot for a small frame. As she pulled her foot out of her own slipper, five bizarrely shaped carrot pieces tumbled out. As de Witt picked up one of the pieces questioningly, he looked to the small maiden’s face, which had turned bright red with embarrassment. The ancient housekeeper slowly walked over and scooped up the pieces, mumbling, “That’s where it’s gone to! I’d been looking for that carrot all morning.” One by one, she carefully placed the pieces in her apron pocket. De Witt watched her, trying to hide his expression, and hoped he would not be invited to stay for dinner.
To spare the small maiden from more embarrassment, de Witt proceeded without further commentary. He lifted the shoe to the lady’s dangling foot. The foot slid in, leaving ample space.
The mother, silent and still, watched from under the shadow cast onto her face by her black, double-arched cone headpiece. The small one sighed, disappointed, then removed the shoe and stood. Again, not a match.
The medium one with the yellow hair floated into the rigid oak chair as if she were sinking into a soft cloud. She crossed her legs and placed her perfectly sized foot into the official’s hand. He slipped the shoe onto it.
It fit into the slipper like a sword into its sheath. De Witt bowed to the lady with reverence, and all the other women followed suit.
“My lady,” he said, “I am honored to announce that you shall be engaged to the duke’s son. I pray thee, tell me your name.”
As she rode in the duke’s carriage, Cinderella had to force herself to stop fidgeting. She was being whisked away to her new home: the Rouen Château, in the capital of the Duchy of Normandy. Her anticipation had never been so intense; she could barely contain it. Just a small smile, she reminded herself, with closed lips and no more than the size of a rose petal. It was inappropriate for a lady to smile too widely. Upon her marriage to Count Galant, she would be countess, then eventually duchess. The Duke of Normandy was second in power only to his cousin, the king of France.
After years of suffering, she had escaped her horrid family. They weren’t her real family but her stepfamily. And the step between her and them was very, very steep. Looking down with her big, pale eyes, she admired her perfectly sized foot in her shimmering slipper. What else was she to do during the long ride? Monsieur de Witt, sitting opposite her, looked as if he had swallowed a broomstick. Rather than enjoying the carriage ride, he rustled through various official decrees. His somber gray tunic had no luster, no embroidery. His face was covered in scars, and his patchy beard did not do much to hide them. It pained Cinderella to look at unpleasantness—her stepsisters had given her quite enough of that.
While he toiled, Cinderella caught her reflection in the carriage window and found herself taken by it. She looked like one of those maidens in Javotte’s tapestries, she thought as she let out a sigh of admiration. Her face looked lovely in the dim morning light. She traced her jaw with her fingertips, admiring its gentle shape and the tingle of her own caress. Her beauty was also a curse, as it caused all other girls to brim with jealousy upon seeing her, poor thing. All young maidens wanted to achieve her angelic, thin-lipped, high-foreheaded, eyelash-less look. Of course, they could pluck their hairlines to achieve higher foreheads for the sake of fashion, but eyelashes were a whole other matter. And under those hairless lids, her breathtaking, pale eyes held in them the look of a thoughtless angel.
As the carriage drove out of Grorignac, she waved out the window to the villagers, who waved back and bowed to her with delight. “Our countess!” they yelled. “Our beautiful, kind countess!” She bowed her head, looking down, receiving the compliments with a demure blush.
Two years had passed since Cinderella and her father had moved into Grorignac Manor, and she had quickly built a superb reputation with the local villagers and adjacent townspeople. Her beauty and kindness were spoken of in her own village, Grorignac, and all the way to the neighboring town of Portville.
After her mother had passed, Cinderella had lived alone with her father for many years. She had been his little princess—until that woman had come along. They had had to leave the home they had lived in with her mother. Marceline was a “lady” and had fooled Cinderella’s father into thinking that by moving into Grorignac Manor and caring for the estate he would become a “lord.” In Grorignac Manor, it was Marceline who chose the dessert. Boorish Fredegonde had the honor and the responsibility of being the eldest daughter. There, Cinderella didn’t have her own room; she had to share one with her stinky stepsister Javotte. Until Cinderella decided to move into the attic. Compared to sleeping with Javotte, the attic held an allure of independence—and fresh air.
Since her father had died a year before, the family had “had to economize,” as Marceline always liked to say. No new dresses were to be bought. All servants but one, the oldest and least useful, were sent away. It was dreadful for a girl on the cusp of womanhood to have to “economize.” But Cinderella was as imaginative and resourceful as she was beautiful and kind and always made the best of every situation. As Bea did very little work, Cinderella herself kept the house orderly by meticulously cleaning it daily. Her dresses might be old and tattered, but they got tighter as she grew, showing off her appealing forearms—the beauty of which was discussed late into the night in the alehouse as the butcher, the baker, and the blacksmith rested at the end of the workday.
If the baker was lucky enough to sell her an apple tart, she often told him that her stepmother had given her no allowance to pay for the cake, and of course he would give it to her free of charge. Later, she would overhear him boasting to his friends how he had gifted her the cake. When she walked through the market, if one villager dared murmur how Cinderella was quite brazen to show off her forearms without shame, twenty more would rise to her defense, all blaming Marceline, her evil stepmother, for not sending her to the local tailor for new clothes. Cinderella knew the true reason for Marceline’s “economizing.” She wanted Cinderella to look her worst so that her daughters could look their best in comparison. Poor and alone, Cinderella had had to suffer the consequences of the woman’s vanity. It was not her fault she had been born so lovely; it was simply her destiny to be thus.
One day, while in the tailor’s shop caressing fabrics she was not allowed to purchase, she let it slip that she was forced to sleep in the attic, while her stepsisters each had their own room. Another day, in a moment of spontaneity, she took the cinders from the fireplace and brushed them onto her face. The cinders gave her eyes a look of allure and a touch of sultry unkemptness. Out of compassion for this poor child who was clearly toiling away all day long, the good villagers coined the nickname “Cinderella” for her. This pleased her, as she had always found her birth name, “Mathilde,” to be dull. “Mathilde” could not inspire tales of courtly love. “Mathilde” could not stir touvères and troubadours to sing. But “Cinderella” was unique and romantic. Her stepfamily had at least granted her request that they call her by her chosen name.
When an invitation had arrived from the castle, she had ripped open the scroll. After struggling to read the first word, she had grown frustrated and had gently tossed the invite at her eldest stepsister’s melon-sized head. Fredegonde always had her big nose stuck in a book or papers of some sort. With her deep voice, she had read the scroll, which announced that there was to be a ball for the young count to find a bride. Cinderella’s heart had soared. But when Fredegonde had read out loud that all three sisters were to be presented to the count together, that same heart had sunk.
Had Cinderella been presented at the ball with her stepsisters, they would have diluted her inner and outer beauty. Though the ball was a masquerade, a costume that could hide her stepsisters’ unpleasantness had yet to be invented. No gown could make Fredegonde petite, and no mask could conceal Javotte’s stench. If the count was to fall in love with Cinderella at first sight, she would have to be presented alone. Beauty was not all natural. Some of it was work; much of it was illusion. Beautiful women enhanced their beauty in many ways—not just with accessories, but also with surroundings.
After nights of brainstorming in the attic, Cinderella had devised a plan. She would feign sickness the night of the ball and then appear on her own. Her family would be none the wiser, for she would be hidden behind a mask. That plan had worked like a charm. Just how much charm had been involved? Well, every maiden had her secrets, and this one was hers.
The carriage continued off the town roads and into the forest. The dirt road that led through the woods was quite rugged and stony. The wheels hit an exceptionally big bump, which caused the passengers to pop out of their seats. Cinderella was pulled out of her musings, and Monsieur de Witt’s papers scattered on the floor. He frantically started to collect his many scrolls. Cinderella, ever helpful, rushed to his aid by singing. Of course, it wouldn’t have been appropriate for her to bend down and pick up the papers, so as Monsieur de Witt collected his belongings, she soothed him with her voice. Gazing out the window at the vast forest, she sang:
In the glint of the moon,
No star could be seen.
A damsel went walking,
Her face like a dream.
She looked up to the sky—
Her eyes, they shined like day.
This maiden was so lovely,
The stars came out to play.
The song had ended, the papers were collected, and the rest of the ride continued in the same silence as before.
As the wheels of the carriage turned, the sun traveled to the end of the earth, approaching the horizon. De Witt lifted the linen curtain from the window, peering out. “We are almost to the castle.”
Cinderella’s head whipped around to look at the château. She had not been to the castle during the day, only at night, and she was excited to see it in the sunlight for the first time: her new, grand home, where she would be mistress. She, not her wicked stepmother, would choose which tapestries to hang in her bedroom. She, not her ugly stepsister, would decide what would be served at dinner. She, not her stinky stepsister, would decide where to place the furniture.
The carriage halted, waiting for the large gate to lift and allow it passage inside the castle walls. Watching the portcullis open, Cinderella felt as though she were unwrapping a humongous gift. She let out a little screech of excitement, rattling Monsieur de Witt. He stroked his stringy beard as if to gather his nerves, groaning.
With the portcullis raised, the castle was fully exposed to the brightness of the daylight. Cinderella squinted, trying to get a clearer look. The stones looked old, the garden was overgrown, and the moat stank of trash and refuse. The night’s darkness had concealed many of the castle’s flaws during the ball. No matter, thought Cinderella. I shall make improvements once I am duchess. Just thinking that word “duchess” made her squeal with delight, but she muffled her squeal with her delicate hand, so as not to disturb Monsieur de Witt again. He did not seem to appreciate noise of any kind, that prickly one.
Since the ball had been masked, she had actually never seen the face of her beloved—nay, her betrothed. Of course the whole town and the surrounding villages knew what he looked like: tall, handsome, gallant. Cinderella had not had the opportunity to visit the château and meet the count in the first year of her life in Grorignac. Her father had passed away in the second year, and she had spent it in mourning. She distracted herself from these sad thoughts by reminding herself that her savior had come, and she looked ahead, to where five knights awaited the arrival of the carriage at the front of the castle. A tall knight with dark eyes stood at the front of the group.
My count, she thought. He’s even taller than I remember and more handsome than I imagined.
With a large hand, that handsome gentleman helped Cinderella out of the carriage. Her uncomfortable slippers made her trip, and she tumbled into his embrace. When their eyes met, she shut hers, hoping for a kiss.
“My bride has arrived,” said a high-pitched voice off in the distance. With her lips still pursed, Cinderella opened one eye, then the other. The knight who held her lifted her upright, set her aside with his big arms, and bowed to an approaching gentleman. As this gentleman walked, his soft hair bounced just above his shoulders, his lanky arms flopped at his sides, and childish dimples formed on his cheeks.
“My fiancée!” Count Galant yelped, failing to contain his passion. He stuck his hand out, took hers, and kissed it. His lips on her knuckles gave her a peculiar shiver, when she had expected to feel a pleasurable quiver. Cinderella looked back and forth between the two men.
“I see you’ve met our champion knight, Enguerrand,” said Count Galant.
Enguerrand bowed to Cinderella, and as he lifted his head, he gave her a smirk.