“What is this?” my stepmother asked, as I handed her the pristine roll of parchment. She did not wait for me to answer, instead quickly ripping the precious document open.
“Oh my! It is from the king!” she cried, and her daughters immediately bolted to attention, crowding around her feverishly.
“What is it, Mamma? What does it say?”
“To her honorable Lady Tremaine,” the lady began,
“It is with great solemnity that you and your household of eligible daughters are requested to attend a royal assembly this evening in the Grand Hall of the Illustrious Palace. His Royal Highness Prince Philip will select a bride whom he deems most worthy of fighting by his side to secure the certain future of our great kingdom. Please arrive at the gates by dusk, as they will be locked and fortified immediately upon sundown until the light of dawn on tomorrow’s day.
His Most Imminent Highness,
We all stood dumbfounded, our mouths hanging open, as we tried to digest this incredible bit of news. The king was still alive, and now the prince was looking for someone to stand beside him in his wage against our kingdom’s infestation of zombies.
The part of the prince seeking a bride seemed to hit my stepsisters first and foremost.
“The prince will select a bride!” Drusilla exclaimed, bouncing on the balls of her feet. She was the younger of the two sisters. A little short, with a waistline of copious girth, her red curls sprung on her head with each eager bounce. She spent more time attending to her toilet than anything else, although her mother tried her best to infuse a knowledge of the arts in her daily routine.
Her sister Anastasia, although older and much more like her mother in appearance and demeanor, was no more immune to the exciting prospect of becoming the prince’s bride than her sister.
“A royal assembly!” she cried, clasping her long bony hands together in eager anticipation. “I have longed for the chance to meet Prince Philip!”
“Yes, but…” I couldn’t help but interject, astounded at their seeming obliviousness to the qualification mentioned in the letter. “Prince Philip will select a bride that he deems most worthy to fight by his side. I don’t think that I can remember the last time you two threw a spear or drew a sword.”
My stepmother’s eyes seemed to bore into mine, her icy glare chilling me to the bone.
“I don’t suppose,” she said slowly, as though savoring the sting she was about to let loose, “that the groomsman who made this delivery was all that impressed with the fineness of your appearance this morning, my dear.” The girls began to giggle as they looked at my filthy, tattered dress, covered in soot. My face reddened but I stood my ground. “You may be quick with a spear, but that will never make you a lady. And trust me when I say this, although the prince may profess his desire for a bride to fight by his side, when all is said and done, his eyes will do his choosing. He will only choose a lady, and my dear, you are no lady.”
The girls snickered loudly, until Drusilla couldn’t resist herself anymore. “You a lady? You’re all covered in soot. We may as well call you Cinderella!”
Anastasia made an ugly guffawing sound, contorting her long face until it looked like that of a horse sneering. “Cinderella!” she repeated after her sister, and the two of them clung to each other in fits of laughter as they exited the room.
I waited until the sound of their laughter drifted up the stairs.
“I am going to that assembly,” I said in a low voice, trying to return the steely look that my stepmother had perfected.
“Don’t you have work to do, Cinderella?” she said pointedly, and then swept out of the room after her girls.
It was a long day of anticipation. I got my work done, made our meals, spent much-needed time tending to the garden, and even prepared the old coach which was sitting in the carriage house, getting moldy with disuse. To be proper, the coach should be drawn with four horses, and with a driver and coachman to assist. We only had two horses, and counted ourselves lucky to have retained both of them these last five years, and had no driver or coachman. I figured that we would have to make do.
At last the sun was starting its slow descent on the horizon, growing round and rosy, and I knew that I should prepare myself to leave for the assembly. Despite refusing to acknowledge it to anyone else, I was quite mortified to be seen in such a filthy mess as I had been that morning. I promised myself that I could make a better impression than that. I also knew that I had some fairly impressive skills with the spear, and especially my father’s bow and arrows. I knew that I could put on a show for the prince, and that my stepmother could simper and seethe all she wanted, but the prince was going to make his own decision tonight.
Looking through my own selection of frayed and worn dresses, my heart sank. I had nothing to wear. Finally, I closed the door to my room as softly as I could and climbed the stairs to the attic. There, hidden in the back, was a chest that I hadn’t opened in many years. It was covered in a thick coating of dust and cobwebs. Obviously, my stepsisters had failed to discover my secret treasure trove. Opening it slowly, a puff of dust escaped the latch, and in its wake rose the sweet scent of lavender and lilac. My mother. A tear threatened to spill from my eye. It had been so long since I had touched these treasures, these belongings of my mother. She died when I was a small child, and so my memories of her were still soft and dream-like, as if looking through a frosted glass.
I pulled out a long gown of silk brocade. It was ice blue, with golden threads embroidered into delicate flowers and cascading trellises. The fashion of the sleeves betrayed its age, but the cut was purely classic. It was perfect.
Moments later I was floating down the stairs, feeling as feminine and ethereal as I ever had in my life, wearing my mother’s gown. My stepsisters spluttered out gasps of complaint when they saw me, but my stepmother did not say a word. Doing my best to ignore them, I crossed into the library, where I kept my father’s bow and arrows locked in a cabinet. The cabinet door was open, and it was empty.
“Looking for these?” my stepmother breathed behind me, taunting me until I turned.
She was holding my father’s hunting set in her hands, a triumphant smile teasing her lips.
“How dare you touch those,” I said in a low and dangerous voice. “They were my father’s, and now they belong to me.”
She let out a tinkling laugh, as though she was explaining something to a silly child. Suddenly her laughter stopped and her voice became cold and sharp.
“I think not,” she said, walking closer to me. “I am Lady Tremaine, lady of this house, and everything in it belongs to me.”
I tried to laugh off the ridiculousness of the situation. “Do you honestly think that one of your girls will be able to win the prince?” I asked, incredulous. “Do you honestly think that they will tempt him with their simpering and whining and fretting about, just because they hold a weapon in their hands?”
Cold fury shot through the lady’s face and she lashed out at me with one of my father’s arrows in her hand. The quickness and ferocity of her movement caught me off guard, and she managed to slice through the bodice of my mother’s dress in an ugly slash, shredding the fine silk until it was hanging from my breast.
I stood there aghast, looking down at my mother’s ruined gown, and feeling her death afresh.
Lady Tremaine spun around and exited the house, her daughters quick on her heels. A few moments later I heard the crack of a whip and her commanding voice as she called to the horses. The sound of the coach crossing the gravel drive finally awakened me from my stupor. I ran toward the door, but was too late. The coach was already down the road, my stepmother at the reigns, and there was no way she would be turning back for me.