It’s impossible to run in glass slippers.
I don’t mean difficult—I mean flat-on-your-face impossible. In fact, flat on my face is exactly how I ended up when I attempted it. One heel dislodged, my toe was still trapped, and there I was, sprawled on the marble steps, the bounty of layers from my dress thankfully breaking my fall.
The palace guards were on me in the blink of an eye. Surely someone trying so hard to get away had a nefarious reason for it, and they wanted to stop it.
That was how it happened that after an hour and a half of dancing with me—and by dancing I mean all but carrying me as he twirled; it’s impossible to dance in glass slippers also—the prince abruptly met my true self, strong-armed by two men the size of trees.
He had run after me, and while I tried my best to squirm out of the guards’ grip, the bell finished tolling the hour, and it was no use. My prince watched as my flamboyant, silken dress shrank to thin muslin tatters, my diadem and curls transforming to limp hair tied with cloth, and my remaining shoe melted off of me, leaving me barefoot as I was used to being. The guards’ held loosened in astonishment, but tightened like vices as I struggled to break free of them.
“What kind of witchery is this?” The prince’s voice was rich and golden.
“No witchery, your highness,” I said, my eyes dropping now that he could see how unfit I was to meet his gaze. “Only fairy kindness, granting a poor child’s wish.”
“You wished to come to the ball?” I could hear the smile in his voice. It did sound like a child’s wish after all.
“I wished to escape my life of drudgery for a few meager hours,” I said, my eyes starting to burn from the bruises that were doubtlessly forming on my arms.
“Your fairy kindness could have gotten you killed if it had been any other ball,” he mused, and the guards on either side of me straightened ever so slightly. “It is high treason to impersonate a nobleman. Lucky for you that it was an open-invitational ball.” The guards seemed to sag.
“Release her, gentlemen—you won’t run, will you, my rag-girl? No one will harm you.”
“Cinde—“ I started to say softly, but I stopped myself, and cleared my throat. “Ella.” The name sounded almost foreign to my ears, not having heard it spoken aloud in a lifetime. I wasn’t about to take on another nickname, even at the hands of the prince of the realm. “My name is Ella.”
“Well then. No one will harm you, Ella.”
The guards reluctantly loosened their grip, then released me altogether, and I gave a soft gasp of pain, now that the pressure was gone. “You must allow me to return home.”
The prince sniffed. “I ‘must’ do no such thing.”
It took all my will not to lift my eyes and glare at him. “If I am not where I should be by morning, my stepmother will turn me out, and I will lose what little I have left of the life I once knew with my father. Of any way of life at all. Food and warmth. Shelter. It is three hours’ walk, highness.”
I looked at the long road, looking dark and eternal in the moonlight, disappearing into a vast forest with countless dangers. Doubtless my horse and carriage were as substantial as my glass slippers, now.
“And what if you were not to return at all?”
I made an impatient sound. Moments ago, I had been having a lovely dream. Now, I knew that I was awake, but the dream would not end. “Then she will give me up entirely, to good riddance.”
“Then perhaps that route is best.”
My head reared up of its own accord. “Best? And where should I go? How should I live? I am all that is left of my father’s line, my stepmother is the only family that I have.”
“And what, may I ask, is your father’s line?” the prince asked, with more interest than I would have expected, brightening his dark eyes. My cheeks burned as I realized I had been facing him all this time, and I lowered my head again.
“Farthinghaven,” I said softly, a flash of my father’s coat-of-arms running through my memory, its colors bright and bold.
“Farthinghaven?” the prince asked, confused. “But then you are noble blood.”
The heat on my face rose from embarrassment to shame. “Yes, your highness, but as I told you, my stepmother—“
“Has no right to your father’s property, possessions or position, now that he is gone. Not when he has a blood heir.”
The color drained from my face, and I stared at the prince in wonder. It couldn’t be possible. But then, this whole night shouldn’t have been possible.
“You have been long-believed dead, Lady Ella of Farthinghaven.” He reached a white-gloved hand out to me, and hesitantly, I put my little, coarse fingers into his. “Please, if you would be so kind, I beg you to stay the night here at the palace. The week. The month, if you like. At least until I have devised and set forth a punishment worthy of what your stepmother has taken from you, and have arranged to remove her from your household.”
“I didn’t know what to say.” Say? I didn’t know how to move, or think or breathe.
His hand tightened around mine. Once again he was the prince, and I was the woman he had danced the night with. “I will take no answer but yes, my Lady.”
I sighed, a sigh ending years of sighing, longing. My heart felt as light as the moon above. “Then I have no other answer to give, my prince.”