Ella danced about the kitchen in bare feet, going through the motions of sweeping, but her mind still on the ball. The coach, the dress, the prince–it had been so magical. It didn’t matter if she’d had to run out at the stroke of midnight, only to return to her dreary existence. She’d broken free once; the next time, she’d do it without supernatural aid. Still, for the moment, it was enough to hum the song the royal orchestra had played and imagine herself in his arms again.
An authoritative pounding on the door interrupted her thoughts.
"Cinders!" Her stepsister deigned to stick her head in the kitchen just enough to hiss. "Wipe your face and answer that door! There’s a royal coach outside."
Royal coach? Ella hastened to remove her apron, wipe her face and brush back the wisps of her hair. Could it be? Had he, perhaps followed her, and was ready to storm in and carry her away? No, it was too much to hope for.
When she opened the door and saw him, surrounded by his guardsmen, she had to bite back a squeal of joy.
"Hail and praise to Prince Chisdale, heir to the throne! Make way and make welcome!" The herald’s voice echoed off the rafters as he stepped aside to let the prince and his retinue in. The prince’s eyes flicked once her way, the briefest of moments, but she knew–he recognized her.
One page boy strutted behind them, carrying a velvet cushion with a shoe.
Her shoe! The glass slipper, all that remained of the magic of the night.
"Hsst!" Her stepmother looked up to glare at her with hooded eyes. With a gasp, she hastened into a deep curtsey.
"Forgive my maid," she said with practiced smoothness as the prince offered her his hand and she stood. "She is an adequate housekeeper, but quite addled at times."
Ella bit back a shriek. Oh, when she was married and had authority–!
The herald entered. As the prince stood stone faced and staring at nothing in particular, he unrolled a scroll and read the decree: By order of the King, all the women of the kingdom were to try on the glass slipper, believed enchanted, and bear the scrutiny of the Prince.
Ella watched as her stepmother’s eyes widened, but she plastered a compliant smile onto her face and bid her daughters–Ella’s ugly, rude stepsisters–to set themselves on the divan and present their coarse and much-too-large feet for the page boy to place the shoe on. Of course it didn’t fit. Why was Chisdale bothering with this farce?
Ella smothered a laugh as her stepmother then took her place on the divan and utterly failed to fit the shoe.
Her mirth turned to panic, however, when the prince then signaled his retinue to leave.
"Wait!" she called. "Please. Must I not try it on, too?"
Prince Chisdale winced.
Her stepmother interposed herself between them and curtsied. "Forgive my servant. She forgets her place–"
"I do not!" Fighting back tears, she drew herself proudly and addressed the prince. "I am Lady Ella, daughter of Lord Garrity, who stood by your father in the War against the Huntsters. In the grief over my mother’s death, he married badly, and I have since been forced to a life of servitude–but I am nobility by blood, and I demand my rights!"
"Your Highness–she is addled. Please!"
The Herald watched with hooded eyes, but the prince merely turned his head. A guardsman took her stepmother by the arm and pulled her, albeit gently, away. Ella flung back her hair and strode to the divan with all the grace she’d had the night before. With equal grace, she presented her foot.
The slipper slid on–a perfect fit.
She stood, beaming at Chisdale. Why did he seem so sad? Now they would be together. True, she had lived as a maid, but she was born a noblewoman. Surely, she’d shown that last night?
"I’m sorry," he whispered and strode from the house.
"What?" She stepped toward him, the single shoe making her wobble.
Two guardsmen grabbed her roughly and twisted her hands behind her back. As her sisters screamed, the clamped manacles onto her wrists.
"What are you doing?" she shouted. "What’s going on?"
Again the Herald read, his strong, stable voice overpowering their shrieks. "By order the King, you have been accused of sorcery most foul in an attempt to seduce the Chisdale, Prince and Heir–"
As her stepmother ran to embrace her stepdaughters protectively, the guards dragged Ella out onto the cobblestone path. She struggled and fought.
"What? No! Chisdale! Tell them. It wasn’t like that. Tell them!"
But his carriage had already left.
With a strength born of desperation, she pulled free of her captors, but had only managed to make it to the still-open door before they pulled her back by the chains.
The last she saw of her step-family was of the three cowering by the divan while her step-mother mouthed. "Stupid girl!"