They were almost out of time.
The evening of the betrothal ball had finally descended despite Essie’s determination to keep it at bay. Cinderella felt her pain. Her feelings grew worse when she considered her own deception. Correction: deceptions. Not only was she Prince’s “mysterious princess” but she had done the unthinkable in setting her lips against his. Without his consent.
She laid her fingers against her mouth as the memory surged through her. Then moved her shaking fingers moved to her temples. How was she to survive the culpability of such egregious action? How could she ever face Essie again? Or Prince?
The seamstress stood off to one side waiting to administer a final fitting for their gowns.
“Where is Stepmama?” Cinderella asked with a nervous quiet. “I’ve yet to see her today.”
“Neither have I,” Essie snapped. “I hope you are not complaining of the fact.” Essie spun to the timid Manette and flung her hands out to her perfectly coiffed hair. “Do something with this…this unmanageable mane.”
’Twould seem Cinderella was not the only one on edge. She eyed Essie warily. This was an Essie of old, barking at the shy girl. Manette fumbled forward spilling the contents from her hands onto the floor.
“Now, see what you have done, you little imbécile.” Essie’s eyes had every lit taper in the chamber flickering with fury.
“That’s enough, Essie,” Cinderella said. Her voice was soft, but strong, bringing Essie’s head up quickly. Cinderella dipped forward to help the poor girl gather the scattered pins.
“Pardonnez-moi, s’il vous plaît, Manette.” Tears filled Essie’s eyes, wiping away the edge of Cinderella’s pique. She bent down to help as well.
Pricilla’s unusual docile manner during the entire exchange drew Cinderella’s attention. Manette poured a dress over Pricilla’s head of soft powder blue silk and trimmed scallops of embroidered silver. Tiny bows edged the trim. The effect was compelling, turning her gray eyes rich with color. It was her jittery fingers brushing over the soft silk that finally sunk in.
“What is it, Pricilla?” Cinderella knew Pricilla heard her, but did not acknowledge the question right away.
’Twas nothing, all right. Cinderella rose and went to her, clasped her hand and squeezed. Pricilla’s eyes lifted, meeting Cinderella’s in the mirror. Nothing could have prepared Cinderella for the sight that met her. Troubled stormy depths reached out.
“Whatever troubles you, do not worry so.”
“Cill?” Essie appeared on her other side, took up her hand, and waited.
The sight of the three of them before the mirror was momentous. Somber, though the tone.
“I killed her.”
A chill of dread rippled up Cinderella’s spine. Striking like a coiled snake.
“Killed who, Cill?” Essie asked. Concern did not color Essie’s pitch.
“No! Don’t say it,” Cinderella hissed.
But Pricilla would not be reprieved. “Maman,” she whispered.
“Of course, you didn’t kill her.” Essie patted her hand. “We just want to kill her.” Essie dropped Cill’s hand. “Come. We must finish dressing for this outrageous farce.” A frown marred her brow, obviously remembering her current dilemma. She strode toward Manette, who held out an ivory cream silk, edged with the softest whispering of white velvet.
Cinderella did not move. She met Pricilla’s eyes in the glass and knew Pricilla spoke the truth.
Cinderella drew herself up and proclaimed in a soft yet fierce determination, “She killed herself. Do you understand me? She. Killed. Herself,” Cinderella did not know who she tried to convince, Pricilla or herself.
The grip she had on Pricilla was returned tenfold. A tense silence stretched between them.
“Oui. She killed herself,” Pricilla whispered, nodding.
Cinderella watched her a moment longer willing her to remain calm. Pricilla’s words pounded through her with glimmer of hope that would have her baking in the depths of Hades. Could Stepmama truly be gone? What a horrid, morbid thing to think? But the relief was staggering.
Convinced by Pricilla’s slow calm intakes, Cinderella released her hand and moved off slowly toward Manette who now struggling to keep the wrinkles from a breathtaking emerald green silk. Cinderella glanced back over her shoulder to Pricilla. She still stood before the looking glass, her winsome spirit dampened. Guilt filled Cinderella. It should have been her coming to terms with such nefarious deeds. She owed Pricilla more than she could say.
Pricilla’s distress only added to her beauty. Her translucent skin and shimmering light blond hair made her appear so fragile. Then she seemed to pull herself up in one fell swoop, fussed over her appearance in the reflection glass a moment or two longer, before turning a pragmatic direct gaze on Essie.
Cinderella let out a long held breath.
Pricilla was back, for the moment, leastways. Though her confrontational blaze did not bode well.
Stomach pinched in apprehension, Cinderella found herself trying to edge her way out of Pricilla’s peripheral sight.
“Something is wrong,” Pricilla said, staring at Essie. “The white makes you look…I don’t know… Ess. Wan…pallid, colorless, sallow.” Pricilla flung her hand out as more adjectives escaped her. “That dress is all wrong for you.”
Cinderella flinched. “Um, Pricilla, I vow she gets your meaning.” Cinderella resisted brushing damp palms over her lovely green silk skirts. Oh, this was not good at all. Almost all traces of Pricilla’s apprehension had vanquished.
Essie’s pent up vexation, however, had met its end. “What is that supposed to mean?” she shrieked, “We have been trying these dresses a week past and you vow to say something, now?”
To Pricilla’s credit, she did appear chagrined. Cinderella rushed over and grasped Essie’s hand, darted Pricilla her harshest glare. Not that it could help Essie. The white did make her appear ashen and bloodless, but mayhap it had more to do with wrought nerves.
Pricilla ignored Essie’s angry outburst and Cinderella’s meanest stare. Ha, ’twas the biggest jest around, besides. “I cannot be sure; but it’s just occurred to me, rationally speaking of course.”
“Of course,” Essie retorted.
Pricilla paid her no mind. “The white would look much better on Cinde with her dark coloring. And the green would work fabulously on you—match your eyes to perfection.”
Essie cast a critical gaze over Cinderella, Cinderella cringed. Essie’s nerves were not the only ones wrought. If the floor could swallow Cinderella up, she would be most grateful. She sent up a silent prayer to Fairy Godmother. As if anything could unbreak her magic stick. It was hopeless.
“I do so love that color,” Essie professed. “Mayhap I would not be so nervous if I did not feel so much like the sacrificial lamb on its way to the slaughter?”
An apt analogy, Cinderella professed inwardly.
Oui, they were right. But Cinderella—lips pressed tightly together—refused to comment, opting for another silent prayer of an open floor. She was small. All she needed was a minute crack to swallow her whole. She would never complain. The white dress was stunning and it did make Esmeralda’s pale skin look chalky. If Essie donned that green dress she had no doubt Prince would take one look at her and fall heedlessly in love.
Cinderella deserved this. Did she not steal a kiss from her sister’s betrothed without his knowing? Would this not serve as restitution for all time?
She gazed longingly at the ivory dress. It was hers. She wanted to slide it over her head one last time before being hauled away as the fraud she was. Fear had her trembling to the point of swooning.
Oh, what was she so afraid of? Stepmama was all but dead, she chided herself. Pricilla had confessed to her murder, though it was strange that the horns had not yet sounded. Mayhap she was not the only one thrilled about such a scenario and the poor wretched soul who happened upon her cold dead body had decided to keep mum.
Panic surged through Cinderella. Perhaps it was time. Non. It was past time. They deserved to know the truth, come what may. The opportunity had come to confess. She was the mysterious princess. Oh, blast it. Once she donned that white dress there would be no need to tell them anything. Everyone in the chamber would know the second it floated over her head, because she should be wearing it.
Perhaps, if she fainted.
Oh, she was the worst of cowards. No question.
But she wasn’t ready. Since Papa’s death, she’d been alienated, detested, disliked, and mistreated by both Essie and Pricilla. And now they had formed a … a sisterhood. The three of them. As likely a scenario one might never happen upon a second time.
Wasn’t that the perfect fairy tale?
But happy endings of this sort just were not possible. Stepsisters in any tale were the bane of the heroine’s very existence. But this new unspoken harmony ruined the story for that scenario. How could she bear to relinquish this new kinship? She actually liked…mayhap even loved them. They were true sisters no matter what Stepmama or the fairy tales of old would have one believe.
Even with Pricilla’s wary, critical, and somewhat outspoken characteristics they cared for one another—like real sisters. Certainly, the first barrier had been difficult, but now it felt solid and right. Pricilla would never have put herself between Stepmama and Cinderella, otherwise. The thought of hurting either of them pierced her heart like a flaming arrow.
“Well?” Essie asked. “Cinde?” Essie’s tentative tone indicated askance awaiting an answer.
Cinderella hesitated, opened her mouth to say—say what? But, Pricilla, with her typical impatience and matter-of-fact, no-nonsense, calm straightforwardness took care of the matter by plowing over any consideration either she or Essie might have. “Well, I do not see the problem.” She snapped her fingers at Kira, Manette’s assistant. “Vous, vite!”
The poor thing tripped over her own feet, jumping to Pricilla’s command.
“The white shall be quite striking on you, Cinde, with your dark hair and eyes. Why do you hesitate? Quick, we are out of time.” Essie said, bustling to Pricilla’s commands as well. With a vengeance, Cinderella thought with a scowl. The stays down the back of Essie’s dress fell quickly apart.
Cinderella spun about, faced both of them. “I-I want you both to know—” she stopped. Her breath came rapidly. Her head swam with the rush of oxygen. She gulped for air. Her control teetered on a glass edge, ready to shatter. “These…past few days…have been…”
“Cinde, you are blabbering like a fool. Unhook her dress,” Essie told Manette.
Oh, heavens, she was hyperventilating. The chamber air swirled over them in a thick fog. She fanned her cheeks with her hands. It was too gauche to ask Essie for a bit of breeze, she supposed. Manette circled behind and tripped the hooks with a blast of irritating speed and proficiency.
Non! She must confess. Cinderella flexed her fingers and forced another deep breath. “These have been the best days in my life since Papa died,” she said in a rush. Tears blurred her eyes, clogged her throat. The green silk slid down and Kira clasped her hand, helping her over the sea of emerald folds.
Essie ran over and threw her arms around Cinderella. “Oh, Cinde, I’ll wear the white if it distresses you so. Please. Please do not cry. There have been enough tears, non?”
Cinderella returned her hug with a fierce intensity. “It’s not that,” she muffled against her shoulder. She straightened and set herself apart, and nodded to Manette.
The rich green silks cascaded over Essie’s body. Cinderella watched Essie’s reflection in the mirror with a sad smile. Yet, a sudden thrill rumbled through Cinderella. Essie would look her most stunning when they entered the ballroom.
Oui, it was time.
While Essie’s attention was absorbed in donning the green dress, Kira slid the glorious white masses over Cinderella’s head before. Tingling, shimmering particles touched the atmosphere.
As her head came through the wide neck, she caught Pricilla’s suspicious narrowed gaze, sweeping in to astonishment as the final transformation settled around Cinderella. The heap of cream fabric in the softest Chinese silk fell around her slight body. And as each fastener, stay by stay, molded her form, she wished for…for what?
The shimmers in the air morphed to a phosphorescence glow that could only be described as magical. Cinderella’s body prickled with chill bumps, making her feel both light-headed and dizzy. Panicked. She glanced about the chamber for a crack in the floor.
Pricilla’s quick sharp gasp brought Essie’s head around sharply. Her gaze shot straight to Pricilla’s focus—Cinderella. Silence deafened her, well, except for the blood pounding furiously through. Heat flaming her cheeks, Cinderella turned to the mirror in a slow thick motion. She met Pricilla’s accusing and Essie’s confused gazes in the glass.
“Je suis désolée. I’m sorry, I-I could not find a way—this must appear. Non. I-I should have told you.” Tears streamed down her cheeks. But a sudden moment of resilience gripped her. Cinderella threw her shoulders back, tilted her head up, spun and looked at Essie. “I love him, you know. Me.”
“But…but how?” Essie whispered. “How did you do it? You were at the ball. You are the mysterious princess.”
Cinderella slid to the floor on knees that no longer supported her. She covered her mouth with trembling fingers and closed her eyes against the hate and ridicule she would see in their expressions. A deathlike hush settled over the chamber. She gathered her courage and lifted her eyes to face their wrath.
But it wasn’t anger that met her. Essie’s mouth hung open, and Pricilla studied her with an intense practicality.
“I h-had a fairy godmother,” she stammered. “She did it to me.”
“A fairy godmother?” Pricilla echoed in disbelief.
“She did not do everything. You look—beautiful,” Essie choked out. “They are going to know. The minute we walk into that ballroom, they are all going to know. We cannot hide it!” Essie was stunned. But then a light lit her steady unblinking eyes. “That’s right; they are all going to know! How could I possibly marry Prince now?” Her relief would have been comical any other moment.
“Essie, quick. Help her up. She’ll muss the dress. Though, I must say with that crown on her head and those hoops surrounding her. She appears like a castle in the center of her own fortress poking out of puffy white clouds.”
“I want a crown,” Essie muttered rushing over.
“Crown?” Cinderella squeaked. Her fingers snaked up to her hair which had miraculously righted itself high above her head. Indeed a jeweled band wrapped her hair.
Pricilla tugged one arm, Essie the other, pulling Cinderella unceremoniously from the floor. The reprieve flooding her was severe enough to cause the lightheaded sensations that surely created more sparkles in the air. She hoped she would not faint; ’twas no time for such theatrics.
When she had her legs, and was certain they would hold, Cinderella met Essie’s eyes. Stark relief from Essie sparked with a glint of mischief, and they both turned to Pricilla.
“What should we do?” they demanded.