I am not evil. I am just a little twisted. But I am going to do something a little mean…
Damsel In Distress
There are certain things about Happily Ever After that require willful stupidity. It comes with a prince and a palace and the promise that you’ll be happy for always. If you don’t look too close. But, first, you have to give up any idea of, well, ideas
Sometimes, when we’re scrambling through the greasy streets of the lower west end, leaping and jumping, a swift group of girls shouting merrily to each other as we scatter through the streets like a handful of marbles a child has thrown, leading the guards a merry chase, I find myself thinking of Madame’s Academy and my parents, who put me there the moment I turned eight years old. I don’t miss any of it.
Happily Ever After is easy there. Which is why the school bears that name. Madame’s Academy Of Happily Ever After, a training school for princesses. She also makes certain that a princess gets matched up with the right prince, so any princess who is worth anything must go there or face a lifetime of people suspecting she might well have wished the crown upon her head instead of being born to it. And nobody wants a false princess, no matter how beautiful she is.
I remember how happy I was to be accepted there and I shiver. The day the invitation arrived with my name, Lucinda Merryweather, written across it in gold lettering so swirling and delicate that I almost couldn’t read it, I snatched it off the plate it was resting on and ran all the way to my mother’s grave to tell her. I still believed the lie. I still believed that happiness was mine by right of birth.
What they don’t tell you when you happen to be one of the elite princesses, part of a legacy that has made Damsel In Distress a lucrative career choice, is who the Happily Ever After is really for. They always hint that any princess should be ecstatic to find herself wed to her Prince Charming, that she will spend the rest of her life in perfect bliss. Yet I’ve never met a prince who was actually charming and princesses tend to have a very short life span, once they are wed.
Down here in the streets and in the forest we are wild things. We scramble for just about everything, steal what we must, and there are no ladies maids. You have to work for every scrap, if you want to survive. What happily ever afters we find are hard won and far from the glittering, storybook ending I once imagined. And that is fine with me.
It is Illya I owe this to. I have never forgotten that. It’s the reason I forgave her; without her, I’d be trapped in the life I thought I wanted, learning the harsh lesson of reality versus dreams with no hope of escape other than the death which is likely to have found me long before the perfect bloom of beauty had faded. That I might have gone on not thinking anything in order not to think about that is what chills me.
She came to the Academy when we were thirteen. I was already considered fairest of them all. That Illya, had she wanted, could have taken my title from me fueled a bitter jealousy. That she didn’t want to only made it worse somehow. Like she was graciously granting me something that was mine by right. Since I was eight years old, I’d been working to be everything my mother had been, the grand beauty with all the right graces and all the right manners. The bright, perfect flame meant to dangle from the arm of her prince like a piece of jewelry until some witch cursed her or a jealous rival poisoned her or childbirth murdered her. And I wasn’t failing to live up to the name I’d been granted. Madame even told me once that she thought I would surpass my mother.
It is all about the prince, of course. That is the reason we powdered and rouged and rubbed smelly oils into our scalps. That was the reason a princess would try to grow her hair out long enough to climb or shun all outside activities to keep her skin lily pale. I remember how proud I was of my delicate skin, not only pale, but so easily bruised that the smallest bump left me with a black and blue mark for a week. I was careful never to do anything to toughen it; the truest proof of a princess is her fragility and that was a visible sign of it.
My sheets had to be made of the purest silk and woven carefully, for the tiniest flaw could keep me up all night and no-one wants a princess with dark circles under her eyes. Madame would find the greatest of seamstress’ to make my gowns, so that the seams would not mark me and my jewels had to be chosen carefully, for anything too heavy or sharp would rub me raw. That this was a serious flaw, rather than a desirable quality, was never suggested. I never once stopped long enough to realize this would quite likely mean that my first child would kill me. Only now do I stop to wonder if that is why so many of us have step mothers – not all of them evil – or why so many of themhave only step children and take great pains to avoid pregnancy. My own step-mother has a resident witch whose only job is to keep her stocked with the herbs to prevent such a thing.
When Illya arrived, I remember looking down at her with loathing. My own hair was moon pale, my eyes the shadowed blue of a tropical sea. My skin was fresh milk with soft, rose hints that highlighted its flawlessness. Illya was that perfect honied gold and her hair the color of a raven’s wing. Her eyes were not brown, but black through and through. Even at thirteen she had a curvier body, the sort which, when she belly dances, drives men to madness. She can charm the snake easily enough, but it is the dragons she enjoys; the greatest of men will tell her their secrets without a second thought and she has often used that to our advantage. Back then I did not see a friend in her. I only saw a rival.
I didn’t have to worry; Illya had about as much interest in being a princess or taking my place as the fairest as a wildcat has in becoming a tame pet. Her hair was always tangled, often loose because she wouldn’t bother to do anything with it when she woke up. Her dresses, though fine, often had mud along the hems, snags or rents along the skirts, or stains of indeterminate origin on the knees. Madame was forever pulling her out of trees and lecturing her about deportment and Illya would listen, that dreaming half-smile on her full lips. Then she would run off into the forest instead of coming to learn how to pour tea or how to drop her handkerchief with just the right look of dismay.
All of this should have made me happy. Illya was a fringe princess, the sort that could, at best, hope for a self-made prince to rescue her or maybe an honored knight. Or fifth in line to a throne, but never one of the old families. At worst, a fringe girl would become a stepmother, always second to a ghost whose beautiful memory would never fade. Back then, it never occured to me that, had someone put Illya into a tower, she wouldn’t have needed rescuing. She’d have taken herself out of her prison, charmed the dragon, kicked the prince in the shin, and come home with her new pet flaming the countryside behind her. I may not have consciously thought it, anyway, but I think the knowledge was still there and it made me furious; that was just not right behavior for a princess. She was a poor reflection on all of us.
Typically, fringe princesses would watch the more perfect princesses and sigh as if their hearts were breaking. They often had red rims around their eyes because they cried so much and every night at least one would sneak out of bed to perch in the window, searching the night sky for a falling star to wish upon and their wishes were always the same. They wanted to be more like me or like Courtney or Augusta or Elaina. They wanted their chance at Happily Ever After, not the dull leftovers they were more likely to get.
As unhappy as they were, one might assume that Illya would have been concerned with getting them to stop all their sighing and all their wishing, to be more like her. But Illya has her own designs and, mad though they often are, I’ve learned to just go with it. They always work out, somehow. Not always the way she intends, but that’s alright. We aren’t in the business of neatly laid plans anymore. We’re in the business of adventure.
Three years slid by and Illya and I were often at odds. I would hurl cutting insults at her and she would look at me, that odd quirk to one corner of her mouth, then say something in a light, musical tone that would make the other girls laugh in spite of themselves. I would burn with rage inside, which often kept me awake at night; I couldn’t show it, but it was there, eating at me. What right did she have not to be wounded by my words? I was the perfect princess and she was just some wild, dirty thing stuffed in a dress.
And then the pea.
Of course a pea. The ultimate test of a princess’ heritage, one that only the best of princesses passed. I was my mother’s daughter and so it was no surprise that I passed. Had I not been ill, I would likely have been thrilled and gone on to be exactly what Madame and my parents, and all the kingdoms expected the princesses to be. If it ever occurred to me to question my happiness after my rescue, it would have been fleeting and quickly placed in a box I would never open again except to shove the thought back in when it had escaped.
But I did get ill. With such a delicate constitution, it is no wonder. Most of us weren’t sick as often as we should have been; fairy godmothers often heap health in with their other wonderful gifts and I suspect they know very well that we’ll need it. Just as they know we need some big magic to stay happy, charming, and quiet in the life that is planned for us. Madame further protected us, careful to keep drafts to a minimum and the fireplaces blazing. A ladies maid could be dismissed for letting her mistress’ fire burn too low or her porridge grow cold. But still, the illnesses would sometimes come.
I was the last to fall to it. It had been worse than usual, so there were whole hours where Madame would be instructing only me while the rest of them huddled in their beds, coughing and sweating the fever out of their pores. They were beginning to return to normal routine when I was struck with it. The first wave of dizziness ended me in bed and there I stayed for a week, moving in and out of deliriousness, barely able to keep down the thin chicken broth my maids brought for me. They might have waited to test me until I was well again, but nothing about that life was designed for my comfort, not really, and nobody much cared how I felt about the process.
I woke groaning and pushing my sweaty hair out of my eyes. When I pulled my arm from beneath me, it was covered in black bruises. I knew, of course. I could still feel the damned thing, prodding into my back like this tiny, sharp nail, right through the three feather mattresses that made up my bed. There were people in the room. A large, rather imposing man, a tall, sour faced woman, Madame, and, behind them, a prince. I knew he was a prince from the velvets he wore and the aloof, haughty expression on his face. He was no boy. He was at least thirty years and looked like he enjoyed his meals plenty.
“She certainly is delicate,” the woman said. She stepped forward and clasped my bruised forearm in cold, hard fingers. She was a step mother, of course. She blinked down at me, mouth puckered ever so slightly. “Lovely eyes.”
Maybe it was the fever, which had left me exhausted, or the last vestiges of delerium, but the thought that swept my mind was not a happy one, as I had always expected would accompany this moment. Instead, I wanted to shake off her pinching fingers and go back to sleep. After someone took that damn pea out of the small of my back.
“A little skinny,” the man said, eyeing me. There was something in his expression I didn’t like, a sort of searching that made me want to pull the covers up over my thin, white nightdress, straight to my chin; whatever he was looking for, it felt wrong.
“She is perfect,” the prince said. He sounded reasonable enough, but I thought it would be a rare day when he could don armor and stay on his horse long enough to meet the dragon in battle. Not that he really had to do much more than go through the motions.
The challenges used to be real. A prince would be sent out to do heroic deeds and save damsels. The dragons stole damsels, who were all too often princesses, and the princes would go cut the dragon’s head off and grab the girl for his wife. Now, it is all orchestrated. The girls get put in their towers, the dragon breathes a little fire then pretends to die, and the prince gets his bride. All very above board and particularly lucrative for the dragons since they prefer gold over damsels and keeping their heads is a nice bonus. That this boy would ‘rescue’ me was no question. And I did not feel the slightest bit happy at the prospect. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Madame showed the first family out and the next came in. This prince was much more the usual sort. Black hair, blue eyes, muscular, lithe, and likely to be as good on horseback as any of his knights. Most of the princes are spoiled brats. But some of them take enough interest in tradition to make it look good. I should have been thrilled; it was clear right away that his father was going to make certain to have me for his son and his mother, who looked too like him to be a step mother, seemed, at first, soft spoken, but nice enough.
“She is certainly beautiful,” the father said. Like the first man, his eyes lingered too long on the space beneath my chin and he did not even have the decorum to look ashamed when I pointedly drew my covers higher. “But perhaps we should ask my son.”
“I want her,” the prince said and there was this faintly childish cast to his voice, as if he was demanding a toy, though he could not have been younger than twenty.
“Her hair is a bit too pale, isn’t it,” his mother said, stepping forward to examine my silvery locks, her own shining like spun gold as it fell over her shoulder in a thick braid. Her eyes were paler than mine and slightly narrowed. “And she looks a little gray around the edges.”
“She’s simply been a little ill,” Madame said with a gracious smile. “Bad timing, I’m afraid. But Lucinda has been the fairest princess at Happily Ever After since she arrived at eight years old.”
“I don’t know,” the mother said, looking at her husband and I could see she wanted to turn me aside. The most shocking part was that I didn’t give a damn what they did so long as they took that blasted pea and left me in peace.
“I want her, Mummy,” And this time, the feeling that hit me was one of revulsion. I had not called my own parents anything but Mother and Father since the day they brought me to the academy. I had been told I had to grow up and I had taken pride in becoming the very picture of princess propriety. To hear that prince call his own mother ‘Mummy’ in a nasal, whining voice more suited to a small, spoiled child about to be denied something he wanted left me cold; how could this creature hope to be a hero? How could I be his wife and not hate him every time he addressed his parents like a toddler rather than a man? The irritation of the pea under my mattresses was growing along with my suspicion that, even though this wasn’t quite the way it sounded in stories, this was going to be my reality. Again they discussed me as if I wasn’t in the room. Or as though I was no more intelligent than a horse, a creature to be bought and sold, but not consulted or spoken to. That is how it always starts, really. Had I been in my right mind, I would have swallowed any doubts and soldiered on; this was what I’d been brought up to be and this was the life I’d been dreaming of since I was old enough to understand what I was.
They left, still discussing me, and Madame did not return – often there are only one or two suitable companions for a princess like me with such impeccable lineage. No one came to take the pea from under me. I was too weak to push aside my covers and get it myself and my ladies maids were no-where to be seen, probably dismissed by Madame so there were no other girls to distract from me. I rolled away from that sharp lump and managed to find a place on the edge where the pea did not touch me. I drifted into the delirious dreams born of fever.
When I woke again, it was dark outside. The large, pale moon hung framed in my open window, the stars glittering around it like a host of fireflies. Beneath it, perched in the most unladylike manner, was Illya. She was peering down at me, her dark eyes glittering with that mad energy that made her seem constantly one moment away from leaping up into a spinning, twirling dance of excitement.
“Word around the halls is that your prince has come,” she said.
“And what of it?” I asked, irritable; in order to stay off the pea, I had to press close to the edge of my top mattress, which meant I had to lay on my side and I badly wanted to lay flat. “That is what is supposed to happen. To normal princesses.”
“I caught glimpse of Mr. Tall Dark and Gorgeous,” she said. She was holding something in her hand which she began to polish carefully with the edge of her sleeve. I saw it was an apple and felt that familiar flash of annoyance with her; she had no respect for what she was at all. No princess with a shred of decency will touch an apple. “He’s a whiny little blighter, by the looks of ‘im.” She smiled that wicked smile at me. “But I suppose he’s a damn sight better than the other one. soft about the middle and the head, that one.”
I sighed. “Illya.”
“Lucinda,” she mimicked back, widening her eyes and tipping her head slightly in a look of innocence.
“I am tired, I am sore, and I still feel a little feverish. If this is all you have to talk about, then it can wait until morning. Or forever, if you like.” I didn’t want to say what I was thinking. That I didn’t want either of them. That I wanted the romance promised in all the tales, not the reality of being just another thing for a prince to own. I thought of the handsome prince’s father and shivered unhappily. There were always rumors about what happened with certain father-in-laws, but no-one believed them, of course. Only, it was hard to push them aside when I was getting the chills and trying not to think about the fact that nobody had remembered to take that pea out of my bedding or keep my fire blazing.
Illya hummed a snatch of a familiar tune and hopped out of the window, which she shut. She didn’t leave, though. She came to crouch beside the bed, her black eyes staring into mine. “You’re to meet with the handsome one tomorrow for your interview,” she said. “And when you prove that you are just as delicate and perfect a flower as there ever was, they will haul you off to some drafty tower. Mr. Perfect shall ride out the day after that to come rescue you. If there’s anything left to rescue.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked. I couldn’t understand the tears burning in my eyes or the sinking in the pit of my stomach.
“You’ve had a fever. You aren’t exactly strong on a good day, but now you’re really weak.” Her uncharacteristic seriousness remained and her voice was full of a gentle sadness.
“They’ll take care of me,” I snapped with a certainty I didn’t feel. “The tower will be no different than being here.”
She didn’t laugh at me. All the time I’d been taking stabs at her, trying to get under her skin, but you might have thought we were just best friends teasing each other the whole time; she actually looked distressed. She reached out, her slim fingers pushing my pale hair away from my face. “It won’t be. They never are. You’ll be lucky if there is a fireplace with wood in it. Not that it matters; you’ll have no servants to light it.” She laid her palm against my cheek. It was a little rough, but pleasantly cool. “You’ll die, Cinder.” The nickname caught at me; it felt like it should be an insult, but I couldn’t quite get there; it was full of fondness.
“Well then, I will die.” I tried to say it in a strong voice, instead it came out weak and full of tears.
She smiled, once again flaring up with mischievious excitement. “I could save you.”
“What do you know about fighting dragons?” I demanded.
She laughed and I was surprised to find that it was a silvery, tinkling thing, as bright and perfect as a dancing fairy. “More than that mincing little fop, I can promise you that. But I know a lot more about wishes.” She grew serious again. “Don’t let them take you. Let me save you instead.”
“And why would you care?” I asked.
“Because you’re better than this.” And that is the real Illya. She can look right at you and see straight through to the bottom. Whenever she is annoying me, whenever she seems too wild or too careless, I remember that she was the first in my entire life to think that I was worth more than just some prize to be won. “Then you can help me, Cinder.”
“Help you do what?” I murrmured. I was starting to spin away again, caught up in the tide of delirium.
She smiled and slid her hand under my mattresses. She pulled out the pea and held it up in the moonlight. Then she palmed it and grinned wickedly at me. “Help me save some damsels.”
“That sounds like fun,” I muttered into my pillow. I rolled onto my back, finally, blissfully able to lie flat. “What are we saving them from?”
“Princes,” she said and bit into her apple.
When I woke the next day, I felt wonderful. My bruises were gone and I felt stronger than I ever had in my entire life. I remember smiling as I was led to Madame’s chamber, where I was given a chair. I did not know anything was wrong until everyone else gave each other looks of shock, half standing, as if they weren’t sure if they should come to me or stay where they were. I frowned and checked myself. The conversation with Illya felt distant and I’d dismissed it as another of my fever dreams. Other than my lack of bruises, nothing was out of place. I assumed Madame had sent one of her god mothers to erase the marks and cure my fever; she would have wanted me to look perfect, so would have been willing to pay the steep price they demanded for such frivolities. I was properly groomed, wearing my best dress, sitting perfectly, so looked to Madame, perplexed. Her horror was obvious.
“What trickery is this?” the prince’s father growled.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. Madame stood so quickly that her huge chair fell over with a crash. She rounded her desk and flapped a hand at her ladies maids, who began hustling the protesting prince and his family toward the door. “Madame?” I asked. She didn’t answer. She closed her fingers around my wrist and pulled me up. She stared down at the seat of the chair with wide eyes. There was a tiny pea there, barely the size of the head of pin.
She looked back at me, then down at my arm. Her fingers were gripping me so hard they were digging into my flesh, her long, sharp nails drawing tiny drops of blood. But I felt no pain. In fact, I felt nothing at all.
Am I going to leave you without the rest of that story? Yes. Yes I am. I’ll finish it for the patrons, though.