‘Come with me, come with me!’ said the prince after one of his footmen had helped Cinderella out of the carriage. The footman was tall and gangly, but he had kind eyes and a reassuring smile. She would have liked to talk to him, but there was no time as the prince strode into the castle, apparently expecting her to follow.
She suddenly found herself grateful for her old leather slippers. The glass shoes she’d worn during her last visit had been terribly pretty – with emphasis on the terrible. She was unused to any sort of heel and dancing in them for hours had pushed all her weight onto her toes, which had been crushed against the slippery, unforgiving surface.
And as if that weren’t enough, she’d ended the night running over rough ground with just the one shoe.
Her feet were complaining a little still, even in more comfortable footwear, but she managed to keep up. Which was all for the good, because the prince was clearly not in the mood to match pace with a sedate female companion.
Eventually they arrived at the ballroom. It seemed somehow smaller with its chandeliers unlit and without the noise and vibrations of hundreds of people talking and dancing. Cinderella looked up at the high windows and noticed, in the crisp daylight, that they were immaculately clean. She was just wondering how someone, or possibly several someones, got up there to carry out what must surely be a weekly task, at the very least, when the prince interrupted her train of thought.
‘Just look at this floor!’
Her gaze snapped down. The floor was made up of pieces of different coloured wood – pale hexagons tessellated in a regular pattern with darker, six-pointed stars. Each piece perfectly cut, the gaps between so slight that you couldn’t fit a hair between them. It was absolutely beautiful. Except…
‘Oh,’ she said, crouching and running her fingers over what should have been an smooth surface, but which was speckled with small, round dents.
Dents about the size of the heel of a lady’s shoe.
‘I told everyone,’ said the prince, ‘I was absolutely explicit. Flat slippers only. No heels. They ruin the floors! It’s really not that much to ask, is it?’
‘I didn’t know…’ said Cinderella, softly, straightening up.
‘One cannot easily tell,’ said the prince, apparently not listening, ‘under those ludicrous long ballgowns. If I’d noticed before you lost your damn shoe on the stairs I’d have had you change!’
‘I’m so very sorry, your highness, I—’
‘Who is going to pay for the repairs, that’s what I want to know? When I started looking I assumed this would be the work of someone from one of the most wealthy families. None of them would willingly admit to anything – they lie about what they eat for breakfast – but they’re so vain and gossipy I knew they’d love the idea of the prince seeking a mysterious lost dance partner. I thought once I had the right woman I’d seek reparations. Oh, honestly, who wears glass slippers, of all things? Ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous.’
‘I’m afraid I have no money, sire. Really, it was a misunderstanding. If there is anything I can—’
‘Yes, yes, I know, I know. I knew your father. He was a good man. And your stepmother is thoroughly obnoxious. Goodness knows what he was thinking there. If this had turned out to be her work I might’ve taken the opportunity to throw her, and her vile daughters, in the dungeon. But it wasn’t, was it? I have no idea how you managed to rustle up a gown and shoes, never mind a hairdresser, but given she had you locked in the attic, it wasn’t with her help. Was it?’
‘Ah, no, sire.’
‘You’re not going to tell me, are you?’
‘I… don’t think I can.’
‘Oh, very well!’ The prince pushed his hand through his fair hair. ‘As I say, I liked your father, and you seem decent. I don’t have the heart to punish you for what seems to be an innocent mistake. I suppose there’s nothing more to be done.’ He paused, giving Cinderella an appraising look. ‘Although… she had you cleaning for her, did she?’
‘My stepmother? Yes, sire.’
‘Hm. It will annoy her no end if she has to actually pay someone to wash her laundry and sweep out her fireplaces. Her spoiled daughters certainly aren’t going to do it…’ He looked thoughtful. ‘Would you like to work here instead? You’ll find I feed my staff well, and you get half a day off a week. What do you say?’
It wasn’t exactly the proposal Cinderella had been expecting, but, she’d think some years later, it actually turned out to be rather better.
Especially since she did, in the end, find time to talk to the kind-eyed footman.
This story is especially for my friend Krystyna, who has had more reason than most to want to throw 2021 into the bin. Let’s hope 2022 is a little brighter!