I was born into a fairy tale,
Cinderella's dust-bin daughter.
Seemed like I was meant to fail,
Turning wine back into water,
My Mama's slippers shattered when
She turned around to run,
But I never thought that mattered and
My story is not done.
My mud-spattered boots left wet brown footprints on the gleaming white marble floors. It's like they say: home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. What they don't say (but which is heavily implied) is that neither party tends to be particularly pleased by the necessity.
A servant of some kind--I'm not here often enough to recognize them by their uniforms, pristine and pressed though they are--sniffed at me as I walked by. He was young, and I saw an older compatriot cuff him 'round the ear just before I turned a corner. That was probably an interesting conversation on both ends. It's not often that Queens' sisters walk around palaces in muddy boots, worn travel gear, and breeches.
My sister met me on the stair and embraced me. Despite our vastly different lifestyle choices, Cinders lifted me right up off the floor with her enthusiasm. Cinders was my little sister in name and birth order only; she'd always been of the sort of stature that could survive minor famines. I tended toward waif-like at first glance, though seamstresses always despaired over making gown sleeves fit over the well-developed muscles on my arms, and hairdressers tutted over the state of my knife-hacked locks. I didn't often make it to the castle, since though Cinders was always happy to see me, her new family was generally not. Getting Cinders and me out of the trap of our mother's life had taken a lot of manipulation and a great deal of unladylike behavior that I was unwilling to give up when Cinders's fairy tale came true.
Fortunately, there's always work for a wanderer who knows a little magic and a few tales and is willing to put her back into her work for a good cause.
Cinders finally put me down and I smiled and her and put my hand over her larger-than-usual belly. "Third one on the way?" I asked.
"Boy or girl this time, Ash?" she answered with a question. "The Kingdom wants its spare, of course, but its Papa wouldn't mind another daughter to spoil."
My eyes fluttered shut and I reached into the healer's magic that had been the baptismal gift of my mother's fairy godmother. As first-born and responsible, I got healer's magic and a will of cold iron, stubborn as a donkey and patient as a tree. Cinders, as second-born and hopeful, got charm magic and a joyful disposition, cheery as a magpie and gentle as a lamb.
"Girl again," I said. "The spare will have to wait."
"Drat," she replied, but I could tell she only teased. "Sisters. Can't live with them, and the biddy down the lane won't pay enough to make it worth my while to sell you."
"Brat-child!" I exclaimed. I'd said that to her often enough when we were little, slaving away next to Mama in what should've been her house. Back then, it'd been a joke of blackest humor. The biddy down the lane would've paid a pittance for my sister when she was a little, but when she got fair of hand and hair it became a different matter. By then I'd seen the writing on the wall long enough ago that I'd roped our poor old fairy godmother and a number of her friends--my friends, now, too--into helping us. Lucky for us both that I'd never been the kind of little girl that girl-sellers want young. By the time they got interested in me, I could fight them off.
We set off down the hall toward my usual guest rooms. "So what brings my wayward heathen sister to call?" Cinders asked.
"The usual," I replied. "Out of money."
Cinders laughed and spun me through the door. The servants, who worshipped my sister hand and foot since she'd taken the household in hand and dropped a quarter of the budget without removing a single person from their position, had already prepared the rooms, and the usual flock of tidy females awaited me.
The servants locked the door behind us and set to work, stripping me and getting down to the grit to make me presentable to Court. The first time this had happened, years and years ago now, I'd flipped out on them. Now I pretty much figured I'd leave all the work to them and keep chatting with Cinders.
"Where'd you lose it all this time?" she asked, delighted.
"There was a terrible fire," I replied with a straight face. Several of the younger servants, faces I didn't recognize, exchanged scared glances. The older women, who'd had their places since before Cinders and I became part of the royal household, just grinned at them.
"A fire, hmm?" Cinders twinkled at me.
I can't twinkle at all, dammit. There were times it would've come in handy. Oh, well. Cinders can't break a man's nose in one blow. We all have our talents.
"Yes, at an orphanage." One of the younger maids gasped. "Fortunately there was a storyteller passing by that night, and everyone was out on the lawn when it happened." A general sigh of relief. "What else could I do? I stuck around to make sure the building went up properly, of course. The funniest thing was that in order to house all the children who'd been living there, we had to double the size of the building. Otherwise they wouldn't all fit! And the old orphanage manager got sacked for leaving their fire grate open and burning the place down. Sad day. The new managers are a wonderful family, though, so all's well that ends well, eh?"
Cinders's twinkle was on full-force. "With you about, certainly."
The money had been an anonymous donation, left on the temple's front steps and earmarked for the orphanage. The timing had been the hardest part, trying to get everyone out of the building long enough for the fire to get going and actually burn the whole building down. Nothing of that building could stay, or they'd just rebuild it instead of starting from scratch.
Though by the time I got around to setting the fire, the manager had left my bum black and blue from pinching, and a couple of the older girl's faces looked the same. I left a healer's curse on him, that he would catch every plague and sore he come across.
We traded stories while the maids fancied me up in the style to which Cinders had become accustomed. My niece and nephew were thriving, my aunt-in-law was a crazy harridan but loved her grandchildren dearly, my brother-in-law was doing well, though in deep mourning still for his father, and the renovations on the south wing were coming along nicely.
I'd been telling the truth, when I told Cinders I was back because I was out of money, but not the whole truth and she knew it. I was tired. The road was long and hard, and for every child I got out of a miserable situation, ten more languished in them. Queen Cinders worked as hard as she could to get better care for children of every class and family across the kingdom, but laws can only do so much. My charge and charter as a knight of the Crown (and hadn't that stuck in the dowager Queen's gullet) was to help those the law left hanging.
Seeing child after child in places worse even than step-grandmother's kitchen wore on me. I sought my sister's solace when it got to be too much.
And, true, when I ran out of money.
Fancied up, clean and coiffed and starving, the maids let me loose. Cinders, with a few touchups on her style, led the way to the door. Then she paused, looking back at me, and asked, "Will you stay, this time?" as she always did.
For the first time in many visits, I needed to pause and consider it. I grew weary. I traded favors with an every-growing network of savory and less-than-savory people across the realm, magical and mundane alike. I made hard choices and others lived with the consequences. The burden was heavy.
But Cinders smiled sadly at me like she already knew my answer. Cinders, who grew up with soot on her cheeks just like me, who now worried about feasts and taxes and keeping the titles of ambassadors straight. She worked as hard as any of us, with a smile and a kind word, but she'd gotten her prince and her happily ever after.
I shook my head.
I loved the work and the road and the friends I made, unsavory and magical and dangerous, the lot. I loved seeing children transform like Cinders had--the girls I'd given the chance to be seamstresses instead of corner-ghosts, the boys who work in stables instead of middens, the faces clear and clever instead of bruised and closed.
I'm in all their stories, and I'm not finished yet.
I was born into a fairy tale,
Never tried to find Prince Charming.
Had a different ship to sail,
Didn't find the waves alarming,
For nobody gets to tell me
If I've lost of if I've won.
When they ask you what befell me,
Say my story is not done.