She came in after the shop closed for the day. Edward had thought he’d locked the door. Maybe he’d forgotten.
“Tell me all your troubles, dear.” She was motherly, plump, and dressed like a palace servant, though she spoke French like a noble.
Edward leaned on his broom. He’d never seen her before, but he found himself opening his heart like she was family. Luckily, his French was pretty good, from dealing with customers all day. “I don’t know how I’m ever going to meet a nice girl. The noble girls won’t look at me, not that I really like any of them anyway, and the girls who work at the palace are all a bunch of social climbers, trying to catch a prince. No one wants someone like me.” He winced at how self-pitying he sounded, but she didn’t give him time to take it back.
“Don’t you worry! I know just the thing! Catching the eye of a noble girl - or boy - is my specialty!” She waved her hands, which left sparkly trails in the air.
His mouth was open to say, I don’t care if she’s noble, I just want to meet someone nice, but at the sight of what was surely magic, he was stunned into silence. When the sparkles faded, a set of fine clothes lay over the worktable, where his father’s work apron had been. Good thing he wiped that table down already.
“You’ll go to the prince’s birthday ball tonight,” the woman announced. “Put these clothes on - oh dear, you’d better clean your fingernails, first - and you can’t fail to impress a beautiful princess and live happily ever after!” She had tears in her eyes. “No need to thank me, just think of me as your godmother!”
He looked at the clothes. He’d never paid much attention to noble fashions. They did look much finer than his own. Automatically, he focused on the shoes. “These are wrong. The heels are two inches high for gentlemen this season.”
“What?” She startled out of her misty reverie.
“I should know. My father and I just finished making about fifty pairs.” It was profitable, being the king’s official shoemaker, but sometimes the work was pretty silly. The prince got the idea to order shoes with two-inch square heels one day, and then everyone had to scramble to have some made just like them. Nobles, honestly.
She picked the shoes up and tossed them into the air where they disappeared. A sparkly wave left behind another pair, with fashionable two-inch heels. They even had flowers embroidered all over them in silvery thread. They were gorgeous. His father would have charged a fortune for them.
“There.” She dusted her hands together. “Have fun tonight, darling. Be sure to leave the ball before midnight, though. That’s when the spells wear off, and all this will disappear.”
“Wait, they aren’t going to let me into the ball.” She probably wouldn’t let him keep the shoes now, even to show them to his father. “You have to show your invitation to the footman at the door. I don’t have one.”
She made a face at him. “You’re very negative for someone whose greatest wish is being magically fulfilled.”
She started making sparkles in the air again. His greatest wish? She thought he will meet the girl of his dreams tonight at the prince’s birthday ball, full of empty-headed nobles in really nice shoes. Well, maybe she knew what she was doing. She was magic.
His - godmother - handed him an blank piece of card. He turned it over. Blank on both sides.
“It’ll work,” she said. “Trust me.”
She was magic, he reminded himself again. “All right.”
“Remember to leave before midnight! Or you’ll be wearing that leather apron and nothing else!” She tittered, and vanished.
The footman looked Edward up and down skeptically. He stood up straight, feeling wobbly in the heeled shoes, and handed over the card, certain that he was about to be kicked right down the palace stairs.
The footman’s face went blank for a moment. Then he bowed. “Good to see your lordship again.”
“Um.” Edward edged past him, wondering who the card said he was. Hopefully the footman wouldn’t get in trouble later.
Inside, the ballroom was stuffed with people and a ridiculous number of candles, their flickering light reflecting from the gilded ornaments all over the walls and the guests. A full orchestra played while dancers swirled around the middle of the room. The walls were lined with people chatting and drinking. Edward automatically started looking for shoes that he and his father had made. He’d spotted four pairs when a voice said, “Who are you?”
A couple holding punch glasses were looking him up and down, just as the footman had. How did nobles introduce themselves? You didn’t say a title, you said…
“Edward of the Last,” Edward blurted. He bowed to hide his wince. With luck they wouldn’t get the reference to shoe making.
“And what are you wearing, Sir Edward of the Last?” the woman asked.
“They still dress like that, where you come from?” The man laughed, and the pair swanned away without giving their names in return. Rude.
Edward looked down at his clothes, and then around at everyone else’s. Everyone was in velvet, straight simple cuts. Tunics and straight-legged trousers for the men and flowing dresses for the women, all in rich tones. Garnet, emerald green, sapphire blue. His outfit was a heavy black wool jacket over a shirt with a stiff collar. The pants flared out and then got tight at the knee, to show off his calves in silk stockings.
The shoes at least were perfect.
Everyone was whispering and looking at him now. Damn if he was going to run away with everyone watching. He held his head up and made his way to the punch table. Maybe they’d get distracted and in a few minutes he could make a quiet escape. He dipped himself a glass of punch, rehearsing a few choice words for his “godmother” if he ever saw her again.
A flash of pastel pink caught his eye, in the sea of jewel-toned velvet. It was a girl, leaning against the wall, in a frothy, ruffly pale pink gown. She looked about as miserable as he felt. On impulse, he dipped a second glass of punch, and brought it over.
She looked so terrified as he approached that he opened with “I’m sorry, I just thought you might like a drink.” Crap, he forgot to speak French to her. She’d know he was a commoner.
“Thank goodness.” She accepted the glass, not even raising an eyebrow at his use of vernacular. “I was petrified you were going to ask me to dance.”
“You don’t like dancing?” He hadn’t considered it. It would just give everyone a better chance to stare at his unfashionable clothes.
“I would love it, but…” she blushed. “My shoes are really uncomfortable.”
“Can I see?” Her feet were hidden under the long, ruffled skirts. Longer than any other woman’s skirts, he realized, as well as more ruffled and, um, pinker. She was dressed inappropriately too, just like him. She held out a foot. Edward blinked a few times. “Are those-”
“But where would you get… who would make such a thing?” Glass shoes? And he thought the prince had silly ideas about fashion. This girl took the prize.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” She didn’t sound like a noble proud of her innovative fashion sense. She sounded resigned to her fate.
“Please,” said Edward. “Try me.”
“They were - a gift.” She rolled her eyes. “My, um, godmother.”
Edward closed his eyes. “You don’t say.”
This was apparently all the encouragement the girl needed, because the rest of her story poured out, breathlessly. “Only she speaks French. And I learned it mostly from books, and from eavesdropping a bit on my stepsister’s lessons, because it’s not like I ever get French lessons of my own, so my accent is, um, pretty awful. So, I tried to ask her for slippers made of fur, de vair, because my feet get cold. Only she heard glass, de verre. And before I could explain, she was gone, and I had glass shoes. And they are not only cold, but also hard and uncomfortable, and I’m terrified to dance in case they break and I slice off a toe.”
“That would be a gruesome end to the evening,” he agreed. “Did her hands sparkle when she made your things appear?”
“How did you know?”
“Where do you think I got my inappropriate finery?” He gestured to his out-of-date clothes.
She giggled, suddenly glowingly pretty. “I didn’t know she was godmother to other people too. I guess she’s too busy to keep up with trends. Your outfit is as out of place as my frilly dress.”
“I got off easy! I didn’t get glass shoes!” He glanced around the ballroom. Finally, it looked like most people had decided to snub them rather than stare. Time for the quiet escape. He set the punch glass down. “Do you want to come downstairs to the shop? I can lend you something more comfortable for your feet.”
He guided her through the deserted stairways and passages, gradually colder and darker, until they made it down to the modest rooms where the artisans with royal patronage lived and worked. Belatedly, he glanced at her, limping along in her awful shoes. “I guess you are figuring out I’m not a real noble. My father is the king’s shoemaker.”
“Did you think I was a real noble? Eavesdropping on my sister’s French lessons and relying on magic to give me one nice outfit?” She sighed. “I actually liked this dress until I saw everyone else’s.”
He unlocked the workshop and lit a couple of candles at the embers of the fireplace. His father would no doubt ask him what he’d been doing, wasting them. The room just seemed so cold and inhospitable. “It’s not much,” he apologized. Would she look down on his father’s shop, on him?
She looked surprised. “I was just thinking how pleasant it was. You can see someone loves these tools. Takes care of them. Takes pride in their work.”
The rows of tools looked tidy. They always did. It didn’t seem special to Edward. “I think we have a pair of fur slippers in your size that some Countess or other hasn’t picked up yet.”
He found them for her, and she stepped out of the glass ones with relief. “Oh, these are bliss. So soft and warm.”
“Are you cold?” The fluffy pink dress didn’t look very appropriate to the weather, now that he thought of it. He stirred the fire up and added wood. His father would ask about that, too.
“Listen, you can still hear the orchestra a bit!” She cocked her head.
“We are downstairs from the ballroom.” She tucked the glass shoes awkwardly into the sash of her dress, hiding them behind her back. “Dance with me?”
Edward bowed gravely, like the nobles before they danced. She giggled and bobbed a curtsy. Her hands were cold in his, but her cheeks flamed red. She followed his clumsy lead effortlessly, and they waltzed around the room. It was nice having his arm around her.
“My name’s Edward,” he said, rather belatedly.
She blushed again. “I was named Cinder.” She hid her face against his shoulder. “I’m the ashes left after my mother burned out and died. I hate it. I wish I could be called something else.”
“Ashes?” Edward looked at the fire, which he had just built back up from glowing embers. “Isn’t a cinder like an ember? Still burning inside, just waiting for more fuel so it can burst into flame?”
She pulled her gaze up to meet his. “Really?”
Looking at her face, Edward said, “Definitely.”
The music changed then, and they took a moment to sort out the new, slower rhythm. She moved closer to him, and rested her head on his shoulder again. “This is wonderful. Almost perfect. I wished to dance at the ball and to see the prince, and I almost got my wish. We are almost at the ball, anyway.”
She sounded so wistful that Edward found himself saying, “We can dance at the ball.”
She pulled back. “You wouldn’t mind?”
“Let’s go back upstairs.” It wouldn’t kill Edward to be stared a bit more, so that she could get her wishes. “The prince likes to be fashionably late to his own parties, but he’s bound to show up soon. You can see him if you want.” All the girls were after princes. That was just how the world worked.
“Oh! What time is it? I have to make sure to leave-”
“Before midnight?” Edward had almost forgotten too. “We’ve got time.”
They retraced their path up to the ballroom, stairways and halls growing warmer and brighter as they went. Edward offered his hand, and the girl took it. He spun her onto the dance floor, more confident after their practice downstairs. A few people whispered and laughed, but they seemed far away compared with Cinder in his arms, glowing with delight. In the brighter light, her eyes were brilliantly blue. He could hardly look away.
She giggled, breaking the moment. “Look at that woman’s dress! So low-cut! It shows everything!” She buried her laugh in his shoulder. “Mine may be too frilly, but at least I don’t have to worry about falling out of it.”
Before Edward could think of a response to this, a footman shouted something. Everyone stopped what they were doing and bowed.
“What is it?” she whispered in his ear.
“The prince.” Edward looked at the shoes first. Still the two-inch square heels. There wouldn’t be a flood of new business then. The rest of the prince’s outfit was new, black and white velvet with lots of glittery ornaments. Maybe the tailors would be getting a lot of requests for black and white tunics now.
“Wow.” Cinder was breathless. “They weren’t kidding about how handsome he is.”
Edward supposed he was. In an overly foppish sort of way. The prince offered his hand to a lady, and the orchestra started playing again.
Cinder turned back to Edward to finish their dance. “Thank you,” she said.
“I wouldn’t have got my wishes if it weren’t for you. I wouldn’t have danced, and I would have cold feet, and I’d have left before getting to see the prince.”
She looked so happy that Edward didn’t mind feeling like a prince-substitute. “I’m glad you got what you wanted.” Her radiant eyes captured him for another long moment. Someone tapped him on the shoulder, making him jump.
“May I cut in?”
Cinder’s jaw dropped. Edward turned around to see the glittery prince. Damn him. “Of course, your highness.” He stepped back. Was he supposed to bow? His highness wasn’t looking at him anyway. Apparently royalty wasn’t immune to the brilliant eyes either. The prince swept Cinder away in a more vigorous, flashier version of the dance they’d been doing. Of course. He threw a stupid ball practically every month. He would be a great dancer. They looked amazing together, Edward had to admit. Maybe it was time for him to beat a retreat. It wasn’t quite midnight yet, but he might as well leave now.
At least Cinder had gotten her wishes, and more. She’d danced at the ball and even danced with the prince. Probably he’d fall in love and marry her. It was none of Edward’s business, really. In fact, he’d be happy for Cinder if she became a princess.
Edward stomped downstairs. Better make sure the fire had burnt safely down, before he went to bed. He’d got his wish too, he realized, letting himself into the shop. He’d met a nice girl. Next time he’d remember to wish for a nice girl that liked him back. And for the prince to be occupied elsewhere. He threw out the stumps of the candles they’d used and tidied up the shop. A gap on the shelf caught his eye where something was missing. Oh - the fur slippers he’d lent Cinder. It was tempting to let her keep them, but Countess Whoever would be wanting them, and his father would want to be paid for them. It was almost midnight now. Maybe he could catch Cinder as she left, without having to go back to the ballroom. He headed for the palace’s front gate.
After the grand entryway, a long flight of stairs led down to the gravel drive. A delicate carriage stood there, with four impossibly elegant, supernaturally patient, white horses. None of them stomped a foot in the cold or shook a head at having to wait. Maybe they were really well trained, but Edward figured this was exactly the carriage the Godmother would magic up. It had to be Cinder’s.
It was the only carriage. No one left a royal ball at such an early hour as midnight, unless magically compelled. It would be the perfect moment to catch her and discreetly ask for the slippers back. Edward trotted down the stairs to wait by the carriage. She couldn’t miss seeing him there. The coachman looked at him rather blankly and didn’t speak. Maybe he was bespelled, like the footman that Edward had given the invitation to. Poor fellow.
Minutes passed. Edward squinted up at the stars, trying to guess how long it was until midnight. It had to be close. He should be able to hear the church bell chime at the hour.
A door slammed inside the palace. The church bells started to ring: one, two. Running footsteps echoed through the entryway, and a slim pink figure appeared at the top of the stairs. Three, four. She was cutting it close. Five, six. She stumbled, halfway down the stairs, and Edward leapt forward, uselessly, much to far away to catch her. Seven, eight. Something clinked, but she was upright again and sprinting down the rest of the stairs. Nine, ten.
At the carriage door, she whirled to face him.
“I’m sorry! I need the slippers!" Eleven, twelve rang as Edward spoke, and his fine, dated suit dissolved into sparkles. Damn, he’d forgotten that his clothes would disappear too. When his vision cleared, he was wearing nothing but underwear under his father’s leather apron. Barefoot in the winter night. Chilly.
Cinder was in a brown dress covered with patches and mended spots. She kicked the fur slippers off her feet. “I’m so sorry. I lost track of time.” She almost threw them at him, and reached for the carriage.
But it was gone. A pumpkin sat in the snow, and several confused mice washed their whiskers before fleeing. Toward the palace kitchen, Edward noted absently. One of the dainty white horses, or perhaps the wordless coachman, had turned into a bay plow horse, who observed them with mild interest. Cinder snatched its lead line. “Give me a boost!”
Voices and footsteps resonated down the stairs from the palace. “Find her!” someone shouted.
“Are they following you?” Edward knit his fingers together and let Cinder place her knee on them so he could leg her up onto the plow horse’s wide back. Her skirts slid up, showing a lot of distracting bare leg.
“Thank you,” Cinder said. “So much. It was amazing.” She kicked the plow horse, who broke into a jog, then, reluctantly, a pretense at a gallop, as footmen poured down the stairs, shouting at each other.
Edward picked up the fur slippers, and then the pumpkin, thinking vaguely that he should remove the evidence for her. He wandered back down to the shop. At least he could replace the slippers. Maybe he and his father could eat the pumpkin. Was it still good to eat after having been a coach? He could present it to his father as compensation for the candles he’d wasted.
Edward slept late the next morning, and woke up to his father arguing with someone in the shop, separated from his bed by a thin wall. That Countess. He’d forgotten to put the fur shoes back on the shelf.
In a panic, he grabbed for clothes. Were the shoes dirty or anything? Would they be able to tell that he’d lent them to some stranger to dance in? He snatched the fur slippers up and burst through the door.
“Here they are! I can explain!”
His father turned his scowl away from a liveried palace servant and toward Edward. “Explain what?”
Edward tried to get his sleepy brain to switch gears. “Um, I must have been dreaming. What’s going on?” He edged over to the shelf and put his back to it before easing the fur slippers back into place.
“The prince requires the services of the royal cobbler,” the servant announced. He frowned at Edward’s father, who frowned right back. He hated it when people called him a cobbler instead of a shoemaker. “You will accompany him as he looks for the mystery girl from the ball.” The servant gestured dramatically and held up one of Cinder’s glass slippers. “She left behind one of her shoes.”
Clink, Edward remembered. On the stairs. Why hadn’t it disappeared with the rest of the magicked-up clothes?
“The prince wishes to find the girl who owns the match to this shoe,” the servant said. “He wishes your expert opinion, in order not to be deceived by any false matches. Please be ready in ten minutes to ride with the prince.”
“It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of,” said Edward’s father. “I’m an expert on normal shoes, not stupid ones. I’m not going to ride around all day looking for a girl who wears glass shoes. I have real work to do. Can’t the prince find his own girl? What, did she have a bag over her head at this ball? He never saw her face?”
The servant opened his mouth, but Edward cut him off. “I’ll go, father.”
They stared at Edward, until the servant said, “Your son, yes? Would you say he is as qualified as you are for this duty?”
Edward’s father snorted. “No one is especially qualified to identify glass shoes, so absolutely. Yes, he’s as qualified as me.”
“That is acceptable.” The servant turned to Edward. “Please be ready to attend the prince in ten minutes, at the palace gate.”
Edward nodded. The servant left.
“Why on earth do you want this job?” His father rolled his eyes. “It’s ridiculous and they didn’t even offer to pay for our time.”
“I met the girl,” Edward blurted. “The girl with the glass shoes.”
“Ohhh.” His father smiled for the first time that morning. “Now the mystery clears up. But why would you want a girl silly enough to wear-”
“It wasn’t her fault, I’ll explain later.” Edward found boots and cloak while he talked. “I’ve got to hurry.”
“Don’t get too attached.” His father stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “The prince is after this one now.”
Edward gulped. “I know. At least I’ll get to see her again.”
Or maybe not, Edward thought, as they left what seemed like the ten thousandth village, without seeing Cinder. Maybe they’d never find her. Maybe the other shoe had vanished, like the rest of the magic clothes. But surely Cinder herself hadn’t vanished?
Maybe she’d come from much farther away, brought by magic. Edward sighed, bumping inexpertly in the saddle of his borrowed horse. The poor beast had its ears permanently pinned back, showing its opinion of Edward as a rider.
The next stop might have been a fine manor for a minor noble once, but it was rundown and the grounds were overgrown. Edward, and presumably his horse, were just glad to be standing still for a minute. The prince’s footman knocked on the door, and a sour-faced woman answered.
“The prince is seeking throughout the land,” the bored footman recited, “for the young lady who wore shoes like this to the ball last night please madam did any young ladies from this household attend the ball wearing such shoes.” He held the glass slipper up carefully.
The woman’s eyes lit up. “Why, yes, I believe those shoes belong to my daughter.”
One of those. Edward shifted in his saddle. They’d had quite a few people “recognize” the shoe today.
The daughter was produced. Edward was unsurprised to see that it was not Cinder. The prince still looked hopeful. Did he really not remember Cinder’s face?
“I’m afraid the other one broke,” the girl cooed, “and I threw it away. Alas. But here, let me try it on.”
Right, because if she had the same shoe size as Cinder that would prove… what exactly?
The girl slipped her foot into the shoe, which fit perfectly. “How I loved these slippers,” she purred. “I’m so happy to have at least one of the lovely things back.”
“Then it was indeed you at the ball last night?” The prince slid off his horse, graceful as ever, and stepped up to take the girl’s hand. “I thought I might never find you.”
“I’m so happy you did,” said the girl. Someone snickered behind the kitchen door, and the girl’s mother kicked it shut, provoking a yelp. In a familiar voice.
Edward climbed down from his horse, with some difficulty. The solid ground felt wonderful under his boots. He skirted around the prince and the girl, who were holding hands and staring into each others eyes, while everyone else billed and cooed around them. He opened the kitchen door. Cinder held a hand to her nose, still wearing the patched dress.
“Edward!” She kept her voice low.
She peered past him to look at the lovebirds. “How many times do you think she will say ‘I’m so happy’ before she thinks of something else?”
“Cinder, don’t you want to tell him? It’s your shoe! That should be you!” He took her arm to pull her out into the light.
“No!” Her harsh whisper was loud enough to make the sour woman - her mother? - glare at her, but she didn’t slam the door again.
Cinder yanked her arm free. “I was petrified that idiot was going to find me and propose! She’d make me say yes!” She pointed her chin at the sour woman. “This is perfect, she’ll be much happier to have my stepsister marry him, and he doesn’t seem to know the difference, the idiot.”
“The shoe fit,” Edward said, stupidly.
“Yeah, I have the same small feet as her. Which means I’ve been wearing her cast-off shoes for years. About time I got some benefit from it.”
“Don’t you still have the other one?”
“No, it must have vanished with the frilly dress. I can’t think why that one stuck around. Almost led him right to me.”
“You really don’t want to marry the prince.” Edward was having trouble with this.
“Really don’t,” Cinder said. She peered at her stepsister again. “Those two deserve each other as far as I’m concerned. She’s awful and he’s a moron.”
The prince was clearly getting ready to take the sister away. There might never be another opportunity, but Edward couldn’t quite spit out a proposal then and there. They’d only spent one evening together. “Would you, would you like to come back for dinner with me and my father?”
Her eyes lit up, taking Edward’s breath away. “I would love to!”
He took her hand. She’d have to ride behind him. The horse would have to put up with it. He wasn’t letting her ride with anyone else.
The prince laughed, and Edward realized he was looking at them. “I see the romance in the air is contagious! Lady,” he directed himself to the sour woman, “it seems that while your daughter has captivated me, your servant has worked her wiles on my servant! Will you give permission for them to wed as well?”
“Your servant?” Edward protested. He worked for his father, a small business owner.
“My wiles?” Cinder protested, sounding equally offended.
The sour woman was loud enough to cover both of their objections. “She is not a servant! This is my stepdaughter! She won’t marry some working man! She deserves a noble marriage herself!”
Cinder spluttered with outrage. “You’ve treated me like a servant for years! I want to marry him and you can’t stop me!”
Edward noted with interest that his shyness about proposing didn’t seem to have slowed matters down much. He squeezed Cinder’s hand.
The prince eyed Cinder’s patched dress, and turned back to the stepmother. “Come now, madam! Don’t be carried away by greed. Your daughter is marrying me! That’s a good enough marital catch for any one family! No need to pretend your servant here is a second daughter. Who would dress their own child like that, after all?” He looked at the stepsister’s respectable daytime dress, then back at the ragged Cinder, who stuck her tongue out at her stepmother.
“Let them marry!” the prince commanded. “I won’t have anyone unhappy, when I am this happy!” He gazed at the stepsister, who simpered, “I’m so happy,” yet again. Cinder giggled and slapped a hand over her mouth.
Edward cleared his throat in order not to laugh, before he said, “Thank you, your highness.”