art by Cheryl Owen-Wilson
The Wrong Foot
by Stephanie Burgis
Stephanie Burgis grew up in America, but now she lives in Wales with her husband (fellow writer Patrick Samphire), their two sons, and their crazy-sweet border collie mix, Maya. She has published over 30 short stories in various magazines and anthologies, and her trilogy of lighthearted Regency fantasy novels--starting with Kat, Incorrigible--has been published in both the US and the UK. You can find out more (and read sample chapters of her novels) on her website: www.stephanieburgis.com.
Needless to say, I didn't want to try on the slipper in the first place.
"Why should I?" I asked Mama when she came to drag me away from my books that morning. "We both know I'm not the girl they're looking for. I was standing by your side last night, remember, when she first arrived. We both commented on how taken the prince was by her. You made a rude comment about the size of her collarbone, if you recall."
"I haven't the slightest recollection," Mama said, with a typically airy disregard for the facts. She was already sweeping through my closet, tossing fresh undergarments onto my bed. Mama may look dainty, particularly next to me, but she is capable of creating an entire whirlwind of activity when inspired. Her head was buried in my closet, my finest silk stockings flying over her shoulder as she called back: "And neither have you, from this instant onward. The prince has sworn that whoever fits that shoe will be his bride!"
"A deeply impractical way to find his missing dance partner." I shook my head, setting one finger in my book to mark my place. "It certainly fits his appalling reputation, though. Has anyone suggested that he simply look at maidens' faces as a better way to recognize the girl he loves? Or was her face not actually what he was looking at last night?"
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"Luckily," said Mama, "your bosom is entirely satisfactory, so he won't be disappointed. And your collarbone is much finer than hers anyway! Now"--as she emerged triumphantly from my closet--"put this on."
I blinked at the gown she was holding out to me. "It's an evening gown."
She tapped her foot imperiously. "We are in a hurry, Sophia."
"It's also ten o'clock in the morning!"
But of course she had her way, as always. I felt utterly absurd as I followed her into our parlor, my shoulders bare and the rose-colored silk gown only barely clinging to my famous (or at least satisfactory) bosom. The man who stood directly behind the prince, wearing a sedate black frock coat, widened his eyes at the sight of me. They were rather appealing hazel eyes, actually. I felt a momentary pang of regret as I saw them, and rather wished that I could somehow let him know I hadn't chosen this absurd outfit myself.
But the prince, standing before him, seemed to take it perfectly in stride. He was a prince, after all. Mothers had probably sent their daughters after him wearing far less than this. At any rate, I could tell just by looking at him that he was in a Mood. His chin was lifted in heroic determination; his handsome face looked beautifully anguished; his collar-length blonde hair, which had been perfectly slicked back last night, was now in perfectly romantic disarray.
I wondered how long his servants had had to work that morning, to disorder it quite so perfectly.
"Your Highness." Mama floated into a curtsey, and at a jab of her elbow, I followed suit, trying not to fall out of my bodice on the way. "Of course you already know my dear Sophia," Mama fluttered. "After dancing with her for so long last night..."
The man behind the prince coughed into his fist. He, I took it, had bothered to look at faces, unlike the prince. I could see it in his eyes.
I hadn't noticed him at the ball last night--I'd spent most of the evening either hiding behind potted palms to escape Mama's terrifyingly implacable mission to find me dance partners, or else working my way through a Cicero translation in my head as I was yanked around the dance floor by her chosen victims. Now, though, I thought perhaps I should have taken the time to look around a bit after all. The flash of humor in this man's eyes had been most intriguing--and completely absent from any of the stream of stammering young men Mama had forced me to dance with.
"Actually..." I began, speaking directly to him.
But the prince interrupted me. "Shall we?" He gestured impatiently to the footstool someone had set in our parlor. It certainly wasn't ours; it was far too impressive. Papa's incorrigible spaniel had chewed our last three footstools, and Mama had sworn off buying any more replacements until he reached adulthood and/or some semblance of common sense.
I sat down, arranging my skirts, and tried not to feel ridiculous as I lifted my foot. There was only one comfort in the whole situation, and only one reason I had finally given in to Mama's nagging: I knew this couldn't possibly work. My feet, like hers, were unusually--even extraordinarily--small. Too small, our dressmaker would certainly have said, if Mama hadn't terrified her into submission long ago. For all the trouble they'd caused me over the years, I blessed their oddity now.
The prince didn't seem to mind it, though. As he took off my own slipper, his fingers brushed against the arch of my foot rather too closely for comfort.
I scooted backward on the footstool, and took some consolation in the other man's presence. Somehow, even though he hadn't yet spoken a word, his sheer solidity, the breadth of his shoulders and the weary amusement on his face--amusement his expression clearly invited me to share--made my own shoulders relax a bit and the whole absurd proceedings feel more laughable than unbearable.
"You must know," I began, "I'm not the girl you're looking for."
"Mm-hmm," the prince murmured absently. "Very honored, yes, I understand, they all are. You needn't tell me."
"I didn't," I muttered.
The other man bit back a grin.
"Shhh!" Mama hissed. "Your Highness, may I offer you and your friend any--oh! Oh!" she squealed, raising both hands to her mouth. Her eyes misted over with tears of delight. "Oh, Sophia, it fits! It really fits!"
I stared. I blinked and stared again. But she was right. The glass molded to my foot as neatly--and as chillingly, for glass is a cold material--as if it had been made for me.
I regarded it as I would a poisonous plant that had thrown its tendrils through my bedroom window. The prince looked equally shocked, but more surprised than horrified. He stared at my foot. He wiggled the shoe. Nothing he did made any difference. The fit was absolutely perfect.
He looked up, critically, to examine my chest. I crossed my arms over it and tried my best to pull my foot out of his grip.
"This," I said, "is a most unfortunate coincidence."
The man in black took a step forward. "Your Highness, if I may...."
"Absolutely not," said the prince. "There shall be no interruption of this perfect moment." Stretching his lips into an avaricious grin, he finally dropped my foot. Alarmingly, he seized my hands instead. "My love! Forgive me for failing to recognize you at once."
"Because it wasn't me!" I said. "Just look at my face! You took my hand for all of two seconds last night when I first arrived, and we never met again. You didn't even ask me to dance."
"Nonsense." His laugh held a distinct edge of irritation. "You needn't play coy with me anymore, my darling. I admit, it was a charming ploy to run from me exactly at the stroke of midnight--very dramatic, very striking! And to leave the shoe behind, as a challenge? Unforgettable, I agree. But I would begin to be annoyed if you tried to take the game any further." His eyes hardened. "And you wouldn't want to annoy me."
As I struggled to pull my hands from his grip, it finally struck me with some force that there might well have been a reason why the prince's dance partner had fled. From the strength of his grip, and the way his gaze had already turned back to my bosom, I began to doubt that he had drawn her aside for her conversational skills.
"My poor Sophia is so shy!" Mama said. Her fingers bit into one of my bare shoulders like steel. "I'm afraid she has simply taken fright, your Highness, overwhelmed by the honor of your attention. She's simply too modest to put herself forward."
Now, I felt the gaze of the man in black flick momentarily toward my exposed bosom, his expression turning sardonic. I glared at all three of them.
"I am not shy," I said, "and I am not a fool. This is a simple case of mistaken identity. I wish you all the best in finding your dance partner, your Highness, but--"
"You don't seem to understand," the prince said. "I made a public declaration: whosoever fit that shoe would be my bride."
"Yes, well, I'm sure any number of girls would not only fit the shoe but be delighted to do so." I finally managed to yank my hand free, but I couldn't step backward, trapped by the footstool and my long, clinging skirts and petticoats. "I, however, have no intention of marrying anyone. I have a modest inheritance of my own, you see, and scholarly pursuits to engage all my interest, so--"
"I do beg your pardon, your Highness," Mama cooed, "but my delicate Sophia is so overwhelmed, I must speak to her in private to help her settle her thoughts."
"Of course," the prince said. "Order the maids to begin packing for her, as well." He let out a bark of laughter. "But you can tell them not to bother with any books. I can't stand talking to bluestockings. I promise you, she'll have far more interesting matters than scholarly pursuits to engage her interest once we've had our wedding night!"
Mama dragged me from the room while I was still sputtering, incapable of response.
"Now," she said, the moment the door was closed behind us, "I want no more of this foolishness, Sophia, do you understand me? You are the luckiest maiden in this kingdom."
"Almost as lucky as the girl who got away," I retorted. "For heaven's sake, Mama! The man is a philistine. Didn't you hear anything he said? He thinks the very world revolves around him!"
"Because it does. He is a prince, Sophia. A real prince! And someday, you will be a queen." Mama's gaze went unfocused and dreamy. "Oh, Sophia, you lucky girl. When I think of how I used to dream of being a princess one day...."
I was obviously going to gain no help from her. I crossed my arms. "We'll need to wait for Papa's consent."
Unlike Mama, Papa would understand. Papa was the one who had hired all my tutors in Greek and classical Latin. Papa was the one who had always said it would be a criminal waste for me to interrupt my studies with marriage.
Papa would be home from Florence in three weeks. All I had to do was wait until then to be rescued.
Mama's grey eyes shifted from clouds to solid ice. "For all your supposed cleverness, my dear, you don't seem to have grasped any reality outside your books. The prince has issued a royal command. It was posted in town squares across the kingdom!"
"By the time your father returns," Mama said, "you will be a happily married woman... whether you like it or not."
Half an hour later, the prince helped me into the royal carriage with a possessive hand on my bottom. I was in too much shock to resist.
The other man seated himself across from us and took out a pencil and a commonplace book.
"My secretary, Harcourt," the prince said with a careless wave of his hand. "You won't mind his presence, my dear. Practically a servant, you know. Like a piece of furniture."
A secretary. No wonder I hadn't noticed him at the ball. He wouldn't have been dancing, only observing from the sidelines to ensure that all ran smoothly. I wagered none of the other guests had paid any more notice of him than they had of the potted palms I'd hidden behind.
I met the secretary's hazel eyes, and he nodded infinitesimally, a moment of recognition. Had he seen me hiding from my dance partners behind those potted palms? I had a feeling that that steady gaze missed very little.
I felt an odd and most unscholarly tingle at the thought.
Then the prince set one firm hand on my chin and the other, horrifyingly, on my thigh. "And now, my dear..." he murmured, leaning towards me.
Apparently he had meant it about the furniture. The tingle disappeared, replaced by sheer panic.
"The wedding!" I bleated, both desperately and inanely. "We must discuss the wedding!"
He flopped back into his seat, sighing. "Oh, I suppose so. All you ladies love weddings, don't you? You probably spent your entire girlhood dreaming through the details."
Had he heard nothing that I had said in the house? I stared at him in disbelief.
Harcourt the secretary cleared his throat. "If you will allow me, your Highness...." His voice was surprisingly deep. "Perhaps I might assist you both with a list of the items required for preparation. Flower arrangements, dressmaking arrangements, bridesmaid selection, consultations with the Archbishop about your preferred order of ceremonies..."
"Oh, good God," the prince moaned. He tipped his head back against the cushions in despair. "What a kerfuffle!"
"…Invitations to be written, guests of honor to be selected, items of precedence to be decided…"
As the droning list continued, the prince's eyes fluttered closed... and Harcourt closed one of his own hazel eyes in a wink.
I beamed him a smile of intense gratitude. The list didn't end until the carriage pulled up in front of the palace, fifteen minutes later, by which point the prince was looking positively puce with horror, and I was feeling much, much better. With so many preparations to be made, I couldn't imagine the wedding taking place in less than a year. I would surely think of a solution by then.
Unfortunately, I had reckoned without the queen.
"My dearest girl!" She was waiting outside the carriage when the door opened, her royal robes trailing in the dirt and a toothy grin on her face. Her soft arms pressed me into her well-padded bosom before I could even touch the ground. "At last I have a daughter!" she crowed.
"I beg your pardon," I began, my voice muffled by her bosom, "but--"
"You will have a daughter," the prince said gloomily, "but not for another decade, if Harcourt is to be believed. The amount of nonsense required to arrange a simple royal wedding--"
"Nonsense," said the queen. Her voice hardened. "I am an expert at cutting through red tape."
I finally pulled free, gasping for breath. "There's been a mistake," I panted. "I am not--"
Her bejeweled hand clapped over my mouth, bands of gold cutting into my skin. Her eyes met mine and I saw the gleam of steely determination in their depths.
"My son," she said, "has finally consented to marry. Believe me, my dear, I will allow no mistakes."
There was very little I would put past her Majesty, Queen Hortense, after the dress-fitting I was obliged next to endure. Every time I tried to point out the logical fallacies in the situation, a dressmaker's pin just happened to accidentally stab into my skin, turning each of my attempted comments into a wordless cry of pain.
Queen Hortense smiled beatifically throughout and rattled off orders without a pause. Even Mama would have been in awe.
"...and we'll need shoes, of course," she finished. "But then, you have lovely glass slippers of your own, don't you, dear? Perhaps it would be most appropriate for you to wear that famous pair at the wedding."
I glared at her, pushed beyond the bounds of courtesy. "Unfortunately, I only own one shoe of the pair. The one your son forced onto my--ouch!"
"Never mind, my dear," Queen Hortense said, serenely ignoring my cry of pain. "No one blames you for losing the other one. We'll have a replacement fashioned for you in no time. Eliza?"
The most subservient of the dressmaker's assistants rushed forward, her head down. All I could see of her was her smooth, unpowdered brown hair, pulled back into a tight knot.
"Take dearest Sophia's shoe fitting, won't you? We'll need to pass the measurements on to your father within the hour, if the pair is to be complete in just two days." Queen Hortense turned away to consult with the dressmaker. "And now, about that embroidery...."
I gritted my teeth and stood perched on one foot while my final measurements were taken. Eliza's hands, at least, were deft and quick, and she didn't carry a single pin, unlike the other girls bustling around me. One of them glanced down at Eliza's work and let out a soft cry of wonder.
"My goodness, I've never seen such tiny feet! Who'd have thought it on a such a--er…" She gulped as she glanced up at me. "Such a perfectly statuesque lady," she finished diplomatically.
I rolled my eyes and opened my mouth to assure her that there was no need for tact. But before I could speak, the other pin-wielding girl let out a startled giggle.
"Why, they're just as small as yours, Eliza," she said. "I didn't think anyone but you could have such feet!"
Eliza's hands clamped around my foot. My breath stopped in my throat.
Last night at the ball, of course, everyone's hair had been powdered. But unlike the prince, I hadn't limited my own perusal of the guests to ladies' bosoms.
"May I see your face, Eliza?" I asked.
Slowly, her head tilted back. Her face was pale, free of cosmetics, and very white against her plain dark gown. Her blue eyes filled with panic as they met mine. Please, she mouthed. Don't.
I gritted my teeth. "Somehow," I said, "I don't think we'll have any difficulty filling out this pair in time for the wedding."
Eliza's voice was soft and hoarse with fear. "I... my father, the cobbler, is very quick with his work, always."
"I'm sure he is," I said grimly. "Might I have a word with you in private for a moment? I have a particular favor to ask."
The other girls stared at each other wide-eyed, rustling with curiosity. Eliza rose to her feet as reluctantly as if she were walking to her execution.
Queen Hortense, all-too-sharp-eyed, called out, "Sophia, my dear, I hope you aren't thinking of trying to escape. We are just about to start working on the guest list, and I cannot have you running away from your responsibilities."
Later, I mouthed to Eliza.
Slowly, unhappily, she nodded. But it was a hollow victory.
From the look in Eliza's eyes, her flight from the ball last night had been no simple act of shyness. And even if Eliza had wished to reveal herself, I couldn't imagine the prince--much less the queen--taking well to the news that he had accidentally courted a mere servant. After only an hour in the queen's company, I was already confident that she would ride roughshod over any notion of class-defying romance.
I would have to find another way... and I only had two days in which to do it.
It felt like a relief out of all proportion, when Queen Hortense bundled me into her writing room, to find the secretary, Harcourt, waiting there. He rose to his feet with perfect correctness. With his wide shoulders filling out his black frock coat, he looked solid and reassuring... and yet, somehow, not.
No, "reassuring" was not quite the right word, after all--particularly as he met my eyes.
The unscholarly tingle was back with a vengeance. I moistened my lips. His gaze dropped to follow.
Queen Hortense said, "Ah, Harcourt, prompt as always. I trust you have a preliminary guest list ready?"
"Of course, your Majesty." He waited for the footmen to help us into our chairs, then took the seat across from me, passing a thick sheaf of papers to the queen and a stack of blank cards to me. An open bottle of ink stood on the table between us, flanked by enough quill pens to stock an army. "I've included all of the foreign dignitaries within five days' travel."
"They'll be far too late." Queen Hortense's smile could only be described as smug. "No, make a secondary list for them, and we'll send out announcements after the fact. The last thing any of us want is to give my son enough time to weasel out of his commitment!"
I coughed. "Actually--"
"Now, my dear," said Queen Hortense, "all you need do is write the invitations. Harcourt, I leave the future princess in your capable hands. I have flowers to order!"
And with that, she bustled out, taking all but one of the footmen with her.
Harcourt looked across the table at me, in the sudden silence. I felt unaccountably shy under his steady gaze. My own eyes began to lower, like any ninnyhammer young miss blushing before an attractive gentleman.
I had never been a ninnyhammer. I jerked my chin up and met his gaze squarely. "This," I said, "is a farce, and you know it."
"Ahem." Harcourt turned to the footman, who stood against the wall with shoulders rigidly squared and gaze blank of expression beneath a powdered wig. "Jonathan," Harcourt said. "Perhaps we might come to an arrangement for your discretion. Another writing lesson?"
Jonathan's face lost its blankness to break into a grin. "Nah, Mr. Harcourt, I'll need more than that for prime gossip. You'll need to write a letter for me."
"To Rose, again? Didn't the earlier one work?"
"Not Rose," Jonathan said, and smirked. "Alice, this time."
Harcourt sighed. "Alice it is. But perhaps you might do me the favor of putting your hands on your ears, to resist all temptation?"
"As you say, Mr. Harcourt." Jonathan winked and turned away from us, putting his fingers in his ears. A surprisingly tuneful whistle emerged from his lips.
I said, "Do you resort to bribery often?"
"Only when it works." Harcourt's own grin made him look more approachable. It did strange things to my insides, too. Irrationally, I found myself wishing I could read one of the love letters he had written on Jonathan's behalf.
But that was nonsense, of course. Merely a scholar's curiosity, and I had no time to indulge it. I infused my voice with a briskness worthy of the queen herself as I said, "Unfortunately, it appears that the prince's true dance partner isn't willing to take her place in my stead."
"It would be difficult," Harcourt agreed. "I cannot imagine her Majesty taking well to the introduction of a cobbler's daughter as her daughter-in-law."
"What?" I stared at him. "You knew?"
He shrugged. "I have an eye for faces." His lips quirked. "And a way with doors. I'm afraid I, ah, may have accidentally held the door open for her on her way through one of the lesser-known exits from the palace. She wasn't keen to be caught by the prince on her way out, you see."
"Only too well," I said, and groaned. "Isn't there anyone who actually wants to marry him?"
"At least half the ladies in the kingdom," Harcourt replied promptly. "When the prince's proclamation was announced this morning, the Marquis of Carabas's daughter, for one, declared she'd be willing to chop off her own toes to fit into those glass slippers. And as a matter of fact..." his hazel gaze rested on me curiously. "I would say with some certainty that you were the only young lady at the ball last night who wasn't angling for his Highness's attention."
I snorted. "I have better things to do with my life than sigh over a man who's never voluntarily opened a book."
"Indeed." He paused. "May I ask... the potted palms?"
My cheeks burned. "I had no choice. My mother is determined."
"And your father?"
"In Florence, on business." Frustration seethed inside me at the thought. "If he were here, it would be a very different matter, I promise you. But he won't be back for another three weeks."
"By which point, it will be too late."
"That certainly seems to be the plan." I stabbed one of the feather pens onto the top card in my pile, taking vicious satisfaction in the blotch of ink that spread across it. There was one invitation that wouldn't be sent, anyway. If I'd thought it would make any difference to the queen's plans, I would have thrown the whole lot into the fire.
I had no doubt she would simply proceed without invitations, though... and any open mutiny on my part would lead to an even closer guard. No, as infuriating as the situation might be, I would have to assume a façade of acceptance from now on, if I was to have any slight chance of escape.
And speaking of escape...
I slid a speculative glance at the man across from me. He'd held a hidden door open for Miss Eliza. Perhaps he'd do the same for me.
"I am about to hazard a wild guess," I said. "Is the queen planning to hold a supper party tonight, to introduce me to the court?"
He looked more rueful than amused. "You already begin to understand your new home."
"I've spent the last eight years working to understand ancient Greek and Latin philosophers," I said. "One modern court cannot be much more complex."
"You might be surprised." He looked down for a moment, making an infinitesimal adjustment to the sheaf of papers in front of him. "So... do I take it that you are adjusting to the image of yourself as future queen?"
I narrowed my eyes at him. "I thought you were a man of sense and intelligence."
"You did?" He looked younger, and oddly more vulnerable, as his gaze jerked back to meet mine. "I'd be surprised if you'd thought about me at all."
"You're not the only one who notices people," I said. There was something fluttering in my chest, but I tamped it down ruthlessly. "You've lived here longer than I have, though. So I'll need you to make my introductions tonight. There's someone I particularly want to meet."
I had been forced into an evening gown by my mother that morning, and forced into another woman's shoe by the prince. I refused to spend the rest of my life wearing a crown that did not fit. It only wanted an application of logic--and some unaccustomed patience--to realize exactly what I had to do.
A day and a half later, I was ready.
The prince walked me to my room the night before our wedding. That was scandalous, no doubt, but his mother shooed us on with an indulgent--and mildly terrifying--look in her eye. I was uncomfortably certain that she was already beginning the countdown toward her first grandchild. And while I could find little to say to my fiancé, he hardly seemed to take that as a problem.
"...and then I took him down with my third shot, just like clockwork. Clockwork--ha! That's a good one. Too bad Harcourt isn't here to write it down."
"Indeed." I sighed. As helpful as Harcourt had been, even he could not be everywhere. I would have to manage this last part on my own.
"Where did you find Harcourt in the first place?" I asked. It was an attempt at distraction, but even I knew it was hopeless. We had nearly reached the corridor where my bedroom was located, and the prince had an enthusiastic gleam in his eye.
"Who cares about Harcourt?" he said. "He's just a younger son of someone or other. Believe me, the fellow was born to be a secretary. He's always scribbling away. And he actually reads for pleasure, he claims. Ha!" His eyes lit on the door ahead of me... and gleamed. "I know better kinds of pleasure."
Oh, dear. We had reached my bedroom.
Seizing my shoulders, the prince pushed me against the wall of the corridor as the nearby footmen attempted to look invisible. His hot breath heaved against my neck as he muttered: "Deadly in war and in love, that's what they say about me, y'know. But I'll be gentle with you, I promise. At least the first time...."
I bit down hard on my tongue to hold back a retort. Then, very pointedly, I coughed.
It was a dreadful cough. A hacking cough. A cough which, when carefully aimed, let out a perfect gob of spit directly onto the prince's windswept blond hair.
"I say!" He straightened, one hand flying to his head. "What--?"
"I feel terribly, terribly unwell," I said firmly.
He smiled indulgently, leaning in again. "I daresay it's only bridal jitters. All you need is--"
"A good night's sleep," I said. "It's the only cure. The only thing that can make me ready for..." I swallowed over a moment of real nausea. "Our wedding night. You want me perfectly healthy for that, don't you?"
"I say." His expression eased; he finally stepped back. "You may have a point. And no matter what my mother says, it wouldn't be a bad idea to celebrate my own last night of independence, eh?"
"Absolutely," I said. "Please don't abstain on my account." The worse the hangover, the better for my plan. "Don't forget, though. It's bad luck to see me tomorrow morning before the wedding ceremony. And I'll look quite different under the veil, after your mother's attendants are finished with me."
"Never mind." He smirked and flicked a carelessly appreciative thumb against my bosom. "I'd know you anywhere, my love."
I doubt it, I thought grimly, and whisked into my room before he could think twice.
Eliza was waiting for me, sitting on the bed and holding the perfect pair of glass slippers. She jumped to her feet as I walked in, and held out the shoes. "They're exactly the same, Miss, only two sizes larger, as you asked."
"Your father is a genius," I said. Then I saw the way her gaze slid away from me, and I raised my eyebrows. "Or should I say... you are?"
She nodded, her eyes lowered. "I only... I wanted to go to a real ball, for once in my life. To be one of the ladies dancing, for once, instead of--"
"You could come with me," I said. "You'd be very welcome. And for all I know, Florence might be more welcoming to female cobblers."
"I doubt it." Eliza sighed. "But thank you, miss. I'm all right here, now. Now that I know I'm not missing anything, after all."
"I wish you the best," I said. And it was true. She might have created a dreadful muddle for me, but how could I blame her? I knew exactly what it was to long for something quite different from what everyone else wanted for you.
And there was at least one person who was desperately grateful for Eliza's deception.
Scratching sounded on the servants' door only ten minutes later. Half of my tapestried bedroom wall swung inwards a moment afterward, exposing the darkened servants' passageway beyond. Harcourt stepped into the room with a candle in one hand... and the Marquis of Carabas's daughter clinging to his free arm.
Francesca's eyes were dilated with excitement, and when she saw the glass slippers on the bed, she let out an actual mew of bliss.
"Are those really--?!"
"The only glass slippers in the kingdom now," I said, handing them to her. "You needn't even cut off any toes to fit inside them."
"Ohhh! I can hardly believe it!"
Seconds later, she was gazing at her own feet in the slippers with a look of joy that matched the look I'd seen on my own mother's face less than two days ago. I sighed, and extinguished a tiny flare of guilt.
It was too bad Mama could never be a princess. But I couldn't wear her dreams for her.
"They fit perfectly," I said. "And as we know, that's all that really matters."
"I cannot believe you're doing this for me," Francesca breathed. She really had been born for those shoes. She didn't even teeter on their high heels as she raced across to fling her arms around my neck. "It's--why, it's almost as if you were my fairy godmother!"
"Not quite." I extricated myself from her hold with some difficulty. "But you should be safe. The queen promised I could choose which attendant would help me prepare for the ceremony, and the one I requested"--I remembered Eliza's guilty gaze--"will not hinder you. With the veil over your face, no one should even realize the truth until the ceremony is safely over."
And if they did? Well, the proclamation had been firm: like it or not, the prince would marry whoever fit those glass slippers.
It would be interesting to see if he even noticed that yet another substitution had taken place.
Harcourt coughed pointedly. "It's nearly midnight."
"I should go," I said, and patted Francesca on the shoulder. "I hope your marriage is everything you dreamed of."
"How could it not be?" She let out a giggle of pure glee. "I'm going to be a princess! What more could anyone possibly want?"
I rolled my eyes and followed Harcourt into the servants' passageway. When the door closed behind me, I sagged with relief. "Is everything ready?"
He pointed to a pile of clothing in the shadows. "I'll turn my back."
I could feel his presence on every inch of my skin, though, as I wrestled my way out of my evening gown and into the dark, subdued dressmaker's uniform. It was far easier to put on than the evening gown had been to take off.
"I'm ready," I whispered.
In the distance, I could hear the great castle clock striking midnight as I hurried down the narrow passageway at Harcourt's side.
He held open the door that Eliza had escaped through only two nights earlier. "Your carriage awaits."
"You've arranged everything perfectly."
"I thought I must." His smile looked twisted in the flickering light of the candle that he held. "I heard what you said to the prince, you see. You've never desired marriage. Why should you interrupt your studies for a man, when you have an inheritance of your own to support you?"
I took a deep breath. "It's true, I never intended to marry."
He nodded. "I understand. And now..." He began to turn away.
I reached out and took his arm before I could lose my courage. There would be no more hiding behind potted plants--or even my own pride--tonight. "I never wanted to be a princess," I told him. "But perhaps there are some marriages that aren't pretty cages for women. There might even be some husbands who would encourage--or share--their wives' scholarly interests."
Harcourt held himself very still for a moment. Then he turned back to me and looked into my eyes.
He was a man who had stood at the sidelines watching everyone for years. So I knew he could interpret the look on my face, even by faint candlelight.
The breath he released sounded as ragged as if he'd been holding it for days. "I've always wanted to see Florence," he said.
My lips curved into a smile. "Shall we explore it together?"
For all my years of study, the kiss Harcourt gave me, then, in the dark, was astonishingly instructive.
This story was first published on Friday, November 1st, 2013
I wrote this story as a gift for my husband, as a fun treat for myself in-between (unrelated) novel drafts, and to finally address, once and for all, my single biggest, nagging doubt about the Cinderella story: how could any man (or, at least, any man worth marrying) feel that he had to rely on shoe size to recognize his beloved? Shouldn't he at the very least be able to recognize her face after dancing with her all evening and, supposedly, falling wildly in love???
Of course my heroine was never going to settle for Prince "Charming" after that! So it's a good thing that a much more suitable alternative was waiting by the sidelines....
Of course my heroine was never going to settle for Prince "Charming" after that! So it's a good thing that a much more suitable alternative was waiting by the sidelines....
- Stephanie Burgis
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