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The Cinder Girl

They called her the cinder girl, or perhaps it was something else. It's been a few centuries since then, and anyway, human names are so bland, so short, so quick to dissolve in an immortal memory.
Where was I? Ah yes, the girl in the fireplace. Well, you know the story. There was a pitiful orphan girl with two spoiled stepsisters and a wicked stepmother. There was a prince, comely as the dawn with all the wit and brains of a turnip. There was a ball, a dress, and a very impractical pair of shoes.
I'm sorry to say, however, that there was no fairy godmother. Instead, there was only me.
It was her poor dead mother's fault, really. She was the one who fed her those bedtime stories, cautionary tales about the evil creatures who dwell in the white tips of flames and their bloody coals, who lurk in fireplaces waiting for those foolish or desperate enough to strike up a bargain with one of them.
She cannot, however, be blamed for the incantation that called me forth. I whispered it to the girl over the years, word by word, from the hearth in the kitchen as she cooked dinner every night, too softly for her to notice until she sang it under her breath without noticing the weight of it on her tongue.
There were so many times she could have called to me. When her mother died. When her stepmother struck her for the first time. But no, she summoned me over a ball.
"What is it you seek, child?" I asked her from the flames, my voice rising up in a shower of cherried sparks.
"I wish to go to the ball," she said, worrying her teeth over a lump of raw flesh on her lip. "I wish to be beautiful, just for the night."
I could see her counting the cost in her head, how much blood she would have to give to achieve her wish. Her mother had spared no detail of the sacrifices made in bargaining with my kind. A beloved parakeet, tossed into the flames to win the heart of a brown-eyed young man. A calico kitten, mercifully plied with a sleeping drought before being given over to the fireplace in want of a cure for a sickly child. What would a dress cost? A carriage? A night so lovely she could bottle the memory and sip from it in the dreary years ahead, sweet as redcurrant wine?
I thought this over for a moment.
"Why would I make you beautiful for a single night," I finally said, "when I could make you a queen for the rest of your days?"
Her eyes widened as I spun her the tale of a future that could be, one where the harshest assault she endured was the kiss of silk sheets on her legs every night. A future where she would wake up with a handsome prince at her side and an adoring kingdom beneath her feat. A future where her joy drowned out any lingering memory of the hole she crawled out of.
"If-if I did want such a life for myself," she murmured when I finished, "what would it cost?"
The girl balled her callused hands into fists at her sides, bracing for the answer. No doubt she expected me to tell her to bring me the old blue-tick hound, the one she had been given as a gift from her late father when she was a child, the one who, upon the arrival of her stepmother, had been made to sleep in the old shed outside.
"Nothing," I replied.
Her mouth fell slack, and I laughed.
"My kind are not as bloodthirsty as the legends would have you believe," I told her. "But perhaps you could do me a favor?"
I told her that I could only travel from fire to fire, and while the kitchen hearth was not uncomfortable, it would be nice to roam about the house every now and then. I asked her to fill the old brass warming pan with coals from the fireplace and place one in every room in the house, in places where her stepfamily would not think to look. Under the beds, perhaps, or behind the curtains.
Less than an hour later, she left the house in a carriage pulled by white horses, radiant as the sun in a silk dress that shimmered with all the golds and reds of a forest fire. She did not return that night, nor the next. My brethren that lurked in the torches on the palace walls told me that the prince was so taken by the mysterious guest that he proposed to her before the final waltz, and that he married her the following week. I do not know what became of her, and neither do I particularly care.
She must have known what I would do. She was not especially smart, but neither was she stupid enough to believe that such grandiose magic could be bought without blood.
Her stepfamily arrived home late that night, complaining about having bought such expensive dresses and having sore feet and no prince to show for it. They slumped into their beds and were snoring within seconds of their powdered heads striking the pillows. They could not have known about the coals smoldering beneath their beds, in the hidden corners of the room.
It had been a while since I'd consumed humans, and I must say, they were delicious. They are remembered as ugly, those stepsisters, but they were so beautiful as they burned, their skin blackening, thin as lace on a bride's dress, before crumbling into ash.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, April 29th, 2020
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