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Charmed

Mary Soon Lee was born and raised in London, but now lives in Pittsburgh. She writes both fiction and poetry, and has won the Rhysling Award and the Elgin Award. Her book "Elemental Haiku," containing haiku for each element of the periodic table, was recently published by Ten Speed Press. Her work has appeared in places ranging from science-fiction stalwarts (Analog, F&SF, Strange Horizons) to non-speculative venues (American Scholar, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Science). She tweets @MarySoonLee and hopes that her antiquated website (marysoonlee.com) will be updated before this story is published.
********Editor's Note: Mature Themes, Disturbing Story**********
The cruelest thing Cinderella's stepmother ever did was offer to take her to the ball.
Cinderella, fifteen and foolish, mistaking cruelty for kindness, threw her arms around her stepmother's bony figure. "Thank you! Thank you!"
Her stepmother sniffed as she stepped from Cinderella's embrace. "We'll find you a suitable dress, and you may borrow my coral necklace and earrings."
"Thank you!" Cinderella pirouetted about the room, not even remembering that the jewelry had been her mother's, her true mother's, and so Cinderella's by right.
Gertrude, the meaner of her two mean stepsisters, smiled viciously. "Let me paint your face, lighten your skin tone, so that no one guesses your mother was a gypsy."
Cinderella's happiness wobbled. Then she lifted her chin determinedly. This was the best day of her life, and she would be grateful for every moment. "Thank you," she said, for the fourth time in a row.
Gertrude and Cinderella's stepmother smirked at each other as though as pleased as Cinderella.
Monika, the less mean stepsister, remained silent, her plain features as unreadable as the time Cinderella had caught her staring at her reflection in the hallway mirror.
Later, when Cinderella was gowned in luminous pink silk, her face artfully painted, when Gertrude and her stepmother had both left to ready themselves, Monika stayed with Cinderella. "Be careful," said Monika very quietly.
"Of what?" said Cinderella.
"Of the prince," said Monika, more quietly still. "Don't trust him."
It seemed the silliest thing Cinderella had heard in a week, but Monika sounded concerned, concerned for Cinderella, which no one ever was. Cinderella hesitated, then said awkwardly, "Don't wear green tonight. You always wear green and it doesn't flatter you."
"I know. That's why I wear it."
Which was an even sillier thing to say, but Monika left before Cinderella could quiz her.
The palace was perfect, a pristine glory of pillared reception rooms adorned with courtiers in flowing silks. The ceilings soared skyward. Arched glass windows twinkled with the light from thousands upon thousands of lanterns outside in the gardens. It even smelled perfect, like a spring morning--no, like Cinderella's mother leaning over to kiss her goodnight, the faint lavender scent of her.
Cinderella's eyes filled, luminous as her dress. Her mother had been half-Romani. Cinderella didn't belong here with these elegant men and women, rich and self-assured; men and women for whom it was a commonplace matter to come to a ball. She retreated to the side of the room, backed up against a window. The glass chilled through the thin silk of her gown. Not spring outside, but winter. She turned, blinking her eyes clear, trying not to tremble. Fixedly, she gazed at a lantern suspended from a frost-coated maple branch.
She must have stood there, overlooked, for half an hour before a hand fastened on her arm, drew her around to face the room. And the prince. Who stood right beside her stepmother. Cinderella couldn't meet the prince's gaze, stared instead at his long-fingered hands, pale and immaculately smooth as a baby's.
"Your Royal Highness," said Cinderella's stepmother. "May I present our youngest, Cinderella."
"Charmed," said the prince. He bent to kiss the back of Cinderella's hand, his blond hair catching gold highlights from the chandeliers, his lips a brief, welcome warmness. "Is this your first time at the palace?"
"Yes, Your Majesty. I mean, Your Highness." Cinderella's cheeks burned.
"Then you must allow me the pleasure of showing you around." One pale hand moved behind her back, steered her toward the grand staircase.
She could scarcely breathe, his hand a warm imprint over her spine.
"This is the East Wing," said the prince, the warmth of his hand ushering her forward. "The receiving rooms and banquet halls are housed here, together with the administrative offices, all built two hundred years ago during King Friedrich's reign. For myself, I prefer the architecture of the Lion Courtyard, built three centuries earlier. Allow me to show you."
Cinderella managed a nod. She glanced round. Her stepmother was out of sight; everyone except the prince and one of his guards had vanished--
"Don't be nervous, little dove." The prince paused, one hand still warm on her back, the other tilting her chin up to look directly at him. "Smile for me. There. That's better."
He smiled at her in reply, a smile sweet as honeycomb. As he smiled, his gray eyes turned golden, unnatural, impossibly beautiful, holding hers as if she were a rare and fragile treasure.
Something broke inside her. Her will. Her sense. She wanted only to be loved. She wanted only to be loved again, as deeply, as utterly as her mother had loved her.
She wanted only to be loved by him--
Her lips parted.
"In a minute, little dove. In a minute." He led her toward a pair of magnificent double doors. The guard opened the doors, and the prince walked her into a courtyard, his hand warm and steady on her spine.
She didn't take in her surroundings, didn't feel the cold.
All she saw, all she remembered afterward was him: his lips first gentle then insistent, his arms easing her onto a pile of blankets soft as cat's fur. How his long pale fingers lifted the skirt of her gown. His eyes, his golden eyes, unnatural, their unspoken promise. As if she were safe. As if he would always keep her safe.
When the prince was done, the gold in his eyes faded to gray. The spell broke.
She was on her back, a wetness between her legs she didn't understand, her breasts sharply sore, bruised.
The prince stood up, gestured at his guard. "She's yours now. Just be certain to dispose of her once you've had your fun."
He laughed then. She remembered that too, the clear pure sound of it, golden as his eyes had briefly been.
The guard neither raped nor killed her. Hadn't hurt any of the prince's girls since the first one, the one that stained his conscience, that made him now, a dozen girls later, almost tender as he shackled Cinderella's wrists, as he told her the town she'd be sent to, the family for whom she'd keep house. He didn't need to tell her to stay quiet, change her name.
He took her to a cart, helped her in.
Monika, her less-mean stepsister, was waiting by the cart. Monika bent down and hissed into Cinderella's ear. "Forget him. Forget tonight. Survive."
Then the cart started off, leaving Monika, leaving the guard, and took Cinderella far away.
She survived, though she remained distrustful, prone to nightmares, never quite who she might have been. Never brave enough to return, to confront the prince.
She survived, defied him that far.
When she had had time enough to grow grateful for the fact of her survival, she wrote to Monika.
Early one morning, the sky overcast but the low clouds on the horizon glowing pink-gold, Monika arrived to join her. And if they weren't sweethearts, they were friends. And if they didn't live happily ever after, they came closer than most people ever do.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 8th, 2019


"Charmed" is a retelling of the Cinderella story, a story that has troubled me for years. It disturbs me that Cinderella's greatest wish is to go to the ball in a beautiful gown. It upsets me that, as per usual, the stepmother is portrayed as evil, that the good girl is beautiful, and the bad girls are ugly. Beyond the Cinderella story, I am shaken by the abuse of the vulnerable by powerful men. One night, I had the idea of Prince Charming using sorcery to forcibly seduce girls. This leads to a very dark place, so I tried to move the ending toward something more hopeful.

- Mary Soon Lee
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