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Of Magic Ash and Broken Glass

Michael W. Cho lives in Tempe, Arizona, where he plays Spanish guitar for his day job. He has publications in Terraform and Daily Science Fiction>, among others. In his work, Michael focuses on bleeding-edge topics such as politics, futurism, and flesh-eating monsters. He began writing in his pre-teens as way to process losing his D&D group, and despite often turning down the Call to Adventure in later years, often finds himself returning to the Journey.

The girl sweeps in on a cloud of pumpkin-colored satin and brocade as fine as cobwebs. Her entrance stirs the room like a diamond dropped in a crystal decanter, and the ballroom, adorned with elegantly garbed schemers, turns to gaze upon her as one. Surely, this is the enchanted Cinderella, whom I must court to save my life.
She is announced: "Princess--" and I cut through the crowd. This I do without looking directly at her. My goal requires presence of mind that would be destroyed by the faerie glamour, nor do I wish to tip my hand overmuch to the assassins.
Glowing with joy, she descends the grand staircase. I straighten my posture to make the best impression, fill my mouth with courtly words, prepare to bow--
The Marquessa of Brevare glides into the space between me and Cinderella, fingertips extended. I take her hand and bow per protocol.
"My Prince, if you do not ask me to minuet, I shall be forced to take offense."
"Only my odious duties have kept me from your side thus far."
Over the Marquessa's shoulder I spy courtiers circling Cinderella like beasts of prey. Everyone wants her faerie allies on their side. The Marquessa gossips, importunes, and threatens. I am forced to promise her a concession: else she will never stop. At the final cadence of harpsichord and violas, I am free at last to seek Cinderella, but she is gone.
Between suites, there is a chaos of voluminous skirts and swirling satin and hard-eyed earls strutting like flightless birds. I fight through them, urgency eroding my manners, one eye on the watch for daggers, the other for social entanglements. Two princesses I snub egregiously, one ambassador to Lucrien I put off with an excuse, and one of my uncle's assassins I evade.
I sneak behind high curtains to a door known only to the family, and squeeze into the night between two cedars. She stands before a fountain, her posture magnificent, contented. I rush to her side with inelegant haste, straighten up, and flash my most chivalric smile.
"Good evening--"
"Princess Lucretia," she supplies in imitation of an aristocratic accent. She may be a mere cleaner of chimneys, but she has nerve.
"Welcome to Briene--Princess Lucretia."
"And who are you?" says Cinderella. Suspicion intrudes on her enchanted night of make-believe. To her, I suppose, all aristocrats must look much the same--upturned noses in ornate attire.
I suppress a grin. "Prince Guillame. This is my house--well, my father's."
"It's a very pretty house, and a very nice ball."
Not marvelous? Not divine? Such a faint compliment would be taken as insult among my class, and I find myself charmed by her directness. But I must attend to my goal. I move as close as I dare, and detect the perfume of pumpkin blossoms.
"The house is good, Princess Lucretia," I agree, "but this ball is not nice. Every satin glove conceals claws. Behind every smile are sharp teeth."
"Everyone has been very kind, Prince Guillame."
Her naivete charms. "They act that way to those from whom they want something."
"And what do you want?"
I laugh. "Cinderella, it's--"
"I am Lucretia, I told you clearly." Shock, embarrassment, and fear pass in rapid succession on her face. Pressed for time, I have revealed my deception. I ensure that we remain alone.
"Forgive me," I say. "I know you serve Madam Pernot on Tanner Street, the widow of your respectable father. I know you are ill-treated. Your gown and carriage are magical, faerie enchantments."
Cinderella, gasping, gathers her skirts to flee. I seize her arm, which is taut with muscle.
"Please, Cinderella! I mean you no harm."
Even softened by the glamor, her comely features are twisted by anguish, shine with moisture. She'd wanted to escape being the cleaner of chimneys for one night.
"I am sorry," I say. "I am sorry, but I need your help."
She remains poised to flee, and sighs bitterly.
"Even with faerie magic, I can fool no one."
Her hand is callused from labor. If she stays by my side, her labor will not be over; it will simply be a different kind, more glamorous but with higher stakes and peril. And it is my selfish wish, my desire for self-preservation, which would subject her to it. Yet she has not pulled away from my grasp.
She is considering.
A darkness within the colonnade shifts; this would be an assassin, hoping to catch me away from my guards. Coming from the veranda are two shambling columns of brocade and corseted velvet: these must be Cinderella's step-sisters, come to spoil her evening, or perhaps to drop their kerchiefs in my path.
I must make my proposition now, if I am to do it at all. It is not the romantic moment she dreams of, not the storybook happy ending. It is not a nice thing for me to do.
"Cinderella." Her name comes easily to my tongue.
That's when the clock strikes midnight. Good! The tolling of bells will give me cover to whisper in her ear. I draw in closer, when Cinderella screams. Something is happening to her. Her curled and coiffed hair sags limply around her face. Her gown melts into squash blossoms and green vines and rags. She tears from my grip with a laborer's strength, and glass shatters at my feet, and she runs across the lawn. I mean to chase her, but her stepsisters block my path.
Quickly I pick up the one remaining glass slipper, custom-fitted for an unusually small foot.
I don't need it, of course. How could I forget her?
The stepsisters with their heavily caked faces and graceless compliments surround me. My father's men (some of them traitors) rush toward us, attracted by the commotion.
"We must find the woman who fits that shoe!" cries the Chancellor.
I drop it, and the slipper shatters on the paving stones. How clumsy of me!
The End
This story was first published on Friday, July 26th, 2019

Author Comments

The Cinderella story usually focuses on the oppressed heroine overcoming misfortune, but I wanted to look at it a different way. It seems to me that her magical gifts would make her a very valuable ally at a court tense with strife and rivalry. Therefore, both the prince and his enemies are keen to make friends with her. I also wanted to dismiss the notion that he would need a glass shoe to recognize such an extraordinary person.

- Michael W Cho
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