by V. Shalace
When the pumpkins in the garden of the quaint, country inn started sprouting little wheels and windows, Cindy knew that it was time to go.
Honestly, she should have expected it. The magic always caught up to her sooner or later—usually sooner rather than later, and often just when she was starting to grow comfortable. Yet even knowing this, a shock raced through her when she glanced up from the sink and through the open door of the inn’s modest kitchen to glimpse the gleam of sunlight on twiggy, half-formed spokes.
She stared at them in dismay, soap suds dripping from her frozen fingers. At least the windows were still just odd dents in the pumpkins’ hard shells and the doors hadn’t yet started to come in. If she hurried, she could still get rid of them before anyone noticed. Then she’d have to pack.
And again, like happened every time despite her best efforts, Cindy felt a sharp pang of disappointment. She’d really liked it here too.
“Is something wrong?”
Cindy started at the question and jerked her head around, a few errant strands of wavy, chocolate hair whipping about her face. She’d almost forgotten that she wasn’t alone.
“Oh no,” she said, pasting on a smile and hoping her anxiety didn’t show. “I was just thinking about one of my mother’s old recipes. What do you think Lady Nora would say to adding pumpkin pie to the menu?”
Margret pursed her lips, setting another plate in the drying rack with a clink. “She’ll probably say yes. The lady loves old family recipes, though you’ll have to run it by the cook.”
“Good idea. I’ll make them some samples.”
Margret began to rinse out a coffee mug and asked, “Need any help? I promised to help Jenna take down the washing after this, but I can come back and lend you a hand when we’re done.”
It was nice of the older woman to offer, but help was the last thing Cindy wanted right now.
Firmly, she said, “No, that’s okay. In fact, please let the cook know I’ll handle dinner for the staff today. I want my menu to be a surprise.”
That made Margret chuckle. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Cindy laughed too, but mostly out of relief.
Eager to get outside and rid the garden of the evidence, Cindy rushed through the last of her cleaning duties, chatting like a woman possessed to stave off any inconvenient questions. As soon as the last dish was washed and Margret was gone, she hung her rag by the sink and made a beeline for the garden tool shed to borrow a pair of sheers, her hands still damp and smelling of lemons.
It had been three months since Cindy had started working at Aunt Nora’s, a fancy bed and breakfast on the outskirts of Ash Town. It was exactly the sort of position she looked for each time she had to move. The pay wasn’t much, but room and board were included and she was always among the first to know when new faces arrived in town. Her culinary skills served her well as a cook’s assistant, and when she waitressed in the inn’s small restaurant on especially busy days, she collected stories from the customers for when she would inevitably have to head back onto the roads herself. Really, the only flaw in working at Aunt Nora’s was that the inn boasted its own vegetable garden.
Hiking up her long, red-checkered skirt, Cindy waded into the pumpkin patch and set to work, cutting pumpkins from their vines and hacking off any unusual, twiggy protrusions. True, the pumpkins weren’t completely ripe yet, but she knew from experience that these particular pumpkins would be sweet enough—and also that she couldn’t afford to wait. Another few days, and she’d be carting these pumpkins away to be burned somewhere rather than cutting them up in a kitchen.
She got a few odd looks when she served not only pumpkin pie but pumpkin stew and curried pumpkin with pasta at the evening’s staff dinner, but that was okay. The important thing was that, by the time she fell into bed that night, all the pumpkins in the garden were gone.
All Cindy remembered about the day the fairy had Blessed her was a warm tingle in her stomach and the ticklish brush of magic across her skin. She’d been two years old and an only child, and her parents had leapt at the chance to secure their daughter a happy future. Unfortunately, they’d never stopped to ask their daughter what she thought a happy future actually look like.
It wasn’t until that royal ball she had almost attended on her sixteenth birthday where a total stranger had tried to propose to her that Cindy had learned about the spell—well, the curse really. And by then, it had been far too late. She could ask the fairy as many times as she wanted, but it was fairy policy never to take back a Blessing.
For a few days, Cindy had been quite upset about this. She’d cried to her bewildered parents and locked herself in her room for a while. And then she’d sobered up and settled down to making plans.
If the fairy wouldn’t take back the Blessing, Cindy had decided, she would simply have to break the spell herself. And so it was that she was here in this inn now, three years after that first royal ball and still running.
Cindy sighed, shifting lower on the cot and pulling the covers higher to shield her face from the sunlight streaming through her window. She must have forgotten to close the shutters yesterday, too drained from cooking all those pumpkins then packing and repacking her single large, leather travel bag to make sure everything fit. Hard as she tried not to acquire more belongings, she always seemed to leave a place with more than she had arrived with. In the end though, she’d still managed to squeeze everything in, which meant all she had left to do was talk to the cook and to Lady Nora about resigning.
At that thought, Cindy let out a long, resigned sigh and pushed herself up into a sitting position. A tangle of dark hair fell into her eyes, and she combed it back impatiently with her fingers. She hated goodbyes. It was the one part of this she thought she’d never get used to.
Cindy was still thinking about how to break the news when the thunder of feet pounding up the stairs interrupted her. A second later, her door burst open and Margret barreled through it.
“Cindy!” she shrieked, shocking the birds outside into silence. “You won’t believe it. The prince is here!”
Cindy swore before she could stop herself then asked, “Here, as in downstairs right this instant?”
Margret waved her arms, face flushed to match the freckles on her nose. “Well, not here exactly. He’s in town. A messenger arrived right when Lady Nora was opening the doors this morning. He’s invited everyone to a ball tonight.”
“Of course he has,” Cindy groaned.
She raked her hair up into a hasty ponytail, secured it with an elastic band, and began to fold her blankets.
“Did the messenger do or say anything else?”
“Now that you mention it, he insisted on seeing the pumpkin patch. You really did a number on it yesterday. Hardly anything left to see...” Margret trailed off, a furrow forming between her brows. Her gaze flicked from Cindy to the travel bag on the floor beside the bed then back again. “Are you going somewhere? Did something happen?”
Cindy chewed on her lower lip as she whacked her pillow into some semblance of fluffiness. The older woman had shown her the ropes her first days at work without having to be asked, and Cindy didn’t want to lie to her.
“Let’s just say that I don’t want to marry the prince,” she said at last.
Margret’s eyebrows rose to meet her hairline, and she folded her arms across her chest. “Just going to his ball doesn’t mean you’ll end up marrying him.”
“For most people, no,” Cindy agreed. “But it’s a bit more complicated for me.”
The bed now fully made, Cindy stooped to put on her sandals. The moment her feet settled into them, however, the straps began to change. Dusty, brown leather blurred, smoothing out and losing its softness as the color drained away like wet paint in a storm. In the span of a few heartbeats, her once sensible footwear had morphed into a magnificent, cold, and inflexible pair of glass slippers.
Cindy stared at them blankly for a moment then sighed.
Margret gaped, covering her mouth with both hands. “Fairytale magic?”
With a grimace, Cindy discarded the slippers, dragged her travel bag from the floor onto her bed, and rummaged through it for a pair of extra thick socks. Any further attempt at shoes at this point would only add to the amount of enchanted glass footwear.
“Please don’t tell anyone. It’s such a bother having to explain it to people every time, and not everyone understands.”
And Cindy had had more than enough of dealing with people’s jealousy.
Wide eyes never leaving the gleaming contours of the new slippers, Margret took a few steps forward and sank onto the room’s only chair.
“I’ve never met someone who was Blessed,” she said, her normally boisterous voice hushed with the weight of her wonder. “But why are you upset? This is all supposed to happen for you.”
Cindy made a face at her choice of words.
“Supposed to. That’s the problem. My parents were the ones who wanted a fairy to Bless me, and as soon as one came along, they went and wished for me to marry a prince—just like in that old fairytale about the girl with the glass slippers.”
“Which you don’t want to do?” Margret asked, pronouncing the words slowly like she couldn’t quite believe she was saying them.
Cindy frowned. “It’s not that I necessarily object to marrying a prince. It’s just that I’d like to have a choice in the matter. Who knows? Maybe I’d really like him, given the chance to get to know him. But as things stand, that’s never going to happen because I’m too busy running away.”
There was that boy two escapes back too. Cindy had found work behind the counters of a bakery that time, ringing up purchases and assisting the pastry chef’s apprentice. He may have only been an apprentice, but he could bake a mean peach cobbler. Peach cobbler had to be one of Cindy’s favorite desserts, right up there with homemade carrot cake and her father’s apple pie.
It was Margret’s turn to frown. “So what, you’re just going to keep running for the rest of your life?”
“Good heavens, no,” Cindy said, laughing. “The fairy told me I could break the spell myself. All I need to do is successfully avoid my Happily Ever After thirteen times. After that, the magic fades.”
“Because of the whole “unlucky number” thing?”
Margret thought this over then asked, “How many times has it been?”
“This’ll be number five.”
Margret shook her head, her expression torn between bemusement and incredulity. Cindy was getting used to that expression on people, among other things. All considered, Cindy thought she was taking the situation rather well.
“I suppose I see what you mean,” the older woman said finally. “I mean, I wouldn’t want to marry a stranger either. But even so,” and here, the corners of her lips twitched upward into a wistful smile, “it would be nice to dance with the prince—even just once. I’ve heard that he’s quite handsome. That’d be a story to tell the children, wouldn’t it?”
“If you say so.”
Cindy hopped on one foot while she struggled to pull a sock onto the other. Through the window, she spotted a handful of guards decked out in royal blue and gold parade past along the road. Was that a scouting party? It seemed as though his Highness was wising up. Leaving town without being seen was going to be tougher this time. Unless...
Cindy turned a calculating gaze on Margret. Like Cindy, the older woman’s hair was long and dark—not quite the same shade of brown, but close enough. She wasn’t quite as tan as Cindy either, but she was about the same height.
“Hey, Margret, what size shoes do you wear?”
Lady Nora closed the restaurant early that day so that everyone had time to prepare for the ball. Suits and dresses were aired out, old jewelry unearthed—Cindy could practically taste the excitement in the air, a sweet and spicy mixture of anticipation and nerves. Never mind that the entire event seemed rather sudden and the reasons for it terribly unclear.
Standing before the full-length mirror in Cindy’s room, Margret plucked at the puffy sleeves of the heavily embroidered, periwinkle blue ball gown they had borrowed from Lady Nora.
“I don’t think this will work,” she said.
Cindy stepped back to appraise her reflection. Sure, Margret’s hair was straight instead of wavy, but Cindy had braided it and pinned it up so that it was difficult to tell. Cindy had given her the silver necklace she’d worn the last time the prince had caught up with her too, and the toes of the glass slippers peeked out from beneath the hem of Margret’s voluminous skirts.
“It should work for long enough,” Cindy said at last, patting her shoulder. “It might not fool his Highness for long, but most of the guards have only ever seen me from a distance. And they’ll be looking for the slippers.”
“Are you sure you don’t want the necklace back?”
Cindy shook her head. “Keep it. You’re doing me a great favor. It’s the least I can do.”
Margret traced the delicate petals of the silver rose pendant with one finger then let her hand drop and sighed.
“I was thinking and... Well, maybe it’s not my business, but I think you should talk to him.” She coughed, “The prince, I mean.”
Cindy paused in the process of coiling her own hair up onto the top of her head so it wouldn’t get in her way. “But if I go to that ball, there won’t be any getting away. That’s how fairytale magic works. The story, once it’s got a hold of you, must go on. The unlikely coincidences will just start piling up until they bury you.”
“Can’t you just—you know,” she shrugged helplessly, cheeks turning pink, “sneak in to see him before the ball?”
“I... suppose I could,” Cindy said after a moment. She finished up her hair, her forehead wrinkled in a frown. “I hadn’t really thought of it. I mean, what would be the point?”
“It’ll get harder to keep running,” Margret pressed on. “And you still have eight times to go after this. Wouldn’t it be easier if the two of you could come to some sort of agreement? I mean, maybe he doesn’t really, truly want to marry you either.”
“He does, or at least he says he does.”
“What, even without knowing you?”
“He told me so himself. He called it love at first sight, but we both know what that means.”
Margret’s brows knitted. “We do?”
Cindy rolled her eyes. “He thought I was beautiful.”
“Oh.” Margret fidgeted, her gaze dropping to the glint of light on her new glass shoes. “Is that a no then?”
Cindy sat down on the edge of her bed, leaning back on her hands while she pondered the suggestion. To be honest, it scared her a little, the idea of seeing him again. Perhaps, even though she knew the story had to begin at a ball, she was afraid that if she saw him again, the magic wouldn’t let her walk away. Still, Cindy had to admit that Margret had a point. She’d only been on the run for a few years, and she was already secretly tired of it. What was the fun of traveling and meeting all these wonderful, interesting people when she could never spend any time with them?
Sensing her hesitation, Margret said, “If you go now, you can be back here before it’s time for the carriages to leave. Do it as a favor to me, because I like to dream about happily ever afters.”
Cindy opened her mouth to reply, but before anything could be uttered, a third voice spoke up in a soft purr.
“Are you ready to go, my lady?”
The two women stilled and turned their heads towards the new speaker.
Lady Nora’s ginger tabby sat on the windowsill, its tail wrapped primly about its paws. It was wearing a black tuxedo and a tiny bowtie.
Cindy leapt to her feet, snatched the tabby up, and stuffed him into the empty closet. Ignoring its muffled protests, she shut and latched the doors.
“It was mice at my last job,” she said with a shudder. “Sorry about that. My family’s never been wealthy. No servants, no footmen, or anything like that, so the fairy had to make do. You can let him out after the ball. He should be normal by then.”
Retrieving her cloak from the back of the chair and swinging her travel bag over her shoulder just in case, Cindy faced her friend with a rueful smile.
“I’ll be right back.”
Finding Prince Charming was easy. He was all everyone wanted to talk about. Getting to his suite at the fanciest inn in town without being noticed was a lot less easy, but Cindy managed.
His blue eyes grew wide when he opened the door to find the girl that was supposed to be the star of his dreams on the other side. By the time Cindy had squeezed past him with her bulging travel bag and shouldered the door shut, his entire face had lit up with a smile even Cindy had to admit was dazzling.
“Ah, Lady Cindy! Still as beautiful as I remember.”
She didn’t waste time beating around the bush.
“It won’t last, you know,” she said. “I’ll grow old.”
He shrugged. “As will I. It would be unfair of me to demand differently from my wife.”
That was—a very reasonable response actually, and Cindy floundered for a proper rebuttal before letting out a heavy sigh.
“Listen, I’m not here because I changed my mind about marrying you. I just wanted to talk.”
Her stomach twisted with something that felt uncomfortably like guilt at the disappointment that clouded his face. It wasn’t like any of this was his fault. He hadn’t asked to be born a prince or to be caught up in her fairytale.
Recovering from his dismay, the prince gestured for Cindy to take a seat. Two armchairs had been placed on either side of a low, glass table before the fireplace, and she sank gingerly onto one of these. The softness of the cushion was somewhat canceled out by the stiffness of all the gold embroidery.
“What did you want to talk about?” he asked, sitting down in the other armchair.
Cindy opened her mouth then hesitated. Now that she was face to face with him, she wasn’t sure how to start. How was a person supposed to talk to someone that she’d technically been destined to marry since she was two?
The silence grew longer and longer.
The prince waited, leaning forward where he sat in an unwavering expression of polite attentiveness.
Cindy had to give him credit for his patience.
She fidgeted, suddenly self-conscious of her abrupt arrival and her stocking-clad feet. There was a bit of dead grass stuck to her right toe. She forced herself not to pick at it with her other foot.
Well, might as well emphasize the most important part.
Cindy cleared her throat, lifted her chin, and reiterated, “I don’t want to marry you.”
The prince didn’t respond right away. Clasping his hands before him and resting his elbows on his knees, he regarded her. His blue eyes were clear and steady.
“Because we don’t know each other at all,” she replied.
“We can learn,” he pointed out. “Spend more time together. That’s what most people do, isn’t it?”
He wasn’t wrong, Cindy supposed, but that wasn’t the main point here.
“I don’t want to marry someone because of a spell,” she clarified. “I want to have a choice, and I want to know for sure that I’m the one making it.”
Cindy wasn’t sure how she had expected the prince to react to this vehement declaration, but it wasn’t what she got.
He sat back in his chair with a sigh and said, “So it’s the magic. And I thought it was so convenient.”
“Convenient?” Cindy repeated, disbelieving. “How is it convenient?”
If anything, she’d never been so inconvenienced by something in her life.
The prince swept his arms out to either side of him in a grand gesture that encompassed the spacious room and the inn beyond.
“I never have to organize these balls, you know. They just happen. After that time we met outside the palace, I just know when you’re nearby. And when I’m in the right town, the plans for the ball will just turn up and work themselves out. The only thing I have to do is be there. In fact, sometimes, I don’t have to do even that. I’ll just—end up where I need to be.”
Cindy’s heart sank. There went option number one, ask him to just give up.
The words came spilling out of her in a rush. “Why don’t you mind? Are you really okay with marrying a girl who doesn’t love you just because someone else made a wish?”
Unruffled, he said, “I would hope that you would grow to love me. And from the few conversations we’ve had, I feel certain that I could grow to love you too. Besides, there are worse things than to marry a girl who doesn’t want to marry me because I’m a prince.”
Cindy was quiet for a moment. It wasn’t so much his words that surprised her as how logical he was being. Compared to their first meeting at that first ball, he seemed to have become much more levelheaded.
He’d grown up, she thought, and it felt strange to think it because it reminded her that he was, like her, an ordinary human being. Unlike the talking cat back in her closet, he was a person, not just another character in this enchanted performance. He’d done just as much running after her as Cindy had done running away. If she’d learned a few things about herself along the way and done some growing up of her own, it only made sense that the same would be true of her suitor.
Cindy felt a fresh pang of dismay at how her parents’ one seemingly innocuous wish had bound not only her life but his. They had meant well, she knew. But the thing with happiness was that it just didn’t work when you tried to impose it on other people.
It was Cindy’s turn to sigh.
“Listen, I’m here because someone suggested that we should try to work something out. Right now, I don’t want to marry you, but... maybe someday I will. Only it’s only going to happen if I know we both had a choice in the matter. No magic.”
He brightened and sat straighter. “You mean if the spell is broken, you’ll reconsider?”
For the first time since stepping over the threshold, a smile fought its way onto Cindy’s face.
“Take me dancing and we’ll see.”
“Done.” He smiled. “So let’s talk about this Blessing.”
Cindy returned to Aunt Nora’s just as people began filing out to the carriages that waited before the bed and breakfast. The building’s many windows blazed with light that was both warm and welcoming. Cindy was a little regretful to be leaving the place behind, but... Since she had to go, she was glad that this would be her last memory of it.
Margret spotted her standing beneath the boughs of a great oak a little ways down the road and excused herself to run over to her.
Margret’s voice was a little breathless when she asked, “So?”
Cindy gave her a rueful smile.
“Thank you,” she said, “for telling me to go. He might not be so bad. A bit overdramatic, but reasonable enough. He’s got to keep chasing and I’ve got to keep running, but together, we can speed up the process by a lot. With any luck, we’ll be free by the end of the year.”
“And after that?”
Cindy laughed at her friend’s eagerness. “I can’t promise you that ours will be that kind of story, but I’ve agreed to give him a proper chance. He invited me to the winter solstice celebration at the capital. I told him to ask me again after the spell’s broken, and I’ll go.”
“That’s good enough for me.” Margret grinned and pulled the younger woman into a brief bear hug. “You promise to write and tell me how things go?”
Cindy hugged her back.
Then Margret stepped away, dropped a mock curtsy, and gave her a wink before turning back towards the single brilliant orange carriage at the end of the queue.
“Oh, and Margret,” Cindy said, raising her voice. When Margret glanced back, she continued, “I told him that a good friend would be posing as me, and that she’d love a chance to dance with a prince.”
Cindy couldn’t tell if it was excitement or terror that flashed across Margret’s face, but she chose to believe that it was the former.
Soon after, the coachman directed their horses towards the inn, and Margret’s carriage peeled away onto the road leading eastward out of town. Cindy followed at a discreet distance, the hood of her cloak pulled up against the evening chill.
The guards on patrol intercepted the orange carriage almost at once. A short argument ensued where Margret put up a token protest, the glass slippers were noted, and the coachman was ordered to turn around. Cindy moved to the side of the road to allow the carriage and its escort to pass, wished Margret an unforgettable night, and started walking swiftly in the opposite direction.
Cindy only slowed when the last lights of the town faded into darkness behind her, basking in the quiet that she knew wouldn’t last and smiling—just a little. The moon was a brilliant, silver disk in the night sky overhead, complemented by a diamond dusting of stars. A gentle breeze was blowing, and off in the grass, she could hear the chirping of crickets.
Yet again, the fairytale had failed to ensnare its Happily Ever After. But perhaps, in its own way, it would still manage in time to bring a couple mostly ordinary people closer together.