Beauty from Ashes

Part 1

“Cinderella!” a whiny voice rang out from upstairs, “Come up here at once!”

I sighed. It was all I could do not to run out the door; not to run, run, run, and never come back. I would never have to answer to my stepsisters again. But I wouldn’t survive and I knew it. Even though my life was miserable here, at least I had a life, if you could call it that. I heaved my tired body up the winding staircase. With every step, the arguing voices grew louder.

“I said I wanted roses first!”

“Did not! You stole my idea!”

“Oh no I didn’t. You just won’t give me credit for anything, Anastasia!”

“That’s because you never have any good ideas! I’m going to have roses, whether you want me to or not. So there!”

“Motherrr!”

I could hear Lady Tremaine shushing her daughters. “Now girls. If you are ever to impress the Prince, you absolutely must control your tempers. Anastasia, you will have red roses, and Druscilla, you will have white ones. Listen to Mother, dears. Don’t be like that nasty Cinderella who never obeys anyone.” Lady Tremaine directed this last remark at me as I entered the room. Anastasia and Druscilla instantly forgot their enmity in their mutual delight at my poor, embarrassed face.

Lady Tremaine didn’t lose a beat. “Cinderella, go fetch twenty red roses and twenty white roses for your sisters. If they are to have dried flower crowns for the ball, we must start preparing them now. Go, child! Don’t just stand there looking stupid! Away with you!”

The girls snickered and turned back to their preparations. Oh how I wished I could join them! As the date of the Prince’s ball drew ever nearer, our household was in an uproar over the various preparations necessary to present Anastasia and Druscilla at their finest (which wasn’t saying much). But though I had begged and pleaded, Lady Tremaine refused to let me go to the ball. It was an unnecessary expense, she said. But the King had ordered all eligible maidens to come, I protested. She only scoffed at this, saying I was hardly “eligible” with my dusty, ash-stained face and dingy clothes. I chose not to point out that all that could be fixed with a bath and a new gown. I knew when I had lost. I knew because I always did lose and always had lost, ever since the day my father died.

I stomped outside, gritting my teeth to keep from exploding. At least I got to visit the forest. I picked my way sluggishly to the two lush rosebushes in the middle of our woods, trying to drag out my freedom. When I arrived, I plucked the roses as slowly as possible, carefully avoiding thorns. I had only gathered the red roses when a crackling noise made me freeze in mid-pluck. Some great animal was snuffling and stomping its way through the woods. It drew nearer and nearer to me, but I was afraid to turn around. My heart pounded madly in my chest like a captive bird desperate to escape. Finally the crackling stopped. The beast was so close I could feel its hot breath on my back.

I just had to turn around.

Immediately I wished I hadn’t. I was face to face with an enormous beast – what looked like a cross between a bear and a lion.

beast.jpg

It was by far the most terrifying thing I had ever seen. My breath came in ragged gasps; my sweaty hands clutched the roses as if to protect them.

Then the beast spoke.

“Who are you?” it questioned in a deep, growling, voice. If I hadn’t been terrified out of my wits before, I was now. A talking bear?

I gulped. “M-my name is Ella, Sir… Sir…”

“Call me Beast,” it snarled.

“My n-name is Ella, Beast.”

Beast growled menacingly. “Very well, Ella, give me one of your shoes.”

I blinked. “Excuse me? But, Sir – I mean, Beast, these are my only pair! My mother will be furious! Please, may I give you my hair ribbon or-”

“Your shoe. Give it to me.” His voice left no room for doubt. I passed him one of my forlorn slippers with trembling hands. He nodded and continued, “If you want this back, you must return to this place tomorrow at this time. Or else-” he opened wide his mouth and roared like a lion.

I shielded my face with my arm. Sweat plastered my yellow-gold hair to my head, and tears streamed down my dusty face. “Yes, yes Sir – I mean Beast. I will do that. I promise I will. Please, please may I go now?” Beast nodded his huge head.

I lost no time in racing back to the safety of home, sobbing with terror all the time. When I was halfway there it occurred to me that I hadn’t picked any white roses. Nevermind. I was NOT going back there, no matter how angry Druscilla would be.

But the worst part was, I had promised, and my promise was backed by the terrifying threat of the Beast’s roar. I had to go back tomorrow, like it or not.

Oh. No.

Part 2

Furious rage could not even begin to describe Druscilla and Lady Tremaine’s feelings toward me when I returned home single-shoed with only Anastasia’s roses in hand. I thought they would explode into tiny pieces. Even my frantic, tearful excuses and description of the Beast did little to calm them. I was sent to bed without dinner (though I had barely had lunch), and given twice as many chores for the next day.

When I awoke the following morning, I was more exhausted than when I went to sleep – Beast had tormented my dreams all night. By late afternoon it was nearly time to meet the Beast and I still had chores to do. I whirled the duster up and down the banister, polished the table in 30 seconds flat, and shooed a herd of dust bunnies frantically out the door. I could hear feet clumping down the stairs, but I didn’t wait for further instructions. I was out the door and in the forest in the time it takes Anastasia and Druscilla to pick out their cereal bowls.

I had one last chore – gathering those twenty white roses for Druscilla. This was the chore I dreaded most, for to complete it I had to meet the Beast once again.

I timidly entered the clearing, glancing this way and that for signs of the Beast. Nothing. I breathed a sigh of relief and started picking white roses, much faster this time. But just like the day before, I had only barely finished when I heard twigs crackling.

The Beast was here.

“I’m here. I came,” I managed to gasp as I cringed under his imposing glare.

“I see you succeeded in snatching a few more of my roses,” Beast frowned impressively. “I thought I had taught you a lesson the first time, but apparently you are slow to learn. WHY are you STEALING my ROSES?” Beast bellowed.

“I’m so terribly, terribly sorry, Sir Beast, Sir. I – I didn’t know they were your roses. You never told me!” I whimpered. “It’s just that… my sister needs these roses, I – I mean she wants these roses, very badly, and if I don’t bring them my mother is likely to shut me up in the house. Which means I can’t come back to see you.” I looked hopefully up at his face, searching for any signs of relent. Though his expression was harder than a stone chopping block, his words surprised me.

“Very well. You may take them on one condition: you must serve me for twenty days – one day for each rose. Meet me here each evening and I will put you to work. Or, if you would rather not…” Beast shrugged, “leave the roses – and your other shoe – with me.”

This was hard. Would I face the fury of my stepsister and stepmother and go barefoot for who knows how long, or face the Beast every day for twenty days? I buried my face in my hands in agony. I knew what I had to do, but I couldn’t bring myself to say the words.

“I will serve you for twenty days,” I whispered at last.

A tiny spark glimmered in Beast’s eyes. It looked almost like… hope, or gladness. But he only grunted and said, “Very well. Your service starts today.”

My shoulders sagged. I was far too tired to do anything properly, much less to serve the demanding Beast. But all I said was, “As you say. What is my task?”

******

Half an hour later I dragged myself home, picking bits of moss and leaves from my dirty dress and clinging to a handful of limp white roses. The Beast had ordered me to make a couch from wood, leaves, and moss. It was backbreaking work that he could have accomplished far easier than I, but he never lifted a finger to help. All he did was stare at me – or more like stare through me – the entire time, as if he were prying open my heart and searching for secrets. The Beast was a strange creature.

He only got stranger the next day. He sat on his couch and asked me question after question – who were my parents? Where did I live? Did I have any siblings? Was I good at sewing? Dancing? Painting? And many other questions, some normal and some unsettling. When I asked him why he wanted to know all this, he only shrugged and said that if I were to be his slave, he had better know some of my background. Secretly I wasn’t so sure. The Beast didn’t seem like one to care where I came from or who I was, as long as I did the things he required.

Instead of voicing my doubts, I began to question him. What was he anyway – a huge, hairy human or a talking animal? And if an animal, what kind, and how did he learn to speak? Where did he live? What was he doing here? How could I be sure that those rosebushes were really his? But though I bombarded him with questions, he remained stubbornly silent.

“Go on,” I prompted him, “it’s only fair that a slave should know something about her master. Why aren’t you answering my questions?”

Beast answered soberly. “Ella, girl, I do not answer because you would not believe me. The time has not yet come for you to know these things. I shall tell you soon enough, when the time is right and not before.”

I cocked my head in puzzlement. This was strange. It was like my father was talking to me. The Beast sounded almost wise, almost kind… Almost, but not quite. I shook my head. Would I ever understand this creature?

In the days that followed, I did a variety of tasks for the Beast. I brought him mushrooms, nuts, and other good things to eat from the forest; I tended his rosebushes; I entertained him with stories and sang to him songs from my childhood; and sometimes I simply walked through the trees with him, answering his questions and talking with him.

A strange thing began to happen. Each day Beast seemed to soften, each day he seemed more like my friend and less like my master, until finally we walked and talked and laughed together as naturally as a brother and sister. I could not fathom how this astonishing change came about or whether it was on his part or mine; I only knew that instead of dreading the daily meetings, I soon looked forward to them eagerly.

My eyes were bright with tears as I walked the familiar path to meet the Beast for the last time. Oddly enough, I would miss him very, very much. Who else could I pour out my troubles to? Who else would cheer me up when I was weary of life?

Who else would be my friend, the best friend I had ever had?

Beast looked sad and nervous too. There was an uncomfortable pause, then Beast said softly, “I have one last question and one last task for you, Ella, my dear. They will be the hardest of all.” Beast lowered his eyes and took a deep breath to steady himself. “I want you to answer honestly – you know me well enough to know that I will see through a lie.”

Beast reached out and held my trembling hands in his. My mind was racing. Why was he so anxious? He was frightening me. What was he going to ask me? I could think of nothing that qualified as “the hardest question of all.” He’d asked me everything, everything already. What was there left to ask?

Beast swallowed hard and looked me straight in the eye.

Part 3

“Ella…” he cleared his throat gruffly, “do you really, truly love me?” His face was intensely anxious as I gasped and turned pale.

Did I love him? Of course I did… or did I? During these past few weeks Beast had become my best friend in the whole world – my only friend, in fact. But he was, after all, only a beast. Could I love him despite his unkempt, shaggy fur; his frowning eyes; his gruffness and his wildness? Could I love him in spite of the hurt he had inflicted on me? I stood before him, my heart once more beating its wings against the bars, looking wildly for an escape, and I knew the answer.

I loved him with all that I was. I loved him completely.

It didn’t matter how terrifying he looked on the outside or how gruff and unfeeling he had been to me at first. Now I knew the true Beast. I could see the warm, loving heart that he had buried deep within a cold, protecting shell; I could see that like a diamond you had only to polish off a little bit of ugliness to find beauty inside him.

“I do,” I whispered. “I really, truly do.”

The Beast’s face flooded with a brilliant flash of joy, but the flash disappeared as soon as quickly as it had come. His face turned serious again.

“Oh my dear, sweet Ella. I love you so very much. But I need just one thing more. Remember how you gave me your shoe as a promise that you would return to see me?”

I nodded. I had nearly forgotten about that shoe in my happiness with Beast.

“I need you to give me something else to seal your promise. This time it will be easier. This time I only need a kiss.”

I drew back, alarmed. Did I really have to kiss his terrible face? My stomach churned at the thought. But I loved him. I could do this. I closed my eyes and inhaled the forest air, my mind whirling with memories of Beast, of our sweet friendship.

I squeezed my eyes shut even tighter and kissed him quickly on his rough, furry cheek. I drew back immediately. Something had not felt right. I blinked.

What had I done to him? I watched in horror as Beast reared to his full height, shuddered, shivered, and began shrinking in size. His massive head was growing smaller, his snout shorter, and his fur was disappearing. His ponderous paws were changing also: the toes were lengthening, spreading apart, growing nails instead of claws. His powerful body was losing its fur as well, turning gold and red and thinning to a smaller trunk. I stumbled backward and fell to the ground, hands over my mouth, eyes wide in unbelief.

Beast was gone.

But even more astonishing was what I saw instead: a young man clad in ornate clothing with laughing eyes and a smile that rivaled the sun in its brilliance. And he was smiling at me.

“Come, Ella, my dear one. I have some explaining to do.”

Part 4

He led me to the mossy couch that I had built for him, was it only a few weeks ago? I remembered with astonishment how fiercely I had hated the Beast that day.

“Sit down,” he said, “and I will tell you everything.”

“I know you are wondering who I am – this man that appeared from a monster? That is a very good question, my dear. A very good question. And the answer is a very surprising one. Do you trust me, Ella?”

I nodded hesitantly, and he smiled in return.

“Very well. Ella, I am the Prince.”

I blinked, stunned. My gruff old friend, the Beast, had melted into a prince? How? Why?

“I see you are wondering how? Why? I’m getting to that… Months ago, my father began planning for this ball, my wedding ball. I did not want a wedding ball. I wanted to find a real princess, not a girl frozen by awe and oozing false politeness. I began to think, to dream. What would those hundreds of girls act like if I were not a Prince but some ugly creature of no benefit to them? I determined to find out. And I knew just who to turn to for help: my grandmother. Grandmother is very… unusual, you could say. You see, her mother was a fairy, and it was Grandmother’s fairy knowledge that turned me into a lumbering, shaggy Beast.”

“Every day I traveled the woods, meeting girls like you, Ella, but not like you. Oh, they performed the tasks I required of them, but they hated me with all their hearts. They were not true princesses.”

I squirmed a bit in my seat. “I hated you too, at first,” I whispered guiltily. “But of course I got over that.”

The Prince smiled. “Yes, you got over that. You alone of all the girls I met took the time to pierce through my dead shell and discern the living heart underneath. You were brave, humble, hardworking, patient, kind, and honest. You were a real princess. You are a real princess. And so, my dear, that is my story. But I have one more favor to ask of you.” The Prince looked kindly upon my doubtful face. “I am a hard master, am I? But this task I am sure you will like. Ella, I personally invite you to my ball tomorrow night.”

I gasped. Could it be that I, ash-covered Cinderella, would go to the ball at last? “B-but I don’t have a dress! How am I to get to the palace? Who will take me? And, oh!” My face crumpled in despair, “My mother will never believe me when I tell her who invited me.” I bit my lip against the threatening tears. I was so close, and yet so far!

But the Prince only smiled. “Don’t worry about the details. My grandmother has arranged all of that. She will meet you here tomorrow night, after your sisters have left. That is… if you want to go…” The Prince hesitated.

“Yes, oh yes! Of course I want to go! ”

The Prince smiled yet again, although he never really stopped smiling. His face was so brilliantly happy that I didn’t know if it was even capable of frowning. “I am glad, Ella dear. So glad. But before I leave, allow me to give you one last gift.” The Prince knelt and drew a gleaming box out from under the couch. I opened it carefully.

Inside were two shining, perfect slippers, made of clearest glass. My eyes widened in delight.

My very own glass slipper!

“I thought perhaps you should have some new shoes… since a certain monster so cruelly took the only pair you had. Do you like them?”

I couldn’t even answer. I slid the shoes onto my stained feet. A perfect fit. “I love them,” I whispered.

Part 5

Today. Today I’m going to the Prince’s ball. Me, Cinderella! The thought was so unbelievable that even after it had circled around and around in my head for hours, I still felt a sense of shock as I waved goodbye to Druscilla, Anastasia, and my stepmother. I would see them again soon – at the ball. I smiled as I imagined their stunned faces when I would  stride through the palace door.

But now. The sky above me deepened and darkened; sparkling stars punched miniscule holes through the black velvet cloth of night. The stars were my companions. They too twinkled and sparkled, bubbling over with barely restrained joy. It was time.

When I reached the rosebush, the Prince’s grandmother was there waiting for me. She was old. Very, very old. Her long, pure white hair rippled down her hunched back like an avalanche of snow. Her hands held out to welcome me were grotesquely bent and twisted with age, and wrapped in translucent, paper-thin skin. Her face was dotted with dark age spots and moles, turning her otherwise pale skin almost brown. Her eyes were cloudy blue skies, but they snapped and twinkled like the stars above us. She was beautiful.

“Come, Ella, my dear,”she said eagerly, in a soft voice. As I drew near, she gazed at me, smiling the Prince’s brilliant smile. “Yes, yes, he was right about you.” She laughed, a surprisingly loud and hearty laugh for such a frail body. Perhaps she wasn’t as old as she looked.

Grandmother, as she told me to call her, looked me over appraisingly. “We share the same eyes, don’t we dear? Blue eyes, blue skies. We must choose your dress accordingly.” Suddenly she closed her eyes, dropped her head, and was still for a very long time. I was startled, then puzzled. Had she dropped off to sleep? I stared at the ground uncomfortably, but when I raised my head to speak, I let out a most un-princess like squeal instead. The old woman held out the most beautiful dress I had ever seen. It was the same shade as my eyes, with white lace trimmings and a line of pearl buttons all down the back. In her other hand she held out a long pearl necklace and matching pearl earrings.

“Oh,” I breathed, “is it really for me?”

“It really is,” the  old woman replied happily. She seemed even older, even  tireder than before,  as if doing the magic had taken something out of her.

“M-may I try it on?” I whispered in awe. She nodded, her eyes sparkling with delight at my joy.The dress fit perfectly.

“Now for your hair,” she said. Her bony fingers proved gentle and skillful, working a magic of their own with my thick caramel curls. She braides and looped and twisted until finally she was satisfied.

“And you must not forget your shoes,” she warned with a smile.

I had forgotten about the perfect glass slippers the Prince had given me, but now I slid them on quickly. I felt like a real princess.

Grandmother led me to a hidden lake in the forest, a lake whose waters were as smooth and clear as the glass of my slippers. I saw my reflection looking back at me in the moonlight. My hands flew to my mouth. That was me? My hair was done up high on my head, curled in braided coils and intricate twists. A few strands of hair hung down like dripping caramel. My dress and slippers were too beautiful to be true.

“Oh!” I exclaimed. “I can’t… it’s so… I just…Oh THANK you ever so much, Grandmother!” I flung my arms around her neck with such force that I nearly knocked her into the pond, but she just laughed and hugged me back.

“One last thing,” she said, drawing back from my embrace. She paced the shore of the lake, the wrinkles of her brow deepening in concentration. After a while she threw up her hands and sighed. “I suppose this will have to do,” she murmured to herself. “It will take all I have, but it will be worth it.” She picked a small yellow pumpkin off irs vine, and abruptly closed her eyes and bowed her head and was still for a very long time. But this time I watched. I watched the pumpkin transform before my eyes, watched it grow bigger and bigger until Grandmother set it on the ground, where it grew bigger still. A door appeared, then a window. Two horses appeared in front of the pumpkin, which was now the size of a carriage, and a plump stagecoach flicked the reigns. As the finishing touch, a door opened, and out came a footman to usher me in. As soon as the transformation was complete, Grandmother crumpled to the ground in exhaustion. I ran over to her to help her up, but she shooed me away.

“Go,” she whispered faintly. “It’s time to meet your prince.”

Part 6

As the carriage glided smoothly over the road, the thoughts in my mind jostled against each other. Should I have stayed with the Prince’s grandmother? She looked like she needed my help. Then I remembered why she told me to go, and my thoughts soared in another direction. I was to meet the prince! Me, dusty little forgotten Ella. Think of that! What would my sisters say when they saw me? My, wouldn’t they be surprised? And then my thoughts would start over again, back at the beginning, a repeating, never ending circle. I thought I had solved one problem only to come upon it again. But I really shouldn’t have left Grandmother…

Finally the circle shattered: we had reached the palace. I pushed my head out of the carriage window for a quick peek and forgot to draw it back in. My mouth fell open and my eyes sparkled with the reflection of hundreds of candles in hundreds of windows, set in a dazzling cacophony of turrets and towers that nearly touched the clouds. A bubbling fountain sparkled in the immaculate lawn, dancing and murmuring to itself in the dying light. Everything was bathed in the soft rose light of sunset.

I almost forgot to breathe.

My glass slippers tapped on the cobblestone walk as I left the carriage, and my heart echoed back every tap with a loud and breathless voice. My hands felt damp and slippery in their soft white gloves.

Two well-dressed men stood at the door to greet the guests. I couldn’t believe that they bowed to me politely as I went in. I was the one who should have been bowing to them! After all, who was I but a lowly servant girl?

But all other thoughts were swept away as I stood at the top of a majestic marble staircase leading down to the ballroom. There were so many people! And so many girls waiting to dance with the prince! Girls who no doubt far surpassed me in beauty and kindness and good character. I thought of all the times I had lost patience with my sisters and stepmother, all those times when I had been so weak and cried myself to sleep, all those times when I felt ready to tear myself apart with anger at myself and my never ending chores and my tiresome, miserable life.

My heart sank. I knew I could never make the Prince happy. He deserved a princess, and I was only Cinderella, the filthy servant girl who swept floors and cleaned fireplaces.

I whirled around to leave, hot tears of shame and self-pity burning my eyes, but suddenly I stopped. The room had gone silent; the music had stopped. All faces had turned toward mine, all eyes were fixed on me, tearing me to shreds from the inside out with their scrutiny. By this time I didn’t care whether my sisters saw me or not – in fact, I hoped they didn’t. I felt terrible, foolish. What had I been thinking? But then the crowd of people turned away and looked with one accord at another figure.

It was the prince. He parted the sea before him and walked towards me. I shrank back, but he held out his hand. He ascended the staircase and smiled his beautiful, brilliant smile at me. He didn’t say a word, but took me by the hand and led me down, down into the sea of faces, all looking at me with wonder and surprise. I gripped the prince’s hand so tightly my fingers hurt.

Then I saw my sisters and stepmother – they were looking straight at me. I wanted to cry out, to turn around, to flee, but I didn’t. I dropped my eyes, and then quickly looked up again. They were looking at me with the same wondering expression that everyone else had. They didn’t recognize me.

Finally we reached the end of the sea of people. The prince looked at me again. For a moment he wore the same amazed, wondering expression that everyone else did, and then he smiled again, wider than ever.

“Oh, Ella!” he whispered joyfully. “I knew you’d come.” I tried to answer him, but all my words were bottled up in my heart. So I just smiled and squeezed his hand.

Then the music started up again and everything went back to the noise and laughter. But it was different. Now everyone kept stealing glances at me and the prince. I wondered if they were inwardly laughing at my disguise. Could they see the real me underneath the layers of lace? Finally I could stand it no longer.

“Why are they looking at me?” I cried to the prince, stepping and turning in time to the music.

He held my hands tighter as we whirled and spun. He whispered in my ear, “Because you are beautiful.”

I was shocked. Was that what everyone was really thinking? I pondered in silence for a while.

“That is because of your wonderful grandmother,” I said at last. “Can you believe that she have me this dress?”

The prince nodded. “I can believe it. But you were already beautiful, even before the dress, Ella. You were beautiful the first day I met you with dirt on your cheeks and an apron over your dress. You are beautiful because your heart is beautiful and as pure as the sun, and it shines from your eyes and your whole self.”

As he spoke, my heart soared inside of me. As he spoke, I knew that I could marry the prince, not because of who I was, but because of who he was, because he had chosen me. I could marry the prince because he loved me and I loved him back. It didn’t matter if I was a servant girl or the fairest princess in the world. It didn’t matter if he was a wild, shaggy Beast or a wealthy, handsome prince. I knew that it didn’t matter at all. Suddenly the words that were bottled up in my heart spilled over, and for hours and hours we talked and laughed and danced as if we were the best of friends – because we were.

But suddenly, I stopped up short in the middle of a dance. I heard something faintly – a chiming clock. With increasing terror I counted each chime. Twelve o’clock. Midnight.

Suddenly I broke away from the prince and dashed through the people. I raced up the stairs, stumbling over my dress. One glass slipper clattered down the steps, but I ran on, panting and gasping for breath.

It was no use. When I reached the top of the stairs, my gorgeous dress had turned into my filthy, soot-stained apron. My hair had fallen around my face in dismal strands.

I was Cinderella again.

Again, the crowd grew quiet. Suddenly, three shouts burst from the sea of faces. Three people hurried toward me. My sisters and stepmother. I couldn’t hold back the tears. I was outraged with myself that I hadn’t left sooner, had embarrassed myself in front of them and all those people… and the prince.

My stepmother spoke first. “Cinderella! What on earth are you doing here? Don’t you know this is no place for servant girls?”

Anastasia and Drucilla just stood dumbfounded. I hid my face in my hands and wept. It had been such a wonderful evening, and now this!

I heard a voice through my tears. “But don’t you understand! Her name is not Cinderella, it is Ella. And she is not a servant girl. She is a princess. My princess.”

My head shot up. It was the prince. And he had… he had called me…

I ran to him and threw myself into his arms. “I will always be your princess,” I whispered.

For a moment, everyone just stared. Then Anastasia broke the silence. “WELL!” she huffed. “WELL!” She beamed me a look of pure hatred, and stalked out the door. Druscilla looked at me with the most shocked expression I have ever seen, and then she dissolved into wails. For once my stepmother’s iron composure had been broken. She gathered up what was left of her dignity and dragged Druscilla after her.

I turned back to my prince. My prince! And I was going to be his princess. He had turned me from a servant into royalty, from a miserable, lonely girl into the happiest girl on earth. He had found beauty in the ashes.

*******

I looked out over the crowd, happy to see Grandmother sitting among them. She looked older than ever, and just as exhausted, but her smile made her face look young. I found my sisters and stepmother watching me intently, but they looked away as soon as they saw me glancing at them. I knew they were ashamed now of how they had treated me, but I had forgiven them. I couldn’t change the past, but I could make the future better.

And thinking of the future, my eyes swept back to the prince. He telling me something, something important. I didn’t hear his words, but his eyes told me what he was saying.

“I do.” I answered. “I will always be your Cinderella forever and ever, until the end of time.”