Eldon Cinder would give anything to see Prince Xavier one last time, but only women are invited to the royal ball. When the local witch offers to make Eldon female for just one night, he agrees.
What could possibly go wrong?
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Once upon a time there was a beautiful maiden who fell madly in love with a handsome young knight. They had a magical, whirlwind romance, and then the knight swept his lady off to a far-away land and married her.
But they did not live happily ever after.
Ten years to the day after their wedding, they were killed in a fire, leaving me, their only son, behind to be raised by my mother's twin sister. Aunt Cecile was recently widowed with twin daughters of her own. It was bad enough my mother had run off with a knight rather than marrying a proper gentleman, thereby leaving a black mark on the family name, but she had now left me with no money or inheritance of my own. Aunt Cecile already harbored a great deal of resentment. Being saddled with me didn't improve her disposition. And if I sometimes thought fate had been a bit unfair, it was a matter I chose not to dwell on.READ MORE
The day I met the prince started like any other. I rose early to do chores—stoking the fire, collecting eggs, feeding the animals, and then helping our old cook Deidre prepare a late breakfast for the family. My cousins, Jessalyn and Penelope, were more agitated than normal.
"I'm telling you, mother," Penelope said, "the servants are all talking about it."
Jessalyn glanced pointedly in my direction and rolled her eyes. "Servants?" she said with obvious disdain. "What do they know?"
"Sometimes, quite a bit," Aunt Cecile answered. "Servants hear things. They see things others don't." She turned to look at me. "Cinder, what have you heard?"
They rarely bothered to talk to me at all, unless it was to give me orders. Cecile's question brought me up short. They'd certainly never asked my opinion on anything. I cleared my throat. "Well, I heard the same things Penelope heard—that the prince is in town. But I also heard there's a group of diamond-hoarding dwarves living in the woods, and that the king from the next country over is burning every spinning wheel in his land because he's afraid of spindles, and that Bella's maid kissed a frog and it turned into a duke." I shrugged. "Servants gossip a lot. I don't believe most of what I hear."
"You see?" Jessalyn said to her sister. They were twins, but not quite identical. Both had long, beautiful dark hair and pleasing faces, but what was pretty on Penelope was ravishing on Jessalyn. Everything about her seemed to shine. Unfortunately, her personality didn't exactly match her lovely exterior. She looked at me with disgust. "Nothing but lies and rumors."
But Aunt Cecile wasn't ready to dismiss it. "Who says the prince is here?" she asked me.
"Well, I heard it from Tomas who heard it from Anne, who heard it from Tabby. Tabby's maid heard it from her brother. He works at the stable at the inn down the road. He told her he talked to one of the prince's guard, and the guard told him—"
"That the prince is coming here to find a bride!" Penelope finished for me. She was practically bouncing in her seat from excitement.
"Right," I concluded. "That's what I heard."
Jessalyn eyed me with cold calculation, then turned to regard her sister and mother. She hated to be seen to agree with me on anything, but she also wasn't stupid. It was obvious she had nothing to gain by continuing to insult me and everything to gain by embracing the drama. She was clearly assessing the situation, trying to decide how to switch sides and make it look as if she'd been in the right all along.
"Penny has a point," she said at last to her mother. "If the prince came here, he would have had to stay at the inn on his way, and Tabby's brother does work there. And if it's true the prince is coming here to find a bride, then we need to be prepared. You want us to make a good impression, don't you?"
Aunt Cecile smiled indulgently at her daughter. "Of course I do!"
And so it was that Aunt Cecile bundled Jessalyn and Penelope into the carriage and headed for the seamstress to secure new dresses for them both.
"It'll take more than pretty dresses to get either of those two ninnies into the palace," Deidre said to me, once they'd gone. "Ugly girls!"
"They're not ugly, though," I said. "Jessalyn especially has a good chance of catching the prince's eye."
"Bah!" she spat. "He can have her. If all he wants is a pretty face, then he deserves to end up with a brat like Jess."
I suspected the prince would indeed be interested in more than a pretty face—specifically, graceful curves and swelling cleavage—but I chose not to share that with Deidre. "I'm going down to the river," I told her. "I'll catch us some fish for dinner."
"Don't forget to leave some for the witch." She told me that every time.
I set off through the woods with my pole over my shoulder. It was a beautiful fall day. Sun shone down through the branches, dappling the mossy ground. Birds sang in the trees. Chipmunks regarded me with hurried suspicion as they scurried across my path. It felt unbelievably fortuitous to be granted a bit of free time on such a gorgeous morning. I whistled as I walked, a barely-remembered tune from my youth.
It felt good to be alive.
Midway to the river was a small clearing in the woods. It was a place I often sat when I had time to spare. Usually, it was empty save for wildlife, but not today. I rarely saw anybody in the woods, and it brought me up short.
In the middle of the small meadow stood a man. He was about my age, tall and handsome. And he wore only one shoe.
"Good morning,” he said as I stumbled to a halt.
"To you, as well," I managed to stammer back.
"Lovely day, isn't it?"
"Say, watch out for Milton."
"Who?" I asked.
The very next instant, something massive slammed into me from behind, knocking me face first to the ground. An enormous weight on my back held me down. My first thought was that I was being robbed, except I had nothing for them to steal. My second thought was that Milton, whoever he was, had a breathing problem. He was panting heavily into my ear, his breath hot on the back of my neck.
"Milton!" the man scolded. "Let him go!"
The weight disappeared, and Milton, who turned out to be the biggest dog I'd ever seen, rushed panting and wiggling to his master's side. He probably weighed nearly a hundred stones. He had short hair and drooping jowls. In his mouth was a shoe.
"Sorry about that," the man said as he took his shoe from the dog. "He's still just a puppy."
"A puppy?" I said, as I got to my feet, brushing dirt and leaves and moss off the front of my shirt. "He's enormous."
"Well, yes. They're bred that way." He turned and threw his shoe toward the woods, and Milton ran gleefully after it. "He's the best hunting dog in the kingdom. Or so they say."
"My father's kennel master. They bred him and trained him. They say he could track a phantom stag to the far side of the world. Not that I've ever tested that theory."
"You don't believe them?"
"I believe them. I just don't care."
"Hunting bores me. I ride along behind Milton while he does all the work, then I have to butcher the animal and haul its stinking corpse back to the palace so they can all gush about it and pretend I did something special." He shrugged. "Plenty of men who hunt because they have to. Let them have the deer. Milton and I prefer playing fetch."
I was hung up on one word. "Palace?" I asked. And then the magnitude of my stupidity caught up with me.
I dropped quickly to my knees, lowering my gaze to the ground. Here I was, facing the prince, and I'd been talking to him as if he were just another servant. "Your Highness, please forgive me. I didn't recognize you."
"Why would you have? We've never met."
"My behavior was inexcusable."
He laughed. "On the contrary. I wear no sign of my title, save my ring, which you could hardly see from all the way over there. We've never met before, which means you had no way of knowing who I was. Therefore, it seems to me your behavior is entirely excusable."
I risked raising my eyes. He was looking down at me with obvious exasperation.
He sighed. "For heaven's sake, get up!"
First I felt foolish for not having recognized him, and now he'd made me feel foolish for thinking I should have. I got to my feet again, brushing leaves from my knees. Milton returned the shoe again, and again the prince turned and threw it toward the woods. He seemed to have forgotten I was there. I stood watching them play fetch, wondering what in the world I should do next. On one hand, I should not be talking to him, and if I continued to do so, I'd undoubtedly say something foolish. He was, after all, a prince, and I was nothing but a servant in my aunt's house. It was inappropriate for me to speak to him without being spoken to first. On the other hand, I couldn't leave without being excused.
I reached down and retrieved my fishing pole from the ground, where it had landed when Milton knocked me down. The movement seemed to catch his attention, and he turned to look at me. "Are you leaving?" he asked.
"Sire, with your permission—"
"Stop!" He sighed as he threw the shoe again for Milton. He shook his head. "I liked you much better when you thought I was nobody special."
That brought me up short. He'd liked me? My heart skipped a beat at the thought.
But now he didn't like me anymore.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"Cinder." Except that wasn't technically correct. Cinder was my surname, and it was what my aunt and cousins called me. Nobody called me by my first name. "Eldon."
He raised his eyebrows at me. "Well, which is it?"
"It's Eldon Cinder."
"It's wonderful to meet you, Eldon," he said. "I'm Augustus Alexandre Kornelius Xavier Redmond." He laughed. "But you know that now, don't you?"
"Don't call me 'sire.'"
"My father calls me August. My mother calls me Alex. You can call me Xavier."
"That wouldn't be appropriate."
"Appropriate is boring." He turned to look at me again. "Where are you going?"
"Really?" he asked, suddenly alert and interested. He eyed the fishing rod I held. "With that?"
What kind of question was that? I looked at the pole, trying to see what about it was remarkable.
"You really catch fish with a stick?" he asked.
"It's a fishing pole."
"How does it work?"
I might have thought he was trying to play me for a fool, but his expression wasn't mocking. He seemed genuinely intrigued. "Haven't you ever fished before?"
"My father says fish are for peasants. He refuses to let it be served. But once, I sneaked down to the servant quarters, and they gave me some. It was delicious!"
I was trying to decide if I was offended by the peasant comment. He seemed oblivious. He eyed my rod again. "Do you stab them?"
"No! I put bait on the hook, and when a fish swallows the bait, I pull it out of the water."
"So you catch them one at a time?"
"How else would I do it?"
"I have no idea," he said, smiling. "I've never much thought about it." Milton came back again with the shoe, but instead of throwing it, the prince stood looking at me, his eyes bright and merry. "You're going there now?"
"Perfect," he said, pulling his shoe onto his bare foot. "Lead the way!"COLLAPSE
Exina on Exina's Readings wrote:
Cinder is the unconventional story of how the two men bend the laws, rather than break them, in order to fulfill their own fairy tale romance, with the help of a witch, a shoe, and a dog named Milton that knows true love even when his master has a difficult time recognizing love in its true form.
This is a fairy tale, so you already know how the story ends, but what Marie Sexton does so successfully is deliver a few surprises, tug a few heartstrings, and make the reader believe that love can and will always find a way.
It is a lovely, nice romance, a real fairy tale with magic, a witch, evil cousins, wonderful moments, and a surprising happy end!