By Freya Price
She is beautiful. Beautiful in a way that Drizella and I could never be. The finest silks, the subtlest shades of rouge, the most immaculate ringlets; all of it pales next to the beauty of the girl who is always covered in soot and dirt.
I want to hate her. I know Drizella does. She makes no secret of it, snapping and snarling at every opportunity she gets, prodding her sharp fingers into Ella’s ribs when she thinks no one is looking. I wince when Ella winces, quickly trying to rearrange my face into a scowl to match Drizella’s. I can’t imagine what would happen if Drizella ever saw me look at Ella with anything other than contempt. She would tell Mama and that can never happen. Pretending to hate Ella is easier than dealing with the consequences, the rage and confusion, so I save kindness for when I am alone with her.
I like to read in the parlour in the evenings. I know that Mama will be in bed, and Drizella is often out with some ghastly, insipid boy from the village. She sometimes tries to convince me to go with her, teasing me about my bookish ways, but I am happier alone by the fire. It is my only chance to see Ella without the rest of my family there, the only time I let the scowl fall from my face.
“Ella?” I call her, trying to keep my voice harsh, in case my mother hears. “Ella! The fire needs tending to.” I hate asking her to do anything, especially when Drizella isn’t here, goading me on, but I don’t know how else to get her to come into the room.
She rushes in, shooting me a small nervous smile that makes my heart stop for a second.
“Can you tend the fire?” I ask, my voice lowering now that I’m sure no one else can hear me. “Please?” I add softly.
She glances up in surprise, shooting me that smile again before she kneels, starting to stoke the fire.
“Are you going to the ball?” she almost whispers, looking shocked at hearing herself speak first. I feign disinterest, shrugging casually.
“I suppose so. Mama wants us to go. Wants us to find husbands…”
She says nothing in response, just nods and carries on adding wood to the fire, stirring the embers back into life. I gaze at her wistfully, watching the light dancing across her face. A lock of honey blonde hair escapes from her ribbon and I feel my fingers twitch. I long to lean forwards and tuck it behind her ear. I don’t. I can’t.
“I’d rather stay here, to be honest,” I admit, after a long silence. She turns to look at me with an unreadable expression. I wish I knew what she was thinking. After a long, tense pause she rises with a grace that seems effortless, gives a small curtesy and moves to leave.
She stops, turns on her heel to look at me expectantly.
“Come. Sit for a moment.”
Her mouth falls open at my request. I am never usually so bold, and I feel a cold rush of panic that I have inadvertently shown my hand. I try to adopt my mother’s haughty attitude, lifting my chin and making my voice cold and sharp.
“I don’t feel like being alone. I doubt you have much else to do.”
The words land and she sighs, recognising the bored, demanding tone of the Tremaine women. Obediently, she sits down next to me, folding her hands neatly in her lap. I’m never normally allowed to be this close to her and her proximity is intoxicating. The warm scent of wood smoke clings to her skin and I lean in. I am close enough now to make out the faint red scratch on her cheek from where Mama hit her this morning for burning the porridge. Shame settles in my stomach as I recall watching in silence as she straightened up, shining eyes seeking me out for a moment before she recovered and carried on with her duties. She must hate me. I hate myself.
“You don’t want to go to the ball?” she asks, focusing her gaze at her hands. I am surprised at her boldness once again.
“Not particularly. Mother will match me with the first wealthy old fool who looks my way and I won’t be able to escape his sweaty clutches for the rest of the night,” I say, glaring at the fire. I realise I have said too much, revealed something too personal, and try to backtrack. “Of course, he might be nice. Maybe it won’t be so bad,” I add, unconvincingly.
“I hope so.”
I am surprised by this. I have been dismissive, cruel even, and she still shows me kindness. My heart swells. I watch the way her hair gleams in the amber glow of the fire, images of me and her at the ball together flashing before my eyes before I can stop them. My hands on her waist, both of us laughing, as I spin her around the dancefloor.
“I think it sounds magical,” she says dreamily, turning to look at me with eyes so blue I can’t look away. She’s right. The thought of going to the ball suddenly doesn’t seem so bad and I begin to ponder how I might be able to sneak away from watchful eyes.
“The gowns, the lights, the music…” she trails off and I lean forwards before I can stop myself.
She smiles so broadly that I can’t help but reciprocate. She closes her eyes and I wonder what she is thinking, daring to hope it might be about me. I am leaning close, thinking how easy it would be to brush my lips against hers, wondering how she would react. Would she kiss me back? Would she be surprised? I steal myself to do it, to take a risk, to stop being the stepsister who reads all the time and never wants to meet the village boys and I hover, seconds away from closing the distance between us.
“I met a man. In the woods.” I freeze. The smile drops from my face and I retreat, just in time to see her eyes flicker open, oblivious to my intentions.
“He’s one of the Prince’s court, so I’m hoping he’ll be there.” Her eyes shine bright with excitement, her fingers raising to brush against her lips and I know she’s imagining him kissing her, holding her close as they sway and whirl around the hall.
Jealousy washes over me in a hot, white wave and I shift away from her, immediately wanting her to be gone from my sight.
“It’s a shame you won’t be going, then,” I snap, enjoying the way my words leech the whimsy from her expression. “Oh? Didn’t mother tell you? She has extra chores for you that night. There’s no way you’ll be able to go.”
Her bottom lip trembles, and I waver, before remembering the way her eyes had shone only moments before, for some boy she met in the woods. She never looked that way at me.
“Now. Go.” I dismiss her with a little wave of my hand, turning my whole body away from hers. “I’ve had enough of you.”
She doesn’t move.
“And be glad I’m not planning to tell Mama that you’re off meeting boys in the woods like some common whore. You are never to see him again.”
I hear a small sniffle from behind me. I chance a glance at her. Her hand is pressed against her chest, like there is some physical ache in her heart at the thought of never seeing this boy again. My eyes focus on the mark on her cheek again, and for a split second, I feel an urge to repeat my mother’s actions. Why strive to treat her with kindness? I will never be more than a Tremaine in her eyes, no better than the woman who slapped her for burning porridge, or my sister who screamed at her for spilling the tea.
I need her to be gone. Her proximity is suffocating me, and I twist my clammy palms together, my hands shaking.
“Get out.” I said quietly, in a voice so cold I almost don’t recognise it. She doesn’t move.
“Ana…” She starts softly, her voice thick with tears, her hand reaching towards me, appealing to my kindness. She must think I am a fool. I slap her hand away roughly and she jumps. I have never laid a hand on her before.
“Don’t,” I mutter, hating how small my voice sounds, before I take a deep breath, channelling my mother once more. “Get to your room!” I scream suddenly, pleased when she flinches. She jumps up, scurrying away, her sorrow and dismay still hanging in the air after she’s left. I feel a small thrill at the fearful glance she gives me when she leaves, wondering if this is how Drizella and Mama feel all the time.
I finally let my own tears fall, angrily wiping them away. She’s a servant. That’s all. I won’t allow myself to cry over a servant girl.
My gaze falls on her slippers, warming by the fire. They were a gift from her father long ago, I remember her telling me. Once pale pink Chinese silk, they are now worn and tattered and more a muddy shade of brown. They are still infuriatingly dainty though, and I feel the hatred burn inside me. Draining the last of my port, I place the glass on the floor and crush it under my shoe before I can stop myself. The crunch is satisfying, but not satisfying enough, and I stoop to carefully gather the shattered splinters in my hands, barely even feeling the multitude of pinpricks as they slice into my palms. I pour the glittering shards of glass into her slippers, tapping them against the hearth to move them all to the toe, out of sight.
I stand, glancing down at my bloodied hands, smiling as I consider what I have done, imagining her sliding her pretty feet into each slipper.
Let’s see her dance with the boy now.
Freya Price is a student at the University of Wolverhampton. She gave up a long and illustrious career in waitressing to study Creative and Professional Writing, in the hopes of one day becoming a published author.
Banner image: Askepott (Cinderella), National Library of Norway