My half-sister Ella was never quite the same as other people. She often had a slightly vague expression in her eyes, and she spoke in a funny, mumbley way that turned my name from ‘Lucinda’ to ‘Lucinder’ or sometimes just ‘Cinder.’ When we were little, I used to tease her by copying the way she talked. I could mimic her exactly, and it always made her cry. Then my father’s wife would grow angry and slap my face.
My father never stopped her when she did this; it was her right to hate me. After all, my mother was the cook, and I was a result of my father’s indiscretion. Looking back, I think it would have been easier for her if I had looked more like my mother, but Ella and I both take after our father. It must have galled her to have a servant girl who looked so like her own child, and it was worse because I was normal. No one ever whispered behind my mother’s back about changelings like they did with Ella.
As my father’s wife hated me, so did I hate Ella as a child. Ella, who had pretty dresses. Ella, who learned to paint. Ella, who never had to scrub pots or floors, or cook meals, or sleep in the attic with the other servants.
Ella, who got to be our father’s daughter.
When we were both twelve, Ella began dancing lessons, and I had had enough. I cornered her in her room and lit into her for every wrong she or her mother or our father or my imagination had ever done me. She stared at me with wide eyes, one fist pressed to her mouth, not speaking, until I ended with the final insult: that she was to learn to dance. She would get to go to balls and parties and dance with handsome boys, and I would never even get to learn the steps and it wasn’t fair …he was my father, too.
I glared at her, panting, waiting for her response, waiting for her to run off crying and for her mother to come and strike me again.
She stared at me for a long moment, then lowered her fist from her mouth. Then she took my wrist in her hand and tugged me out of the room after her. I went because I figured I might as well get the slap and the scolding out of the way.
As I expected, Ella took me to her mother. There, she folded her hands neatly in front of her, looked her mother in the eye, and said, “I warnt Lucinder to learn to darnce with me.”
My father’s wife stared at her with open shock. “Ella, darling, she is a servant. Servants don’t learn to dance.”
Ella looked up at her and for once her gaze was firm and fully present. “She is my sister. She will learn.”
I’m not certain why, perhaps it was because Ella so rarely focused on anything and my father’s wife wished to encourage it, but that night I was able to joyfully tell my mother that I was to join the dance class, provided I kept up with my chores.
My mother gave me an odd sort of smile and told me she used to dance for my father. When I asked why she stopped, she simply said, “We must be good neighbors to those we live beside.”
Learning to dance was wonderful. It didn’t make up for being a servant instead of a lady, but it was enough to let me stop hating Ella. And once I stopped hating her, I could see her life wasn’t as perfect as I had thought.
Ella drifted through her lessons in a confused, unfocused haze, a perplexed expression in her vague eyes. It was as though she saw the world through one of her mother’s almost transparent veils, the shapes around her indistinct and blurry in a strange, fog-covered world.
Dance was one of the few lessons she truly excelled at. We were both light and graceful, the steps coming to us like we had known them once, and simply needed a hint to remind us of them. When Ella danced, the haze lifted from her eyes, and she laughed and smiled like a normal little girl.
A few months after the dancing lessons began, I accidentally found another way to lift the haze from Ella’s eyes. My mother was always very strict with me when it came to repaying debts. Every favour had to be returned, as quickly as possible. It took me a long time to think of something grand enough to repay Ella for the dance lessons. I finally decided on taming a pigeon for her – they were fairly easy to catch and tame, if you had the knowing of it. I got pecked badly when I stole the squeaker from the nest, but it was worth it when the tame pigeon lighted on Ella’s hand for the first time, and the haze vanished like it had never been.
I spent an hour teaching her how to make it do tricks before my father’s wife and the housekeeper came looking for us both.
Ella flitted to her mother with bright eyes and a brighter smile. “Look, Mermer, isn’t he lovely? His name’s ‘Plimsoll,’ because he hars little pink feet, like darncing shoes!”
My father’s wife stood stock still for a moment, and I was surprised to see tears begin to run down her cheeks.
However that was all I saw before the housekeeper rushed over and led me out of the room by my ear. I was sentenced to scouring the largest iron cooking pots for the rest of the day, a task that always left my hands aching for ages afterwards.
After that day things changed in the household. Ella’s education shifted in nature somewhat to include more birds, and lessons in falconry were added, which Ella adored. Songbirds joined her music lessons, and Plimsoll accompanied her most places. But, most importantly, the vagueness vanished from Ella’s eyes.
However, not all the changes were in Ella’s life.
It wasn’t until years later that I understood why my father’s wife suddenly gentled towards me. But, however much she had hated me, she had always loved her daughter, no matter the whisperings, and I had given her a way to pierce the haze that hung between Ella and the world.
She rewarded me by teaching me to sew. It was a hidden reward, for she claimed she did so merely so that I could begin to attend to Ella’s wardrobe. A reward it was, however, for Ella’s mother was a highly fashionable woman, and many of the ladies who visited begged her to reveal the name of her tailor. The secret was that, while she did patronize a very skilled dress-maker, the little flares that made her gowns the fabric jewels she was so noted for were her own, delicate alterations and embellishments she made with needle and silk. Such skills were a precious reward indeed. I may not have understood the cause, but I did know a gift when I saw one. I applied myself to the lessons thoroughly.
Furthermore, care of a lady’s wardrobe fell to the lady’s maid, a position of great status in a household, and of far more visibility than I ever expected to receive.
And so time began to pass. Most young girls are introduced to society at a party when they turn 16, but at 14 Ella was already chatting gaily with the boys of the gentry, Mr. Throat, her duck hawk – or peregrine falcon, to use the gentry’s term – perched obediently on her gloved wrist, for our father, upon learning of her growing skills with the falconry, had begun taking Ella on hunts with him, as other men of his station took their sons. She always returned from these ventures flushed and sparkling, eager to tell Plimsoll and me about what they had caught and how well Mr. Throat flew and how silly the boys were, trying to show off and ‘not listening to their birds art all, Cinder!’
I, meanwhile, would be trying to get her to sit still so I could brush out the mess the wind inevitably made of her yellow-white hair. When your hair is as flossy as ours is, it is best to keep it firmly pinned up under a hat if there is to be wind about, or under a cap in general if you happen to be a lady’s maid like me. Unfortunately, Ella preferred looser styles, and almost always managed to convince me to leave her hair at least half down.
It was almost magical, the change that came over Ella in those years, and many of us began to half-forget what a sad, vague child she had been. She was so happy with her birds, so bright, it was as though the haze had never been.
Then Ella turned 16 and was formally introduced to society, and we were all firmly reminded of it. There were no birds at her coming-out party – of course there weren’t. Why would there be? But in that sea of people, with not so much as a feather in sight, the vagueness in Ella’s eyes snapped back into place as though it had never gone, worse even, for Ella had never been in a crowd so large before. Even the dancing wasn’t enough to bring Ella back – she had been clumsy and stiff, all her natural grace deserting her. I learned all this as Ella sobbed on her bed, still in her beautiful new dress, with Plimsoll waddling about the comforter while I stroked her hair and did my best to soothe her.
And so it began. Ella continued to hunt with our father, but she also had to attend parties. You must understand, these parties were more than just entertainment for the gentry. They were one of the few places young men and women of the upper classes could meet and interact freely, while their parents chatted and politicked on the edges of the crowd. Future husbands and wives met for the first time on the dance floor. Ella had to attend these parties – to not was to invite gossip and scandal – but how could she? All other social events she could attend with a bird on her wrist, for it was common for ladies to keep small pets with them as often as not, and birds were quite popular.
But Ella could not dance with a bird.
What was she to do?
We found the answer in her mirror. Two pale faces framed by yellow-white hair, two sets of petal-coloured lips and storm-coloured eyes. In height, in build, we were so alike, so obviously sisters. And if the storm in my eyes was greener and the storm in Ella’s bluer, who would notice in the whirling colours of a dance?
It was a daring plan, a foolish plan. I could have been thrown out on my ear with no reference for my cheek, and it would be the scandal of the century if we were found out.
But the whispers had already begun to run through the household again, the words ‘changeling’ and ‘fairy’ on the lips of half the staff. And if those whispers slipped to society… it could ruin Ella’s chances of marrying at all, let alone well. So once again, Ella took me by the wrist and led me to her mother.
Interestingly, it was my own mother who was more concerned with our plan. Her brows knit together and the lines around her mouth tightened. Eventually she agreed – how could she not bow to the wishes of the lady of the house, who had kept her on in spite of her husband’s indiscretion? – but she also gave me new rules to follow.
“Whenever possible, introduce yourself by a name that is not Ella’s, but do not lie about it. Imply as much as you can, state as little as you can. Fill Ella’s place, but do not claim it.”
Which is how I came to be twirling in the arms of a duke, smiling charmingly and saying “Please, carll me ‘Cinder.’ Oh, it’s an old pet name I’m rather fond of.” Once again mimicking Ella’s mumbley speaking style.
Together, over the next two years, Ella and I became the darling of the town, Ella at the hunts and teas, I on the dance floor. Indeed, we accidentally started a new fashion among the other young women when Ella or I would smile charmingly and say we preferred to be called ‘Cinder’ only at dances. It was seen at first as a delightful eccentricity, but then the other girls began to copy us. It became frightfully fashionable to have a ‘dancing name,’ and the young men moaned cheerfully at Ella for making it necessary for them to memorize twice as many names as before.
Ella merely laughed and teased them, saying they were truly upset because she was a better falconer than them. Then she would ride over to chat with young master Nodwick, the son of a country nobleman whom she befriended when they were both 15.
Nodwick was the only one, I think, who ever suspected Cinder of being someone else. Of being me. No one else ever questioned us – similarities aside, Ella and I were by no means perfectly identical – but we never questioned our luck in this matter, in case that made it stop working and left Ella worse off than before.
I don’t know how much longer the charade would have continued – naturally until Ella was safely married, but who knew when that would have been – but then the second prince turned 18.
It is traditional in this kingdom that, when one of the royal children reaches their 18th year, a costume ball is held and all the young people of the kingdom are invited, regardless of station or political standing. It is an important event, because it is the one opportunity young gentry have to choose their own spouse without fear of social or political reprisal. It helps to keep house alliances and feuds from growing too entrenched, and a way to bring fresh blood into the noble households and stop them stagnating. It is a chance to marry for love, and a chance for social advancement. Tavern maids have married dukes and shepherds have wed ladies of the court, though often as not the marriages happen between people of close social standing.
You could be anything, anyone at the ball. Some young women spend months on their costumes, some barely any time at all, stitching together old rags to disguise social standing. For one night, you could be whoever you wished.
I began work on Ella’s costume four months before the ball, using every ounce of my skill and every trick with a needle Ella’s mother had ever taught me. She was to be a swan, in shimmering white skirts and delicate black shoes, with a white lace shawl trailing from her collar and cuffs to mimic snowy wings. I myself planned to go as a kitchen mouse – Ella had a simple brown dress with a white stomacher I intended to borrow, and I had gotten a length of pink ribbon to trail down the back as a tail.
Ella was wildly nervous about the ball, and who could blame her? She could not bring a bird with her to this dance any more than she could any of the others. As a way to relieve the tension of waiting, Ella threw herself into embroidery. It was a patternless sort stitching – two wide bells of cloth stitched in browns with dashes of black and white and two great lozenges of lavender-lilac, one to each bell.
I was not overly concerned about the ball, but I found myself growing restless as the days slipped by and the event grew closer. Truth be told I was quite looking forward to it – the first dance I would ever attend as myself. Yet, at the same time, it felt… small. Everything was beginning to feel small, even my skin. I had always loved the town I grew up in, but now it seemed to shrink and grow dim.
This was not the same longing I had felt as a child, to be a lady, to be my father’s daughter. It was a desire for something else, something I had no name for.
‘Wouldn’t it be grand,’ part of me whispered, ‘To see the great cities? To see a forest? The ocean? To travel by wind and secret paths?’
I threw myself into making Ella’s costume, and at the usual parties I went through one partner after another as they grew weary and retired to cool their heels a bit. I would keep going, though. Dancing eased the restlessness somewhat. If I danced long enough, maybe I would find a way onto one of the hidden paths part of me whispered about. But my feet always stayed firmly on the ground and the parties ended and I would go home, more restless than ever.
Finally the day of the ball came. There was no last-minute fussing – Ella’s costume and mask had been finished a week prior. In a way this made the waiting worse – nothing to distract us all from the ball. Well, not entirely – I still had my chores, which I went to with a will spurred on by my ever-growing restlessness. Ella shut herself in her room with her birds. We thought nothing of this until it came time to dress and Ella’s door remained firmly closed. Her mother and our father pounded and begged, but the door remained shut.
They didn’t think to try the window.
I found Ella lying on her bed, clutching her pillow and sobbing. She let go of the pillow and clung to me when I sat down beside her and began to gently stroke her hair.
“I carn’t do it, Lucinder,” she cried, “I carn’t go to the ball! I tried, but- I’ll freeze, and everyone will know- Nodwick will know- I- I-” and then the sobs swallowed all possibility of speech.
I held my half-sister and rocked her, and as I did something caught my eye. Lying on a chair, near where the swan costume had been laid out the previous evening, was the brown dress I had intended to borrow, along with a mask. But something was different about it, if I could just-
“The sleeves!” It popped out of my mouth without permission. “You’ve changed the sleeves on that dress.”
Ella sniffed and nodded, then obligingly rolled into a ball so I could go look at it.
They were the bells of brown Ella had been working on, stitched and hemmed and neatly attached to the dress so the purple lozenges would flair at the back, looking like nothing so much as… as the wings of a female duck.
“It doesn’t work.” I had been so lost in thought I hadn’t heard her come up behind me. Her sobs had finally quieted, but tears still rolled down her cheeks. “I tried it this morning, when I wars alone. I thought- if- if I wars the bird, then- maybe- but it doesn’t work.” She looked away and sniffed.
I was dumbfounded. All this time, we had been worrying about Ella’s problem, and she had been sitting there, trying to find a way to free herself, one stitch at a time.
I stared at the dress again, and, as I did, the restlessness, momentarily forgotten, returned, spurred by frustration and anger, but, for once, not for my own situation. Why did Ella have to be trapped? Why did her difference have to stand in the way of her happiness? It wasn’t right, it wasn’t fair, and I wanted nothing more than to bring back the Ella who laughed and teased-
And, in my head, something snapped, and then a great many pieces rearranged themselves into a new pattern. I think it must have been something like when Ella first received Plimsoll. Suddenly, everything was so clear…
We were announced at the top of the stairs as Lady Cinder and Lady Wing, and I felt like a queen as we paraded down the steps, the swan dress whispering about me like a dream. Beside me Ella was looking everywhere at once, like a lass fresh from the country.
“Everyone looks so odd and feathery, Cinder,” she murmured to me as we glided into the throng.
I just winked and allowed myself to be swept into a waltz by an elegant young foxhound. I spied her several times over the next few hours, laughing, dancing, taking to the dance like a duck to water, as it were.
It was growing close to midnight when Nodwick found me, enjoying a glass of punch by a doorway leading to the gardens. He was dressed as what I recognised, after living with Ella forever, to be a ‘peregrine falcon.’
He smiled to see me. “Cinder, I’ve been trying to get you alone all night! What, were you avoiding me, dancing with all those other fellows?”
I smiled back at him. “Not at all, my dear sir. That wasn’t my intention in the slightest.”
His expression darkened, for I had spoken in my own manner, rather than mimicking Ella. “You aren’t Cinder.”
I grinned. “I rather believe you’ll find I am. The trouble is, you aren’t looking for Cinder, not really. The one you want is Ella.”
He stared for a moment. “But, if you’re- then where-”
He looked so worried, I decided to take pity on him. “The duck hawk does not hunt the swan, Master Nodwick. It would do you in good stead to remember that.” I smiled, and allowed my attention to by caught by an older man crowned with antlers, leaving Nodwick standing behind me, confused and frustrated.
I did not see the moment when Nodwick found Ella – or possibly when she found him – but I saw the result as I passed through the gardens for a breath of fresh air. There, on the lawns, a couple twirled in a golden bar of light thrown from one of the windows, lost to the world and to each other.
And so the duck danced with the duck hawk.
And the swan? She glided away into the moonlight, vanishing before the midnight had finished striking.
Many couples found true love that night, but, of them all, my sister’s story is the best known – the charming daughter of a minor lord who became the Falcon Princess when it became known that her childhood sweetheart’s name was not Nodwick but Rodrick, second son of King Torvald and Queen Silvia. They will never rule, but they are loved by the people, though there are always murmurs about the unusual pieces the princess is known to paint and embroider, filled with strange, feathery beings, part human and part bird, and achingly lovely to see. It is commonly dismissed as a side effect of her great love of birds – what else can you expect from a woman who, oft as not, is wearing the falconer’s glove that earned her her title? Besides, she’s such a sweet, clever thing, clearly as devoted to Rodrick as he is to her, so any oddities may be overlooked in the sheer romance of it all.
Yes, many young men and women found love the night of the ball, but I wasn’t one of them. What I found came to me as I gazed upon Ella’s brown dress.
For, you see, for all the rumours, all the whispers, all the oddness, it was never Ella who was the fairy child.
It was me, all along.
I left the palace and the home I had known all my lift that night, though I returned for the wedding, and the births of my nephew and nieces, to bestow blessings and gifts, and sometimes simply to say hello and brush Ella’s hair, like when we were young.
Between these times I mostly travel, exploring the secret paths my feet ached for all those years ago, and the wider world as well. I have seen the ocean now, and great cities and forests, and deserts and ice floes and so much more. I have met with others of my kind, some caring, some cruel. I have learned that there is so much still to see.
But always I return to the place I began, to visit my sister and her family. Our father has long since died, and with his death my mother returned to her home beneath the hill. There was no one above ground she wished to see who could not follow her.
Most of the palace knows me as an eccentric childhood friend of the princess, though a few suspect differently, and Rodrick knows the truth. My nieces and nephew have begun to wonder about my likeness to their mother, my strange comings and goings, and the odd treasures I bring from my travels.
And, while it does not do to play favorites, I cannot help but save a special smile for the niece my sister named for us both. The shy-faced princess who is forever losing a glove, a ribbon, a shoe. My goddaughter. Lucinda Ella.