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Years pass like the falling of autumn leaves; each may be examined and declared individual and exquisite, but only rarely do they mean much on their own. Only when watching as a storm of leaves blows past in a bouquet of colors do they make up a whole, beautiful story. So it was with me. I grew older and taller, if not much taller, and my life was a happy one. I excelled at my harp-playing and, with Antony or Henri or occasionally my father as partner, at dancing. I spent my free time with my sisters, or with a book, or serving with the maids. A ball was held for Sarah and Suzanne when they turned 16, and another a few months later for me. I was called on by a few fellows, but not seriously. Cook allowed me to direct the servants for parties and dinners, and Papa stopped calling me his “Little Ell.” Mama chaperoned when Henri waited in the sitting room with me for Antony to come. I stopped playing pirates and fairies and learned to host tea parties and get my dance card filled. In other words, I became a woman.
But autumns passed steadily, bringing only the slightest variation in the leaves of my life. Then, the summer I was almost seventeen, things changed in a surprising way. My friendship with Henri had always been easy, comfortable, almost brotherly. Then, one night, we hosted a ball at the manor.
“You know, Cinder-Ell, you’re beautiful,” he said, walking over to me at the food table and popping a strawberry into his mouth whole.
“Oh, Henri, don’t eat the leaves,” I said. “A strawberry plant will grow inside you.”
“Good,” he replied when he had swallowed, laughing. “Then I can eat them all the time.” We laughed. “Seriously, Ell. Dance with me.” I accepted good-naturedly—we had often practiced dancing together, and we fell naturally into graceful step. We laughed together during the dance, gossiping about which lady admired which lord, or who would be the first to faint from too much alcohol. Then the music ended.
“Come with me,” Henri said, nodding his head in the direction of the gardens. I giggled.
“Why, your Highness, I daresay the company will think we are quite the scandal if we step into the gardens alone.”
“Good,” he said, and tugged my hand, which he still clasped after our dance. I laughed again and allowed him to pull me out into the garden. He guided me to a favorite old path of ours, still holding fast to my hand. I wriggled my fingers, but instead of letting go, he pulled me around so that we were face-to-face.
“Henri?” I asked.
“I have to tell you something, Ell,” he said. I cocked my head.
“Very well,” I responded curiously. He dropped my hand and began to walk again; I scuttled after him. After a moment, he spoke.
“I’m 19 now, Ell,” I nodded. “You know my position requires things of me. Well, one of those demands has arisen. It’s time for me to find a wife,” he said. I stopped walking to stare at him. This seemed so sudden, so fast! One moment he was just my friend, the next, a grown man looking for a wife.
“Why are you telling me?” I asked. He stopped walking, stared into my eyes, took my hands in his. My heart began to race.
“Because I want you to be her,” he said.
“Be who?” I asked, not understanding. He sank to one knee, and my heart thumped faster still.
“Elniorae, I am asking you to be my wife. I love you, I have since—" My head swam, my heart was pounding so loud I couldn’t hear my thoughts, this was all so soon, so hasty—
I turned and ran.
At first I charged up the stairs toward my room, thinking I’d hide in my bed. But Cook had instilled in me a horror of lazing, and to be in bed but not to sleep seemed lazy to me. So halfway up the second flight of stairs, I changed my mind, running down again, and down down down, panic creating hurry as I raced to the kitchen and flung myself into Cook’s surprised arms.
She stroked my hair for a few moments, letting me cry the paint off of my eyes. Then, when I had worn down to sniffling, she pushed me gently onto a stool. I looked up at her, the image swaying a bit in my leftover tears.
“Oh, my Cinder-Ell. What happened?” I blubbered out the story as best I could, interrupting myself with bouts of sobs every few moments. Finally I finished.
“And that’s… all?” Cook asked. I looked at her curiously, wiping a trickling tear from my cheek.
“Yes?” I questioned; what more did she need? I felt that I had lost a dear friend in Henri, and that I had smudged out any hope of future friendship with him by rejecting him, by running away. Cook sighed.
“Dear child. All is not lost. Not even close to it.”
“It’s not?” I asked. “But—Henri will never speak to me again—” the thought ripped through me as though I was being clawed by a wild animal. Henri was dear to me.
“No, Cinder-Ell,” Cook said, using my childhood nickname to soothe me. “You owe the Prince an apology, certainly, but just because you don’t love him doesn’t mean you can’t still be friends.” She paused. “Do you love him?”
I gaped at her.
“Cook—no!—I’m not yet 17, too young for love. I’ve never even thought about it.” Cook eyed me doubtfully.
“Never, in all the years the Prince has hung around?” Silence extended between us, and Cook sighed. “Perhaps not. But your mother was married to your father at sixteen, so I don’t know that you’re too young to love. Just give yourself time, and your man will come along, Prince or no.”
Cook continued to whisper kind things to me, her soothing words a healing balm to my heart. At last the tears stopped pushing their way out, my trembling stopped, and I held my chin higher. The ball had long since ended, and all the guests had gone home—I wondered when Henri had left, if he’d looked for me after I fled, or if he’d danced the night away with some other girl. To my surprise, I couldn’t decide which idea pained me more. So, rather than think about it, I helped Cook clear up after the party. Finally, when I shook so much from exhaustion and emotion that I nearly dropped the punch bowl, Cook ordered me to bed.
“And rest, child. Sleep in peace. You can write your apology to the Prince tomorrow. For now, you are for bed.” She kissed my forehead, and I plodded up the stairs.
Sarah and Suzanne were waiting for me, perched on my bed like birds in nightgowns.
“Ell, what happened to you? We heard you went off to the gardens with Henri—“
“Without a chaperone—“ Suzanne cut in.
“And then you were gone, nowhere to be seen for the rest of the night!” Sarah paused to inhale, and took her first steady look at me. “You’re covered in dirt. You abandoned the ball to do servants’ work?” I sighed.
“It’s a bit more complicated than that,” I began, and recounted my evening to my sisters.
Sarah and Suzanne slept with me in my bed that night, the way we’d all slept together as children when one of us had a nightmare. Their arms around me were a comfort, and at last I fell asleep, Cook’s words echoing in my ear. “Do you love him?”
I wrote my apology to Henri the next morning. I had thought to explain myself fully, expecting several pages to flow from my hand. In the end, however, I barely managed a short note.
To the hand of the Crown Prince, Henri, of Fresnia,
I pray that this missive finds you in good health. I feel that it is mine to apologize to you at this time; my behavior to you last night was unladylike and rude. It’s not that you aren’t wonderful, Henri; it’s just that I’m too young for love.
I wept again after I sent the letter. It was so afraid that I’d lost Henri’s friendship forever. The idea hurt me, made me sick to my stomach. Then, two days later, his reply came.
For Elniorae, my friend,
I owe you an apology as well. I knew you were not ready for marriage. Truth be told, nor am I—I have convinced my parents to wait a while before continuing to pressure me about the matter.
I want to further apologize for the things I spoke to you in haste on that night. Speaking of love as I did was wrong. We are both too young for such words.
Forgive me. I hope that we will remain friends.
Ever in your service,
Henri, Crown Prince of Fresnia
I pressed the letter to my heart, peace filling me after days of anxiety. Henri was my friend still; I could rest.
Quietly, though, in my heart, I felt that I had lost something. I told no one this, feigned total relief. But there was a very small part of me which felt that not having Henri’s love—even if I had never had it to begin with—meant that I was not worthy of the love of a man of his caliber. And so a poison seeped into my heart that I could not quite dismiss.
Work of any kind kept my mind off of my growing knot of worry. I danced harder, played the harp more, scrubbed the floors of the main floor until I could see my reflection in them. In the evenings I embroidered until my fingertips ached and I couldn’t see my stitches in the low light of my candle.
My life was not miserable, though, whatever worries possessed me. Sarah and Suzanne and Mama saw to that. We attended so many parties that year, I thought I would never breathe again after all of the corsets. Then one night, we attended a ball at the home of Lord and Lady Belisle.
It was my first ball away from Papa. He was on one of his long trips, like the one he’d left on when I was young. Mama saw us all dressed like dolls, like princesses, and led the way into the ballroom.
Antony claimed my first dance. We had danced together so much, and for so long, that dancing with him was easier for me than walking. He glanced around.
“Ell, you would never lie to me, would you?” I stared into Antony’s eyes, and it occurred to me—not for the first time—that he was, in fact, handsome.
“Henri told me an interesting story the other day.”
“Oh?” I thought of the last story Henri had told me; it was interesting, a story about his great-grandmother’s quest for her prince’s hand, and his mother’s testing whether the princess was indeed royal using a very innovate maneuver with a pea—but Antony had been there when Henri told the tale, had laughed the loudest of any of us. I cocked my head to the side, eyes still staring, feet still dancing.
“About something that happened two months ago, a little after your birthday?” I felt my chest tighten as I gasped involuntarily; I’d told no one but my sisters about Henri’s proposal, not even Mama. Antony sighed, then chuckled.
“You really ran away?” I felt myself flush.
“It’s alright, you know. Henri was embarrassed that he asked you.” I swallowed as Antony’s words cut me. “He thinks you were reasonable to run.” I sighed, unsure of what to say. Antony continued. “But I do have two questions for you.”
“Oh?” I asked again.
“First, why didn’t you accept him?” Antony asked. I gaped, despite my proper breeding.
“Accept? Antony, how could I?”
“Well, you love him, don’t you?” I was so surprised that I actually stopped dancing for a moment, so that Antony and I had to rush through a few of the steps to catch up with everyone else. Antony had always seemed to understand me, how could he misread me so?
“I’m too young to fall in love, Antony. I’m only 17.”
“And a half.” He made a face; I giggled. Antony could always make me laugh.
“And a half,” I agreed. “Next question.” Antony’s face dropped into seriousness.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” There was a pause.
“I don’t know,” I began finally. “I only told the girls. Not even Mama.”
“Well,” Antony said, spinning me out and then in against his thudding heart, “from now on, you tell me major life events.”
And then it happened. Antony told me later that he looked up just as I did; facing the same way as we were in that step, we both saw. Mama was standing on the balcony, leaning against the railing, watching the dancers below. The railing was a little too short, coming to her hips, and she was leaning too far over the edge anyway. Then, almost slower than life, it seemed to me, a couple danced past. They had clearly had too much to drink, and their steps were wide and ungainly. Just behind Mama, the man tripped, flying toward Mama. He threw out his arms, and they hit Mama at her middle. The drunk man’s partner fell without his support, and she slid in Mama’s direction as well. Then, slowly, so slowly, Mama tipped forward, forward, under the man’s weight, and the woman glided under Mama’s feet. The woman tried to stand, reaching for the railing, and hefted Mama on her back. Mama tipped and rose. And the world ended.
The crowd beneath her heard the shriek of the dancers, saw Mama tumbling over the rail, and ran to get out of the way of her falling body. I stumbled as Antony released me, then saw him running, flying to catch Mama. He wouldn’t make it in time, I could see. He must have seen it too, because Antony fell to his knees, sliding forward, and Mama’s stilled body fell against his chest, her head smacking the floor with an audible thud.
Silence took our breaths away and kept them, so that not even my chest, rising and falling faster than a jig, made a noise. I felt my heart hammer, but dimly, as though it was pounding in someone else’s chest. Mama could not be—she had not just—
Suzanne’s scream cut through the quiet like a crack spreads through ice; instantly there, but it reminds you all the more of the cold you feel. Then there were footfalls, and I was aware that Sarah was running past me, dropping to her knees so loudly I was sure they must be broken. Suzanne continued to scream, frozen in place, not even drawing breath it seemed. Then Henri was at my side, a hand on my shoulder, and then he had sprinted past. The colors around me whirled into a blur as Henri’s voice called for a physician. I heard Antony gasping, there was blood on the floor, and vaguely I was aware of vomiting on the tiles. The silence was still there, it had been interrupted, punctured, but it hung and stretched like a net, surrounding all of us.
“She lives! As does Master Antony!” the physician was shouting, I was running, pushing people aside in my hurry to reach Mama. Suzanne arrived at the same moment I did. I was sobbing, tears and face paint dripping onto Mama’s dress, and Antony forced a smile at me, and then the physician was ordering us away. I couldn’t move, wouldn’t leave Mama, so finally Henri gathered me up in his arms, pulling me away, holding my face into his chest as I cried.
My memory of the next few weeks is cloudy, as though someone poured wax over it. I don’t remember leaving the ball at all, but Suzanne tells me that we all tried to follow the carriage that Mama and Antony had been gently lifted into on foot. Henri was the one who took us home, carrying me to my bedchamber when I fell asleep on Mama’s floor, underfoot of the Royal Physician.
I do remember Henri. He was there for the next few days, keeping the staff running, seeing that my sisters and I ate, receiving updates from the physician and relaying them to us. His father sent him a message, demanding that he come home, but Henri refused, claiming that we needed him then more than a peaceful Fresnia did. Finally, after three days, the King prevailed, and Henri left us, looking like a defeated puppy, but he came to visit Mama and Antony—and Sarah and Suzanne and me—every day.
I remember, too, with crystal clarity, the day Antony woke up properly for the first time. The physician had said that he had broken several ribs and perhaps damaged some of his internal organs.
“I have never seen a case like this,” he told my sisters and me solemnly. “God must want that young man alive for some purpose, because his survival is surely a miracle.” Then finally he said what I’d been waiting to hear: “He’s well enough to see you, and is asking for you.”
I didn’t even thank the physician, I just started running toward Antony’s room as soon as he finished speaking. Sarah was on my heels, although Suzanne stopped long enough to do our duty and express our gratitude.
I slipped and nearly fell, trying to stop as I flew into Antony’s room. He was lying down in bed, but he smiled when he saw his sisters arrive—two out of breath with anxiety, one bouncing on her toes—in his bedchamber. We were all silent for a moment, staring at one another the way we had, so many years ago, when we’d first met. Finally Sarah spoke, a sob catching at her words.
“Antony—you were so brave—we’ve been so worried!” Then she was kneeling beside him, embracing him as gently as she could. Suzanne and I followed, each clasping one of Antony’s hands. All four of us cried quietly together—so grateful that Antony was safe, so worried about Mama as we were.
For the first time since the Accident, I felt as though time were moving at its normal pace—until then it had felt as though everything were happening in slow motion. Yet here we were, a family, and though Mama was, perhaps, still in danger for her life, I felt for the first time that things would be alright.
I spent a lot of my time in a servant’s uniform during those terrifying weeks where Mama’s fate was uncertain. Cook seemed to understand; she never even asked me how Mama was doing. I was grateful, because a lump rose in my throat every time I so much as thought about Mama—I doubt I could have spoken about her if I tried. Instead, Cook let me scrub away my fears with the grime of the house, let me burn my terror in the oven with the bread.
When I wasn’t working alongside Cook, I was with Henri. He understood innately, somehow, that I couldn’t bear to be in the manor sometimes—it was too big and empty without Mama’s constant humming, her brisk, calming presence. The first time the pressing silence became too much to bear, I didn’t even tell my sisters I was leaving—just had Pierre saddle my horse and took off riding. I rode for two straight hours before I found myself dismounting in the palace stables. I didn’t feel like I was there entirely—rather, that something else was making my body move and I was simply a spectator.
When I approached the palace gate, it opened before me without so much as a word from me. The guards knew me and assumed I was there to see Henri. When I passed through the door, it was evident that word had spread of my presence—there was Henri, sitting at the bottom of a long flight of stairs, slicing a pear with his knife. He stood when he saw me.
“Ell,” he said, as though I were expected instead of turning up unannounced. “Welcome.” I said nothing—the emptiness of home still filled my heart, and I was afraid that if I spoke, nothing would be left in me. Henri seemed to understand this somehow, because he simply offered me his arm. No empty words of consolation, nothing to make me feel unwanted. Just, “would you care for a walk?”
We strolled in silence for about an hour that day. The poison inside me seemed to seep out, drop by drop, until I felt like a kitchen rag that someone had squeezed all of the soapy water out of. Henri sat me down on a bench.
“The roses are lovely,” he commented, staring straight ahead.
“Roses are Mama’s favorite,” I answered. I was startled to hear how low my voice sounded, how dead. I sighed.
I don’t know how long we might have sat there in silence, staring at the royal rose garden, if Henri’s servant hadn’t appeared then.
“Your Highness,” he said in a gasping way that suggested he’d been hunting for the Prince for quite some time. “We’ve found you at last! You were needed an hour ago for a meeting with the ambassador of Saliz, the royal Tailor is looking to fit you for a new suit for autumn, and Her Majesty wishes a private audience with you. Where have you been?” The servant said this all very fast, then paused for Henri’s response. Finally, Henri sighed and turned to me.
“I apologize, Ell, it seems that I am needed,” he said. I only nodded; I was embarrassed, if grateful, that the Prince of Fresnia had ignored his day’s duties for me. Henri smiled at me, stood, and spoke to the servant. “See that Lady Ell has whatever she desires,” he said, then turned toward me. “It was my pleasure to spend time with you today, milady,” he said, and kissed my hand. I smiled then, and stood—after all, he was the Prince.
“The pleasure was mine,” I said automatically. “I thank you for your attentions, your Highness.” I dropped to a full curtsy. Then, unable to stop myself, I continued, “thank you, Henri. You are quite the hero.” I stood on my toes and kissed his cheek. Even more embarrassed, I turned and fled the garden.
That evening I went into Mama’s bedchambers to read to her, as I did most nights. I wasn’t sure she could hear me through her prolonged sleep, but it helped to think that she could. I stopped, halfway to my chair, and stared. Next to the bed was a clear glass vase full of garden roses. I smiled.
Henri sat on the kitchen table next to the pie I was finishing. He said little, just listened to me as I talked—about the changing weather, the noisy, spotted woodpecker that had taken up residence outside my window, the colors of the leaves I’d seen on my morning ride. Anything but Mama’s now month-long sleep. Finally I stopped speaking, staring at the pie I was supposed to be pinching shut around the edges; I’d gone around the perimeter of the pie with my fingers so many times that a translucently thin ruffle of crust now surrounded the rest of it. I sighed and began to squish the crust back into shape.
Cook was whistling off-key in the background, a song that Mama hummed every year in the autumn.
“When the leaves are falling, child, do not be dismayed,” I began to sing along softly,
“For when they’ve done the western winds
Will blow their tears away.
When the sun is setting ‘hind the stalks of full-grown corn,
Soft will be the eastern breeze,
So be not, child, forlorn.
So blow the wind and rage the rain,
And churn the wild sea,
The Autumn’s come,
The Summer’s run,
And I come home to thee.
Oh, taste the coming Autumn in the kiss of north wind’s touch,
Embrace the gusty Uncle South
Blowing a bit too much.
It’s home for you and I, my child, home and warm to stay.
We’ll leave the winds behind us so
They’re always there to play.
So blow the wind and rage the rain,
And churn the wild sea,
The Autumn’s come,
The Summer’s run,
And I come home to thee.
Gently, Henri wiped a tear off of my cheek. I hadn’t realized I was crying. I stumbled as I allowed Henri to pull me into his embrace. Distraught as I was, desperately though I missed and worried for Mama, in that moment my only thought was how nice Henri’s skin smelled.
In my life there have been a few times when my entire perception of the world has altered dramatically. My Mother’s death, Papa’s travels and eventual return with my new stepfamily, being placed under Cook for those intervening months, Mama and Antony’s Accident. But this time the change came so subtly that I was surprised. In that too-hot kitchen, with flies buzzing around our heads and Cook swatting at them, still whistling, I really thought for the first time about the man who was holding me. The man who, even as a boy, had always respected me and my decisions, had made me laugh and, in turn, laughed at my jokes. He never treated me as though I were below him simply because I am a girl, never made any effort to exclude me, but rather, had been adamant that girls were allowed in the boys’ fortresses too—and when Henri’s friends had disagreed with him, the Prince had withdrawn himself from the secret society of fort-dwellers to join the ladies in a stroll to the market where he (being the only one with money) bought candies for all—including the boys back in the tent. The perfect diplomat, he had forged an alliance between the fort’s men and us, and turned what might have been war into a merry day. That was the man who had said he loved me, and I gave him up. In that moment I was so horrified by that one decision that I began to truly sob.
Henri hushed me, holding me closer. “She’ll be alright,” he said. It actually took me a moment to figure out what he meant—Mama! How could I have forgotten for even a minute? My tears finally slowed as my emotions spun. Mama. Henri. Antony still recovering, asking me about Henri’s proposal. Henri’s proposal. Rejecting him. Our friendship, especially over the last month. It was all too much. I pushed Henri bodily away from me, too panicked, too stressed to process anything I was feeling. He cocked his head at me, then nodded while I stared at him out of red, puffy eyes. Henri backed away slowly, smiled a little, and bowed. Then he walked out of the kitchen before I could thank him.
“Oh, Cook,” I began, tears still rimming my eyes.
And then George came running into the kitchen, tripping over his own feet in his hurry.
“Cinder-Ell. My Lady. Your Mama,” he gasped.
“What is it, George?” Cook and I asked in horrified unison.
Antony, Sarah, and Suzanne were already in Mama’s room when I arrived, out of breath, at her door. Suddenly, as I stared at her door handle, I was afraid to enter. I felt small again, a little girl about to meet her new Mama for the first time. I wished Papa was there to put his comforting arms around me. I wished that Henri was there to hold my hand. I wished that Antony was walking beside me. But, no. This journey into Mama’s room would have to be made alone.
I heard her voice through the half-open door. That was Mama, my Mama, who had sung me through thunderstorms and beautified me for balls. In that moment, all I wanted was to rest my head on her shoulder and feel her hug me close. Breathing in, I pushed open the door.
My first thought was that Mama did not look well. She had a dazed expression, and she was staring at Sarah as though she were a stranger. Her voice, which had seemed so dear and familiar, now seemed strangely scratchy. But as I stood in the doorway, I didn’t care. I had my Mama back.
“I can’t believe it,” she was saying to my brother and sisters. “You’re grown. The last thing I remember, you were children.” I didn’t process what she was saying, couldn’t comprehend it. Sarah was looking at me, tears flooding her eyes.
“Ell,” she whispered, and I rushed to her, embracing my sister.
And then the most horrible thing in the world happened. Mama spoke softly.
“Should I know you?”
She was looking at me.
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