by Elizabeth Kent
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Author's notes: There's a bit of blood, but fairy tales are often bloody affairs. I've borrowed rather generously from the Rogers and Hammerstein version of Cinderella for my rendition. Finally, no poultry was harmed in the production of this fractured fairy tale. Enjoy, if you can.
Once upon a time there lived a handsome young man. His parents, if he'd ever had any, had died a long time ago, and for as long as he could remember, he had lived with monks who had taken him in at their monastery. The old abbot who had found him crying at the monastery's gate when he was but a babe was a kind man who treated the boy like a son. Sadly, the old abbot had gone to his heavenly reward only a few years later, and he had been replaced by a man who was as miserly and mean as the other abbot had been generous and kind. With the new abbot had come an influx of monks, mostly men who had taken holy vows only to escape shrewish wives. The boy went from beloved son to scorned servant in the blink of an eye. He dressed in rags and didn't even own any shoes because, as the abbot said, "Orphans should be glad they have clothes on their backs at all and not complain about being given a chance to lead useful and godly lives." The boy was clever and handsome, could do sums in his head, read the Bible in Latin, and sing the Mass better than any of the monks. This didn't make the monks like him any better, though. Because he slept in the warming house next to the fire and sometimes had to curl up in the ashes to keep warm at night, he was called Cinderboy.
The monks kept Cinderboy running, especially Brother Decker and Brother Lynch. It was, "Go out and chop wood for the winter, Cinderboy," and "Go fetch me an ale, Cinderboy, and mind you, it had better be cold, and you had better make sure no foam drips down the side of the tankard on the way back!" Cinderboy ran to do their bidding, back and forth and to and fro, never complaining and always doing his best to please. But it was never enough, and he had his ears boxed many times for even the smallest of mistakes. He was a good boy, though, and had faith that someday things would be better. He wished it would be sooner rather than later, though, because he was only allowed to take a bath once a month, and he hated to be dirty. If it hadn't been for the mice who ventured out to play after dark in the warming room and the chickens who clucked to him from the henhouse as he worked in the monastery garden, he'd have been an exceedingly sad young man.
One day the abbot strode into the dining hall where Cinderboy was serving breakfast to the monks. "Prince Murdock is back from the wars and is giving a ball!" he announced. "He's looking for a husband and wants to meet every man in the kingdom. We have an invitation!" He waved the most beautiful piece of paper Cinderboy had ever seen, a gilt-edged sheet of heavy vellum with the letters HM inscribed in gold on the front.
"Oh, may I go, too?" asked Cinderboy. "I should love to see the prince!"
"You?" laughed Brother Decker. "You dirty little ragamuffin! The Prince wouldn't even give you a second look before sending you to the scullery!"
"But you're going, and you aren't even allowed to marry at all!" Cinderboy protested. "Ow!" he cried when Brother Lynch boxed his ears for him.
"We have a duty to support the prince and to make sure any young man who catches his eye is good enough for him," Lynch said.
"And for Prince Murdock," said Brother Decker, casting a glance over his shoulder toward the abbot, who was too absorbed in the invitation to pay attention, "I'd give up my vows. He's a fine-looking young man."
"Me, too," said Lynch. "I hear he's rich beyond imagination and that every room in his palace is studded with diamonds and gold."
"Heaven!" agreed Decker.
"Prince Murdock lives in heaven?" Cinderboy asked. "Ow!" He rubbed his ears.
"Never you mind about Prince Murdock," Decker said. "You go upstairs and find my best habit, then get ready to freshen up my tonsure and trim my nose hair."
"I'll need a shave," Lynch said, rubbing his fingers over his cheeks. "I hear the prince likes his men clean-shaven."
"I'm clean-shaven," Cinderboy said, ducking the next blow. Then, like the dutiful young man he was, he ran upstairs to take the monks' best habits out of storage and get them laundered and ironed before the others were to leave for the ball.
Cinderboy sharpened the razor and gave the monks expert shaves and haircuts, then helped them into their robes. He had even polished their sandals. The abbot, too, wore his best robes, the special ones he usually only wore on holidays. Sadly, Cinderboy watched them stride out of the refectory and into the coach the prince had sent to collect them. Then he went to the warming house, sat down amongst the ashes, and cried.
"What's wrong, kid?"
The voice was deep and authoritative, but not unfriendly. Cinderboy started, for he knew he was the only one left in the monastery at the moment. Before him stood a handsome man with silver hair. His green robes were studded with shiny medals and ribbons.
"Who are you?" cried Cinderboy.
"I'm your Fairy Godfather," the man said." He pulled out a strange brown cylinder and bit the end off, spitting it into the ashes. "Got a light?"
Cinderboy held a twig into the embers until it ignited, then lit the cylinder while his Fairy Godfather puffed on it.
"That's better. Now, what's with the tears?"
Cinderboy hung his head. "The prince is giving a ball, and I want so badly to go and see him. But I'm not allowed to leave the monastery, and now I'll never see the prince."
"I see your problem," said the godfather. "Well, let's see what we can do, then. First we need some transportation. What have you got?"
"What have I got?" Cinderboy repeated. "I've got nothing."
"You can do better than that, kid. Everybody's got something. What's in the garden?"
"Not my favorite," the godfather said. "I do better with pumpkins, but go get the eggplant and I'll see what I can make of it."
So Cinderboy ran to the garden and came back with a long, sleek eggplant. The godfather nodded, tapped it with his cigar, and it turned into a long, black coach with a red stripe.
"Wow," said Cinderboy. "It's beautiful."
"It is, isn't it," laughed the godfather.
"The others took the horses, though. We haven't anything to pull the coach."
The godfather's sharp eyes took in the half-dozen mice who had come out to keep Cinderboy company. "You'll do," he said, waving his smoking cylinder at them. They became six grey horses, which Cinderboy hitched to the coach.
"I don't suppose you can drive this thing," the godfather said.
Cinderboy shook his head. "I'm afraid not."
"You need to get out more," the godfather said. "Okay, what else have you got around here?"
"There's a rooster," Cinderboy said. "The monks are about to cook him because he's pretty mean."
"Perfect," said the godfather. "Go and get him."
Cinderboy came back with the rooster, who was none too happy about being carried around. It pecked at Cinderboy's arms but calmed down when it caught sight of the shiny black coach. When Cinderboy set it down, it circled the coach a couple of times then flew up to sit on the seat and crow loudly. Still, it did try to bite the end of the godfather's cylinder when he tapped its beak with it. Suddenly, in place of the rooster there sat a stocky black man with a haircut Cinderboy had never seen before. A narrow band of black hair stood straight up along the top of his head in an almost-perfect copy of the rooster's comb. His coachman's livery was adorned with gold of every sort. "Don't you even think about touchin' my ride with that thing," the coachman said, pointing at the godfather's cylinder and waving away the smoke.
"Wouldn't think of it," the godfather said. "Well, kid, now your coach is ready, and you have horses and a driver. You can head to the ball."
Cinderboy looked down at his rags and his dirty, bare feet. Tears came to his eyes. "Oh, I can't go to the ball looking like this!" he said. "I haven't even had a bath." He threw himself down in the ashes. "Bath day isn't until next Tuesday. Everyone would just laugh at me."
"Hm. Okay, what's your favorite color?"
Cinderboy looked down at his clothes. "Not gray," he said.
The godfather laughed and motioned with his cylinder. Suddenly Cinderboy was dressed in breeches and a jacket of royal blue, with a crisp white shirt and stockings. On his feet were the shiniest black shoes he had ever seen in his life. They were just right for dancing and had a slight heel that showed off his shapely calves. Each shoe sported a diamond-encrusted buckle.
Cinderboy gazed down at his clothes in wonder. Never in his life had he worn anything so stylish. And best of all, he was squeaky clean, like he'd just bathed. For the first time in his life he felt truly handsome. He raked his fingers through his hair (which was still a little overlong, but he'd heard Brother Lynch say the prince liked longish hair) and smiled. "Oh, thank you, Fairy Godfather! What can I do to repay you?"
"Go have a good time, kid, but make sure you're out of there by midnight. The spell ends then, and at midnight you'll be back in your old clothes, with a rooster, an eggplant, and some mice. Keep track of the time."
"I will," promised Cinderboy. "I will!" He turned to the coachman.
The coachman opened the door for Cinderboy, then climbed back up on the seat to pick up the reins.
"Do you think he would like me?" Cinderboy asked the godfather, who stood next to the coach puffing his cylinder and turning mosquitoes into butterflies just because he could. "If we ever actually met, I mean."
"I'm sure he'd be captivated," the godfather said. As the coach sped off, he waved and called, "Remember, curfew is at midnight!"
Cinderboy sat in the coach and admired the leather upholstery and the tinted windows. His stomach did flip-flops in anticipation. He had never seen the prince before, but he'd heard stories about his kindness, his quick wit, and his good looks. Everyone said that the young man who married the prince would never want for anything, including love. Cinderboy thought that to be loved would be the best feeling ever.
When the coach pulled up in front of the palace, the coachman opened the door and lowered the step to allow Cinderboy to disembark. "Don' forget to be outta there by midnight," he said. "I gotta get up early tomorrow, you know." He smiled. "Can't keep the hens waitin'."
"I'll remember," Cinderboy promised. He stood up straight, ran his fingers through his hair, and stepped into the ballroom, hesitating at the head of the marble stairs that descended in a sweeping arc to the dance floor below. He was so busy being delighted by the rich tapestries, the stars sparkling through the huge windows, and the giant platters full of food that looked as good as it smelled to notice that the room fell virtually silent as he came in. Oh, he'd never seen such beauty in all his life except in books, had never imagined so many different kinds of food all in one place. Though the monks ate fairly well, it was nothing like this, and he was never allowed anything but thin gruel, stale bread, and whatever vegetables he could scavenge from the garden. He had been right after all. Prince Murdock really did live in heaven.
Across the room, the abbot and Brothers Decker and Lynch stood along the wall and gazed at the handsome young man who had just descended the stairs. They could see the prince, who had been in conversation with an earnest, but uninteresting young man, as he noticed the newcomer as well. They saw him catch his breath and crane his neck to see around a portly gentleman who was heading his way with yet another son to introduce to him.
"Who is that young man?" Decker whispered, indicating the newcomer with his chin. "I've never seen him before."
"Beats me," answered Lynch. "Maybe he's a prince visiting from another country."
"He's gorgeous," Decker said. "Truly."
"He looks kind of familiar," the abbot said. "Doesn't he?"
"Maybe you've met him before in your travels," Decker said.
"Maybe so," said the abbot. "But I would think I'd remember a sweet face like that."
* * *
Cinderboy stood at the foot of the stairs and scanned the room, hoping to catch a glimpse of Prince Murdock. He would never be so bold as to introduce himself or even hope to be greeted by the prince in passing. Nobody ever spoke to the help, after all. It would be enough just to see him. Among the crush of people, Cinderboy finally caught sight of him. Oh, he was just like everyone said he would be. Tall and slender, he carried himself with grace as he mingled with his guests. Prince Murdock was dressed all in black except for a white shirt that peeked though the slashed sleeves of his coat. His boots were of the softest suede and hugged his legs just closely enough to reveal long, well-muscled calves. Tiny gems sewn into the coat sparkled in the candlelight, and Cinderboy was enchanted. The prince looked like an angel, his crown like a slim, golden halo on his head. He drank in the sight of the prince and filled up his soul with the young man's beauty and grace. Now he could die happy. He had seen the prince, and the prince was perfection itself. He would just spend the rest of the evening hanging around the food-laden table and maybe sample a few of the dishes before it was time to go back to gruel and raw vegetables.
* * *
Prince Murdock finally extricated himself from his conversations and got a clear look at the beautiful young man who was nibbling delicately on a petit four, blissfully unaware of the admiring gazes of those around him. The prince figured he'd better get to him before someone else did, so he made his way across the room just in time to be captivated anew by the young man licking the frosting off his fingers. The sight of that caused a reaction in the prince that no other young man had ever caused and made him glad that he'd lost enough weight in his years abroad that his breeches fit him a bit loosely.
The musicians struck up a waltz as the prince reached the young man. "May I have this dance?" he asked, bowing slightly.
Cinderboy looked at him. "Me?" he asked. He looked around to see if there were someone else standing near who might be the real object of the prince's request, but for the moment, there was nobody. "You want to dance with me?"
"Oh, I most certainly do want to dance with you," said the prince. He glanced at the table. "If you're finished eating, that is."
The young man blushed a bit. "I'm sorry, your highness. It's just that it all looked so good."
"Don't be sorry," the prince smiled, leaning closer. "I can't stand people who come to a party and just nibble on parsley and spring water all evening when there's an incredible spread laid out for them. If I'd wanted rabbits here, I'd have asked the cook to bake one!"
A joke! The prince had made a joke! To him! Oh, this was more than he could ever have hoped for.
The prince held out his hand. "Shall we?" he said.
Cinderboy had never danced before, at least not with another person, and he suffered a severe bout of apprehension as the prince led him to the dance floor. Nevertheless, he found himself able to follow the prince's lead perfectly and wondered if that were another gift from his fairy godfather. Maybe his new shoes were magic.
He had never been so close to such a handsome man before, and he could feel his heart beat faster than their exertion warranted. Prince Murdock's brown hair was casually styled to hide the thin spot on top, which was further disguised by his gem-encrusted crown. Cinderboy was used to men with bald spots, though, so it did not diminish the prince's handsomeness one little jot in his estimation. The prince had kind eyes, beautiful eyes, as brown as the little sparrows that sang to him in the garden, and they crinkled up in the corners when he smiled. His smile was warm and sweet, one of the few real smiles Cinderboy had ever had directed at him in his whole life. But even better was the feel of the prince's large, warm hands on his back and around his own right hand as they whirled around the dance floor. Other couples made room for them (because it was the prince, after all), and Cinderboy felt, though he wouldn't have been so bold as to say so aloud, that he and the prince fit together perfectly. He felt things he'd never felt before and that he hoped were normal, for nobody had ever explained much to him about growing up. He was glad the breeches the godfather had given him were the tiniest bit loose in the crotch, though, because something strange was happening down there.
* * *
As he guided his partner around the dance floor, Prince Murdock realized he was staring and abruptly reminded himself that princes did not stare. They gazed gently, but they did not stare. He averted his gaze to scan the room, noticed a trio of grim-looking monks standing along one wall, and found his father and mother necking on their thrones (because his father had been away fighting a war, too). He tried reminding himself that he really was going to have to dance with a lot of other partners to discharge his obligation to the young men of his kingdom, but he couldn't bring himself to let this dazzling young prince go. What a handsome fellow he was! His eyes were the color of the summer sky, his hair as golden as a sheaf of wheat. His lips were full and lush, and the prince almost couldn't prevent himself from leaning in for a kiss. He had fallen in love before they finished the first dance.
He was staring again.
As it turned out, they danced the night away. Or most of it, anyway. When the clock struck eleven-thirty, the young prince (whose name Prince Murdock had yet to extract from him) froze in his arms. "What's wrong, cheri?" he asked.
"Nothing," said the young man. "But it's late, and I should go."
"Late? It's only eleven-thirty. We'll be dancing until the sun comes up."
"Welllll, you really should dance with others, don't you think? You wouldn't want them thinking you were playing favorites."
"Ah," said Murdock, "but you are my favorite."
The young man blushed, but he also allowed Murdock to lead him into another dance. At eleven forty-five, though, when Prince Murdock finally was parched enough to stop and suggest a visit to the punchbowl, a question from another of his subjects diverted his attention just long enough to allow Cinderboy to slip away. On the way past the food table (where most of the food was still sitting while the garnish had disappeared) he grabbed a handful of cheese squares to reward the mice for their patience. He bypassed the chicken nuggets and, in the absence of anything resembling real feed, took a bit of sushi for the rooster.
* * *
"You cut it pretty close there, kid," Fairy Godfather said when Cinderboy arrived home. The coachman had driven like a madman but pulled into the monastery at the stroke of midnight, hopped off the seat, and accepted the sushi as he turned back into a rooster and strutted away to the henhouse.
"I'm sorry," Cinderboy said. "But it was so much fun! I have never met anyone as gracious, as handsome, as generous as Prince Murdock! Except for you, of course," he added as he stooped to feed the cheese to the mice. "He is the perfect prince."
"So you got to see him?"
"See him?" Cinderboy said, his dirty face glowing with happiness. "He danced with me all night! He liked me!"
"Isn't that wonderful?"
"Mm-hm," the godfather said. "Good for you, kid." He waved his smoking cylinder around a bit and stirred up the fire, as the night had grown cold and Cinderboy's rags were thin. "You should hit the sack now."
"I can't," Cinderboy said. "I have to stay up until the others get back so I can put their horses away."
There was a rattling sound at the gate. "Damned fool!" they heard the abbot say. "I told you not to try to play a drinking game with Lord Stockwell. He's got a cast iron stomach, and he never loses."
"They're back early!" Cinderboy said in surprise.
"Imagine that," the godfather said mildly.
"I'd better go," Cinderboy said. He rushed out of the warming house and into the courtyard, where Brother Lynch was on his knees, clutching his head, and emitting piteous groans while the rooster pecked his legs.
Cinderboy wisely collected the horses without comment, though he winced when Brother Decker kicked the eggplant across the courtyard to crash against the walls of the chapter house and break into pieces.
The next morning Cinderboy was able to creep into the kitchen early to help Cook stir up the fire and start preparing breakfast well before the others dragged themselves out of bed. Lauds and Prime were entirely forgotten and Terce was a hurried mumbling of prayers while Brothers Decker and Lynch moaned about their headaches. They were ill-tempered at breakfast, but at least they didn't have the energy to box anyone's ears. They were better-recovered by lunchtime. As he served them, Cinderboy listened to them talking about the handsome Prince Murdock and how entranced he was by the mysterious young prince who showed up out of the blue and whom nobody seemed to know.
"Prince Murdock was none too happy when the princeling slipped out," Brother Lynch said. "He danced with others, as was his duty, but you could tell he didn't enjoy it."
"I don't know how you'd know," Brother Decker said. "You were practically unconscious by then, you old sot!"
"If I felt better, I'd come over there and make you take that back," Lynch snapped. But Cinderboy was close enough, so Lynch boxed his ears instead.
Cinderboy was pleased to know the Prince had liked him. He certainly had liked the Prince. He could still feel that hand in the center of his back, could still remember the exhilaration of whirling around the room in those arms until he was almost too dizzy to stand. He could still see the gentle, warm eyes that held him close even when his arms and the rest of his body maintained the proper distance for dancing at a royal ball. He went about his chores with a smile all day and was so dopey with love that even Cook boxed his ears just to get him back to normal.
A couple of weeks later, another invitation arrived. The prince was having another ball. "Don't know why he bothers inviting us," Brother Decker grumbled. "We all know who he really wants to see."
"Don't be petty," the abbot snapped. "We're going. Get things ready!" This last was directed at Cinderboy, who obediently trotted upstairs for clean habits and shaving kits. Oh, he would have liked to go to this ball, too, but he knew he should just be grateful to have seen the prince once, let alone be held in his strong arms for half the night. So he prepared the others for their night out then took himself off to the warming house again to sit in the ashes. The rooster and the mice came over and settled next to him as if they were waiting for something to happen.
"I wish I had something wonderful to give you, my faithful companions," Cinderboy said sadly, "but all I have is this stale bread from the kitchen." He broke the bread into bits and fed them to the mice. He set a large chunk out for the rooster, who preferred to pick apart his own food, thank you very much. He settled down and pictured the palace in his head. While he gnawed his own dry crust, he imagined the tables at the palace groaning with delicious dishes he'd never seen or tasted before. He wondered if the prince would wear black again or if he'd select a different color. Brown would suit him, Cinderboy thought. So would a deep forest green.
He was so deep in thought that he smelled the smoking cylinder before he noticed his fairy godfather standing in front of him. "Hey, kid, I thought maybe this time you'd be ready to go before I got here."
"Don't you want to go to the ball?"
Cinderboy was flabbergasted. "Oh, may I? May I really go again and see the prince?"
"Oh, I think you have to," the godfather said. "So, where's the eggplant?"
"Um, Brother Decker destroyed it, I'm afraid."
"Got anything else?"
Cinderboy thought for a minute. "There might be an egg in the henhouse."
The godfather nodded. The rooster scratched at the dirt and emitted something that sounded like a growl. "Oh, calm down, rooster," said the godfather. "Run and get it, Cinderboy."
When Cinderboy got back with the egg, the mice had already been turned into six grey horses. The godfather tapped the egg, and it turned into a sleek white coach, lower to the ground than the eggplant coach had been, but like it, decorated with a red stripe. Even the rooster stopped growling. When the godfather tapped his beak this time, he didn't peck. Instead he flexed his muscled arms and strode to the coach, running his hands over it appreciatively.
The godfather looked at Cinderboy and carefully considered before tapping him with the cylinder. In place of his rags appeared breeches and a coat of brilliant white, embroidered all over in silver thread. On his feet were the same black shoes with the diamond buckles. The godfather nodded his head and smiled at the effect. "You look good, kid."
"Oh, Fairy Godfather, I'm so happy I could burst!" Cinderboy said.
"Well, don't do that," the godfather said mildly. "You'd ruin those clothes."
As Cinderboy climbed into the coach, the godfather smiled around his smoking cylinder. "Don't forget to be out of there by twelve," he said. "Remember that the spell ends at the stroke of midnight."
"I'll remember," said Cinderboy, but his attention was already focused miles ahead on the handsome prince he'd been dreaming about for the last two weeks.
* * *
Prince Murdock was already bored. Oh, he didn't let it show. He was too well-bred for that, but his parents noticed and were sorry for it. They wanted their son to be happy, and he clearly was not. He played the part like the good soldier and good prince he was, but they could tell. His father, King Harold XXI, ruler of the United Kingdoms of Upper and Lower Baklavaria, leaned toward his closest advisor, Lord Stockwell. "Will he come, do you think?"
"Prince Murdock or the mystery princeling?" Stockwell asked with a smirk. "If it is the latter, I cannot say, for I have been unable to trace his whereabouts at all. If the former, one can only hope he will before the night is over."
The king's eyes narrowed. "Have you been into the sauce already, old man?" he asked.
Lord Stockwell smiled mirthlessly as his gaze shifted to the three monks who had once again taken up their posts along the wall. "Not yet, my liege," he said, "but I hope to entertain and win a little wager involving a few casks of your finest wine before the night is through." The king shook his head and leaned back in his throne. Stockwell always had something else going on on the side, but there was no better advisor in all the kingdom. He knew which way the wind was going to blow before the wind itself knew.
"I believe the young man we've all been waiting for has finally arrived," the queen said, calling the king's attention to the door. A young man all in white stood at the head of the stairs. The silver threads on his clothing twinkled like fairy lights and cast a shimmering, ethereal glow around him.
"So he is," said the king. "Now we shall see if our son can do as well in love as he does in war."
Prince Murdock stared up the stairs, forgetting his manners for the moment, completely entranced by the newcomer. His mother clucked her tongue as he wandered away from the young brothers who had been competing for his attention. Well, they were too young for him anyway.
* * *
Prince Murdock was dressed all in gold. Had his fairy godfather known that, Cinderboy wondered, when he selected his own silvery outfit? In the prince's arms, Cinderboy forgot everything except his own bliss. The prince's hand on his back was just as he remembered. The smile was just the same, and if he held Cinderboy just a little too close to be proper for a royal ball, well, nobody said anything. Nor did anyone try to cut in.
"I'm so glad you came," Prince Murdock breathed into Cinderboy's ear, "and so glad to see you again."
"I'm glad, too, your highness," said Cinderboy. "I have dreamed of you every night."
"Have you?" the prince said. "Have you dreamed of us together forever? For that has been my dream."
Cinderboy didn't know how to answer. Yes, that was exactly what he'd dreamed, but how could he, a common servant, give voice to that dream? That's all it was, really. A nighttime fantasy that dissipated in the harsh light of day where magic spells had no power. A happy memory to get him through the lonely days and nights of the rest of his life. For there would never be another Prince Murdock for him. He was sad, even though it was the happiest night of his life.
"Come, come," Prince Murdock said, seeing how the young man faltered. "Let's not be coy with one another. I love you, young prince, and you have not even given me your name. I want you to stay here with me from today until forever."
Cinderboy felt tears spring to his eyes. How he would love to stay forever, even as a servant, just to feel Prince Murdock's kind eyes on him from time to time, to see that warm, welcoming smile, even if it were directed at someone more worthy to sit by the prince's side when the time came for him to rule this kingdom. "I cannot," he said. "Would I could, your highness. I would be the happiest young man alive if I could stay, but I cannot."
"Why not?" Prince Murdock asked.
"I...I am needed elsewhere," said Cinderboy.
"In your own kingdom?"
Cinderboy smiled. Could you call half a dozen mice and a temperamental rooster a kingdom? "Yes," he finally said, "in my own kingdom."
They danced and they danced. Then the prince pulled Cinderboy into an alcove, and they stood together looking through an arched window over the twinkling lights of the village below. A few carts rumbled through the streets as those whose responsibilities kept them from the ball went about their business. "Your subjects seem happy, your highness," Cinderboy observed.
Prince Murdock nodded. "My father says a king has no right to be any happier than the most unhappy of his subjects," he said. "So for our own peace of mind, we try to make sure everyone is taken care of and that they have what they need to make good lives for themselves. I believe everyone is reasonably happy." He cupped Cinderboy's face between his hands, gently stroking his cheeks with his thumbs. "Except for you," he said.
Cinderboy smiled. "I am as happy as I have ever been or had any right to be," he said. "Here, with you, is the happiest moment of my life." His smile, so sweet, so tender, made Prince Murdock fall in love with him for the fifth or sixth time that night.
"What is your name?" Prince Murdock asked.
Cinderboy shook his head. "I have no name," he said.
"Then I shall call you Face," Prince Murdock said. He stroked his fingers over Cinderboy's soft cheeks and across his full lips. "My own Facey." He pulled Cinderboy toward him and kissed his lips. Cinderboy leaned into the kiss, and though he'd never done this before, he felt it was the most natural thing in the world to do. As the prince's tongue gently parted his lips and slipped into his mouth, he felt his body respond in a surprising way, and he very nearly took leave of his senses. His arms slipped around Prince Murdock's back, and he pressed himself against the prince, moaning with joy. How could he, a common kitchen boy, deserve such bliss here in the prince's arms? It was almost too much to contemplate.
Then he heard the voice of the town crier drift up from the streets below. "Midnight, and all is well!"
"Oh, no!" Cinderboy felt the changes beginning as the tall clock began to toll the hour. "Oh, no. I must go!"
"No, please!" Prince Murdock cried. "Stay, please! I love you!"
Cinderboy's eyes filled with tears. "I love you, too, my prince," he gasped out, then he turned and ran, dodging dancers, skinny boys munching on parsley, and drunken monks on his way up the stairs, the prince in hot pursuit. He had just passed the doorway when he stumbled and fell. He picked himself up and ran into the darkness beyond. He hid behind a tree in the garden as the prince came outside, and he watched, his heart pounding, as the prince picked up a shoe. It was one of his black shoes with the diamond buckle. Cinderboy looked down at himself. He was in rags again, his feet bare and dirty, and he was ashamed. Six little mice clustered around his feet, and the rooster flew up to perch on his shoulder.
"Face!" called the prince. "Where are you? Oh, Face, come back to me, please!"
As tears streamed down his face, Cinderboy stole through the garden and past the guard at the gate, then headed for the monastery. Behind him, he heard a sharp crack as the prince accidentally stepped on his carriage.
* * *
The monks were in a particularly foul mood the next day, having lost yet another drinking game to Lord Stockwell. Cinderboy was not in a much better mood himself, but he knew better than to show it. As the monks slowly revived in the afternoon, they began discussing the aftermath of the ball.
"The prince was in agonies after his princeling left," Brother Decker said with a little bit of spiteful glee. "He carried that shoe around the rest of the night like it was the Holy Grail."
"True," answered Brother Lynch. "I heard he wouldn't let it go even to dance with the other young men."
"There weren't many left by that time, anyway," Decker said. "By then most of them had given up on him and gone off into dark corners with each other."
"Yes, that's true, too," Lynch said. "You would think, with so few others around, he might have noticed me."
"He might have noticed you puking your guts up in the royal lavatory," Brother Decker said. "You never could hold your liquor."
And so it went, with Cinderboy keeping quiet and serving the monks, and them arguing about which of them would be the best substitute for the missing princeling. Cinderboy's heart was sore, and his dreams were filled with memories of a kiss that had awakened in him emotions he hadn't even known he could feel. He could almost wish he'd never met the prince so that he could not feel the loss so keenly that his heart felt as crushed as the poor egg coach.
A few weeks later there came a knock at the monastery's gate. When the porter opened the gate, who should be there but Lord Stockwell and Prince Murdock. With them was a servant carrying a black shoe with a diamond buckle, carefully balanced on a white satin pillow. The porter bowed low. "What may we do for you at our humble monastery?' the brother asked.
"We are here to find the young man whose foot fits in this shoe," said Lord Stockwell. "Prince Murdock will not rest until we find him."
Indeed, Prince Murdock looked fatigued. He had been from one end of his kingdom to the other looking for his missing Face, but no other young man's foot fit into this shoe. He had not thought to check the monastery, even though it was close to home, as he could not even conceive of his sweet princeling having been one of these pompous old monks. But this was his last chance, and he was not one to leave a stone unturned. "Please gather all who live here that we may allow them to try on this shoe," he said.
The porter ran for the abbot, who boxed Cinderboy's ears and sent him to find Brothers Decker and Lynch. He found them stuffing their faces in the kitchen and watching cook sharpen his big knife to butcher the poor rooster, who lay trussed up on the table, gamely challenging his fate by pecking viciously at any fingers that came too close.
"Brothers," Cinderboy said, "you are wanted at the front gate."
"By whom?" Brother Decker asked around the hard-boiled egg he'd stuffed whole into his mouth.
"I don't know," Cinderboy said. "The abbot told me to find you. They want you, too, Cook," he said. "I was told to send everyone to the front gate."
Brother Decker sighed. "I hope it's not that vile Lord Stockwell coming to collect the holy relic you lost to him last night," he said to Lynch.
Cook laid his knife down where the rooster could see it and left without a word. The brothers heaved themselves to their feet and followed him. Cinderboy knew he'd earn another ear-boxing for doing so, but he untied the rooster anyway. "You'd better escape while you can," he said to it. "You'll be safer in the forest. Maybe my fairy godfather will find you and take you with him."
He followed the others out and caught up with them just in time to see the monks and servants arranging themselves into a line. When he caught sight of their visitor, Cinderboy stopped dead in his tracks. It was the prince! He was about to step into the courtyard when the abbot yanked him back. "Not you!" he said scornfully. "You're not worthy even to stand in his presence, boy! Besides, you didn't even go to the ball! If you know what's good for you, you'll just go back to the kitchen and keep that rooster company. Why, the prince wouldn't even give you the time of day!" He shoved Cinderboy back into the kitchen.
Cinderboy knew the abbot was right. He couldn't let the prince see him like this. What would he think? Ashamed, Cinderboy crept back outside and hid himself behind one of the supports in the arched doorway. He peeked around the edge just enough to enjoy the sight of Prince Murdock while he could. The prince was dressed in his hunting clothes, a brown jerkin over a cream shirt, brown breeches, and leather boots. Cinderboy sighed sadly. The prince was even more handsome to him here in broad daylight than he had been in the dim candlelight.
The prince cleared his throat once the men were lined up before him "I am looking for the man whose foot fits in this shoe," he said, gesturing to the pillow. "This is the man I shall marry, for I know he shall be my Face."
Brothers Decker and Lynch were jostling for position in the line, trying to maneuver their way to the front, when they heard this. Then they saw the shoe. Both of them looked at their feet, had a quick, whispered conversation, and turned away from the line, keeping low and working their way back to the kitchen. They never saw Cinderboy there in the shadows as they darted past him.
Cinderboy hadn't taken his eyes off the goings-on by the gate. One by one the men tried to squeeze their feet into the shoe, and one by one they admitted defeat and drifted back to stand in small bunches and watch the others give it a try. Cook had only to slip off his sandal and wave his gigantic foot at Lord Stockwell, who was reluctantly fitting the shoe on each man's foot, to avoid having to even attempt to wear the shoe. "Excuse me, your highness," Cook mumbled as he backed out of the line, "but I've got me a rooster to butcher."
"By all means," the prince said graciously, "return to your duties."
As the cook returned to the kitchen, Brother Decker and Brother Lynch hobbled back out and limped to the line. The hems of their habits were stained red, and Cinderboy wondered if they'd already killed his friend the rooster. Perhaps it hadn't been fast enough to get out. When it was finally Brother Decker's turn, he kept his foot covered with his habit while slipping it into the shoe. To the prince's dismay, the shoe fit. He didn't want it to be true, but there was nothing he could do. This must be his Face, though he certainly couldn't see much resemblance. Suddenly a black rooster strutted out of the shadows and started crowing. It sounded a lot like, "Check his toes, Check his toes!"
Lord Stockwell's eyes narrowed. He slipped the shoe off and lifted Decker's hem. "What's this?" he said. "Someone is missing a big toe." Indeed, Decker's foot was bleeding heavily, and there was nothing left of his right big toe. "Cheating, are we?" Stockwell asked, a dangerous edge to his voice.
"Uh, um, no, Lord Stockwell," Decker said, thinking fast. "I was in the kitchen and, uh, dropped the knife I was using to carve the, uh, chicken."
"This chicken?" Stockwell asked, indicating the rooster who was busy trying to peck off Decker's remaining toes while he kicked at it ineffectively.
"Well, no, another chicken, I guess."
The prince covered his mouth with his hand but couldn't completely hide either his smile or his relief. The servant carrying the pillow, a handsome., olive-skinned young man whose long hair was pulled back and secured by a leather band, winked conspiratorially at Stockwell, who glared briefly then returned his attention to the last man in line.
"Next!" barked Stockwell.
This time Brother Lynch slipped his foot into the shoe. It fit him, too, but the pained expression on his face was all the giveaway Stockwell needed. None too gently, he pulled off the shoe and lifted the habit. Lynch's long, hairy toes were all there, but blood poured from the back of his ankle where his heel used to be.
"Let me guess," said Stockwell. "You dropped a knife, too?"
"Well, of course not, my lord," said Lynch. "It was Decker dropped it, but he dropped it on my foot, if you can believe it."
"Actually, no, I can't," Stockwell said. "Next!"
Lynch sighed and limped over to join Decker. There was nobody in line behind him. "Is there nobody else?" Stockwell asked.
"Nobody," said the abbot.
"We've met everyone here? Even the servants?"
Lord Stockwell turned to Prince Murdock. "I'm sorry, your highness," he said. "We appear to have run out of young men."
From the shadows near the kitchen door, the rooster crowed. He crowed and crowed. It sounded like, "But wait, there's more!"
Lord Stockwell turned a dangerous glare on the abbot. "Well," the abbot said slowly, "there might be one more servant. But he's a nobody. The lowest of the low. An orphan!"
"Bring him," the prince commanded.
The abbot sighed. "Cinderboy, come out!" he called. But nothing happened.
Cinderboy heard the abbot call, but he was paralyzed. He couldn't let the prince see him. He just couldn't! Oh, he wished the ground would open up and swallow him. He would just hide here until the prince left. Abbot would box his ears for sure, but that would be far less painful than showing himself to the prince in the state he was in.
The rooster, however, had other ideas. He darted into the shadows and started pecking at Cinderboy's legs and feet. And he pecked hard! Cinderboy stumbled backwards and into the daylight.
"You, boy!" Stockwell ordered. "Come here at once!"
There was nowhere to hide now. The prince was looking at him kindly, Stockwell less kindly, and the monks not kindly at all, but they were all looking at him. His legs trembled so badly he almost couldn't stay upright as he slowly made his way across the courtyard to fall to his knees before the prince.
"Who are you, young sir?" asked the prince.
"I am nobody, your highness," Cinderboy whispered. "A common servant not worthy of your notice."
"Everyone is worthy of notice," the prince said gently. "You, um, haven't cut off any toes this afternoon, have you?"
"No, your highness." Cinderboy could not even lift his eyes.
"Stand, then, and try on the shoe."
"You must," the prince said. "Everybody must, for I am desperate, and if I cannot find my Face, I'm cannot go on. Please, for me, see if you can put on the shoe."
"For you, then, I shall," said Cinderboy. He stood up and let Stockwell put the shoe on him. It fit perfectly, of course.
Cinderboy heard the monks gasp behind him. "It can't be!" Decker said. "He's just a common scullery boy!"
"More than common!" Lynch added. "Not even ordinary! Just a simpleton!"
"Silence!" the prince roared. Cinderboy's eyes darted from his dirty left foot to the prince's eyes. Oh, he was magnificent when he was angry!
When he looked back down, Cinderboy saw that his left foot now had a shoe on it. In fact, he had stockings, too, and breeches and a coat. He was dressed again in the royal blue outfit he'd worn to the first ball. Gasps rose up around him again.
"It's you, isn't it?" the prince said, reaching out to grasp Cinderboy's arm. "Face?"
"Yes, your highness, it is I."
"You ran away."
"I'm sorry. I could only be your Face until midnight, and then I became the dirty commoner you saw before you. For all I know, I shall become that dirty commoner again tonight."
"Dirty, maybe, but not common, Face," said the prince. "Not to me. And from now on, you need never be dirty again. Unless you want to be," he finished with a wink.
Cinderboy could not believe this sudden reversal of his fortunes. It all but made his head spin. Could the prince really love him, a nameless orphan?
Six grey horses trotted out of the warming house and lined up by the front gate. With a crash, the cook flew through the window, followed by a large black man who roared, "You ain't cookin' no rooster today, fool!" He turned to Decker and Lynch. "And you two ain't pickin' on no more orphans!" He boxed each of their ears for good measure. The last anybody saw of them, they were holding each other up and trying to outrun a gaggle of chickens who flew out of the henhouse and descended upon them en masse, pecking at their eyes and tearing at them with their claws. The man dusted his hands and roared, "Where's my ride!"
"Wow," whispered Prince Murdock, "he's got some bad attitude, hasn't he?"
"He'll grow on you," a voice said. Cinderboy's fairy godfather appeared at Prince Murdock's elbow. "But it's a good idea to keep him happy."
"Fairy Godfather!" Cinderboy said. "Oh, thank you. Thank you!"
The godfather grinned around his smoking cylinder. "Least I could do, kid," he said.
"I want my ride, Mr. Godfather!" cried Mr. Bad Attitude (for that is how Prince Murdock had begun to think of him).
The godfather reached into the pocket of his robe and pulled out a second cylinder. "I wouldn't do this for just anyone," he said, tapping it with the other cylinder then tossing it to the ground. In the blink of an eye, a long brown coach stood before them.
Bad Attitude growled and the godfather shrugged. "It's the wrong season for pumpkins," he said.
The prince gestured to the glowing embers at the back end. "It comes with a fireplace!" he said, delighted. "How wonderful!"
The godfather chuckled. Then he turned to Cinderboy, and his face grew serious. "I'll be watching you, kid," he said. "Make me proud."
"I will," Cinderboy promised.
The fairy godfather smiled, waved his cylinder, and winked out of sight. "And plant some pumpkins, would you?"
Prince Murdock held out his arms, and Cinderboy stepped into them. "From today until forever, you are a prince," Murdock said. "Prince Face, and one day King Face, co-ruler of the United Kingdoms of Upper and Lower Baklavaria."
"And more importantly," said Prince Face, "I am your Face, and only yours, from today until forever."
Lord Stockwell cleared his throat. "I hate to interrupt, your highnesses," he said, "but your coach appears to be getting shorter by the minute, and the smoke is making the horses restless. Not to mention your coachman. I think it's time to return to the palace."
"Thank you, Lord Stockwell," said Prince Murdock. "Prince Face, your carriage awaits!"
Hand in hand, the young princes climbed into the carriage. As the coachman snapped the reins and barreled through the gate and up the road, they settled into each other's arms and kissed, secure in the knowledge that even in the harsh light of day, true love is the one spell that never ends.
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