Lucinda of the Ashes

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Digital drawing. Two hands seen from above, as if they were the viewer’s hands. The left hand at bottom left is holding a glass container, like a beaker with a funnel top. The right hand at top right holds a glass rod. The index finger is held away from the rod. A drop of liquid hangs from the end of the glass rod, right above the opening of the beaker. A small figure with dragonfly wings hovers over the left hand. The beaker contains a vaporous liquid. A bright cloudy swirl begins at center behind the hands and darkens as it moves outward to the edges of the image.

Lucinda held her breath, as she raised the glass rod above the vial and tapped the rod to release the single drop of liquid that clung to its end.

The drop fell in the vial, joining the muddy liquid within.  The liquid turned ruddy, then clear.  And it stayed clear. 

Lucinda dared to exhale just as the liquid began to swirl and turn ruddy, then muddy.  She ducked under the table just before the vial shattered, spraying red flames and charred bits of glass in every direction.

The walls and ceilings of the forgotten shed that she had made into her workshop were scorched, but otherwise unharmed…this time.  She too was unharmed…this time.

She made a note in the book that she wisely kept in a metal trunk in the corner (instead of a drawer of the wooden workbench where she tried most of her spells and potions).  She swept up the glass, and carefully cleaned the remnants of the potion without touching anything with her bare hands.

As she swept, she noticed tiny whorls of dust beside the broom.  She braced herself for some consequent eruption to the first.  But luckily none came.

Only when she emerged from the shed, into a bright day in early spring, did she look down at herself and notice that she had not quite escaped being marked by the failed potion trial.

“Covered in ash, again,” Lucinda said, repeating the words that she knew her stepmother would speak, when she showed up at dinner in the dress that she had no time to wash.

She was not allowed to wear trousers and tunic at meals.  And she had no other dress.  She had to do her best to brush the ash off, and hope that her family was distracted by other news.  News of her father’s return perhaps.  He was gone so often that it was almost as if he too had…

Lucinda shook away the thought. 

But this time, it would not go.

It was almost as if he too had died.  It was almost as if she were an orphan. 

She was too old to be an orphan.  Come the fall, she would reach her nineteenth year.  She had to stop thinking of her father.  For he was cared for. 

She had to think of herself.  For the only other person who had thought of her future prospects was gone. 

~***~

Since Lucinda was very young, she had dreamed of being a mage.  Her mother and father were both merchants.  They were amused by their daughter’s proclamations, believing perhaps that in time she would forget about magic as she would forget about dolls.  They had no objections to their only child choosing a trade that was different from their own.  But even though they were well off, being a mage’s apprentice was a dream that only those of noble blood—or exemplary talent—could dare to dream.

Her father remained perplexed, as Lucinda grew older and older, and still insisted that she was destined to become a mage.

Her mother, however, came to understand that her daughter was in earnest.  So she did her best to find some path for Lucinda to follow that would lead her toward magic.  When Lucinda reached her seventeenth year, her mother surprised her with the best gift that Lucinda had ever received.

“I have hired for you a tutor,” her mother said.  “To begin teaching you the trade of magic.”

Lucinda was struck speechless.  She embraced her mother, lifting her off the ground, and swinging her around. 

The lessons were to begin in the fall.  But before the first bronze leaf of autumn drifted to the ground, Lucinda’s mother was gone. 

She had been coming home from a town she had visited often.  A storm came upon her carriage when it traveled a narrow road on a high mountain.  Fierces winds swept the carriage over the side of the mountain.

Not even a year had passed before Lucinda’s father married another.

Lucinda was still mourning her mother.  She always would in some way.  But she had been hopeful about having a family, especially having two new sisters.  She had always wanted a sister.  They were both older than Lucinda.  One of them, Rose, was even studying to be a mage.  And she was quite talented.  The eldest sister, Tulip, sought to climb the ranks of the nobility.  She did not care much for power.  But she adored riches.  She aimed to become the richest person in the world.  She claimed that she wanted to never lift a finger again, even though she never did lift a finger, so far as Lucinda could see.  While Rose mostly ignored Lucinda, Tulip made Lucinda do the chores that Tulip had been assigned. 

Lucinda had declared her desire to study magic.  Her stepmother claimed that they only had enough money to hire a tutor for one daughter, and that it made sense to choose Rose, for she showed the most promise.  Perhaps if Rose and Lucinda had been at the same level, it could have been managed.  But Lucinda had no education in magic. 

Tulip would whisper that she would speak to their parents on Lucinda’s behalf.  They would surely give her entreaties more weight as she was the eldest sister.  That was why Lucinda had agreed to do her eldest sister’s chores.

Lucinda was hopeful.  But even she came to see that if she wanted to become a mage, she would have to find her own way.  If her mother had left her any money, she did not know where it was or how to find it.  And anyway, money would not be enough.  She would have to pass a series of exams that she had no idea how to pass.  Most who sought to be mages had studied for several years by the time they were her age.  That was why her mother had hired a tutor, so that Lucinda might recover that lost time.

So it was that Lucinda came to the decision to teach herself—as foolish and dangerous as that would be.  If she’d had another choice, she would have taken it. 

But alas, she did not.

***

Once she found the abandoned shed covered in overgrowth and hidden away at the edge of their land, Lucinda had a place to work and study.  And so she had done for several months.

She would teach herself when was finished with the many chores that her stepmother and eldest stepsister assigned to her.  She understood the theories she read in the books that she managed to find, borrow, or in rare cases, purchase.  But the practice was much more difficult.  She could only practice potions with ingredients she could acquire on her own.  She couldn’t practice any spells at all, for she had not been taught the proper breathing techniques and gestures.  Books were wondrous tools, but they could not capture all that had to be taught.

So it was that she often ended up covered in ash and soot.  And cuts and nicks, bruises and blisters.

~***~

On that particular day in early spring, Lucinda had been trying to devise a minor healing potion.  The last ingredient required in the potion was a single drop of linden sap the size of a baby dragon’s tear.  Most magicians would have used a glass capillary affixed with a bulb to accurately measure the size of the drop.  But such tools were dear and delicate.  Lucinda had hoped that her approximation with the glass rod would do. 

She walked into the house, hoping to find a clean apron to wear over her dusty skirts.  Rose was coming down the stairs, her arms wrapped around a thick tome with a birch wood binding.

“How many times are they having you clean that chimney?” Rose asked. 

Lucinda smiled wryly.  “I wasn’t cleaning the chimney.”  She sighed.  “I was trying to make a healing potion.”

Rose began to laugh.  But she stopped when she saw Lucinda’s expression. 

“You are in earnest?” Rose asked.  She paused for a moment, peering at her little sister’s eyes.  But then she shook her head.  “It doesn’t matter.  You’re a fool either way.  You’ll kill yourself before you learn anything.  Magic isn’t something you can teach yourself.” 

Lucinda took a breath to speak, to challenge her sister to stopping mocking her and starting helping her.

But she only sighed again, and said, “You’re right.  Every spell I try turns to ashes.  It was not my intention to teach myself.  I merely have no other choice.” 

Lucinda bowed her head and continued on to the kitchen so she could start preparing dinner.

Rose followed.  “Well it’s too bad then that you don’t have a tutor like mine,” she said.  “He is quite an excellent teacher.  It’s too bad that your chores don’t allow you to be by the riverside, near the oldest oak, between the hours of seven to midday—stopping for lunch betwixt—and then until the clock strikes three in the afternoon.  Yes, quite a shame.” 

She swiped an apple from a basket on the counter and sauntered out of the kitchen.  Lucinda frowned.  For it seemed Rose was being cruel, boasting of what she had that Lucinda could not have.  Rose had never been either kind or cruel to Lucinda.  She had never mocked Lucinda for declaring her intentions to be a mage.  Nor had she ever spoken in favor of it.  But Rose did not speak much at all.  She certainly had never said as many words to Lucinda as she had just spoken…

Lucinda, her hand on the handle of a pot, glanced up at the doorway through which her sister had just passed.  Rose had told her the exact time and place of her lessons. 

Could that be her intention?  Lucinda wondered.

It seemed that Rose had just invited her to spy on her magic lessons. 

Or perhaps she had been boasting.  Either way, Lucinda planned to spy.

She finished her morning chores early and snuck off to attend most of the lessons that Rose was being taught by her private tutor.  She did not understand a good part of it.  And she never asked Rose, as she still wasn’t sure if Rose’s words to her had been a boast or an invitation. 

***

A year passed in that fashion, and Lucinda learned more than she ever dreamt she would know how to do.  She learned what those whorls of dust were that she sometimes saw when she swept.  One of her first successful potions was a concoction she poured on a piece of glass.  She had to wait for three full moons, but once the glass was ready, she could look through it and see the impish little fairies who were fluttering all around her shed.

“Are you the reason all my potions failed before?” she accused.  But she knew they were not.  On the contrary, her failed potions were what had attracted them to the shed.

There was a spell for repelling fairies, but Lucinda did not care to learn that one.  There were so many other spells and potions she longed to learn.  But her time was running out.

The time would soon come when Rose would go away to academy. 

There would be no more lessons for Lucinda.  She would continue practicing her skills, maybe be a traveling magician, earning enough money to advance her studies someday.

She was daydreaming such visions one morning as she finished preparing breakfast when she heard a caller at the door.

She glanced out of the window and gasped.

A lavish carriage decorated with vivid blue velvet satin with gold tassels stood in the road passing by their house.  And just outside their door stood a man dressed in fine attire, bearing a standard with griffin rampant holding a golden coin in its mouth.

This was a royal barker.

Lucinda did not have time to fetch her still-sleeping stepmother and sisters.

“Hear yea! Hear yea!” the barker began.

***

The prince of the land was holding a contest for his hand in marriage.  The contest was open to all above their nineteenth year who named themselves women.  The winner would become his princess.  But the ones who came in second and third would be granted a royal favor, one that would have to be approved by the new princess. 

All the ladies of the household heard most of the proclamation, for the rest scrambled downstairs after the barker’s voice startled them out of slumber.

The barker had left a scroll that contained a copy of his declaration, and details about the rules of the contest.

It was the singular subject of their lunch.

Tulip wanted to enter the contest so she could marry the prince.

“But what if you don’t love him?” Lucinda asked.

“Royals don’t marry for love.  I never intended to marry at all.  So it doesn’t matter if I love him, does it?  What matters is whatever is in the royal coffers.  Oh, how I long to see!”

Lucinda suggested they all three enter, so that Tulip could marry the prince, and she and Rose could be granted a royal favor.

To this, her stepmother scoffed.  “The contest for the hand of a prince will not be one that just any starry-eyed common girl can win.”

“I would like to enter, mother,” Rose said.  “I will use my magic, of course.”

Her mother smiled.  “Of course, darling.”

Lucinda glanced at her.  “But Tulip doesn’t know magic.”

“I’ll hire a proxy if needed,” Tulip said.

“Is that allowed?”

Tulip pointed to a paragraph in the scroll.  “Of course it is.”

“I would like to be owed a royal favor,” Rose said, smirking at her elder sister.

Tulip frowned.  “If I win, I would have to approve it.  I may not be in the mood to approve any favors.”

If you win.”

“May I enter the contest?” Lucinda asked.

Her stepmother’s expression went slack, and Lucinda had her answer before it was spoken.  “No.”

“Why not?”

Her stepmother folder her hands over the tabletop.  “There is a reason, but I need not give it to you.  Lucinda, when a mother gives her daughter direction, the daughter must follow it without question.”

This was not the way she treated her own daughters.  Tulip and Rose constantly disagreed with and disobeyed their mother.  But Lucinda knew it was futile to argue.  She had to think of something else. She had to make her own plans.  

And she did need more than one plan.  A plan to enter the contest without her stepmother knowing.  And a plan to win the contest. 

***

The contest was actually three contests.  One was a contest of archery.  One was a contest of eating.  And the last was a contest of singing.  These were, it seemed, the prince’s favorite pastimes. 

Lucinda was an excellent cook and a better eater.  But she had never fired an arrow in her life.  And she could not sing—not well anyway.  Tulip was a lovely singer.  And Rose, as she had mentioned, would simply use her magic.  Nothing in the scroll seemed to forbid the use of magic.  Though there was a note that the rules might change by the time of the contest.

Lucinda’s only plan was to practice the magic spells she was most skilled at, and hope that they would somehow help her through the contest.  She had a spell that would disguise her.  So at least the first part of her plan was complete.  The spell would require much of her energy, but perhaps it would help her to be ravenous once she got to the eating contest.  But this assumed that she would make it past the archery contest.

An aiming spell would be perfect for the archery contest, but she had never attempted it.  A disappearing spell would be perfect for the eating contest, but the last time she attempted to make anything larger than her pinky disappear, she suffered incapacitating aches along her spine for almost a week. 

If she could master the alchemical transformation of rock into rubies, she might be able to purchase herself a proxy, as Tulip was planning on doing, but alchemy was an advanced skill.  The only alchemical potion Lucinda had managed not to turn into ash was a seasoning that when added to any dish made it taste like one’s favorite food.  But that wouldn’t help her much in an eating contest.  She didn’t need to make the food appetizing.  She needed to make it vanish into her stomach.  And while Lucinda loved food, she abhorred the thought of eating without savoring.

Lucinda also loved to sleep, but she had many restless nights, as her mind ran through several farfetched plans.

***

One night, she was visited in her dreams by a mystical figure.  A woman in a glamorous pink gown glinting with millions of tiny diamonds.  Her lips were also pink and glittering.

And they were mesmerizing when they spoke.  “I can help you win the contest.”

“How?” Lucinda asked.  “Why?”

“You know what they say.  Godmother’s help those who help themselves.”

“Godmother?”

“Yours.  As in me.  As in I…am your godmother.  Your mother’s best friend.”

“I don’t think my mother has any friends.”

The shimmering pink lips smiled.  “Not that one.  A real mother is the one who actually loves you, darling.  And the mother who loves you is still alive.”

Lucinda was a hopeful person.  But this was not hope.  This was a cruel delusion from which she very much wished to wake.

But those shimmering petal pink lips kept speaking.  Her godmother would not yet let her wake.

“Your mother is trapped in the royal dungeon.  She was mistaken for another.  That is all I know of that.  Entreating the prince will not work.  The only way you can free you mother is by entering that contest and winning.”

Lucinda could not bear the thought that her mother had been left in a dank dungeon, abandoned by her husband and daughter.  But if there was a chance that this was not just a dream…

“I have a disguise,” Lucinda said.  “I will enter the contest.”

“Good.” 

“But I am nowhere near skilled enough to last through it.”

“You’ll have to cheat,” her godmother said.  “You’ll have to use my power.”

“I’ll do anything short of hurting someone to save my mother.  And I might do that if I have to.”

“You won’t.  Follow my instructions exactly, and you’ll win that contest.”

“But I don’t want to win—“

“If anyone else wins, they might deny your request.”

“What about this person that my mother was mistaken for?”

“Not to worry.  They are long gone.  And this, alas, is all the help I can give you.”

Lucinda’s godmother produced a pair of plain-looking slippers.

“Don’t be fooled by appearances,” her godmother said.  “Those slippers contain almost half my power.”

Lucinda put the slippers on.  She took a step.  Sharp blades sliced the sole of her foot.

She cried out and pulled off the slipper to check her foot.  It was unhurt.

She glanced up at her godmother.  “It’s like walking on broken glass.”

“Power has a price, my darling.  Now do not let them out of your sight.  Do not let them get stolen or lost.”

Lucinda nodded. 

When she woke, she found the slippers beside her bed.

***

The first thing Lucinda did was place an enchantment on the slippers, just in case she did lose them.  It was a simple lock, one of the only spells she had mastered, so that she could secure her secret shed.  Only she would be able to wear the slippers.

She had to brace herself to walk in those slippers, but the jabbing pain became more bearable the more she walked.  She knew her feet were not truly being cut with shards of glass.  And in any case, her strange gait added to her disguise.  She could not make herself invisible, but she could cast a glamour over herself.  She changed her hair from dark to fair.  And she wore a cloak and mask of ashen gray. 

The day of the contest came.  And Lucinda succeeded in entering it.

***

Each archer was allowed three arrows.  At least one arrow had to hit the mark for a contestant to advance to the second contest.

Lucinda watched the archers who went before her to see how she must hold the bow and nock the arrow.  But there was no need.  She had her enchanted slippers on. 

When her turn came, she limped to her position.  She summoned the slippers’ power as her godmother had instructed, and she found herself lifting the bow with ease, slipping the arrow in position, and firing.  She could see that the arrow would hit its mark.

And yet…it didn’t.

She missed.

So did everyone else. 

Lucinda was puzzled.  And so was everyone else. 

But then she saw something.  Little whorls of dust in the air between her position and the target.  When she tried to use the magic of the slippers to see what she suspected she would see, she only felt a great burning in her feet.  So she stopped.  But she recognized those whorls, the haze in the air.  She had become familiar with them.  She saw them all the time in her shed.

Though she had her godmother’s slippers, Lucinda had brought her own magic, just in case she needed it.  Around her neck was the piece of glass she had enchanted.  She held it up to her eye, and sure enough, she glimpsed dozens of fairies flying about.  They were disrupting the arrows.

But why? Lucinda wondered. Mischief.  But at just the right time to disrupt the contest? 

It must have been planned somehow.  Whether that was so or not, Lucinda knew what to do—and so, it seemed, did half of the contestants, including her sister Rose.

She beckoned the fairies to her with a spell.  They wouldn’t come.  She was not sure why.  Her fairy whistle had always worked before.  But then she noted that they seem to be repelled by the force of the magic in her slippers. 

Lucinda removed her slippers (gladly so) and set them aside.  Once she did, the fairies heeded her call and flocked around her.  Without their influence, the arrow would fly true, if she only knew how to shoot. 

Lucinda pushed down the despair that threatened to overwhelm her.  She could not succumb to despair if her mother was waiting for someone—for her daughter—to rescue her. 

All she could think to do was to entreat the fairies’ aid.  For if they could disrupt an arrow, maybe they could make one fly true.  But she couldn’t just ask.  She had to appeal to their mischief.  And she could not bore them, or they would disperse. 

Lucinda hoped these fairies were as fond of games as the ones who visited her shed.  She challenged the fairies to a game.  If they could make one of her next two arrows fly straight into the target, she would grant them a prize.  Once the contest was won, she would use her slippers to conjure something.

The fairies agreed at once.  They guided—and some of them rode—both of her remaining arrows to the target. 

And so the day was won. 

***

But the contest was yet to be won.

The next day, those who had advanced, found themselves standing before a table filled with loaves of bread.  Anyone who ate all the bread would advance to the next contest.  If none managed the feat, then the three who ate the most would advance.  And the rules had changed from what was written in the scroll. 

No magic was allowed.  Those who bore magical items were compelled to surrender them.  And those who had magical skill would be carefully watched to assure they did not cast any spells.  So again, Lucinda was without the slippers she had so counted upon to aid her. 

As the other contestants begin eating, Lucinda thought and thought.  Again, she had an idea when she spotted the familiar whorls in the air.  She could not see them, for her enchanted glass had been taken away, but she knew they were there. 

Fairies didn’t typically eat human food.  It didn’t have any substance to them.  To a fairy, eating bread was like eating air.  So the fairies could make easy work of the bread on the table, if only they wanted to eat it. 

What would make them want to eat the bread?

Lucinda remembered that there was a weed that grew in the forest whose scent mimicked a delicacy that fairies loved.  Normally, people trimmed those weeds faithfully, because they didn’t want to attract mischievous fairies to their gardens.  Also, the weeds had a particular odor that was unpleasantly pungent. 

When spectators saw Lucinda dashing away from her table to gather weeds, and stuffing her breads with the weed, there was much chuckling and murmuring.  She earned pitying looks from a few, those who feared that she had gone delirious from the pressures of the contest.

But then she began nibbling on a slice of bread she had left untouched by the weeds, and she began sweeping the other breads toward her mouth.  And they began to vanish.  

A few of the other contestants understood what she was doing.  They attempted the same.  Fairies were magical creatures, but it seemed the rules did not forbid their use in this manner.  The trick did not work for long.  The fairies became annoyed.  Luckily, they decided to disperse rather than play any nasty tricks of their own, at least for the moment.

And so the day was won.

***

But the contest was yet to be won.

Lucinda hoped that she could use her slippers at last.  But she had been foiled the first two times.  Having come so far, she did not want to leave her mother’s fate up to a single pair of slippers, no matter how powerful.

As she sat before her early evening meal, she let her mind rest for a moment and in that rest, she heard the trilling of a warbler in the tree above her.  She gazed up at the bird and smiled, for he had just given her an idea.

Lucinda summoned the fairies to her again.  They came, but they were cross with her.  They were not cross about her tricking them into eating a table full of bread.  That amused them.  But they remembered her promise of a reward.  

Lucinda offered to make an exchange. 

She would share a portion of the power contained in her enchanted slippers with them. 

The fairies accepted her offer, only…they asked for all the power contained in the slippers.

Lucinda, though uncertain if her idea would win the contest, agreed.  It wasn’t the way she intended to put her godmother’s gift to use, but her efforts to cheat had been foiled thus far.  So this time, she would follow the rules.

***

The next day, when it was Lucinda’s turn to sing, she climbed upon the stage before the spectators.  She opened her mouth and pulled in a breath.  Then she put both hands over her mouth.

There was a pin-drop silence, even among the children present, until a single note pierced the air, sharp and sweet.  And another, fluttering and piping.  Then another. 

It was birdsong.  But in such harmony as never before heard—at least by human ears. 

Gasps of wonder passed through the assembled crowd.  Lucinda wondered what the prince thought of the symphony.  He was present, so it was said.  But he did not show himself.

When the song faded away with the fluttering of a thousand wings, there was again silence.

But immediately, there was also dissent from the other contestants. 

“I have the right to use a proxy,” Lucinda claimed.

One proxy,” a contestant countered.  “But you did not use one.  You used hundreds.”

The argument was halted by the administrators of the contest.  For there were still others who had yet to sing.

And so they did.

But Lucinda could see, in their occasional upward glances, that the spectators at least were still enchanted by the song she had delivered, even if she not sung it herself. 

After the contest of singing was done, all awaited the announcement of the winner.  Several had made it through the first two contests.

And all of them had sung well, even though one of them had not sung with her own voice.

Some of the other contestants—including Tulip’s proxy—threw her dark looks.

Rose too was among those who had made it thus far.  She had sung beautifully.  She peered at Lucinda, but her expression was difficult to read.  As it always had been.

At last, a royal barker strode upon the stage, only to declare that no decision could be made that day.  If all would assemble the following day, the prince himself would declare the winner.

The contestants were made to stay in lavish tents upon the grounds of the contest. 

Lucinda could not sleep that night.  With the slippers drained of their powers, she was using the energies contained in her own body to maintain her disguise.  She was exhausted. 

She longed to shed the disguise, at least for the night.  But she could not chance being seen in her true form.

After struggling through dinner, Lucinda trudged to her tent, when she was stopped and summoned to the tent of the judges.

She stumbled as she walked. 

She could not hold the spell of disguise any longer.  If she did not release it, she would collapse, and the spell would vanish anyway.  As the flap of the tent was pulled open to reveal the smiling prince himself standing within, Lucinda turned and fled. 

***

Her stepmother and stepsisters were still on the contest grounds.  They would never know that she had not been home all this time.

Lucinda was relieved to be free of the strain of holding her disguise in place.

But she lamented that she had lost her best chance of freeing her mother from the royal dungeons. 

“My best chance,” she muttered to herself the next morning.  “But not my only chance.”

She feared another visit from her godmother, who would surely punish her for losing all the magic that she’d been given so that she would be guaranteed to win that contest.  Lucinda did not realize it until she reached home, but she had lost one of those slippers.  It did not matter.  They were now devoid of her godmother’s powers.

When her stepmother and stepsisters returned home later that day, Lucinda did not ask them who had won the contest, for she saw that neither Tulip nor Rose had been named the winner.  So it did not matter.

But Rose whispered to her before dinner that evening.  “We were sent home to wait.  No winner has yet been declared.” 

***

The next morning, another barker was at their door.  He announced that the prince was searching for the owner of a special slipper.  He himself would visit the home of every contestant who had reached the final contest.

“Prepare yourselves,” the barker said.

So Tulip and Rose wore their finest gowns, pinned their hair, powdered their faces, and perfumed their necks. 

While Lucinda watched from the top of the stairs—for she had been warned by her stepmother to stay hidden—the prince arrived at their house.  Lucinda would wait until he was finished, and she would sneak outside and fall at his feet to beg for her mother’s release.  For now, she would watch.

Tulip took the prince’s arm and led him to a chair.  But the prince said he had a few houses still to visit and would not linger long.

“The winner of the contest,” he said, “is the one whose foot will fit this slipper.  I am told it is enchanted, so it will only fit on the foot of its true owner.”

“A lock spell,” Rose said.  “Then there is no need for me to even try.  I am not that slipper’s owner.”

“Of course not,” Tulip said, smiling coyly at the prince, as she sat on a chair and slipped off her slipper.

“Shouldn’t we call your proxy to try it on?” Rose mocked.

The slipper did not fit Tulip. 

“Is there no other in this house who entered the contest?” the prince asked the lady of the house.

She turned to other daughter.  “Rose, try them on.  Perhaps they are yours and you’ve—“

“No, mother.  They are not mine.”  Rose glanced at the prince and smiled.  “But I do have another sister, your highness, one who’s been studying magic.  She knows the spell of locking.  She might be the owner of those slippers.” 

Rose dashed upstairs and pulled Lucinda down the steps with her.

Lucinda tried on the slipper.  It fit, of course.  And it would seem the fairies left a bit of magic in the slipper, a bit that triggered the very spell that Lucinda had used to disguise herself.

“It’s you!” the prince cried.

Lucinda spoke before any could stop her.

“Your highness, there may be a prisoner in your dungeons who does not belong there.  My mother.  I request that she be freed at once.”

All were stunned.  The first to speak was Rose.  “I see,” she said.

And she was not the only one who saw.

“You never wished to marry me, did you?” the prince said.

“Forgive me, highness, but no.”

“I will grant you the favor you ask, of course.  But I will not take an unwilling bride.  And I must therefore declare another winner.”

He turned to Rose, who would have won the contest if not for Lucinda’s arrangement of the avian symphony. 

Rose did not scoff at being the prince’s second choice.  They seemed fond of each other at once, and Lucinda wondered if they had not met before…

Tulip objected.

Rose smirked at her and turned to Lucinda.  “The eldest sister is always the most insufferable, isn’t she?” 

Rose took Tulip aside, and pointed out that she had not wanted to marry anyway.  And now she would be sisters with a princess, and have some privileges to the royal riches.

***

Lucinda had feared that her dream of her godmother, a godmother who never again appeared, had been false.  But when she went down in the dungeons, she did indeed find her mother there.  Her mother had not been ill-treated.  She was only heartsick from missing her husband and daughter.  Lucinda did not speak of her stepmother.  There would be time for that when her mother was recovered.

The prince gave them a place to stay in his palace for as long as they wished.  And Rose, of course, allowed it.  It was she who had insisted upon it.  She came to check on them on the first night.

“Well done, little sister.  I look forward to competing with you once we begin our studies at academy.”

Lucinda smiled.  For a room at the palace was not the only favor the royal couple-to-be had granted to her.  “Competing?  I had hoped we would study together—uh, help each other.”

Rose raised and brow, her expression perplexed.  She said nothing…for the moment.  She only nodded to Lucinda and her mother, and left them to their reunion.

“She is kind,” Lucinda’s mother said.  “You have made some powerful friends since last I saw you.”

“I will tell you about them later.”  Lucinda kissed her mother on the cheek.  “You must rest now.  We will keep watch.”

She raised the lens that she wore around her neck to the window.  A flock of fairies fluttered in, and settled in a ring around Lucinda’s mother.

Copyright © 2021  Nila L. Patel

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