O
Oleg Bell


A story that has been told countless times, but never quite like this. A queer Cinderella retelling which focuses on self-discovery and acceptance. A soft, wonderous tale that is bound to leave you with a warm feeling.


Fantasy Not for children under 13.

#336 #259 #332
Short tale
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Cinders

Of course you have heard this story before – the good, the bad, the magical and the mundane. It has been around for thousands of years, changing with the times but ultimately staying the same.

The reason for that is simple, really: it’s a dream. It’s something every child could envision themself as, in one way or another, and, with the tired voice of their parent, travel to a land where miracles happen and happy endings are a given.

Still, there is no harm in telling it one more time, is there?

Once upon a time, there was a child that lived with his parents – they owned some land, enough for them to count as nobles but not enough to actually have any say in the kingdom’s affairs. They treated their land's people kindly and got by well enough, even if the lord’s castle was more like a slightly fancier home and the leisure time of hunting and balls was something that always happened to someone else, someone less preoccupied with the crops and the cattle and the state of the roads and the state of the education.

It was a happy life, simpler than that of most nobles, but not any less for it. Such things rarely last.

The child’s mother, a lady who came from warmer lands with wind that was far kinder and winters that were far shorter, thought she could stomach the climate for love’s sake, and she tried, not a single complaint heard from her.

Perhaps she mistook foolishness for bravery, perhaps it’s just how things were meant to be, but when one morning she couldn’t get out of bed and her husband brought all the healers and all the rare medicines he could possibly obtain, it did nothing but ease her pain a little and give her a few more days.

The child did not remember the funeral. He was too little for such big a grief, so the few days between his mother being there and his mother not being there forever stayed a blur in his memory, something that could be mistaken for a bad dream was it not for the empty spot in the world.

Time passed, not quite healing but smoothing over the sharp edges of pain, dulling it to a light, throbbing nothingness. The child buried himself in his studies, his father buried himself in the land's affairs. The two avoided each other, not out of any distaste but for the fear of acknowledging that they were all that remained of their family.

The child took to books, unknown countries and chilling adventures occupying all the time that wasn't taken up by studies. His father searched for someone who could make it all okay again, which was too much to ask of any person, and so an array of men and women the child did not bother to remember moved through the estate, their stay rarely longer than a few months.

He did not know what was so special about that woman: she was not particularly beautiful, or smart, or friendly. Years later, looking at his mother’s portrait, he understood what brought about this marriage.

The shape of her eyes and ears, the way she tied back her hair, the half-smile half-playful-grin he vaguely remembered: one could mistake the two, if one tried hard enough, and he knew no one tried as hard as his father.

The woman came from higher nobility, but being the youngest and not the most favored she had no chance at a good inheritance. It could even be implied that she married for money, if there was any money to get out of her husband. However, as much as the child wanted to believe that version of the story, the most annoying thing was that that woman actually loved his father.

She took the time to learn their ways: quite soon, the matters that were usually handled by the child’s mother were handed over to her, just as her room was, just as her spot at the table was.

Quite often, he wanted to shake his father until the man would come to his senses, until he’d see that this is not mom and could never be mom, until he would make her go away, like he did to all the people before her.

But he was a nice child, – a nice girl, as most said and he didn’t yet have the words to correct them – so instead, he buried himself deeper in his studies and his books, until it was possible to forget he existed. His father had two new daughters, anyway. Two in exchange for one sounds like a nice deal.

The two daughters, one younger and one older than him, were girls in intricate dresses with golden hair, who looked as out of place in this simple estate as unicorns on a farm. He did not try to make friends with them, just as he did not try to be their enemy. If you asked him their eye color or what their voices sounded like, he would have trouble answering, just as they would for him.

Like so, a few years passed, not exactly happy but not exactly sad, the child wrapped in his self-imposed solitude like a comfortable blanket. “She had a rough childhood,” his father often said, apologetically, “she’s a quiet but good kid.”

The rest nodded and left him alone, not wishing to make him uncomfortable. It could have lasted like this until his adulthood, quiet uneventful days and short, awkward interactions on big holidays, if it wasn’t for one thing.

The father was not taking good care of himself after his first wife’s death: there just wasn’t any reason to. He got back on his feet by the time of the second marriage, but the results of his actions weren’t so easy to reverse. A cold that should’ve easily passed didn’t, digging its claws into his lungs and slowly stealing his breath until there was no left.

The child remembered thinking how winter took them both. He didn’t remember much else.

By the time he came back to his senses, it was late summer and their land was devastated. After his father’s death, swarms of distant relatives flooded in, claiming that his stepmother poisoned the lord or intentionally mistreated his disease, their right to the land oh so much more clear-cut and legitimate.

The stepmother already spent most of her money on all the possible treatments for her husband, so the money for lawyers came from the land’s savings, and, eventually, parts of the land itself.

The quiet, simple life without excess wealth but without needing anything fell to the brink of poverty, and the people who had to face it hardly knew each other. He did not expect much from his high-class stepsisters, their gentle hands and tiny shoes that never heard of the concept of mud. He did not expect much from his stepmother, locked in the study all day, good at working with papers but looking stumped every time she had to hold a conversation.

He was ready to shoulder most of it, as best he could, but things didn’t go as he thought.

His stepmother, while still spending most time in the study, went around to inspect the remaining fields and made new plans, cutting all the possible expenses. Some rooms in the house were closed down to save on the heating, and most of the servants were let go due to the family’s inability to pay them well.

The girls who looked like they knew nothing of dirt took to getting acquainted with it, taking over most of the housework, clumsily but diligently. Intricate dresses were either locked away or sold, and golden locks were tied back into tight braids and buns that wouldn’t get in the way of their work.

The family was doing almost fine, given the circumstances: the family that he hardly exchanged more than a few words with during their years together, no shared blood or shared memories between them. All the family he had left.

One evening, when the mother and daughters were resting by the fireplace after the long day, he approached them, quiet and distant. “I want to help,” he said. “Please tell me what to do”.

His stepmother opened and clothed her mouth many times, phrases forming and slipping from her tongue before she could speak: it was true she needed the help, and it was also true she didn’t want to ask too much of the child, and it was also true she knew almost nothing of him.

She stared at the flickering flame for a little while, then took the fire poker and quietly showed him how to keep the fire going. There were other tasks after that: helping in the kitchen, chopping wood, keeping the house clean, sewing items that could later be sold.

From the outside, it would seem that the life of the young child was filled with nothing but work, but there was color in that life, much more than in the years he spent cooped up in his room.

He was usually working with one of the girls – he didn’t call them sisters or stepsisters, but they were someone he could talk to and fight with and make up, and laugh over silly things. Sometimes, he would help his stepmother with the documents, their conversations more numbers and calculations and planning than anything else, as dry and proper as the lady herself, but still, there were triumphant smiles they shared when the numbers finally added up and the predictions for the next month didn’t look too terrible.

In the first winter after his father’s death, the child made absolutely sure there was enough firewood and all the fires were properly kept. The rest watched him chop wood and take away the ashes and run around the house to feed every flame, not quite knowing what to do with that.

Heat was important, of course, and his concern with it was more than understandable, but the bags under his eyes which were only invisible due to the constant layer of soot smudges and the way the already lean child looked more and more like an illustration from an anatomy book by the day urged the stepmother to intervene.

"****...." she began and trailed off, with no knowledge of what should go next. She went through the words she prepared, so right in her head, so insufficient and clumsy now, at the sight of those brown eyes looking at her in that curious, quiet way that always put some distance between them, just enough for her to remember to put the "step" before "mother" and "daughter". Could she really play the parent card? Would her concern help or only widen the distance between them?

She did not have any answers.

All she knew was that this child needed help, and she was the only adult around who could help her.

"****," she repeated, softer, "I know you're uneasy, and I understand why – I really do – but you're not alone, you know? You should sleep, you should take breaks, and you absolutely must eat properly. I and your… and my girls, we will make sure to take care of things."

The fire cracked. The child looked at his stepmother, silent, no expression visible on his tired face.

The woman sighed. "I'm just worried about you. Look at you! I've seen chimney sweeps that looked better off. At this point you're just skin and bones, and lots of cinder. It's no good to anybody if you exhaust yourself like that, young lady. Now, what do you say about a warm bath?"

The child frowned in thought, and for a moment his stepmother was sure that this was the end of their rickety peace – no girl likes being compared to a chimney sweep, after all, – until he nodded and stretched his hands out.

"My feet are tired. Could you carry me?"

As she held the child to her heart, gentle as if any pressure would crack this fragile weightless thing, she heard a quiet grumble: "not a lady…"

"What was that?" She asked, catching herself before she could add ‘dear’.

"I'm not a lady," the child repeated, more firm this time.

"Okay, then what should I call you, my precious cinder pile?" She said that out loud. She actually said that out loud-

A burst of childish laughter interrupted her inward panic. "That, I like that. I'm Cinders."

***

There was no one moment where Cinders stepped into adulthood - his family could not afford big parties, and he didn't like them in any case, so there were hardly any birthday celebrations. As all of his studies now came from books he could squeeze into his free time, there was no graduation ceremony.

Time trickled by, changing him in ways small and irreversible, and he could not explain why he disliked those changes so much.

Now that he was not cooped up in his room all day, his strange habits became more conspicuous. While his sisters tied their hair up and kept it under headscarves, Cinders cut it short. He prefered pants to skirts, although for much of the work they were equally comfortable at best, if not less so.

His older sister took to the craft of making corsets, and after watching with fascination how this construction reshapes the body in subtle ways, Cinders asked her to make a special one, one that would make the chest look flatter instead of the other way around. His sister asked him what for, but a shrug was the most coherent reply she got.

No one in the family bothered Cinders much about it – the bond between them took too long to establish and longer still to grow into anything close to fondness. There wasn’t a soul who wanted to disturb that peace.

One early autumn day, when Cinders was working in the field helping with the harvest – plentiful this time, a hope for a quiet winter with full stomachs but the cause of lots of hard work for them now – a man came to their land on a well-groomed horse, in perfectly fitting clothes and with a perfectly fitting smile for every type of interaction.

It was rare for anyone to come to their land now, all of Cinders’ father’s friends disappearing after his death, his stepmother’s family afraid she would ask them for help. The man stopped by the field and asked for directions for the lord’s castle, his smile saying how different they were and how glad they should be that he even imparted them one.

Cinders shook off the uncomfortable feeling and continued his work. Back at the estate his stepmother was examining a royal invitation.

When he came home, the family had already gathered together. The girls were chatting about something, and even the ever-expressionless mother had faint traces of a smile in the corners of her mouth.

“Read this, child,” Cinders’ stepmother answered his questioning gaze by handing him a piece of paper.

The writing was beautiful, glistening ink and a faint smell of something that could’ve been perfume or just a side effect of using the most expensive materials. He got through the text, the polite, cold language of it a foreign field for his curious eyes.

A royal ball a month from now. An invitation for the four of them. He stared at the words ‘lady ****’ before his last name, the letters perfect as if they were carved into the paper.

His stepmother said something about how they all deserve to have some fun, how the harvest would be finished by then, how the girls missed such events, how it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Cinders remembered nodding to everything – the suggestions to have his sisters help him brush up on the needed etiquette, dancing lessons, the talk of dresses… His hands holding the piece of paper felt numb, the numbness spreading upwards.

The preparations, the planning, the smiles on his sisters’ faces, all created a sort of blur that gobbled up a day, a week, three weeks…

His younger sister helped him adjust his mother’s dress to his measurements. His shoulders were too wide for it after working in the fields, and the knowledge of that made life regain some of its color for a short while. His older sister made a “proper” corset for him, his stepmother came up with a hairstyle that would suit his unusually short hair.

He smiled a lot, hoping the happiness would come after the smile.

There was a spot for an excited young woman where he was supposed to fit, and he fell a syllable short.

It is hard to say what happened the day before the ball. It was not a fight, exactly; Cinders just grew quiet until he didn't talk to anyone and left his room less and less. His stepmother came to check on him regularly, worried for his health, but every time she got the same curt response of "I'm fine", and so there was little she could do.

In the evening, his older sister came and helped him fit the dress, doing her best to cheer him up.

"It looks great on you!" she beamed, practically pushing Cinders towards the mirror. "Look, it fits perfectly!"

"I wish it didn't."

"What was that?"

"Nothing. Thank you."

Excitement sipped into every corner of the house, from the attic that was raided for locked-away jewels and lace to the cellar, the stored goods partially taken out to ensure a few hearty meals so that the ladies wouldn’t embarrass themselves in public by eating too much.

Only one room seemed shut air-tight, unaffected by the outside atmosphere. Cinders took to embroidery, and so, while everyone was busy with the preparations, he was adding the last stitches to a work almost finished.

The stepmother came to Cinders’ room one last time, asking how he’s feeling, asking if she should call a doctor or if they should stay to look after him.

“I’m okay, no, no.” A listless, distant voice, a listless, distant smile. She would prefer if her stepchild yelled at her or threw a fit.

”Would you like to go with us or to stay?” she asked, finally, swallowing the other questions that she knew would be brushed aside.

Cinders paused, his gaze fixated on the dress folded carefully on the vanity table. His mother’s ballgown, the cut of it reminiscent of her home country’s attire. It was sure to grab attention.

“I won’t pressure you, but it would make me happy if all of my girls had some fun.”

“I’ll stay.” The words sounded sharp, and he belatedly tried to smooth them. “You don’t have to worry about me. I just need some time for myself, that’s all.”

“...If you say so. I will make sure to go back before midnight, just in case.”

“Do as you will.”

Cinders did not walk his family out: he sat and listened to doors open and close, until the final creeaaak-clung of the front door that was in heavy need of maintenance none of them had time for.

Only after that did he stand up and go to the vanity. He looked at the dress for a while more, his calloused fingers brushing the fabri before putting it aside.

I should tell you that there was no miracle, just was there was none when his mother held back her coughs to keep her loved ones from worrying, none when his father fought for a few more breaths of his freshly rebuilt life, none when the remnants of his family tried to salvage what little they had left.

He stopped hoping for miracles long ago.

Instead, there was his father’s suit and his skill with a thread and needle.

***

The prince was doing the job of being charming. He was good at it, years of experience in social environments honing his skills to the point where his words and gestures seemed effortless, which could not be said about anyone else at the ball.

Smiles a bit too wide, laughter a bit too loud, responses to his casual comments full of all the wit and charm the young lady or lord in question could gather…

He wanted to remind them that he wasn’t holding a sword to any of their throats, that being their most perfect, dashing self was not a matter of life and death, but to most of the guests, that was exactly the case.

The fact that this ball was arranged for the Prince to find a suitor was never officially announced; it never had to be. News spread fast, and what other choice did the Queen have to avoid a matrimonial union with the neighboring country?

It was too big for them to say yes without becoming its grainery and piggybank or say no without consequences, and so, the only safe option was to avoid the offer altogether.

The prince just had to suddenly find his soulmate before the embassy arrived this winter.

He recalled the apologetic expressions on his moms’ faces, the conversation they had about how arranged marriages sometimes work out the best, how relationships are more about lots of little choices you make day after day than about a fleeting feeling.

He agreed with that, to an extent, but some childish part of him still wished he had a say with whom he’d make those little choices, and not from meeting them once in a crowded, loud, unbearably bright room full of nervous wrecks.

And still, here he was, a picturebook example of a prince, all internal cursing tucked into a corner of his mind that shall never see the light of day.

There was still some time left before the first dance – at least he hoped so, his perception of time slipping from him already. In any case, he could afford to stand by the buffet table and pretend to enjoy some snacks while decidedly not talking to people. It was either that or his sanity, so an extra few minutes by the cupcakes it is.

This part of the ballroom was almost always empty at this time, nobles steering clear of any refreshments that could make them feel heavy or uncomfortable during the actual dancing, not to mention the incidents a person’s digestive system might cause while working.

However, today he got particularly unlucky: someone had occupied the exotic sweets section, blatantly ignoring at least ten of the unwritten rules of attending a ball. He watched them fill their tiny, mostly decorative plate far past its intended holding limit, a mountain of sweets balancing on honey used as impromptu glue.

"Are they really that good?"

Their shoulders flinched, and the prince gave himself an internal smack on the head. He had forgotten himself for a second, and now this young man whose only crime was being enthralled by sweets would have to go through the ordeal of answering to him.

"Here." A plate appearing in front of him caught him entirely off guard. "I have been hoarding them for myself all evening, I truly have no excuse. It's just that my mother used to make these, and I didn't get to learn the recipe… This is the first time I had a chance to try them in years. But, there are some left! The brown ones are the best, in my opinion."

The prince looked from the plate to the earnest smile on the young noble's face. "Thank you," he answered, learned lines kicking in. He took one of the sweets offered and ate it, the taste of honey being the first pleasant sensation this evening.

"Feeling better?"

His hand froze halfway to the plate.

"Oh, sorry if I'm overstepping, it's really none of my business. It's just that you seemed a bit down, and good food usually helps me feel better…" the noble trailed off, his hand reaching for the back of his neck.

"It's okay. And, I think I do feel a little better," the prince smiled without thinking much about it. "These sorts of places aren't really my cup of tea."

"I highly doubt they're anyone's cup of tea. What sort of person even invented balls? I mean, I understand how they're useful for socialising, but couldn't it be some other sort of activity? Something less… Loud? Busy?"

"Annoying?"

"Exactly!" The young man nodded, his black hair following the motion in a short, dazzling wave. “Wouldn’t it be easier to hold multiple small events? That way there could be more genuine connections and not… whatever the hell this is. It would do the same job of keeping the nobles near the capital and the country from decentralization, at least I think it would…”

The prince remembered nodding and putting in words here and there, but the man might as well have been alone. He was in a world of his own, going from the concept of a ball and its pros and cons, to the general state of the country, to comparison of solutions to some of the kingdom’s problems to similar solutions offered elsewhere, mostly in his mother’s homeland.

He would’ve been sure that this young man was a master actor doing his damn hardest to get on his good side if it wasn’t for the fact that almost all of what he was saying could be used as material for an accusation of treason.

Did he really have no idea whom he was talking to? No, even if he wasn’t talking to a member of the royal family, his words still wouldn’t have been left without consequences. Then, how could he speak of such things so freely? Did he perhaps grow up abroad?

His darker complexion and the occasional mention of his mother’s homeland suggested such a possibility, but that did not explain how he was this aware of the kingdom’s state – no, not just aware.

In this short conversation, the prince learned new things about his own country, specifically how one would see it from the point of view of a common person, for whom the state of this year’s harvest was not a question of how much money they would make but whether or not they’d have enough food on the table.

Maybe he was a servant who managed to sneak in? He should stay by his side until the end to the ball, just in case. The young man would get in serious trouble if his suspicions were correct, and the idea of that didn’t sit well with the prince.

Music filled the room, all at once, and he belatedly realized that nobody put a pause on time. He had to invite a dance partner to the first dance, and the only person around him was…

Well, he might as well.

He reached his hand out, and the young man stared at it with an expression just as perplexed as the prince’s when he was offered a plate of sweets.

“May I have this dance?” he asked, and the standard phrasing did not feel incensere.

The young, presumably-noble man opened his mouth, realised that verbal communication gave up on him for the time being, and nodded.

His first steps were uncertain, and the prince was thinking of a way to back out of this without anyone getting suspicious if it turned out the man did not, in fact, know how to dance, but before anyone could notice anything he got the hang of his movements, leading his partner with light, graceful steps that, although not entirely orthodox, still caught everyone’s breath.

Quite literally everyone’s – the prince disappeared for a good half an hour only to suddenly turn up with a partner for his first dance that nobody could recognise. This amount of attention was slightly above the usual even for the prince, let alone the probably-noble.

The undertone of his cheeks gained a reddish hue, and his awkward expression did not allow to write it off as a trick of the light.

"Hey, is it just me or is everyone staring at us?" The young man leaned closer to whisper when their movement allowed for it.

The prince hummed noncommittally, a verbal equivalent of a shrug he couldn't currently allow himself.

"Are you really that ridiculously handsome or is there something on my shirt?"

"I would argue that you're the more eye-catching one."

The maybe-noble's face lost any semblance of an expression, and the prince had to manually move him into the next position before he stumbled over his own feet. One compliment was all it took to get him this flustered? What kind of rock did he live under to not get at least that much daily?

Before the prince had the chance to get properly annoyed at his new acquaintance's social circle, said acquaintance managed to return to his senses. "Still, this is a bit too much… Are you some sort of bigshot or something?"

"Maybe." His lips curled up in a boyish grin. He watched as his dance partner's expression went from contemplative, to shocked, to perhaps a little horrified.

"Oh, oh nononono. No. You can't be-"

"What, am I really that far from what a royal is supposed to be like?"

"No, I mean, yes, I mean– I thought the prince would be some sort of a haughty bastard, not… you. Shit."

The prince stifled a laugh, producing a short, unbecoming snort. “I’m truly sorry I couldn’t meet your expectations.”

“...I am going to get executed for this, aren’t I?”

“What? No.” He wiped any traces of a playful expression off his face. “I need you to know that you’re safe. You didn’t do anything wrong, moreover, you’re the most fun interlocutor I’ve had in ages. But… it would be safer if you stay with me until the end of the ball. There might be people less agreeable with your - truly fascinating - opinions.”

The might-not-be-noble-but-he-didn’t-really-care-at-this-point gave him a short, bright smile, and until the end of the dance they did not exchange another word.

The prince gave him time to process the new information and sort out his thoughts. They’d have a chance to speak afterwards, anyways.

Thinking that way was a naive mistake.

He had been talking to this one person for most of the beginning of the ball, invited him to the first dance, and whispered and giggled with him the whole time of said dance. As soon as the dance ended, the young man was practically drowned in a sea of lords and ladies, questions of every nature flung from every side.

The prince managed to get a glimpse of the fear in his eyes before he himself was pulled in a different direction. It was time for the next dance, and this time his new partner was the one inviting him to the dance floor. Doing something now would be against etiquette, against the rules… He should be fine on his own for a little bit, right?

The music drowned out the voices.

As soon as he got rid of the clingy noble, he rushed to the part of the ballroom where he left his acquaintance, but the crowd had dispersed. The young man was not there.

Did he say something wrong? Something dangerous? Was he found out? A cold feeling rose from his stomach. He pushed his way through the crowd, his focus slipping, the words and expressions of guests mixing into a uniform mess.

The ballroom shifted, lights shining above reftected in decorations reflected in jewelry and how did the tell up from down before again? More than anything he wanted to stop, close his eyes, cover his ears and not interact with the world for a little while, but instead he waddled through his surroundings which were most likely still a ballroom, but might as well have been the ocean floor or the inside of a rattle.

Perception of time had abandoned him long ago, and the stricking clock pulled him out of the haze his mind had become.

Midnight? How long had he been searching for the young man already? Did he make a spectacle of himself – no, more importantly, where did that guy go? He was the one who told him to stay by his side, and yet…

A figure moving through the crowd caught his attention, the stark-black hair a familiar sight. The figure was moving towards the entrance, and he pushed in that direction with newfound zeal, everything else be damned.

Still, he was too far. By the time he could make out the young man’s features, he was already at the door.

“Wait!” A short, high-pitched sound, somewhere between human speech and a whimper, made the young man stop in his tracks and turn in his direction.

“I’m sorry,” the prince could hardly make out the sounds, more guessing by the movements of his lips. The young man turned around, stumbled once, and that was that.

The prince rushed to the staircase. There was no one to be found.

“Is something the matter, your highness?” a nearby guard asked, noticing the prince standing by the entrance, expression blank.

“No…” he heard his own voice and had to force himself to make the connection between it and himself. He had to return to the ball and salvage what little he could. The thought of how he was supposed to pick a suitor today surfaced in his mind, followed by the image of the young man whose name he didn’t even think to ask. Fuck.

He was about to turn around when the sight of something caught his attention. At the top of the stairs, shoved to the edge, an object lay, its shape as familiar as it was out of place.

Ignoring the uncomfortable amount of gazes he collected, the prince leaned down and picked up a shoe. Slightly old-fashioned, slightly more worn than what most people would find appropriate for a ball, the upper, fabric part of it decorated with embroidery that was newer than the rest of it. The pattern was unusual, spirals and circles forming an abstract image.

Did he embroider this himself? A strange thought, but it seemed to be like something he might do.

Well now, he’d just have to find that silly man and ask him himself, wouldn’t he?

***

The way back was a blur in Cinder’s memory. Getting to the ball was difficult enough, but riding a horse in one shoe is not something he’d wish to experience ever again. By the time he got home, his foot was sore and there were blisters forming where the stirrups scratched through the thin fabric.

He somehow got himself to a bed and collapsed into it, the idea of changing clothes only briefly crossing his mind before being brushed off as something currently impossible.

First, there was getting into the damn palace. He wasn’t too worried – in the worst case scenario, he'd have to reveal his identity, get someone to bring his mother and sisters to confirm it, and go through the ordeal of explaining why he showed up, by himself, in man’s clothing. It was quite terrible an option, yes, but better than having his head chopped off, which a tiny voice in the back of his mind kept suggesting as a go-to solution to the problem intruders.

Fortunately, there were so many people coming and going that the guards had a hard time dealing with all of them. He just had to wait until someone made a scene and sneak past under the yells that went somewhere along the lines of “do you even know who I am” and “how dare you” and “I want to speak to the captain of the guards”.

The inside was overwhelming. He never liked big events, but for some reason the idea of going to one as a lord instead of a lady seemed magical. It wasn’t. The ball was just as bright, fast and nauseating as it was in those childhood memories of him being stuffed into a dress.

Finding a corner with some familiar sweets in it seemed to be the one good thing that would happen all evening, but…

That man - the way he spoke, moved, laughed - he felt familiar on some level he couldn’t quite put into words. He was more confident than Cinders, more accustomed to his surroundings, but still, it felt like if Cinders explained himself, he would understand him.

“And he just had to be the prince. The goddamn prince,” he mumbled into his pillow.

Meeting with some lower level noble was possible, even if he primarily stayed at the capital, he could still find some way to arrange it. But sneaking into the palace again… Moreover, getting to some part of it important enough to meet the actual fucking heir to the throne…

He knew not to entertain impossible ideas. This would have to be their one and only meeting, a once-in-a-lifetime situation, just like his mother said.

He closed his eyes, and the less-than-pleasant parts of the evening invited themselves into his head. The formless sea of expensive clothes and polite, unkind smiles and questions, questions, questions… The striking clock yanking him out of the mass of it, “wait!”, the desperate ride back, the chill creeping into every part of him…

The images in his mind became more and more vivid and less and less coherent. The last thing he thought of before he slipped into unconsciousness was that the texture of the sheets under his fingers was as soft as the prince’s suit.

***

The mother and daughters trio returned home just past two in the morning, tired but content. The ball was not entirely what they expected – apparently, the prince caused some sort of commotion by favouring a member of a foreign embassy, or something like that. They didn’t come there for the gossip, having had more than enough of it in their time.

Despite the disturbance, the older daughter managed to catch up with some of her old social circle, and although it was awkward at first, her mother was happy to see a rare smile bloom on her face.

The younger child mostly stuck to her older sister’s or mother’s side, but she did seem to enjoy the decorations and music. Even the tired matriarch managed to forget about her worries for a short while, getting invited to dance with an enchanting lady whom she didn’t know and probably wouldn’t see again, but whose laugh and the feeling of her hand in hers were pleasant memories she’d get to cherish.

The first thing the stepmother did upon returning was to check on her child who has been acting so strangely for the past few days.

She entered without knocking – Cinders would surely be asleep by this hour, and disturbing his sleep wasn’t something she’d allow herself.

At least one of her assumptions was correct: sprawled over the blankets, still in his suit, Cinders was, in fact, asleep. His hair and forehead were drenched in sweat, unconscious mumbling escaping his lips.

The lightheadedness caused by exhaustion and some wine instantly disappeared. She rushed to check her child’s forehead – hot, as she expected. She pulled the blanket from under him to cover him, and that’s when she noticed his feet: one in a shoe that was clearly too big for him, the other in a torn sock, the skin under it dirtied and covered in scratches.

“What in the world have you been up to?” she whispered, brushing the hair out of her child’s face.

Uneven breathing was all she’d get for an answer.

***

It was the third day of the “investigation”. It was known as an investigation because an endeavor titled “desperately searching for a guy I’ve met once because he gave me cookies and talked shit about the government” would probably not be approved by the queen.

Getting this approved was difficult enough – the prince groaned at the memory of the “little chat” he had with his mothers after the ball. They weren’t angry, no, quite the opposite. They were understanding, concerned, pitying. They asked about how he was feeling, whether he needed rest or help, what made him upset this time.

It should’ve felt nice, that amount of slack cut to someone who ruined quite possibly one of the most important social events in his life so far, but that was the problem.

They were prepared for him to mess up. They were prepared for him to not be able to handle something as simple as chatting and dancing for one night. He was an adult, he was supposed to rule the country one day, and here he was, needing his parents to solve his problems for him yet again. Was he really that different? That immature? Did something about him warrant the childlike treatment most seemed to settle on?

He shook his head and tried to focus on the map in front of him. He was certain he had the skills to read a map, but they took their leave somewhere after his thirtieth hour of being awake. He could delegate the task of looking for the young man had he been sure he was a noble, but seeing how there were other possibilities…

Taking into account his manners and speech, he was definitely around nobles a lot, so him being a servant of one of the invited guests was quite plausible. The prince showing up in person would be big enough of a deal for the news to spread fast, right? That way, if he wanted to be found, all the young man needed to do was to show up. If he didn't want to…

If the prince misunderstood him, if he was the only one who found their meeting pleasant, then the fruitlessness of his search would be enough of an answer.

But now was not the time to think of such things. He took out the guest list – an item he hoped to forget about right after the ball and which he had memorized by this point – and checked which invitee’s land was the nearest.

He had a plan, and if he tried hard enough he’d probably manage to recall what it was, but checking the closest possible candidate and finally taking a break to sleep seemed to be the better course of action.

Should he exhaust himself to the point of passing out, there’s no way he’d be allowed to continue.

He checked the meager amount of names left and settled on one. He had little to say of this family aside from the fact that their estate was nearby, and that was more than enough.

The road seemed just this side of abandoned, and the estate he arrived at could only be called one in the most generous use of the word. If he’d give himself any time, he’d probably start questioning what he was doing, and so he knocked on the door before he could do that.

He waited for a response, clutching the object in his hand.

This was the most ridiculous part of his “investigation”. The prince considered omitting it all together, but… What if he was wearing heavy make-up? Or a wig? Or both? He did find it safe to show up at the ball even though the lord or lady he served was probably there too, so he needed some way to confirm his identity, in case he wouldn’t be able to recognise him. A safety measure. A stupid one, but if he’d get to see that guy to laugh at how stupid it was, that would be more than enough.

The one to open the door was, surprisingly, the lady herself, although there was an awkward interaction where he assumed otherwise, based on her simple attire and tired demeanor.

The house was quiet, or rather, a bubble of noise formed around him – an offer of a place to sit, tea, refreshments, other usual chatter that came with the arrival of a guest – but not a creak, not a whisper outside of that. The silence was heavy, viscous, and his presence alone did little to disspell it.

“What brings us the honour of your presence, your highness?” a question that was perhaps a bit too straightforward, but he didn’t mind. He wouldn’t want to bother a family going through some sort of grief any longer than necessary.

“I am looking for a young man who attended the ball a few days ago, although I cannot tell which noble house he’s from… Do you perhaps have a son, or a person under your care you’ve taken with you?” It did take him a few iterations to get his main question this polished.

“I wish your highness the best of luck in your endeavour. However, all the family I have are my daughters and Cinders. None of them quite fit that description.”

That was a first. “What is a Cinders?”

“A type of particularly troublesome child.” Her voice sounded far more tired.

“And has this… Cinders, attended the event?”

“That’s what I’d like to know.”

“Pardon?”

The woman sighed. “I do not wish to trouble you with my family matters, your highness. I doubt the person you’re talking about is my child… Tell me, what did he look like?”

“Oh,” he gathered his thoughts the best he could, “he has short black hair, dark eyes, a tawny sort of complexion. He’s about my height, quite slim…”

The woman’s expression grew blank. “Is that so?”

“Yes. And I’d describe him as handsome, if that helps.”

The woman stared at the wall behind his shoulder for a while, to the point where the prince began considering if he should try waving a hand in front of her eyes. Clearing his throat made the trick.

“Ah.” She flinched and pulled an apologetic smile over her face. “My apologies. That… That does sound somewhat like Cinders.”

“Really?" It took all of his restraint to not jump out of his seat. “May I speak with him?”

“... I will try to relay that question to him, your highness. Please excuse me for a moment.”

The stepmother took her leave and headed towards Cinders’ room after asking her older daughter to entertain the guest for the time being. This would probably take a while.

***

She stopped by the door, her hand frozen halfway to it, a knock dying before producing a single sound.

The silence was the heaviest here. Breaking it felt a sort of sacrilege.

“Cinders,” she called. No answer. No rustling. No sign of life on the other side. No sign of life…

She wondered if it was time to break the door down. It was the third day since their conversation – their argument, perhaps the first real argument they had, and it did well to compensate for all the ones they’ve missed out on.

When Cinders came to the morning after the ball, his fever down and his mind somewhat clear, she demanded answers, and when she got them – she actually got them, Cinders soldiering through and explaining what has been troubling him for the past few weeks…

She should’ve started by saying that it didn’t matter if she had a son or a daughter as long as her child was happy, or that she cared for how he felt, or anything other than what she said.

She was angry: angry at how he hurt himself, how he didn’t ask for help or at the very least understanding, something she could’ve offered from day one if only she knew. Too angry to know what she was saying.

Foolish girl, her memory echoed, helpfully bringing up the expression on her son’s face when she let those words escape her lips.

She meant herself, really. Knowing that now didn’t help.

It was quiet after that. Their life became what it was years back, Cinders locked in his room, the only sign that he was there being the plates left by his door that disappeared for a short while and reappeared empty.

“Cinders,” she repeated, her voice an interloper in the thick of silence. “I’m sorry. I know this is not enough, I know this doesn’t… fix anything, but I want you to know that if I could change the things I said, I would.”

A rustle. A sniff - the sort that comes when there are no tears left, when there haven’t been any left for a good few hours.

“You’ve got every right to be upset with me. I’ve done a bunch of stupid, hurtful things. But my opinion shouldn’t matter! You’re your own person, and a wonderful one at that. Please don’t let my shortsightedness stop you.

“Son…” she let the word linger, new, but something she could get used to, “I won’t pretend to understand everything about who you are or what you’re going through, but I will try my best. I will do everything I can not to hurt you again.”

A creak – someone either moving on their bed or getting off of it. No footsteps followed, or they might’ve been too light to hear.

She sighed. The hard part was far from over, but there were other matters that needed to be discussed. “Now, there’s a prince in the main hall. He’s looking for a certain young man he met at the ball. He seems quite dishevelled – the poor lad must’ve lost his sleep over that heartthrob. Should I perphaps send him away?”

“No!” a voice she had lost hope of hearing anytime soon rang loud and anxious.

“Oh? What should I tell him, then?”

“...I’ll be there in five minutes. Can you make sure he doesn’t leave before then?”
“Of course.” my dear boy, she didn’t add. It’d be too soon. It would feel insincere. She mustn’t.

“I apologize for making you wait, your highness.” The stepmother gave an appropriate bow.

The prince waved his hand dismissively. “It’s quite alright.” His gaze quickly scanned the corridor behind her before resuming eye contact.

“Cinders should be here shortly. If your highness could be troubled to wait for just a few–”

she did not get to finish the sentence, because a certain individual, suit wrinkled, hair bearing light signs of brushing and heavy signs of being ignored for multiple days, half-ran half-stumbled his way into the main hall.

“Hellopleasedon’tleaveI’mherealready”– she had to catch her child before his inevitable collision with the table, which he seemed to either fail to notice or deem expendable.

“He is, ah, a bit excitable. This is Cinders, the child I mentioned earlier. Now, please excuse me. I’m afraid there is some business that requires my immediate attention. Will Cinders be enough company for your highness? ”

“Yes, of course, I will not keep you any longer.” The prince managed to not stumble over his words, but that was all the elegance he could muster.

The stepmother left, and with her left the last inklings of a relaxed atmosphere. A silence stretched to occupy the space.

“I… found your shoe. Here.” The prince handed the object right over the table, and Cinders took it as if it was normal.

“Thank you. How have you been?”

“Good,” answered the man who looked like he needed a hot meal, a bath, a change of clothes and twelve full hours of sleep. “What about you?”

“I’m doing great,” smiled the man who looked like he had been crying on and off for a few days.

Another pause, not actually long but long enough for both sides to wonder what should go next.

“I’m sorry–” their apologies overlapped, both stopping to let the other one speak.

“You have nothing to be sorry for. I left you alone when I really shouldn’t have, and that’s right after I said I’d look after you…”

“No, I was the one who ran off without saying anything! I needed to get home before my family did, and– and I got overwhelmed by it all. I should’ve explained myself properly.”

“...May I ask why you couldn’t openly attend the ball with your family?”

“I could, if I wanted to, but I would prefer not to go in the capacity that was available to me at the time.” Cinders gave him a tight smile.

“What capacity? Are they treating you badly? Are they using you as a servant? I should’ve noticed something was wrong—”

“No, not at all! The role I was offered…” Cinders took a deep breath and let the words out before he could reconsider, “was that of a lady.”

The prince tilted his head. “Pardon?”

“I… By all accounts I should’ve been a girl. I don’t know what went wrong and when, but I’m not one. It took a long time to understand – no, I knew all along actually, but I couldn’t for the life of me find words to put it in. I am a man, despite the incident of my birth in a body that suggests otherwise.”

Cinders stopped, eyes fixated on the shoe in his hands, blocking out the rest of the world. He didn’t have much else to say, and he doubted the prince would want to listen. Strange, unnatural, delusional, foolish girl – if those words weren’t hitting him yet, they must be going through the prince’s head at this very moment.

“Oh. Okay.”

Cinders tore his gaze off the shoe, searching for any trace of irony in the other’s expression. “Okay? That’s it? Aren’t you… I don’t know, but…” words left him as they sometimes did, and he waved his arms in the air, trying to demonstrate what reaction he was expecting.

“Well, I guess it is a bit unusual, but in any case, I suppose you know better? If you say you’re a man, I will take that to be true until you yourself say otherwise...” the prince trailed off. Cinders was crying, crying and laughing, crying with the widest grin he had ever seen on a person.

"I'm sorry, it's just– it's the first time this conversation actually went well for me. Thank you."

"Hey," ‘do you need a hug?’, he didn't say. Too early for something like that, too rash of him to assume a near-stranger like him could offer comfort. He sat there for a while, letting Cinders gather his bearings.

When his breathing went from shudders to deep inhales and outhales to a more-or-less normal pattern, the prince began, careful to watch for the other’s reaction: “I understand today has been a lot for you, and it’s completely okay if you would like to take a break here, but… there’s actually a reason I was looking for you.”

“Other than a charitable shoe delivery service?”

“Yes, other than that,” he chuckled.

Cinders gestured for him to go on, and although his eyes were red-rimmed, a familiar expression of unguarded curiousity, eyebrows slightly raised, a bemused smile hidden in the corners of his lips, made the prince feel that it was fine to continue.

“I know this is going to sound sudden. And silly – quite definitely silly, but I liked talking to you. Quite a bit. I’ve had a lot of fun and I felt better than at any ball I can remember.” He stopped, not quite knowing how to phrase ‘is it mutual’ in a way that wouldn’t sound pressuring.

“Yes, it was fun for me, too.” His words left a warm feeling somewhere in the prince’s chest.

“I’m glad. Is it alright if I ask you something?”

“Yes, of course.”

“...Two things, actually.”

“Getting greedy, aren’t we? Alright, carry on.”

The prince cleared his throat. This part was going to be the most awkward – no, that was probably the shoe bit. Oh god, the shoe bit. Better not think about that. “What would you say to being my friend?”

Cinders laughed. “I’d say yes.” ‘I’d also say you’re adorable’, he didn’t add through a heroic effort.

“Oh.” The prince froze, not quite knowing what the correct response would be. A thanks would seem awkward, but brushing it off as insignificant would be terribly rude. Cinders watched him attempt to form some sort of facial expression that would be appropriate for the occasion.

“There was one more question, wasn’t there?” he decided to save the poor man.

“Ah, yes. I don’t think I like people.”

“That’s a statement, not a question. And yes, I’ve noticed. At the ball. You seemed quite discontent with being in a crowd.”

“There’s also that, but…” he frowned, and Cinders gave him time to arrange his thoughts. “You know how people feel things? For other people? How there’s supposed to be a type of person you look at and you want to kiss them?”

“Yes” ‘like you, for example’.

“Well, I never really understood that. I thought it would come – with age, or… experience, but it never did. And now I have to marry someone by the end of the month to avoid a political scandal and they would want things from me. And they’d be right, because I’d be their spouse and shying away from such things would be strange.”

“Oh, you poor thing…” it took him a moment to realise that he said that out loud. To the prince. To the actual fucking prince. There are certain things you do not say to your future ruler, even if he currently looks like a puppy who has been forgotten in the rain.

Well, you can only get your head chopped off once. “Do you need a hug?”

“...That would be nice, yes.” Cinders went over and did his best imitation of a bear hug, which did not go quite as he planned as they were similar in height and build. Moreover, he managed to completely forget about the shoe in his hand, which was now pressing somewhere into the prince’s back, and it only took him a few seconds to start panicking about whether or not his corset was doing its job properly. All in all, this hug would not be included in the list of history’s ten most well-thought-through hugs, but it was needed at the time, and so it’d have to do.

“How was that? Feeling any better?” Cinders asked, trying to pretend that what just happened was not, in fact, a disaster.

“Yes, quite,” he smiled, and Cinders smiled back.

He settled on the armchair next to the prince, cutting the distance between them.

“And you can’t not marry?”

“No. Well, I could, but that would inconvenience my parents a lot, and maybe put the whole country in danger, so I would rather not do that.”

“Hm… Could you marry someone who knows how you feel?”

The prince twisted a button on his sleeve. “Well, actually… This is the first time this conversation went well for me, too.”

“What?” Cinders stood up, the shoe in his hand clutched in a way that promised violence. “Did they force you to do something? Who was it? Where do they live?”

“It’s okay!” the prince sat him back down, taking the shoe from his hand just in case. “It wasn’t that bad, I promise, and… in any case, it was a while ago,” ‘and he’s an heir to a territory even I can’t afford to mess with’.

“... Are you sure you’re not just saying that so I wouldn’t worry?”

“Quite sure,” ‘is my honest face working? I should’ve practiced more, he’ll definitely notice–’

“Hey, would you marry me?”

***

There were proper ways to answer this question. "Yes" was the most common, and the prince would be glad to say it if only his voice would listen to him and his thoughts didn't scatter into the corners of his mind, going on strike due to two days of nonstop work and sudden shock to top it off.

He was hoping to ask this question himself, but not right now, not like this… Was this because of the incident he mentioned? Did he want to protect him? But… But then Cinders wouldn’t be able to get a normal partner, not openly, at least. All he could offer was friendship, and he wasn’t even sure he was that good of a friend…

“That would inconvenience you, wouldn’t it?” he managed, decidedly not looking into Cinders’ eyes. Ooh, the shoe he was holding had some interesting patterns-

Flick.

Something tapped him on the forehead. The sensation wasn’t strong or unpleasant, but it was sudden enough for him to look up to see Cinders leaning over, his face the most serious he’d seen it be.

“I apologize for that, but it was necessary. For somebody who’s quite smart you’re surprisingly stupid, your highness.”

The prince stared into his eyes, words still slipping off his tongue, thoughts still a shapeless mess. He had no idea what kind of expression he was making, but Cinders’ features softened.

“I am suggesting this because that is what I wish to do. I know we met fairly recently, but spending more time with you and getting to know you both sound like lovely ideas. If you say no, I want that to be because you decided that’s the right thing for you to do, not because you think I might not actually want to marry you. Now, you don’t have to answer immediately. Take some time to think, alright? You can send me a letter. And please, get some sleep.”

Cinders moved aside, letting the prince get out of his armchair, which he didn’t do. Instead, his gaze returned to the shoe in his hands, a dazed look on his face.

“...Do you want me to leave?”

“You know what, forget that. I don’t think you should be allowed near a horse right now. I’ll go find your attendants and inform them that you will be staying here for the night. You need sleep.”

Cinders tried to go do as he said, but a hand grabbed his.

“Yes.”

“Yes to what?”

“To your suggestion – I mean offer – proposal? I. I would like to be your spouse. If it’s really okay.”

“Oh, you…” Cinders moved closer, and for a terrifying second the prince thought he was about to get kissed. He closed his eyes – it was easier that way, he could stomach it, it wasn’t that bad.

What followed was the warm feeling of arms wrapping around him, a soft chin resting on his shoulder. Cinders’ hair tickled his cheek. “Of course it’s okay, my silly prince.”

***

There was no happily ever after.

There was a wedding they hardly stomached, big and loud like the royal heir’s wedding should be. They stuck to each other’s side, and the grand event seemed almost bearable that way.

There was the life after that – not quiet, not at all. The marriage trick only worked to avoid the immediate crisis, the relationship between the countries needing mending that required both planning for peace and preparing for the worst.

The prince eventually became king, his husband supporting him every step of it.

There were rumours surrounding him – one minute he was a spy, the next – the bastard son of the emperor in the south, the next – a servant boy whose ancestry was entirely faked on the king’s whim.

He had to learn to hold his ground, to know what remarks to ignore and when to show that something would not be tolerated.

Not long after the coronation, an important territory’s young lord had an unfortunate accident during a hunting trip with the king-consort. His face haunted Cinders from time to time, but his dear friend slept more peacefully after that, and so regret was never a thing that crossed his mind.

Some days were tranquil and some were not. The king tended to burrow into his work with little care for his health, and the king-consort was not much better. Even so, the quiet times they managed to spend together, however rare, were all the more precious for it.

There was no happily ever after because there was no definitive after. There wasn’t a time when their life became static, when they decided that the future is all clear from now on and there is no reason to try new things and work to achieve what they wanted.

They were a little different every day of their lives, growing and changing right up to that point when all people, however stubborn, are finally forced to rest properly.

In a fancy mausoleum somewhere, there is a memorial. The monarchs were usually depicted either embracing or kissing their partners, lest future historians decide to reinterpret their relationship. These two men, however, were simply standing face to face, both holding one side of a shoe, the affection written on their faces surviving the test of time.

People are often silly that way. Perhaps the world is better for it.

June 11, 2022, 12:45 p.m. 1 Report Embed Follow story
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LR Lekha Riegan
hi hello len lekha here! i absolutely Adored this it was brilliant!!! the characters now live in my head rent free, and this was so sweet! it was so soft and fluffy, while still keeping cinders' feelings about his gender real and raw. this is really well written and i love it! well done <3
June 13, 2022, 17:27
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