Chapter 2 – Rovenslow Palace
“These steps are a nightmare,” Margaret said. “No wonder you lost your shoe on these.”
Red had gone back to the village. The wolf attack had left her grandmother with a broken arm, and she was needed at home. Margaret and Ella decided to take care of Ella’s stepmother. Ariel wanted to walk beside them. The one thing she loved about the deal with the witch was that she had been able to dance. Bobbing around in the water wasn’t the same as dancing.
“I don’t mind. George loves these steps,” Ella said. “He’s off hunting now. I like them because they’re the reason the stepsisters never come to the castle. Poor girls.”
“They cut off parts of their feet trying to fit into your shoe. I’ve met far more deserving candidates for pity.”
“Lucas hates Anastasia. She’s come over for tea so many times, and she keeps trying to be nice to me,” Ella said. “I actually pity my brother-in-law. The king won’t let him be rude, so he’s stuck at an endless charade of tea parties. I’m finding it just as tiring as he does.”
“Well, I’m living the good life. Except for the huntsman, who keeps pestering everyone around for a knighthood. He’s a huntsman, he’s supposed to kill wolves and the like.”
“He did save Red and her grandmother.”
“Hmm, there is that,” Margaret conceded.
“My stepmother said she would stop by today. I’ve been giving her money to keep up our house,” Ella said.
“I have a better use for your money.”
Ella’s stepmother walked into the castle in the afternoon as if she was the royal. Her carriage was plain and the horses old, but she carried herself with a haughtiness Margaret detested. Her dark hair was pinned up, her face powdered to cover up all of her wrinkles, and the fake jewels around her neck glittered. Ella’s stepmother preferred extravagance, just as the Evil Queen had. Margaret knew that most did not know her name, but she hesitated to use it. It was a name like a curse, and the very sound of it brought a chill to her bones.
Ella’s stepmother was an aristocratic face in shabby clothing. She took her seat without a curtsy, and proceeded to sip at her tea. A decade before she would have been called beautiful, but the lines of her constant emotion were carved into her face. The frowns and furrowed eyebrows of her anger had set into her face permanently.
“Anastasia fell again, today,” she said. It was said plainly, without emotion, but the intent was clear. She was assigning blame.
“I’m so sorry to hear that. Is she alright?”
Margaret knew the cycle. It was the same with women everywhere. Either they were damsels or dragon ladies. It wasn’t easy for people to accept that a woman could be assertive without calling her cruel. Women were expected to be soft, kind, and they cultivated that. Brilliance was discouraged, and their own strength went unused. Ella was expected to be kind, and she saw everything but overt kindness as rudeness. She thought standing up for herself would make her no different from her stepmother. Margaret knew that fighting back was the only way to win. She had run away from the Evil Queen, and the miners had run away from the society that refused to accept them because they looked different.
Anything that deviated from maternal or maidenly was a monster, apparently.
“The roof is leaking.”
“I thought you had that fixed last month,” Ella said. Her stepmother had taken money for the roof a month before. She had come complaining about medicines for her daughters, about paying the staff, which was a new thing for her, and everything that had gone neglected in the house since her father had died. Ella had paid, because she could not think of a way to say no. She was not cruel, she would not reduce them to poverty. She would be good, and she would be forgiving.
“Madame, it is such a pity,” Margaret said. “A woman of your birth staying in a house that is on the verge of crumbling to the ground.”
“Are you suggesting that we reside in the castle?”
Margaret raised her eyebrows. The woman was more of an opportunist than she imagined, and Margaret took a sip of tea to gain time. She set up the cup down and laughed.
“That’s a preposterous suggestion, Madame. I was simply about to suggest that you and your family move to a better house.”
Ella’s stepmother brightened.
“I know the perfect cottage near the west coast. Lots of flat land for your daughters, it will be peaceful there.”
“The west coast is a week’s travel from here.”
“Precisely, it will be very peaceful,” Margaret said. “It’s settled then.”
“You cannot drive me out of my house!”
“You’re right, Madame. But I can drive you out of her house. Think of something. The king deserves to have a daughter-in-law with a dowry. A house with a leaky roof is better than nothing. I believe that her father never amended his will after your marriage. Considering that Ella is his only blood, she’s the owner of her own house,” she said.
“What are you talking about, Margaret?” Ella asked.
“I’m talking about my ability to convince the king that his daughter-in-law deserves to take ownership of her childhood home and restore it as a nice country home near the castle,” Margaret answered. “It’s very easy to change the laws when you’re a royal, Ella.”
“You cannot do this!”
“When a stepmother can reduce her stepdaughter to a scullery maid, can destroy her dreams and kill her hope, I think we are allowed to do this.”
Margaret didn’t always like being this way. But the truth was that soft people did not survive well in the world. She realized that when she stepped out of the castle. Ella had moved from an abuser to a protector. She kept waiting for her prince to come in and save her again. There were some things that she had to learn to do herself.
“You owe me!” Ella’s stepmother said. “I fed you, clothed you, sheltered you, you ungrateful wench!”
Ella leaned back into her chair, cowering away from the screaming woman in front of her. She had spent a decade petrified of her stepmother’s glare. If it continued, her stepmother would be… her stepmother would be escorted out of the castle by the castle guards. She stood up slowly and faced her stepmother.
Fear made everything seem bigger. She was taller than the woman in front of her. Somehow she had missed the bend in her stepmother’s back, the tiredness in her limbs. All at once her weakness revealed itself, in her stepmother’s shrill shrieks and desperate accusations.
“I owe you nothing.”
Margaret was afraid she would have to intervene. Not for Ella’s sake anymore, but for the stepmother’s.
“You dressed me in rags, and sheltered me in the attic of my own house. As for feeding me, I fed you. Accept our offer, or you and your daughters will be begging on the street. I’m showing mercy, something that should be a foreign concept to you. Understand that I’m showing restraint by not having you exiled, for not having you hanged for treason against the throne. You attempted to deceive the throne twice, and were forgiven because you were thought to be of my kin. That mercy will be forgotten the second I forsake you. I have protected you these months since I came to the castle. Do not make the mistake of confusing pity with weakness.”
Ella settled down back into the chair, smoothed down her dress and called for the guards.
“That was simpler than I expected,” Margaret said. “What got into you?”
“She’s just a person. A cruel person that cannot hurt me anymore. My mother was a soft person, and my father protected her from everything. He even tried to protect her from her illness, and tried to protect me from her death by bringing me a new mother and sisters. I was used to it, and when that protection was taken away, I didn’t know what to do. In the stories, they paint me as some sort of saint. That I dealt with everything without complaint, and that suffering for ten years in that house was the right thing to do. I should have rebelled, left them, years ago.”
Ella closed her eyes and started again. “Children are being taught that girls should always do what they’re told, that they should be good and kind to everyone. In order to receive kindness, a person has to deserve it. Cruel people don’t deserve kindness. That’s just encouraging them. Little girls are hearing the story of Cinderella and thinking that only princes can save them, that marriage is the ultimate goal. Why don’t we have children’s stories where the girl leaves the prince behind, or just says no? I was starstruck, Margaret, and now I’m just stuck here. I’ve spent my entire life in this kingdom, seeing the same things. You’ve at least seen some part of the world.”
“What are you saying, Ella?” Margaret asked.
“I’m saying that I was never given much of a choice in my life, was I? I was a good little victim and slave to my stepmother, and then I went and married a man that couldn’t identify me by my face but by my shoe size. It’s good that I have abnormally small feet, otherwise he could have ended up marrying half the women in the kingdom.”
“Again, what are you saying?”
“I’m saying, I’m going to go away for a while. I’m going to discover myself, because no one’s given me a chance to do that yet. I’m more than a pretty blonde girl, Margaret. I’m sure of it.”
“If he loves me, he’ll wait. If he doesn’t, he won’t. Let them say in the stories that Cinderella lived happily ever after, with or without her prince. She became her own hero.”