Evening turned the world to shades of blue and purple. Ella stood on the step, watching the carriage clattering away with her stepsisters and stepmother inside. She had worked on every task put before her with heroic vigor. She did her best to keep a pleasant demeanor, though her stepsisters insulted and berated her for most of the day. When it drew nigh to time for the carriage to arrive, her stepmother looked the room over slowly before finally allowing her eyes to settle on Ella.
"You're dirty and dressed in rags," she sniffed, "Simply unacceptable. You will not go tonight." Ella resisted the urge to shriek at the older woman about how it was her fault that she didn't have anything that was her due or that she didn't have the opportunity to at least bathe. Instead, she merely watched in silence as her tormentors sashayed their way out to the carriage in high spirits. Wrapped in the insulating fog of disappointment, Ella didn't pay much attention as she wandered out to the garden.
She sat down at the foot of the tree that her mother's ashes were buried beneath. At the thought of her late mother and then her late father, Ella dropped her face into her hands and wept. As she wept, the wind sighed through the leaves of the pear tree. A voice, sweet and low, came from somewhere near to her. Softly, it called, "Poor child, why do you weep?" Ella didn't look up. She recognized that voice from a few nights before.
It was the same voice that told her to shake the tree when Ella lamented that she was forever confined to live as a slave to her stepmother and her daughters. What ever good angel it was that had told Ella to shake the tree and fetch the pumpkin seemed to have returned to her again. "Nothing I do is good enough for her," Ella sobbed, "she has taken everything from me and flaunts it before me. I will be nothing. She will see me ruined."
The sweet voice sighed and then asked, "Do you wish to go to the ball tonight?" Ella wiped the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand. She sniffed and stared dejectedly at the rags she wore.
"I'm dirty and dressed in rags," she said, choking on the words, "They wouldn't let me near the chateau let alone in." The voice sighed and Ella felt as though the invisible presence was nodding in understanding. "I just..." she started and then dropped her face into her hands to weep again.
"Shake the tree child," the voice urged, "Eat of the fruit that falls." Ella bit her lower lip and looked up at the tree. She could see no fruit on the tree. The pear tree hadn't blossomed since the year that her father had died. Despite all of the care and attention that Ella had given it, the tree was stunted and looking withered. Only the ridiculously green leaves that sprouted at random intervals gave any clue that the tree lived. Trusting that the magic of the tree, as odd as it seemed, would happen again, Ella stood up and wrapped her arms about the tree. She shook it with all her strength three times.
Where a silver pear had fallen out of the tree the last time the sweet voice had urged her to shake it, a golden pear fell to the ground. Ella picked it up and took a deep breath, closing her eyes. It smelled like a normal pear at that perfect ripe state that was the essence of all pears. Ella took a bite from it and a sensation like warm water washed over her. Ella opened her eyes and looked down to find herself wearing a cloth of gold gown. She could feel her hair was coiffed and piled up in the latest style and she no longer smelled of the cabbage she had boiled for their supper. "How will I get there?" she asked, suddenly anxious that the magic would wear off before she had gone anywhere, "What shall I do if I'm asked to dance again?"
"Fetch a cabbage and four lizards," the voice said, "Place them beneath the tree and squeeze the juice of the pear onto them." Ella found a small cabbage and a five lizards. As she set them down beneath the tree, her heart hammered. The fifth lizard was in the midst of wandering off when Ella squeezed the juice of the golden pear onto the assortment. The scent of pears rose up strongly and Ella's eyes were dazzled by a brilliant light about the lizards and cabbage.
She brought up one silk clad arm to shield her eyes from the light when it vanished. Behind her, she heard the sound of hooves upon the stones of the street. Ella turned and found a small gilded coach with a pair of white horses. A driver sat dressed in a severe looking black suit with his whip at the ready. A pair of footmen similarly dressed stood at the door. Ella took a step towards the magical coach. "I am afraid," she said very quietly.
"Do not be afraid, child," the voice said, "Your mother's good will goes with you. Attend the ball. Return at midnight, for that is when the charm will end." Ella wanted to ask the voice what it meant in stating that her mother's good will went with her but a curious silence filled the air, leaving Ella feeling terribly, terribly alone. The footman to the right of the door held out his hand to help her into the coach as the footman to the left opened the door.
Ella climbed in and before she knew it, the coach was clattering through the cobblestone streets at a breathtaking pace. In a trice, she had reached the chateau where the ball was being held. Before her, Ella could see the dusty black carriage that had brought her stepmother and stepsisters. Ella swallowed nervously as they exited their carriage. The taller sister looked over at the coach Ella was in and gaped. She had not seen one so magnificent before. She started to move towards the coach when her sister and mother muscled her out of their way. Some sort of trance broken, the tall sister followed her relatives up the steps and into the grand foyer, adding her nasally laugh to the noise of the crowd.
Ella's coach stopped at the steps up to the entrance. Where the others gathered had their finery hidden by relatively conservative cloaks, Ella's was also of the same shimmering fabric as her gown. When the footmen opened the door to her luxurious coach, some of the other guests murmured with excitement. They expected some particularly wealthy and famous person to emerge. When Ella stepped out, a collective gasp went through the onlookers. Ella, assuming the gasp was one of dismayed shock, kept her gaze demurely lowered.
As she passed by, she could hear a few persons whispering "It's her." Ella moved in a slight bubble of isolation, for the other guests were uncertain if they were to approach her or not. As Ella walked into the grand foyer, the crowd was forced to press closer together to navigate the entrance. Ella allowed a stammering servant to take her cloak. She turned to look about the gathering when a familiar face with a very familiar scowl caught her eye. Ella paled as she realized that her stepmother had spotted her.
She started to take a step towards the door when a fanfare of horns announced the arrival of the prince. Ella's stepmother began to move through the crowd towards her with a dire look in her eye. Ella froze, her mouth going dry with terror. Caught in that frozen state of panic, Ella had the misfortune of standing in the middle of the area that the guests was moving away from to make way for the prince. Resplendant in his uniform, the prince was a striking sight.
He was at first mildly surprised by the golden clad woman standing at the end of the foyer before him. Then in rapid succession, he recognized her from the previous ball and noted the look of fear on her face. He looked over to see a stern faced older woman attempting to discreetly move through the crowd towards his previous dance partner. Deciding that the mysterious woman in gold was in need of rescue, he walked towards her.
His step was brisk and he closed the distance moments before the other woman did. He stepped between the two women. Ella looked up at him and her eyes widened. She dropped down into a deep curtsey. The prince held out a gloved hand. Ella stood and hesitantly took it. "It seems that you have admirers and those who are envious, maiden," he said, giving a wry smile. Ella swallowed and fixed her gaze on his left shoulder.
"I can not think of any who would envy me, my Lord," she said quietly. The prince laughed as though she had made a supremely witty jest. With his laughter, the entire affair seemed to turn into an exact duplicate of the previous ball. The prince kept a firm hold upon Ella's hand as he walked about the ball, greeting dignitaries. Ella moved at his side in silence, keeping her gaze demurely lowered. Her quiet, timid demeanor seemed to only add to her exotic qualities. As she moved about the ballroom at the prince's side, she could feel the eyes of her stepmother and stepsisters upon her.
The music began to play a merry tune. It was as though a court musician had decided to attempt to play one of the wilder tunes of the lower classes but with some subtle refinements for a more discerning ear. While it was expected that the prince would dance, he instead spent his time chatting with his guests with Ella at his side. Once he felt he had satisfied his quota for entertainment of his guests, the prince moved to where a dias was set up. He sat down in the gilded chair set there and motioned for one of his servants to bring a chair for Ella.
Ella sat down on the edge of the white chair that was placed near the dias. She looked down at the floor, struggling with the urge to burst into tears. She was more then certain that her stepmother would beat her black for some how attending the ball. "Tell me, maiden," the prince said as he leaned over, "What did that woman want with you?" Ella shivered and struggled with a sick feeling deep inside. "It is clear that she knows you and that you know her. It is also clear that you fear her," he said, "why?"
"I should not be here. It was folly to come," Ella said very quietly, twisting the gold embroidered lace of her handkerchief between her fingers. The prince leaned back and regarded her levelly. It was clear that this strange woman was someone who had some sort of wealth. She was well spoken and seemed to be well educated. Though, the prince was puzzled by the fact that she did not speak of a family or know even the simplest of dances.
The prince rested his chin upon his hand and looked out at the ballroom. "I believe that woman is somehow involved with you," he said quietly, "I also think that it is not by her kindness that you are here." Ella looked over with a sudden, startled expression on her face at his second statement. The prince tapped a finger on his chin, looking very solemn. "You fear her as a prisoner fears their warden," he said slowly. He watched as the panic increased in Ella's eyes. "Where are you from?" he asked.
"I... I am from here," Ella said, suddenly wanting to kick herself for how silly she sounded. The prince's eyebrows went up in mild surprise.
"You live within these lands?" he said. Ella nodded. "Interesting, most interesting," he murmered as he waved an eager servant away. The portly man came to Ella's side and held out a small tray. She looked at it and found an assortment of sweets, tiny cakes, and fruit. "Take some," the prince said, "Or he will never leave." Ella gave the servant an apologetic look but the man beamed, as though he were in on some sort of jest with the prince. Hesitantly, Ella took a cake that was scarcely large enough to sit in the palm of her hand. She looked at it, entirely unsure what the correct way to eat it was.
The prince watched her in her confusion. He smiled in bemusement. While she looked to be some radiant and terribly wealthy creature, there was a naivete that charmed him immensely. "Just put the whole thing in your mouth," he said quietly. Ella blushed before daintily doing as instructed. The prince returned his gaze to the ballroom. "Come," he said, starting too his feet, "you have a lesson to finish." Ella gave a tiny noise of alarm before he pulled her to her feet.
They walked onto the dance floor as the musicians were beginning a quadrille when the prince caught their eye. He gave a small shake of the head and then a slight nod towards Ella. Several onlookers who caught this exchange looked confused. Ella was perplexed by this as well when the musicians began playing a deceptively simple sounding piece. The prince took Ella's right hand in his left and gave a small bow. Ella returned his bow with a curtsey. "Now, copy what I do," he said in a low voice, "ignore the others and listen to the music."
He took a step towards Ella and she moved towards him. They then parted. The prince let go of her hand and walked in a wide circle, keeping his eyes on Ella. For her part, Ella walked her own circle, watching the prince anxiously. They continued on, mirroring each other's movements moving in circles and spiraling back to holding hands several times. The final time they came together and took each other's hands, the music concluded. Polite applause filled the air and Ella blushed furiously. The prince laughed and set a hand at Ella's back. He guided her back to where they had been seated.
A servant brought them glasses of champagne. The prince watched as other dancers began a quadrille. He looked over the crowd and found the sour faced woman speaking with two women who he presumed could only be her daughters for their looks of displeasure were equally unpleasant. "Tell me of your family, maiden who has no name," he said, looking over at Ella.
"My parents are dead," Ella said quietly, looking down at the glass of champagne. "My father died six years ago," she said, "I live with my stepmother and stepsisters." The prince nodded, making the connection between the woman at his side and the women he saw in the crowd speaking between themselves.