Lady Tremaine held tight to the green-stoned top of her walking stick. Her somber-faced daughters sat opposite her, jostled side to side by the carriage’s bouncy flight to the castle. Anastasia’s red hair was smoothed into a practical bun, while her sister’s was long and loose, wound in tiny spirals. They weren’t attractive, Lady Tremaine admitted silently, but they were sensible girls, decent and well grounded. With the expensive trinkets ornamenting their necks and wrists, and their deep blue eyes, they had a chance – if the prince was a practical young man.
Her mind wandered back to her stepdaughter crying in the garden alone. The girls had helped her out of that shocking ensemble she’d sewn together, but it had broken her heart. Goodness, it had been dreadful. The child had found the girls’ old patchwork quilts and stitched them into a hideous frock that she had draped around herself, with a necklace of rocks from the garden. The poor girl. She lived in a fantasy world where animals talked to her and her family despised her.
“It’s my fault,” Lady Tremaine lamented, lifting a hand to her mouth. “I shouldn’t have let her read those fairy tales after her father died. They brought her comfort, but I didn’t know they would lead to such delusions.”
“No, Mama,” Anastasia reached over to place a hand on her mother’s knee. “Ella was always a strange child; her mother wasn’t stable either, you know. It isn’t your fault.”
“She goes on as if she were a slave.” Drizella shook her head, her painted lashes fluttering as she narrowed her eyes. “Yesterday I had to pull her up from the floor. She was singing and sweeping a hand across it. She was so distressed, crying that she had tried to do the job right, as if I’d insulted her.”
“She is a sweet little thing, though, isn’t she?” Lady Tremaine dared to smile a little.
“Yes, Mama, and thanks to you,” Anastasia said firmly, clasping her mother’s hand. “If one of us is chosen, I promise we’ll make things easier for you. You won’t have to spend all day trying to keep Ella from hurting herself. I promise.”
“Yes, Mama,” Drizella said, smiling brightly at her mother.
Lady Tremaine let out a shaky breath. If all went well, perhaps Ella could be brought ’round with help from the royal doctor. If things just went well tonight ….
“Announcing Anastasia and Drizella Tremaine, daughters of Lady Tremaine!”
Anastasia fussed with a wisp of hair that had fallen into her eyes, while Drizella straightened her bodice. Picking up their skirts elegantly, the pair walked forward together with placid smiles, eyes locked on the dark-haired prince. Anastasia noticed the way his eyes caught hers and the corners of his lips twitched. Goodness, was he laughing? Her cheeks burned, but she curtsied, maintaining her composure.
The prince bowed, and Anastasia saw his mouth open as if to speak. Suddenly he straightened with his mouth still ajar, staring at something beyond them. Anastasia turned to see what had caught his attention, and horror struck her.
“Ella,” she moaned.
The delusional child stood in the entryway – with nothing more than Drizella’s blue nightgown on her thin body. Her blond hair was matted with leaves from the garden, and the dog’s collar was wrapped around her neck. Anastasia heard her sister sob beside her, but her own thoughts went straight to her mother. A chuckle made her spin around, and Anastasia cringed at the sight of the smile on the prince’s lips. He was laughing out loud this time.
Lady Tremaine fell to the floor, clutching her heart. Anastasia grabbed her skirts and rushed to her mother, ignoring the tittering from the crowd. Glancing at her sister, Anastasia saw that Drizella was wrapped in the arms of a young gentleman, who patted her back with pity. Her running makeup had smeared down her face and leaked onto the gentleman’s shirt.
Ella herself stood looking around at everyone with a bright smile. She began humming in a raspy voice and cooing softly to herself. Anastasia’s face burned brighter than ever.
Perhaps the townspeople are right, she dared to think. Maybe it’s time that Ella went to a place where she can be free to be the princess she imagines she is.
Lady Tremaine welcomed the rough-clothed man into the house with as much cheer as she could manage. However, misery came with the promise of relief. Eighteen years of caring for her stepdaughter had aged her more than anything in her life, and perhaps it was for the best that the chore came to an end.
“She will be well looked after,” the tall man, Pester, assured her with a bob of his blond head. “Our mental institution is one of the finest in the area. You may visit, if you like.”
“No,” Lady Tremaine whispered. “I think it’s for the best that she never sees us again.”
Anastasia sniffled in the corner, wrapped in a soft blanket, while Drizella patted her face with powder. The young gentleman from the night before was coming to see her, and she couldn’t afford to ruin another of his blouses, even for her stepsister’s sake.
“Where is the girl?” Pester asked. He offered a handkerchief to the weeping young lady.
“Here I am,” Ella’s high voice chimed from the top of the stairs. “The prince has come, hasn’t he? Oh, I knew he would!”
Anastasia started sobbing fresh tears, while Drizella stood with a huff and left the room. Lady Tremaine reached out to her stepdaughter, who recoiled fearfully. The girl’s trembling hands held a glass ornament that caught the light shining through the window. The shoe-shaped sculpture was a gift her father had given her when she was a child, just before he passed.
Pester strode toward Ella and took her arm, which made the girl jump in fright and drop the glass ornament. It shattered on the floor.
Lady Tremaine waited for the girl to start crying, and even Anastasia stopped her hysterics for a moment to watch her stepsister’s reaction. But Ella simply stared at the fragments calmly, with a smile.
“Oh, dear,” Pester muttered, wiping his brow.
“Don’t worry. There’s another one,” Ella chirped.
Lady Tremaine somehow found the strength to smile.
“Yes, there’s another,” she said gently, her eyes on the fair young lady.
She reached into her pocket and brought out the gift her husband had given her, the match to his daughter’s.
Pester plopped the glass bauble into the girl’s hand with a grunt and led her out with his lips in a grim line. He saw the dark-haired girl greeting a young man on horseback, and shook his head.
“Such a nice family,” he said once they had climbed into the carriage, more to himself than to the girl on the patched seat beside him. “It’s a pity they had to put up with such a burden.”
“Are you going to take me to the prince now so we can be married?” Ella asked. Her blue eyes widened as she looked at the strange servant. She was still shocked by the beautiful carriage, the seats stitched with golden thread, and the white horses leading the coach with pink feathers in their manes.
“Sure, sweetheart, you’re going to marry your prince.”
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.