Part 2 of Dying Words, a Cinderella Retelling where Cinderella’s mother’s dying words are a curse.
*CW: death of a parent, magical illness that causes patient to cough up blood.*
The ball spread out in front of Ashley in a whirl of glittering splendour. As yet the dancing had not begun, people standing around in their fanciest clothes with glittering masks covering their faces. Even with the minimal motion, Ashley could hardly orientate herself in the sparkle.
She was exceedingly glad not to have to enter through the main doors at the top of the little balcony with the elegantly curved staircase leading to the main floor. A footman in royal purple stood at the edge of the bannister where balcony turned to stairs and announced names as people entered.
Ashley wouldn’t have wanted that, no matter the situation. She was almost glad to have missed out on the first two nights.
And anyway, what was the point of a masquerade if everyone was announced by name and family upon entry?
Ashley ducked away into a corner, the delicate flowers on her mask tickling her cheeks. The gown itself was magnificent, far more ostentatious and luxurious than anything she and Dot could have pulled together.
Beneath it, Ashley felt like a fraud, pretending to be someone worthy of a dress such as this. Pretending she was more than a pity invite. Fearful of running into her family, fearful of someone asking who she was, of anyone talking to her at all. Anyone noticing her.
While changing into the gown, it had been impossible to ignore the way her mother’s unintended curse had taken effect on Ashley’s body. Thorned vines painted all over her skin, beginning at her heart and encircling her torso like a lost tower containing the sleeping princess from the tales. They stretched over her shoulder on one side and around her back on the other, reaching her arms – currently hidden by gloves. But she had had to pull her hair over one shoulder to hide the way one particularly deep green thorn stretched around the dress.
At least it matched the green of the gown bodice.
Her family’s arrival was announced. Ashley looked up to find Naomi shining in the silver dress Ashley had made for herself. She’d paired it with a lace veil in place of a mask, hiding her face only in glimpses of shadow where the lights from the chandeliers and wall sconces didn’t shine. Ashley was pretty sure that had been her own mother’s wedding veil. She wanted to tear it to shreds.
Dot hung back behind her mother and sister, painted lips pulled into a worried line.
Ashley ducked further into the shadows of her corner. Best to avoid them if at all possible.
“My mysterious stranger,” Ashley’s stranger greeted, dipping into her corner as if he had some kind of magical ability to find her. “Do you have a name, by the way?”
Ashley intentionally met his eyes and rolled her own.
He snickered. “You can call me Henri.”
Ashley nodded slowly. The idea of speaking around the thorns that had built up in her throat was at the very least daunting.
“Would you like to dance?”
Ashley stumbled back, shaking her head.
“Right, attention. Would you have liked to dance if it didn’t put you at risk?”
Ashley looked out onto the dance floor, people had partnered up and were moving together in pretty patterns that Ashley could have named by dance move thanks to her step-mother’s instructions. She sighed. She’d only ever had the opportunity to dance with her own family before. Would she have liked to dance? More specifically, would she have liked to dance with Henri?
She shrugged, hair shifting across her shoulder.
Henri’s eyes landed on something on Ashley’s shoulder. He reached forward and pulled her hair back over it, settling it in place once again. His thumb brushed against Ashley’s skin, against the thorns that decorated it. He winced almost imperceptibly behind his mask and tucked his hands behind his back.
“There’s a terrace, if you like,” Henri suggested.
Ashley grinned up at him.
When they got outside, it was quiet enough that Ashely could actually take in Henri’s appearance. His outfit matched the highlights in Ashley’s own, a sparkling shiny sort of purple and gold mixed together. It didn’t look purple enough to start encroaching on the royal standard, but definitely more purple than Ashley would have risked. Not that she had much room to talk with the palace provided gown she was wearing with its pretty lilac flowers and shining gold leaves making up the majority of the gown, as if Ashley was entirely dressed in a storm of flowers.
Her mask very much matched the gown except that it was decorated with real flowers.
Henri offered up a dance-ready stance.
Ashley’s heart thumped heavily in her chest as she took hold of Henri’s hand and shoulder.
Being pulled close to Henri sent the same sensations through Ashley that it had when they were pressed together in that alcove.
“Why?” She managed to push the word up her throat, voice coming out croaky and with the painful rasp of disuse.
“You seem interesting.”
Ashley shook her head, the flowers on her mask brushing against Henri’s face. “The street,” she clarified.
“Ah… You remember me then?”
“It’s… it’s my secret. But I’m guessing you’re adept with keeping those.”
Ashley huffed a laugh. That was one way to put it.
“I like to go into town proper to meet people, to see how things are running. And I like to offer what I can to the people being hit the hardest.”
Ashley tilted her head, an unvoiced question.
Henri began to explain the activities he undertook in the town: helping to fix up buildings, feeding money into advancement programmes, encouraging bakeries to leave their surplus stock out for those less fortunate. The music filtering out onto the terrace shifted into a different form of dance and Henri seamlessly shifted styles even as he continued to talk.
Ashley basked in the surprising comfort of Henri’s lead, of Henri’s speech. The fact that he asked questions to her that required only non-verbal answers and followups.
The evening whiled away in that manner, eventually settling on a bench at the edge of the terrace to continue their conversation.
They remained outside, regardless of the chill night air, until the music quieted and eventually ended.
Reluctantly, Ashley rose to her feet, for the first time in years feeling like the thorns her mother had unintendedly cursed her with were softer, still present but less fierce. There was some kind of comfort to be found in the evening spent with Henri that was impossible to find anywhere else.
“You’re cursed,” Henri blurted. “Aren’t you?”
All the tension that had fled Ashley came back in a wash. The vines constricted around her chest, making her breath short. She started back toward the ballroom.
“Wait,” Henri called.
Ashley’s mask caught in the flame of the lantern at the open glass doors to the ballroom.She yanked it off with no regard for what it might do to her hair, for what it might mean to expose her face like that, even as the flames petered out, leaving the mask relatively untouched by fire.
Ash flittered down like soft rainfall, landing over Ashley once again, just as it had in the alcove.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked. I just– I wanted to invite you to stay, if you don’t want to go back to your family. You don’t have to. And I just…” He sighed. “I’m sorry.”
Ashley folded her arms. The vines tightened around her heart even as it wanted to thunder and race in her chest. Even as the strain of it demanded she take off running and never look back.
“You have a little ash in your hair. Maybe that’s what I should call you. Little Ash.”
Ashley pressed her mouth closed to keep from laughing at how Henri had managed to land so close to her name purely through random chance.
“You don’t like it?”
Ashley opened her mouth, closed it, and shrugged. Her hair, once again, fell off her shoulder. She looked down at the vines that curled over it.
Henri offered his hand, palm up, to reveal the slice across his thumb. “It caught me. That’s a rough one.”
Ashley shrugged again.
“Is it everywhere? Not just on your skin but inside your chest? Filling your lungs? Your throat?”
“Can’t fix,” Ashley forced out. There was no remedy unless she turned her whole life around and became the woman her mother wanted her to be. Courageous and kind. Try as she might, Ashley had never been either. Had never been raised to be. Couldn’t begin to contemplate it, what a life like that might look like. Except when Henri talked about it, it seemed reasonable. When Henri talked about it, it was second nature.
But it didn’t matter what Henri did, because he was not the one cursed with the mandate of being courageous and kind.
“Ash…” he breathed, letting his fingers trail over her cheek.
Tears welled in her eyes, tears she never allowed herself to shed. She shook her head. It was what it was. Ashley had long ago settled herself with the life she had.
“Stay,” Henri urged. “We can get the physicians and magicians to look at it.”
“Henri?” Another voice called from inside the ballroom.
Ashley turned, stumbling back. Henri’s arms swooped around to catch her.
“Who is this?” The woman asking wore a traditional ballgown not unlike the shape of Ashley’s borrowed one. Off the shoulders, smooth fitted bodice, voluminous skirt. Hers had teardrop sleeves that fell to the floor, where Ashely’s had no sleeves at all. And hers was of pure, sparkling gold but for the elegant purple underskirt revealed through the parted layers of the topskirt and on the internals of the sleeves. If Ashley were feeling poetic she’d describe it as orchid-like.
“This is my friend, Ash,” Henri answered. “I’d been hoping she would turn up but she was… indisposed the previous two nights. Family trouble. We met on one of my charitable missions.”
The way the woman’s mouth twisted told a tale of disapproval. Was that what he called sneaking out?
“Ash, this is my mother.”
There was a family resemblance there, similar hair texture, similar facial features. It wouldn’t have been something Ashley picked out on her own, but now it had been mentioned she could find it.
With a sigh Henri continued. “Her majesty Queen Charmant.”
The vines in Ashley’s chest constricted with force. She covered her mouth as coughs wracked through her. Henri’s grip on her arms was the only thing that kept her upright.
She pulled her hand away from her face to discover the generously lent gloves speckled with blood. She fisted her hand but it was too late. The Queen and Henri – who must be the prince for whom the balls had been thrown – had seen the effects of the curse.
“Oh, my dear.” The Queen laid a gentle hand against Ashley’s upper arm. She looked between Henri and Ashely. “Is it too late?”
“She believes it so.”
The Queen cupped Ashley’s face in her white gloved hand. “What caused this curse?”
“My mother,” Ashley admitted, the words almost too quiet to hear, tornadoing more coughs through Ashley’s chest.
“On purpose?” The Queen asked when Ashley’s coughing fit abated.
Ashley shook her head.
The Queen looked at Henri over Ashley’s shoulder, face twisted into a mask of sadness. “There’s only one chance left.”
“I know that but–”
“Would you rather risk going too fast or losing her entirely?”
“We’ve only met once before!” Henri protested.
“When it’s true love, it doesn’t matter. It didn’t matter for your father and me, it hasn’t mattered for your cousins, these balls are designed to throw you in the path of your true love.”
“I know that, mama, but most of the people of our lands do not.”
“Listen, my dear.” The Queen took hold of Ashley’s hands, heedless of the flood seeping into her pristine white gloves. “There is a chance, however slim you may think it, that Henri is your true love and true love’s kiss can break your curse. Will you chance it?”
Ashley wanted to refuse. Wanted to run. Wanted to flee into the woodlands Henri had most recently found her in and let the vines overtake her. Be done with it all.
And yet, as she looked at Henri, her heart broke for the pain in his face.
Courage or kindness, so often in direct opposition to one another. And yet they could meld in exactly the same way.
With trembling fingers, Ashley lifted Henri’s mask from his face. She took a shallow breath, trying not to aggravate the damage done to her already. And pressed her lips gently against Henri’s.
Salt invaded the sensation, Henri’s tears trailing down his cheeks. How could he be so strongly connected to a person he’d only just met.
But if his conversation with the Queen was to be believed, these balls were to summon his true love, and, for whatever reason, he had decided that was Ashley.
“Fruits and Berries,” the Queen cursed.
Ashley pulled back. She and Henri were ensconced in a whirlwind of flowers. Her own mother’s voice echoed in the centre. “Have courage, little Ashley, and always be kind.”
“Dying words,” Henri breathed. “You have to let it go, Ash.”
Ashley shook her head. It was all she had left. A command from her mother, the last thing.
“Please,” Henri begged. “Let it go, stay with me and we will live by it together. Take your courage and use it here.” He pressed a kiss against her forehead, his next words more felt than heard. “But I’ll understand, if you can’t. Love binds us in mysterious ways.”
Ashley let her head fall against Henri’s shoulder. She pressed her lips into his neck and mouthed the words, “I’m scared. It’s all I have left of her.”
“It’s not. I promise you it’s not. I have more of my father with every passing day, living the life he offered me.”
Living the life offered. It sounded too easy. It sounded like lies. But Henri said it with such certainty. Ashley lifted her head and pressed her mouth to Henri’s once again.
“I love you, my darling daughter.”
When Ashley opened her eyes the maelstrom of petals had disappeared, leaving her and Henri on the edge of the terrace once again.
For the first time in her memory, Ashley took a deep, clear breath. And the tears she had so long suppressed burst out of her with such force it drove her to her knees.
But, instead of the humiliating isolation she expected, Henri and his mama, the queen herself sunk to their knees around her and wrapped her safely in their arms, holding her until the tears were done.
*That feels like such a melancholy start to my True Love Themed month but… Anyway next week you can have the first chapter of my upcoming book, Merry Arlan: Finding The Heir (it sort of fits the theme), which comes out proper on 14th March 2023 (it’s getting close!)*
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