“We need to hurry,” Esme said. “They won’t care about the loss of two madwomen, but they’ll care about the loss of this horse.”
I took one last look at the Priory. We were leaving behind friends, women who would live out the rest of their lives under lock and key, but it couldn’t be helped. Most of them wouldn’t know how to live without their parents or a man to protect them. Esme and I were different.
The horse gave a soft nicker. Esme reached down and I grasped her arm, mounting the horse behind her. We kept to soft ground until we were out of earshot. Then we rode fast and hard under the light of a full moon, laughing for the sheer joy of freedom.
When we stopped to rest and water the horse, Esme pulled the knife out of our pack and gleefully hacked away at her long hair. With her strong features and a bit of binding, she could easily pass for a man. She changed into the trousers I had pilfered from the mending basket and we set off again.
At dawn we reached a crossroad and Esme hesitated.
“Last chance to change your mind,” she said hopefully.
She wanted to cross the border as soon as possible and look for work. Harvest was fast approaching, so people would be hiring with few questions.
“I have to see them,” I said.
Esme sighed and took the road that led to the Winter Palace.
I didn’t know what I expected to happen. Sometimes in the middle of the night I fantasized he would see me and realize his mistake. He would annul his marriage to Griselda and beg my forgiveness. We would live happily ever after. Other times I fantasized kicking him until he crumpled and his blood stained the earth. Until all his teeth were broken. Until he would never father children.
The day he came to my family home with that blasted glass slipper, I woke in the morning with burning eyes and itching skin. I was allergic to asters, and someone had scattered the petals in my bedding. My eyes were swollen nearly shut and my skin was covered in hives. My head felt heavy and strange. When I touched it, I found my scalp had been smeared with pitch and great hanks of hair were missing. Even worse, aster petals clung to the pitch so there was no escaping them. It was an especially cruel prank, but I had never been able to explain my step-sister’s ways.
As I was putting breakfast on the table, we heard the carriage arrive. The king’s guard ordered all members of the household to line up in front of the house. When the prince stepped from the carriage, my heart soared. He had come to rescue me!
His gaze slid over my ragged dress and blotchy skin, lingering on the sticky matted mess on my head. He looked away in distaste.
When the valet produced the glass slipper, Griselda’s plan became clear. She had pretended not to recognize me at the ball, but she had known all along. She had known the prince was coming today, which explained the asters that had altered my appearance. And she had known about the glass slipper. We had the same size feet. After my father died, the first thing she did was steal my riding boots.
Her foot slid into the shoe like it had been made for her.
“I did not recognize you,” the prince said, his voice tinged with suspicion.
“The magic,” Griselda explained. “It has worn off. Are you . . . too disappointed?” She blushed and hid her face.
As the prince professed his love for her, I screeched. All the coughing and sneezing from the asters had made my voice hoarse and raspy, but I tried to protest. I named the topics we had discussed at the ball and the dreams we had shared, but the prince wasn’t listening to me. My step-mother was telling him I was a lunatic. They had done all they could for me, but I was unmanageable.
I tried to attack Griselda and get the shoe. The guards had to restrain me. I found myself whisked away to the Priory that very day.
It wasn’t a terrible life. We had to do chores, but I was used to that. Truthfully, I didn’t work nearly as hard as I had for my step-mother. In the afternoons, we would gather in the courtyard and one of us would read aloud from the bible. Sometimes the Sister who supervised would wander away, then we would talk of the past and our lives before we became inconvenient women.
There was Martha, who had refused to marry a man she despised. And Therese, who had bared her ankles in public. And Isolde, who dared to have opinions. When I told my own story and I got to the part about the glass slipper, Esme guffawed.
“What kind of an idiot identifies a woman by the size of her foot?” she asked.
Perhaps that explained how easy it had been for the prince’s cousin to overthrow him.
One might think that nuns would be above idle gossip, but one would be wrong. We eavesdropped and learned all the juicy goings-on in the kingdom. We heard all about the coup after the king’s death. We also heard that the former prince and his wife had been exiled to the Winter Palace.
Esme and I stopped to give the horse another rest and I dug out the bread and cheese I had pilfered from the kitchen. I was too nervous to eat, but she was ravenous.
“If only I had a bow and arrow, I could catch us a rabbit,” she said, staring off into the woods.
I had been at the Priory for nearly four years, but Esme had only been there six months. She was the one who formulated the plan to escape.
Esme’s sin had been that she was more manly than her brother. She outrode him and out-hunted him at every turn. He had stopped sparring with her when they were children. He had said it was because it was beneath him to cross swords with a girl, but the real reason was she always beat him. And everyone knew it.
The final straw came when Esme’s brother hosted a hunting party for a group of important officials from the Palace and the Church. After he missed a shot at a quail, but Esme’s arrow struck home, he claimed his horse had shied and thrown off his aim. He berated the animal, and it bucked him free. He landed on a bishop and broke the man’s collarbone. The townspeople laughed about it for days.
Esme’s brother slipped her a mushroom that made her tear away her clothes and run gibbering through town, chasing imaginary butterflies. He claimed that she had been bewitched, and named an old woman (who lived on property he coveted) as Esme’s tormentor. The woman and her family fled, and his sister was quietly sent to the Priory.
Despite her popularity among her people, Esme had no plans to return home. She preferred to go to a place where no one knew her, so she could live as a man. That was the only way to true freedom.
We arrived at the Winter Palace by late afternoon and found it shuttered and empty, but smoke rose from the chimney of the caretaker’s cottage. We dismounted and crept through the woods to take a closer look.
Two small, filthy children rolled in the yard, biting and scratching at each other. One yelped as the other pulled her hair. A scrawny chicken squawked and pecked at them.
“Stop it,” a woman shouted from the doorway of the cottage, but the children ignored her. She had a baby balanced on her hip, and when she turned I saw she was hugely pregnant.
“That’s Griselda,” I whispered, stunned.
She went to a washtub balanced on a stump and set the baby down next to her. He wailed and tugged at her skirt, holding his arms up. She shoved him away with a foot and began scrubbing something gray against a washboard.
Her dress was stained, her hair stringy, her skin sallow. I had fared better as a madwoman than she had as a princess.
A string of loud curses from the vicinity of the barn made her head pop up. She scowled, then abandoned the washing to herd the children inside. She followed and shut the door smartly behind them.
We crept further through the woods until we found the source of the voice. The former prince was weaving unsteadily through a series of hives. He slapped at a bee on his arm then stamped on it, nearly losing his balance, and I realized he was drunk.
He lurched into the barn and dropped onto a bale of hay, rolling up his sleeve. A shelf next to him held a clay pot. He dipped in his finger and smeared poultice on the bee sting on his arm, and another on his neck. Then he picked up a jug of mead and took a long swallow.
The sun had set and the evening was growing dark. Esme and I were both exhausted and would need to find a place to make camp, but I couldn’t bring myself to move. The former prince stumbled his way to the cottage and tried the door, but it had been barred. Despite his pounding and shouting, Griselda did not relent.
He returned to the barn and lit a lantern, nearly burning his fingers, and set it next to the hay bale. A trip into a back corner of the barn produced a horse blanket and something that glimmered warm gold in the lantern light. He placed it jauntily on his head. Somehow he had managed to smuggle a crown out of the Palace. He toasted an invisible presence then glugged more mead.
“I know a man who would pay handsomely for that thing, no questions asked,” Esme hissed. “That would feed us for months. I could buy a sword and get a proper job. You wouldn’t have to work.”
“I don’t mind working.”
I watched as he tipped slowly sideways and began snoring. The crown fell off his head and landed in the dirt.
Both of our lives could have turned out so differently. I had met that traitorous cousin at the ball and I had not liked him. He had the same hard eyes and false smile as my step-mother. I would have kept an eye on him, and maybe I could have warned the prince in time. If not, if we had ended up living exiled here, I would have borne it gracefully. I was no stranger to hard work and could have shown the prince the joys of a simple life. I would have made him happy.
But he did not choose me.
The snoring man turned in his sleep and kicked over the lantern. Fuel pooled and the fire lazily spread, edging toward a pile of loose hay.
I didn’t hesitate. I ran to the flame and stamped at it. Esme reluctantly joined me. The former prince gave a foul belch but didn’t wake.
“You should have let him burn,” Esme whispered in disgust.
I shook my head. “Let him live with his choices.”
We both looked at the crown. Up close, I could see that it was old and tarnished. Some of the jewels were missing but plenty were still intact. It would fetch a pretty penny.
I had wondered during the years in the Priory why my fairy godmother had abandoned me when I needed her most. Perhaps she had never meant for me to end up with this lout. Maybe she only wanted me to have a fun night out at the Palace, and in the process, broaden my horizons.
My father was a trader, and I had grown up on tales of exotic lands. I had inherited his head for business and I spoke four languages. I had no reason to sit around waiting for someone to save me.
“We have no right to that crown, but neither does he.” I plucked it from the ground. “We’ll travel east and buy spices or silks, then we’ll return and sell them. That will stake us for whatever we choose to do next. How would you feel about running an inn?”
Esme grinned and hugged me.