Buttes Chaumont

8

Prince Charming was kidnapped on a Tuesday.

Cinderella was sitting in the solar with her step-sisters, sewing the final beads onto her wedding dress, when the messenger burst in, red-faced and breathless.

He fell to the floor at her feet, in a posture of desperation. “The Prince has been taken!” he said.

Cinderella put a hand to her throat. “Taken? How? By whom?”

But the messenger was too overwhelmed to speak. She turned to her elder stepsister. “Javotte, would you ring for some water to be brought? This poor man looks as though he is about to expire.”

She knelt on the ground before the messenger, taking his hand in hers. “Come, friend. We must be calm if we are to help the Prince. When was he taken, and how? Can you tell me?”

“About half an hour ago,” the man gasped. “We were out hunting in the foothills near the Flaming Mountain when a great black swan swooped out of the sky and carried him away.”

“A black swan?” Javotte’s voice was cynical. “But that is an impossibility!”

“And carried him away?” Jerianne merely sounded critical. “It must have been a swan of quite fabulous size to lift a fully grown man!”

Cinderella hushed her sisters with a gesture, but the messenger spoke again. “Indeed it was, my ladies – a monster of a bird, all black, with a beak as red as blood, and an evil eye. I fear for my prince’s life, lady, if we do not rescue him.”

A footman entered, bearing a tray on which rested a jug of water and a goblet. The messenger drank deeply, then sat up, and began searching for something in his pocket. He drew out a piece of parchment, folded and sealed with black wax. The seal was embossed with a swan.

“The bird dropped this, my lady, as it carried the Prince away from us. I brought it to you as fast as I could.”

Cinderella broke the seal, sinking down into her seat as she read.

“’To the ash-bottomed peasant who would be Queen, greetings,’” she read aloud.

The sisters gasped, and Javotte blushed a little. Cinder-butt had been one of her names for Cinderella, in the days when she was a servant. It had been one of the nicer names she used, in fact.

“’I have taken back what is mine. Leave the palace, and do not look back, and I will be merciful.   Or, if you wish to die, come to the Flaming Mountain and fight me for what we both desire. You will not win back the Prince, but I shall at least have the satisfaction of looking a thief in the eye before I destroy her.

“’The choice is yours.

“’Sincerely, Corbelle La Cygne.’”

Cinderella looked up at the messenger, who was onto his third glass of water. “And who is this Corbelle La Cygne?” she asked.

But the messenger simply shook his head. “Presumably she is the one who sent the swan to steal the Prince,” he began.

“Yes, thank you, we would never have guessed that,” muttered Javotte. Cinderella shot her a quelling look.

The messenger eyed Javotte nervously, then looked back at Cinderella. “But beyond that, I’m afraid I have no idea.”

Cinderella nodded. “Very well. Go and refresh yourself, but do not leave the castle. I may need you again.”

The messenger bowed and left, and Cinderella sank back down into her chair.

“Whoever she is, she obviously thinks she has a claim on the Prince,” noted Jerianne, quietly.

Cinderella grimaced. “Indeed. I find that quite disturbing – almost more so than the fact that she has kidnapped him.”

“It’s rather a pity she couldn’t have waited a week,” opined Javotte. “Then you would be the Princess no matter what she did to him.”

Cinderella bit back a harsh reply. Javotte had never been the easiest stepsister to get along with, and even when she was wholeheartedly on Cinderella’s side, her advice was not known for its tact. “The Prince’s safety is important to me, regardless of whether we are married,” she said, peaceably. In fact, she was terrified for him, but in her most secret heart, she was also rather afraid for herself. Life with her stepmother had been difficult, and the Prince’s offer had been both a romantic dream, and a much-needed escape.

“Spoken like a true Princess,” came a voice from the door.

Cinderella looked up quickly, and smiled when she saw the friendly old coachman standing in the doorway in his green and red striped coat.

“Monsieur Rongeur! Have you heard the news about the Prince?”

M. Rongeur clasped his hands over his red and green striped jacket. “That the sorceress La Cygne has him prisoner on the Flaming Mountain? I have indeed, my lady, and I’m sorry to hear it.”

“A sorceress!” Cinderella’s eyes widened, and then she shook her head at herself. “Yes, I suppose she must be, if she has a giant swan to do her bidding.”

“As I heard it, my lady, La Cygne is the black swan. She can transform at will, from swan to a beautiful woman. She’ll be wanting to keep your Prince for herself, I’m thinking.”

Cinderella felt a twinge of insecurity. She had never been capable of even the tiniest magics, and had caught the Prince’s attention only with the help of her godmother. She wasn’t sure she could compete with a sorceress. “I suppose I can understand that,” she said, slowly, “But why does she think that he already belongs to her, and that I am the thief?”

“Possession is nine parts of the law,” muttered Javotte under her breath. Cinderella ignored her.

“As to that, my lady, she might have a point,” M. Rongeur began.

Cinderella drew in a breath, and Jerianne came up beside her, putting a hand on her shoulder. “You must not say that, M. Rongeur,” she said, sternly.

M. Rongeur held up his hands, peacably. “I’m not saying you meant to steal him, but it is true that the Prince was courting Mlle. La Cygne up until he met you at that ball.”

Cinderella wrapped her hands around her stomach, feeling as if she had been punched. “I see,” she managed.

M. Rongeur’s expression was sympathetic. “I’m sorry, my lady. But you do need to know, and nobody at this court will tell you. The Prince broke off the betrothal when he fell in love with you. I understand the poor girl was heartbroken.”

Cinderella sat down, heavily, consumed with guilt and shame. Could this be true?

Javotte came to stand at her other side.  “That ‘poor girl’ is a sorceress who just kidnapped the Prince and threatened to kill poor Cinder-butt here if she went after him. I don’t think we need to waste pity on her.”

“Yes, thank you, Jovette. I feel much better now,” murmured Cinderella.

Her step-sister nodded, pleased. “Good. Because I think you need to stop being so nice, go up that mountain and show that sorceress who the real Princess is. The Prince might have loved her once, but he loves you now, and she needs to build a bridge and get over it.”

Cinderella said nothing. Did the Prince still love her, though? Or was it just a momentary fascination, from which he had now returned to his true love?

Jerianne squeezed her shoulder. “Of course he loves our Cinder-girl. La Cygne had to kidnap him to get him to go to her, after all! But even if he doesn’t, Cinders, you need to go after him, and look him in the eye, and get him to tell you both who he really loves. Surely if he tells La Cygne that you are the only one for him, she will resign her claim? And if he does not, then at least you know that he is fickle and foolish and that you are better off without him. If you let her drive you away, you will never know, and you will always wonder.”

Cinderella had to admit that this was sound advice. Still… “You forget that she has threatened to kill me if I do come after her,” she remarked, drily.

Jerianne shrugged. “She has. But do you really think she would kill you in front of the Prince, when she is trying to win back his love? I can’t imagine that she would be so foolish.”

Cinderella could not imagine it either, but she could think of plenty of ways La Cygne could kill her without it being in front of the Prince. She sighed, and rose to her feet.

“Thank you – all three of you – for your advice. And for your support. I believe I shall retire now, to consider what I will do. It is nearly dark; even if I were to go after the Prince, I could not well leave before tomorrow. Perhaps a night’s sleep will bring counsel.”

And acknowledging their courtesies with an inclination of her head, she swept from the room.

Once in her chambers, Cinderella dismissed her maids, flung herself onto the bed in her nightgown, and succumbed to tears. A Princess must not weep in front of her subjects – even a Princess-to-be, and even in front of her own step-sisters and a coachman who, when all was said and done, used to be a rat.

But Cinderella was really afraid. She had no magic with which to defeat a sorceress, or to win back a Prince’s love if it had strayed. Nor did she want to resort to magic to regain his affections. The knowledge that he had been in love with another – and so recently, too – shook her to the core.

Also, she really did not want to die.

At last, she dried her eyes, and rang for her maid again. “Send a note to my godmother, please,” she told the girl when she came in. “Ask her to come and see me, tonight if possible. Tell her the Prince has been taken, and that I need her help.”

The girl curtseyed and left on her errand.

Alone again, Cinderella lay back down on her bed and sighed. She didn’t have any tears left, and in fact, she was getting one of those stuffy headaches that one gets after too much crying. She got up again, and fetched herself a glass of water, and drank it.

And then she waited.

Cinderella’s fairy godmother had been a close friend of her mother’s, and had been chosen more for this fact than for her magical abilities, which were, it was rumoured, rather on the weak side. Still, Cinderella had found them more than adequate to her needs in the past, and she had high hopes.

The Fairy Godmother embraced Cinderella affectionately, and let her weep all over her pink satin ballgown as she told her story.

“Well then, my dear, and what would you like me to do? It sounds like you need to make a decision before anything else – will you go after the Prince, or not? You can always come to stay with me if you don’t, you know. I wouldn’t send you back to that stepmother of yours, not now that you are well away.”

Cinderella blinked. “I thought you had no room for me at your house,” she said.

The Fairy Godmother shook her head. “Not at all, my dear. I have plenty of room. But Fairy Godmothers have to play by the rules, you know, and one of those rules is that godchildren stay at home until it is time for them to seek their fortunes. You have been seeking yours – it seems that you are still seeking it – and so it is quite proper for you to live away from home while you do.”

Cinderella felt a flicker of anger at this. She had written to her godmother begging for rescue from her stepmother’s abuse, and had received only a kind, sad letter in reply, claiming a full house and urging patience. And all to satisfy some arbitrary rule? She took a deep breath and calmed herself. No doubt her godmother had meant well. And she had, Cinderella reminded herself, facilitated a more permanent escape for Cinderella, when she helped her to capture the heart of the Prince.

Assuming she had truly captured his heart. Cinderella felt a pang. He was so very handsome, and charming, and so kind – accepting her even in her rags and ashes, with never a word about her background. He had even taken in her stepsisters, at her insistence, believing her assurances that they were capable of improvement if they were removed from their ghastly mother. And they had improved – the Prince himself had acknowledged it, praising her kindness and her wisdom as they watched the sunset together from her balcony after a romantic dinner in her chambers.

Cinderella smiled at the memory, and then at her Godmother. “I will go after him. He is a good man, and I love him – and even if he does not love me, he deserves to make a free choice, not one under duress.”

Her Godmother’s smile was more tentative. “That’s my brave girl. You are as kind as you are beautiful – how could the Prince fail to love you?” She sighed. “Only… my dear, are you quite sure about this?”

Cinderella nodded. “Of course I’m sure.”

Her Godmother sighed again. “Of course you are. In that case, my dear, I have a confession to make.” She paused for a long moment, her expression uncomfortable.

Cinderella leaned forward, her mind casting wildly about for explanations. Could her Godmother be La Cygne? No, that wasn’t it – she had helped Cinderella win the heart of the Prince. What, then?

“The thing is,” her Godmother said, “I’m not actually very good at magic.”

Cinderella blinked. Well, yes, she had been told that, but still… “Of course you are,” she encouraged. “You changed my rags into a ballgown, a pumpkin into a coach, and mice, rats and lizards into horses, a coachman, and footmen! And you gave me those glass slippers – all with a simple wave of your wand! And most of that was transformation magic, too – the most difficult kind! How can you say you are not good at magic?”

The Godmother wrung her hands. “Because those are the only spells I know! Yes, transformation magic is difficult, but for some reason those particular transformations come to me easily. Anything else I try just… fizzles out. And the glass slippers weren’t even magic – they were simply sleight of hand. The rest – charming everyone at the ball and capturing the Prince’s heart – that was all you.”

Cinderella bit her lip. That was… less than helpful. “So… you can’t help me fight La Cygne?”

Her Godmother shook her head. “Not with magic. I never mastered the battle magics, and I have no talismans to give you. I can give you a wand that contains all my spells, and another to break them, but frankly, my dear, I can’t see that they will be of much use to you. One does not require a coach and six to climb a steep mountain – indeed, I would not recommend it at all. And while the footmen might make an army of sorts, they have no particular defenses against magic.”

Cinderella’s heart sank. This was sounding less and less encouraging. “I see,” she said, at last. “Well. I suppose a direct approach was never going to be easy.”

Her Godmother patted her knee encouragingly. “That’s the spirit!” she said.

Cinderella resisted the urge to roll her eyes.

Cinderella set off at dawn.

She did not take her stepsisters with her, nor did she wake them to tell them she was leaving. She might be doomed to die on the Flaming Mountain, but there was no reason her stepsisters should perish beside her.

(There was, too, the smaller, colder fear that her stepsisters would not offer to come with her at all. Cinderella’s friendship with her stepsisters was still new, still fragile. She did not have the courage to test how deep it went.)

She did take her coach and six. She took her coachman, too, and the four footmen who had once been lizards in her cottage garden. And she wore her gown from the Prince’s ball, and her glass slippers – for courage, for luck, and in the hope that the costume which had so enchanted him at the ball would be sufficient to break whatever spell La Cygne had on him now.

She also took the Godmother’s two wands. One never knew what might help.

The first day of travel was fairly easy, if one ignored the fact that the Flaming Mountain sat on the horizon, growing no closer no matter how far they travelled.

The second day was much the same. “She’ll be scrying you, seeing how far you’ve come,” M. Rongeur told her as they sat down for supper in the private room of a local inn. The palace was still in view behind them. “And if she has you in her glass, she can lengthen the road for you, keep you at a distance for as long as she chooses.”

Cinderella frowned. “I thought she wanted to confront me as a thief, and destroy me.”

“Oh, I’m sure she wouldn’t mind doing that,” the coachman said, easily. “But a magical battle always carries some risks, and she doesn’t know what resources you might have at your disposal. If she can wear you down rather than confronting you directly, she will.”

Cinderella raised her brows. She hadn’t thought of magic in quite those terms. “Then… I need to disguise myself,” she thought aloud.

“More than that. You need to change your very essence, so that she has nothing to latch onto.”

Cinderella frowned. This seemed like Godmother magic, but she didn’t really fancy turning into a mouse, or a lizard. Not to mention the problem of how to turn herself back… She walked over to the mirror that stood beside the fireplace. Her gown was still fresh and unstained even after two long days of travel – more Godmother magic, she supposed. Her hair was dressed with flowers and pearls, as befit a princess. She sighed. A log fell in the fire, sending a shower of ash out into the hearth. Ash…

“Nobody recognised me when I went to the Prince’s ball,” she said, consideringly. “Even my step-sisters thought I was a foreign Princess. Why, they told me about myself and marvelled that so great a lady had shared lemons and tangerines with them…”

She pulled out the Godmother’s second wand, and sighed. She really did not want to be Cinder-butt again. But needs must. She flicked the wand at her image in the mirror. “Be yourself again,” she murmured, and closed her eyes.

A twanging sensation buzzed through her body, and when she opened her eyes, she was in ashy rags again. Her hair was loose down her back, and seemed duller, and the flowers and pearls were gone. She looked down. Her feet were still clad in glass slippers lined with fur, incongruous against her plain, ragged dress. She took them off and put them in her apron pocket.

“There,” she said. “No Princess-to-be, seeking her Prince, just a poor orphan girl.”

“A poor orphan girl with a very fine carriage and outriders,” noted M. Rongeur.

Cinderella shrugged. “Perhaps her Fairy Godmother has sent for her,” she suggested, with a touch of bitterness.

M. Rongeur laughed. “Perhaps she has. But you have done well. I think we shall make more progress now.”

And so they did.

The third day’s journey brought them into a deep forest, which stretched on and on. They had not reached the end of it before it was time to stop for the night.

There was no inn to stay in. Cinderella sat on the step of her coach, watching as the footmen gathered wood for a fire, and wondering what to do next. They had nothing to eat or drink, and while they could fast for a night or two if they must, water was essential. There was a stream nearby, but its banks were too steep for the horses, and they had nothing to carry the water in if they went to fetch it.

M. Rongeur came to sit beside her. Now that she was no longer a Princess, he could sit in her presence without being discourteous. “What are you thinking?” he asked.

Cinderella sighed. “I am thinking that it might be time to use the Godmother’s wand again. She was right – I don’t need a coach and six to climb a mountain. But if we turn the coach back into a pumpkin, there will be enough food for all of us, and we can use the shell to collect water for ourselves and for the horses. And then we can ride the horses tomorrow – there are enough for all of us, if we ride bareback.”

The coachman smiled. “There may even be saddles in the coach – I wouldn’t be surprised. I think your plan is sound, Mademoiselle.”

She had been demoted from ‘my lady’, Cinderella noticed. But it was hard to call anyone a lady who dressed as she currently did, and M. Rongeur’s tone was as respectful as ever.

He climbed into the carriage and returned a few minutes later bearing six saddles and harnesses. Cinderella spared a moment of irritation for whoever had equipped a carriage with horseriding gear but had not thought of water flasks.

“That’s the lot, I think,” he said.

Cinderella nodded. “Very well.” She pulled out the Godmother’s wand, and pointed it at the coach. “Be yourself again,” she said, and closed her eyes.

There was a twisting sort of sensation, and when Cinderella opened her eyes again, she was looking at a gigantic pumpkin. It was not as large as the coach had been – no pumpkin grown was ever that size – but it reached her waist, and Cinderella was not a short woman.

“Well,” she said. “I hope someone has a knife. Or an axe.”

They didn’t, but one of the footmen had a sword, and that did the job. Roast pumpkin is certainly better with a little salt, but it is not unpleasant on its own, and the party was pleasantly full by the time their meal was done.

The Flaming Mountain was not at all what Cinderella had expected. She wasn’t sure quite what she had envisaged, but it certainly had not involved a picturesque park with a manmade lake, a grotto, several bridges in differing styles, and a Temple of Venus.

At the centre of the lake was a mountain, its sides bare of vegetation, rising so high that its peak was hidden by clouds. This was what they had seen from a distance. Still, Cinderella was not sure.

“Are you sure this is the Flaming Mountain?” she asked M. Rongeur, quietly.

“Oh yes,” he confirmed. “Mme La Cygne has an interest in landscaping, and studies the picturesque. But this is certainly the Flaming Mountain.”

Cinderella eyed the mountain uncertainly. It did not appear to be flaming, but appearances were presumably deceiving. “Very well,” she said, “Onward we go.” And she nudged her horse into a walk across the bridge.

The mountain, Cinderella realised as she grew closer to it, had a path spiralling around it to the top. This was something of a relief – she had not looked forward to attempting to climb it directly. But the path was steep, and after her horse slipped for the third time, she called a halt.

“I think perhaps we’d better continue on foot,” she said.

M. Rongeur agreed. “We need goats, not horses for a path like this,” he said, dismounting.

The most senior of the footmen nodded. “We’ll do better on foot, Miss Cinders. But what should we do about the horses, then? They aren’t going to turn around easily on a slope like this.”

Miss Cinders. Cinderella supposed it was better than Cinder-butt, but she had rather liked being addressed as Lady Ella. She chose not to address this. “Bring them a little closer to me, if you can,” she said, instead.

Once the horses were gathered around her on the path, she drew out the Fairy Godmother’s second wand. “Be yourselves again,” she murmured, and closed her eyes.

Something flickered in front of her eyelids, and when she opened her eyes again, six fieldmice stood before her. They seemed quite tame. Cinderella looked around her, and sighed. There was not much here for a mouse to eat. “I suppose you had better come with me,” she said, and leaned down so that the mice could hop, one by one, into her apron pocket.

The hill was hard going, especially for one with bare feet. And it was warm, too.  Uncomfortably so, beneath bare feet.   “Can anyone else feel that?” Cinderella asked, but her companions, who all wore strong boots, shook their heads.

The ground grew hotter the higher they climbed. By the time they reached the next bend in the road, Cinderella was forced to call a halt. She sat down on a rock, and drew her feet up under her to give them a break from the heat of the path. “I don’t know about flames,” she remarked, “But this mountain certainly has fire at its heart. Are none of you finding the ground too warm?”

The footmen looked at each other and shrugged. The coachman bent down and felt the ground with one hand. His brows went up as he felt the heat of the mountain. “Perhaps you should put on those glass slippers of yours. They may not be practical for climbing, but they ought to insulate your feet a little.”

Cinderella drew the slippers from her pocket, uncertainly. “Will La Cygne be able to track me if I wear them?” she asked.

M. Rongeur shook his head. “I doubt it. They aren’t strictly magical. And even if she can track you, we’re so close now that it will make little difference. She must know you are coming.”

Cinderella was not entirely convinced by this logic, but it was certain that she could not continue to walk barefoot on these paths. And if she sat much longer on this rather hot rock, she risked becoming an actual Cinder-butt.

She drew on the shoes, and stood, her feet unsteady on the uneven ground. M. Rongeur reached out and drew her arm through his. “So you don’t fall,” he told her.

They had only hobbled a few steps further when the mountain burst into flames in front of them.

Cinderella shrieked and stumbled in her haste to back away from them. M. Rongeur caught her, then stumbled himself as flames shot out of the ground to his right. They both sprawled on the road.

“What on earth…?” Cinderella did not finish the sentence. Clearly, these were the flames that had given the mountain its name. So much was evident. What was less evident was how they might survive this particular hazard. She bit her lip. Surely there must be a way – La Cygne would hardly challenge her to a confrontation if she could not even reach the sorceress’s home.

Or perhaps she would. Perhaps she was hoping that Cinderella would, even now, relinquish her claim to the Prince.

Cinderella clenched her teeth, and pulled herself upright. M. Rongeur followed, and caught her before she fell again as a new gout of flame fountained out of the ground on her left. She leaned against him heavily. “Now what are we to do?” she asked, not particularly expecting an answer.

The footmen seemed to be discussing something in quiet voices, and the senior footman finally cleared his throat. “We might be able to help with that, Miss Cinders. Only you must make us a promise that you will restore us in the end.”

Cinderella blinked. “Restore you?”

The footman nodded. “My brothers and I are footmen now, and we like being human. But before that, we were salamander lizards, and salamanders love the fire. If you make us lizards again, we will go ahead of you and eat the flames as they erupt. But you must promise us that when we reach the bottom of the mountain again, you will use the Fairy Godmother’s wand to restore us to our human forms.”

The other footmen nodded in agreement.

Cinderella’s brows went up. She had never heard of a lizard that could eat fire before, but this would certainly solve her problems. “Very well then,” she said. “I will gladly promise to restore your human forms at the bottom of the mountain, if you will willingly serve me as you have described. And I shall see that you are rewarded for your service – that is, if I am still in a position to do so,” she added, remembering belatedly that this was not a certain outcome.

The senior footman nodded. “Understood. Then we will submit willingly to the transformation.”

Cinderella drew out her Godmother’s wand, and closed her eyes. “Be yourselves again,” she murmured to the footmen, and when she opened her eyes, they were gone, and in their place stood four reddish-gold lizards, blinking at her lazily.

A gout of flame gushed out of the ground to Cinderella’s left, but the salamanders were upon it almost faster than Cinderella could see them move, their tongues flickering out to swallow the flames.

Cinderella blinked. “Well,” she said to M. Rongeur. “It seems that I am very fortunate in my companions. Do you have any hidden talents that I should be aware of?”

M. Rongeur smiled. “Alas, no. I am but an ordinary man.”

Cinderella patted his hand. “But an extraordinarily loyal one. Come. Let us find this sorceress and win back the Prince.

And they walked on, arm in arm, the salamanders leading the way.

La Cygne’s palace was at the very top of the mountain, a marble structure that bore a striking similarity to the Temple of Venus in the park below.

The sorceress greeted Cinderella and her companion at the door. She looked Cinderella up and down with a scornful smile.

“Well. So this is the girl who would be Princess.” She took Cinderella’s chin in her hand and turned her face from side to side. Cinderella gritted her teeth, but did not resist. There would be time for resistance later.

The sorceress released her, and turned away to address someone out of sight. “Pretty enough, I suppose, under all that ash and dirt. I imagine you made her wash when she was at the palace, but she seems to have reverted to type. Nice shoes, though.” She shook her head. “Really, darling. You could at least have dumped me for someone interesting.”

Cinderella smiled a little and shook her head. The sorceress might hold her in contempt, but she had been insulted by her stepmother and step-sisters for years. La Cygne had nothing on Jovette when it came to hurtful remarks.

La Cygne’s eyes narrowed, and she turned to beckon to the person standing in the shadows behind her. “Come, darling. Time to greet your little bride-not-to-be and send her back where she came from.”

A tall, handsome man, richly dressed, stepped out of the shadows and slipped his arms around La Cygne’s waist from behind. It was the Prince, of course. He kissed the side of La Cygne’s throat, and she sighed. “No need to be cruel, sweetheart. You know that you hold my heart in your hand.”

The sorceress laughed, lightly. “Actually, it’s in my pocket at present, but I take your point.” She smiled at Cinderella’s expression. “Oh, don’t worry, dear. It’s quite safe there – locked away in a nice, neat casket. I wouldn’t want to stain my dress, after all.”

Cinderella looked from the sorceress to the Prince, and back again. Her Prince did not even look at her. His gaze was fixed entirely on La Cygne, an adoring expression on his face.

“You really mean that literally,” she murmured, horrified.

La Cygne smiled. “Literally, metaphorically – it’s all the same, really, once magic is involved. But yes, I really do have my Prince’s heart locked away, safe and sound. It’s for his own good – he had no idea how to take care of it. Imagine, a Prince allowing his heart to be stolen by a peasant! And it is only fair, after all,” she added, more softly. “He stole my heart long ago, and is yet to return it.”

Cinderella cast a startled look at her betrothed. Surely he hadn’t been literally stealing hearts? She certainly had hers still. She could tell by the way it was aching.

“I… see,” she said. Though she didn’t. “Will you allow me to speak to him, then? Since his heart is yours already, it can do no harm. And if my betrothal is broken, I would like to hear it from his lips.”

The sorceress narrowed her eyes at this apparent capitulation. “Very well,” she said, and stepped away from the Prince. He released her with a reluctance that made Cinderella’s stomach hurt.

She stepped forward anyway, and laid a hand on her beloved’s arm. “My Prince,” she said softly. “Are you well?”

The Prince stepped back from her touch, eyeing her with concern. “I fear you must be confused, young lady. I don’t believe I know you.”

Cinderella drew in a shocked breath. “It is I, your Ella. Do you not recognise me? Surely you remember how I was when you first found me? The glass slipper?” she waved a foot in the air, rather indelicately.

The Prince cast a startled look at her feet, then back at her face. “Ella? My God, what happened to you?”

Cinderella’s mouth twisted. “My dear Prince, I have walked through the wilderness and up the Flaming Mountain to find you. I could hardly do so in a ballgown.”

The Prince’s eyes widened. “You should not have done so at all! Such a journey is too dangerous for a delicate lady.” He looked as though he was having some doubts about her delicacy.

Cinderella caught his hands in hers again. “My Prince, you must know that I love you. When I heard you had been taken, I came at once to rescue you, and to bring you home. Would you not have done the same for me? Do you not love me?”

The Prince stared at her, a trapped expression on his face. The silence grew long, and Cinderella turned away, biting back tears.

“A word, your grace,” M. Rongeur stepped forward to stand beside her, breaking the impasse. He bowed to the Prince. “My lady is distraught, as you see. Would you, of your kindness, send for refreshments, and give her a little time to recover herself?”

The Prince looked relieved. “Yes, of course. Of course I will. You just… sit down and make yourself comfortable, Ella, dear. I’m sure… everything will be alright.” He patted her hand awkwardly and fled. The sorceress smirked and followed him.

“Oh God, I am an idiot.” Cinderella sank down into the chair she had been offered and hid her face in her hands.

“Not at all, my lady.”

Cinderella blinked. “I am my lady again now, am I?”

M. Rongeur smiled. “In this place, you must claim every advantage you have. And you must know, my lady, that your Prince is bespelled.”

“His heart in her hand… or her pocket,” Cinderella remembered. “Is that why he cannot love me? But how am I to get him back?”

“With the contents of your own pockets,” said M. Rongeur. “The field mice, remember? They are good at gnawing things. Sent them to chew the seam out of La Cygne’s pocket – they will do so willingly, since you have treated them kindly. Then, when your betrothed’s heart is back in your hands, we shall see what we shall see.”

Cinderella drew a breath. “Very well,” she said. She reached into her apron pocket and carefully lifted out the mice. “Mice, will you do this for me? I fear that it may be risky for you, but if you help me, I will reward you well. You may live as mice or as horses, or as anything else that I may make of you, and whatever you are, you will have the finest of food and lodging for the rest of your lives.”

The mice seemed to hold some sort of consultation, then as one, they jumped off her lap and hurried out of the room.

A servant entered, bearing a tray of bread, cheese and fruit and a carafe of water. Cinderella ate and drank gratefully, her mind entirely on the Prince. Was he truly bespelled? Or did the spell merely restore to him his natural feelings? It would be understandable if he loved the sorceress. She was very beautiful – far more so than Cinderella, she thought. And she was clearly of noble birth, and had known the Prince for some time – a much better match for him than Cinderella.

The servant removed the tray, and Cinderella and M. Rongeur were left alone in the receiving room. Cinderella wondered how long they would be staying here. The sorceress, at least, did not appear to be trying to kill her. She seemed more disposed to demonstrate to Cinderella at every turn her own superiority, and the Prince’s love for her. It was a good tactic, Cinderella thought. If the Prince truly did love La Cygne, then Cinderella could not possibly marry him. For a peasant girl to marry the Prince who loved her was one thing – a true happy-ever-after, even if she must work to become the Princess he needed. But for a peasant girl to marry a Prince who loved her not at all and did not desire the marriage… no. There was no way that such a marriage could go well for Cinderella.

She wondered how the mice were doing. Had they been caught? Surely not, or the sorceress would have returned…

On the thought, the door opened, and La Cygne entered the room. Her smile was kinder this time, and a touch pitying, as she took the seat opposite Cinderella’s.

“Well, my dear. You are fed and rested, and you see that the Prince is in safe hands. Will you not relinquish him to me? I will take good care of him. I do love him, you know, more than you ever could.” She sighed. “Seven years we were in love, and betrothed for the last three of them. That ball was to be our wedding ball, you know, but I fell ill, and the Prince… fell for you, apparently.” She eyed Cinderella in some puzzlement, then shook her head. “A momentary aberration; but he is restored now, and that is what matters.

“I’m willing to be generous, of course. I am quite wealthy, you know; I could give you a very fair dowry – even dowries for those step-sisters of yours, though I can’t see how you would want anything to do with them. What do you say?”

Cinderella opened her mouth to reply, then shut it again. Something was scrabbling at her ankle. She looked down and saw four mice, with a casket balanced between them. The Prince’s heart! Quickly, she caught it up and rose, clutching it to to her chest.

“I say that he is not restored if you must rely on spells to win his love. I say that perhaps he was fickle to you because he did not truly love you – or perhaps he was fickle because that was his nature – or perhaps he did love you, as a friend and companion, but fell in love with me and realised that friendship and companionship were not enough. And I say that I will not relinquish the Prince unless he first relinquishes me – freely and without coercion!”

The sorceress dived for the Cinderella, but M. Rongeur was between them, blocking her. Cinderella held the casket tightly, realising that she had no idea what to do with it now that she had it. La Cygne shrieked, and the Prince ran into the room, and stopped short.

“Ella?” he said, his gaze wondering, “Can it really be you?” In three quick steps he was by her side, clasping Cinderella to him as though he would never let go.

La Cygne was still struggling with M. Rongeur, but the Prince paid no attention, and Cinderella, lost in her Prince’s eyes, was equally oblivious. “My Prince,” she said. “Do you truly love me, then?”

The Prince’s arms tightened around her. “My dearest love, of course I do! Do you not know that you hold my heart in your hands?” He bent to kiss her, but Cinderella put a hand up to stop him.

“Wait,” she said.

The Prince looked confused, but he stepped back, as she had asked. Cinderella motioned to La Cygne. “Do you not love La Cygne?”

The sorceress stared at the Prince, her eyes pleading. “Why, Corbelle,” the Prince said slowly. “I did not see you there.”

The sorceress bared her teeth, struggling in M. Rongeur’s grip.

“Do you not love her?” Cinderella insisted.

The Prince looked at her in confusion. “Why – as a friend, certainly,” he said. “Corbelle and I have known each other half our lives. We even imagined ourselves in love, once upon a time.   But then I met you, and I knew that this was different – that you were the only one for me.”

Cinderella looked down at the casket in her hands, and sighed. She held it out to the Prince. “Here,” she said. “This belongs to you. You should take better care of it.”

The Prince blinked, and looked down at the golden casket. He turned it over in his hands, looking for a hinge, or an opening, then looked up at Cinderella again. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Is there no key?”

Cinderella shook her head, and reached into her apron pocket. She drew out the Fairy Godmother’s wand one final time, and pointed it at the Prince. “Be yourself again,” she whispered, and closed her eyes.

When she opened it, the casket was gone, and the Prince stood before her, looking from Cinderella to Corbelle and back again.

“Ella? Corbelle? What is going on? How did we come here?”

La Cygne stepped forward, and M. Rongeur drew back, discreetly. “My love, do you not remember? I am your betrothed.”

The Prince’s brows drew together. “Are you? I thought I was betrothed to Ella…” his voice trailed off as he gazed at Cinderella. “Are you Ella?” he asked, uncertainly.

“Yes, my Prince, I am, and your betrothed and your true love, too.”

The Prince frowned, his eyes flicking from her ragged dress, to her shoes, to her face, and then back to La Cygne, uncertainly.

There was an uncomfortable silence.

La Cygne stepped forward another pace. “My Prince, it is true that Ella is your betrothed. We were to be wed, but I fell sick shortly before our wedding day, and you fell in love with Ella and jilted me. I do not blame Ella – she did not know that you were already spoken for – but I do blame you, my Prince. To know and love me for seven years, and then to leave me without a word for a peasant girl? Surely you owed me more than that.”

Cinderella thought so too.

The Prince looked from La Cygne back to Cinderella again, and winced. “I… fell in love with you?” he said, his voice incredulous. Cinderella winced in her turn.

“Yes, my Prince. At the King’s ball. My godmother gave me a wondrous gown, and I danced with you until the stroke of midnight – and when I had to leave, you came after me and found me, and promised to marry me. I did not know you were betrothed. I thought you loved me.”

The Prince frowned. “I did love you,” he agreed, slowly.

He did not say any more. He did not need to.

Cinderella bowed her head, her heart clenching within her. “Very well,” she said, her voice feeling as though it came from somewhere outside her body. “I thank you for your hospitality, then. I had better be on my way.”

La Cygne walked with her to the door. “I meant it about the dowries,” she said. “You should not suffer for my Prince’s fickleness. Not when you didn’t know.”

Cinderella shook her head. “You do not need to buy him from me,” she said. “Or if you do – let my price be this promise from you: that you will not steal his heart from him again.”

La Cygne nodded, her gaze serious. “You have my word,” she said.

And Cinderella gathered up her mice, and her salamander lizards, and her coachman, and her tears, and walked back down the mountain.

At the bottom of the mountain, she pulled out the Godmother’s first wand, and pointed it at the salamanders. “Be men again, if that is what you desire,” she said.

And they were – four handsome footmen, with hair the colour of flames.

She pointed the first wand at the mice. “Be horses, if that is what you desire, or mice, if that is what you prefer, or any other good thing you choose that this wand can make of you.”

And they were – three horses, one young woman in a red cape, one mouse, and a salamander lizard.

Cinderella turned to her faithful coachman. “And you, M. Rongeur? You have been my faithful friend on this journey, and I owe you any good thing that you may ask of me. Would you be a rat again, or would you remain as you are?”

M. Rongeur bowed deeply. “My lady, you have honoured me with your friendship, and I place no small value on that. Yet I would wear my own shape again, if you would be so kind.”

Cinderella felt her heart twist inside her again. She had loved the Prince, but her time with him had always seemed like a dream – something too beautiful to sustain. But her coachman had been her true friend, kind and loyal and clever beyond her deserts. She swallowed.  “Very well,” she said, sadly. “If that is your choice, then I owe you no less. But I will miss you very much.”

M. Rongeur smiled a little. “I hope not too for too long,” he said. “Come, do your magic. I am eager to be myself.”

Cinderella reached up and kissed him on the cheek. She pointed the wand at him, and closed her eyes, willing back the tears. “Be yourself again,” she whispered.

The ground seemed to shift beneath her and Cinderella wobbled, off balance in her glass slippers. Strong arms came around her, steadying her and clasping her close. She opened her eyes in alarm. The man holding her was young and handsome and a complete stranger. She shoved at his chest as hard as she could, and his arms loosened a little.

“Let go of me!” she cried, and the man released her, stepping back with a small smile.  There was something familiar about that smile.

“Why, Cinderella,” he murmured, “Do you not miss me yet?”

Cinderella’s eyes widened, and she looked about quickly, but there was no rat anywhere that she could see. Was M. Rongeur so eager to return to his old life that he had left her so fast?

The young man smiled again. “There is no rat here, Cinderella,” he said, his voice gentle. “Only me. I was a rat once, it is true – I was rude to a sorceror in my youth, and he transformed me until I should learn better manners. And then your Godmother found me and transformed me a second time, into your coachman. But when you broke her spell, you told me to be myself again, not what I had been most recently, and so here I am – Prince Beausouris of the Glass Mountain.”

“A prince?” Cinderella felt dazed.

“In very deed. And your husband, if you will have me. For I must tell you that I have loved you for some months – for your sweet nature, and your gentleness, and your kindness to your step-sisters. And I have learned in these last weeks to admire you for your courage and your resourcefulness and your willingness to face danger for those you love. Do you think you could ever love me in return?”

Cinderella sat down rather suddenly on a convenient log. “A prince…” she repeated. An unfamiliar anger began to grow in her.  “Another prince,” she corrected herself.  “And you did not tell me?”

Prince Beausouris spread his hands.  “The spell would not allow me to seek its dissolution, nor to tell anyone of my true nature.

“I am sorry that I could give you no hint of my identity earlier. But now I am free to speak as I choose, and I tell you, freely, that I am in love with you – with Cinderella, and with Lady Ella, and even with Cinder-butt. Have you noticed that you are the only person on this journey who was restored to her true self without any need for magic?”

Cinderella swallowed.  It was, she knew, irrational to grieve the loss of M. Rongeur, or to be angry with him for becoming a Prince, but she had liked him.  More to the point, she had trusted him, and relied upon him.  His loyalty had been to her alone.  Prince Beausouris might be the same person, but he was still a Prince, and his loyalties were less certain.  How could she trust him?

He was kneeling before her now, her hands held gently in his.  “Will you marry me, my dearest love?” he asked.

She bit her lip.  “I am not entirely sure that I want to be a Princess,” she said.  It was true, too.  Adjusting to life in the palace had been hard work, and there had been times when only her love for her Prince and her fear of her stepmother had kept her from running back to the house in which she had been born.

Prince Beausouris smiled a little.  “For that matter, I’m not entirely sure whether I still have a kingdom to be Prince of,” he replied.  He released her hands, dusting off his knees as he got to his feet.  “I was a rat for quite some time before your Godmother transformed me. I imagine my brother’s son is the King by now.  Perhaps even his son.”

Cinderella felt her brow crinkle.  “Then… how do you suppose that we would live, if we were to marry?”

Prince Beausouris shrugged.  “I imagine I could claim a small inheritance, at least.  There is a time-honoured tradition of paying unwanted heirs to go away.  And if not… well, I am young, and healthy and strong.  I’m sure I could find employment somewhere.  The question is, what do you want?”

Cinderella was not used to being in charge of her own future.  She frowned.  “I did say you were owed any good thing you might ask of me…”

Prince Beausouris shook his head. “Ah no ­– I will not have you marry me because you feel you must. If you cannot love me, then say so, and I shall simply be your faithful friend.”

Cinderella looked up at the handsome prince who stood before her. Her Prince? She was not yet sure. “I do like you,” she said, honestly. “But I don’t know if I can love you. It’s too soon – too unexpected. Can you give me time to be sure?”

Prince Beausouris reached down a hand and drew her to her feet. “Of course, my love. We have all the time in the world.”

And the two good friends – who might, one day, be more than that – gathered their entourage around them, and began the long walk back to the palace.

 

station

Hot Mountains, Stations and Geology

Buttes Chaumont is a station in the 19th arondissement, which opened in 1912, on what was then Line 7 but later became Line 7b.  It is named for the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, which is a rather magnificent public park built on the site of an old gypsum quarry.  The park was built as part of Haussmann’s reimagining of Paris under Napoleon III, and it’s quite spectacular and picturesque, with a man-made lake, bridges, grottoes and a Temple of Venus at the top of a steep cliff that was once one of the walls of the quarry.  But at the same time, it’s very much a local park – when I visited, the paths were full of joggers and walkers and cyclists, and I suspect if I had been there on a weekend, there would have been families and children.  It felt oddly like visiting my local Coburg Lake Reserve.

A ‘butte’ in French is a mound, and the word ‘Chaumont’ comes from ‘chauve mont’ or ‘bald mountain’ – the baldness being a lack of trees due to the high levels of clay and gypsum in the soil.  But when you say ‘chaumont’, it also sounds like ‘chaud mont’ or ‘hot mountain’, which suggested either a volcano or some sort of fairy-tale obstacle.  (Obviously, I went with the latter, but if geology is more your thing, I do recommend this fascinating article about the geological history of Paris and how the landscape and, to an extent, the city’s wealth was shaped by gypsum mining, around Buttes Chaumont and elsewhere.)

I think the story of Cinderella is sufficiently well-known that I don’t need to revisit it here, except to note that in Perrault’s Cendrillon, the slippers were probably made of fur, not glass, and Cinderella’s sister Jovette frequently calls her ‘Culcendron’, which is in fact somewhat ruder than ‘Cinder-butt’, but while I couldn’t resist referencing this, I also couldn’t quite bring myself to use the exact translation.  Cinder-butt is close enough for story purposes…

While on the subject of names, the coachman who was once a rat, goes by the name M. Rongeur, which translates to Mr Rodent (the French word for Rat is simply ‘rat’, which didn’t seem very elegant, or very subtle).  Once he is a Prince again, his name becomes Beausouris – handsome mouse.  La Cygne means ‘the swan’ in French, and while ‘Corbelle’ isn’t a real word, or even a real name, it is a feminised version of the noun ‘corbeau’, which means raven.

The glass slipper and pumpkin illustrations I used are from http://cliparts.co, and is free with attribution.  The portrait of Cinderella is by Edward Burne-Jones (1863) and is in the public domain, obtained in this instance from Wikimedia Commons.  And the photograph of Buttes Chaumont I took myself when I visited the park in 2016.

 

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Bolivar
Buttes Chaumont
Botzaris