If there is a life outside this one, she does not know it.
Years of the same painful routine strip away the outside world. She's left locked within the land her father left her, and a fireplace she sleeps by. Her stepmother takes her father's property and holds it away from her. Her stepsisters call out order after order for their favorite servant Cinderella.
And it is the only life she knows.
There are nights when she looks back on her life and finds that her happiest memories have slipped away from her. She gathers the fragments and holds them close to her chest, going over them night after night until her childhood is complied into a neat list of memory.
Her mother is the first to be lost in the void of time; gone are the melodies she once sang, what her eyes looked like, how she danced in the garden. What is remembered is the frail hands of a sick woman, the soft smiles, and a gentle voice murmuring:
No matter what happens, you must be kind. There is a strength in kindness the world can never break down
Her father's ghost remains locked in her ribcage; when she thinks of him, she sees his laughter, the strong hands that lifted her onto his shoulders, the worn out hat he wore each time he rode away. They won't tell her what happened to him, just that he died and there was no body to bury.
Cinderella drifts off to the voice of her father:
I promise I'll be home soon, Ella. You know I never break my promises.
"Cinderella! Come fix my dress!"
"Cinderella! Don't be so late with breakfast! You can eat at lunch."
"Cinderella! I spilled your last two inkwells. Won't you be a dear and clean it up for me?"
The cruel taunts and laughter press down on her shoulders until it's all she can do to not crumple under the weight of the world. She keeps her head down and does as they say. She doesn't look them in the eye. She goes hungry, but she doesn't cry.
"Be kind," her mother had said.
"I must be kind to them," she whispers, "Come on, don't let them get to you, Cinderella. Be kind."
Especially to those who do not deserve it.
They only let her into town once a week to buy what they cannot make on the farm. It's the same day, the same shops, the same people.
Nothing ever changes: the people give her smiles and make small talk, ask her how her step family is doing. Some will worry over her soot-stained cheeks and tell her she's been working too hard. Cinderella gives a tight smile back and leaves quickly. They always worry, never enough to take her away from her step family. They always worry, but only when she's around to remind them of how poorly the orphan is doing.
Cinderella keeps smiling, and moves on with her chores.
There's nothing else for her to do, after all.
"I read to you a message from the royal family! In fives days time, a ball will be held in honor of the Prince's birthday. The ball will take place over the course of three nights, and will be where the Prince shall choose his bride. Every women, no matter how young or old, poor or rich, is hereby formally invited to the ball."
The message is put up at the center of town. News travels quickly, and gossip even faster; within four hours, Cinderella is pulled away from cleaning the lunch dishes and dragged out to town.
"Coriel said that she saw Mura buying a orange dress. Simply tacky," Stepmother sneers, and turns to her daughters with a sharp-toothed smile. "You girls will pick something more tasteful, yes?"
"Yes, mother!" they chorus, "We'll look nothing like Mura! Her taste is closer to Cinderella's than ours!" Their high pitched giggles fill the air and Cinderella doesn't look any of them in the eye.
Stepmother leads the way, carving out a path in the crowds of excited women, and enters store after store. It takes six for her to find the dresses she likes enough to buy, and four more to buy shoes and jewelry. Her oldest daughter finds dresses three stores in, and her youngest takes ten stores.
Cinderella, of course, only gets to carry their purchases and pray that she doesn't trip.
Every woman, young and old, rich and poor.
But no. It's every women except Cinderella.
She will never go to the ball, no matter how much she wants too. That doesn't mean she won't try.
The calls start before dawn. She's never gotten up so early before. For a long moment, she lays besides the fire place, cold now that the fire has died, and hopes the voice only came from a dream.
"Cinderella! Wake up!"
Cinderella sighs and stands. She doesn't bother to wipe the ashes off her dress; it can hardly get any more stained. She goes out and feeds the chickens, collects their eggs, and sets out a small bit of cheese for the mice that keep her company. She milks the cows and sets up for breakfast.
It's only then, after an hour, that she heads up to the sisters' rooms.
No doubt they'll be annoyed by how long it took. It's petty, but Cinderella is satisfied to upset them in such a small way.
"Where have you been?!" Annabella screeches, flinging herself towards Cinderella. "The ball is today and we have to get ready!"
"The ball isn't until six in the evening. Prepare in the afternoon." Cinderella spares a moment to glance over the room; Annabella has her wardrobe open, clothing falling out. Gistelle ignores them both as she brushes her hair, but her dress is also laid out on her bed.
Stepmother will be up soon, and breakfast isn't made yet. Cinderella leaves and ignores the sisters when they cry out. She can be kind later.
After hours of pulling corsets and lacing up dresses, her step family is ready to go. They do up their hair and drape pearls over their collar bones, the picture perfect image of wealth. Her father's wealth. The thought of what they do to his earnings makes her sick.
Cinderella hurries to wash her face and hands free of soot. Her mother's old dress is still soft after twelve years, and putting it on makes her feel like a child playing dress-up again. She has no shoes besides her work boots, but it would have to do.
It's a risk, going after them now. But she can not walk to the castle. Only hope that Stepmother will be kind enough to allow her to come.
They tear her mother's dress to pieces. They laugh and mock her, and Stepmother slaps her across the face for daring to come along with her. The sudden silence is suffocating.
It's the first time she's ever raised a hand to Cinderella. The shock of it holds off the tears, but it's a close thing.
"Now, Cinderella," Stepmother says, holding Cinderella's chin so she can't look away, "I only do this because I care for you. Going to the ball will only hurt you. You know you don't belong with people like us."
Everything you own comes from my father. It's more mine that it is yours.
The words lodge in her throat, choking her, and she can't speak.
This isn't care or kindness. You only know cruelty. I wish you died instead of father.
They leave, but the sick joy on Annabella and Gistelle's faces are gone. They glance back at her, wide-eyed and pale, and Cinderella wonders if they even knew how much they hurt her.
In the pain that came from the night, Cinderella tears off the rest of the dress and sobs. She's never cried this much before. Hasn't cried at all since father died.
The manor is silent and no piece of her parents is left after all the remodeling Stepmother did. Cinderella leaves, running blindly and she struggles to wipe tears away.
I have been kind, her heart says. What more can I do? Is this really what I deserve?
"Please," Cinderella begs, "Just make it stop."
No one has ever listened before.
But this time, the world stops. A star lights up the night sky and falls to the earth.
Cinderella cups the light in her hands and cradles it to her chest. It's so warm, like a mother's hug, and Cinderella thinks that if she is to die soon, she will be satisfied with it.
The star glows lighter, enough to blind, and stardust swirls around her.
The dress that adorns her body is silver and glimmers in the light. Pale slippers fit her feet perfectly, looking like diamonds, and the star itself rests against her chest in the form of a necklace.
Cinderella grasps it with her hands and looks to the sky.
The moon's reflection in the garden's pond rises up and becomes a carriage. The wind turns into horses, and flowers become carriage men.
The manor is left far behind. And ahead, is the castle.
"May I have this dance?" the Prince asks.
"I don't know how to dance," Cinderella replies.
"Just follow my lead, and you'll be fine."
The Prince leads her to the gardens. They laugh and dance under the moonlight, and talk about their lives.
"My parents wanted this ball. I didn't. But I could not change their minds," he admits, "I feel like an object being shown off. No one calls me by my name anymore."
"I miss my parents," she whispers, "Stepmother is cruel, but I think it's because she loves her daughters too much, and I remind her of what they could have become. They gave me a new name, made to remind me that I am lower than them. I can't escape this life."
"You have been more honest with me tonight than anyone has been in years. Please, call me Henri. I wish to have you has a friend."
"They call me Cinderella, because I have to sleep by a fireplace to be warm and the cinders stain my skin. I only know how to be a servant, not a friend."
"Just be yourself. That's all I ask of you."
The dress begins to fade as the stars disappear. Cinderella runs away from Henri, from the ball, and travels down the long road to the Manor as dawn arrives. Behind her, the ball dies down, and the attendees begin to return home to sleep away a night of dancing.
It feels like a dream. A dream she never wants to wake up from.
The second night, Henri asks, "Why don't you ever leave them?"
Cinderella runs her hand along the soft petals of the roses that grown in the castle gardens. "They can't survive on their own. Just because they are cruel doesn't mean I have to be."
"You show them more kindness than you show yourself." There is nothing she can say to that. "I wish I could help you, but they would marry us within a day."
"Henri, you are kind and charming, and I wish I could marry you but I will not leave one life of servitude for another."
He smiles and looks up at the stars. "I understand. I have my duties and I must see them through, no matter what I want."
"I don't think I'll come tomorrow night," Cinderella admits, "I am someone else here, and going back to the Manor hurts."
Henri is silent for a long time. His face is lost in shadow and he looks so small. The sight breaks her heart, already so fragile, but Cinderella know what she must do, and she refuses to back down. She has been the helpless maiden for too long. If no hero will come for her, she will be her own hero.
Finally, Henri smiles. It's small and sad, but it's a smile regardless. "In that case, will you dance with me one last time before our goodbye?"
In another life she could have loved him. But Cinderella has lived her life hurting and surviving just to please the people who will never love her. Her nights with Henri have reminded her of what she had long forgotten: we must always be kind, but we must not forget to be kind to ourselves as well.
There is no one left in this world to mourn her should she die. So Cinderella will relearn how to be kind to herself; no more will she sacrifice herself for the people who only want her to hurt.
She will live and be kind regardless of what she suffers through.
Kindness is strength; Cinderella vows to never be weak again.
Gistelle finds her packing third night. She claimed feeling sick and weakly, and Stepmother let her stay home on the last ball night.
It isn't the first time she's lied.
"You're leaving, aren't you." It's more statement than questions, but Cinderella still answers.
"Yes," she says, "I can't stay here any longer."
Gistelle fidgets with her bracelet, then gathers her courage and looks Cinderella in the eye. "I'm sorry about Mother. I never thought she would hit you. Especially not for wanting to go to the ball. I would have done the same as you."
"She only did it because she loves you."
"What do you mean?"
"You lost your father when you were young. She remarried to make sure she had enough wealth to let you and Annabella live comfortably. She hates me because I remind her of what you could have become."
"That doesn't make it right."
Cinderella pauses, then sits down at the kitchen's small table. "No," she agrees, "It doesn't. But I understand why she did it."
"I'm sorry, too, for how I've treated you. All these years I've hurt you. I thought it was just a bit of fun, and you never spoke against it."
"I just wanted to be kind to you. But in doing so, I stopped being kind to myself. That's why I have to leave."
Gistelle nods. For once, there is no cruel satisfaction in her eyes. The haughty air of a privileged girl is gone. What is left is a young girl hunching into herself as though to hide. The guilt is plain to see on her face, and Cinderella finds that she can't be mad for all the things she did in the past. She just loved her mother too much to see her faults, and did as she did.
"Annabella's sorry too, but she's never been good at apologizing."
"I know," Cinderella smiles, kindly, and it's enough to make Gistelle's eyes water.
She crosses the room and gathers Cinderella up into a hug. "I'll miss you," she whispers, then backs away just as quickly. "I'm glad you got to enjoy the ball though."
Cinderella startles. "What?"
"Your necklace. It's the same one the mystery girl wears. Are you going to marry him?"
"No. I just wanted to go to the ball. Henri is my friend, but nothing more. He knows that. He's the only one I said goodbye to."
"Add me to that list then," Gistelle says, "Goodbye."
Cinderella doesn't run. She walks through the quiet night. In the distance, the castle is full of light. Most everyone from the town is there.
She walks and the star on her chest glows to illuminate her path. It's surreal, leaving the Manor and knowing she never has to go back.
She walks until the dawn comes, painting the world around her in soft light. It's quiet, and though she's tired, she keeps going.
Far from the town, is a forest. Beyond it is another kingdom. There, Henri waits for her, with two horses.
"Cinderella," he says. "There is one thing I can do for you." He hands her the reigns of one horse.
"Mariella," she says. "Call me Mariella. I no longer wish to be bound to the identity my step family gave me."
"Mariella," Henri repeats. "A lovely name. I wish you to best of luck in your travels."
"I'll miss you," she says, then pulls herself up onto the horse.
"And I'll miss you." They've already said goodbye, so all Henri does is wave her off as she follows the path from the forest and disappears from sight.
After so many years of the same hurts, Mariella emerges from the forest without soot on her cheeks and a smile on her lips.
There is a life outside of pain.
It's the life she chooses.