It was snowing at last.
After the heat of summer and the rains of fall the king's palace was finally covered in white, glistening in the light of its countless lanterns and candles set up to celebrate the upcoming winter solstice. White, too, was the whole kingdom, the towns and little villages, the empty fields and the houses where people now crowded together from the winter cold.
From one of these houses chattering voices came. Two women stood there, wrapped in coats and shawls, talking to each other while a young man took their measurements for new pairs of winter boots.
"—and even the commoners are invited, they say," one was telling the other. "The ladies and the gentlemen, too. Apparently this new prince doesn't discriminate."
"What a rumor!" said the second. "But how can he produce an heir if he winds up marrying a man?"
"Adoption, I s'pose," the first one mused. "They do say it's better, actually, picking out your heir instead of taking what Mother Nature gives you."
The second one pursed her lips. "That still sounds too good to be true."
"Well, 's not like we'll get much out of it, most of us," said the first. "I'm taking my Clara of course, but I doubt she'll strike anyone's fancy, she's no beauty—oh, done already? That's a dear!"
The young shoemaker bowed, brushing an overlong strand of hair from his face. "Your shoes should be ready in two or three days," he told the women. "If something comes up, I'm sending my stepsisters to let you know."
The two women looked at each other, concern passing over their faces. Finally the second one spoke.
"You know, Cinder," she said, "they've been your family for so long. Isn't it about time you start calling them your sisters?"
Cinder squirmed, then he clicked his tongue, turning away. "I don't see them as my sisters," he said. "They're just annoyances."
The shoemaker didn't bother defending himself. It wasn't like these ladies had to provide for their whole family by themselves, with one grown woman and two teenagers mooching off their hard-earned money to live a lifestyle they couldn't afford. They wouldn't understand even if he tried to explain.
"Leave it," the first woman said to the second. "Lad's been through a lot already, at his tender age. Maybe this is his way of dealing with it."
Cinder's eye twitched. Pity again. How he hated it: being pitied, being treated as a sad little boy who couldn't look after himself. But these two were customers, so he kept his mouth shut.
"We're closing," he said out loud. "And you should get home before the streets are snowed in."
The women looked at each other, then at him, and bade him goodnight with a smile and a wave. "Thank you again, dear!"
Cinder grumbled something unintelligible.
"He's so efficient," one woman's voice came from outside as they left. "Soon he'll be working faster than his father back in the day!"
"Tell me about it," said the other. "If only he would smile sometimes..."
Their voices faded from hearing, and Cinder locked the door behind them and relaxed.
Peace for tonight. At least for a little while.
Now he could finally sit down in the quiet workshop, count today's earnings and spendings, figure out how much he could put aside. Despite his family's best efforts to ruin their fortune, he was still trying to save up. Just a little, just in case.
So what had happened to him…wouldn't happen again.
He had been sitting in peace for barely a few minutes when the door slammed open, and in came his stepsisters. Izetta and Marietta looked so much alike that few people could tell them apart, but they weren't twins; Izetta was almost two years older. Not that Cinder cared. He rarely bothered to treat them as separate individuals, except when Izetta was being marginally less annoying.
"Cinder, Cinder!" they shouted as they barged into his workshop, without knocking, as usual. "Big news! Have you heard the news?"
If they started off like this, it could mean anything from someone's cat giving birth to straight-up murder in the streets. Cinder wasn't in a mood to guess. "How many times have I told you to knock?"
"Come on, we're your family! You never said anything about Dad coming in here," said Izetta, sitting down on his desk, on top of his papers, chattering like a waterfall. "Anyway, this is huge! You have to hear it!"
Knowing her, that could still mean anything. "I don't care," he snapped. "I'm working."
"You're always working," Marietta remarked.
"Well, someone has to! Food and coals don't pay for themselves!" To say nothing of clothes, Cinder added in his head, but he wouldn't go down that road now. "Without my work you'd all be out there starving in the streets!"
Marietta rolled her eyes. "My new dress wasn't that expensive."
"To you, maybe."
"Well, excuse me for not wanting to wear the same old rags for five years like you!" Marietta huffed. "I'm still growing! I'm almost at the age where I can start looking for a husband!"
"You're fourteen. Sit down."
"The girls gossip, all right? If I dress ugly—"
"How is that my problem?"
"Okay, stop," Izetta interrupted them. "The news is that the prince—the crown prince—he's having a ball soon. And—"
"—all the single young people in the kingdom are invited," Marietta cut her off. "Because—"
"He's looking for someone to marry!" Izetta finished the story. "How lovely is that? You could become a prince or a princess!"
They both stared at Cinder. There was a long pause.
"And?" he asked. "What does that have to do with me?"
The sisters groaned.
"I told you he's a lost cause," Izetta said to Marietta. Turning back to Cinder, she added, "Well, it's the chance of a lifetime, of course! If he were to pick out one of us, it'd be the end of our worries! We'd never have to think about money again!"
They both stared at Cinder again, their eyes sparkling with expectation.
The stare he gave back was completely blank.
"Great," he said. "Good luck. Anything else you want?"
For the second time that evening the girls gave a groan.
This one, they realized, would be a much harder nut to crack than winning the heart of any prince in the world.
~ ~ ~
At that moment, that very same prince was extremely busy with the princely duty of staring miserably out the window and watching the snowflakes fall.
"And I can't even build a snowman," he muttered, glaring at his reflection in the glass. "What's the point of being a prince if you can't even make a snowman when it snows?"
The knight opposite him made no answer. She had known him long enough to be used to comments like this.
"Olly," he groaned, turning to her. "Can't you study this for me? The snow's so nice outside."
Sir Olive (sometimes Oliver), his bodyguard and older half-sister, crossed her arms and smirked. "Finish studying, then you can play," she said.
"Don't make puppy-dog eyes at me," she said. "No means no."
"You're no fun."
"And you need to grow up."
The prince slumped face-first onto his open book. "Father said the same," he said. "And that's why he's doing this whole stupid ball thing to find me a spouse. I don't want a stupid ball!" He raked a hand through his hair. "I want to meet the right person when the moment's right, and then I want to slowly fall in love and sweep them off their feet and it's perfect and romantic and everything. I can't do that at a ball with a thousand people!"
Olive rolled her eyes. Always the same ramblings, the same hopelessly romantic nonsense. As if he didn't want to know the truth. As if he didn't want to realize that he was a prince and he couldn't wait for his one perfect love story. She had tried to explain it, of course. It seemed to go in one ear and out the other, like everything he didn't want to know.
So she just shrugged and sighed.
"Who knows," she said.
Outside the window the snow kept falling.
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