"I said no!"
Slamming his hand on the table, Cinder pushed aside his dinner plate, glaring at his stepsisters and stepmother alike. "No!" he repeated. "I am not going to a ball no matter what you tell me! No!"
The girls rolled their eyes. "But why not?" Marietta burst out. "You're so stubborn!"
"Waste of time," Cinder answered, going back to his food. "Waste of money. It's pointless."
Izetta looked almost distressed when she said, "Why would you say that?"
"Why wouldn't I? Even if I dragged myself there, wasted a whole evening talking to strangers and dancing, the chances the prince would pick me are next to none." Cinder took a large bite from his bread. "I'm a guy, for a start. You two have much better chances, so stop bothering me."
"But you're the closest to him in age," said Marietta.
"And he's explicitly looking for a woman or a man," Izetta added.
Cinder took another bite, gulping down his food, barely chewing. "I have nothing to wear for a ball."
The second he had uttered this sentence, he realized it had been the wrong thing to say. The girls' eyes lit up with a frightening glee. "We can find you something!" Izetta exclaimed. "Just trust us!"
"Yeah," Marietta continued. "We'll make you the most handsome guy in all the kingdom, just you see!"
Cinder glared at them. "And who has the money for that?"
"It's an investment!" Izetta made a sweeping gesture. "If the prince marries you—or even some other noble," she added, noticing Cinder's doubtful scowl. "You'll have as much money as you could ever wish for! Sure, it'll be expensive now, but if it's worth it—"
"Well, what if it isn't?"
The girls flinched. Something about Cinder's tone and expression had changed. He was truly furious now, even if neither of them could fully understand why.
"You keep talking like it's so certain it'll happen like this," he snapped, his eyes dark and smoldering with barely-restrained anger. "You always do! Must be nice to be so optimistic and never have to care about a thing! Because Cinder will handle it! Cinder will figure it all out, even if it goes wrong! That attitude is exactly why we couldn't save—"
He froze. Little by little the reality of his words caught up with him, and he clapped an embarrassed hand over his face. "Never mind," he muttered. "Forget it."
Hestia, his stepmother who had spoken, pushed aside her plate and crossed her arms. "It's not nice to talk to your family like that," she said.
Cinder was silent.
"I know you're worried about money," she continued in the same cool tone, "but you're being paranoid. It's not like we'll have to starve to get you some nice new clothes."
Cinder didn't look at her. "I'm still not going."
"Any reason why, beyond thinking it'll be fruitless?"
"I'm not trying to marry a prince or a noble."
Sitting back, Cinder turned to look at the small room they sat in, the fireplace, the simple wooden chairs and table, the old window-shutters that blocked out the snowstorm and the night. All honestly bought and fairly paid for, with money he and his father had worked long hours to earn.
"I'm not trying to get rich through marriage," he said, "or live off money the royals take from the people who can barely afford their lives anyway. I want nothing to do with thieves who don't even know how to work."
The other three sighed. Marietta and Hestia both looked at Izetta, who extended a hand in a pacifying gesture. "But if you married the prince, maybe you could change the country," she suggested.
"My place is here."
Rising from his chair, Cinder bowed his head lightly before stepping away. "Now stop trying to convince me, this is going nowhere. Thank the maid we can't afford for the food." He made for the door. "Good night."
He half expected them to follow him, but this time thankfully they didn't.
With a breath of relief Cinder retreated into the comfort of his room. It was the smallest in the house, the coldest, and the least comfortable. He had kept it almost out of spite, to protest against the luxury Hestia and her daughters seemed to want everywhere. In here few things had changed since his childhood. The bed was barely large enough for him to sleep in, hard and worn-out and uncomfortable. On a tiny shelf in the corner lay a few books, the small handful he still possessed after trying to sell almost everything he owned.
In here he was at peace. In here he could almost pretend nothing had changed since he was a little boy.
Maybe he should start on the winter boots already, he mused as he lit up the fireplace. The sooner he got them done, the sooner he could start on the next job. And then the next. And the next. And the next. They would need a lot of money in the days to come. Ballgowns weren't cheap, and the others would need three of them.
He truly didn't understand why they were so hung up on him going. Him? At a ball? Surrounded by people? Wasting precious time on dancing and awkward small talk with strangers he would never see again?
No, thanks. He'd rather stay here alone while others did that and keep working or clean the house in peace.
A knock startled him out of his thoughts. His eye twitched. For a moment he seriously considered pretending to be asleep already.
The knock came again. "Cinder?" Hestia's voice sounded through the door.
Grimacing and groaning under his breath, he stood up from the bed and opened. "What's wrong?"
"Just trying to talk to you." His stepmother pushed her way in before he could stop her. "Cinder, the way you behaved at dinner was horribly selfish."
Who's the selfish one? he thought, but said nothing.
"You know we're counting on you to stay fed," Hestia continued. "Your family is asking you to do that by going to the prince's ball. And you refuse just because you're too proud? You have to admit that's selfish."
Cinder crossed his arms. "I don't have time to waste on dancing and socializing. My work doesn't do itself."
"You can take a break. Everyone will."
"For what? Chaperoning the girls and trying to become someone's trophy husband? If you can even call me that," he added with a scoff. "Who'd be stupid enough to marry this as a noble? I don't even like people!"
Hestia gave him a long, thoughtful look.
"You're quite handsome, you know."
Cinder gave a start. The compliment came out of nowhere. To be fair, he had never cared much about his looks, and he rarely bothered looking into a mirror. He couldn't imagine looking too good right now. His hair needed cutting again, and his face was constantly stained with soot and grime from work.
His father, had he been here, might have told him he looked like his mother. He had always said that, back in the day. Cinder could neither confirm nor deny it. He had no memories of her.
"I'd need too much work to look presentable," he told Hestia, still flustered. "Just take the girls. They're pretty enough. There's no need to take me too!"
"Three of you would stand a better chance than two."
"Among thousands? Still next to none."
"Every little bit helps!"
"It's still a gamble! I refuse to take part in gambles!"
"Just see it as having some fun, then! You need to go out sometimes!"
"Well, I don't see any fun in being forced to socialize! I hate crowds! Thank you!"
"A little distraction from work!"
"At this point work is my distraction! I deal with annoying people enough as things are!"
"You're so blockheaded!"
"Look who's talking!"
Hestia gave a shocked gasp. "Manners!"
"Enough of manners!" Grabbing her by the shoulders, Cinder ushered his stepmother out of the room. "My answer is no! For the last time, I am not! Going! To this ball!"
The door fell shut behind her. Cinder sighed and relaxed. Why were people who liked socializing so ignorant about him needing his space?
"Stupid, selfish child!" Hestia's voice came from outside. "Fine! Stay home then! We'll be dressed up and having a lovely time and you can stay here alone, shoemaking and cleaning like the servant-boy you are!"
Her footsteps disappeared down the corridor, but Cinder made no attempt to stop her.
Finally, a peaceful night to look forward to.
~ ~ ~
Hestia didn't go to her daughters, and she didn't retreat to her room. Instead, throwing on her cloak, she marched out into the snowstorm, through the garden, heading straight for the old apple tree and the tombstone underneath.
"Fleur," she said, "please help me deal with him. I'm at a loss with your son."
The wind howled around her. There was no response.
"He cares about nothing but money and work." She sighed. "Nothing…and nobody. It can't go on like this."
Still no response. Hestia raised her voice to shout over the sound of the blizzard.
"You'll help me," she called out, "won't you? Fleur!"
There was a moment's pause, then the apple tree shook itself in a way that had nothing to do with the wind.