Soulless Killer Series: Ch2 Conflict of Interest

The problem with having Christen as a roommate, I soon discovered, was that on paper, she was the perfect roommate, while in reality, she was a nightmare. Most days I would have preferred a roommate who left dirty socks hanging over the back of the couch and half-empty bowls of cereal in the sink. Christen, however, always kept her clothes clean (with the help of my darling mother), and washed her dishes, and even wiped out the shower when she was done. She also moved all the cutlery into the TV cabinet so she could keep her socks in the kitchen drawer.
“Are you just trying to piss me off?” I asked, staring at her extensive collection of multi-coloured foot coverings.
“I left the other half for you,” she said, sounding hurt. I stared at her for a second with my mouth open.
“Because of course I’d want to keep my socks in the kitchen.”
“You’ve got to admit, it’s far more sensible,” she said serenely, taking a pair of rainbow-striped knee socks that no one would ever see under her black jeans and heading for her bedroom. She would never put her socks on anywhere but in the bedroom. I threw up my arms and put the cutlery holder back in the drawer next to her socks. It was a big drawer, after all.
As well as the socks in the kitchen, she spent the first week hand-sewing little white curtains for the few photos I’d put up around the house – including the family shots I had in my bedroom. She would close them every night and open them every morning. I’m sure you can imagine how unnerving it would be to awaken at 8am on a Saturday to find your roommate looming over you, opening a tiny pair of curtains on the family picture next to your bed so they could get some light.
“You do know photos hold part of the soul, don’t you?” she said, apparently astonished at my ignorance. “You need to make sure you maintain a healthy circadian rhythm, or the soul’s owner could start feeling unwell. I wouldn’t want that to happen to your mother.”
I didn’t bother replying to that particular gem.
However, these might almost have been forgivable quirks if it weren’t for my aforementioned mother, who had now quite willingly adopted Christen into the family.
“It’s not her fault she grew up the way she did,” Mum said severely to me whenever I dared to hint at my disapproval.
“All the more reason not to encourage her,” I muttered in reply. But Mum seemed to think she was helping, rather than enabling, my completely interplanetary roommate. I considered asking Christen to move out, but I couldn’t face the dual guilt-trip of her puppy eyes and my mother’s disapproval. I figured I’d just have to grit my teeth and bear it, and hope Christen got bored.
Sadly, she got comfortable instead. About a month after she’d moved in, my boss offered me a commission interstate, which I would normally have thought twice about, since I had essays to write. However, having just that morning found Christen taking the labels off all the jars in the pantry and rewriting the contents on the bottom in calligraphy, I was in need of a break. I packed a small bag, caught the first flight out, and settled happily into my hotel room, anticipating an easy transaction and a relaxing evening. I should have known better.
Two hours after I’d settled into my chair by the window with my novel, I became aware of a faint metallic scratching sound coming from my door. It was an older hotel, and still used regular keys instead of keycards, and I instantly realised someone was trying to pick the lock. I silently closed my book and reached for the Smith & Wesson I’d tucked into the seat with me. The faint sound of my finger clicking the safety off went unheard as the lock gave a clunk and the door started to open.
I know you, dear reader, will be far less surprised by what happened next than I, but I hope you appreciate that hindsight comes with rather more clarity than was available to me at the time.
“What the bloody hell are you doing here?” I spluttered, clicking the safety back on and putting the pistol back on the small table next to me.
“Your room has a better shot than mine,” Christen said, as though this fact ought to have been obvious to me. I stared at her, still not quite caught up with events.
“Why did you have to pick the lock?” I said. “You could have just knocked.”
“I didn’t think you’d mind.” She closed the door and locked it behind her, stashing a small leather wallet of lock-picking wotsits in the inside pocket of her coat as she turned back to me. “Is he back yet?” I stared at her some more, mouth open like a gormless goldfish.
“Oh no,” I said, finally realising what was going on. “No, no, no. This is my commission, you can just stay out of it.”
The puppy dog eyes made an appearance and I cursed internally.
“I thought we could do it together,” she said.
“You don’t think our employers might have an issue with that?” I suggested pointedly. She looked surprised. Clearly the thought hadn’t occurred to her.
“I can’t see why they would,” she said. “As long as the job gets done.” I sighed. Soulless people in movies tended to be incredibly intelligent and ruthless. How was it I’d got stuck with the human version of a baby Labrador? I opened my mouth to explain the difficulties of dividing the fee between two opposing companies, imagined the ensuing conversation, and closed it again. There really was no point. She sensed victory and bounced happily over to the window, where my rifle was already set up.
“See?” she said, grinning at me. “It’ll be fun! I’ll order us some room service.”
I sighed and put my bookmark back into my book. Short of murdering her in order to protect my commission – which any sensible person would have at least considered – it looked like I was stuck with her. It seemed I wasn’t feeling very sensible.
“Make sure they send up honey with the tea,” I said, and turned my attention back to the window.

Text: All Rights Reserved to Cambrey Payne 2017.

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TW: This story contains metaphorical images of self harm that may trigger some people. They are fictional and very brief, but please proceed with care.

At six I was labelled, put in a little box with big black lettering that said ‘Strange. Handle With Care’. The box was taped shut over my small, pony-tailed head, and no matter what shape I contorted myself into, I couldn’t get out. There were other labels on the box, some smaller (scrawny, knobbly knees), some brightly-coloured (bright, excellent reader), some hastily scribbled and almost illegible, easily erased (Year One), and some branded into the side so they could never be removed, only papered over: GIRL.

At eight the bright colours were covered with an official stamp: INTELLIGENT. With it came others, scrawled over every surface in clumsy red letters: NERD. GEEK. LOSER. I scratched desperately at the red bleeding through the cardboard, but it was there, in permanent marker, indelible and invulnerable. I turned my back on them, and poked a hole in GIRL. For a moment, I felt hope. Until the brand came down again, burning the label over and over into every side of my little prison. I stopped poking. I feared that if I didn’t, the label would be branded right into my skin.

Each year the box changed, some labels rubbed away or written over, some refreshed with new lettering. I tried to decipher them, tried to discern where they came from, but no matter how hard I stared, no matter how hard I scratched at them or studied them, they remained insoluble, indecipherable. I looked at the labels on food packages, so clear and neat, telling buyers what was inside, and how much, and where it came from. Where were my ingredients? STRANGE was not an ingredient. Nor was FREAK or LOSER or GIRL. So why were they plastered over my packaging for everyone to see? I started to search for my Nutritional Information, but there was no Google then. I did the best I could.

At fifteen, I found a clue. Asperger’s. I couldn’t find a full list of ingredients, but what I did find looked like mine, looked like me. Asperger’s had the same labels slapped over its box as well, but underneath, there were other words, words that explained who I was. For the first time, I started to peel the tape off my box. I freed an arm, enough to start ripping at the labels on the side. I mentioned it to my parents. They said I couldn’t have those ingredients. I crawled back into my box and shut the lid behind me.

At sixteen, I read through all the labels I’d accrued. I read GIRL, NERD, WEAK, ATTENTION-SEEKER, PATHETIC, LOSER. I read CREATIVE, LAZY, INTELLIGENT, INTROVERT. I decided they must be true. I learned what they meant. I started to paint them onto my skin, until I was so covered in words I couldn’t see myself any more. The marker bled into my pores, the words leeching into my blood until I could no longer tell what was me and what was words. I let it happen. My ingredients were wrong. I needed new ones.

There was darkness, for a long time. My blood became ink, saturating me in the words of other people, telling me who I was, who I should be, until I was buried under the weight of the words. Yet there was still a Me, a tiny golden core that refused to absorb the words, that rejected the inky contagion. It cried in agony as I tried desperately to drown it. Its pain was my pain, and I couldn’t ignore it.

At twenty-seven, I took a knife and cut open my box. I burned the words from my skin with acid, I opened my veins and bled ink onto the floor until there was only blood left. I thought I would bleed to death. I thought the pain would burn me whole. But I didn’t care if it killed me, if I could be free.

At twenty-eight I said the word again. Autism. At twenty-eight I said the word for the first time. Transgender. At twenty-eight I embraced the truth. Pansexual. I was told, “You don’t need to label everything”. I roared in frustration. As if I hadn’t been tagged and labelled and categorised since the moment of my birth. As if I didn’t bear the scars of those labels on every inch of my skin, in my heart, in my mind. As if the world didn’t keep throwing them at me, trying to make them stick. I pasted on my own labels, and wore them as proudly as my scars. These are MY ingredients.

This is part of a selection of works for Autism Awareness Month. Please remember this is my experience only, and not intended to speak for all autistic people. Please also remember that this story relates the difficulties caused by ableism, and not autism. It is not intended to paint autism as a tragedy in any way. I love being autistic, and am proud of who I am. What has made my life difficult is people’s attitude toward autism, and that is what this story is intended to convey. Thank you for reading.

All Rights Reserved to Cambrey Payne 2017. Please acknowledge sources when sharing and do not repost without original source.

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Snapshot: Charger

The phone charger is humming again. I’ve given up mentioning it to Brian, since he never seems to hear it. Just like the toaster and the DVD player and the light in the laundry. Doc Green said not everyone notices things like that, which is why she can’t hear the clock in her office whining even though it feels like a needle digging into your tympanic membrane. At least she believes me when I tell her about it, and sticks it in her drawer so I don’t have to hear it so much.

If I pull Brian’s phone off the charger now, he’ll be pissed, so I have no choice but to go back to my room. Everyone says I spend too much time in there (well, not literally everyone, but most of the people I know), but if they didn’t insist on having every goddamn thing plugged in and playing all the goddamn time, I might spend more time out here. I mean, honestly, probably not, because they still all talk too loud and all at the same time, which makes it impossible to understand what anyone is saying, and Brian thinks dubstep is good music to play before 9am even though I think it was actually created by Satan. (Not really Satan, it’s a metaphor.) And Brian’s not so good at keeping up with the cleaning schedule, even though Katrina does her best to keep on top of things, so sometimes the kitchen smells kind of gross. I mostly just hold my breath and try to grab my food and get out before I have to take another breath. I’m getting pretty good at holding my breath, actually. Not in a creepy way, like Mum was worried about, because I used to hold my breath when I was two until I went blue, but just so I don’t have to smell the lentils that ended up going down the drain and are still festering in the bend in the pipe.

I wonder how long lentils take to stop smelling in a pipe. I wonder if I put vinegar and bicarb down there it would stop smelling. Monday is my turn for kitchen duty, so maybe I’ll try it.

As predicted, Brian has to knock on my door to ask if I’m going to spend all day in my room. I told him I’ll be out later. His phone only takes about two hours to fully charge, usually, so I should be safe to come out around lunch time. Doc Green says not everyone plans their day out like that, but I don’t really believe her. How does anyone ever get anything done, if they don’t plan it? I’m never quite sure how much I should believe of what Doc Green says. I know she means well, but some of the things she says don’t make sense at all. I can believe that not everyone hears the same noises. There are people who can’t hear at all, so logically, there should also be people who hear a lot more than others. But if nobody planned their days, they’d just be bumbling about, hoping for the best, completely at the mercy of circumstance. That sounds like a special brand of hell, like trying to walk across a crowded room with your eyes closed when you’re used to being able see, except there are bear traps on the floor (more metaphor, and maybe some simile). Although, having lived with Brian for a year, perhaps I should be more open to the idea. He seems to actually like ‘taking things as they come’, even though that means he never hands up his essays on time, and sometimes forgets to turn up to things, like parties and dates.

To be fair, I’d probably forget to turn up to a date if I could. Dating is terrible.

I’ve been trying to avoid thinking about the idea of dating all morning. Of course, I haven’t succeeded, even though I’m supposed to be writing an essay myself. Sometimes I can’t compartmentalise the way I like to, and this is one of those times. It’s very frustrating, because writing about the Industrial Revolution is in no way related to the various terrors of dating, and I’m finding it very hard to concentrate.

Maybe I should have said ‘no’, but Marie caught me by surprise, and if I’m honest, I had been thinking about maybe imagining dreaming about going on a date with her at some indeterminate point in the non-existent future where I’m not an actual human disaster. So instead of saying what I should have said if I’d thought about it for more than two seconds, which was “no thank you, I don’t date”, I mumbled something indecipherable that apparently meant “yes”, because now I’m supposed to be meeting her in five hours for coffee.

Why does everyone say coffee instead of beverage? I hate coffee, I never drink coffee, but even I say “we’re meeting for coffee”. Verbal conventions are very strange sometimes.

Rationally speaking, it’s quite ridiculous for me to be nervous about this at all. I’ve known Marie for six months, and we’ve sat in the same cafe and drunk beverages together quite comfortably before. Apparently labelling something a date assigns a significance to the event that warrants three days worth of obsessive worrying. This kind of illogical reasoning is precisely what I would change about my brain if I could. People always assume it’s the social awkwardness or the lack of eye contact (who would want to actually look other people in the eyes?!) or the sensory sensitivity, but I would be perfectly happy with all of these if they were accompanied by a more logical and rational thought process. Sadly, Doc Green tells me this isn’t possible, because I am still human. I think she thought I was half joking, which is why she didn’t take it very seriously. However, if I could find a way to rewire my brain to increase its logic circuitry (metaphor), I would do it in a heartbeat.

Why couldn’t we just keep having beverages in cafes without calling it a date? Ugh, human beings are infuriating. And I have an essay to write. I hope I can concentrate long enough to finish it.

All Rights Reserved to Cambrey Payne 2017. Acknowledge sources when sharing and do not repost without original source.

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Snow White And The Seven Misandrists

Once upon a time there was a young princess named Snow White, whose new-aged hippie parents had named for her snow-white skin, blood-red lips, and ebony hair. There have been suggestions that Snow’s personal features may have been exaggerated for narrative purposes, which has never been proven. Certain it was that her parents, though kind and gentle, and good rulers in their way, should not have been allowed to name a child under any circumstances, regardless of that child’s appearance.

Alas for Snow, her parents died when she was very young, leaving her with only her name and her title to remember them by. She missed her parents, but she was not alone, nor uncared for. The queen’s brother Ronald was declared Regent upon the king’s death, and was to hold the throne until Snow White was of age. Uncle Ronald and Aunt Natasha treated Snow White as a daughter, and she was very happy with her new family, for although she had loved her parents after the way of all young children, she did not remember them well, and her aunt and uncle were kind.

The years passed, as the years are wont to do, and Snow White grew into a beautiful young woman, which perhaps is evidence enough that her vampiric description was rather exaggerated. She began to learn her duties as princess, and future queen, and she loved both her kingdom and her people. Ronald taught her everything she would need to know, and she had nothing to wish for as she approached her fifteenth birthday but a little cousin. Natasha had long since despaired of bearing a child of her own, but her lovely Snow had prevented her feeling the lack in all ways but one – Ronald had wished greatly for an heir of his own, for Snow could hardly carry his name once she was queen.

Ronald’s desire for an heir had always concerned his wife, for although she loved him, and although he had always shown her great kindness in return, she knew him to be shallow, after the way of all men. He valued youth and fecundity as the highest traits a woman could possess, and as Natasha grew older and her barrenness became apparent, she feared her security as his wife was less… well, less secure than she could wish. Natasha’s mother had come from a land where men were given power according to their abilities – that is, very little – and Natasha had learned early the true weakness of all men, and the danger that such weakness created. While she had adapted well enough to life in a world of men, Natasha could not be fooled by them. As Snow grew closer to womanhood, Ronald began to grow colder to his wife, while his attentions to his niece increased. As little as Natasha wished to doubt her husband, she knew the weaknesses of the male race too well to doubt his intention.

One evening as she sat with her aunt, Snow innocently confirmed Natasha’s suspicions by asking, “Dear aunt, my uncle has told me something that has filled me with great fear. He has told me that he has grave concerns for your health, that he fears you are most unwell. He begged me to keep his concerns from you, I cannot but ask you to be open with me about something you must know to be dear to my heart.”

Natasha instantly saw her husband’s plan, for she was perfectly well in body and mind, and if her husband talked of illness, it was one of invention, designed only to allay suspicion should Natasha mysteriously succumb to an early death. Immediately resolved to protect her niece from such machinations, and of course herself, Natasha kept her tone calm as she replied, “Your uncle’s concern is quite misplaced, my dearest niece. He is a man, after all, and gives little credit to a woman’s superior constitution.”

Snow, although knowing men to be inferior in many ways, was astonished that her uncle could be so concerned about his wife’s health without reason, for he had warned Snow that Natasha was dangerously ill.

“Yet what reason could my uncle have for thinking you ill, when you declare yourself well?”

“A man’s reason,” replied Natasha. “And, as such, none that does him credit.”

Snow saw that her aunt did not wish to be questioned further, but it preyed on her mind over the ensuing days. She feared that either her aunt or uncle were unwell, or that something had come between them, and as she loved them best of anyone in the world, she was saddened by the thought. Her fears were confirmed three days later, when she was woken in the early hours of the morning by her aunt.

“Come, my love, we must leave immediately, and most secretly. I fear there is danger for us both if you remain.”

Snow was obviously confused, but her trust for her aunt was such that she followed her without question until they were a safe distance from the palace, deep in the Dark Forest. Natasha knew the forest well from her childhood, and took them through backways and secret paths that no one else knew. Snow’s shock upon hearing the truth about her beloved uncle was very great, and she cried many tears over such a loss of trust. Natasha comforted her, and cried also, for her heart was very sore.

“I always thought him better than most men,” said Snow, when her crying was done. “Yet he is no better than the worst of them, if this is true.”

“I am sorry to break the last of your innocent trust in the goodness of men, but so it is. Perhaps there is a man who would act otherwise, but I am yet to meet him. Certain it is that your uncle paid my maid to slip poison into my evening tea, and certain also is it that she loves me better than he thinks, and that she warned me.”

“And you think he wishes to marry me? But he has been a father to me, what would make him think I would endure such a thing?”

“Who can understand the thoughts of men, save for other men?”

Snow and Natasha travelled through the Dark Forest for a night and a day, until at last they came to a small house, in a clearing hidden by thorny brambles and towering oaks. Awaiting them were seven women, each bearing a crown of silver braids and a stout hickory stave. These women had been bodyguards to Natasha’s mother, who had travelled with her when she married, and had stayed with the family, helping to raise Natasha. Upon the death of their employer, the women had left the palace for a simpler life, for they found the society of men to be unpleasant, and preferred the peace of the forest and their garden, but they had always maintained contact with Natasha, whom they loved almost as a sister.

When Snow and Natasha had eaten and bathed, they joined the group before the fire.

“I fear news of your flight preceded you,” said the eldest, Agnes. “Armed messengers have twice passed through this part of the forest in search of you. Your husband accuses you of kidnapping, my dear,” she said to Natasha.

“I expected nothing less,” said Natasha, although her heart was sore at the news. “And I come with a plan. I know my husband’s wishes, and we will use them against him.”

For some days, Snow and Natasha remained hidden in the forest with the seven women, preparing their trap for Ronald. Rumours reached them from the palace, and it began to be said that Natasha was a witch, who had enchanted and kidnapped Snow White out of jealousy. Ronald had declared Natasha a traitor to the crown, and a reward was offered for her capture. Snow was incensed at these implications, for she could hardly bear that her aunt could be the victim of such slander, or that any woman would stoop to kidnapping a rival for a mere man. However, Natasha was pleased to hear such rumours, for it made her plan far easier. Snow, despite her newly-roused anger, was still confused.

“Surely if my uncle is the origin of these rumours, he will not believe the story we shall send him,” she said. “He would know it is not true, for he created it himself.”

Agnes shook her head and replied, “My dear, you have much still to learn. A man claims logic and reason are his alone, but in truth they are ever out of his grasp. He will believe what he wishes to believe, and will congratulate himself on having the foresight to imagine it beforehand.”

“I am ashamed to have ever thought so highly of him,” said Snow, shocked at the inferiority of the male race, and that they should ever have learned to walk and talk at the same time, if such was their intelligence.”

“We have all made such mistakes, my dear. Your whole country has allowed men to fool you, but not for long. Once we take care of your uncle, you will redress the imbalance that has so long plagued this land.”

As Snow watched her aunt, she felt her anger growing. She could see Natasha’s grief for the loss of her marriage, and although she consoled herself with the company of her beloved friends, it would have been a heartless woman indeed who did not feel the stab of a husband’s betrayal. And Snow was pretty narked on her own account, of course, since Ronald – who was a full twenty years her senior – had simply assumed that she’d marry him once his wife, her aunt, was dead. Her illusions about the goodness of men were being shattered apace.

One morning, about three weeks after their flight from the palace, Natasha and Snow sent an anonymous message to the palace, claiming that Snow’s sleeping form had been discovered in a hidden glad in the forest, and that a heavy magic lay around her. Only a true nobleman could save Snow White from the eternal magical slumber into which her wicked stepmother had cast her, and the message begged Ronald to come and save his niece. Snow herself accompanied her friends to a beautiful glade near the house, where the locals believed fairies lived. (Obviously this was total bollocks, fairies aren’t real any more than magic is, but Agnes knew that an enchanted princess in a magical glade would prove irresistible to the gullible Ronald.)

It took only four days for Ronald’s party to reach the glade, where they were met by the seven women, all wearing their old knightly uniforms, and armed with swords at their hips and staves in their hands. Ronald’s party was small, for while he was supremely confident in his own goodness, there was just such a germ of self-awareness that he knew there was the possibility he would fail to wake Snow White, if indeed a ‘true nobleman’ was required to save her. It was thus a relief to him that the women told him to leave his entourage at the edge of the glade and to continue alone, for the breaking of a spell was a task for one man, not five.

“But how is such a spell to be broken?” asked Ronald, somewhat embarrassed at not already possessing such knowledge.

“With a kiss, of course,” answered Agnes with a sneer. “But your Lordship should hurry, lest the princess should perish from lying too long asleep.”

Ronald took her advice, and, leaving his companions, ventured into the glade. There, he found Snow White ‘sleeping’ on a raised bed, surrounded by wildflowers that they had planted only the week before. She was dressed in a fine robe, her hands crossed over her chest and her eyes closed in demure repose, and her face was as beautiful as he remembered. Yes, dear reader, I fear he thought nothing of the fact that she was his niece, nor that his wife still lived, nor even that he had been as a father to her. He thought only of being King as her husband, of the prestige of having such a young and beautiful wife (whom he had saved from evil magic, no less), and of having children as beautiful as she to which he would pass his name. Such was the nature of this man, and of all men.

Fortunately for Snow, she was never subjected to such unspeakable horrors, for Ronald found himself prevented from kissing her by a blade at his throat. Natasha did not hesitate to rid herself of such an unworthy husband, and while it is possible that Snow made Ronald’s last moments infinitely more painful with the toe of her sturdy boots, such matters are hardly fit for this tale. Suffice to say, Ronald was dispatched, his guard subdued by the other women, and Snow returned to her rightful place in the palace.

Natasha was pardoned of all wrong-doing, and Snow refused to allow another Regent, preferring instead to appoint Natasha as Advisor. There was much upheaval for a time, as the kingdom struggled to understand what had taken place, but Snow proved herself an able queen, and all fears of magic and witchcraft proven quite unfounded. Natasha did not marry again, and thus ended her life happily at a great age, satisfied in the knowledge that, in one place at least, men had been shown their proper place beneath a woman’s rule.

This adaptation is the property of Cambrey Payne 2017. Please acknowledge sources when sharing and do not repost without original source.

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The Monster and the Murderess

Once upon a time, there was a young lord, who was an absolute raging little tit. His parents, truth be told, had been little better than their vile offspring, and had most considerately died early. The young lord, however, stubbornly survived his progenitor, and took control of his family estates at the tender age of nineteen. One stormy night, not long after he had come into his inheritance, there came a knock at the mansion door. An old woman had stumbled into the grounds seeking shelter from the storm, but the young lordship, being an absolute raging little tit, refused to allow her into the house. The old woman was understandably annoyed by this, and warned the little tit that his actions would have consequences. As none of his actions had thus far produced the slightest negative consequence to him personally, the lord laughed in her face and slammed the door.

Unlike their master, the servants of the house weren’t absolutely abhorrent, and allowed the old woman to come around and warm herself by the kitchen fire. This small kindness was undoubtedly all that saved their master’s life (much to the disappointment of the servants themselves), for she was in fact a powerful witch. When she was warm and dry, and nursing a generous cup of mead, she relented a little in her original intention to kill the young prat, and instead cursed him thusly:

From this day forth, young lord, thou shalt take the form of a loathsome beast, and the servants thy treateth as furniture shall likewise be transformed. Thou and they shall be released only by the unselfish relenting of thy heart toward another, or by thy death. But should that death come at thine own hands or theirs, they shall die also.

Don’t ask me why she turned the servants into furniture, she was clearly drunk.
When the horrid young skidmark awoke the next morning, he found his once-handsome visage transformed into the hideous and hairy image of a Beast, and his serving staff struggling to adjust to life as wardrobes, crockery, and candlesticks. After several weeks of throwing trantrums and breaking things, of shouting at the servants to take off their damn costumes, of trying to convince the local horsemen to track down the witch and bring her back, and of destroying several small buildings when they refused, the Beast (as we shall now call him) retreated to his mansion and shut the door on the world.

Several long years passed, and the Beast remained in his mansion, shut off from the world. The nearby villages were so grateful for his disappearance that they celebrated by promptly forgetting all about him, and pretending he didn’t exist. Eventually, they assumed he had died, and got on with their lives. The Beast, however, was alive and well – or, if not well, at least making sure he shared is not-wellness with his poor, suffering serving staff. He never went beyond the gardens closest to the house, and allowed the hedges to grow until they screened the house and its inhabitants completely from view. The Beast treasured no hope of ever regaining his youthful good looks, for he had never yet seen a person whom he could respect as highly as he did himself, and assumed such a person to be an impossibility. He retreated into his library, and spent the next ten years reading as much self-important, pretentious twaddle as he could lay his hands on.

Nearly ten years to the day since the Beast had been cursed, a travelling salesman found himself caught in a storm outside the mansion, just as the witch had been. As the witch had done before him, this salesman sought shelter in the great house. Unlike the witch, he knew to go to the kitchen door and beg a morsel from the serving staff. When he reached the kitchen, however, he found it strangely deserted, although there was food enough on the table, and a kettle singing merrily over the fire. He called out, not wishing to be thought a thief or an intruder, but there was no answer. After waiting some time, and with the storm growing in ferocity outside, the salesman’s hunger and fatigue got the best of him. He ate his fill from the table, poured himself some tea, and settled down to sleep by the fire.

Unfortunately for the salesman, he slept long and deep. When the morning sun broke through the last of the storm clouds, he found himself woken by a terrible roar, and opened his eyes to find a hideous, hairy Beast standing over him. The Beast raised its great, clawed paw as if to swipe the very life from the salesman, but the salesman begged the Beast to spare him. Quite inexplicably, the Beast paused, and asked the salesman why he should not be killed. The salesman cast around for a reason, and, by pure luck (and perhaps some sixth sense known only to tawdry salesmen), he suggested that the Beast might be lonely in this mansion, and that he might enjoy the company of the salesman’s beautiful daughter. If the Beast would only let him go, the salesman, said, he could be back within seven days with his daughter, who would make a fine companion for any man.

The Beast lowered his paw and considered for a long moment. He was, indeed, lonely. His servants were hardly good company for a lord, no matter what he looked like, and no other humans would come near him in this hideous form. He thus decided to accept the salesman’s offer, reasoning that if his daughter were ugly or tiresome, he could always retain the privilege of killing the father as punishment.

To ensure the salesman held up his end of the bargain, the Beast sent two of his guards – now transformed quite conveniently into empty suits of armour – to accompany him to his home and bring back the daughter. The salesman was not best pleased at this addition to his party, but as the alternative was remaining and being killed, he accepted it with as good a grace as he could manage. He was not at all worried about what his daughter would suffer by the exchange he had made, for he was as large a prat as the Beast himself, and cared for nothing and nobody beyond himself. His daughter was a troublesome, ungrateful wretch, who insisted upon educating herself, being useful, and refusing all offers of marriage that might take her off her father’s hands. In fact, the more the salesman thought on it, the more he realised that he might have got the best of the bargain, for he would be getting his daughter of his hands forever.

Belle, for that was the daughter’s name, was not best pleased at being traded away like a prize mare. Pleased or not, however, she had no choice in the matter, and was dragged kicking and screaming to the Beast’s mansion by the implacable guards, cursing her father all the way. The Beast met her at the door, and was surprised to find that, not only had the salesman not been lying about having a daughter, she was even more beautiful than he had hoped. The Beast, having been raised to be a gentleman, even as he had been raised to be an absolute numpty, bowed politely as she was escorted into the hall. Belle, however, was unimpressed by his polite greeting and immediately told him in great detail why she thought his deal with her father was despicable, and why he in particular was an abhorrent humanoid who didn’t deserve companionship of any kind, least of all hers. While this response might have been deemed natural by any rational person, the Beast took it rather personally, and ordered the guards to seal Belle into one of the upper bedrooms until she could be more reasonable.

I think, dear reader, we must forgive poor Belle for what she did next, for her situation would have tested the most resilient spirit. Upon entering her new room, she threw herself onto the bed and cried for half an hour. When she was calmer, she sat up and was rather alarmed to find a candlestick, a small clock, and a large wardrobe all regarding her curiously. She still had fortitude enough to prevent a swoon, however, and she greeted them as politely as she could, having never addressed furniture before in her life. The candlestick bowed most properly and apologised for his master’s behaviour, for master the Beast was, and these were the servants. The clock inquired most generously as to Belle’s health, and the wardrobe offered her a drawer full of handkerchiefs, and in a very short time Belle was feeling more comfortable than she would have thought possible, given the circumstances.

“What am I to do?” was her first question. The furniture exchanged glances (which is rather a sight to see, if you should ever happen to have the chance) and appeared to come to some agreement.

“Well, Mistress,” began the candlestick, “we may be able to assist you. Do you know how our master became a Beast?” When Belle replied in the negative, the candlestick related the story of the witch, and lingered heavily on the last half of the curse.

“As the master is such an excremental smear, it is next to impossible that he should find his way to breaking the curse himself,” said the candlestick. “And the terms are such that we are unable to do anything but remain as we are, and hope for someone to set us free.”

“So you see, my dear,” said the wardrobe, “you may have a way out soon enough – and a chance to do us a kindness as well, if it pleases you.” Belle considered her position for all of half a second, before agreeing to the furniture’s proposal.

“But how is it to be done?” she asked. “He is such a great brute, surely I should have no hope against him?”

The clock assured her that there were more than one ways to skin a cat, and that they should assist her in any way possible, that would not break the terms of the curse.

“Well then,” she said. “I shall begin immediately.” And she knocked on her own door and begged to be taken down to the Beast, in such gentle tones that her guards were quite overcome, and immediately complied.

“What are you doing out of your room?” was the first thing out of the Beast’s mouth when she appeared in the doorway of the library.

“I wished to apologise to your lordship for my dreadful behaviour this morning,” said Belle meekly. “I fear my distress at my sudden removal from my family and home left me quite hysterical, and I am most ashamed of the unladylike language I used. I pray, my lord, that you will forgive me.”

The Beast looked at her in surprise. This blushing, quiet creature was quite different from the harridan of the morning, although just as beautiful. He regarded her thoughtfully for a few minutes, and relented.

“I am not an ungenerous man,” he said, ignoring the fact that he was not a man at all. “If you are truly sorry, and can promise to control yourself from now on, pray let us say no more about it.”

Belle dropped a graceful curtsy and thanked him for his kindness. From that moment on, she was the Beast’s most faithful companion. She read to him; she sat and sewed while he told her about how terribly unfair his life was, or explained the wonderful philosophical revelations he had found in the books around him; she served him his meals with her own hands, and always remembered to thank him for his kindness in bearing with such a silly, empty-headed noodle as herself. She also became quite skilled at maintaining control over her facial expressions.

In her spare hours, the Beast permitted her to wander the gardens, gathering flowers and tending the herb beds. The Beast found himself growing almost fond of his guest. She would be rather unbearable for long periods, he thought, if she were plain, but beautiful as she was, he could happily tolerate her adoration of him. He never questioned her change of heart, for it seemed to him only natural that a woman such as herself, who could not have known many luxuries, would venerate such a generous patron – and such a worldly, educated man – as himself.

As the weeks passed, however, the Beast found himself growing ill. It came on gradually, and at first he thought it nothing but a winter chill. But as the days passed, and his head weakened, and his limbs trembled, and his hairy brow beaded with sweat, he began to fear that it might be something worse. He attempted to call a physician, but none were willing to work with such a patient – and it must be observed, that they would not have been much use if they had, for they worked on humans. The Beast soon took to his bed, wracked with pain and fever, and certain he was dying. He would allow nobody near him but Belle, who still brought him his meals, and could coax him to eat and drink when nobody else could.

At last it seemed the Beast was nearing his end, for he could take nothing but water, and spent most of his days in a fevered delirium. Late one night, as Belle sat by his side, the Beast found himself unexpectedly conscious for the first time in some days, although unable to move his limbs. He spoke her name, and she came to his side, gently lifting his head so he could drink a glass of water.

“I think you are feeling a little better, my lord,” she said.

“Perhaps a little,” the Beast replied, hoping that his return to consciousness might be a sign of recovery.

“Well, that won’t last for long,” Belle observed placidly. It took the Beast a moment to determine her meaning.

“Am I dying?” he asked fearfully.

“Oh yes, my lord,” the girl replied. “You could hardly be otherwise, for I have been poisoning you almost since the first day I came.”

The Beast stared at her, his mind already growing foggy once more.

“No,” he said.

“Oh yes,” Belle replied, seeing his vision fading. “And you have just received your final dose. Now go to sleep, like a good Beast, and stop making everyone’s lives a misery.”

The Beast wished to make some reply, but the poison had already done its work, and he was dead before he could open his mouth. Belle watched him for a minute with a satisfied little smile, before descending to the main hall, where the servants had been awaiting the news that their master was gone. It was with great delight that Belle found herself greeted by a series of unfamiliar, but decidedly human faces. There was a great deal of awkwardness for a while, as furniture rarely goes in for clothing, and the servants could not rightly remember where they had stored such things. But everything was soon sorted out and they celebrated their freedom and Belle’s successful murder with a great feast in the kitchens.

After some time to become reacquainted with their limbs, most of the servants left the house in search of new employment. A few remained, however, and once the Beast had been burnt in the furthest corner of the grounds, they settled into the mansion quite happily. Belle chose to remain also, for her old home had not been a happy one, and she and the servants had grown rather fond of one another. They spent the remainder of their days quite happily together, left completely in peace by the villagers who still feared to approach the mansion. The Beast was never mentioned by any of them again.

And it remains to you, dear reader, to decide if the moral of this story is that a woman’s wit will always triumph over a man’s ego, or that one should never be a dick to one’s talking furniture.

This adaptation is the property of Cambrey Payne 2017. Please acknowledge sources when sharing and do not repost without original source.

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The Hairy Peasant

Once upon a time, there lived a girl named Rapunzel. Don’t ask me why – she was an amiable girl, and almost certainly didn’t deserve it, but so it was, and she was stuck with it. Rapunzel lived with her parents in a small hovel near the village of Hornswagger-Upon-Lyme (it didn’t deserve it, either), where they tended a farm. Their land, and the village, and a lot of other things that I would mention if they weren’t so very dull, were owned by Lord Aussohl McLaudeponce, who certainly did deserve it.

Rapunzel and her family were, as is usual for peasants (and if the word hovel had not made it clear enough) very poor. They were humble people, however, and were no more given to complaining than the average farming peasant (a tendency that I shall charitably leave to the reader’s imagination) until the approach of Rapunzel’s 16th birthday. Rapunzel’s coming of age ought to have been an event of celebration, but alas, for girls on Lord Aussohl McLaudeponce’s land, this was a time of great fear and despair.

On some estates, perhaps, some girls would have been protected by a lack of certain personal charms, but McLaudeponce could not be accused of fussiness – merely of being a gigantic, unutterably foul, disgustingly base, odiferously malodorous scumbag. He preyed on young women according to an ancient, and thus repugnant law, which stated that a Lord could claim the unmarried daughters of his tenants provided they were of age. The scarcity of the population meant that this rarely happened, and most families ensured their daughters were safely married to the closest available Nice Young Lad before they came of age, but a dearth of Nice Young Lads meant that Rapunzel, despite being rather plain, was now facing the very worst of fates. And McLaudeponce was as happy as a… as a… Well, as happy as a thoroughly debauched man when faced with legally justified debauchery, the bastard.

Fortunately for Rapunzel, her parents had a Plan. Rapunzel’s mother had a sister, whose name was Winnifred Weeshcroft (poor dear). In a turn of events that should have surprised nobody, Winnifred had, as a young woman, Got Ideas, and had thus been run out of the village for being a witch. Concluding that, if one were to suffer the indignities of being an accused witch, one might as well go the whole hog and deserve them, Winnie had promptly settled down to a life of arcane study, devil worship, and the under-the-table healing of everyone in the village. For while one must publicly condemn all witchcraft, it is quite another thing to trust a mere doctor to treat a fever.

Winnie built herself a small tower in the woods, with a single, large room at the top, where she lived. The tower had no doors or windows other than those at the top, and its smooth walls were utterly unclimbable. The only way in was to fly (Winnie, as a witch, naturally had a broomstick for this purpose), which meant that not only was Winnifred safe from tedious witch-burning parties, but she never got woken up by Jehovah’s Witnesses on Saturday mornings.. It was to Winnie that Rapunzel’s parents turned, begging her to hide their daughter from McLaudeponce until they could find the requisite Nice Young Lad for her to marry.

Winnifred, who had kept herself out of village business for so long that she’d been quite unaware of Lord Aussohl’s ‘tradition’ (which his father, by the by, had not followed), was absolutely incensed. She agreed at once to take Rapunzel into her home, and declared that she herself should do something about the puffed up little tadpole who called himself a lord. Rapunzel was immensely relieved to be free from the immediate danger (although she hoped to yet convince her aunt to take her on as an apprentice, and thus avoid the necessity for finding a Nice Young Lad), and she and Winnifred slipped away from the village under cover of darkness the very night before Rapunzel’s birthday. (Perhaps, dear reader, you think they ought to have arranged Rapunzel’s escape a little further ahead of the dreaded date, to avoid any unnecessary danger, and I am quite of your mind. But pray remember, her parents were peasants, and one can only expect so much of people who spend 10 hours out of every 12 thinking of turnips.)

As soon as she had made Rapunzel comfortable in her new home, Winnifred immediately began to prepare for her first foray into political activism. Her first concern was to make it possible for her niece to exit and enter the tower unaided, since it would be rather unpleasant to be stuck in the top of an unassailable tower without the means to get down, no matter how safe you were from the local lordship. Winnifred therefore laid a charm on Rapunzel’s hair that made it grow unnaturally fast and long, until there was a great rope of it coiled about Rapunzel’s feet, enough to allow her to abseil down the side of the tower if she chose. It was, of course, magic hair, which would obey only the commands of the wearer, so perhaps Winnifred thought it would be safer than a garden-variety rope ladder, but the general opinion when the story was told later, was that this solution was utterly ridiculous. Witches often are ridiculous; it was believed at the time that there was something in magic itself that rendered practitioners a little doo-lally, but the truth is (as I’m sure you, enlightened reader, are well aware) that all humans are completely ridiculous, and magic merely provides the opportunity to be more obvious about it.

Rapunzel waved her aunt farewell with good cheer, having that innocent faith in the power of witchcraft that is common to commoners in general. She settled into her new home to wait and be Bored – something not frequently experienced by farmers, and something which Rapunzel planned to enjoy to its fullest extent. She had only just begun to feel restless, however, when she heard a voice hailing her from outside. She frowned, and crossed her arms, and attempted to ignore the hullooing from outside, but it was no use. She was Interested, and once one was Interested in something, all hope of true Boredom was instantly banished. She sighed and went to the window, determined to send whoever it was on their way as quickly as possible, and fervently hoping they said nothing original with which she would be obliged to be fascinated. Sadly for Rapunzel and her determination, the figure who waited below was quite the opposite of Boring, and quite failed to realise how really inconvenient this was.

“What do you want?” demanded Rapunzel, rather sharply. The figure below, who had just this moment alighted from her horse, looked up. She was clearly a knight, although not the daft kind, who ride around on hot days in metal pots attempting to broil themselves and bash each others’ brains in with lances. She was dressed instead in sensible chain mail, wore sensible boots, carried a sensible sword, and overall looked rather too sensible to be a knight in the first place, but I suppose everyone has their little whims.

“I say,” said the figure, “what are you doing up there?”

“I live here with my aunt,” replied Rapunzel, and added, “She’s a witch, you know,” in the hope that the knight would take the hint and go away. Sadly for Rapunzel, this did not have the desired effect.

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry,” said the knight. “Would you like me to rescue you?”

Rapunzel frowned, rather puzzled that anyone would think she’d need rescuing from her own aunt.

“No, thank you,” she said (for her mother had taught her to be polite, even to people who made no sense). “I’d really rather stay where I am, since if you take me home, Lord Aussohl McLaudeponce will have his wicked way with me, which is why Aunt Winnie brought me to stay with her in the first place.”

Now it was the knight’s turn to look puzzled.

“Are you sure?” she asked, after a moment’s thought. “Only, it’s usually witches who are wicked, and noblemen who do the rescuing, you see.”

“Have you met any noblemen?” said Rapunzel, quite astonished at this hitherto unheard-of phenomena of noble noblemen. The knight thought for another moment.

“Good point,” she said. “Well then, if your aunt the witch is keeping you here to keep you safe from Lord Wotshisface, where is she? Surely she shouldn’t leave you alone up there?”

“Oh, she’s gone to give Lord Aussohl a right thrashing,” said Rapunzel. “I’m perfectly safe up here. Nobody can climb up, you see, and I can get down if I need to, by using my hair.”

“Fair enough,” replied the knight, who by this point, was willing to accept almost anything. “Are you sure you don’t need rescuing?” she added, rather hopefully.

“No, I’m quite all right.”

“Well, suit yourself,” grumbled the knight (whose name, I should perhaps have mentioned earlier, was Sir Beatrice Rideswhelle, for some incomprehensible reason). “Would you object if I went and offered my services to your aunt?”

“Not at all,” said Rapunzel. “I’m sure she’d be happy to have you.”

“I’ll bid you good day then!”

“Good day, and good luck!”

And with that, Sir Beatrice rode off, leaving Rapunzel to her quest for Boredom, which you will be happy to hear, she achieved a mere two hours and thirty six minutes after Sir Beatrice had left, which shows some natural talent, I think.

It was, as it turned out, rather fortunate for Winnifred that Sir Beatrice had been in such desperate need of a rescue mission. Winnifred had begun her quest to give McLaudeponce a right thrashing with quiet aplomb, but it had quickly gone Aussohl up. Upon approaching the keep, she had easily disabled or terrified the guards (three of whom ran away and became quite excellent sailors as a result of her sudden appearance in the gatehouse), had made at least two noble ladies faint at the state of her shoes, and had managed to blast open the doors of the main hall with surprising ease.

Sadly for her, she was here set upon by not only Lord Aussohl’s personal guard, but also his personal wizard, Sir Vankstein. She could have beaten either of them on their own, but together, they were too much for her. She promptly found herself chained, thrown in the dungeon, and facing death by burning the next day at noon (dawn is more traditional, but Lord Aussohl wasn’t a morning person, and he hated to miss a good witch burning). She was feeling quite cross with herself, and wondering just how she was going to get out of her fix, when Sir Beatrice showed up. Faced with the prospect of not only giving an evil lord a good thrashing, but also of rescuing an innocent political prisoner (innocent can mean almost anything to the right kind of mind), Sir Beatrice was happier than a unicorn eating cake on a rainbow.

The rescue itself was, to Sir Beatrice’s mind, rather dull. Her horse pulled the bars out of the window with pathetic ease, Winnifred squeezed through without any of the usual unnecessary comic relief of getting stuck halfway, and the blacksmith was having a half-day holiday, so it was no trouble at all to borrow his tools to remove the witch-proof manacles from Winnie’s wrists.

“I say,” said Sir Beatrice, as they made their way stealthily back toward the main hall. “I hope this Laudeponce’s guard is going to be a bit more challenging than this rescue lark.”
Winnifred, who never hoped for unnecessary hardship if she could possibly help it, looked askance at her companion.

“I should think they’ll be challenge enough for one knight. There are twelve of them, after all.”

“Excellent,” said Sir Beatrice. “I’ll leave wizard to you then.”

One might have expected them to have come up with a rather more complex plan than this, but Sir Beatrice wasn’t really the tactical type, and after being locked in a dungeon all night, Winnifred was feeling rather too testy for strategy. Fortunately for them, they didn’t require it. Winnifred was quite capable of disabling Sir Vankstein (I shall not describe the process, in deference to my more delicate readers), and Sir Beatrice had a lovely time giving Lord Aussohl’s personal guard a right thwacking. (It would pay to add that if the personal guard had paid attention in guarding lessons, they would have had a far better chance against the knight; but they still had the vague notion that it was unsporting to take on a fellow swordsperson more than one or two at a time, and therefore allowed themselves to be roundly beaten.)

Lord Aussohl and the few lesser nobles of the keep were initially too surprised to react at all, and by the time they realised they should have been running away, Winnifred had already bound them to their seats with magic rope (the ordinary kind just isn’t reliable – after a few good spells, it frays quite alarmingly). As you can imagine, Lord Aussohl McLaudeponce did receive his thrashing, and more besides, since when the villagers found out he and his soldiers were at their mercy, I’m afraid they rather let themselves get carried away. The result was that, by the end of the day, McLaudeponce, his nobles, and his wizard, had all been beheaded, their heads displayed from the keep walls, and their bodies burned on the pyre intended for Winnifred.

Rapunzel’s parents were quite surprised when their daughter announced she had no intention of coming back to be a farmer, but when they considered how useful it was to have a witch in the family, they weren’t too disappointed. Winnifred was glad of the company in her tower, particularly once she found that her niece’s hair made the finest magical rope in existence. They became quite wealthy selling it to wizards (who are generally hopeless at those sort of handcrafts, the lazy buggers), and were eventually able to buy from the Crown the land on which the villagers – and Rapunzel’s parents – lived and worked, and return it to those who needed it most.

And no young maiden was ever forced to marry a Nice Young Lad before her sixteenth birthday ever again, which not everyone was happy about, but as I am rather on the side of the young women in this case, I shall say no more about it.

This adaptation is the property of Cambrey Payne 2017. Please acknowledge sources when sharing and do not repost without original source.

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The Princess and the Pauper

Once upon a time, there lived a cruel and malicious king, whose evil tendencies had led his kingdom into despair and darkness. A great many of the king’s subjects lived in abject poverty and deprivation, while the nobles who ruled them prospered under the king’s rule. The suffering caused by the greed and ignobility of the noble classes had been made worse by a drawn-out war, begun most unnecessarily by the petulance of the king’s only son. The kingdom had won the war with a neighbouring principality, but at a heavy cost. The king’s son and only male heir was killed in battle, along with a large portion of the kingdom’s young men, for which the formation of a generous treaty, and the health of the king’s only other a child – a daughter – was poor compensation indeed.

The king cared very little for the loss of one fifth of the population, provided it did not inconvenience him. But for the women, children, and old men who remained, life was far worse than inconvenient. Dissent and rebellion naturally followed hard on the heels of the peace treaty – rebellion led primarily by the women who, until now, had been little better than possessions in the eyes of their men and of the law. One does not favour one’s sex too highly when one says that it was hardly surprising that a rebellion led by women will be more effective, more practically damaging, and more persistent, than any flash-bang nonsense conceived of by men. Howsoever that may be, the rebellion increased in number and strength over the course of several years, and the king, while hardly willing to grant that mere peasants could have enough power to challenge the noble classes, began to fear where this dissent would lead.

During this time, Princess Charmaigne reached the advanced age of twenty. She was in possession of great personal beauty, firm good sense, and little practical power, save that of being traded by her father to the highest bidder, which is no power at all. It was perhaps this last, at least as much as her good sense and moral judgement, that led her to sympathise with the rebellion her father feared. While she could no more understand with the struggles of poverty and deprivation than she could those of a cart horse, she certainly understood what it was to be treated as a possession. It was no surprise, then, that she should wish for any means to break free of her chains, golden though they might be, and that she was willing to go to any lengths to do so. Thus, when her father determined that she had reached an age to be married, she reached out to the rebellion and offered them her assistance.

It took some time for the leaders of the rebellion to trust that the princess was genuine in her wish to be rid of her oppressors, and even longer to be sure that, should the king somehow be disposed of, the princess would be a better ruler than her father. But in time, they agreed to a deal – the princess’s freedom for her service. Princess Charmaigne was only too happy to agree, and she immediately proposed to her father that they should celebrate her coming of age with a festival, culminating in a great ball, to which they should invite the nobility of all the neighbouring kingdoms, as well as their own. Her father, pleased with an idea that would bring his daughter into contact with so many eligible young princes, immediately agreed.

The princess was not the only young woman of the rebellion to come of age at this time. Among the rebellion’s most valued soldiers was a woman called Cinderella, although that had not always been her name. She had once had another, before her father died, and her mother had been forced by her family to marry a man of far less noble character (although of equally ‘noble’ birth). Her mother did not live long after this second marriage, and when she died, Cinder was offered a choice: to remain in the family as an indentured servant, or to be thrown out of the house. As she was only twelve years old at the time, she naturally chose the former, and joined the serving staff in her own home. Her two step-sisters were no better than their father, and despised their relative. They christened her Cinderella, for in winter, she was forced to sleep on the hearth with the other servants to keep warm, and she was almost always daubed with ash.

Cinderella knew they meant to offend with such a title, but she instead wore it as a badge of honour, as a sign that she had been ejected from the idle and frivolous noble class to which she quickly developed a great dislike. Her service in the rebellion was her most valued possession, and she served well.

While the rebellion was a serious hindrance to the noble classes – they attacked carriages, looted unsecured mansions, kidnapped noble families for ransom, stole goods and food intended for the palace, and generally made the country unsafe for those of high rank – they could not access the palace, nor could they hope to mount any meaningful attack on the king and his supporters without risking more lives than they were prepared to sacrifice. Unlike the king, they valued their followers.

For a time, they focussed solely on stealing and kidnapping enough to feed and clothe those who had been left homeless, jobless, or destitute because of royal policy. But as the rebels became more bold in their activities, the king became more angry, and sent soldiers into rebel territory in an attempt to stop them. These raids were rarely successful, as the king suffered the same prejudice toward women as much of his sex, and assumed only men could organise such effective resistance, and arrested only men. However, the violence the king ordered done in his name was still very real, and the rebellion determined that they must aim higher. It was then that they heard from the princess, and saw the opportunity to end what had become civil war without the loss of rebel lives. It was Cinderella to whom the rebellion turned now. Not only was Cinder a talented spy and warrior, she was still technically a noblewoman, although from a family not often included at court. Her invitation to the ball was thus secured, and the rebels set about providing Cinderella with the appropriate tools for her task.

On the day of the ball, and after many difficulties, complaints, and unforgivable abuse of the serving staff, Cinder’s step-sisters and step-father were borne away from the house in their carriage. Now Cinderella’s preparations began. It would have greatly surprised her step-family to observe the line of heavily-cloaked figures who filed, one by one, through the kitchen door once Cinder was sure it was safe. It would have surprised them even more to see these same figures emerging into the coachyard an hour later. Six of the rebellion’s most able fighters were dressed in uniforms of grey and black that hid their feminine appearance so well that their employers would not have recognised in them the quiet and mouse-like maids whom they were used to see. The coach that awaited them appeared to be that of a respectable noble-merchant – and indeed, this was what it had been constructed from. Or, more accurately, it had been constructed from several coaches of respectable noble-merchants, whose conveyances had been taken by the rebellion and reconstructed in the barn of a local pumpkin farmer.

Cinderella would not have been recognised by her family either – which was fortunate, as they would also be at the ball. Gone were her ash-daubed, frequently-patched robes, replaced by the dress of a noblewoman. Numbered among the stalwart matrons who organised the rebellion was a singularly skilled dressmaker, who had made the most of a shipment of luxurious fabrics that had been ‘liberated’ by the rebellion some six months earlier. This veritable magician had transformed several yards of heavy, dark grey silk into a dress that would have sent Cinder’s step-sisters into violent raptures.

It was fortunate, perhaps, that long gloves and powdered faces were the fashion at this time, for even in this disguise, Cinderella’s true occupation would have revealed itself in her chapped fingers and coarse cheeks. But the signs of Cinderella’s servitude were well-covered, her hair was curled and pinned with jewels, and her proud bearing would not have disgraced even the princess. The true gem of her costume – literally, as well as figuratively – were the sparkling, jewelled shoes that peeped from beneath her sweeping train. They were uncomfortable, despite being fitted for Cinder’s feet by the same fairy godmother who had created her dress, and rather garish to the more modest tastes of the wearer, but they served a greater purpose than mere decoration – they were intended to distract and disguise.

The princess had spent the week of the festival in alternate agonies of suspense and boredom. She had been courted by every eligible prince from five kingdoms, as well as several senior noblemen; her father had provided broad hints as to which he felt were the most suitable, which Charmaigne felt was rather pointless, since he would make the final choice regardless of her preferences; she had heard nothing from the rebellion, other than that the ball would be when they would strike, and that she should be prepared. When the night of the ball arrived, she could barely maintain her facade of polite interest as she sat at the Royal Table beside the father she hated and feared so much that she had effectively signed his death warrant. The rebellion had kept her mostly in the dark about their plans, in case she proved to be treacherous after all, and she had very little idea as to what form the rebellion’s action would take. She only hoped they would take it soon, before the attentions of Prince Errol of Stook forced her to take matters – and a steak knife – into her own hands.

The evening was well under way – and the king and his closest advisors well into their cups – when the princess saw Cinderella enter the ballroom. While nobody else appeared to notice the way the grey-clad noblewoman moved about the ballroom in such a way as to always keep the royal family in her line of sight, and how she always appeared to be measuring the distance between her and the exits, Charmaigne was sure this was the person she had been waiting for. For a moment, when Cinder looked up once again at the Royal Table, their eyes met, and acknowledgement passed briefly and unnoticeably between them. Charmaigne, her heart now thudding painfully in her chest, watched out of the corner of her eye (she was careful not to draw any attention to Cinder by staring) as Cinderella appeared to drop her reticule, briefly seemed to fix some problem with her shoe, and straightened herself. Charmaigne could hardly see what Cinder did next without looking directly, but as Cinder raised her fan to her face, a small, black mark appeared on the neck of the duke to Charmaigne’s left. The princess immediately realised the rebellion’s plan, and while it was not wholly unexpected, she found she had not been as prepared for the reality. Charmaigne forced herself not to stare at the tiny, thorn-like dart in the duke’s neck, and covered her brief shock by offering the duke more wine.

Over the next ten minutes, Cinder continued to move about the ballroom, fanning herself lazily as she walked, allowed to pass through the crowd without notice. By the time she turned to exit the ballroom, nine darts had embedded themselves in the necks of the king and his inner council. The most powerful leaders in the country, though they did not yet know it, had been assassinated. Cinderella paused in the shadow of a column outside the ballroom and bent down, returning the tiny blowpipe – with which she had practiced for months to attain the accuracy that would allow her to complete this mission (although when she had commenced such training she had not known how important it would be) – to her shoe. It had been decorated with jewels to seem like just another decorative feature, and fit neatly into place when its job was done. The poisoned darts were concealed in the raised heel of the other shoe, for the toxin they contained meant they could not be simply left lying around for innocent servants or gardeners to pick up. She paused for a moment, and removed the shoes from her aching feet – they would not help her either in fighting or fleeing, if she had failed to escape unnoticed, and they were fairly torture on one not used to fine footwear.

As Cinderella stepped toward the stairs, however, she was arrested by the sight of the princess coming toward her. She immediately feared that the rebellion’s trust had been misplaced – although it would not now save the king – and that she was about to be arrested. While she had always been prepared to risk arrest, and the inevitable death sentence that would follow, in her work, she did not welcome the idea. The princess, however, approached her wordlessly, and took her hands. Cinder saw there were tears in the woman’s eyes, and her heart was touched.

“I cannot ever thank you for what you have done,” said the princess. “You have saved all of us.” Cinder bowed her head, surprised at her embarrassment.

“I do no more than my duty,” she replied. There was a sudden outcry from within the ballroom, and she knew the duke must have succumbed to the poison in his veins.

“You must go,” said the princess, reluctantly releasing Cinder’s hands. “But please, tell me where I might find you, when this is over.”

Cinderella’s guard, who had been waiting for her at the foot of the stairs, ready to come to her aid if she might be followed, interrupted them.

“We must leave,” said the nearest, pulling Cinderella away from the princess. “There is no time. Princess, you must return to the ballroom. They will be looking for you.”

And with that, Cinderella was gone, running down the stairs with her shoes under her arm. She went to stop as one of them tumbled from her grasp, but her companions pulled her forward. The uproar in the ballroom was now spilling outside, and they had mere seconds before they were noticed and stopped. She was bundled into the carriage, her companions pulled themselves into their places outside it, and they were gone.
The princess, watching from the head of the stairs, saw the shoe fall. She had just time enough to run down and claim it before the chaos claimed her attention, and the true drama of the evening was revealed.

It was some weeks before the princess was at leisure to think once again of her rebel companions. She had sent them a message immediately after the assassination, thanking them, and vowing that she would keep her word when she was crowned queen, and set about repairing the damage her father had done to the kingdom. And she had already done so, forming a court so very different from her father’s as to be almost unrecognisable. Those few remaining nobles who might have challenged the new queen’s power were quickly sent away, and new laws and practices were quick in being formed. It would be many years before the kingdom would taste the true benefits of such change, but that it had begun, was enough to give the people something to live for.

Once these changes had begun, however, the queen was at liberty to think once again of the mysterious young woman who had made it all possible. She found her admiration for the stranger growing with every passing hour – the courage, intelligence and skill that would have been necessary to carry out such a feat were beyond what the queen had often seen, and she wished more than anything to be able to see the young woman again, and to speak with her. The rebellion had gone silent after it had acknowledged her thanks, and she could gain no information from them. But she had maintained her possession of the rather remarkable shoe that had been left on the palace steps, and she soon decided that it would be the most eligible way to find her hero.

Thus the queen, already established as a thorough eccentric, began her search through all the noble and semi-noble families of the kingdom, hoping to find the owner of the other shoe. She had little time to spare for such a search, and it was many, many weeks before it led her to the door of Cinderella’s house. Cinder’s step-father, perceiving that the queen had a great admiration for the woman who had worn the shoe, instructed his one of his daughters to claim it for her own. The shoe, however, was too small, and the queen abruptly ordered Cinder’s whole step-family to be placed in the town stocks for a day as punishment for lying. The sisters wailed at such a punishment, which was beyond anything they had thought possible (they were very sheltered). The commotion drew the attention of all the serving staff, who were greatly amused by such a sight, and Cinderella was astonished to see the queen standing in the drawing room, holding her lost shoe. The queen, as we already know, was a most observant young woman, and recognised Cinderella immediately, despite her dirty apron and chapped fingers.

“I believe I have something of yours,” she said, holding out the shoe. Cinderella, somewhat shocked, but also quite pleased, stepped forward to take it.

“Your majesty is quite welcome to keep it,” she said. “I have no use for such finery.”
The queen laughed at this remark, surprising Cinder’s fellow servants.

“It has served its purpose admirably,” said Charmaigne. “For it has not only rid the kingdom of those unworthy to rule it, it has brought me to one most certainly capable of replacing them.”

Cinderella’s surprise at such a remark rendered her temporarily speechless, but you may be sure that she was soon sufficiently recovered to make a respectful answer, and in time, she became one of Queen Charmaigne’s most capable advisors. The leaders and warriors of the rebellion – women, all – came into the public eye once they could be assured of their safety, and were as valuable to the queen as Cinder herself. As the years passed, the power of the noble classes was greatly diminished, and the welfare of the common folk most wonderfully increased. Under Charmaigne’s just rule, the kingdom became a peaceful, prosperous place, and the women of the rebellion were the most able and sensible leaders of this new society. The men of the kingdom naturally objected to having so much of their power taken away, but with such an able queen, backed by such able women, there was little they could do, and it was very few generations before they ceased their griping and settled comfortably into a more just, happy way of life.

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