He decides he will name himself ‘Clarence’. It is a serviceable human name to go with his serviceable human shape, and he likes the sibilance at the end. Before tonight he did not have a name; did not even understand the concept of names, did not think of anything but warm sun on his back and the crunch of small bones between his teeth, inasmuch as he thought at all.
Until six hours ago – another new and alien concept, this ‘time’ – Clarence had been an unremarkable lizard. Now he is an unremarkable footman, standing stolid guard over a coach that had once been a pumpkin and horses that had once been mice. Until six hours ago he had no idea what he was missing, but now he knows. At the edges of his mind he can sense the vast potentiality of it, of this new ‘humanity’ that is now his to enjoy.
Somewhere just beyond that, he can feel the hard cold fear of his inevitable death, just as new to him as consciousness itself. He pushes it away, thinks about other things – anything, just for the joy of thinking, of being able to think at all.
The hands of the clock creep towards midnight. Clarence squirms. If the girl does not come out before midnight the spell will break, and he will be a lizard again. He does not want the spell to break; something about becoming a lizard again feels a lot like that haunting sense of mortality, a lot like an end to thought and self-awareness. Should he go in and get her? Drag her soft and squealing form out of the palace before the chimes sound? Somewhere in his past, in a life he remembers faint and dreamlike, he would do the same with young mice; crawling backwards out of the hole, tail probing the way, jaws clamped on soft fur and squirming flesh. He thinks of Cinderella and tastes hot blood, hears the squealing of a meal, and feels something undefinable writhe within him. The ideas are entangled, confusing.
Clarence shifts, restless, glances once again at the clock. He will go in and get her. He looks at the royal guards, weapons a-gleam in the blaze of light from the palace windows, and knows with an instinctive understanding that they will kill him. His teeth are blunt, useless human teeth. His limbs are clumsy, flailing human limbs. But what is a lizard to do when his life is threatened? Fight or die, fight or die. Clarence’s hands clench around the shaft of the halberd he does not know how to use, he takes a step towards the door—
And there she is, Cinderella, floating down the steps like a dandelion head in that dress that shimmers like light on water. Strange world where the females show the mating colours, Clarence reflects. His tension lifts. She has left the ball on time; he gets to keep this strange, ungainly shape that he was about to fight and die for.
There is an interval of nothing.
Clarence returns to awareness, wide-eyed and furious. She came out on time! The spell didn’t break! You can’t just turn me back into a lizard! He is on hands and knees in the kitchen, chill flagstones still delivering the reptilian fear of the cold, of the sluggish decline into stillness and nonexistence. His old self fades rapidly – but not so rapidly that he does not know that he has been transformed from man to lizard and back again.
The fairy hangs in the air nearby, form distorted to near-invisibility within her shimmering cocoon of power. Magic bleeds off her, a lazy effulgence which sets the utensils to humming and rattling in their drawers, the tables to creaking and groaning as if they were living wood once again. She speaks, not loudly, and the kitchen seems to bend with every word.
“Hurry, hurry. Dress and arm yourselves.” It is not a suggestion. “Cinderella has another ball to go to, and she needs her footmen.”
She turns her golden gaze on Clarence and he wonders if she can sense his anger at her betrayal. Can she read his mind? Can she tell how much he hates her for tearing away the humanity he did not even know he wanted? The gaze sweeps on, across the other footmen, and Clarence realises that no, she just likes to admire her own handiwork.
He looks at his fellow footmen and recognises none of them from the last time; she must just scoop them out of the garden at random. They are nothing but lizards to her, he realises. Just tiny pieces in whatever flight of fancy she chooses to indulge next.
Clarence hurries. He dresses and arms himself. In the quiet of his mind he formulates a plan. He does not understand why he feels the tug of humanity so fiercely, but he does. He yearns. He craves.
The carriage arrives at the palace once more. The horses are skittish – they remember the mice they used to be, and they understand with animal clarity that these are not men that accompany them. Hot blood, small bones. Clarence resists the urge to bite the nearest horse, grinds his teeth instead. He looks away, into the night-time palace gardens, and flickers of reptilian instinct rise to be crushed by his new-forged will. He does not watch Cinderella go in; she confuses him with feelings strong but directionless. He crushes those too.
When all is clear, Clarence leaves. The other footmen watch him with blank-eyed confusion. Let them stare. Let them think that this is how humans behave. ‘Because I want to’ is familiar reasoning to them. Why do you eat, little lizard? Munch, crunch, because I want to, and I can.
Why do you struggle to be a man, little lizard? Because I want to, and I can.
It takes him precious hours of searching the streets, and a single sudden burst of animal brutality – blunt human teeth in soft human flesh, the familiar rush of blood over his unfamiliar tongue – to find what he wants. A dark room, candles creating more shadow than light, air thick with a multiplicity of scents that tantalise even Clarence’s deadened human nostrils. A woman – young? He is no judge of human ages – looks up from her sewing as he walks in.
Their eyes meet, and she knows, and he knows.
“Another transformee,” she says, betraying no expression. Clarence tries to guess what she used to be, before. Some sort of reptile for sure, but what? “I judge from the look of desperation in your eyes that it’s temporary?”
It occurs to Clarence that he has yet to speak a word in his human shape. He does not know if he can. He nods, once, instead.
“We can make it permanent,” the woman goes on. “The Lizard Kings can reweave this fairy magic, in their own manner – but there will be a price.”
“Anything.” The word bursts from Clarence’s lips, thick and uncertain in pronunciation, emphatic in delivery. There is a moment of silence.
“You should be careful with words like that,” the woman warns him, speaking slowly. “They mean a lot, in these parts.”
“Anything,” Clarence repeats, and means it.
“Then you shall have your humanity, for what good it may do you. But you will be paying the price for...” She hesitates, looks away. An expression Clarence does not understand washes across her features like running water. “For a very long time.”
The clock strikes midnight. The spell, complex threads of ancient power held together by a fairy’s whimsy, unravels like a magician’s trick. The coach becomes a pumpkin, the horses mice, the men lizards, forming for the next five minutes an illustrative example of the food chain in action. Cinderella’s fine gown peels away from her, threads unwinding and vanishing back into the nothing from which they came; she flees, scandalised, grateful that at least she was wearing her own profoundly non-magical undergarments and so is spared the embarrassment of total nudity.
In the dark room Clarence begins to thrash and shout and panic swells within him at the loss of his self a second and final time – and then the Lizard Kings snap their jaws and the tendril of power is severed. The magic pours back into him in a shuddering rush: humanity, retained. Body still shaking, eyes fixed on the clock, Clarence watches the minute hand advance past twelve with a sense of savage triumph.
But the jaws of the Lizard Kings, while powerful, are not precise. The threads of the fairy’s magic snarl and tear on their fangs, mix and tangle themselves into tiny knots of power...
And on the steps of the palace the prince bends down to retrieve a shoe made of glass, improbably preserved when everything else of the lady’s outfit had dissipated to nothing. He turns it over in his hands, thoughtful.