She had never paid much attention to the stories. She had never needed to.
Even while she walked up the palace steps in the dark, Ella had not paid much attention to the things surrounding her. If she had, maybe she would have noticed when she lost her glass shoes. At the time, though, the mere fact of being so far out of her home was all she could even begin to notice.
“Ella! Get moving!”
Not that her stepsisters had allowed her much time to even notice that.
Were all royal palaces so very…dark? Her own manor was modest in comparison, and she couldn’t imagine even the kitchen, where she spent most her time, being as dark as this. Yes, there were candles and torches, some gas lanterns even it looked like, but still it was dark. She saw, seemingly far in the distance, the prince. Despite the gloom, he seemed to shine…
“Excuse me…” Ella looked behind her. Her eyes had strayed to the window, where she watched the moon. It was full, and she was trying to remember why that was dangerous.
It was him.
“Excuse me, but I notice you are perhaps the only young lady here who does not seem to have worn her pendant…perhaps you could explain to me why?” she blinked. Words failed.
“Are you not from here, then? I apologize, miss, I am new here myself and so I merely wondered.”
“I…I am sorry, your…um…”
“Please, please. Call me Draco, I tire so quickly of titles.” Ella smiled. “Well, then I suppose you can call me Ella. I tire of titles as well.”
He returned her smile. “Now, may I ask…the pendant. It is a tradition here, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is, and if my stepmother cared whether I lived or died I imagine she would be very angry about my lack of interest in superstitions, but I suppose as it is I am lucky she isn’t. I have no really feeling that a silver crescent moon around my chest will protect me from any sort of monsters, and the truth is that her daughters would steal it from me anyway if they so much as knew where I kept it.”
“I see. So your mother, she passed away?”
“Years ago, now. She was the only one I knew who did not believe in superstition. I always admired her for that, and so I do not give in either.”
Draco nodded. “I have been told that here traditions run deep, and belief is not so much accepted as expected. And do you really not feel there is anything to believe?”
“No, I must confess I do not, prince. I feel that what remains here, among the people, is at least as dangerous as what might lurk out there.” They both turned back to the window and stared out.
Shortly before midnight, her stepmother and sisters forced Ella to leave; Prince Draco had long since felt the need to take his leave and greet other guests, though he had added before he left, “It was good to meet you, Ella. Perhaps another time we might talk more about your traditions, and those you do or do not keep.” She had smiled and nodded before he walked away. As he did so her, stepmother had found her, mouth bursting with words about how selfish a brat like her was to waste the time of a prince.
Her mind was in a fog as she went to sleep, and it was not until the next morning that Ella realized her glass shoes were gone, lost somewhere the night before. How had she gotten home this way? Why didn’t she even remember? She went into the kitchen and began to fix breakfast. The porridge was cooking as she heard the door slam, announcing her stepmother’s entrance.
“Ella. Your shoes. The shoes that you wore last night, where are they?”
“I…I lost them,” Ella answered, looking away from her stepmother’s eyes.
“So this…is yours?” her stepmother asked, pulling a slipper from behind her back. Ella’s eyes widened.
“Where did that come from?”
“Prince Draco. His messenger also says that His Majesty requests that you come to the palace tonight, to prove that the shoes are your own. You must bring this one back and put them on in front of him. An odd request, perhaps, but remember that he is a ruler. If you bring shame on me and your father, Ella, you will be out on the streets by tomorrow at dawn.” She walked out, leaving Ella slowly stirring the now-burning porridge.
When she stood in front of the palace for the second evening in a row, Ella wondered if there really was more to those stories than she had believed. The spirits, the monster, and the demons which haunted so many of the stories she had heard as a tiny child, before her mother had ordered the serving women of the household to stop telling them… what if they were true? She reached for her throat. If so, then standing here was more dangerous than she could imagine. Ella quickened her pace.
Holding one of her slippers in hand, Ella was led to the same ballroom where all had gathered the night before. This evening, though, the curtains were all closed, save one, and the room was empty aside from the prince.
He was looking out that window, up at the full moon- full for the second or the third night? Ella wasn’t sure-, but turned to her when the page had left. He smiled, and Ella felt her muscles relax. She loosened her grip on the slipper slightly as she held it out to him, and he nodded. Walking towards her, he presented Ella with the other.
“I had hoped, Ella, that the slipper was yours. If it is not, of course, I suppose I will have to ask some of the less…amusing of last night’s guests. Your sisters, perhaps?” he reached her and took her hand. His felt very cold to her, though she couldn’t imagine why that would be.
“Do you like my castle, Ella?” he asked.
“Yes, it is very beautiful,” she answered, trying to smile in what looked like a gracious way, but realizing she wasn’t sure how that looked. “I have lived here most of my life, your majesty, but never before last night had I come close to being inside.”
“Please, Ella. Call me Draco,” he said, leading her to a couch near the one open window. The chill air mingled with the coldness of his hand, and Ella tried to smile.
“If you ask me to, Draco,” she answered.
“Much better,” he said. “I dislike being addressed by titles so often, it makes me feel old. Now, sit, and try on this slipper.”
She lowered herself onto the couch; her dress, the second most formal she owned, billowed out around her. If she had needed to run, she thought, it would have been almost impossible. But then, why would she need to run? Draco kneeled down in front of her, the slipper he had kept in his hand.
It slid on perfectly, even more so, it seemed, than the evening before. As this thought entered Ella’s head, though, Draco was pulling her roughly to her feet.
“And finally…the real reason that I wanted you to come here,” he whispered into Ella’s ear. She froze. Her stepmother’s words ran through her mind.
If you bring shame on the family…
The prince’s mouth pressed against Ella’s neck, his lips cool and slightly dry. She shivered. How was she supposed to respond to this, the advance of a prince?
Then she felt pain, a pain sharper than anything. Sharper than her father’s silence, sharper than her stepsisters’ words, sharper even than her stepmother’s beatings when she was a child; she felt herself growing lightheaded. What…
He lifted her with a surprising strength and pressed her against the glass of the windowpane. Then he spoke.
“You see, then, Ella, why I was so fascinated by your lack of superstition…” then the pain again, now stronger, sharper. Her hands…she couldn’t feel them. What was it that could kill a demon? Why couldn’t she remember? Gold…iron…no…and then she remembered.
The glass shoes she wore had been blessed with holy water, a gift to her mother from a far more superstitious relation to give her luck wherever she stepped. If only she could reach her feet and remove it without the prince’s notice. He gripped her arm as she fell, and she found herself going backward to the couch.
“Hold…still…” he snarled. Her hand reached uselessly out for the shoe. She shook even more heavily as his fangs entered more deeply, but the jolt sent her back. Her left hand clutched it, feeling its warmth for the first time.
He fell against the window as the slipper went through his heart, shattering the glass in both.