Main Cinderella Is Dead
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Cinderella is dead was a fun read, I really enjoyed the amount of representation and I loved that it was very clear that she was gay (and it was am important part of the plot). I also liked that she was not the only gay character and that they were all their own characters with different opinions and personalities. While her being black wasn't a part of plot, it was made very clear, which is how diversity should work (white is not a default). The only thing I didn't like about it was the timing of all the events felt rushed and could have used more work. I actually think this would make a good TV show or Movie, and I can't say that about alot of books! Overall 7/10
24 October 2020 (04:55)
I love the story of Cinderella is dead ????????????????????????????.
19 November 2020 (18:24)
I liked this book! It had quite the twist and I honestly did not expect it. I liked the characters, and the overall plot was very interesting.
19 November 2020 (21:48)
This is the best story I've ecpver read so interesting
25 November 2020 (16:19)
It nice and a very good story,I love it
09 January 2021 (19:53)
Fairly good read. I felt that the author could’ve paced it a little better because it seemed, in places, like they didn’t know where the story was going! Everything moved a bit too quick and the protagonist trusted everyone way too easily, but if you’re craving diversity and representation then this might be the book for you. Despite the rushed lore and world-building, I actually enjoyed this!
11 January 2021 (18:58)
Married to a devil's son
13 January 2021 (18:06)
This was such a good read! I didn't want to drop it even for a second ??? At one point, I fell asleep reading, woke up and continued right where I stopped. It had action, humor, romance and more than one queer character. This was a hit
20 February 2021 (14:03)
I experienced that if read one novel per week your English will be fluent
07 May 2021 (10:07)
fucking amazing- destroy the government
20 May 2021 (19:32)
This is one of the best books I've read, so much loved everything about it, the author did such a great job
22 June 2021 (10:30)
Girl boss speeches and copy pasted misogynistic remarks - 2.5/5 since the story wasn’t bad but the execution was awful
30 June 2021 (00:17)
Very interesting one of the best
13 July 2021 (18:04)
It was a nice book
Not the best. I liked the representation but not the storyline it needed a bit more oomph. I was kinda sad when she gave up on Erin. I felt like her relationship with Constance was a bit rushed. The dystopian factor was cool so I think I'll give it 3.5/5
Not the best. I liked the representation but not the storyline it needed a bit more oomph. I was kinda sad when she gave up on Erin. I felt like her relationship with Constance was a bit rushed. The dystopian factor was cool so I think I'll give it 3.5/5
15 July 2021 (01:05)
I really love it, I wish more people talk abt this book :(
30 July 2021 (19:28)
there's a spoiler in the comments lmao :(
17 August 2021 (20:02)
I love this book but wish when you read and stop you can come back to it right there but you need to scroll and thats annoying.
23 August 2021 (15:32)
a few people said so already, but it wasn't the greatest. yes, there's representation that's made clear, but the characters being black doesn't make it a big thing in the story. the pacing felt very odd at times. the plot was fairly interesting but in my opinion the mc wasn't. she constantly changed personalities, feelings about serious matters, and was a pretty basic strong-female-character who's "not like the other girls". the dialogue bits had me frustrated. not worth a reread for me.
29 August 2021 (15:27)
2/5 at first the pacing was alright but then it seemed as if the author rushed to already finish the book. constance and sophia's realtionahhip felt a little rushed too :/ not the best read but i love the representation and two lesbians trying to destroy the government literally #girlboss #gaslight #gatekeep
ALSO I LOVE HOW THEY CHANGED THE STORY OF CINDERELLA THO ITS SO BADASS AND FEMME FATALE LIKE SHES NOW COOL AND NOT LIKE PLAIN, LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT KINDA CINDERELLA LOVED THAT.
cool plot but couldve been executed better ig
ALSO I LOVE HOW THEY CHANGED THE STORY OF CINDERELLA THO ITS SO BADASS AND FEMME FATALE LIKE SHES NOW COOL AND NOT LIKE PLAIN, LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT KINDA CINDERELLA LOVED THAT.
cool plot but couldve been executed better ig
26 September 2021 (18:22)
Yep and I haven't read it yet so DON'T WRITE THE WHOLE STORY IN THE COMMENTS CAUSE OTHERS WANT TO READ WITHOUT YOUR BUGGING, ANNOYING TEMPTING COMMENTS!
got it ?
got it ?
30 October 2021 (08:57)
It's an amazing book with amazing story line but if u enjoy more dense world building, this book doesn't have very much of it but for me that wasn't a problem at all! Definitely recommend it if you want to get out of a reading slump
15 November 2021 (01:12)
i quite liked it, it was cool to read and easy to understand, the story itself was good, everything was great but i don't know i still felt like something was missing
05 December 2021 (05:24)
absolutely love it when lesbians overthrow the government
05 January 2022 (00:51)
So good imma reread it a hundred times??
07 February 2022 (11:49)
Loved it. It a unique story. She falls in love with her best friend(girl). I read some parts all over again. It's so good BTW: the prince was a psycho.
21 February 2022 (05:16)
I honestly don’t know what the people on the comments are talking about saying the book was slow at first or that one comment saying it seemed like the book was going nowhere. The character stated her purpose not far into the story. Nothing was ever slow because even the small parts had importance. I loved that all characters (even the secondary ones) has a purpose and importance. I did not felt the relationships were rushed or that the protagonist was too trusting because although the story had a rapid development, there were time gaps in between chapters so saying it was all rush is incorrect in my point of view. I loved every part of it 5/5
10 March 2022 (23:32)
The ending was something like a movie, hmm. Don't want to spoil it but read it.
30 March 2022 (15:02)
this book completely immerses you in its story, is is a quick read(at least for me). but every little detail just keeps adding to the big twist in the end, and a second re read will surely have me pointing things out that i missed before.
10/10 would recommend!
10/10 would recommend!
02 June 2022 (18:41)
I simp for Constance af—she is MOTHER
Anyways this was an interesting read—needed more world-building and the writing style was annoying at times but I enjoyed it. The whole lesbians taking down the patriarchy vibe was rly working for me
Anyways this was an interesting read—needed more world-building and the writing style was annoying at times but I enjoyed it. The whole lesbians taking down the patriarchy vibe was rly working for me
04 June 2022 (05:49)
This book is a 5/5
It is fun to read it was captivating and I practically couldn't put it down.
It is fun to read it was captivating and I practically couldn't put it down.
18 July 2022 (01:05)
the plot was so good! easter eggs throughout the entire book to give you hints on what’s going on, and in the end it all made sense and came together really well. i loved every page
09 August 2022 (16:02)
For Amya, Nylah, Elijah, and Lyla Contents Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen Chapter Sixteen Chapter Seventeen Chapter Eighteen Chapter Nineteen Chapter Twenty Chapter Twenty-One Chapter Twenty-Two Chapter Twenty-Three Chapter Twenty-Four Chapter Twenty-Five Chapter Twenty-Six Chapter Twenty-Seven Chapter Twenty-Eight Chapter Twenty-Nine Chapter Thirty Chapter Thirty-One Chapter Thirty-Two Chapter Thirty-Three Chapter Thirty-Four Chapter Thirty-Five Chapter Thirty-Six Chapter Thirty-Seven Chapter Thirty-Eight Acknowledgments “Prince Charming’s heart was set aflame, and because she had been dutiful, faithful in her service to the Crown, Cinderella became the chosen, the favored.” ~CINDERELLA Palace-Approved Text 1 Cinderella has been dead for two hundred years. I’ve been in love with Erin for the better part of three years. And I am about two minutes away from certain death. When the palace guards find me, and they will, I am going to die in the forest on Lille’s eastern border. But I don’t care. The only thing I’m focused on is Erin, who is pressed up against a tree directly across from me. The palace guards don’t see her yet, but they are headed her way. They stop a few feet from where she’s hiding. Her eyes grow wide in the shadowy confines of the forest. I meet her gaze across the wide swath of carriage pathway that separates us. Don’t move, Erin. Don’t make a sound. “I fell asleep in the tower last night,” one of them says. “Someone woke me, but still. I was lucky. If the king found out, it’d be my head on a pike.” “You going to the ball?” one man asks. “No,” says another. “All work and no fun for me, I’m afraid.” “That’s a shame. I’m hearing the girls in this year’s group are the prettiest lot in a generation.” “In that case, is your wife going to ha; ve an accident? It’d be a shame if that first step down to your cellar suddenly came loose.” They laugh from the gut, hissing and sputtering, and from the sound of it, they are falling all over themselves. Their voices move away from us until I can’t hear them anymore. I pull myself up and run to Erin, who is still cowering behind the tree. “They’re gone,” I say. I take hold of her hand and try to calm her. She peers around the tree, her face tight with anger, and jerks away from me. “Of all the impossible things you’ve ever convinced me to do, coming out here has to be the worst one. The guards almost spotted us.” “But they didn’t,” I remind her. “You asked me to meet you here,” she says, her eyes narrow and suspicious. “Why? What is so important?” I’ve rehearsed what I’m going to say to her, practiced it over and over in my head, but as I stand in front of her I’m lost. She’s angry with me. That’s not what I want. “I care about you more than anything. I want you to be happy. I want us to be happy.” She stays quiet as I stumble over my words, her hands clenched at her sides. “Things feel hopeless so much of the time, but when I’m with you—” “Stop,” she says, her expression a mask of anger. “Is this what you brought me out here for? To tell me the same thing you’ve been telling me since forever?” “It’s not the same thing. The ball is so close now. This may be our last chance to leave.” Erin’s brow shoots up in surprise. “Leave?” She comes closer, looking me dead in the eye. “There is no leaving, Sophia. Not for you, not for me, not for anyone. We are going to the ball because it is the law. It is our only hope for making some kind of life.” “Without each other,” I say. The thought makes my chest ache. Erin straightens up but casts her gaze to the ground. “It can be no other way.” I shake my head. “You don’t mean that. If we run, if we try—” Laughter in the distance cuts my plea short. The guards are circling back. Erin ducks behind the tree, and I dive into the brush. “You don’t get to work in the palace if you don’t know how to say yes and shut your mouth,” says one of the guards as he comes to a stop directly in front of my hiding spot. “If you don’t have the stomach to do some of the things he’s asking for, you’re better off here with us.” “You’re probably right,” says another man. Through the branches, I see the tree Erin is hiding behind. The hem of her dress has caught on a rough patch of bark and is poking out. The guard looks in her direction. “What’s that?” he asks. He takes a step toward her, his hand on the hilt of his weapon. I kick against the bush. The entire thing shakes, causing a cascade of rust-colored leaves to rain down on me. “What was that?” one of the men asks. They turn their attention back to me. I shut my eyes tight. I’m dead. I think of Erin. I hope she’ll run. I hope she’ll make it back. This is all my fault. I only wanted to see her, to try to convince her one last time that we should leave Lille once and for all. Now I’ll never see her face again. I glance toward the tree line. I can make a run for it, draw the attention of the guards away from her. I might be able to lose them in the woods, but even if I can’t, Erin can get away. My body tenses, and I pull my skirt between my legs, tucking it into my waistband and slipping off my shoes. “There’s something in there,” a guard says, now only an arm’s length from me. The guards move closer, so close I can hear them breathing. I glance past them. There’s a flash of baby blue between the trees. Erin’s made a run for it. A clanking sound cuts through the air, metal on metal—a sword drawn from its scabbard. Over the rush of blood in my ears and the pounding of my own heart, a horn blasts three blaring notes. “We’ve got a runner,” a gruff voice says. I freeze. If I’m caught this far into the woods, the guards will make an example of me. I picture myself being paraded through the streets in shackles, maybe even stuffed into a cage in the center of town where Lille’s people are so often made to endure public humiliation as penance for stepping off the beaten path. The men’s voices and footsteps move away from me. I’m not the runner they are talking about. I haven’t even started running yet. My heart crashes in my chest. I hope they can’t gain on Erin quickly enough. The guards’ voices trail off, and when they’re far away from me, I tuck my shoes under my arm and run into the shadowy cover of the forest. Ducking behind a tree, I peer around the trunk as several more guards gather. They’ve got an older woman with them, already bound at the wrists. I breathe a sigh of relief and immediately feel a searing stab of guilt. This woman is now at the mercy of the king’s men. I turn and make a break for it. With my legs pumping and lungs burning, I think I hear the snap and snarl of hounds, though I can’t be sure. I don’t dare look back. I trip and smash my knee on a rock, tearing the flesh. The pain is blinding, but I pull myself up and keep going until the trees start to thin. At the path that leads back to the heart of town, I pause to catch my breath. Erin is nowhere to be found. She’s safe. But this is Lille. No one is ever really safe. 2 As I trek home all I can think of is Erin. The forest is deep and dangerous and, most important, off-limits. I know she won’t stay hidden. She’ll make her way home, but I need to know she’s safe. The bell tower in the town square rings out the hour. Five loud clangs. I’m supposed to meet my mother at the seamstress’s shop for a fitting, and she specifically told me to come there bathed, with my hair washed and a fresh face. I look down at myself. My dress is smudged with dirt and blood, and my bare feet are caked with mud. I escaped the king’s men, but when my mother sees me, she’ll probably end me herself. Guards patrol the streets. Many more than usual now that the ball is so close. I keep my head down as I pass by. They aren’t too concerned with me. They’re on high alert because of what people in Lille are calling the incident. It happened two weeks ago in the northern city of Chione. There were rumors that an explosion damaged the Colossus, a twenty-foot likeness of Mersailles’s savior, Prince Charming, and that the people responsible were ferried into Lille under cover of night and taken into the palace to be questioned by the king himself. Whatever happened, the details he was able to pry from them sent him into a state of panic. For the first week after the incident, he ordered the mail stopped, our curfew was moved up two hours, and pamphlets were distributed that assured us the incident was nothing more than an attempt by a rogue band of marauders to vandalize the famous statue. It also stated that the perpetrators were put to death. When I get home, the house is empty and silent. My father is still at work, and my mother is waiting for me at the seamstress’s shop. For a moment, I stand in the center of the floor, looking up at the wall hangings over the door. One is a portrait of King Stephan, haggard and gray; it shows him as he was before his death only a few years ago. Another is of King Manford, the current king of Mersailles, who wasted no time in pushing out his official royal portrait and requiring that it be hung in every house and public space in town. Our new king is young, only a few years older than I am, but his capacity for cruelty and his lust for absolute control rivals his predecessor, and it is on full display in the third frame hanging over our door. The Lille Decrees. A minimum of one pristine copy of Cinderella will be kept in every household. The annual ball is a mandatory event. Three trips are permitted, after which attendees are considered forfeit. Participants in unlawful, unsanctioned unions will be considered forfeit. All members of households in Mersailles are required to designate one male, of legal age, to be head of household, and his name will be registered with the palace. All activities undertaken by any member of the household must be sanctioned by head of household. For their protection, women and children must be in their permanent place of residence by the stroke of eight each night. A copy of all applicable laws and decrees along with an approved portrait of His Majesty will be displayed in every household, at all times. These are the hard and steadfast rules set forth by our king, and I know them by heart. I go to my room and light a fire in the small hearth in the corner. I consider staying until my mother comes looking for me, but I’m worried that she already thinks something terrible has happened. I’m not where I should be. I bandage my knee with a clean strip of cloth and wash my face in the basin. My copy of Cinderella’s tale, a beautifully illustrated version my grandmother gave me, sits on a small wooden pedestal in the corner. My mother has opened it to the page where Cinderella is preparing for the ball, the fairy godmother providing her with everything her heart desired. The beautiful gown, the horse and carriage, and the fabled glass slippers. Those attending the ball will reread this passage to remind themselves what is expected of them. When I was small, I used to read it over and over again, hoping that a fairy godmother would bring me everything I needed when it was my turn to go to the ball. But as I got older, as the rumors of people being visited by a fairy godmother became fewer and farther between, I began to think the tale was nothing more than that. A story. I told my mother this exact thing once and she became distraught, telling me that now I certainly wouldn’t be visited if I voiced so much doubt. I never said anything about it again. I haven’t looked at the book in years, haven’t read it aloud like my parents want me to. But I still know every line. An ivory-colored envelope sits on the mantel, my name scrawled across the front in billowing black script. I take it down and pull out the folded letter from inside. The paper is thick, dyed the deepest onyx. I read the letter inside as I have done a million times since it arrived the morning of my sixteenth birthday. Sophia Grimmins King Manford requests the honor of your presence at the annual ball. • • • This year marks the bicentennial of the first ball, where our beloved Cinderella was chosen by Prince Charming. The festivities will be grand, and made all the more special by your attendance. • • • The ball begins promptly at eight o’clock on the third of October. • • • The choosing ceremony will begin at the stroke of midnight. • • • Please arrive on time. We eagerly await your arrival. Sincerely, His Royal Highness King Manford On its face, the invitation is beautiful. I know girls who dream of the day their invitation arrives, who think of little else. But as I turn it over in my hand, I read the part of the letter that so many of those eager young women miss. Along its outer edge, in a pattern that reminds me of ivy snaking its way up latticework, are words in white script that give a dire warning. It is the first of October. In two days, my fate will be decided for me. As terrible as the consequences will be if I’m not chosen, the danger in being selected might be worse. I push those thoughts away and shove the letter back in the envelope. I leave the house and make my way to the dressmaker’s shop, taking the long route and hoping I’ll run into Erin. I’m worried to death about her, but I know my mother is worried about me too. The shops along Market Street are lit up and bustling with people making last-minute preparations for the ball. A line winds out of the wigmaker’s. I peer into his shop window. He’s really outdone himself this year. Elaborately styled wigs crowd his shelves. They remind me of wedding cakes, tiers upon tiers of hair in every shade, the ones on the top shelf featuring things like birds’ nests with replicas of eggs tucked inside. A young girl sits in the wigmaker’s chair as he places a four-tiered piece atop her head. It’s layered in fresh pink peonies, topped with a small model of Cinderella’s enchanted carriage. It teeters precariously as her mother beams. I hurry past, cutting through the throngs of people and ducking down a side street. The shops here aren’t ones that my family and I have ever set foot in. They’re for people with enough money to buy the most outrageous and unnecessary baubles. I’m not really in the mood to feel bad about what I can and can’t afford, but this is the quickest way to the town square, where I can cut across and find Erin before I meet my mother. In the window of one shoe store, Cinderella’s glass slippers sit on a red velvet cushion, illuminated by candlelight. The little placard next to it reads, Palace-Approved Replica. I know if my father had the money, he’d snatch them up immediately, hoping they’d set me apart. But if they’re not enchanted by the fairy godmother herself, I don’t see the point. Shoes made of glass are an accident waiting to happen. Farther down there is another line snaking out of a small shop with shuttered windows. The sign above the door reads Helen’s Wonderments. Another sign lists the names of tinctures and potions Helen can brew up: Find a Suitor, Banish an Enemy, Love Everlasting. My grandmother told me Helen was just some wannabe fairy godmother and that her potions were probably watered-down barley wine. But that didn’t stop people from putting their trust in her. As I pass by, a woman and her daughter—who looks about my age—hurry out of the shop. The woman has a heart-shaped glass vial in her hand. She pops the cork and pushes it to the girl’s lips. She drinks the whole thing in one long gulp, tilting her head back and looking up at the evening sky. I hope the things my grandmother said weren’t true, for that poor girl’s sake. 3 I make a quick turn and hurry toward the town square. The Bicentennial Celebration has been going on for a week and will culminate with the annual ball. Until then, the festivities continue every night. Before curfew, people crowd the square to make music and drink, and tonight is no exception. As I push through, trying to cut directly across the square, vendors are hawking their goods in the shadow of the bell tower, a gleaming white structure with four tiers topped by a golden dome. There are jewelry and dresses from the city of Chione in the north, and satin gloves, makeup, and perfume from the city of Kilspire in the south. As I zigzag through the booths, searching the crowd for Erin’s face, I notice a young woman standing on a raised platform. She is reciting passages from Cinderella. The palace-issued volume sits on a book stand in front of her. “The ugly stepsisters had always been jealous of Cinderella, but seeing how lovely she looked that night, they realized that they could never be as beautiful as she and, in a fit of rage, tore her dress to shreds.” People who’ve gathered around jeer and boo. I keep walking. I still don’t see Erin, and an all-consuming terror creeps in. I tell myself she’s at home, but I have to get there to make sure. A booth, much more crowded than the others, sits near the middle of the square, and a crowd of people blocks my path. As I try to maneuver around them, I see that all the fuss is over a game being played in the booth. There are shoes piled up, and little girls pay a silver coin to be blindfolded as they pick one set of slippers and try them on. If they fit, they win a small prize—a beaded bracelet or necklace, along with a little slip of parchment that reads “I Was Chosen at the Bicentennial Celebration.” A little girl with a crown of bouncy brown ringlets beams as her tiny foot slides into a violet-colored shoe with a tall heel. It’s all good fun until another little girl picks the wrong size shoes and wins a slip of paper with a small portrait of Cinderella’s fabled stepsisters, their faces twisted into hideous smiles. She looks at her mother. “Mama, I don’t want to be like them.” Her bottom lip trembles as she chokes back a sob. A palace guard laughs uproariously as her mother scoops her up and carries her away. I slip through an opening and move from the booth toward the center of the square where a fountain, a life-size replica of Cinderella’s carriage, stands. Made entirely of glass, it shimmers in the fading sun. Water spouts up around it, and in the bottom of the pool are hundreds of coins. It’s tradition to make a wish, much like Cinderella did so many years ago, and toss a coin, preferably silver, into the fountain. I remember tossing coins in when I was younger, but I haven’t done that in years. “Sophia!” Liv bounds toward me; her long brown hair is pulled up into a bun on top of her head, and her rosy cheeks look like candied apples on her tawny skin. She looks me over. “What happened to you?” I look down at my dress, which I hadn’t bothered to change. “You don’t want to know.” “Where are you off to?” she asks. “I’m looking for—” I hesitate. It’s too dangerous to talk in public about what happened out there in the woods. “I’m going to my fitting.” Liv’s face twists up in a look of disbelief. “You were supposed to do that weeks ago. The ball is two days away.” “I know,” I say. “I’ve been avoiding it.” There’s an opening and I move to leave, but Liv loops her arm under mine. She shakes her head. “You are so stubborn. Your mother must be pulling her hair out.” She laughs and holds up something wrapped in a shiny silver cloth. “You’ll never believe what I won at one of the booths.” She unwraps the object. It’s a stick. I look at Liv and then back to the stick. She is beaming, and I am thoroughly confused. “Are you feeling okay?” I put my hand on her head to see if she’s running a fever. She laughs and playfully bats my hand away. “I’m fine. But look. It’s a wand. A replica of the very same one the fairy godmother used.” I glance at the stick again. “I feel like you got taken advantage of.” She frowns. “It’s a real replica. The man said it came from a tree in the White Wood.” “No one goes into the White Wood.” Erin steps out from behind Liv, and my heart almost stops. It takes everything in me not to grab her and pull her close to me. “Close your mouth before a bug flies in,” says Liv, looking around nervously. “You’re safe,” I say, relieved. Erin nods. “And you’re a mess.” I wish I’d taken the time to clean up a little better before I left my house. “Still lovely, of course,” she says quickly. “I don’t think you can help that.” I glance at her. “Maybe Liv can use her wand to help me clean up.” Liv points the stick at me and gives it a flick. She frowns. “I always hoped that one day I’d develop some magical powers. I guess today is not that day.” I pat her arm. “No one has seen that kind of magic since Cinderella’s time. I doubt it even exists anymore.” A hush falls over them, and they exchange worried glances. “Of course it exists,” Erin says in a whisper. “You know the story as well as anyone. If we are diligent, if we know the passages, if we honor our fathers, we might be granted the things Cinderella was.” “And if we do all those things and nothing happens—no fairy godmother appears, no dress, no shoes, no carriage—then what? Do we still believe it?” “Don’t question the story, Sophia.” Liv steps closer to me. “Not in public. Not anywhere.” “Why?” I ask. “You know why,” Erin says in a low tone. “You must put your faith in the story. You must take it for what it is.” “And what is it?” I ask. “The truth,” Erin says curtly. I don’t want to argue with her. “She’s right,” Liv says. “The gourds in the royal garden are grown at the very spot where the remnants of her carriage were gathered up. And I’ve heard that when her tomb was still open to the public that the slippers were actually inside.” “Another rumor,” I say. I remember hushed conversations between my grandmother and her friends about the tomb. No one has seen it in person in generations. Just more stories to trick young girls into obedience. Liv and Erin both look like they’ve had about enough of me. “Well I’m still hoping to earn the favor of a fairy godmother,” says Liv. Liv’s plan seems risky. My mother hopes for the same thing but has arranged for my dress on the off chance I don’t find a magical old lady in my garden the night of the ball. If anyone shows up with anything less than a gown fit for Cinderella herself, they’ll risk their safety, and I don’t think the king cares if it comes from a fairy, a dress shop, or someplace else. What matters is that we look like a fairy godmother blessed us with her magic. “Do your parents have a plan in case that doesn’t work?” I ask. I don’t want Liv to be in danger because they waited too long to get her what she needed. This will be Liv’s second trip to the ball. A third is permitted, but it would break Liv’s spirit and send her family to ruin. “Do you ever get tired of trying to get yourself arrested?” Erin asks. “Talking like that is going to get you locked up.” “Okay,” says Liv, stepping between us and shaking her head. “Here.” She reaches into her satchel and pulls out a handful of coins. “They’re not silver, but they’ll have to do. Let’s make wishes in the fountain like we used to.” She takes my arm and leads me to the fountain. Erin comes up beside me, her shoulder brushing against mine. I think I hear her sigh, and she gives a little shake of her head. Behind us, music continues to play, and people laugh and chatter away. Palace guards roam the square, their royal blue uniforms neatly pressed, their swords glinting in the lamplight. Liv hands Erin and me a coin each. “Make a wish,” says Liv. She closes her eyes and tosses in her coin. I look at Erin. “I wish you’d leave Lille with me. Right now. Leave Mersailles, leave all this behind, and run away with me.” I toss my coin into the water. Liv gasps. Erin’s eyes flutter open, her brow furrowed, her mouth turned down. “And I wish you’d just accept the way things are.” She tosses her coin into the fountain. “I wish I could decide that nothing else matters, but I’m not like you, Sophia.” “I’m not asking you to be like me,” I say. Erin’s eyes mist over, and her bottom lip trembles. “Yes, you are. Not everyone can be so brave.” My chest feels like it’s going to cave in. I step away, and Erin rushes off, disappearing into the crowd. I don’t feel brave. I feel angry, worried, and doubtful that anything will ever change. I prepare to run after her, but Liv catches me by the arm and pulls me back. “You have to let it go, Sophia,” Liv says. “It cannot be.” She leads me away from the fountain, and I push away the urge to cry, to scream out. We move around a large circle of blackened grass. Liv looks down at it. “What is this?” I ask. “Something happened here a few nights ago. Rumor is that someone created an explosion, tried to destroy the fountain. They failed.” Liv turns to me, worry plastered on her face. “Don’t you see? There is no resisting. We can’t go against the book or the king.” I shake my head. I don’t want to accept that this is all there is for me. Liv glances around and then leans close. “A group of children found a body in the woods by Gray Lake.” “Another one?” I ask. “How many is that?” “Six since the leaves have started to turn. A girl, just like the others.” I try to tally up how many young women have turned up dead in Lille in the years since I’ve been old enough to understand such things. The dead number in the dozens, but the missing are more than I can count. “Go to your fitting, Sophia,” Liv says, squeezing my hand. “Maybe someone at the ball will take you away from all this.” There is a ring in her voice. Maybe Liv wants to be taken away. I can’t blame her, but that’s not for me. I don’t want to be saved by some knight in shining armor. I’d like to be the one in the armor, and I’d like to be the one doing the saving. I make my way to the seamstress’s shop in a daze and arrive a full two hours late. Peering through the window, I see my mother chatting away with the other women in the shop. They laugh and smile, but her mouth is drawn tight as she rests her chin on tented fingers. I hate that I’ve made her worry. I take a deep breath and open the door. My mother stands and exhales, letting the air hiss out between her teeth, a look of relief on her face. “Where have you been?” Her gaze wanders over me. “And what have you been doing?” “I was—” She puts her hand up. “It doesn’t matter. You’re here now.” She glances past me, out to the street. “Did you walk here alone?” “No,” I lie. “Liv and Erin walked with me to the end of the street.” “Oh, good. I’m sure you’ve heard about the incident at Gray Lake.” I nod. She shakes her head and then forces a quick smile and instructs the seamstress and her helpers to get to work. The pieces of my dress are sewn into place to ensure a perfect fit. My mother fusses over the color of the piping along the hem of the gown. Apparently, it’s supposed to be rose gold, not regular gold, so it has to be taken off and reattached. I think the entire ensemble would look very nice at the bottom of a wastebasket, maybe doused with lamp oil and set on fire. No one asked me what color I’d like it to be or how I’d like it to fit. My mother wrings her hands together and paces the floor in front of me. She is worried sick about every little detail, as if my life depends on these things. I try to silence the voice inside me that tells me it very well might. “It’s gorgeous, Sophia,” my mother says as she looks me over. I nod. I can’t think of anything to say. I still can’t believe this day has actually arrived. I’d hoped to be far from Lille at this point, maybe far from Mersailles altogether, with Erin by my side, leaving the king and his rules behind us. Instead I am here, preparing to give in to this terrible inevitability. The seamstress helps me out of the dress so she can pack it up and send it home with us. A plum-purple bruise colors the side of her neck; it has started to turn green around the edges. “What happened to your neck?” I whisper, though I know the likely source of her pain. So many women in Lille carry around similar burdens. The seamstress looks at me quizzically and quickly adjusts her collar. “Don’t you worry about that. It’ll be gone in a week. Like it never even happened.” “Sophia,” my mother interrupts. “Why don’t you go out and get some air? But stay on the path where I can see you.” I stare down at the seamstress, whose smile does little to mask her pain. I gather up my skirts and walk out to the footpath leading up to the shop. The sun fades as the lamplighters begin their nightly rounds. Even in the encroaching darkness, the watchtowers loom in the shadows. Stone sentries, their lookout windows facing inward. A mural of the king mars the side of a building across the street. He’s pictured on a horse at the head of an army of soldiers, his arm outstretched, holding a sword. I bet he’s never led an army anywhere except across the squares of a chessboard. Hard as I try, I cannot set aside thoughts of what it will be like to be chosen. In two days’ time, I could be given to a man I know nothing about, who knows nothing about me. My own wants and needs will be silenced in favor of what he thinks is best. What if he thinks nothing of putting a bruise on my neck? And if I’m not chosen, what then? And Erin. My dear Erin. What will become of us? I shiver as a knot grows in my throat. My mother comes out into the street and throws a shawl around my bare shoulders. “You don’t want to catch a chill so close to the ball, Sophia.” She looks around cautiously, lowering her voice. “I wish it didn’t have to be this way, but—” “Yes, I know. This is just how it is.” I grit my teeth, stifling the urge to scream for the thousandth time. I look at her, and for a split second she lets the mask slip, and I see the pain in her face. She seems older in the pale light of the evening sky. Her gaze moves over my face and down to my dress for an instant before she looks away. “Does it suddenly seem real to you?” I ask. She presses her mouth into a hard line. “Yes.” “I’ve wished that this day would never come,” I say. “So have I,” she says quietly. “But here we are, and we must make the best of it.” My mother returns to the shop, but I linger for a moment before joining her as the seamstress and her helpers finish packing my dress. I look up at the starry sky. Things will be different now and forever. There will be no going back once the ball has taken place. I feel a sadness, almost grief-like in its depth, threatening to consume me. I pull my shawl tighter and hurry inside. 4 Mr. Langley, a friend of my father’s, has a son who’s agreed to drive our carriage for us while my father is working. He meets us at the road and helps us load up the dress. He locks eyes with me and smiles as I climb into the carriage. I look away from him. I’m not in the mood to pretend to be flattered. My mother climbs in behind me, and the carriage moves jerkily down the road. Heavy curtains cover the windows, but the chilly night air still makes its way inside. I tighten my cloak around my shoulders and pull the hood down, covering most of my face, but this isn’t a clear enough signal to my mother that I don’t want to talk. “He’s quite a handsome young man, isn’t he?” she asks. I watch my mother as she eyes me carefully. “Who?” “Mr. Langley’s son. Of course, if he were to find you agreeable, he would have to make an official petition for you at the ball. I’m sure he won’t be the only one interested.” I shake my head. “Is there ever a time when you’re not thinking up ways to marry me off to the first half-decent man you can find?” “Half-decent might be the best we can hope for.” She looks down into her lap, pressing her lips together. I pull open the curtain and look out the window, more to keep my eyes from rolling back into my skull than to take in the view. I’m not angry at her specifically. Her way is the way of most people in Lille. Always looking for an opportunity to make the dark seem brighter. She’s good at it, but I’m not. I can’t help but see the ball for what it really is. A trap. We ride through Lille’s twisting streets. In the distance, the palace’s massive turrets stick up over the sloping landscape. It is extravagant, gaudy, a reminder to the rest of us that no matter how hard we try, we will never be completely worthy of that kind of wealth, that privilege. Just outside the palace grounds is the gated section of Eastern Lille, where the highest-ranking members of the aristocracy live. Close enough to the king to make themselves feel special but far enough away so they didn’t get the impression they were equal to him. The people there hoarded their wealth, improving their own lives while the rest of the city fell into decay. As our carriage pulls into the western part of the city, the identical houses along the cobbled alleys lean on one another as if they might collapse in on themselves without the added support. The evening hours bring with them a particularly confusing mixture of smells. Scents of freshly baked bread and boiled meat waft through, but they are tinged with the distinct smell of excrement, human and animal alike. No lamps light my street other than the ones people keep in their windows. We roll to a stop, and my mother climbs out. I stand on the carriage step for a moment, hoping to put some distance between us. She isn’t going to let me go to bed without having a talk. She reaches the front step and looks back at me, a sorrowful expression drawn across her face. Mr. Langley’s son places the dress box on the doorstep, then clears his throat. I glance over at him, and he flashes another wide smile. I’m about to tell him that he looks ridiculous and is clearly making a fool of himself when my mother calls to me. “Sophia, come inside.” She knows me too well. She pushes the door open as the bells toll, signaling curfew for Lille’s women and children. Her foot keeps time with the thunderous gongs. At the final stroke of eight, we are meant to be inside, behind our locked doors. Sometimes I stand on the front stoop as the last bell tolls, just to see what might happen. On those occasions, my mother darts around the house in a fit, wishing I would sit down and stop trying to get myself arrested like some damned fool. When I was little my mother told me that if I wasn’t inside at the toll of the final bell that the ghosts of Cinderella’s evil stepsisters would swoop in and take me away. Now that I’m older, I understand that it’s not vengeful spirits I need to be afraid of. The king and his men pose the biggest threat. I step out and make my way to the door, avoiding my mother’s stare and squeezing past her as she closes and locks it behind me. I head for the stairs. “Sit,” she says as she pulls a chair out from our dining room table. She walks to the other side and sits down. I want to go upstairs and fall into bed, but we’ll have to have this little talk first. I join her at the table and stare across at her. Most people think my mother and I are sisters, so alike are our features. Our dark, curly hair is identical except that her strands are lightly flecked with gray. We share the same deep-brown complexion, but she has lines set in at the corners of her mouth. People call them laugh lines, but I’m certain hers are from frowning. “I was chosen by your father my first year at the ball, and it was a good match,” she begins. “He was the son of a land baron, and he is a decent man, a good man.” “I know.” She’s told me this before, but an urgency tints her voice now, like she’s trying to convince me that there’s some glimmer of hope. “But some are not so lucky,” she says, her tone deadly serious. “Do you understand what that must be like? To not be chosen? What the repercussions of that would be?” “Of course I understand.” That possibility scares her almost more than anything else. Girls who aren’t chosen by their third ball are considered forfeit, ending up in workhouses or in servitude. But in recent years, several girls have disappeared into the castle and were never heard from again. My mother runs her hands over the pleats in her dress and sighs. “Tell me something, Sophia. Do Erin and Liv know how difficult you can be? How stubborn?” “Yes,” I say. It is a half-truth. Erin and Liv are my closest friends, and I can be myself around them for the most part. But even in their presence, I feel like I have to hold back because Lille has left its mark on them, too. They hear me speak of leaving, of resisting what is expected of us, and they tell me to lower my voice. Those things are simply not done. No one leaves. No one resists who isn’t courting death. “I do hope Liv finds a match this year,” my mother says, staring off. “Her parents are very worried, and if she’s not chosen this time, she’ll only get one more chance.” That a girl is considered a spinster if not married by eighteen is wrong, and that the boys don’t even have to attend the ball until they want to is a sickening double standard. “It’s not her fault she wasn’t chosen.” Liv hadn’t been selected at last year’s ball. Erin and I had discussed it, and neither of us could understand why. Liv almost never brought it up, but I’d gleaned that someone had made a claim on her and at the very last minute had chosen another girl. Now Liv was brandishing a replica wand, hoping to conjure some magical assistance. After everything they’d seen and gone through the previous year, Liv and her parents still hoped she’d receive a visit from a fairy godmother. They had convinced themselves that one didn’t show up the year before because they hadn’t been pious enough in following Cinderella’s example. “I’m not going to be visited by some magical old crone,” I say, frustration bubbling up inside me. “Maybe not,” my mother says in a whisper. “But you’ll look like you were, and that is what the suitors and the king care about most.” “You’d think they would care about me, about what I feel.” Even as I say the words, I know they fly in the face of everything I know to be true, and my mother agrees. “Why, in the name of King Manford, would they ever think that?” she asks. She squeezes her hands together like she’s praying, but the skin over her knuckles is stretched tight. “You’ve—we’ve—got one chance at this. You must find a match. Going back to the ball a second time is an embarrassment.” Her words cut me like a knife. “Is Liv an embarrassment? How can you say that about her? It’s not her fault some disgusting old man changed his mind.” She looks away. “She knows what’s at stake. Foolish wishes and magic aren’t going to save her. She must conform, know her place, and do whatever must be done to find a match, and so do you.” She leans toward me. “I know you’re different, and that this will be hard for you, but you have no choice.” Different. That’s how she sees me, and every time she uses that word, a distinct air of disapproval accompanies it. Lille has left its stain on her, too. “I want to be with Erin.” “I know,” she says, glancing around as if someone might hear. “But you will keep that to yourself.” Her tone is flat, emotionless. It’s how she protects herself from the reality of what I’m facing. I was twelve when I told my parents that I would much rather find a princess than a prince. They had gone into a state of panic, from which they emerged with a renewed sense of determination. They told me that in order to survive I would have to hide how I felt. I was never very good at it, and the weight of that mask grows heavier with each passing year. I want nothing more than to cast it aside. “You don’t have to resist every little thing. It will do you no good, and I will not lose you,” says my mother as she grips the edge of the table. “I can’t. You must attend. You must play the part.” She sits back as if she is exhausted, letting her shoulders roll forward and exhaling slowly. “Your father is working on brokering another sale as we speak to bring in the extra money we need for—” She stops. Her voice catches in her throat. Her eyes become glassy as she puts her hand on top of mine. “I love you very much. I would do anything to ensure you are the most beautiful girl in the room when you make your entrance.” “My whole life has been a buildup to this. This isn’t some little thing. Everything I do, everything I say, it’s all about the ball. My path has been chosen for me since birth. My future is already written, and I don’t have a say in any of it.” “Yes. And?” She stares at me blankly as if she can’t understand. “Don’t you want me to be happy? Isn’t that what matters most?” In the brief moment before her answer, I imagine she’ll say yes and tell me I don’t have to go. I think of what it would feel like to have her on my side. “No.” My mother lets go of my hand. Bitter disappointment envelops me. “What matters is that you are safe. That we follow the laws. They are clear as day. Right there.” She motions to the front door. “Happiness is a bonus, Sophia. You’re not entitled to it, and the sooner you accept that, the easier your life will be.” “And if I don’t want an easy life?” My mother stares at me. She parts her lips to speak and then presses them together, dropping her gaze to the tabletop. “Be very careful what you ask for. Because you just might get it.” “May I be excused?” I ask. She nods, and I push my chair back from the table and go upstairs. As I reach the top step, I hear my mother crying. A part of me wants to go to her, but a part of me doesn’t. I love her, and I know she loves me, but that’s not enough. She will not break the rules even if they require me to deny everything about myself. I go into my room and close the door. 5 The next morning, I awake just before sunrise. My father is already gone for the day, and my mother has begun her work preparing breakfast. Dough sits rising under a cloth by the wood stove, which she stokes and sets a kettle on. I join her in the kitchen and tie an apron around my waist. My mother places a small plate with two biscuits and a sliced apple on the table. She speaks to me over her shoulder as she turns out a ball of dough onto the floured surface of the countertop. “The floors will need to be swept and scrubbed, like always, and it’s washday for the linens upstairs. Take the rugs out and give them a good beating. Your father said he might be home early, so we must get to it. When he arrives, be sure to recite the story as soon as you can because I know he’ll be tired and will want to rest.” “You want me to recite it out loud?” I ask. I know that’s what we’re supposed to do. It’s more of a tradition than a rule, but I hadn’t done that in a long time. “Yes,” my mother says curtly. “Maybe you’re a little rusty, and with the ball coming up you’ll want to know it backward and forward in case a suitor wants to test your knowledge.” I don’t even respond. It’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. The suitors will test me? I have a strong urge to tell my mother that I’m pretty sure the men gathering at the castle haven’t even read the story all the way through because none of it is actually meant for them. It’s meant for the rest of us. I just nod. I put on a cloak and start lugging the rugs outside. Would there really be suitors wanting to test me? And does my father really want to hear it, or is my mother just thinking of every single way someone might try to trip me up once I’m at the ball? “The wife of a wealthy man grew ill and knew that her end was near,” I say aloud. It’s still there in my head. Every word. I’m beating the rugs out when my mother opens the front door, a concerned look on her face. “Sophia, I need you to go see Mrs. Bassett. I’m afraid I forgot the ribbons that match your dress at her shop, the ones for your hair.” “You don’t want to go?” I ask. I get a clear look at her for the first time that morning. She has dark circles under her eyes like she hasn’t slept. “No, I’m not feeling well. I’ve sent Henry to tell Mr. Langley’s son to be here within the hour to take you.” I glance around to see if Henry, our neighbor’s young son, has already left. “I can walk,” I say. “Or I could take the carriage myself?” She shakes her head. “Alone? Sophia, please. My nerves are already shattered. Don’t add to it with your penchant for trying to break the law.” “It’s not a law.” She plants her foot on the stoop with a loud thud. “You’ll be taken up to the palace in chains if you’re caught driving a carriage, and if you go walking alone you might end up in a far worse situation.” Something in her tone strikes me. Her emotions, usually tightly coiled, seem to be fraying more and more with each passing day. I won’t tell her I’d walked through the woods and into the city on my own yesterday. She might not survive the shock. “Mr. Langley’s son will be here soon,” she says. “He’ll take you.” She goes inside, and I wait in the yard. As scheduled, he comes strolling up through the dissipating mist. He leans on the gate and gives me a little nod. “Morning,” he says. He shows me that mischievous smile again. I’m fairly good at reading people, but this boy is a puzzle. The curl of his lip and his smug smile make me think I’m missing something. “Ready?” he asks. I nod as he pulls out the wooden cart that we take to the market instead of the covered carriage we use to travel. It’s made to haul sacks of grain and has only one wide seat in the front. He hitches it to our horse and climbs up. “It’s cold,” I say. “We should take the carriage.” “But I’ve already got this one ready to go. Don’t you want to sit next to me?” “Absolutely not. And if you’d asked me beforehand, I would have told you to hook up the carriage. But you didn’t, so here we are.” He raises an eyebrow. “So you run the show around here? That’s … different.” “Different,” I say quietly. Different never means anything good. The front door creaks open behind me. “Is she giving you trouble?” my mother calls from the doorway. I don’t turn around, but I can feel her eyes boring into the back of my head. “No problems, Mrs. Grimmins.” Mr. Langley’s son shoots me a quick wink. If he expects a thank-you for not telling my mother what I said, he is going to be sorely disappointed. I climb up, sitting as far away from him as the seat allows. He yanks the reins, and the cart lurches forward. The temperature stays cool, even as the sun rises. I pull my cloak in tight around me, but the air still seeps through. Mr. Langley’s son sets the reins in his lap and removes his coat. “Here. It’s not much, but it should help.” He places the coat over my shoulders, and I lean away from him, watching his hands and his eyes. I don’t know him enough to trust him, and most times when a man does a woman a favor it is because he wants something in return. “Am I that off-putting?” He raises his arm and gives a whiff. “Do I smell? I just bathed last week.” He’s trying to be funny. I don’t respond. “My name’s Luke. In case you were wondering.” “I know,” I say flatly. We’ve never been formally introduced but I’ve heard my parents speak of him a little too often. “You’re always with your mother. She doesn’t let you get a word in edgewise.” I watch him out of the corner of my eye. “Or maybe I don’t have much to say.” “Okay.” He grimaces a little. “I was surprised at your outburst back there with the cart. I’ve never seen a girl refuse a man’s request so openly. That’s a dangerous thing to do.” “Are you joking or threatening me?” I angle my body so I can raise my leg and kick him over the side of the cart if he gets any ideas. Girls are harassed and manhandled on a regular basis in Lille, and because of that I actually have a plan for what to do if someone ever tries to hurt me. If Luke makes one false move, I’ll smash his nose back into his skull, maybe kick him where he’d feel it most, and then run. I can also grab the reins, pull the horse off the road, and flip the cart over. I don’t care if I get hurt in the process. I’m not going quietly. “I wasn’t joking, but I wasn’t threatening you, either. I’m sorry.” He looks at me and smiles again. His demeanor is abrasive but not malicious. He can’t be more than twenty, tall and lanky, brown skin, black hair, with only the slightest air of self-importance. I still have a hard time reading him. I keep my body in a position to upend him but pose a question as a distraction. “Are you preparing for the ball as well?” He tosses his head back and laughs. It catches me so off guard that all I can do is stare at him. He composes himself and shakes his head. “Not if I can help it. Things are different for me.” “Why?” I ask. He’s lost some of that bravado he had when he strode up to my front gate. We stop in front of the seamstress’s shop. “You’re friends with Erin, aren’t you?” He doesn’t meet my eyes. The question seems out of place, and I bristle. “Yes. She’s one of my best friends.” “Hmm,” he says, nodding. “Then you’ll understand what I mean when I say things are different.” The knowing look in his eyes terrifies me. I’ve seen it before. It’s the same look my mother gives me every time I speak Erin’s name. I immediately hop out of the cart and toss his coat back to him. “Just wait here, please.” “Sure,” he says. I worry that his friendly manner is just a way to get me to feel comfortable enough to drop my guard. I hurry to the door of the shop and go in. None of the lamps are lit yet, and the dappled light from the barely risen sun casts shadows through the room, which feels oddly at rest without the seamstress and her bevy of helpers bustling around. A measuring tape hangs over the edge of the table, and dozens of glass beads litter the floor as if they’ve been knocked over without anyone bothering to clean them up. I see the ribbons my mother left behind sitting on a table in a canvas bag, and I pick them up. Just then, a whimper comes from under the table. I step back and look down to see someone sitting there. A young boy. His knees pulled to his chest, as he rocks back and forth. “Hello?” I say gently. The boy’s head pokes up from behind his knees, his eyes rimmed with tears. He sucks in a gulp of air and wipes his nose with the back of his hand. He’s dressed in a tattered pair of slacks and a faded shirt a size too small. The sleeves expose his delicate, thin wrists. He seems so fragile. I want to put my arms around him and tell him everything is going to be okay even though I have no idea what’s wrong. He sobs again. “Oh no. Please don’t cry. Are you all right?” I put my hand out, but he scurries back, knocking into the leg of the table and sending more beads scattering to the floor. “I won’t hurt you, I swear.” The eerie silence of the shop sets me on edge. “I don’t know you,” he says. “No, I don’t think we’ve met. My name is Sophia. The seamstress is helping me with my dress, and I just came to pick these up.” I crouch down and hold out the bag of ribbons. “See?” His expression softens. “Why are you crying?” He opens his mouth to speak but hesitates. Then he scoots closer so he is almost out from under the table. “He’s too loud,” he says, cupping his hands over his ears and shutting his eyes. “Who’s too loud?” I ask, confused. A man’s voice, shrill and grating, echoes from somewhere over my head. Heavy footsteps pound across an upstairs room. I look up as the entire structure of the house quakes. Dust, shaken free from the wooden beams crisscrossing the ceiling, falls down through the shadowy confines of the shop and settles like a fine powder on the tables and chairs. I fight the urge to pick up the boy and bolt out the door. The boy lowers his hands, his eyes wide. “My father. He’s yelling at my mother. He’s always yelling at her.” The light streaming through the shop windows illuminates the boy’s face. He is nearly identical to the seamstress. They share the same brown skin, dark eyes, and dimples at the outer corners of their mouths. A loud crash followed by a woman’s scream pierces the momentary silence. I stand up, and the boy scurries back. I look out the front window and see Luke still perched on the cart. What a man does in his home is his business. That is the rule. I should leave, but I can’t do that. “You just stay here, all right?” I say. “Okay,” he answers from under the table. I creep to the rear of the shop, where a staircase leads up to the second floor. I put my hand on the rail and listen. The silence is almost as unbearable as the woman’s screams. At the top of the stairway is a door, and a soft light streams from underneath it. The stairwell is dark and shadowy, with thin shafts of light from under the door illuminating bits of dust floating in the air. I take one step up. I don’t know what I will do when I get to the top. Knock? Call out? Can I even stop what is happening? The man’s voice sounds again, and this time I hear the words clearly. “You’ve kept the money from me, haven’t you?” he bellows. Then comes a woman’s voice. “No! I would never!” “Every cent you make belongs to me.” There is a loud thump like someone ran into the door at the top of the stairs, and the door creaks open a few inches. I step up onto the landing and peek inside. “I know that—I swear, I work hard.” The seamstress cowers against the wall of the small upstairs room. Tears stain her face. Her husband stands over her, his fists clenched. “Then what is it? There’s so little money in this pouch I wonder why you even bother. Either you’re a terrible seamstress, or you’re keeping the money for yourself.” He flings the pouch at her, and it breaks open, sending a shower of coins tinkling to the floor. “Everyone is having a hard time,” the woman says. “The king has taxed us so steeply that we can scarcely afford grain. Others are suffering, too, but they need to make their girls ready for the ball. I take what they can afford to give. That’s every red cent, I swear it.” “You take what they can afford to give? What are we—a charity?” He raises his fist, and the woman winces as if he’s already struck her. I put my hand on the door, and the floorboard groans under my weight. I cringe as the man’s head whips around. He is short and stocky but his hands are massive. “I-I’m looking for the seamstress,” I say, trying to keep my voice from cracking. “Who the hell are you?” He sticks out his neck and glares at me. “My mother purchased some ribbons, but she left them here. Can you help me find them?” I look directly at the seamstress as I tuck the ribbons out of sight. “If you could, I would appreciate it.” The man steps in front of the woman, blocking my view. I scowl at him. “Watch yourself before I send you up to the palace to be forfeited,” the man snaps. He can do it. Any head of household could. The only person who can disagree is another head of household. Money, power, class, all those things come into play, but the founding tenet of our laws is that women, no matter their standing, are at the mercy of the fickle whims of men. That’s how little control I have over my own life. I continue to glare at him as he shuffles off to an adjoining room. The seamstress scrambles to her feet and comes rushing out the door, swiping at her eyes. “Your son—” She grabs me by the elbow and leads me to the main room of the workshop before I have a chance to finish my sentence. She bends down, pulls the boy out from under the table, and wraps her arms around him, all the while glancing nervously toward the back staircase. Her son melts into her, grasping her tightly and sobbing. Tears well up in my eyes, and I have a hard time figuring out if it is my anger or my absolute heartbreak for the seamstress and her son that is getting the better of me. The seamstress gently nuzzles her nose into his hair. She spots the bag of ribbons in my hand. “I see you’ve found your missing ribbons. I’m glad you remembered to come pick them up. You’ll look lovely.” If I hadn’t seen what just happened or the welt on her cheek, her tone would have convinced me that nothing was amiss. “I didn’t mean to intrude—or maybe I did—but I saw your son and heard your husband upstairs.” The woman’s body tenses as if she’s bracing for what I might say next. She stands, pulling her son up with her, and straightens out his clothes. He looks to be no more than seven or eight years old, but the bags under his eyes are those of a child who’s seen too much. She kisses him and points toward the room directly across from the main work area. “You go get something to eat. Breakfast is on the table.” She smiles at him, and he looks to the stairs and nods. He embraces her again. She looks down at the boy. “Papa knows best, my love. You will grow up to be a good man, just like him.” The boy doesn’t smile as he disappears into the other room. The seamstress straightens out her dress, avoiding my gaze. A sigh escapes me, and the seamstress glances over, her mouth turned down. “Don’t pity us. Please. That isn’t what we need.” “What do you need?” I ask. I step toward her. “You don’t have to— I mean— I could—” “What could you do?” The woman laughs lightly. “Oh, you poor thing. You’re one of those girls who thinks there’s a way out, aren’t you? That something will come along and make everything better.” She sighs and shakes her head like she’s angry. “I wish there were. I swear I do. I wish I could tell you to run, to hide, but it would never work.” Her voice is so low I have to lean in close to understand. “Nothing can be done. Not a damn thing.” I want to believe there might be a way out, but with every passing day, that feeling fades. I wonder when this woman gave up hoping. “You’ve got your ribbons, and I’ve got work to do. You’d best be off.” I hesitate. “You deserve more than this.” We all do. The woman pauses. I can see a small cut over her eye. Her lips part, on the verge of saying something, but she holds back. “Please go.” 6 I slowly walk out of the shop to find Luke standing next to the cart. “Everything all right?” “No,” I say, climbing up and taking a seat. “Let’s go.” Luke glances back at the shop and joins me in the cart. I’m sick to my stomach as the cart starts to move. “How many people do you think are poorly matched at the choosing ceremony?” I ask, numb. I try to wrap my head around what I just witnessed. “Like a clash of personalities?” Luke asks. “No. I mean like a man takes a wife and then mistreats her. Hits her.” Luke looks at me out of the corner of his eye. “You didn’t know that sometimes happens?” “It happens all the time,” I say. “That’s my point. I can’t think of how terrible it is to have to deal with the king’s rules and then go home to have your husband beat you.” “I understand,” Luke says. “How could you? You aren’t being beaten in front of your own child. You’re not being forced to go to the palace for the ball. You’re what—twenty? And you say you’ve never been to a ball. We don’t have that luxury.” Luke stares at me in silence. He pulls the horse into a slow trot, and we meander in the general direction of my house. “Is there a reason you’re going so slow?” I ask. He smiles warmly. “Just hoping to get to know you a little more before, well—” “Before the ball?” I ask. “Before some man decides I’d make a pretty prize and everything in my life is changed forever?” Luke looks a little taken aback. His big brown eyes dart around like he’s rehearsing what he is about to say. “You’re a rare person, Sophia.” “I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean,” I say, still skeptical of his intentions. He continues to guide the cart along the road as others pass us. We come to a rise in the road, and Luke brings the cart to a full stop. My heart ticks up. “What are you doing? Why are we stopping?” Luke looks out over the wide swath of land to the east. The sun is high above the horizon now, casting an orange glow through the wispy clouds and across the apple orchards. The trees there are every shade of russet and gold as the land prepares to sleep for the winter. He glances at me with his brow furrowed, his mouth drawn into a tight line. “I wonder if I might share something with you.” He is calm, soft-spoken. He seems very serious, and my curiosity is piqued. But I keep my guard up. Just in case. “All right. What is it?” He doesn’t speak right away. He gazes off, biting his bottom lip. “I’ve been mentally calculating how I’m going to get away from you if you try anything,” I say. “I’m pretty sure you’re not going to hurt me, so I want to hear what you have to say.” “Hurt you?” He looks puzzled. “Why would I want to do that?” I give an exaggerated look around. “Because this is Lille. That’s what happens here.” “I can’t blame you for feeling that way, but not everyone is like that.” I pinch the bridge of my nose and shut my eyes for a second. I know that. My father is a good man, Liv’s father is a good man, and even Luke’s father seems like a good man. But these good men aren’t making the rules. These decent men are turning a blind eye to indecent acts. “If you’re not one of the men who would jump at the first chance to put a woman in her place, then I’m not talking about you.” He hesitates for a moment before sighing. “That’s fair.” A high-pitched whistle sounds from behind me, and I turn to see two young men strutting up to us, their chests pushed out, smirking. “Shit,” Luke says under his breath. He moves closer to me. “What’s wrong?” “Nothing. Just some people from school.” “Luke!” one of the young men shouts. He is smiling wide, but Luke isn’t. “What are you up to on this beautiful fall morning?” “Just out for a ride.” Luke’s tone is biting, angry. “Out for a ride? With a girl?” the taller man asks. The ring in his voice makes me pause, and he looks me over. His beady brown eyes remind me of the glass marbles the children on my street play with. “Do I know you?” I ask. The man’s head snaps up. “Not yet, but maybe we can do something about that.” “Shut up, Morris,” says Luke. “Morris?” I ask, glancing up at Luke. “What a lovely name. Sounds a lot like moron.” This time Luke smiles wide. “You’ve got a smart mouth,” Morris says, glaring at me. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?” Luke inches closer to me. His body has gone rigid, and his fists are clenched. Morris smiles, but it makes me uncomfortable. There’s nothing kind about it. “Are you claiming this wretch at the ball?” Morris asks. Luke bristles. “Why does it matter to you?” I cross my arms. I hate this kind of talk, especially when I’m sitting right here. “She doesn’t seem like your type,” Morris says, grinning as if he’s said something hilarious. I’ve missed something. Fear clouds Luke’s eyes. Morris looks back and forth between us. “Oh. Oh!” He claps his hand on the other man’s back, and they laugh. “She doesn’t know, does she?” Luke looks down at the reins gathered in his lap. Morris steps forward and takes my hand. I try to pull away, but he has me by the wrist and holds it tight. “Luke here has all kinds of secrets. You should ask him about them sometime.” He looks at Luke. “What was that young fellow’s name? Was it Lou—” Before he can finish, Luke’s fist connects with Morris’s right cheek, sending spittle and at least two teeth flying from his mouth. He lets go of me and stumbles back, clutching his jaw. The other man stands still, stunned. Luke hops out of the cart as Morris clutches his face. “If you ever so much as breathe a syllable of his name in my presence, I will make you regret it,” Luke says. “Consider this your only warning.” Morris’s face is ruddy, dripping with sweat, his mouth bloody. He tenses, like he’s going to attack Luke again, though I can’t understand how he thinks that will be a good idea. “Don’t do it,” his friend says to him, reading his expression. “Let’s get out of here.” He takes Morris by the arm and pulls him away until they disappear down the road. Luke hops back into the cart. Morris’s broken teeth lie like pearls in the cracks of the cobbled street. “Should we pick those up and return them to him?” I ask. “Maybe put them on a string he can wear around his neck?” Luke chuckles, massaging his hand and straightening out his shirt. “I’m sorry about that.” “You don’t have to apologize,” I say. I would pay money to see despicable men get socked in the jaw. “Morris was trying to get under your skin. Why does he dislike you so much?” Luke looks at me and shakes his head. “It’s … complicated.” “Morris said I’m not your type. It’s okay. I’m not offended. You’re not my type either.” I’m trying to lighten the mood, but Luke frowns. “Oh, I know.” My skin pricks up. Luke sighs and leans back in his seat. He struggles with something, and with each passing moment, I grow more afraid of what it is. Luke looks thoughtful as he stares off. “Everything we do is measured against Cinderella’s story. But what happens if … well, let’s say—” He shifts around, fumbling with the reins. “Why is that story the only way of doing things?” “I’m not sure what you mean,” I say. “But we should get going. My mother—” Luke glances over at me. “When my sister read that story as a child, I—” “Luke—” I start. “I remember thinking Prince Charming would make a good husband—for me.” “What?” I’m breathing so fast that little orbs of light dance around the edge of my vision. “Did you want to marry the prince? Or maybe the princess?” he asks. “Why are you asking me this?” My voice is barely a whisper, and my heart pounds. “I have to go.” “I don’t want to make you uncomfortable, and I swear I’ll never say a word about any of this to anyone.” His face is tightly drawn, his eyes downcast. He struggles to find the words to continue. “It’s just that I—I know about you and Erin.” A sinking feeling overtakes me. “What about me and Erin?” “I overheard your mother talking to my mother.” He watches me carefully, reading my expression. “What did she say?” I can’t imagine my mother telling anyone about my feelings. She doesn’t even want to hear me talk about it. “She said she was afraid you couldn’t hide your feelings for Erin, that sometimes it was like you didn’t even want to.” The world has suddenly become unnaturally quiet. Carriages pass by us, but I don’t hear their wheels on the road. I don’t see anything but Luke’s face. It never occurred to me that my mother would confide in anyone other than my father. “Why would she do that?” I ask. “Why would she talk to your mother about me?” He angles his body toward me. “It’s true then?” An almost hopeful look spreads across his face. I don’t say anything, but my silence is confirmation enough for him. “I know what it’s like to feel as if everyone wants you to be something you’re not.” His eyes soften, and he sighs. “When I was seventeen, I fell in love with a boy named Louis. That’s who Morris was referring to. He was a light in a world that was so dark. So dark, Sophia. You can’t imagine—” “Yes I can,” I say without thinking. Being face-to-face with someone who might understand how I feel overwhelms me. I wait for him to continue. “He allowed me to envision what life could be like for me. When I was with him, nothing else mattered. We planned to flee, but when Morris and his brother, Édouard, found out about us, they told our classmates and of course the news reached Louis’s parents. They asked him if it was true, and he would not deny it. They took him to the palace as a forfeit. I never saw him again.” His eyes fill with tears. “They gave him up? Just like that?” It’s horrifyingly simple for some people to forfeit their own children. I’ve seen it happen dozens of times, but it never gets any easier to imagine. I reach out and put my hand over his. “I’m so sorry.” He blinks back tears. “My parents would have done the same to me if my sister hadn’t convinced them that our relationship was a phase that I’d grow out of. She knew it was a lie, and I think my parents did as well, but they chose to believe it rather than surrender me to the palace.” My heart shatters into a thousand pieces for what he has lost. What we’ve all lost. “People who don’t fit nicely into the boxes the kings of Mersailles have defined are simply erased, as if our lives don’t matter.” Luke hangs his head. “Have you ever heard of a man marrying another man? A woman being in love with another woman? Of people who find their hearts lie somewhere in the middle or with neither?” “Only as a cautionary tale that ends with people imprisoned or dead.” I slump down against the seat, crushed by the hopeless feelings that always seem to find me. Luke picks up the reins, and we begin to move. “I can avoid the ball for as long as I choose,” he says. “And people wouldn’t think twice if I’m old and gray before I go out to the palace.” He shifts as if he is uncomfortable with what he said. “You don’t have that privilege, and my heart breaks for you and Erin and for all the rest of us who have to hide.” “All the rest of us?” I ask. Luke nods. “The kings that have ruled Mersailles would like you to believe that you’re alone, but it’s not true. People wear masks so they can fit in and stay safe. Can you blame them?” “No, I guess not,” I say. Isn’t that what I am doing? Hiding. Pretending. Just trying to stay safe. As we approach my house, the weight of our revelations bears down on us, and the feeling of utter despair is palpable. I climb out, taking the bag of ribbons from the bed of the cart. “What will you do?” Luke asks. I shrug. “I don’t feel like I have any choices.” “We should look for an out,” says Luke. “And at the first opportunity, we should run. As far away as possible.” “Do you think things are different past the towers?” I think of what might lie beyond the capital, beyond the farthest borders of Mersailles. “Maybe. For now, just try to stay safe. That’s all either one of us can do.” He reaches out and presses a few silver coins into the palm of my hand. “Your mother feels better when she pays me for driving the cart, but I’ve told her it’s not necessary. Maybe you should keep it. Prepare for your great escape.” I take the coins, even though I don’t think that there will be an escape. Not for Erin and me. Not for Luke or Liv or anyone else. We are all trapped here, our stories already written. 7 My mother is standing over me, nudging me out of bed. “I’ve drawn you a bath,” she whispers. Her hands are like ice as she pulls the blankets off me. I blink repeatedly. “Get up, Sophia. We have work to do.” I look out my bedroom window to see the sun cresting over the horizon. Against my sincerest wishes, the day of the ball has arrived, and my mother is already preparing. I slide out of bed and plant my feet on the cold wood floor. My mother shakes her head as she looks at me. “What is it?” I ask. “Nothing.” Her voice cracks, and she quickly looks away. “Into the tub. We don’t have much time.” “It’s dawn,” I say. “The ball doesn’t begin for hours.” I want to crawl back into bed and pull the covers over my head. She stops in my doorway, her hand resting on the jamb. She doesn’t look at me. “We’ll be at this all day. Best to get started right now.” She disappears into the hallway. I trudge into the washroom and bathe, stalling until the water turns cold and my fingertips wrinkle. I slip into a dressing gown my mother has left for me. Uncontrollable hopelessness sweeps over me, the feeling of hurtling off a cliff and not being able to do anything about it. I could be chosen, and my life would be only what my husband said it could be. Or I might not be chosen at all. I wonder if my parents could forfeit me so easily, the same way Louis’s parents had. A knock at the door startles me out of my thoughts. I open it to find four women waiting for me on the other side. I don’t recognize any of them. I move to close the door, and one woman pushes it open again. “Now, now, dearie,” she croaks. “No need to be nervous.” They pounce on me instantly, and I push them away as they pull at my dressing gown. “Mother!” I call out. “For goodness’ sake, Sophia, they are dressers,” my mother says as she stands in the hall. “Is this really necessary? I’ve been getting dressed on my own since I was seven. I’m sure I can manage.” “You hush now and let them do what I’m paying them for.” The women begin again. Two of them help me into a set of undergarments, while the other two rub scented oils into my skin. My mother oversees every detail, like the perfectionist she is. “Make sure the garters are knotted tightly,” she says. “We can’t have her stockings rolling down.” “Oh no. We can’t have that. What would people say if they knew about my droopy stockings?” I exaggerate every word, and one of the dressers cackles. My mother is stone-faced. I know I’m being silly, uncooperative, but I don’t see how my stockings make a single bit of difference in all this. They tug at the corset, and I let out a yelp as someone yanks the laces together. “Does it have to be this tight?” “Yes,” says my mother. “We’ll need to move downstairs to fit the farthingale. There’s not enough room up here.” The women buzz around me as I go downstairs. I’m trying to figure out what a farthingale is, while focusing on not breathing too deeply. The walls and ceiling switch places right before my eyes, and I hear a high-pitched ringing in my ears. Someone lightly tugs at my back, and then suddenly I can take a deeper breath. I gulp in air and glance at the woman behind me. She winks. I’m not going to faint, but vomiting isn’t completely ruled out. The curtains in our front room are drawn, and a stool sits in the middle of the room. My mother brings in a petticoat and a camisole that I slip on. As soon as I stumble onto the stool, the women tug at my hair. Tears well up in my eyes as I tip my head back to keep them from pouring down my face. “Aww, don’t cry,” says the woman who had loosened my corset. “You’ll catch a husband like a fish on a hook with a face like that.” “No, it’s not that.” I try to slow my breathing and concentrate on not running out the front door. My mother watches me with concern in her eyes. “We should straighten her hair with an iron,” one of the women says. “It would be prettier that way. And I’ve heard that the king himself prefers it.” “Or we could leave it the way it is,” I say through clenched teeth. They all laugh as if I’d made a joke. It isn’t funny. It feels like another part of me is being changed to fit someone else’s vision of what is pretty. I especially don’t want to do anything the king prefers. “Pull it straight and pin it up,” my mother says. “And use the ribbons.” It takes hours for them to finish my hair. When they are done, they set to work on my makeup. “Which one do you like?” asks one of the younger women. She holds up three small tins, each with varying shades of pink. “It’s for the lips.” I reach out to touch the least ostentatious of the three when my mother steps in and chooses the color most akin to actual blood. After the women finish my makeup, they bring in something that looks like a large hoop made from reeds with bits of fabric connected to the rim and gathered in the middle. They place it on the floor, then motion for me to step into the center. As I stand in the middle, they pull the hoop up, attaching the fabric strips around my waist like a belt. I can just barely touch the edges of the thing as it hangs around me. “It looks wonderful,” my mother says. “How am I supposed to sit down?” “You don’t need to sit. You need to mingle. Dance, if you’re asked. The shape of the farthingale is accentuated when you stand.” “Please don’t say farthingale anymore,” I say dryly. “It sounds like a torture device.” Which is accurate. My mother goes into the next room and returns with the main part of the gown. She and one of the other women pull the light-blue frock out of its cloth sack. They slip the upper part over my head and adjust it before attaching the skirt to the hoop. The weight of it all holds me in place, like an animal in a trap. When my mother brings out my shoes, I almost faint and not because I can barely breathe. The heels of the glittering monstrosities are nearly five inches tall, and the toes are so pointed that a normal human foot could never fill its proportions. “Am I supposed to wear those?” I ask. “Obviously,” my mother says. I’m reminded that this isn’t about what I want or what I like. It’s about what everyone else thinks is best, and I’m not sure how much more of this I can take. My shoulders sit exposed, and the woman beside me dusts my décolletage with a fine pearly powder that sparkles in the dancing candlelight. I try to tune out their chatter about the king, the ball, how they had all met their husbands at an event just like this one, and how Cinderella herself had once sat by her prince to preside over the gathering. “She was a beauty, to be sure,” says one woman. “And not just on the outside. She was a kind person. Heart of gold. Something about her shined. Everybody was drawn to her.” “It’s a tragedy that she died so young,” says another of the women. “I think she would have loved to see all the young women following in her footsteps.” “I picked the blue to honor her,” says my mother. I look down at the dress. Its pale-blue color matches the descriptions of the dress in the story, but I think that is where our similarities end. Would Cinderella really have been delighted to see so many girls unhappy, dreading this moment? “It’s all we can do now, isn’t it?” asks one of the helpers. “To honor her we have to do it in these small, sentimental ways. We used to be able to pay our respects in a more traditional way.” My mother’s face grows tight, which always means someone is saying something they shouldn’t be. “What do you mean?” I ask. The woman sighs, and my mother shoots her a pointed glance. She continues anyway. “My great-grandmother told me that her grandmother had actually seen Cinderella’s tomb with her own eyes, that people used to leave flowers and trinkets for her.” “Why?” I ask. “Why leave anything for her?” The women all stare at me like I have two heads, and I stop talking. My mother looks like she might faint. Cinderella’s story is the reason I’m being forced to go to the ball, the reason my parents have gone into debt to provide me a dress and shoes and all the pretty things I could ever need. Her story is the reason why none of the things I want for myself matter. “Are we finished?” my mother asks. “Finished,” the woman says. The other women step back, admiring their handiwork. They drag a full-length mirror into the room, and I gasp at the sight of myself. My painted face, the dress squeezing me in at the waist—it isn’t me. It can’t be. The dress, though beautiful, is not something I would have chosen. My hair and makeup are done in a way that I wouldn’t have picked. My eyes well up, and my mother rushes in to catch my tears on a handkerchief before they roll down my cheeks. “Now, now. We’ll have none of that,” she says, her voice soft. “Here.” One of the women presses a small glass vial into my hand. “Drink.” I hold it up to the light. The liquid inside is yellow. “What is this?” “A little something from Helen’s Wonderments,” says the dresser. “I was going to give it to my niece, but—” Her eyes glaze over, and she shakes her head. “Well, never mind that. Drink up.” “A potion?” I ask. I see my mother bite the inside of her lip. “For luck,” says the woman. “You look lovely. You’ll be the prettiest girl at the ball and I’m sure you won’t need it, but—just in case.” I turn to my mother. I want to tell her again how much I don’t want to go, but before I have a chance to speak, the front door creaks open behind me and my father steps in. The women fall silent. I tuck the vial between my skin and the corset as my mother takes his coat and hat while he stands watching me. He doesn’t look at my dress. He stares directly into my eyes. “Would you all excuse us for a moment?” The helpers scatter, but my mother hovers nearby. “What do you think?” he asks. I don’t answer. What I think doesn’t matter. Smoothing out his vest and rumpled sleeves, he comes to stand in front of me. He is tall. His frame next to mine makes me feel small, but not in the way I feel when I stand by men in the market or in town. He wants to protect me, but he, like my mother, has no real idea of how to do that. He reaches into his breast pocket and produces a small package secured with brown twine. His eyes, deep and brown, mist over as the firelight casts shadows across his warm umber skin. He presses the package into my hand. “You must be feeling quite conflicted,” he says. “That’s one word for it.” “Angry. Resentful. Those are probably much better words.” “Probably.” “You are rebellious. Always have been. Where you get your fiery spirit, I’ll never know.” He gives me a knowing little wink and motions toward the package. “Are you going to open it?” I pull the wrapping apart, and a beaded necklace with a sapphire cut into the shape of a heart falls into my hand. “Just a trinket. It pales in comparison to you.” He takes the necklace and clasps it around my neck. “It was your grandmother’s. She asked me to give it to you when the day came for you to go off to the ball.” “Is that really what she said?” I ask. He narrows his eyes at me. My grandmother was like a storm, wild and unpredictable and sometimes a little too harsh for my father’s comfort. When she would speak about the ball, she never made it seem like it was something that was inevitable. She always used the word if when she spoke of it. If the day came for Sophia to go to the ball. If we were still doing this when young Sophia got older. It was her spitfire spirit, her hatred of the way Lille was run that got her killed. She had said too much to the wrong person, and the palace guards came to get her on a cold rainy afternoon. She kicked one of them on the way out the door. A week later my father received a letter that informed him where he could pick up her body for burial. My father sighs and casts his gaze to the floor. “She said if, not when. I miss her every single day, but I hate that she planted such nonsense in your head.” I press my lips together. I don’t dare tell him that once while I sat in her lap she told me that if I ever went to the ball, I should set the palace on fire and dance on the ashes. It was a fun but dangerous little secret the two of us kept. A knot grows in my throat. “I hope you understand why you must stifle the urge to resist this,” my father continues. “I know you want to. I can see it in your eyes. It feels wrong to ask you to deny who you are, but it’s necessary.” I step forward and look right up into his face. “I don’t want to go.” I refuse to let the tears fall. “You love me, don’t you?” “Of course. More than anything.” He lowers his eyes, his hands resting gently on my shoulders. “Then stand with me. Behind me, beside me, something. Please.” I hate how out of control I feel. “Sophia, please.” He is pleading, desperate. “I’m trying to save you. I know it’s not right. You think I want you to be unhappy?” “Then just stop. Don’t make me go. Don’t let this happen.” I beg him to spare me from this, but it’s like he doesn’t hear me. He throws his hands up. “I’m not the one in charge, Sophia.” He slumps down into a chair. My mother puts her hands on his shoulders. “It’s not fair, but I’d rather see you unhappy than imprisoned or killed.” “For being who I am?” I ask. “For not wanting a husband? How is that wrong?” My mother keeps glancing at the front door like palace guards might knock it down and drag me away at any moment. “Keep your voice down,” she says in a whisper. “I can’t change how you feel,” says my father. “But you cannot disobey the king. Your feelings, my feelings, none of that matters to him.” His voice gets lower and lower as he speaks to me, his eyes downcast. “He is not the only one who thinks solely of himself.” The words slip out like a curse, and my father winces as if I’ve cut him. That’s not what I want. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to hurt you. I—I’m sorry I can’t be who you want me to be.” A knock at the door startles us both. When my father composes himself enough to answer it, a man in a finely tailored navy-blue suit stands in the doorway. “Good evening, sir.” The man bows low. “The carriage is ready.” “It’s time,” my mother says. She tries to take me by the elbow, but I pull free from her grasp and reluctantly walk out of the house and down the footpath. The carriage, decorated with lavender curtains and matching ribbons, sits there like a beautiful vision ready to ferry me into a nightmare. Two snow-white Clydesdales are hitched to the front, each wearing a lavender sash to match the carriage. Through the glass window, I see Erin seated inside. “We split the cost of the carriage with Erin’s parents,” my mother says. “It will give you a chance to say your goodbyes, make peace with the situation.” She slips the invitation to the ball into my hand. As the reality sets in, an unfathomable sadness wells up inside me. There will be no more stolen moments, no more rendezvous at the park, no more secrets shared between us. I climb into the carriage. “You look stunning, Sophia,” Erin says. I watch her gaze move over me before she looks away. “Thank you,” I say. I lean toward her and reach out to touch her hand when my father’s face appears in the window. I sit back immediately. “Try to enjoy yourself, Sophia,” he says through the glass. He can’t be serious. I begin to speak, but Erin beats me to it. “We’ll try, sir,” she says. She gives me a pointed look, and I reluctantly nod back. My father and mother watch from the door as the carriage pulls out of the drive and begins the short journey to the castle. “I can’t wait to see what the palace looks like on the inside,” says Erin, staring out the carriage window. Her voice is low, her words measured. “I hear they have tables and tables of food and wine and peacocks just walk around the grounds. Can you imagine it? Real live peacocks.” Erin wears a maroon wig that has been elaborately styled and placed on her head in such a way that strands of her dark hair are still visible around the edges. I reach forward and tuck them away, letting my fingers linger near her cheek. She is all I want. Suddenly, she takes my hand in hers and presses my palm to her lips. She pulls my hands into her lap and leans forward, pressing her forehead against mine. “We’re out of time,” she says, her eyes closed. “We’re not,” I say, gripping her hands, breathing her in. “We can stop right now. We can run.” “Where can we go? If I thought we could make this work—” My heart leaps as a glimmer of hope springs to life. “We can. You just have to say it’s what you want. That’s all. It’s easy.” She smiles, and as I go to put my arms around her, she presses my hands down into her lap, holding them there. “It’s not. And I know you don’t want to hear this, but this isn’t what I want.” That spark of hope is immediately extinguished, replaced by a numbing ache. “Please don’t say that. You don’t mean it.” Erin was my first friend, the first person I cared about as more than a friend, the first and only person I’ve ever kissed. In the beginning, I’d been so afraid to tell her how I felt about her that I lied and said another girl had feelings for her, just to see how she would react. Apparently my ability to lie convincingly wasn’t as good as I thought it was, because she saw straight through me. She told me that she cared about me, too, but that we had to keep it a secret. I didn’t want to keep it a secret. But I did. For her. And the moments we shared sustained me, gave me something to look forward to. Over time, as the ball grew closer, something began to change. She didn’t want to hold my hand or even hear me talk about us being together. It wounded me in a way I didn’t even know was possible. She sits back, her face a mask of pain and hurt. “My parents have made it clear that if I put one foot out of line, they’ll take me to the palace as forfeit. There’s no place the king couldn’t find me if I tried to escape. Lille is his capital, but he holds just as much sway in every other city in Mersailles. You’ve seen the convoys when they come through town, bearing gifts, emissaries groveling at his feet. Every king who has ruled over Lille since Cinderella’s time follows the same path. You think it’s any different outside our borders? It’s not.” “That’s not true,” I say, scrambling to find a way to make her change her mind. “The ball may lead to something wonderful for us.” It sounds as if she’s reading the words from a piece of paper, stiff and unfeeling. “How can you say that to me?” I ask in disbelief. “How can you pretend like this isn’t tearing you apart?” I refuse to believe that everything we’ve shared suddenly means nothing to her. “You’re tearing me apart,” she snaps. “Why do you have to question everything? Why do you have to make this so hard?” Anger invades her voice, but it isn’t loud enough to drown out the sadness. The same sadness that colors everything we do because we know these stolen moments are rushing us toward a catastrophic end. She crosses her arms hard over her chest. “I don’t want to fight for us, Sophia. I don’t want to fight for something that will only bring us pain. This is wrong. Everyone says so, and they’re right.” “It’s not wrong,” I say. “I choose you, Erin. I want you, and I’m willing to risk everything for that.” Tears slide down her face, and she pats them dry with a handkerchief before they have a chance to leave streaks on her cheeks. “I can’t do this. I can’t be an outcast. Our families are depending on us to make them proud, to find suitors who will provide for us. Disobeying the king for an impossible situation won’t do that.” “I don’t care about what the king wants,” I say. “Because you’re selfish,” Erin says bluntly. “Because you’ve never once stopped to think that maybe I don’t want to be different. I don’t want to stick out. Accept it.” I choke back tears. Then I give in and let them fall. Maybe letting them flow freely will give me a temporary relief from the crush of sadness that comes with knowing that Erin isn’t saying she doesn’t care about me; she is saying she’s choosing not to. But relief never comes. The ache creeps into every part of me and lingers there, burning and painful. I can only look at her as she avoids my eyes and stares out the window. I find the little vial the dresser had given me and open the top. Erin glances at me. “What is that?” “A potion. For luck.” Erin’s eyes grow wide. “Really? Where’d you get it?” “One of the dressers gave it to me. It’s from Helen’s Wonderments.” I drink half and offer Erin the remaining part. She hesitates for a moment but then takes the vial from me and gulps it down. I hope against hope that it works, but something tells me we’ll need much more than luck to get through this night. The carriage bounces along over a ridge. Erin shifts in her seat, and a gasp escapes her lips. The palace comes into view outside the window, and it looks like something out of a painting. On any given day, the palace is extravagant, a beacon of wealth, power, and privilege. The sprawling ivory façade can be seen from miles away, but when the ball is held, it looks like something out of a dream. I wonder how he manages to do that, to make something so terrible seem so inviting. This isn’t a dream; it is a nightmare made real, and there is no waking up. 8 Lamps line the drive; their low, undulating light gives the entire area an ethereal glow. Every window is dressed with red-and-blue sashes. Lights hang along the covered parapet walks, and the ramparts are decorated with gonfalons displaying the royal crest: the body of a lion with the talons of an eagle and the head of a hawk. The golden mantling is set against a crimson background, with the royal motto emblazoned across the bottom: A Deo Rex; A Rege Lex, which my father told me means “From God, the king; from the king, law.” The palace guards, dressed in colors matching the crest, line the length of the footpath just outside the main entryway, their gleaming swords holstered at their sides, their faces stoic and unchanging. A wave of panic washes over me. I dread going inside. The queue of carriages extends behind us almost all the way out to the main road. We inch along, waiting for our turn to exit. “This is more than I could have ever imagined,” Erin says, staring up at the castle. “That something could look so beautiful and still be a nightmare is terrifying,” I say as I look at her. “You don’t know that it will be a nightmare.” “I wasn’t talking about the palace.” She shoots me a frustrated glance as she climbs out of the carriage. I follow her, my heart galloping in my chest, my nerves getting the better of me with each passing moment. There are sideways glances, hushed whispers, and more than one catty laugh. I’ve never felt so exposed. I look through the crowd, and for every judgmental face I see, another is drawn tight with fear and apprehension. I struggle to keep my balance atop my heels as I approach the guard and hand him my invitation, my fingers trembling. He checks it and crosses my name off a list. Erin does the same, and we push through the crowd of young women that has flooded into the main entry hall of the palace. Gilded cherubs line the walls on either side of the long hallway. A portrait of Cinderella hangs over a set of enormous double doors overlaid with gold lilies and the royal family crest. In the painting, she is seated with her hands delicately clasped in her lap. She looks serene, smiling gently. Her golden hair falls around her shoulders in tight ringlets. Wearing her iconic blue dress, she gazes at us, her shining hazel eyes reflecting the candlelight. She is watching us. A pair of guards pull open the gold-framed double doors at the end of the long entryway. The rush of girls spills into the grand ballroom, but Erin stays by my side even though the tension between us remains. The ballroom is as large as a field. Dozens of crystal chandeliers hang over the space, their light washing us in a warm glow. I can see my reflection in the ice-like surface of the polished marble floor. The smell of fresh-cut flowers permeates the room. An entire orchestra sits readying their instruments, and random notes float through the air as they prepare to play. I can hear Erin sucking in quick gulps of air beside me. I want to comfort her even though she’d all but ripped my heart out. “Try to take a deep breath,” I say, quickly glancing at her. She nods, slows her breathing, and readjusts her wig. The girls break off into groups, and I scan the room for Liv but can’t find her among the sea of ruffled dresses. I hope she’s been able to get to the palace on time. More girls than I was anticipating crowd the room, and each of them seems to be stunned by our lavish surroundings. Just then, I am struck hard on the shoulder by someone walking past. I turn to see a girl glaring at me. I don’t recognize her, and I think for a moment that she is looking past me at someone else. “Who do you think you are, wearing a dress like that?” she hisses. “Excuse me?” I ask, bewildered at the hatred dripping from her voice. “Cinderella’s dress? More like a cheap knockoff. You look ridiculous, but you probably couldn’t afford anything better,” she says, her breath shallow and eyes wide. Fear lingers just below the surface. “Do I know you?” I’m growing angrier by the second. She rolls her eyes. “No. But that’s because I don’t run in the same circles as peasants trying to steal the spotlight from the rest of us. Pathetic.” I figured there would be men who might have something rude to say and that I would be required to keep my retorts to myself. I didn’t think that the harshest words would come from another girl. “Sophia,” says Erin as she takes hold of my arm. “She doesn’t know what she’s saying.” “Yes she does,” I say, shrugging off Erin’s hand and squaring up with the other girl. “Does it make you feel better about yourself to put me down?” Her face flushes crimson. “Don’t be ridiculous. You’re no competition.” “Then why say anything at all?” I walk toward her and look her dead in the eye. “You’re just as afraid as the rest of us, so don’t take it out on me.” “I know I will be chosen,” she says, her voice trembling. “That’s exactly my point. Do you even know what that will mean for you?” “My parents aren’t stupid. They’ve made sure I’ll come out ahead.” She’s implying her parents either paid money to have her picked by someone specific or that a suitor has already purchased a claim on her. “Do you think your money makes a difference?” She glares at me. “I would expect someone like you to say money doesn’t matter.” Erin tugs at my arm again. “Money won’t keep your future husband from using you as he sees fit. And your privilege won’t keep you safe. You and I are exactly the same in the eyes of the king and the suitors.” Her face pales a little. Regardless of her abrasive front, we share the same fears. A small crowd has gathered around us, a mixture of alarm, hope, and uncertainty in all their faces. A trumpet blares. Everyone looks around, unsure of where to go or what to do as a throng of guards marches in, their boots pounding the floor, sending a shudder through the entire room. They push the girls into a line, positioning them so they all face the front of the room where a three-tiered platform stands, the king’s empty throne at the very top. It’s a massive seat made of gold, inlaid with rubies. A giant lion’s head is carved into the backrest, its mane designed to give its occupant the appearance of having a golden halo. A squat guard takes Erin by the shoulder and shoves her into line. I step between them and push the man’s arm down. “Don’t touch her.” “Sophia,” Erin says, her eyes pleading. “Don’t.” “Listen to your friend, little girl,” the guard says. A man nearly a foot shorter than me has the nerve to call me little. He grabs me roughly by the elbow, shoving me into line next to Erin. I yank my arm out of his grip and scowl at him. He smells of sweat and cigar smoke. “Feisty now, ain’t we?” He smiles, exposing every one of his yellow and rotting teeth. “Leave me alone,” I say. The man raises his eyebrows, and the corner of his mouth turns up. He grabs my arm again, this time digging the tips of his fingers into my skin. If I act quickly, I can break his nose and run away before he has a chance to catch me. I ball up my fist and draw my arm back. The trumpets sound again, and he hesitates for a moment before letting go of me and walking away in a huff. I push away the tears, refusing to let them fall. The atmosphere changes as the guards direct a line of girls across the grand ballroom. A palpable sense of fear descends as those who were excited to arrive soon realize that this is no happy social gathering. It isn’t even a well-disguised trap. Erin stands silently, a big forced smile plastered across her face, her hands shaking. I purse my lips. I have to get us out of here. My arm throbs in time with my frantic heartbeats. Glancing around at the other girls, I finally spot Liv. She wears a plain cotton frock, no makeup other than a bit of rouge on the apples of her cheeks. Her hair is draped over her shoulder, and a crown of baby’s breath encircles her head. She stares at the floor, and I watch her chest rise and fall in the rhythm of someone who is quickly losing her ability to pretend that everything is fine. She looks lovely, but as she glances up, I see only sadness in her eyes. She shakes her head, and I know that something has gone wrong. She hadn’t been visited by a fairy godmother, and her parents couldn’t afford to make other arrangements. Her gaze moves down the length of my gown and back up again. She smiles and presses her hand against her chest. I swallow hard. I know what Liv will be facing if she isn’t selected, and my heart aches for her. The king might grant her a pass to work in Hanover or maybe even Chione, but that isn’t a solution as much as a punishment. The people there run workhouses where forfeits labor day and night with a small amount of compensation sent directly to their heads of household. I desperately try to find what Luke had called “an out” but can’t think of a single thing that doesn’t end up with us in prison—or worse. A guard stands at attention and clears his throat as a set of doors at the side of the room open and a procession of men files in. “His Majesty’s honored guests,” he announces. The suitors. “The Marquess of Eastern Lille,” the guard says. The marquess marches in. He always dresses audaciously and makes a point of showing off whenever he can, but he has outdone himself this night. His suit is the color of freshly bloomed marigolds and is so tight it looks like it’s been painted on. The fabric creeps into all his creases, and I see outlines of things that make me wish I could poke my eyes out. In the brim of his three-pointed hat is a plume of brightly colored feathers. His shoes are made from some kind of animal skin but have been dyed yellow to match his suit. He climbs to the tier just below the throne and stands there like a very awkward bird. The Marquess of Eastern Lille is the highest-ranking man in Mersailles besides King Manford himself. “The Earls of Hanover and Kilspire, and the Viscount of Chione,” says the guard. These men and their entourages are less officious than the marquess, but they still think themselves better than the rest of us. They are smiling, some of them laughing, and all of them dressed in their finest attire. They walk in and take their places on the second level of the three-tiered platform. “The barons,” the guard says, his enthusiasm waning.