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art by Wi Waffles

Of Ash and Old Dreams

Sarah Grey is an attorney, a mother, an art historian, a medievalist, an aggressive advocate for the disabled, and a militant vegetarian with an unquenchable lust for cheese. Her fiction has appeared in Flash Fiction Online and Lightspeed Magazine. She can be found at sarahgrey.net.

She is no longer a girl, dreaming while sweeping the ashes away. She is a queen, and a queen, says her beloved king, is ever the paragon of perfection and grace.
Her feet have grown wide with age. Still, she stuffs them into glass slippers, narrow as reeds, that rub her ankles raw. Every step is agony--the stabbing clink of a towering crystal heel against marble, the shattering pain through the bones in her legs.
Every afternoon, she hides in her chambers, massages her toes straight, coaxes the blood to return. Every evening, she binds her newest wounds, wedges the shoes in place, and forces a smile, serene as a goddess, as the royal guests file into the palace.
At last, in her twenty-ninth year, she limps to dinner in her bedroom slippers--leather and lambswool, soft as clouds against her blistered toes. For once, her smile is genuine.
"Those shoes leave you squat as a dwarf, my love," says the king. "Where are your glass slippers?"
"They no longer fit," she tells him.
She is grateful, for the guests' sake, that his scowl passes quickly.
The seam of her best ball gown tears, leaving a ragged edge of silk and broken thread.
She is not surprised. It has survived two decades of royal balls, twenty years of sweat and dancing and spilled champagne.
She had expected it to give out at the bust, where the embroidered flowers had stretched shapeless. Or perhaps along the waist, where her figure, once a fragile hourglass, had filled with the meat and fine wine of thirty-nine years.
Instead, it tears at the underarm.
She considers hiding it beneath a silver-thread shawl, or calling her maid to stitch it closed. But the dress, it is a relic of days long past, delicate as a snowflake in early spring. A pale thing meant for a dreaming girl.
She throws it aside and changes into a simple linen shift, red as her cheeks.
"That dress leaves you shapeless as a troll, my love," says the king as the guests arrive in gilded carriages. "What has become of your ball gown?"
"It no longer fits," she tells him.
There is a silence between them. He sips his wine. She loses her appetite.
"I'll have the dressmaker come," he says at last. "He'll make you another."
Her hands have grown slow with time--each twist of her fingers is a creak, a threat of more pain to come. Even so, she has the soul of a servant girl; she braids her own hair, weaves in ribbons and blooms, pins it carefully in place.
One night, in her forty-ninth year, she is late for the parade of aristocrats in horse-drawn carts; the first guests enter the palace ungreeted.
The king visits her chambers.
"I'm sorry," she tells him. "I'm growing old, I think."
The king smiles at her, runs a palm across her temple, smooths her hair into place.
She closes her eyes at his touch. He smells like true love. For a moment, she is a dreaming girl again, giddy from the buzz of a ballroom and the warm press of a prince's hands, drunk on night air rich with the scent of magic, on dreams on the edge of coming true. The slow rhythm of a perfect evening. The malignant chime of a midnight clock.
His fingers catch. A curl falls free against her cheek. She opens her eyes.
"Can't you do something about all those gray hairs, my love?" His lips are narrow; his brow is a knot of disappointment. "There must be some sort of magic for that."
He leaves. She stays at the window, half-dressed, watching the servants prepare for the courtyard banquet, a legion of tiny figures pitching tents and raising flags.
Every tent is white as fresh snow. Every flag is flawless gold.
She slips into the servants' wing in the hours after midnight. No one wakes. It's a talent she once held dear, long ago--the capacity to be all but invisible, to creep like a mouse through the ashes and dust, to scurry about her tiny life without scrutiny.
She finds a pack and a walking stick in the stableman's shed. She pulls a cloak from a milkmaid's closet and a wide-bodiced muslin gown, brown as warm bread, from the cook's wardrobe. Both fit well enough.
She makes a final stop in her chambers. She tears a strip of glittering fabric from the hem of a discarded ball gown, one that smells like old magic. She ties it to the handle of her walking stick--a keepsake, to remind her of the nature of dreams.
She thinks only of the days ahead--of a quiet life, of mugs full of ale and hearths full of ash. Of soft dirt roads that forgive her steps.
Of young girls in need of human godmothers.
By dawn, she has left her palace far behind.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, July 8th, 2013

Author Comments

Once upon a time, I limped through a workweek in a pair of heels that looked fabulous beyond measure, but had clearly been designed without reference to actual human feet. I came out of it with some ugly blisters, a draft of this story, and a life lesson: perfection always looks better than it feels.

- Sarah Grey
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