Christopher sits facing a girl with dirt in her hair, her cheek, smudged over all her ragged dress. There’s a track of dusty footprints leading to her chair, visible even in the mists of the Cauldron.
Christopher: You’re Cinders, right? The protagonist of At Her Service?
Cinders: That’s right. (She rubs a cheek, leaving it even more smeared.) I had another name once, but I don’t particularly wish to remember it. That name brings back too many memories of the old mistress of the chateaux where I live.
Christopher: You mean your stepmother.
Cinders: Neither she nor I liked the notion of her as my stepmother. We both did our best to forget it. She was simply the former mistress of the chateaux, never my mistress. My mistress is the Lady Ariella.
Christopher: The former mistress’s daughter, your stepsister?
Cinders: (She flushes a bit.) I’ve never thought of the lady as my sister and I hope she doesn’t either. My feelings are, um, quite different.
Christopher: How do you feel about her?
Cinders: She’s my life, the center of my world. I’m never happier than when I’m caressing her ankles, helping her into her glass slippers?
Christopher: Why do you think she wears glass slippers?
Cinders: I have no idea. It’s a mystery just as why she grows pumpkins, hollows them out, and carves them is a mystery. Or why she invites monks coming to save her soul or swindle her out of money into her library and starts arguments with them when she could simply turn them away at the chateaux door.
Christopher: You and your mistress live at this chateaux which she runs?
Cinders: Yes, it belonged to my father until my stepmother persuaded him to will it to her.
Christopher: Should this chateaux have been your inheritance?
Cinders: It’s complicated. My father’s ancestor swindled his niece out of it, who would have inherited it with an ancient law about only men owning property. The Lady Ariella and her mother are direct descendants of this niece. By blood, they have a better claim than I do. The former mistress wanted this chateaux and I can’t help wondering if anything she wanted that badly could be a good thing. She left nothing to chance, seducing and marrying my father into willing his chateaux to herself and her heirs which didn’t include me.
Christopher: It did include the Lady Ariella, however, and you ended up a servant.
Cinders: My father was very insistent in his will that his wife had to care for me, that she couldn’t turn me out. In the Lady Ariella’s mother’s mind, I got no less than she was obligated to give.
Christopher: You don’t resent this?
Cinders: I resent the former mistress. She wasn’t any kinder to the Lady Ariella than she was to me. The Lady Ariella was the one she had expectations for, expectations of grandeur, which Claude continues to remind her of.
Cinders: Officially they’re the footman of the household but their job is more involved than that. Claude manages the entire household and spends a lot of time with the staff of the royal court. I think they were the former mistress’s spy. Claude plays the part of a man but could be a woman just as easily. I think they find some of the notions of gender ridiculous but they’re constantly trying to match the Lady Ariella up with the prince.
Cinders: I think it’s that law my father’s ancestor came up with to disinherit his niece. Claude is worried about it coming back to disinherit my mistress. This is why they keep trying to coax her into outtings with the prince, get her to marry the prince. Claude would very much like the Lady Ariella to be queen someday while the Lady Ariella would rather give up the chateaux and become a wandering adventurer than marry that man.
Christopher: How do you feel about it?
Cinders: I’d hate to see my mistress disinherited or shamed. Above all, I want the Lady Ariella to be happy. She’d be miserable married to the prince. Too many people think the key to a woman’s happiness is marrying a prince. I’m not sure if Claude has been able to let go if this persistent myth. They might have been happy marrying a prince. I’m not sure if Claude would even have to love their husband. I think the whole organizational challenge of running a kingdom fascinates them.
Christopher: Not your mistress, though. Nor you.
Cinders: I’ve seen the headaches she gets, running the chateaux, trying to settle all the debts my father left, ones her mother wasn’t able to get the better of. She doesn’t want or need even bigger headaches. The prince and what he represents are the biggest headaches of them all. I want to help relieve my mistress of her headaches, not intensify them.
Christopher: Is that all you want?
Cinders: I’m happy to be close to my mistress, to look at her ankles, to have an excuse to touch them when she puts on her glass slippers. This is why I’m grateful for the peculiar footware even if I don’t understand it.
Christopher: It sounds as if you’re happy as you are.
Cinder: Oh, I am. I don’t think my mistress understands that. Sometimes she looks at me with this strange expression or says odd things which make me wonder if she feels like she stole my inheritance from me. If she ought not to be doing more for me.
Chistopher: She might. You may have been the mistress of the chateaux if your father’s wife hadn’t seduced it out of him.
Cinders: I’m very glad I’m not. I’ve seen how difficult it is to run a chateaux. I’m not convinced it was worth all the effort Lady Ariella’s mother went to, seducing and coaxing my father. He could be a very mercurial, difficult man and what did she get in return for a lifetime of pandering to him? A number of drafty rooms which are never warm and a pile of debts. I can almost see why she was so violent with me. What a disappointment being mistress of the chateaux must have been. My status may have been reduced with my father’s debts but the cinders are far warmer than the rooms I used to sit in. Lady Ariella settled the debts her mother didn’t, but the chateaux is still drafty.
Christopher: You mean it. You’re truly happier in the cinders.
Cinders: While my father was alive, it was very hard to avoid his wife. She had a way of faking smiles while looking at me with cold eyes which sucked all the joy out of a room, something my father was oblivious to. The better moments were with Ariella, playing with her, keeping company with her, but her mother always tried to separate us. When my father died, his wife stopped trying to smile but she got violent. Ariella put heself between her mother and myself, directing me towards the cinders. Seeing me so dirty seemed to mollify her mother. The cinders turned out to be a refuge.
Christopher: Are they still?
Cinders: (squirming) The Lady Ariella has a touch of her mother’s temper which sometimes gets the better of her. She’s never invaded my sanctuary. Her demands of me as a servant are light, lighter than her mother’s were. I probably do less work than my mistress herself does. I certainly don’t have the headaches. Now I can be near my mistress without anyone trying to part us except for Claude from time to time. We might have been parted forever if we’d been stepsisters and I’d stayed a lady. One or both of us might have been married off. As my Lady Ariella’s servant, I have an excuse to always be near her.
Christopher: Perhaps one day you won’t need an excuse.
Cinders: You really think so? I have a hard time imagining such a thing.
Christopher: You never know.
Cinder: I suppose not.