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You know her as Cinderella.
But before her stepmother came to Lancastyr Manor, the humans called her Rose de Lancastyr.
They also called her beautiful.
This confused my rat-subjects and me, since we found her painfully unattractive, with her huge salad-green eyes, skin like cream, and long waves of butter-yellow hair. Yet regardless of her looks and the fuss people made of them, Lady Rose was both gentle and kind. So after her mother died—and was replaced three months later by a wicked stepmother, Lady Wilhemina—we felt pity for the girl. We comforted her and came to consider her a rat-friend.
Though we believed her to be a lackwit.
For what kind of human makes friends with rats?
Apparently, the same kind who lets a stepmother turn her into a kitchen maid and give her the new, insulting name of Cinderella.
However, one hot morning in early September, made hotter by the fragrant, ever-burning cedar fire in the flagstone kitchen of Lancastyr Manor, I discovered we were mistaken.
* * *
“Ahhhh, baking day,” I murmured to my trusty royal councillor and best friend, Swiss. “Quite my favorite time of the week.” A rich, yeasty aroma filled the kitchen and made my whiskers quiver as he and I peered through a crack in the door of a cupboard.
Swiss whispered back, “Oh, Your Highness, just look at that bread. I’ll wager it’s crisp at the top and chewy in the center. Cook may be a spiteful rat-killer, but she certainly has a way with a loaf.”
We watched from our hiding place while Cook and the kitchen boy, Pye, pulled the last loaves from the brick oven. They set them to cool on a large rack against the wall, near a spot where Swiss and I had long ago loosened a board to provide easy rat-access to this marvelous treat.
“We’ll come back tonight to thieve more,” I said. “But let’s try for a bit right away. If we move fast enough, we can bite some off, taunt Cook, and make our escape.”
“Yes!” Swiss replied with enthusiasm, rather than trying to stop me, as a truly prudent royal councillor should have done.
I smiled to myself. “Watch and wait, then move upon my command.”
Cook picked up a corner of her stained apron, wiped it across her sweaty pink forehead, and shouted, “Cinderella!”
That name distracted me from my designs upon the bread. I pressed my eye closer to the crack in the door, seeing Cook frown as she batted at her wiry gray hair, which stood out in frizzy corkscrews around her face.
She shouted for Cinderella again, then grumbled to Pye, “Drat her lazy bones! She’s supposed to mix up a lemon potion to get rid of Miss Eustacia’s freckles in time for the royal ball at Castle Wendyn on Saturday. Prince Geoffrey will choose a wife that night, and we’ve got to help our Miss Eustacia catch his attention!”
I stifled a laugh. If I knew anything about humans—and I did—Lady Rose’s older stepsister, Eustacia, would need a great deal more help than bleached freckles to attract the attention of a human prince. Nonetheless, the entire household and the stepmother, Lady Wilhemina, in particular, had been in a fever of anticipation for the past month, ever since the invitations had arrived. The king of Angland had invited the families of every eligible young lady in the capital city of Glassevale.
Pye remarked, “Poor Cinderella. She’s had no rest, what with all the preparations for that fancy party.” He was grimy and his homespun breeches were patched at the knees, but he had an intelligent look.
Cook gave a harsh laugh. “Ha! Are you in love with the wench, too? Menfolk are fools, from youngest to oldest, turned to corn mush by a smile and saucy cheeks.”
“I’m not in love! You worked for Lady Wilhemina when she was married before—it’s right strange you haven’t noticed yet how hard she is on her servants.” Missing the expression on Cook’s face, the boy went on to mention Cook’s rival, the housekeeper: “Mrs. Grigson says no servant ever left Lancastyr Manor willingly in the old days. The only one who left was my mam—and that’s because she died! Now, since Lady Wilhemina came, Mrs. Grigson says it’s impossible to keep staff.”
Alas, Pye was not as smart as he looked.
“Why, you lout! Never you mind what that hoity-toity Mrs. Grigson says! You pay Lady Wilhemina respect, or I’ll box your ears!” Cook raised her big, gnarled hands in the air as if to follow through on her threat.
Pye ducked and ran to the other end of the cavernous room, huddling behind some sacks of cornmeal and dried beans. “Please don’t,” he begged. “I’m sorry.”
Cook grunted and dropped her hands. “Then keep your trap shut. God’s Bones, I’m worn out. Up since four o’clock of the morning mixing and kneading those loaves, and then having to send up breakfast in bed to everyone at the same time as the batches were ready for baking.”
“Well, Cinderella and I helped,” Pye said.
Poor lad. She would surely box his ears now, unless her attention was diverted. I switched Swiss with my tail. “The bread. Now!”
We darted out from the cupboard, deliberately running across Cook’s toes and leaping up to the lowest shelf of the rack. We each bit off a mouthful of crust before jumping down and disappearing into a convenient hole under a baseboard in the hall. It opened onto a rat-passage through the walls, which we followed up and around and back into the same kitchen cupboard we’d been in before. And there we sat, crunching our heavenly crusts in high glee as we watched Cook shriek, grab a broom, and beat about the floor as if we were still underfoot and available for thwacking. “Nasty, dirty, vile brutes! Lady Wilhemina was right! We must buy more poison and kill them all!”
After a moment’s hysterics, she calmed somewhat and barked at Pye, “You, boy, stop gaping like a looby and go find Cinderella. Get her back to work. For the Lord’s sake, what a to-do! I think I’d best go snatch a quick nap.”
We knew from past experience that Cook’s “snatch a quick nap” meant “guzzle the cooking sherry in the privacy of my room.” She had never before taken one of these naps so early in the day, but Swiss and I had given her something to recover from just now. Which meant we could make further incursions upon the bread if we waited until she left.
Cook’s footsteps shuffled away, fading from our hearing. Pye sighed, emerged from behind the sacks, and made off in the other direction.
At last. Swiss and I let loose the laughter we’d been holding back, making such a noise that we didn’t hear the other footsteps as they approached. Suddenly, the cupboard door flew open to reveal Rose de Lancastyr.
My laughter halted abruptly; Swiss squeaked like a mouse.
It was Rose’s turn to laugh. “You rascals! I wondered who was causing such a rumpus. I should have realized—it’s baking day, so where else would you be but the kitchen?”
I answered her seriously, though I knew she, like the rest of her kind, was ignorant of rat-speech. “The kitchen is where smart rats belong. But you are the rightful lady of Lancastyr Manor. What are you doing here?”
The kitchen was where Rose spent most of her days. Although she was no longer allowed to eat much food, she seemed to be constantly in the process of preparing it—chopping, stirring, kneading, peeling. And in her rare moments of leisure, she would sit near the fireplace upon her three-legged stool, warming her toes and watching Cook with unusual care.
We never thought much about why she did so. If you had asked me at the time, I might have said she was keeping an eye on the ill-tempered woman in order to avoid being hit with a ladle or a wooden spoon.
“You naughty Blackie,” Rose said to me, smiling. “Always the leader of the rats’ kitchen raids!”
I had no way of telling her my name wasn’t Blackie, but Char, in honor of the way I like my meats—grilled over an open fire, with fat crackling, black as my royal fur. There was also no means of letting her know I was not just a leader of the rats of Lancastyr Manor, I was their one and only ruler, the prince of the Northern Rat Realm. My realm encompassed the entire northern half of the human city of Glassevale. The Southern Rat Realm was now ruled by Princess Mozzarella and had been established by an offshoot of the original rats of Lancastyr Manor long ago. It was made up of the southern half of the city and also included Castle Wendyn and its surrounding estates.
Rose reached out and stroked the top of my head. “I need those lemons in that bowl behind you to whip up something for Eustacia. I think you’d better run along now.”
Ignoring her patronizing tone, I leaned into her touch. I should have been far too conscious of my royal dignity to allow her to pet me thus. It almost placed me at the level of—dare I say it—a loathsome, purring cat. And yet I could not bring myself to put a stop to it.
“Your Highness,” Swiss cautioned. “Let’s go!”
I paid him no heed. This joyful petting might have continued for some time, had not Lady Wilhemina suddenly burst through the arched stone doorway.
We all froze.
Rose’s skin suddenly became less the color of cream and more like the greenish tinge of skimmed milk. The only things moving on Swiss were his shivering whiskers.
I imagined I probably looked just as frightened as Swiss, though in reality what I felt was fury. For Wilhemina was our sworn rat-enemy; since her arrival the year before she had been waging a harrowing campaign against my people and me. We had lost several of our number—good rats and true—to her sly poisoning tactics.
“Cinderella!” she yelled.
The girl jerked her hand back and slammed the cupboard shut, plunging Swiss and me into safe darkness.
“Time to flee!” Swiss whispered. “Your Highness, what are you doing?”
“Peeking through the crack, of course. What does it look like I’m doing? Dancing the minuet?”
“But, my prince, if that woman finds us here we are surely doomed.”
“Ha. If she dares lay a finger on me, I shall bite it off,” I answered.
He jostled me a bit with his shoulder. “It is my responsibility to warn you when I think you’re in danger.”
“Be easy, Swiss. Wilhemina is not aware of our presence.”
“And you call me your royal councillor,” he grumbled. “When have you ever taken my advice?”
I ignored Swiss in favor of witnessing the scene unfolding in the kitchen.
Wilhemina towered over her stepdaughter. Her gown of robin’s-egg blue silk rustled like the stealthy stir of a predator in the bushes. The elegance of her dress made Rose’s tattered brown garment look even more shapeless than it had a moment before. The woman was doused in some sort of exotic perfume, drowning out the more pleasant scents in the room.
Swiss commented, “You must admit the stepmother’s eyes are most alluring—small, dark, set close together. If you consider them along with her prominent nose, she appears almost ratlike.”
“Very well, I admit it,” I said with reluctance. “She’s somewhat attractive. But her character is base.”
“Lazy wench!” Wilhemina snarled at Rose. “Why is Eustacia still awaiting her bleaching potion? I told you to make it almost half an hour ago!”
Rose replied, “Do you not recall that you asked me to tend to the needs of my other sister, Jessamyn, first? I have only now come from her chambers.”
Ah yes, Jessamyn—the younger, nicer stepsister.
“She is Miss Jessamyn to you, and no sister of yours!” Wilhemina shrieked and slapped her.
My tail stiffened, then slashed once behind me, like a whip.
One of the first things my mother had taught me in the days before I rose to rulership was how to control my temper. To plan my deeds, rather than react in the heat of the moment. So I did not spring into foolhardy action. I merely added the incident to the long list of things Wilhemina would someday regret.
“She will pay for that slap,” I vowed. “When she least expects it, the woman will pay. I shall crunch her bones and suck out their marrow.”
“Er, perhaps you should calm yourself, Prince Char,” Swiss said, and sidled away from me.
Rose raised her hand to her cheek but kept her gaze toward the floor. Her tone was careful when she said, “There was no need to strike me. I’ve always done your bidding.”
“Don’t dare to argue with me, Cin-der-el-la!” Wilhemina snapped. The woman pronounced the syllables of the nickname slowly, insultingly.
“I apologize, ma’am,” Rose said. There was no resentment in her voice, only the clear, harmonious tones of a well-bred young lady.
I was disappointed, as usual, in her response. No rat would have humbled herself thus before such a shrew.
But the girl’s humility did not satisfy Wilhemina, who gave Rose a cold once-over with her eyes narrowed to slits. “Cinders in your hair, bare feet, dirty hands … Who would think that folk once compared your beauty to your mother’s? Though of course I never met the woman. Perhaps they called her Lady Jane the Lovely out of mockery rather than admiration.”
Rose’s fingers clutched a handful of her skirt till her knuckles whitened. “Your concern for my mother’s reputation is most kind,” she said. “I’m sure you’ve seen the portrait of her in the long gallery in the east wing of the manor. It is a good likeness.” Then slowly, gracefully, Rose sank into a curtsy. She arched her long neck and stretched her arms behind her like a swan holding up its wings. I’d never seen a human female ever look quite so magnificently animal.
A curtsy that deep was meant to be performed only before royalty. Girls of the noble houses learned it before being presented for their debut at Castle Wendyn when they turned fifteen. We rats knew—in fact, the whole of Lancastyr Manor knew—that unlike Rose and her parents, Wilhemina and her daughters were not of noble blood and had never met the king or queen. This chewed away at Wilhemina’s gut in much the way we rats would like to have done.
“My, my,” said Swiss. “Now that is a curtsy.”
Wilhemina’s furious intake of breath betrayed that she, too, understood how her stepdaughter’s gesture had shifted the balance of power between them back to Rose. She loomed up as if to strike the girl once more but halted when Rose finally raised her eyes, revealing a blaze of contempt so searing that even I was shocked by it.
Wilhemina sputtered briefly in the face of such intensity. Then she seemed to recover herself. “Carry out my orders, wench. And in case you were stupid enough to be wondering, you will certainly not be going to the ball day after tomorrow.” She turned to quit the room and spat over her shoulder as she went: “You shall regret your disrespect. I swear it.”
Rose held the curtsy and waited until Wilhemina was gone before she whispered, “Not as much as you shall regret yours.”
Then at last, I understood.
Rose de Lancastyr was not a lackwit at all.
Like me, she was biding her time.
Text copyright © 2016 by Bridget Hodder