The Storyteller Presents
Beginning as I do at the beginning, and starting as I must at the start, let me speak of fate in the round of a ring, let me speak of fate in the shape of a slipper. The girl whoes finger fits the ring, she'll become Queen; the law decrees it. The girl whoes foot fits the slipper will marry a handsome prince. What a lucky girl, you might think.
A King had three daughters. Two were bad, one was good. But he loved them all alike, and what he gave to one he gave to the others. Past their perfect curls, past their perfect cheeks, past their petticoats and silks, his eldest girls were sour where their sister was sweet, mean where she was gentle, hard where she was soft, cruel where she was kind. And the youngest suffered the pain of one who is below, the butt of malice. They squeezed on her bright mind until she was convinced she was simple; they taunted her fair features until she was convinced she was plain. And they gave her a name that stuck: Sapsorrow.
His wife long dead, the King's sole joy had been the joy of the proud father. Now his girls were growing up, soon there would be suitors, soon the place would be empty. And his thoughts turned to his old age, to his loneliness. I must find a wife to comfort me, he thought, and unlocked the little box in which he kept the wedding ring, passed on from Queen to Queen, finger to finger, since any could remember. Only when the ring fits can the King marry. Holding the ring, memories ebbing from it, he made a decision. He would post the banns, he decided. He would issue the edict.
The next morning as the dawn broke, a servant hammered a proclamation onto the great wooden doors of the church. Then, raising a trumpet to his lips, he blew three sharp notes of fanfare. "She who wishes to wed our King must come forward and try the ring," he cried, over and over, waking the city. Faces came to the windows, came to doors, folk flocked to read the notice. And from their balcony, overlooking the church, the Bad Sisters looked down and scowled, furious at their father. They wanted to reval for his favor, wanted no heir to the throne. He was too old, they told each other; he ought to be thinking about dying soon. Sapsorrow joined them on the balcony. She heard the proclamation and was happy for her father. Her sisters shooed her away, disgusted, showering her with insults, calling her a half-wit. "Go away!" they shrieked. "Ugh! Go away! Go away! Go away!"
For when they were angry, which was often, when they were cruel, which was always, they took their rage on their sister. So the more the sisters sulked at the prospect of a stepmother, the viler they were to poor Sapsorrow. When, soon after, their father set off to find bride, they teased, taunted, and tormented her. They starved her. "You're too fat," they'd say, stealing from her plate. "All this eating is making you stupid." Oh yes, all the while the King was away they punished her. She must polish their nails, primp their curls, wash their feet, make their beds, however hungry she was, however sad. They were foul, these Bad Sisters.
But Sapsorrow was friends with all the creatures of the forest, those that crawled, those that flew; they lived in her pockets, under her table, perched on her chair, ran through her hair. Whenever she went to her room, she would find berries and all kinds of nuts and fruits, delicious things. For kindness repays in kindness, care in care, and the girl did not starve when the King was away.
At length he returned, the King, weary of wandering his kingdom. For the ring was a cruel shape and none could wear it, and now he despaired of any solace in his old age. As he entered the palace, the two Bad Sisters flocked to him, billing and cooing, flouncing their skirts in a gush of reunion. How sad they were, they lied; how much they'd missed him, they pretended; what a shame he'd found no bride, they clucked, delighted. And, an arm in each of his, they hugged and smothered him. "All for the best," simpered one. "Fate," tittered the other, "not intended."
Oh yes, the Bad Sisters were not past a scheme or two, not above a device when it suited. They were determined to have the kingdom to themselves when the old King died. They wanted no mother to contend with, no sister. Each day when the women came to the Great Hall to try the ring, women from far, women from wide, the Bad Sisters would sit suspiciously on their balcony, gazing down at the line, smirking as the ring failed to fit, watching anxiously in case it ever did. And though it never did, their unease grew with the lines. We should be Queens, they told themselves. We should be Queens, together. And that is why when the thought came, which one day it did, that they should try the ring themselves, it seemed such a clever one....He wouldn't want to marry us if the ring fit, they reasoned, hugging each other, but then he can't marry anybody! And they congratulated themselves on their briliance.
As the day ended, they crept down the hall where the ring perched on a velvet pillow. One of them was rather thin, so the ring slipped off. The other was rather fat, and the ring stuck. "Ow!" she complained. "It's stuck!" Nothing would budge it. The Bad Sister's finger began to swell. It turned a purple color. "Look!" she howled. "It's turning a purple color! Do something!" But try as she might, tug as she did, the other Bad Sister could not shift it.
Sapsorrow came by and stopped, hearing the yelps and howls. Seeing her sister in pain, she went to help, and though Thin Bad Sister would have none of it, Fat Bad Sister insisted. "Let her do it!" she screamed, her finger pulsating. "She's better at these things than you are." And with gentle fingers, while the Thin Bad Sister sulked and Fat Bad Sister bellowed. Sapsorrow worked at the ring until slowly, slowly, and then, with a sudden ping, the ring slipped off and dropped to the floor, rolling along the marble.
"What's going on?" asked the King as he hurried into the hall. "Nothing, Daddy," replied the Bad Sisters, standing in front of the empty pillow. "What was all the hue and cry?" their father said as he approached. "Hue and cry, Daddy?" asked Fat Bad, all innocence, while Thin Bad kicked Sapsorrow's shin and hissed "Pick it up!" as she jerked he head toward where the ring lay. The King, meanwhile, was confused. "There were terrible cries coming from this room," he said. "I heard them." And while Bad Sister looked to Bad Sister for an explanation, little Sapsorrow did a thing she would long regret. Obediently, she bent, and-oh folly!-she stooped and-oh rash!-she picked up the Royal ring and slipped it on for safekeeping.
Just then the King's eyes took in the empty pillow. "Where's you mother's ring?" he demanded of his daughters. The Bad Sisters, eyes fluttering, turned pointedly toward Sapsorrow. "Daughter?" pressed the King sternly. Sapsorrow shook her head, stepped back, and then, in a moment she would never forget, caught sight of the ring on her wedding finger. And what she saw the King saw too. "Oh no!" he cried in horror. The Bad Sisters noticed. "IT FITS!" they chorused, amazed. "It fits," whispered the King.
No sooner done, no sooner said, the news was afire in the palace, sweeping the corridors, inflaming the people. The ring fits the King's daughter! The ring fits the King's daughter! The King's daughter! The King's daughter!
And bells tolled, half in praise, half in shame. Wedding bells, funeral bells. All night, throughout the city, arguments raged. "You cannot marry your father, but you cannot ignore the law. You cannot marry your father, but you cannot shame the King. You cannot marry your father, but the ring is the ring is the ring."
For three days and three nights, the King met with his council to ponder the law, while Sapsorrow wept in her room, only her creatures for company. Finally, she was summoned to the King's chamber where her father sat, his face heavy with sorrow, his council around him, somber and resolved. Sapsorrow's heart pounded. "It is the law of the land," said the Prime Minister in a grave voice. "The ring fits your finger and you must marry the King." Sapsorrow, giddy, close to fainting on hearing what she knew she would, bit on her finger, the cold gold against her teeth, biting back tears. "Why did you paly with the ring?" asked the King bitterly. "Why did you tamper with it?" Now see what befalls us." He turned to the Prime Minister. "The ceremony," he asked, "when must it take place?" And the Minister told him that the wedding must happen as soon as the preparations allowed.
Sapsorrow listened but could not hear, looked but could not see. She must escape and yet how could she? The faces of the court stared sternly at her, waiting on her response. At last she spoke. "Then first find me a dress of the palest silk," she said, drawing herself up. "The color of the moon. I will not wed till I have it." The graybeards of the council turned to the King, who nodded. "Very well," said the Prime Minister. "We will find this dress." While the men were sent out for silk, while tailors cut and needles flew, Sapsorrow stayed in her room, never appearing. For she had a scheme ans shared it with the creatures. "To find such a gown will take time," she told her friends as they crawled and scurried ans nested in her hair. "And meantime you must help me."
It was not long before a knocking at the door distrubed her. The dress had arrived. There it was, pushed forwarded on a mannequin, the King beside it, her sisters behind, the court in attendance. "Beautiful," whispered Sapsorrow, enchanted by the pale silk, "Very like the moon." And the Prime Minister waited for her decision. "But now," she continued, her voice firm, "I must have one all in silver, sparkling with stars." The Prime Minister frowned. "For my trousseau," said Sapsorrow. "Sire," demanded his Minister. "Where would we find such a dress?" But the King's hopes were as desperate as his daughter's and he clung to this thread of delay. "Do as she bids," he said. "All in silver, sparkling with stars." And with that the Princess closed the door, leaving the court to ponder, her sisters to flounce off, the tailors to wander the land in search of a silver cloth that would gleam like the stars twinkling in the heavens. Little did they know that all the while, in Sapsorrow's room, another garment was being made, more marvelous and more magical. But its weaving was slow, its material rarer still than silver, and before it was done, King and court were back again.
This time, the Princess would not let them in, but stood in the doorway and looked down the corridor at the dress the Royal tailors had sewn for her. And it was like the stars. "Beautiful!" gasped Sapsorrow, entranced, for she felt as she looked at the gown as if she were gazing into the night sky. "Beautiful. Very like the stars." The Prime Minister stepped forward, anxious to proceed. "The court waits on you sire," he told the King. "The people are impatient. When will you wed?"
The King stared sadly into the gown's constellation, searching for a way to escape such a fate, seeing none. "Daughter?" he asked, brow furrowed. Sapsorrow's huge gray eyes stared at them. "This gown is for the wedding feast," she told them. "The first one for the procession. Now I must have one for the church. Gold, it should be. Gold as the sun. Bring me that dress adn the next day we shall wed." The court greeted her answer with satisfaction, its gist whispered down the corridor, passed to the people. "Gold, she says, all gold like the sun. Bring her that dress and they will be married on the morrow."
While the tailors sewed with thread of pure gold, while the seamstress buzzed, while the wedding feast was prepared, up in Sapsorrow's room the oil burned all night, the shutters stayed closed all day. Only her creatures were seen, flying in, slithering out, busy, busy, scurrying about. And so it was that in the same moment as the tailors delivered a dress like sunshine itself, the creatures finished their own secret task.
This time, Sapsorrow would not come out of her room to view the dress. The entourage, charged with anticipation, waited while the gown was passed behind the door for the Princess's approval. There was a silence. The Prime Minister coughed restlessly. "It is a dress such as none have seen before," he said. "Of pure gold. Dazzling. A hundred hands have sewn it."
Inside the room, Sapsorrow touched the folds of the material, brought its softness to her cheek. It was as if the sun had poured through the shutters, as if the morning had broken over her head. "It is what I asked for," she agreed, so quietly that her words were taken up by the Minister and repeated for all to hear. "It is what she asked for!" he announced triumphantly. "Yes," continued the Princess. "Very like the sun." "Very like the sun!" came the echo, and a gasp went up along the corridors of the palace. The Prime Minister turned to the assembled, his work done. "They will marry on the morrow!" he cried, and with that a hum broke out, a hubbub drowned only by bells, bells so loud that no one heard the King's sobs as the tears ran down him, weeping.
And though the night seemed to have lasted forever, the morning came too soon for the King. He dressed slowly in his furs and silks, then placed the crown on his head, and, accompanied by the Royal Guards, their uniforms sparkling, followed by his daughters, bridesmaids in flounces of pink and bows, he walked miserably to Sapsorrow's room to claim his bride. After an age of impatient knocking, the Minister ordered the door to be charged down.
Inside, the windows were open, the room was bare, and of the Princess there was no sign. A single feather floated mysteriously to the floor, landing on a small gold ring. Soldiers were sent to scout the grounds. The Princess must be somewhere, hiding in fear of the wedding. Sentries reported that no one had come or gone. Neither man nor woman had left the palace, only a strange creature of fur and feathers, scurrying along the ledges, disappearing into the bushes, swimming along the moat. One guard noticed and thought he'd seen a large cat, another described it as a dog, a third as a seal. Sapsorrow was never found. And though the court was angry, though tongues wagged and gossips gossiped, the King's beating heart stilled, and he was happy.
Three years later and in another land altogether, a creature known as a Straggletag, a poor thing of fur and feathers, tended geese in a King's garden and scrubbed the pots in his kitchen. No one knew her real name or where she came from, for she seldom spoke and then when spoken, and was not sweet to look upon, so no one bothered with her, save as the butt of their jokes as when a job came up too dirty for one, too foul for another. She never said no and she never complained, and the geese adored her. All things that slithered, all things that flew, all things that crept from the corner adored her. She fed them scraps of her scraps, and she slept in rags by the stove. She was a Straggletag and that was that. A Princess of Slobs. A Princess of Peelings. A Princess of the Kitchen Floor. And one day this Princess met a Prince....
This Prince was a handsome fellow, slender of figure, fair of feature, and very proud. He came on this day to the kitchens in search of the Cook. No one was there save the Straggletag, on her knees, polishing the flagstones. He did not approach her, but inspected the pots bubbling on the fires, for this was the day of a Royal Ball in the Prince's honor. He told the creature to give the Cook a message. He wanted goose added to the menu, roast goose with orange, baked in cider. The Straggletag glanced up, gave him a look, then nodded and continued with her work.
"What's that look?" the Prince asked sharply. The creature's voice was quiet, humble. "It's a look," she said, and polished the harder. The Prince took a few steps toward her, then demanded she explain her remark. "It's a look," she repeated, not lifting her head. "If there was a tax on looking, we'd all be beggers, sire." The proud Prince told her that it wasn't done for such as her to stare at a Prince; it was not polite in one so low or ugly. The Straggletag simply nodded, still not meeting his eyes, and polished, rubbing the stones furiously. Then, as the Prince turned on his heels to leave, she spoke again. "Why eat geese?" she asked him in a small voice. "They don't harm you." The Prince was taken aback. "Because I like geese," he said rather pompously. "So do I," returned the Straggletag, polishing, polishing. "That's why I don't eat them."
"Pass on my message," said the Prince tersely, striding up to her. "And take that for your manners." So saying, he gave the creature a sharp kick. "Roast goose in cider," he reminded her as he departed. "A dozen."
That night they sat, the geese, twelve cold stares on the Royal table, while around them many danced, many daughters wore their mothers' pearls. And the Prince was there, handsome, admired, separate, sought after. He would dance with no one, for in that land, in that time, the dance was a song without words. The one step here, the one step there, the joined hands-those were actions that spoke of other things, of a future, each dance a small promise. So that night parents looked on and hoped. But the Prince stood and smiled but did not dance. Until late, unannounced, mysterious, a woman entered in a dazzling gown, pale silk, like the moon. The room fell quiet at her radiance. And what could he do, the Prince, but walk toward her? What could he do but lead her to the floor? And they danced. It was meant. As left to right, morning to night, dark to light, they belonged.
But when the music stopped, the beauty curtsied, smiled, and turned to leave. The Prince tried to stop her, called out as she hurried away, but to no avail. As mysteriously as she arrived, she had gone, leaving the Prince mystified, excited, tingling, transformed. He sent out men to follow her but they could not find trace of her. The Prince wondered if he had dreamed her appearance, imagined her beauty. Then, for a moment that night, alone in his room, he thought he saw her wandering below his window; but no, it was only the moon's pale gaze sending the shadows dancing. It was only the moon.
A week later, haunted by the stranger, the Prince arranged a second Ball. Downstairs, the kitchen staff had barely recovered from the first, and the sculleries and larders were a flurry of activity. So when the Prince called down for clean towels, there was no one free to oblige him save the Straggletag, whose geese had again that day offered their necks to the Cook's terrible twist. All fur and feathers, she crept to the Prince's room and knocked on his door. The Prince was amazed to see the strange creature before him and said so, shooing her away, handling the towels gingerly, for hear they might be soiled by the Straggletag's touch.
"Do I disgust you?" she asked sadly. "You amaze me!" cried the Prince. Straggletag shook her head and retreated. "Look," explained the Prince ponderously. "Cats chase mice, hens lay eggs." "And what does that mean?" the creature asked, looking at him. The Prince sighed. "It means some things have to do with other things; I have nothing to do with you. You don't disgust me, because I don't think about you." "I see," said Straggletag, and slunk away.
"I don't think about you," said the proud Prince, but if he dosen't think of her, whom does he think about? No, he can't see for the feathers, this Prince, he cannot see for the furs. That night, the second Ball, beauties came and beauties went, hopes were hoped and dances danced, but the Prince stood alone, restless, reserved, staring at the great doors of the ballroom. But nothing, no sign of his darling. Then, suddenly, a hush, then a gasp, a dividing of the room, and there she was! In a dress of sparkling silver. Like the stars in the night sky. In a moment they were dancing. There might have been no one else in the room, in the palace, in the country, in the whole world, for all they knew. Just themselves alone, these two figures, taking the same steps, sharing the same touch. Until midnight came, and again the Princess turned, fled, running from the room. "Come back!" cried the Prince, distraught. "I cannot sleep. Where do you live that I might find you?" The Princess hurried on, but called as she ran, "I live where hens catch mice and cats lay eggs," and she disappeared into the dark, her dress dissolving into the stars on the horizon. None could follow her, none could find her. She had vanished. The poor, proud Prince searched and searched in vain, though for a second he imagined he saw her. But no, it was only the stars sparkling in the night's black velvet. It was only the stars. How his head hurt, how his tummy ached, how his heart made little summersalts.
The dawn found mooning around on the terrace, the land stretching out before him. He had not slept, could not sleep. Sick, he felt sick, for love is a malady that only kisses will cure. "What's the matter?" It was the Straggletag, walking back from the dairy, a pail in each hand. The Prince was amazed that this creature felt able to speak to him so freely. "No one," he said, "no one in the whole palace, in the whole kingdom, talks to me like this!" Yet even as he reprimanded her, he was glad of her company, felt comfortable in it.
The Straggletag bent her head at his harsh words, and he saw the mice running through her matted hair, shivered at her grubby rags, yet hoped he would not go. "You must forgive me," she said in her quiet voice. "You looked so sad, I wondered if I could help." The Prince shook his head sorrowfully. "You can't," he said. "Are you in love?" she asked him. "Is that it? Or are you worried that you only love you sweetheart for her beautiful gown?"
The Prince was stung. "Were she in the humblest rags," he began. "Were she the poorest creature..." He faltered as visions of the beautiful Princess flashed before him. "For, you see, my darling has eyes like..." He thought of his darling's eyes and shrugged. "They're perfect." He saw her as he had seen her when they had danced, his arm around her waist. "She has a voice like..." He thought of his darling's voice and shrugged. "It's perfect." The Straggletag looked at him through her tangles, and the Prince realized it was hopeless trying to explain. "Well," he said wearily, "how can I expect you to understand?" The Straggletag sat on the steps beside him. "Then you should marry her," she whispered. "I want to!" the Prince cried, exasperated. "I want to, but I can't find her...."
And so they sat, Prince and Straggletag, musing on his problem, the gardens stretching out before them, the Prince wishing it were the Princess beside him, how wonderful that would be; how strange to be confiding in this poor creature, the mice running though her hair, the animals pecking round her feet. But still they sat, and both-in their way-were peaceful.
"I have a problem like yours," began the Straggletag after a little while. "What advice would you give me?" The Prince looked at her. "Well," he said sympathetically, is rather taken aback at the thought. "I don't know your beau. What's he like?" The Straggletag's voice hardly broke above a whisper. "Handsome ... rich ..." She scratched at her rags as she spoke. "Really?" said the Prince, finding this hard to imagine. "And proud," continued the Straggletag. "Ah," murmured the Prince, half-listening, half-dreaming at his darling. He like sitting with the Straggletag; if ever he found the Princess, perhaps he could clean the poor thing up, wash her hair, and make her his sweetheart's servant. "But, you see," said the creature, starting him from his reverie, "when I think about him, it makes my head hurt and my tummy ache and my skin tingles and my heart do little summersalts."
"Me too! Me too!" cried the Prince. "Oh yes! We're in love and its terrible." The Straggletag was thrown. "I don't think I'm in love," she said. "Yes," insisted the Prince. "You're definitely in love. Little summersaults? Tingling skin? Definitely." "Oh," said the Straggletag, and so they sat, together and alone, alone and together, until their peace was shattered by an angry voice. "Straggletag! Straggletag! Where the devil have you gone to?" It was the Cook, full of impatience. The Straggletag stood and heaved up the pails. The Prince watched her go. "Listen," he said, embarrassed. "Don't tell anyone we've spoken." How this wounded the creature. "As you wish," she whispered. The Prince felt guilty and tried to explain. "It's just, you know, Prince and-" He couldn't think of a polite word. "Straggletag!" bellowed the Cook, completing his sentence for him. Prince and Straggletag...
Oh yes, the Prince was lovesick all right. And love, as we know, can't see what's in front of its nose. No, he's smitten. Evan before dark, he was ready, tense and distracted on the terrace in front of the ballroom, for there was to be a third Ball that very evening. Tonight, he thought, shivering, I'll see my love tonight. And while he waited, holding his breath for sight of his darling, down below in the steaming kitchen, as full dishes poured out and empty plates poured in, the Straggletag worked, scrubbing, soaking, cleaning, hurrying, desperate to finish. All around her the servants chatted. "She hasn't come," said one. "He's there, poor love," said another. "He hasn't even gone inside." The Straggletag doused the dishes anxiously. "can I have them, please?" she demanded of the servant who lounged at the sink, clutching a tray loaded with dirty plates. "What's the hurry?" quizzed the servant. "Meeting a sweetheart?" "Maybe," whispered the Straggletag. This sent the servant into convulsions of amusement. "That's why the Prince is still waiting!" he explained to the others, "She hasn't finished the dishes!" And they all laughed.
Upstairs, the dance was nearly over. Guests left, passing the Prince, who had no once moved from his place on the steps. He searched the heavens for his darling. Over and over, his heart flipped until he was dizzy with longing. But of the Princess there was no sign. And then, at last, from looking at the moon, from looking at the stars, he saw something impossible, for surely coming slowly up the steps toward him was the sun itself. It was her! She had come! His sweetheart, dressed in a gold gown that shown like the sun, that shimmered. The Prince swept her up and they danced, there on the terrace, with the music distant, winding into their steps. And it was wonderful.
But bells toll. Evenings end. As the clocks chimed the midnight, the Princess turned and hurried off. "Don't go!" cried the abject Prince. "Don't leave me again." But she did go, she had to. She ran off, stumbling for a second on the steps, eluding his charming arms, running off under a veil of dark, disappearing again, a glimpse of gold here, a glint there, then gone, gone, as if the sun had set and the night had come. The Prince watched, hopeless, distracted, and looked down at the terrace. At his feet was a golden slipper. He picked it up and held it to his trembling heart.
At first light, a notice was proclaimed throughout the kingdom. "The Prince will marry the girl whose foot will fit the golden slipper."
And so they came, the would-be brides, in droves, one shoe off, one shoe on, to try their luck with the slipper. The ballroom was emptied, and the moonstruck Prince sat at one end and watched them come and go at the other, knowing before the anxious squeeze or the hopeless slip that wasn't the one, waiting while for the hush that would signal the entrance of his love. So he sat while the women came and went, for what seemed ages.
Belowstairs, the servants gossiped and predicted. "It fits nobody," said one the the next. "It's not a normal slipper, you'd think they'd realize," said another. "I might try," said a third. The others scuffed, "You've got feet like Yorkshire puddings!" they teased. All the while, the Straggletag worked, cleaning here, scrubbing there, listening. "What about out little beauty?" asked Yorkshire Pudding, prodding her. "Will you try?" The Straggletag kept her head down. "I might," she whispered. Gales of laughter from the servants. "She might!" they howled.
And so up she went, up the stairs, into the Great Hall where the women lined up waiting their turn, and would you believe it, whom did she see pressing her foot into the slipper? None other than big Bad Sister! The Straggletag hung back in the shadows, watching in disbelief at first one sister tried on the slipper and found it too lose, then the second, who seemed, with a huff and a puff and a tremendous effort, to prize her foot into the shoe. The Prince, hardly watching, was slumped in his chair. Suddenly Fat Bad Sister shouted and he sat up with a start. "I've done it!" she cried. "IT FITS!" And sure enough, there she was, the golden slipper snug on her foot. The Prince was dumbfounded. "Impossible!" he barked. "You're not the one!" "I am!" insisted the Bad Sister, showing him her foot. "I most certainly am!" And with that she turned to the assembled and proclaimed in her loud foghorn: "I claim this handsome Prince for my husband."
A Page stepped forward and sounded the trumpet. "According to the proclamation," he began in a somber voice, "the Prince must marry the womman who can wear the golden slipper. The woman has now come forward." "Princess Badsister," announced Princess Badsister, identifying herself. "From?" asked the Page. "From Faraway," she told him. "From Faraway," intoned the Page before hesitating again and inquiring, "Daugher of?" "Daughter of nobody!" whispered the Bad Sister crossly, and then, to the Prince, "We have no parents," she simpered. "Mummy died a long time ago and Daddy last year." The Prince nodded blankly. "He was ancient," added the Bad Sister. In the commotion, no one heard the gasp from the shadows, no one saw the tears well up in the Straggletag's eyes, tears of sarrow, tears of relief.
The Page began again: "Princess Badsister, from Faraway, daughter of nobody. She will marry the Prince on the morrow!" "Hurray!" exlaimed the Bad Sister, and hugged the Prince. Then she hopped a little, grimaced, and grinned all at once. "Now," she said, her smile thinning, "can I take this silly show off?" The Prince, hitherto silent, looked up. "Why?" he asked. "Because it's a teensy-weensy bit tight." The Bad Sister smiled, hoping a little more. "Just a pinch." Her mouth started quivering. "Ouch," she wimpered. "Because actually I think it's just an itsy-bitsy stopping the blood going round-ouch! ouchy-wouchy! In fact, I may have to have a baby scream!" And with that the tiniest scream issued from her twitching lips. The smile became increasingly extravagant, and she began to hop furiously in a curious private waltz. She took a sharp breath and hopped over to her sister. "Could you help me, do you think?" she muttered frantically. "Just pull this lovely slipper off my footsie-wootsie? Because I am going to scream very loudly shortly. I think my leg is turning a bit on the maroon side." She turned to the Prince and gave him her biggest smile yet, an enormous grin. Then she took in a huge lungful of air. "Aaaaaarghhh!" she screamed. "GET THIS SHOE OFF MY FOOT!"
Now, Prince, her sister, the Page, the rest of the court, anyone and everyone surrounded the writhing Princess Badsister and wrestled the offending slipper. Amidst howls and moans and screams and groans, the shoe suddenly flew into the air and dropped, fate its map, at the foot of Straggletag, who bent, picked it up, and walked through the melee.
"I claim my right to try the slipper," she said in her quiet whisper. "Ladies, I think-not creatures!" hissed the Bad Sisters, disgusted at this thing scurrying towards them. "May I?" asked the Straggletag, looking levelly at the Prince. "Very well," he said, shrugging, indifferent not to anything and everything. "Ugh!" chorused the Bad Sisters, shuffling away from the Straggletag. "Get rid of it!" But the Prince nodded to the creature to go ahead, and she bent to the floor and, in a single gesture, slid the slipper easily on to her foot. The Bad Sisters were flabbergasted. "It fits!" they cried. "It can't do!" "It does fit," said the Straggletag softly. "Will you keep your promise?"
The room fell silent. No one moved. Eyes traveled incredulously from the straggle of hair to the gleaming slipper. The Prince swallowed, shook his head, swallowed again, his world in pieces. "Very well," he said forlornly. "I will marry you. I will keep my promise." A murmer filled the room, a buzzing, a swell of outrage. Then suddenly, magically, from every quarter, from every nook and cranny, creatures appeared, things that scurried, things that flew, hurrying, flying toward the Scraggletag, engulfing her in a cloud of whirring, beating activity. While all looked on, bewhildered, an extraordinary transformation took place. For before their eyes, the hapless, pathetic creature became a beautiful woman, standing radiant in a dress shimmering with gold, as if the sun had burst into the Great Hall.
"Sapsorrow!" exclaimed her two Bad Sisters. "You!" cried the Prince. "My Princess! It's you!" And of course it was Sapsorrow, and of course it was his Princess. Shw walked toward her sweetheart and they embraced, and for all they knew the world had gone away and left only their tummies at ache, their skin to tingle, and their hearts to leap over and over and over together. "Darling, darling," they repeated to each other. "Dearest, dearest." And what the Prince didn't know he did very soon did. They talked and talked, explaining this, explaining that: stories of rings, stories of fur and feathers. And they wept for her dear father whoes death had freed her, smiled for poor Straggletag, forgave the Bad Sisters, and danced for a day without going away. And after all that, they were so out of breath they lay down and slept...and glory be: if they didn't wake soon, they'll never get wed!
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