Ella is transgender. She's known since she was young; being a woman just fit better. She was happier in skirts than trousers, but that was before her stepmother moved in. Eleanor can't stand her, and after Ella's father passes she's forced to revert to Cole, a lump of a son. She cooks, she cleans, and she tolerates being called the wrong name for the sake of a roof over her head. Where else can she go?
An opportunity to attend the royal ball transforms Ella's life. For the first time, strangers see a woman when she walks down the stairs. While Princess Lizabetta invited Cole to the ball, she doesn't blink an eye when Cinderella is the one who shows. The princess is elegant, bold, and everything Ella never knew she wanted. For a moment she glimpses a world that can accept her, and she holds on tight.
She should have known it wouldn't last. Dumped by her wicked stepmother on the farthest edge of the kingdom, Ella must find a way to let go of the princess and the beautiful life they shared for an hour. She'll never find her way back. But it's hard to forget the greatest night of her life when every rose she plants is a reminder.
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Ella plunged her dark hands back into the piles of white bubbles, fishing up dirty fork after dirty fork. She scrubbed as she hummed, swaying slightly to a tune she barely remembered her father singing to her late at night. Her feet ached, but the swaying helped and she did a little spin to the dishrack where she propped up the forks. Ella slid a stack of plates into the suds. They clattered as they sank. The water was cooling, so Ella grabbed the big kettle slung over the fire and poured another boiling splash into her tub.
Now it was nice and hot. She hummed as she worked, scrubbing the plates, the bowls, another set of fine silverware, the first round of wine glasses—her two dish racks were full and the dishes were only half done.
Shaking her hands free of bubbles, Ella grabbed a warm rag from the rack by the fire and began wiping down plates. Her steps followed the song she hummed, touching lightly here, swaying there. She'd read through all of her sisters' pamphlets on how to dance like the ladies and lords, practicing on her sore feet until her satisfaction drove away the ache.
She set a plate down with its clean mates and lifted a handful of damp silverware. With a small flourish, she brandished a spoon at the nose of her dog. Lady lifted her nose far enough to sniff the offering, but since it wasn't food, she dismissed it. Ella stepped around the dog, sliding into the half-remembered positions of offense, defense, and parry. The dog was not a good opponent. Ella went back to humming. It was better that she practice the dancing, anyway. No one would take her seriously as a swordsman.
With a sigh, she turned away from the dishes to consider the prep counter. Plates of half-finished food stacked between serving bowls of soups occupied the entire surface. It was a great waste of things, but Ella's stepmother was never one to skimp on entertaining her betters. As if by stuffing their bellies she could find a place at their table.
Ella took great advantage. She laid out a fire-warm rag on the wooden floor and dumped all the breads and cheeses in a pile. The sausages would keep, too. Lady took an interest and trotted over, her blunt nails clip-clipping on the wood.
"Ah. Leave it," Ella warned. Lady huffed, but left it. She intently watched Ella add to the pile.
The root veggies had been boiled into mush and she skipped those, but the raw ones had hardly been touched. Ella wrapped up the bundle, tying it tight in the middle, and held the knot up for Lady. "To the bedroom," she directed.
Lady took the bundle gently and trotted out of the kitchen. Ella put her hands on her hips to study the rest of the leftovers. The soup would keep if she left it over the fire. And the remains of the roasted birds could be tossed in. Ella picked a bit of skin off a roasted chicken and delighted in its crunch.
Lady returned without the bundle of foods. Ella picked a piece of chicken off the bone and tossed it to her. She snapped it up, mid-air, and thumped her tail. Ella divided her attention between carving the birds for the soup and feeding Lady choice morsels from the bits that were left. Odds were good her sisters wouldn't touch the stew tomorrow, considering the mix of flavors too pedestrian. But Ella delighted in testing combinations together and that simply left more food for her alone.
Ella's stepmother probably thought all this prep and cleaning was a suitable punishment. Ella wasn't about to correct her outlook. The woman's need to show her wealth and status at the dinner table only left Ella with a rare full belly several days in a row.
"COLE! Get over here!" Her stepmother's high voice screeched through Ella's humming.
Ella flinched. She set the carving knife down gently and took two deep breaths. She ducked her head, wiped her hands clean, and took another moment in the kitchen doorway to gather herself. She was Ella, her father's daughter; but her stepmother only saw the lump of a son her ex-husband left behind. Ella swallowed herself down deeply. She was Cole. Her jaw too square, her hair too short, her chest too flat, her feet too big.
She pressed her hands together and walked briskly into the dining room. Her stepmother, Eleanor, sat tall and haughty at the head of the table, flanked on either side by her true daughters, Elise and Emily. The girls flanked Ella in age, and once they had played together. No longer. They were entertaining a minor lord and his retinue today, filling the table with six other guests.
Ella stopped precisely beside her stepmother, half bowed, ready for whatever instructions were demanded of her.
"Take these away. We're done. Bring the wine. You've let it breathe, I hope."
"Yes, ma'am," Ella whispered. She slipped around the table, efficiently collecting the small plates stained with dessert and the tiny forks that went with them.
Elise slapped her hand away. "I'm obviously not finished yet."
Ella demurred and moved to the next guest without protest. Her stack of plates was unstable. She tipped it toward her chest for balance and finished the circuit without incident. As she turned away from the table, Elise tapped her fork on her plate and cleared her throat too loudly. Of course, now she was done. Ella awkwardly fished the final plate and fork off the table, making for the kitchen as quickly as she could without dropping anything.
Ella let the whole stack flop inelegantly into the hot water. She grabbed the neck of the full decanter and a second bottle of red, sliding them onto a polished serving tray. She snapped a napkin into shape and folded it perfectly in the corners. She returned to the dining room with tray in hand, stopping at her stepmother's shoulder once again.
Polite laughter trickled around the table and Ella forced her mind blank. She could run herself into a frenzy worrying about being the subject of conversation, but worrying wouldn't change it. So she stood, ready, at her stepmother's side. Eventually Eleanor signaled for her to pour.
Ella did, offering the second round of wine glasses around the table and refilling the decanter as the first bottle ran out. She left the remaining wine with the table and made a second, subtle exit before she was yelled out of the room.
Ella let her serving tray flop into the hot water and let out a huge sigh. Her hands were tense from the stress and she plunged them into the dishwater, using the activity to dissipate her tangled emotions. Her stepmother was an awful person with no regard for anyone, including her own daughters, but even less regard for Ella.
There were no pleases or thank yous. Just Cole, wash these dishes, or Cole, scrub this floor, or Cole you're so fat, I bet you eat all of our scraps.
Ella leaned on the sink tub and let her hands dangle in the hot water. She eyed the remaining carcass of the roasted bird and her stomach turned. She used to sit at the table with the family, not serve it like their maid.
Lady whined and pressed against Ella's leg. Ella looked down. She dried her hands and knelt in the middle of the kitchen to hug her dog. Lady licked her face and whined again. She snuggled close, always happy to be in Ella's arms. Lady's needs were so simple. A pat, some food, a romp outside.
She held her dog's head and leaned back to look at her. "You're right. I have a home and clothes, I have you, this week we'll both have enough food, and tomorrow is gardening day."
Lady huffed and thumped her tail against Ella's leg. Ella gave her a kiss on her nose and stood up with purpose. She had to get this soup over the fire, these dishes organized, and the last of this food packaged up for her compost heap in the back by the shed. Her stepmother didn't know about that, and if her luck held, she never would. As long as Ella kept the yards blooming for tours, Eleanor never investigated the details.
Ella set about her work, mood once again cheerful and a song humming in her chest. Lady settled on her mat by the fire, tail flopping in time.
Ella took a deep breath of the stew over the fire. It bubbled and steamed, an odd mix of tonight's dinner leftovers that made Ella's stomach grumble. She ladled a generous scoop into her bowl and sat beside Lady at the fireplace.
The kitchen gleamed. The counters were clear, the stacks of plates shined, everything had been washed, scrubbed, blanched, or repurposed and now only two items remained: a teapot for Eleanor's nightly drink and the boiling jars of tomatoes that Ella was sealing for storage in the basement. Her stepsisters wouldn't be interested in the sauces she could make, but they occasionally liked the dye color when the fashion seasons circled back around.
Ella blew on her stew so she could sip it straight from the bowl as she paged through one of her sisters' discarded dress pamphlets. She was familiar with the seamstresses only because Emily was enthralled with the pleats on dresses by Heleen Costers. Ella thought they were nice, but the swooping lines she saw on Thea's dresses were much more her style.
Ella leaned over the pamphlet to peer at a full-page illustration featuring one of Thea van Lokin's creations. This printing was from last season but Ella didn't believe the designs expired. Just because new ones were made didn't mean the old ones were junk! The sketch featured a woman like Ella, big in the waist and small in the chest with hair that frizzed and curled depending on the weather.
The kettle began to whistle. Ella finished her stew and tucked the pamphlet into a fold of her apron for later study. She poured piping-hot water into a mug. A touch of honey. A small spoon. With the cup carefully balanced on its matching saucer, Ella contained herself deep inside to face her stepmother.
Eleanor and her daughters were seated around the study fire. Eleanor in her high-backed chair, reading a book, Elise in the smaller chair with a lapboard to write her letter, and Emily, the youngest, curled up on the floor against her mother's chair with her embroidery in hand. She wasn't stitching, instead watching Ella come into the room with narrow eyes.
Ella softly placed the teacup down on Eleanor's side table and offered the slightest of bows. Her stepmother glanced at the tea and dismissed Ella with a negligent turn of her wrist. Ella left.
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