Chapter 05 – Rumors and Whispers
Cinderella left the pier and her new co-conspirator allies behind. She headed to the market to pick up a few things for her own meals with money she’d hidden from her stepmother.
Her stepmother truly had an abysmal sense of finances. Lady Ingram spent money left and right for clothes and luxuries, but insisted on cutting costs for necessities, like fuel for the fires, herbs, produce, and the servants’ wages.
Now that all the servants were gone, Cinderella wound up purchasing most of their daily necessities. As the daughter of a merchant, she’d learned how to haggle and barter from a very young age. Plus, she knew which merchants were likely to give her extra goods or a discount based on either her father or her own looks. Her father was very blunt in telling her that a pretty appearance could also be a tool used to her advantage.
Over time, she had saved up enough money to buy herself a treat every now and again. Today, she started at the produce section of the market and wound her way towards the docks, where she intended to purchase some fish.
But as she approached one of the regular stalls, she could see the stall keepers bunched up like a bouquet of slightly aged flowers, discussing something animatedly. Even the customers who would normally be insistently haggling were hanging onto their every word.
There were no cries of “That’s outright theft!” or “Can’t you make it just a bit cheaper? I’ve got an extra mouth to feed on the way!” Something was off.
“What is happening?,” Cinderella asked once she reached the edge of the huddled group.
“It’s a ball!” a young lady exclaimed excitedly.
“What kind of ball? A leather one? Don’t tell me someone made a ball of gold, did they?” Cinderella snorted at the idea. Last month, the market gossip was all about a princess of the neighboring kingdom treasuring a ball of solid gold.
That princess must be an idiot, Cinderella thought. The gold would grow if the princess would simply put her funds to use, but instead, she hoarded it and even dropped it in a pond. How silly.
Cinderella daydreamed for a moment, imagining all the ways she would invest a large amount of gold.
“No, not that kind of ball! Our king has declared he will host a dancing ball and banquet. He’s invited all kinds of young noble ladies across the kingdom, and even ones in the neighboring kingdom!”
The young woman leaned closer and lowered her voice. Cinderella obligingly leaned in to hear the secret information the young lady was offering.
“It seems like he might even be inviting commoners. Rumor has it several merchant daughters have been invited, too.”
Cinderella made an appropriately surprised sound, and the young woman straightened her spine and looked proud to have been able to deliver this information. However, Cinderella’s eyebrows furrowed as she contemplated the implication of this gossip.
“But why? What’s the point of gathering all the ladies? Isn’t the king happily married to the Queen? Didn’t Queen Ann declare she would break his kneecaps if he dared to cheat on her?” Cinderella asked.
“Oh, it’s not for the King. It’s for the crown prince!,” said another young lady who’d been listening closely.
Cinderella realized she’d blindly assumed the crown prince, Prince Charming, had been engaged since he was a toddler, but there was no talk of the prince’s upcoming nuptials.
The second young gossip added, “My cousin’s brother-in-law’s younger sibling works as a guard in the palace. He said the king is furious because Prince Charming hasn’t shown any interest in the ladies the king suggested for marriage alliances.”
The first young lady snorted.
“Well, of course he wouldn’t show interest in political marriages. He’s had his parent’s love match in front of his eyes all his life. Why would he settle for anything less?”
The young grocer lad leaned over his stall and whispered towards the three ladies.
“I heard it was because the prince hadn’t shown interest in any girl. Not even the pretty little maids in the palace.”
“Why would you want a prince to pay attention to the maids in the palace? If he did pay a whole lot of attention to them, wouldn’t you be railing against his abuse of power if he did that? And so what if he doesn’t. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t be tempted by his gorgeous face” the first young lady snapped.
“And how could you slander the prince? I bet you’re just jealous!” the second young lady chimed in.
The first young lady propped her hands on her hips and glared fiercely at the young grocer, who Cinderella had seen flirt with this confrontational young lady in the last few weeks. The young man’s cheeks turned red, as he frowned at the object of his affection.
“Why wouldn’t I be jealous when you suddenly start squealing over someone else and calculating ways to get an invitation? Don’t you know you won’t get an invite if your family isn’t a noble or a merchant who had dealings with the royals? Plus, if you did get an invite, what would you wear? You don’t have the money to compete with all those hoity-toity ladies who are willing to spend several months’ worth of money on a single dress!”
Cinderella backed away from the now bickering couple and headed to the next stall to pick out some produce and perhaps some more information.
If there was going to be a ball, it would be the perfect time to market her cosmetics. There would be lots of ladies who would be willing to spend “months’ worth of money” to look their best in the hopes of attracting a nobleman.
But even at the next set of stalls, the rumors surrounding the ball and the crown prince were the main topic of conversation.
“The king’s not looking for any ordinary noble lady, I tell you! He’s looking for someone who can defeat the curse!”
The next grocer, a big and muscled middle-aged man held court in front of his stall.
“What curse?” asked a naive and fascinated audience member. Or perhaps the audience was just looking for entertainment. And stories of cursed royals were the stuff of legend.
The stall keeper puffed up his chest, as he could provide all the answers. He then used a stage whisper which was still louder than any normal person’s regular voice.
“The prince has been cursed. Any young lady who’s been considered for his marriage has had something terrible happen!”
He paused to look around, making sure there weren’t any royal guards patrolling the area. They wouldn’t take kindly to those who were gossiping about the royal family in public.
“His first fiancée was Princess Francesca from the Kingdom of Noor. They were only eight years old when the engagement was settled. However, the poor thing died of a fever within a year.”
“She was a child. Some children die young, that’s to be expected,” one of the audience members was not convinced and expressed their cynicism.
“Now, wait! There’s more! Lady Megan, daughter of Duke McCarthy, broke her back in a horse riding accident. The Duke withdrew the engagement contract because he didn’t want the kingdom to have a crippled princess consort. Plus, they weren’t sure if she could have children. Then there was Lady Alicia, Daughter of Count Devin from the Kingdom of Lakes.”
“What happened to her?”
“Here’s where it gets suspicious. The marriage was supposed to be an alliance between the two kingdoms. There’d been rumors of the Kingdom of Lakes wanting to invade, but they couldn’t get passed the border guards. They decided to arrange the marriage and attempt to influence the kingdom from the inside to get a better trading treaty. But they didn’t expect what happened next,” the grocer paused for dramatic effect.
“She was on her way to our kingdom and her convoy was attacked but a large crew of bandits. No one survived.”
Hearing the gasps of surprise and horror, the stall keeper looked pleased with the reaction he’d attained. He continued to entertain the spellbound market goers with more and more stories of unlucky ladies who had some vague connection to the crown prince and wound up in trouble. Every time he finished a story, the surrounding crowd would order some of his goods, so the big man continued to spin tale after tale.
“You’re totally wrong, you bone-head!” The neighboring stall keeper, who sold spices and herbs, finally interrupted the man. The herb lady was only slightly jealous of the man’s brisk business.
“What do you mean, old lady?” the grocer blustered.
“Prince Charming isn’t cursed! He’s been blessed by the fairies of the land!”
Some of the old ladies in the crowd nodded their heads as she said this. But most of the younger generations in the crowd could be heard dismissively snorting and murmuring their disagreement and scoffing at the superstitious beliefs.
Hearing their disdain, the old herb seller hurried to convince them.
“Wait, just let me explain! When the crown prince was born, the king and queen sent invitations to the most powerful wizards and sorceresses in the land. Some of them are famous for having contracts with the fairy folk.”
Several people in the crowd, as well as the neighboring grocer seemed to recall this fact.
“And on the day of the prince’s naming ceremony, there was fantastic weather, but there was a double rainbow that appeared in the sky, and the birds all started to sing as the tower bells struck noon. It’s a sign that the prince was blessed by the fairies. Not even the second and third prince commanded that type of blessing from the fairies, despite the same wizards and sorceresses being invited.”
The old lady looked satisfied with the number of faces in the crowd appearing to have an epiphany. She nodded her head and reiterated, “The crown prince is blessed, not cursed!”
But the grocer wasn’t satisfied.
“Then why do all the ladies in his life meet some sort of bad end?”
The crowd, like little lemmings, murmured agreement and turned back to the old lady in doubt.
“It’s not all the ladies,” she said. “Isn’t Queen Ann just fine? And the Prince’s nurse and maids who took care of him since he was a child are all fine.”
“But what about his love life?”
“Perhaps the fairy folk haven’t approved of any of the women,” the old woman finally said after pondering for a moment.
“Then what kind of a lady would earn a fairy’s approval?” one of the young women in the crowd asked. Immediately, the conversation turned to what kind of virtues, appearance, and skills a woman would need in order to be accepted by the fairies, the king, and the prince.
Cinderella managed to worm her way through the crowd and purchase groceries. As she walked home, the recalled the tales of the ladies who were unfortunate enough to cross paths with Prince Charming.
I wonder if this ball isn’t a ploy to have the Prince’s reputation cleaned up, Cinderella thought. The highly exaggerated stories weren’t to be believed and were probably made up for entertainment. But the stories of the crown prince’s earlier engagements were suspicious. There was likely an element of truth in those stories, but there was no way that the commoners would know of such detail unless someone deliberately released the news.
She wondered who was behind the release of rumors. Was it one of the factions that supported the second prince, who was only two years younger? Did someone want to besmirch the Crown Prince’s reputation in order to put the second prince on the throne? Was it the faction of nobles who wanted to wrestle power away from the royal family?
Was it the Crown Prince himself? Perhaps he didn’t agree to a political marriage. But then what about the earlier engagements when the prince was a child and teenager? Did he truly make an entire foreign delegation disappear and make it look like the work of bandits?
Cinderella didn’t necessarily disapprove of a royal family member who was willing to get his hands dirty, as long as there was a good reason for it. After all, she’d be hypocritical if she looked down on someone else who was willing to play dirty.
But if it was true, it meant the prince employed the same “blame the bandits” ploy as her stepmother. This idea left a sour taste in Cinderella’s mouth as she returned to the house and prepared to face her stepfamily once again. She was already counting the days until she could escape the household to visit Old Tomas again.
If you have any suggestions for place names, I need some suggestions for cities, inns, and merchant shops. Please leave me a comment with any name suggestions you have! Thank you!