I took Willow to see the new Cinderella movie and there was a cameo by Brandi who, of course, played a separate Cinderella a while ago. She was trying on the glass slipper, and when it didn’t fit requested to try the other foot. Now, even though nobody knew who Cinderella was at the ball, everybody had seen her; tall, blonde, and certainly not Brandi. So the question is, how does one politely say sorry, you’re just not who we’re looking for?
Atticus was exhausted. He and the King’s retinue had covered almost the entire kingdom in the past ninety-six hours, from sun up to sun down, and he had seen more feet of all shapes and sizes than he had ever cared to imagine. The King’s orders were to find the owner of a single glass slipper so that he may have a bride, but Atticus had come to the conclusion that what this kingdom needed was less of a queen and more adequate health care.
The ladies of higher gentry generally had clean, healthy feet; the feet of pampered living and zero work ethic. But as the King had insisted that every foot was to be tested, the higher gentry was but a small sliver of the population. As such, he had seen (and touched) every bunion, wart, callus, corn, and weeping infection the land had to offer, not to mention toenails thick and black with dirt and mold, toes amputated from frostbite and gangrene, and even some leprosy.
The women themselves, by and large, were awful. He had no doubt that many were good, honest, caring women every other day of the week, but the prospect of untold riches and prestige seemed to bring out the worst in people. They would invite the Captain and himself into their homes, large or small, with curtsies, smiles, and glad hands. They offered tea, pastries, and flattering words.
He would then lift that damnable glass slipper from its custom oak case lined with lush azure velvet, and things would slowly, irrevocably change. A behavioral pattern had developed by noon of the first day. First, they would become ecstatic, and thank them so much for finding their lost slipper, and how they imagined they would never have seen the dear thing again. It was an heirloom from an aunt or grandmother, or the same slipper their mothers were married in. One young lady claimed it was forged in dragon’s fire and delivered to her by a small troupe of dwarves wielding panabas and Indian tabarzins.
They would sit daintily, luxuriously, leg crossed, toes pointed outward expectantly. They would giggle as the glass touched their feet, some would once again mutter how much they missed their dear, precious shoe. Their toes would slip in, they would gasp, and then… and then it would stop. It would not fit. Their feet would be too wide, or too long, or too skinny, or too fat. Whatever the case, the slipper would not fit anybody. They would stammer, giggle again forcibly, and retry to the same result. This is where their sweetness tended to vanish like a certain young lady at the stroke of midnight several nights before.
Some would give up gracefully, but not many. Once again, the prospect of money and prestige can change a person, and when it is literally at their feet, they will grasp and claw with all their might to keep it. The clunky crystal shoe they were forcing their foot into was no longer a shoe at all but a symbol of their self worth and esteem. The next several minutes would be a chorus of grunting, mumbled complaints, a full spectrum of swear words, and, inevitably, crying. The shoe was everything they were not.
Atticus and the Captain would leave their houses in less social graces than when they arrived. Some would threaten the life of the King, others would simply threaten to not pay their taxes. Reports say there had been one suicide.
Atticus was exhausted.
Atticus thought this new King a damned fool, requiring nothing of his bride to be but a petite size seven. Certainly she was beautiful, he had seen her. The entire kingdom had seen her. She was tall, blonde, pale of face and moved with magical grace. She arrived to the ball unannounced and made a beeline straight for him, then only the Prince. Guests parted like the Red Sea and they danced for nearly thirty minutes before quietly slipping away from the ball. Atticus knew not where they went, but Princes are nothing but young men with fortunate parents; there is no doubt they were off “becoming acquainted.” Atticus could not blame him, he would quite nearly do the same thing.
But to promise marriage to a strange woman after a single delightful evening was foolhardy, and not the type of decision making skills he wanted in a ruler over his house and home. No, Atticus had chosen his breakfast with more precision and care, and if the past several days march was any indication of his future, it was time to move his family to the Romanian kingdom run by the man partial to impalings of barbaric intruders. That was a ruling he could trust.
The Captain’s job was far easier than his own. Where Atticus was to do all the grunt work, the Captain made their presence known, their intentions clear (which was hardly necessary, as the entire town was well aware of what they were doing), and create an air of importance, serenity, and security. He was a Spanish Moor and, though he had lived in the realm for the majority of the past several decades, he had kept his accent and religion. He was a mountain of a man with a placating and honest smile. His skin was a deep mahogany, which set him apart from most of kingdom, and all of the King’s retinue. Atticus had seen him both charm the bodice off of many a fair lady with that smile and crush many a man’s throat with those hands. Atticus was glad to have him by his side in both the battlefield and in these ladies’ parlors.
They rode at the head of a modest procession of the King’s guard, all dressed in blue and draped in ornamental tassels. Atticus cradled the box and its contents precariously on his saddle. The Captain carried only his sword, golden and gilded. It was not a tool for war so much a fancy decoration; Atticus was sure it would shatter into expensive shards if it were to be struck just right. The real weapons, of course, were his hands or, failing that, the dagger in his boot. They had been unceremoniously ejected from a house by a Madame and her five sisters in an explosion of scalding tea and pastries as hard as rocks. His shirt was still drying in the midday sun. The Captain had only suffered a case of the giggles once they were mounted and moving along their way. Once again, Atticus was positive that the Captain’s job was easier, and safer, than his own.
They spoke as they rode, their horses abreast. The Captain was an optimist; Atticus was covered in tea. The Captain spoke of the grandeur of love and the importance of their mission, Atticus moaned about saddle sores. They were opposites, but Atticus considered the Captain to be a very friendly acquaintance. It struck him how he did not know the Captain’s real name, but he did not ask. The Captain had always been, and would always be, the Captain.
On the fourth day of their journeys, just past noon, they found themselves at the end of a long dirt pathway that twisted and stretched a half mile down to an estate large enough to be seen from the entrance gates. The scrolls proclaimed it as the House of Tyrell, occupied by Lord Tyrell, Lady Tyrell, and their only daughter, Lana Tyrell. They rested, broke their lunch, and made guesses about the family inside.
“One daughter, that’s a relief” Atticus mumbled through a mouthful of pasty, “Easier to evade the wrath of one maiden rather than a whole gaggle of them.” The Captain laughed and sipped wine from his skin.
“You and your fearsome maidens,” he quipped good naturedly, “The way you speak, you’d think we’re on the hunt for a killer in a den of thieves.”
”Easy for you to jest, you’re not the target of their ires. It isn’t my fault that the damn slipper doesn’t fit a single foot, nor is it my desire to be out here on such a foolhardy quest to begin with. Look around you; a small army searching for a single woman for the King to marry. These are taxpayer dollars at work. I’d feel much more comfortable putting my hard earned coin to fortified walls and boiling tar cauldrons. Education, even. How many young ladies do you think we came across today who could even read, let alone assist a king in ruling a countryside? Not many, I assure you.”
“As Captain of the King’s guard I suggest you watch your tongue.” The Captain’s tone was friendly enough, but tinged with a hint of malice and protection. “These are his orders and we will carry them out to the last.”
“I will, t’is my job, and I am nothing if not ethical and proficient in what I was hired to do. But, I need you to do a little more than announce our comings and goings. You’re a defender. Defend me.” The Captain laughed boisterously and slapped Atticus on the back with a meaty fist.
“That I will, I will defend your honor against the fearsome lionesses of this noble hamlet.” The Captain continued to sip his wine and watch the estate in the distance. He saw movement about the stables, and amongst brightly colored blurs he assumed were gardens. “Do you think it will fit this one?” he asked Atticus.
“No. Nor the next. Nor the next after she.”
“Realist.” Atticus retorted.
Soon they finished their sup and mounted their horses. Their retinue lined up behind them in regal display, and they rode for the manor. They did not speak as they approached. Atticus focused his attentions on the box, the Captain was casually observing, though Atticus suspected he was in constant regard for signs of danger; nooks and crannies for assassins, debris and ruin left by wandering rogues. You could take a man out of the Crusades, but you could not take the Crusades out of the man.
They halted before the postern gate of the manor. Field hands and gardeners had seen them coming and had gathered expectantly on the peripheries. The Captain drew himself up and forward and bellowed in his deep, rumbling bass the same line that he had delivered a dozen times that day. “Lord and Lady of House Tyrell, by order of the King’s command, the first of his name, please present yourselves as welcoming hosts, for today is a great privilege as we bring good tidings and glad news!”
This was all a play, an act. Formalities. The Captain would announce their presence, the Lords and Ladies would then open their doors with glad hearts and bowed heads. Words of kindness would be exchanged, fealty to the King and Lord God, come in come in, wipe your feet, tea? So on and so forth. So Atticus sat upon his horse, holding the wooden box, and waited for his part to play.
Then something new and unexpected happened.
The doors to the estate swung open and there stood the Lord and Lady, framing Lana Tyrell from both sides, hands on her shoulders. Like every other family of high gentry they were very well dressed, as if they knew guests were approaching (they knew, they all knew). The Lord wore a bowler hat, black vest, and tie, the Lady a modest but nonetheless expensive house dress, and little Lana was in the same dress, he imagined, she wore to the ball, billowy and yellow and draped in pearls. Like every other family they beamed proudly and did their customary curtsies and bows.
Unlike every other family, however, they were black. As dark as the Captain, but not as mountainous.
“Well.” Atticus said brightly, “It looks like our job here is done. Sorry to waste your time my Lord and Lady. A good morrow to you!”
“Done?” the Captain asked, “Explain yourself, sir.”
“Well, Captain, we all saw this mysterious girl. She swept in, danced in front of the entire kingdom, and left. Lana Tyrell seems to be a lovely young lady,” Atticus paused and bowed deferentially to young Lana, who was still beaming brightly, “but she is clearly not that girl. So. Onto the next, shall we?”
A heavy, oppressive silence fell over the yard. The men behind them stirred. One of them coughed uneasily. The Captain stared at him as if he were a disgusting, foreign creature; a far cry from the pleasantries they had exchanged just fifteen minutes ago. Atticus became keenly aware of his own presence, uncomfortably so. Even his his horse shifted beneath him restlessly.
Lana was the first to break character in this normally scripted affair. Her smile faltered, her stance sagged. She shifted a hip out to the side and planted her fist firmly into it.
“Is this cause I’m black?” she asked accusingly.
“Well,” Atticus stammered and paused. The sun was suddenly too hot.”Yes, I suppose it is.”
A low hum raised from both the gathered help and the guard behind them. Again, there was an uncomfortable cough, and Atticus was distinctly aware of a mumbled “Oh Jesus.”
“Brother Xohan, what is this?” Lord Tyrell asked the Captain. The Captain glared.
“I cannot say,” he replied, “I’ve never heard such obscenities from the young Atticus before.”
“Brother?” Atticus asked, “You’re related?”
“Does it appear that we are related?”
“Well, more so you to him than you to me, yes.” Atticus said. Again, a hum erupted from the onlookers. He felt raw and exposed, though he wasn’t completely sure why. “Xohan? Your name is Xohan?”
“You never cared to ask before.” Captain Xohan replied.
“Well, no, Captain seemed to suffice.” Atticus paused and ran his hand over the smooth finish of the wooden box. The shoe. He found it best to somehow come back to the shoe.
“Glad tidings!” he shouted brightly, “We bring a shoe! Yes, a shoe that can change your lives! I mean, how often do men of authority come knocking on your door with good news for a change, huh?”
This is where Xohan’s large ball of a fist smashed into the side of Atticus’ face, and all went black.
When Atticus came to, he was slumped forward in his saddle, and his horse was moseying along. Captain Xohan rode beside him, holding his horse’s reins. His face burned on the left side, His lip felt inflated and warmly numb. He had a headache.
“What happened?” he mumbled. It came out thick and slurred. He tasted blood on his lip. “The box! Oh jesus, where’s the box?”
“I’ve got it, you idiot. I took it after I punched you.”
“Why did you punch me?”
“You wouldn’t stop talking.”
“You punched me for talking?”
“Did you hear what you were saying?”
“It was pretty bad.” one of their men commented behind him, then quickly added “Sirs.” when they turned to look at him.
“Oh.” Atticus replied. “Sorry.”
They rode along in silence. Atticus’ wits slowly came back to him. He glanced at the box on Xohan’s lap. Timidly, quietly, Atticus asked, “Did she try it on?”
“Yes.” Xohan’s reply was dull and leaden.
“Did it fit?”
“How’d she take it?”
There was a long pause. Xohan continued to glare forward. Finally, he delicately handed the wooden box and it’s content back to Atticus. “She hit me. With a tea kettle.”
Atticus smiled on the side of his face with feeling, which was thankfully facing away from Xohan. The last they had counted the scroll, there were still one hundred and twenty three households to attend, after the Tyrells. They had a job to do, and queens just don’t find themselves.
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