I could just barely remember the dream I had the night before. It resembled a dream I had almost every night since I was little girl—after my father died and left me in the care of my step mother. There was a prince in my dream who was being held captive in a towering castle, and he would just call my name. I was always too far away to help him, and I could never remember his face. But I could feel his desperation to be freed. I, too, am familiar with the pain of imprisonment, for after my father died I became my step mother's slave.
The morning began like the thousands before it; as the sun climbed its way into the aurora sky, I was finishing up preparing breakfast for my step mother and two step sisters. After, I had to scrub the three fireplaces in our home—and then the floors. When done, I was to feed the farm animals out back, tend to the garden, and then begin laundry. Between ten and eleven in the morning I would head to the market with a couple of the other servants and sell some vegetables, and buy whatever my step mother had placed on the list she left out for me in the kitchen. She would leave me barely enough money for the items she needed, so it was up to me to get as much money as I could for our vegetables. On the days I fell short, she would say to me in her cold and reserved voice, "That's fine, my dear. I will draw from your saved funds to make the difference. You can try again tomorrow." Now whether or not she actually did this, I had no idea and no way of knowing. I could not touch the money my father left for me until I turned twenty; a little over a year away. But to think of the day I would finally be able to claim my fortune and make my escape only to find my savings depleted made my insides seize with fear. She controlled me this way.
Upon returning from the market a little after noon, I often had to accompany my step sisters—Didi and Anna—on whatever social engagements they entertained in their pursuit of aristocratic status. My step mother was only known by her claim to my late father's fortune—but he was a humble man, and did not spend time making social connections or climbing any sort of ladders. He enjoyed hunting and fishing and studying, and I enjoyed my time with him. Lorna, my step mother, held a great desire for her daughters to ascend into royalty, so every day Didi and Anna had the task of either serving the public for general recognition, or serving the aristocracy to make significant social ties and to find suitable husbands. No one, however, seemed to want to marry either one of them despite their efforts. Concerning my role, I was only with them to act as their servant and put on the illusion that they were noble women. For this, I grew to despise the aristocracy. My heart told me to just leave the very first chance I get, and to never return.
Anyway, after spending the afternoon with Didi and Anna, I would have to return to the kitchen to assist with preparing dinner. Sometimes I would receive an invitation—or demand—to join Lorna and the girls at the table for dinner, while other nights I was positively banned depending upon who was visiting or what was to be discussed over the food. Once all the dishes were done for the day and all the animals were fed, I would finally have time to bathe and relax before doing it all again the next day. Then sleep would come, bringing with it all the same dreams I have every single night. Dreams that, during the day, seemed so insignificant and impossible that I almost resented them, at times.
Old Mia would often be the one who would accompany me to the market every day to do Lorna's bidding. She had worked for my father before he died—and she had known my mother very well, even helped raise her. When I was born, she helped raise me too. When my father passed and Lorna took over, Old Mia's salary was cut in half and her privileges taken away. She only stayed to secretly look after me, for she never had any children of her own. The other servants worked and lived in constant fear of Lorna, who by law owned them and had the power to seize all of their property. She would hold this over their heads to ensure loyalty, and even managed to turn them against me, setting some as her personal spies and others as her disciplinarians. Rarely would she ever lay a hand on me herself—she would have the others handle any manner of beating she felt I deserved. These would mostly result from accidents on my part; I once knocked over a bottle of ink onto Lorna's favorite shawl when she had ordered me to repair the worn stitches within a half hour. My frantic motions resulted in a ruined scarf, and that evening as I finished the dishes I met two servants in the corridor holding a paddle. They wouldn't allow me to pass before walloping my legs ten times. Neither of them said a word, but they didn't need to anyway. Another incident occurred after I had intentionally defied my step mother; she had handed me a broach decorated with fake pearls and diamonds and told me to pass it off at the market as the real thing, gathering at least 5 golden coins for it. I immediately refused. She threatened to take even more money out of my savings account, but my mind was made and I was unrelenting. This time, she smacked me herself—hard, across my left cheek. I was knocked to the ground by the force and frightened. She simply turned and walked away. Later that night, I came to my bed in the loft only to find it covered in cow manure. By the time I had washed and replaced my sheets, the sun was nearly rising again. And this was life as I knew it.
When I was just two years old, right before my mother died, my name was put on a list. This list held all the names of the wealthy little girls in the land of whom, once they got older, would be eligible to marry the King's son and only heir, Stefan. From what I was told all my life, he was only one year older than me and his father refused to accept brides from any other kingdoms. A ball was to take place, one day, where all the girls who were placed on this list would attend and Stefan would have the chance to meet all of them, and pick the ones he liked and go from there. Naturally, my mother wanted me to have a chance with the prince and for a comfortable life, so she made me a dress in her image that I would one day wear to win over the prince's heart. Old Mia told me she spent two weeks putting this dress together and adding the most ordinate of details, stitching it together with love and determination. Once completed, my mother put it away to be preserved until that fateful day would arrive—but after her death and my father's passing, Lorna broke into my chest of personal treasures and hid the dress away from me. I hadn't seen it in almost ten years.
I was weeding the garden in front of the house one quiet morning when the King's courier pulled up in a carriage pulled by proud, muscular horses, brandishing one distinct invitation in his white gloved grasp.
"I am here to deliver this to Lady Mary, only daughter of Sir Frances DeWitt. Is your mistress in?" the man said, standing tall and stately.
I brushed the dirt from my hands onto my apron and smiled meekly, "My mistress is Lorna DeWitt, wife of my late father. It is I who you seek."
The courier eyed me suspiciously, the prospect of a lady covered in dirt and weeding the garden of her own home too far removed from the normality of this life. "Very well then," his tone was indifferent, "with the power invested in me, I extend this invitation to you for an occasion at the castle this Friday, June 15th, for which you will attend in the company of the royal family in your best garments and spirits. A carriage will be sent to bring you there that same evening around sun down. If you do not wish to go, another may be sent in your place, provided they are of good social status and wealth."
I gasped, for I had almost forgotten entirely of this ball, and the chance of even meeting a prince. The courier held the invitation out to me to take, and my heart skipped a beat as I did so. "Thank you," I said in disbelief, "thank you so much! I can't wait!"
The edge of his mouth twitched as if he intended to smile, but instead the courier nodded curtly, mounted his carriage, and took off in a blink of an eye. I was left standing there with the invitation in my hands, speechless with excitement.
A few blissful moments passed before I realized what a challenge this would prove to be; I stuffed the invitation into my apron and out of sight, and rushed inside the house to find Old Mia. Maintaining my usual composure as to not alert the others, I calmly walked into the kitchen where Old Mia was laboring over flattening some dough with a rolling pin, and tugged discreetly at her skirts. She turned to address me, her wizened face taut with exhaustion.
I gave her a meaningful look, and indicated with a flash of my eyes to what was hidden beneath my apron. She glanced down, and then back up at me with curiosity. I turned my head to survey the kitchen; we appeared be alone, so I inched the invitation out from the folds and watched as she took it in her hands, a grin spreading across her face. She looked up at me with pride after she read the fancy print, and took me into her arms for a celebratory embrace.
"This is it," she whispered in my ear, "this is your ticket to freedom."
Her words caused my stomach and throat to tighten, as the feeling of being loved and cared for scratched at my heart in ways that had eluded me for years and years. I squeezed her tightly, "Wherever I go, you go too! I will never leave you here."
"We need to find your mother's dress. I think I know where Lorna keeps it." She said under her breath.
I shook my head, "That's far too dangerous. I can't afford being caught with that thing, as much as I'd love to see it again."
Old Mia took my hands and grasped them tightly as she said, "You leave that to me."
I carried on with my chores that day in the usual manner. At the marketplace, I managed to attain four gold coins with the vegetables I sold, and secretly spent half of one on a simple pair of slippers I was hoping to wear with my dress to the ball. Upon returning home, I stashed away the slippers beneath my bed and turned in the rest of the money to Lorna, who was waiting as usual in her tea room.
"Well?" she asked expectantly, an open book on her lap and her little dog companion at her feet, glaring at me in distrust.
"Three and a half gold coins today, madam," I replied, dropping the little pouch into her waiting hand. She emptied it onto the table beside her and counted them silently. Then she turned to me, "The girls and I expect you to join us for dinner tonight. Wear something presentable, that isn't rags. Have Old Mia take on your chores while you are with us."
I nodded reluctantly and made my exit, wondering what could possibly require my presence. I told one of the servants to distribute my tasks among the others by Lorna's orders, and headed upstairs to wash.
My room was at the top of the house—a fairly large house with at least ten bedrooms, a large dining room, a library, a study, a drawing room, an extensive kitchen, and even a sizable cellar. A creaking staircase led up to my dusty little loft that overlooked the kingdom—I could even see the royal castle in the distance, and the way they lit it up at night always enchanted me. As I entered, I beheld my mother's dress laying on my bed for the first time in ten years. Shutting and bolting the door behind me, I rushed over to it and seized it up into my arms, hoping to take in my mother's familiar scent of lavender and jasmine. The scent had long worn away, but the dress was just as beautiful as I had remembered; a fabric made of lace and satin strung together with little, sparkling jewels and designed to hang of my shoulders in the fashion of true royalty. Without hesitation I ripped off my clothes and slipped into the dress carefully, envisioning how I looked in the finery. I kept a mirror the size of my palm in the drawer of my nightstand, and so I took it off, polished it with my blanket, and gazed into my reflection.
As imagined, the dress fit me perfectly. My mother was wise to fashion it after herself, because I had grown exactly into her young figure. It was an off white color with touches of blue at the trim, and the little jewels twinkled so prettily on it that even without my hair being brushed or done up, I looked more radiant than I ever had before. I admired my reflection for a few fleeting moments before the sound of my step mother's voice from the bottom of the stairs met my ears, bringing me crashing down from my perch in the clouds.
"Mary! There is a mess in the dining hall; go take care of it!" she bellowed.
I slipped out of the dress at the speed of light and stashed it under my bed with the slippers. I rushed downstairs to the dining hall to find a dozen eggs broken in their shells, scattered about the floor. With a deep sigh, I gathered my cleaning supplies and set to work, my mind lingering with my secret upstairs.