Disclaimer: Gail Carson Levine is the genius, not I. Ella and Char are her wonderful creations, not mine.
A/N: I hadn't originally intended to do another Char story – "The Letter" kind of stands on its own - but it seemed to strike a chord with a few people and my readers talked me into it. Thanks to all my reviewers, who are way too kind. College is too insane for me to attempt a long fic from Char's point of view, but here's another short ficlet for you to munch on. This one's quite a bit happier – I felt a bit guilty leaving Char feeling so desperately unhappy, even though we all know his story has a happy ending. Here is that ending, from our dashing hero's perspective.
Tell her. Just tell her and get it over with.
Char glanced down nervously at Lela, wishing for the thousandth time that evening that he could see her face, if only to have an idea of what she was thinking. He had no idea – none whatsoever – how she would react once he had said what he needed to say.
She glanced up and smiled as she saw him studying her, a smile so bright and gut-wrenchingly familiar that he felt something within him falter. Sometimes, he could almost swear that Lela was –
Stop, he told himself quickly. Stop that right now.
It was just his wretched mind playing tricks on him. In the months since he had received Ella's letter, he had seen her everywhere. In the castle, on the road, in taverns… anytime he had seen long, dark hair, his heart had skipped a beat and he done a double take. Just in case.
And after all, he told himself sternly, Lela was clearly very different from – her. Ella had been small, a slight girl whose stature belied her compelling personality. Lela was a bit taller, a trifle thinner, and she carried herself very differently. Her voice was lower and more mature than Ella's lilting speech. While her mischievous sense of humor and her dark hair reminded him – almost painfully – of Ella, there was a terrible sort of sadness beneath Lela's playful side, a vulnerability that Ella had never possessed. Well, that wasn't quite true; for all her playfulness and candor, there had always been a certain wistfulness to Ella.
Char swallowed. "Lela –"
He couldn't say it yet. He forced a laugh. "Soon it will be time for me to sing. After that, I'll either be surrounded by music lovers or shunned by all."
She gave him an encouraging sort of smile. "Surrounded," she said confidently. "And I would never shun you."
It was the perfect opening. He had to say it now.
"I wonder," he said slowly. "You may shun me if you know the truth." He took a deep, steadying breath. "I apologize if I unintentionally raised your expectations, but I've resolved never to marry."
Lela made a curious sound – her breath hitched, and she pressed her lips together tightly on what might have been either a laugh or a sob. But when she spoke, it was in a normal voice.
"You didn't mislead me," she assured him, with such complete sincerity that he felt a great weight lift off his shoulders. "I've only been saving stories for home. I'll tell them, 'The prince said thus-and-so to me, and I said thus-and-so back to him. And Mother, I made him laugh. I made our prince laugh.'"
She continued, her smile full of something he couldn't quite identify. "'And Father, he danced with me – one night with almost no one except me.'" She imitated a young girl's curious speech. "'What did he wear?' my sister will want to know. 'Did he have his sword with him always?'" Father will ask."
Char could hardly believe it. The entire point of these balls had been for him to choose his bride; he had spent the most time with Lela by far, dancing with her almost exclusively on the last and most important night. And after all this, when he had told her he didn't plan to marry anyone, she had barely batted an eye. He wouldn't have blamed her if she had slapped his face and stormed out. The woman at these balls had alarmed him with the way they looked at him – as though he was a particularly tender piece of meat in a butcher shop. He could practically see the wheels turning in their heads as they oozed flattery and giggled incessantly, plotting to make him fall head over heels in love on the spot. But then, Lela wasn't a normal girl. No doubt that was what had drawn him to her in the first place.
She was a real friend. And he was truly grateful for that.
"Marriage is supposed to be forever," Char began, pulling her closer, "but friendship can be forever, too. Will you – "
He broke off. That detestful Hattie had broken away from her dancing partner. Before he could warn Lela, she had reached out and pulled off the mask.
Lela let go of him as though he had burned her and covered her face with her hands, but not before he caught a glimpse of a pale profile and frightened green eyes.
He gasped. The bottom dropped out of his stomach and for a moment he was in danger of falling over.
"Ella!" Hattie cried triumphantly, her face flushed with malicious glee. Heads turned to observe the scene curiously.
"Ella?" Char said faintly.
She gave him one terrified look, then, before he could say another word, turned around and began to run away.
The feeling returned to his limbs. He had no idea what she was doing here, but he knew one thing for sure: he was not letting her get away again. He started after her.
Hattie had practically flung herself in front of him. "Majesty, wait!" she blurted. "Don't go! Forget Ella, she's just a – "
"Get out of my way," Char said angrily, prying her fingers off his vest and searching the crowd frantically for Ella's fleeing figure. Hattie's momentary distraction had been enough to make him lose sight of her.
"But, Majesty – "
"Enough!" he shouted furiously, shoving her away from him with a rare display of temper. "Madam, kindly never touch me again!"
Hattie gaped at him soundlessly, and then he was gone, bolting for the doors, oblivious to the squawks of surprise from the people he had to shove aside along the way. He heard his mother call, "Char?" in a bewildered voice as he dashed out of the hall.
Outside, he skidded to halt, breathing hard as he looked around wildly. Where had she gone? "Ella?" he cried hoarsely. "ELLA?"
Someone grabbed his shoulder and spun him around and he found himself face-to-face with Sir Stephen and the rest of his knights, all regarding him with concern and alarm.
"What's the matter, lad?" Sir Stephen demanded. "Are you hurt? What happened?"
"She's gone!" Char shouted. He was white-faced and trembling with sheer frustration. "I don't know where she went!"
"Who? Lady Lela?"
"Yes! No! Lady Lela is Ella, do you understand me? I have to find her!"
"Yes!" Char snapped. "And now she's run away, and – "
"I thought you mentioned a while back that she'd been married?"
Char bit back a frustrated roar.
"Listen, lad," Sir Bertram said kindly, putting a hand on Char's shoulder. "Where does the lass live?"
"She's the daughter of Sir Peter – but what if she doesn't go back to their manor?"
"Why would she wish to hide from you?" Sir Bert asked, baffled.
"I don't know, but she – wait – "
He stopped. Something was glinting on the palace steps. Something small, and it almost looked like…
Char broke away from the knights and ran down to the very bottom step, where a single tiny slipper made of glass lay sparkling on its side.
~ * ~
Seven horses' hooves clattered on the cobblestones of a quiet street lit softly by a lantern on the corner. Char felt under his cloak for Ella's slipper for the hundredth time as they turned onto the street where the imposing residence of Sir Peter and Dame Olga of Frell stood.
The windows of the manor were still brightly lit. Char looked up at them as he brought his horse to a halt and swung his leg over to dismount. A face appeared at an upstairs window for a moment, then vanished. He heard someone calling inside and more lights came on. He spied the window where he had seen her more than a year ago, the day before he had left for Ayortha. That room, as well, was lit up, and he could see shadows moving on the other side of the curtain. His heart began to pound with hope. Was she still here?
There was a sudden racket behind him, and he turned to see a carriage pulling up to the manner. He turned away in disgust at the sight of two plump faces pressed up against its window, and strode over to the door with his knights behind him.
A manservant opened it immediately, his features so blandly composed that Char felt certain that the entire household already knew that the prince and his knights were here.
"Good evening, Majesty," the man said with a polite bow.
"And to you, sir," Char replied. "I apologize for the late interruption, but I should like to see everyone in the household."
"Certainly, Majesty," the manservant said, bowing out of the way as Char and the knights entered the hall.
From appearances, the majority of the household was already there. Round-eyed maids, stable-boys, manservants, and matronly women gazed at the prince and his tall knights with open mouths, and he realized what an intimidating sight they must be.
A large woman who Char recognized as Ella's odious stepmother hurried into the room, her cheeks rouged unevenly and her long tresses shining in slight disarray. "Majesty," she said breathlessly, sweeping him a curtsy, "it is an honor to have you in my humble home. My daughters are not here, but shall I send the cook to fetch some refresh…"
"We have eaten this evening, Dame Olga, but thank you." He added under his breath to his knights, "Look amongst them. Search the entire manor if you have to." Raising his voice, he addressed the clustered servants: "Don't be alarmed. You've done nothing wrong."
A few more shabbily dressed figures entered the hall and stood in the back. The manservant counted the group, then turned to Char and bowed again. "I believe this is everyone, Majesty."
Char nodded at the knights, who nodded in return, and they all began to walk throughout the hall. Char studied faces closely, but none belonged to Ella.
Then he heard Sir Stephen's voice toward the back of the hall. "Here's a maid," he was saying. "Come, lass."
Char looked around so quickly that his neck twinged. There was Sir Stephen, leading a slender girl in tattered servants' garb toward him by the hand.
It was her.
But something was wrong. Just a short while ago, Ella had been dressed beautifully for a royal ball. Now she wore rags and her face was covered in soot. She wouldn't meet his eyes. And the look on her face… why should she look so utterly terrified?
"Ella!" Char blurted. "Ella? Why are you dressed so?"
"Your Majesty, I'm…"
"That's only Cinders, the scullery maid," Hattie cut in smoothly. She had entered only moments before; Char hadn't noticed her come in. Her simpering, sickly sweet voice oozed on. "Sire, would you care for a refreshment now you're here?"
"She's a scullery maid?" he repeated incredulously. The sheer nerve of her, telling a barefaced lie to the prince!
"A scullery maid," Hattie said dismissively. "Of no account. But our cook, Mandy, has cakes fit for a prince."
Ella's eyes were flicking from Hattie to the door and back again. She suddenly tugged at Sir Stephen's hand, but he held fast.
Why would she deny her name? Why was she trying to escape him?
"Lass," Char said huskily. "I won't hurt you, no matter what." She stared at the floor; he stepped closer to her and she flinched as he gently raised her chin to face him.
Their eyes met. Her cheeks reddened slightly and she looked away.
He reached into his cloak and slowly pulled out the gleaming slipper. Ella stiffened at the sight.
"It belonged to Ella," Char said shakily, "and it will fit her alone, whether she is a scullery maid or a duchess."
Sir Bert brought a chair. Ella sank into it, trembling.
"That's my slipper," Hattie interrupted. "It's been missing for years."
Would she never stop? Char was nearing the end of his tolerance for her rubbish.
"Your feet are too big," Olive announced flatly.
"Try it," he said, suppressing the urge to roll his eyes. Unsurprisingly, Hattie's feet were nearly twice the size of the dainty thing. He wrinkled his nose.
Olive seemed to feel that she was being left out. "I'm younger than Hattie. So my feet are smaller," she said, her eyes fastened on the gleaming slipper. "Probably."
"Go ahead," Char said resignedly, prepared to bet that they were even bigger, if stupidity was proportional to shoe size.
He was right.
Sir Bert handed the slipper back to Char, who took Ella's small foot in his hand and guided it in.
He studied Ella's face. She looked as though she was about to faint.
Why was he doing this to her? It was obvious that, for whatever reason, she was terrified of him. He couldn't begin to guess why, but if he loved her, then perhaps… perhaps he should just let her go.
"You needn't be Ella if you don't want to be," he said softly, so that only she could hear. It was possibly the most difficult thing he had ever brought himself to say.
Her shoulders shook. "I'm not," she whispered.
Char couldn't stand not knowing anymore. It didn't seem that she was married, if she was still here – so why?
"That letter was rubbish," he said, hope rising within him as he felt the truth of the words. "A trick." He shot Hattie a pointed glare. He must have been right about her in the first place – she had contrived the whole thing. But he would deal with her later. He turned back to Ella, whose tear-filled eyes met his unwillingly.
"Do you love me?" he asked quietly. "Tell me."
Ella gave a choked sob. "I do," she managed.
Char felt something glorious sweep through him. She loved him. He had longed to hear it from her own lips for so long that he could scarcely believe it. He sprang up with a triumphant shout. "Then marry me!" The happiness in his voice made the very timbers of the manor tremble.
Ella nodded and reached for his hand. He knelt beside her again, brimming with joy, but the smile faded on his lips when he saw that she was still sobbing as though her heart would break.
Hattie stepped forward suddenly. "Don't marry him, Ella," she ordered.
Ella shook her head. "I can't," she said, the words an agonized half-cry.
Char spun to look disbelievingly at Hattie, but then Dame Olga interrupted.
"Hattie, don't be a fool. Don't you want to be stepsister to the queen and make her give you whatever you like?"
Make her? Oh ho. These people obviously didn't know the first thing about Ella.
He put her horrible family out of his mind. They weren't important. All that mattered was Ella. He took her hand back in his and looked at her searchingly. The look on her face made his heart hurt. What was it that was caused her such pain?
"Marry me, Ella," he whispered, his tone pleading. "Say you'll marry me."
She closed her eyes tightly. Tears streamed down her face and she pressed her lips together. She made a choked noise deep down in her throat, and her whole body shook violently.
Char was frightened. What was wrong? She looked like she was being torn apart from the inside. If she didn't want to marry him, why didn't she just say "No?"
He put his hand on her shoulder, feeling completely and utterly useless. Ella was wrestling with something dark and painful that he couldn't even begin to fathom, and all he could do was watch.
Her mouth opened, and her lips formed the beginning of a word. "Ye – "
But she clapped a hand over her mouth before she spoke the word and buried her face in her hands. Her fingers twined in her dark hair like an anchor. Her throat ground out a terrible moan and she began to rock back and forth in her chair.
"Ella," Char whispered. "Ella, what is it? Tell me – I'll make it go away, I can't bear to see you like this…" He felt a lump in his throat and couldn't speak anymore.
She gave no sign of hearing him, but continued to rock back and forth, back and forth. He wanted to gather her into his arms, but something stayed his hand; he sensed somehow that to do so would be to interrupt something terribly important. He scarcely dared breathe.
Suddenly, she stopped. In the absence of her tortured breaths and the scrape of the chair on the floor, the hall was as silent as if the air itself held its breath. Ella's face was still hidden in her hands, but she was no longer crying. She was motionless for a moment, her only movement the rise and fall of her shaky breathing. And then she took a deep breath.
"No!" she burst out. "I won't marry you. I won't do it. No one can force me!"
She sprang to her feet, her eyes full of fire and defiance. She was in such a beautiful passion that Char was momentarily rendered breathless.
"Who would force you?" he said when he could speak. He was appalled. Had her stepmother and stepsister's really thought to force her to marry him?
Ella couldn't seem to stand still; she was transfigured, full of something so great that to be motionless was impossible. "No matter who," she cried. "I won't, I won't. They can't make me, no one can make me. I won't marry you."
Char was half-smiling at her, caught up in her rush of elation, but his emotions were all in a whirl and he couldn't separate all his muddled feelings at the moment. Why on earth wouldn't she marry him if she loved him? And why was she so glad about it?
Olive leaned toward Char and said confidently, "She'll marry you. You told her to. She has to listen." She laughed unnaturally loudly, showing all her teeth, then turned to Ella and added, "Marry him and give me your money."
Ella rounded on Olive. "I won't!" she shouted. "Stop ordering me to!"
What did Olive mean, "she has to listen?"
"She doesn't have to marry me," Char said quietly.
Hattie shot her sister a poisonous look. "Hush, Olive," she said impatiently. "Ella, go to your room. His Majesty can have no further need of you."
"I have great need of her." Char couldn't tear his eyes away from Ella. Her pretty face was flushed and radiant, full of all the fire and strength that was Ella… and something more. She was ethereal.
Ella whirled to face her stepsister, who took a step backward. "Hush, Hattie! I don't want to go to my room. Everyone must know I shan't marry the prince." She ran lightly past Char to the door, threw it open, and shouted into the darkness, "I shan't marry the prince!" She ran dizzily back to Char, wrapped her arms about him, and whispered, "I shan't marry you." He felt her lips against his cheek, and before he knew what he was doing, he had taken her face in his hands and kissed her on the lips.
A soft cry escaped her, and she pressed herself against him. He could feel her entire body shaking.
"Go to your room this instant," Hattie said, beginning to sound rather hysterical. "I command you."
As desperately as Char just wanted to keep her in his arms – he had waited long enough to have her there, after all – he had to know before he went mad.
"Why won't you marry me?" he demanded, stepping away to look her in the face, his eyes hurt and confused. "Why not, if you love me?"
"I'm cursed. You wouldn't be safe if I was your wife."
As soon as the words left her mouth, Ella's eyes widened and she suddenly became very still. Her brow furrowed and her gaze traveled over him with her mouth slightly open. She stepped closer, reached up and wiped something off his nose. Looking down, he saw a smudge of soot on her finger.
Her gaze seemed to turn inward for a long moment, a slight, pensive frown turning down the corners of her mouth. Then, like brilliant rays of sunlight breaking over the horizon, realization and wonder began to dawn on her face.
"You're free." A plump woman with frizzy grey hair had appeared, her voice weak with relief and happiness. She embraced Ella, who hugged her back, still looking stunned. "The curse is over, love." The woman – Mandy, he remembered – was looking at Ella with so much love and pride that he felt an immediate rush of warmth for her. He was grateful that one person in this abominable household cared for her.
The rest of what Mandy said to Ella was too quiet for him to hear, but when they broke apart, Ella was nodding dazedly. Her eyes met his, and suddenly everything and everyone else in the hall ceased to exist.
The dazed expression vanished from Ella's face, and there appeared a look that was like a balm to his very soul: solemn, with just a hint of mischief lurking behind those bright green eyes.
She pulled off the sooty rag that hid her hair and tossed it aside. Then she swept him her best curtsy.
"When you asked for my hand a few minutes ago," she began, still solemn, "I was still too young to marry."
He felt his face break into a smile and felt a mad desire to laugh. She would never stop surprising him. She was brilliant.
"I'm older now," Ella went on, "so much older that not only can I marry, but I can beg you to marry me." She knelt, but he pulled her back to her feet.
This tale, like so many of the greatest stories ever told, ends with a kiss.