"Oh, it's beautiful!" exclaimed Cinderella. "Thank you, Albertina – and especially thank you, Anastasia."
The golden-haired maiden swallowed past a lump in her throat. It really touched her heart how Anastasia was compensating for the despicable stunt she and Drizella had pulled that night.
"I always was sorry Drizella and I did what we did that evening." Anastasia said sheepishly. "Neither she or I had any right to do that. It was your mother's dress, after all."
"Well, you more than made up for it just now." Said Cinderella, turning this way and that, modeling the gown.
"I was always jealous because you were so pretty and charming."
"Well, every maiden has her own special charms." Cinderella said.
"And I guess I resented you because you were Lord Gordon's daughter, and when Mother married Lord Gordon, I felt she was being unfaithful to Father's memory."
Cinderella slung her arm over her stepsister's shoulder.
"Just because your mother fell for and married my father, doesn't mean she forgot about your father . I never thought my father forgot my mother when she married Lady Tremaine."
"And I guess I was jealous because I wanted a chance at winning Prince Owen's heart, but now I have my own wonderful beau."
"Martin is wonderful." Cinderella agreed. "I can't believe he single-handedly baked all those delectable cinnamon cookies for the orphanage Christmas party."
There was a patter of footsteps, and a tiny figure appeared at Cinderella's side.
"Cookies, Mama?" asked the little girl, a smile wreathing her delicate, pretty face. Cinderella affectionately tousled the child's dark curls, so like her father's.
"No, Adrienne." Cinderella said to her daughter. "We don't have any cookies. Aunt Anastasia and I were talking about your Aunt Anastasia's special friend."
"Her friend who's a man." Said Cinderella's daughter.
"Yes, Aunt Anastasia's special friend is a man – a baker man." Cinderella said. "And your auntie and I were talking about how her special friend, the baker man, baked a whole bunch of cookies for the poor children who don't have mamas and papas and live in the Orphans' Home."
"Oh." Was all the child said.
"Anyway, we're going to have a huge luncheon soon." Said Cinderella. "So even if there were cookies, I wouldn't let you have any anyway, because you'd spoil your appetite."
"Drat." Said little Adrienne, stamping her foot and then scooting off to play, all the while chanting, "Auntie has a beau, Auntie has a beau," while the ladies laughed.
"Martin is bringing over his famous cinnamon cookies for the banquet." Anastasia sighed dreamily when the little girl was out of sight. "You know, Ella, I can't wait for Prince Owen and King Roger and the Grand Duke to meet Martin."
"He's not King Roger anymore, Ansie." She said. "The kingdom of West Faraway has combined with the kingdoms of East, North and South Faraway to form the Empire of Faraway. That's what we're celebrating today. So, Owen's father is Emperor Roger now."
"I meant, Emperor."
A tall, imposing shape appeared at Anastasia's elbow, and a slim hand emerging from a crimson velvet sleeve grabbed her arm.
"So, Faraway is an empire now." Lady Tremaine snapped, tightening her grip on her daughter's arm. "So, Roger is no longer King, but Emperor." She gripped Anastasia's arm even tighter. "That means that when Roger dies, his son, Prince Owen, Cinderella's husband, will be emperor."
"Yes, that is exactly what that means." Said Anastasia. "But what are you so upset about?"
"Your stepsister landed herself a future emperor." Lady Tremaine sniped, shaking her daughter's arm. "And your sister just married Sir Howard, Grand Duke of Faraway." She shook Anastasia's arm once more. "Do you hear me, Anastasia? I said your sister just married the Grand Duke."
Anastasia rolled her eyes.
"And why am I supposed to care that Drizella is married to that pompous windbag of a Grand Duke or that Prince Owen is heir apparent to the imperial throne?"
"Your sister and stepsister have married men of breeding and title and standing, and you're running around with that – that commonplace dough-squeezer!"