Authors: Bridget Hodder
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For Peter, for Richard, and for you, Claude
with love, all things are possible
When you hear the tale of Cinderella, do you ever wonder about the rats who were turned into coachmen by her fairy godmother?
Then do take a moment to consider.
As the story goes, they were captured, twisted into human form by powerful magic, and tossed onto a coach that had, only seconds before, been a pumpkin.
Few pause to ask themselves how the rat-coachmen felt about all this. And no one seems to know what became of them afterward.
Were they frightened? In pain? Did they survive the experience? Upon reflection, you may even pity the poor creatures.
We're faring quite well, I assure you.
Better than well, in my case. For there's more to the tale of Cinderella than has yet been revealed.
Now settle yourselves in comfort, and be sure you've plenty of provisions upon which to nibble, for you are about to hear the true story from Cinderella herselfÂ â¦ and from me.
My name is Char.
In former days, they called me the Rat Prince.
You know her as Cinderella.
But before her stepmother came to Lancastyr Manor, the humans called her Rose de Lancastyr.
They also called her beautiful.
This confused my rat-subjects and me, since we found her painfully unattractive, with her huge salad-green eyes, skin like cream, and long waves of butter-yellow hair. Yet regardless of her looks and the fuss people made of them, Lady Rose was both gentle and kind. So after her mother diedâand was replaced three months later by a wicked stepmother, Lady Wilheminaâwe felt pity for the girl. We comforted her and came to consider her a rat-friend.
Though we believed her to be a lackwit.
For what kind of human makes friends with rats?
Apparently, the same kind who lets a stepmother turn her into a kitchen maid and give her the new, insulting name of Cinderella.
However, one hot morning in early September, made hotter by the fragrant, ever-burning cedar fire in the flagstone kitchen of Lancastyr Manor, I discovered we were mistaken.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
“Ahhhh, baking day,” I murmured to my trusty royal councillor and best friend, Swiss. “Quite my favorite time of the week.” A rich, yeasty aroma filled the kitchen and made my whiskers quiver as he and I peered through a crack in the door of a cupboard.
Swiss whispered back, “Oh, Your Highness, just look at that bread. I'll wager it's crisp at the top and chewy in the center. Cook may be a spiteful rat-killer, but she certainly has a way with a loaf.”
We watched from our hiding place while Cook and the kitchen boy, Pye, pulled the last loaves from the brick oven. They set them to cool on a large rack against the wall, near a spot where Swiss and I had long ago loosened a board to provide easy rat-access to this marvelous treat.
“We'll come back tonight to thieve more,” I said. “But let's try for a bit right away. If we move fast enough, we can bite some off, taunt Cook, and make our escape.”
“Yes!” Swiss replied with enthusiasm, rather than trying to stop me, as a truly prudent royal councillor should have done.
I smiled to myself. “Watch and wait, then move upon my command.”
Cook picked up a corner of her stained apron, wiped it across her sweaty pink forehead, and shouted, “Cinderella!”
That name distracted me from my designs upon the bread. I pressed my eye closer to the crack in the door, seeing Cook frown as she batted at her wiry gray hair, which stood out in frizzy corkscrews around her face.
She shouted for Cinderella again, then grumbled to Pye, “Drat her lazy bones! She's supposed to mix up a lemon potion to get rid of Miss Eustacia's freckles in time for the royal ball at Castle Wendyn on Saturday. Prince Geoffrey will choose a wife that night, and we've got to help our Miss Eustacia catch his attention!”
I stifled a laugh. If I knew anything about humansâand I didâLady Rose's older stepsister, Eustacia, would need a great deal more help than bleached freckles to attract the attention of a human prince. Nonetheless, the entire household and the stepmother, Lady Wilhemina, in particular, had been in a fever of anticipation for the past month, ever since the invitations had arrived. The king of Angland had invited the families of every eligible young lady in the capital city of Glassevale.
Pye remarked, “Poor Cinderella. She's had no rest, what with all the preparations for that fancy party.” He was grimy and his homespun breeches were patched at the knees, but he had an intelligent look.
Cook gave a harsh laugh. “Ha! Are you in love with the wench, too? Menfolk are fools, from youngest to oldest, turned to corn mush by a smile and saucy cheeks.”
“I'm not in love! You worked for Lady Wilhemina when she was married beforeâit's right strange you haven't noticed yet how hard she is on her servants.” Missing the expression on Cook's face, the boy went on to mention Cook's rival, the housekeeper: “Mrs. Grigson says no servant ever left Lancastyr Manor willingly in the old days. The only one who left was my mamâand that's because she died! Now, since Lady Wilhemina came, Mrs. Grigson says it's impossible to keep staff.”
Alas, Pye was not as smart as he looked.
“Why, you lout! Never you mind what that hoity-toity Mrs. Grigson says! You pay Lady Wilhemina respect, or I'll box your ears!” Cook raised her big, gnarled hands in the air as if to follow through on her threat.
Pye ducked and ran to the other end of the cavernous room, huddling behind some sacks of cornmeal and dried beans. “Please don't,” he begged. “I'm sorry.”
Cook grunted and dropped her hands. “Then keep your trap shut. God's Bones, I'm worn out. Up since four o'clock of the morning mixing and kneading those loaves, and then having to send up breakfast in bed to everyone at the same time as the batches were ready for baking.”
“Well, Cinderella and I helped,” Pye said.
Poor lad. She would surely box his ears now, unless her attention was diverted. I switched Swiss with my tail. “The bread. Now!”
We darted out from the cupboard, deliberately running across Cook's toes and leaping up to the lowest shelf of the rack. We each bit off a mouthful of crust before jumping down and disappearing into a convenient hole under a baseboard in the hall. It opened onto a rat-passage through the walls, which we followed up and around and back into the same kitchen cupboard we'd been in before. And there we sat, crunching our heavenly crusts in high glee as we watched Cook shriek, grab a broom, and beat about the floor as if we were still underfoot and available for thwacking. “Nasty, dirty, vile brutes! Lady Wilhemina was right! We must buy more poison and kill them all!”
After a moment's hysterics, she calmed somewhat and barked at Pye, “You, boy, stop gaping like a looby and go find Cinderella. Get her back to work. For the Lord's sake, what a to-do! I think I'd best go snatch a quick nap.”
We knew from past experience that Cook's “snatch a quick nap” meant “guzzle the cooking sherry in the privacy of my room.” She had never before taken one of these naps so early in the day, but Swiss and I had given her something to recover from just now. Which meant we could make further incursions upon the bread if we waited until she left.
Cook's footsteps shuffled away, fading from our hearing. Pye sighed, emerged from behind the sacks, and made off in the other direction.
At last. Swiss and I let loose the laughter we'd been holding back, making such a noise that we didn't hear the other footsteps as they approached. Suddenly, the cupboard door flew open to reveal Rose de Lancastyr.
My laughter halted abruptly; Swiss squeaked like a mouse.
It was Rose's turn to laugh. “You rascals! I wondered who was causing such a rumpus. I should have realizedâit's baking day, so where else would you be but the kitchen?”
I answered her seriously, though I knew she, like the rest of her kind, was ignorant of rat-speech. “The kitchen is where smart rats belong. But you are the rightful lady of Lancastyr Manor. What are
The kitchen was where Rose spent most of her days. Although she was no longer allowed to eat much food, she seemed to be constantly in the process of preparing itâchopping, stirring, kneading, peeling. And in her rare moments of leisure, she would sit near the fireplace upon her three-legged stool, warming her toes and watching Cook with unusual care.
We never thought much about why she did so. If you had asked me at the time, I might have said she was keeping an eye on the ill-tempered woman in order to avoid being hit with a ladle or a wooden spoon.
“You naughty Blackie,” Rose said to me, smiling. “Always the leader of the rats' kitchen raids!”
I had no way of telling her my name wasn't Blackie, but Char, in honor of the way I like my meatsâgrilled over an open fire, with fat crackling, black as my royal fur. There was also no means of letting her know I was not just a leader of the rats of Lancastyr Manor, I was their one and only ruler, the prince of the Northern Rat Realm. My realm encompassed the entire northern half of the human city of Glassevale. The Southern Rat Realm was now ruled by Princess Mozzarella and had been established by an offshoot of the original rats of Lancastyr Manor long ago. It was made up of the southern half of the city and also included Castle Wendyn and its surrounding estates.
Rose reached out and stroked the top of my head. “I need those lemons in that bowl behind you to whip up something for Eustacia. I think you'd better run along now.”
Ignoring her patronizing tone, I leaned into her touch. I should have been far too conscious of my royal dignity to allow her to pet me thus. It almost placed me at the level ofâdare I say itâa loathsome, purring cat. And yet I could not bring myself to put a stop to it.