Notes: From no posts to two in one weekend, huzzah! I think we're over halfway done with Cinders at this point, my dears. I'll try to stay on top of it in the weeks to come. I hope you enjoy this part, and know that the action will only ramp up from here.
Part Seven: Qĭng, please.
There’s only one way that Asher’s going to get to go this ball, and he knows it. Yeah, his stepsisters said they’d tell him, but he knows that was just for the horseman’s benefit. They’d sooner be tarred and feathered than invite him along to an event where they’re clearly counting on being the fairest of them all, and no offense, but when Asher cleans up he cleans up good. And if the prince really is Ty, well, Asher knows him. He knows what he likes. Ty likes girls but Ty likes him more, and he can draw the kid’s eye better than anyone else with a little effort. He just has to get the chance.
Convincing his stepmother to let him go along is the only way this is going to happen. The girls like to pretend they run this house, but everyone knows that while you have to kowtow to the daughters, it’s the mother who can order you let go or beaten, or worse. There’s something about her impenetrable silence that makes it hard for you to breathe in her presence, and such a relief when she starts to speak. She says more with her eyes than anyone Asher has ever met before, and usually none of its good. Still, he has to try. This is about Ty, after all. This is Asher’s life on the line.
Asher sees his stepmother once a day, at dinner when he serves the table. He could try to go to her earlier but her room is generally locked, opening only for a maidservant in the morning and the evening. There’s no way she’ll open it if he just knocks, and this isn’t the sort of thing he wants to ask about with an audience either. His best bet is to catch her after dinner, once her daughters are gone but before she’s retired to her own rooms. It’s a plan, at least, and now Asher just has to make it through the rest of the day and build up his courage. He makes an effort to clean up before dinner, to not smell strongly or look rough or be anything else that his stepmother might take offense at. She hardly ever speaks to him but when she does, it’s always some sort of comment on his appearance.
Usually by the time Asher brings them dinner he’s starving, but tonight he’s so on edge that his stomach’s in knots. He serves quietly, and listens with half an ear to his stepsisters’ raptures over the invitation (never mentioning his own) and their not-so-sly comments about him.
“He looked so elegant, Mama,” Pinky says with a little swoon, one hand pressed to her cleavage. “So handsome in the dauphin’s regalia.”
“And the dauphin will look even better in it,” Envy adds. “Of course you’ll give us the carriage to go, won’t you, Mama?”
Their mother is silent for a moment before saying, “I think I’ll go with you myself. I haven’t laid eyes on the dauphin since he’s grown to manhood, and I want to get a good look at my future son-in-law.” Both of her daughters beam at their mother’s confidence.
“It’s too bad you didn’t get a look at the gentleman, little piglet, it would have done you good to see a man so suited to his high station in life,” Envy continues, glancing in Asher’s direction.
“Not that we could have borne the embarrassment if you had shown your filthy face,” Pinky says with a snort.
“Actually…” His stepmother fixes him with her eyes and Asher stops pouring the water, making himself look straight at her. “I find some improvement in your appearance of late, child. It seems you’ve been making an effort. If you continue to do so, I will be most pleased with you.”
“He isn’t making an effort,” Pinky exclaims, wrinkling her nose. “You should have seen him when he was cleaning the grates today, Mama, he was positively filthy.”
“And yet now, he isn’t,” their mother points out. Pinky lapses into a sulk and Envy just stares at Asher, contemplative like a viper eyeing a bit of prey.
Dinner is finished in short order, the girls flounce off and Asher manages to catch his stepmother in the hallway outside of her bedroom, having carted the dishes as fast as he could to the kitchen before running like a madman up the stairs. She hears him coming and stops with her hand on the door, supremely unconcerned in the face of Asher’s discomfort, like a distant, uncaring god. He forces himself to speak.
“The invitation that came today…it said that all eligible youths are invited to attend the ball.”
“And?” she prompts after a moment.
“And…I’d like to go.”
“You wish to go to the ball.”
“Yes, Madame.” Madame is her title of choice when he’s the one speaking. She doesn’t say anything for a long, long time, just looks at him and weighs decisions in her mind and has absolutely no care for the fact that she’s holding the balance of his future in her hands. “Please,” he adds, and the sudden jolt of memory is almost dizzying as it pushes to the forefront of his mind.
Asher remembered the day his mother left, how he heard closet doors opening and shutting in rapid succession and entered her room and found her stuffing clothes into a suitcase, black tear tracks streaking her face where her makeup had run, her small, fine hands wrung red. She didn’t notice when he came into the room, too preoccupied with packing to look up.
A stricken face rose to meet his, eyes so puffy that he could barely see her pupils, her nose bright red. “Ash.” Her voice sounded clogged and nasal. “You’re supposed to be at school.”
“I left early.” He had skipped the second half of the day, tired of solicitous teachers and morbidly curious classmates. Cassie had just been buried a week ago, but it seemed like everyone had heard about it. “What are you doing?”
“I…” His mother seemed momentarily at a loss for words. “I—I’m leaving for a while, honey. Just to go and see Grandma for a few weeks, she needs me.”
Asher had met his grandmother only once, and that was when she came to visit from Beijing. It had been an awkward two weeks, with her speaking no English and the rest of them speaking no Mandarin. She had totally dominated the house while she was there, and all of them had been happy when she’d gone away again.
“You’re going to China?” Asher asked slowly.
“Yes, but not for long. Just a few weeks.”
A few weeks. Asher mentally calculated just how much his father could drink in a few weeks. Since Cassie’s death he had stopped going to work and only left the house to walk down to the liquor store on the corner and back, or to spend some quality time at the bar. He alternated between loud, drunken ramblings and bouts of crying, and he had hit Asher twice since the funeral, and hit his mother once. The twins spent most of their time with friends away from the house, and since his mother had to work, Asher was the only one around. He hated it, flinching every time his father made a noise, and if his mother went away…
“Take me with you.”
His mother shut her eyes hard for a moment. “I can’t take you,” she told him. “But it will be okay, honey, you’ll see. I’ll just be gone a few weeks.”
“I don’t want to be here alone,” Asher said desperately.
“You won’t be alone, Daddy will be with you—”
“I don’t want to stay with him!” Asher cried. Couldn’t she see that he couldn’t stay with him? “Please, I want to come with you, Mom. Please.” He went over to the bed and pushed her suitcase aside, tried to move in close enough for her to hug him, but her hands flew to his shoulders and held him back. “Mom, please, please don’t leave me here. I want to come with you! Please.” He tried out the one Mandarin word his Grandma had made him learn. “Qĭng. Mom, qĭng. I can go with you, I can learn Mandarin, see? I can already speak some.”
“Don’t be silly,” his mother said, but her voice was weak and her arms were shaking. “You have to stay here. I’ll only be gone a few weeks. It’s too late to buy you a ticket, Ash, you can’t come with me. Stay here with Daddy. I’ll only be gone for a little while.” She pushed his dark hair away from his forehead and gazed with despair at his face. “Just a few weeks.”
Asher had pulled away and just looked at her, watched her pack silently. She wouldn’t meet his eyes again, didn’t even talk to him until she was at the front door. Then she had finally hugged him, wrapping him so tight with her skinny arms that it hurt. “Be good for your daddy,” she breathed. He just held on, held her so securely that she had to pry his hands off and put her suitcase between them, to keep him back. She ran down to her car, got in and drove away. It was the last time Asher ever saw her.
He’s so taken by surprise, he almost doesn’t here it when his stepmother says, “Very well. If,” the emphasis is clear, “if you continue to perform all your chores with diligence, and if you can find something of good quality to wear that won’t embarrass us, and if you maintain an acceptable level of hygiene and decorum…then I suppose that you may attend the prince’s ball.”
Relief is a palpable thing, like a bucket of warm water thrown over his head and soaking down to his feet. Asher smiles and nods. “Thank you, Madame. I’ll try to be my best for you. You won’t regret this.”
“I never regret anything,” she says coolly before opening the door and entering her chambers. “But you might, child, if you disappoint me.”
The door closes with decided finality.