Perrault dropped to a knee and put the back of his hand to his nose. The stench like moldy corn wafted off of the panty-hose containing the waggling toes before him.
“What do you think?” asked Stasia, clutching her skirts behind Druilla’s chair. Both young women, identical down to the coiled braids of frayed inky hair and jutting chins had only an extreme acquisition of pounds to separate one twin from the next. Corpulent or skeletal, both stared along Druilla’s taunting limb, quivering like a bared branch.
“Sshhh.” Spittle from Lady Tremania, hovering like a wrinkled vulture, fell upon Perrault’s shoulder.
Suppressing a shudder, he lifted the glass slipper from the velvet-padded box by his side. With a deep breath he glanced between the crystal shoe and Druilla’s foot, a pit widening in his gut.
“I think it-.”
“Shhhsss,” said Tremania, cutting off more of Stasia’s incessant whispers.
In the plush chair, Druilla grabbed her cushion with bony hands and pointed her toe like a diver above a lake.
Perrault closed his eyes and fumbled with her damp foot and the crystalline slipper.
Druilla wiggled into the end of the toe box. Her foot slapped against the glass lining. As her heel sunk into the shoe’s counter, the gap in Perrault’s torso spread.
“It’s perfect!” whispered Stasia. She clapped her meaty hands and the floor undulated as she bounced.
“It fits!” said Druilla, sinking back as if deflated.
A gasp from across the room drew Perrault’s gaze like a dart. He barely noticed the other three women swiveling like wolves, and spying the figure with a trio of cobalt scowls.
The young woman stood in a hidden doorway, once obscured by paisley wall paper of violet and honey. Covering her mouth with one wan hand, she grasped at the swinging panel with the other. Her hazel eyes, however, were wide, reflecting the room’s candlelight like the stars spread across the sky on the night of the ball a month earlier.
“You!” said Perrault, rising to his feet.
“Lian!” said Lady Tremania, dashing forward.
Lian crumpled like wad of paper, her eyes rolling up into her head, her body slumping across the top steps.
“Lian,” whispered Perrault, the name sweet on his tongue.
Druilla jolted from her chair. Wobbling on one flat and one pointed foot, she caught Perrault’s arm and stopped him in his tracks.
“You’re Highness,” she said, wiggling her slipper encased foot, “you’ve forgotten something.”
Perrault stared at her sunken face, and then the sparkling shoe as the pit in his stomach swelled. “What does this mean?” he asked, shooting his glance toward Everett.
Adjusting his glasses on a button nose, the stout attendant drummed his fingers on his pile of parchment coated in the names of all the unwed women in the kingdom. “It does appear to fit, Your Highness.”
Lady Tremania swung into his face like a bad dream. She curtsied without releasing him from her icy stare, her wine-hued dress obscuring Lian’s prone form. “Your Highness. The declaration has been fulfilled by my daughter, Druilla.”
Lady Tremania beckoned with a wrinkled hand and Druilla limped off of his arm with a thumping bat of eyelashes. Like a bending stick about to snap, she spread her avocado skirts in a tipped curtsy. Stasia mirrored the gesture, her canary dress and rotund form descending like a dripping egg yolk.
Perrault tore himself from Lady Tremania’s frosted glare and absorbed the bowed heads of her two daughters. Then he lingered on the crumpled body in the secret passageway, barely in view. “But…”
“Sir.” Everett lifted his chin, his nervous swallow nearly popping the snug laces around his high collar. “The declaration has been completed: The woman found to fit the shoe, will marry the Prince of Gardonia.”
The declaration whittled into Perrault’s brain like fire through a forest. He pivoted on Everett slowly, careful not to move too fast and whisk away the man’s methodically stated words as their meaning hung in the potpourri-dominated air.
Everett adjusted his glasses once more and met the Prince’s wide-eyed stare.
“Marry the Prince…” Perrault snatched Everett by the shoulders and nearly lifted the man out of his spit-polished boots. “Make note of this Everett: I Perrault Nodgar, Prince of Gardonia, do here by renounce my title and all privileges and rights theretofore attached to that rank and name.”
Everett’s lips quivered toward a flickering smile and Perrault pulled him into a fierce embrace. The women behind him squealed in protest.
“But your Highness, you can’t!” said Stasia. She rolled forward as Lady Tremania rose like a weed. Druilla fell back onto the chair as if blow over by a breeze, her face blanched.
“Mother,” whined Stasia, “tell him.”
Lady Tremania pointed a silencing finger at Stasia’s lumpy nose. She sputtered, and then clung to her voluminous skirts.
“The declaration stands, Your Hig…” Lady Tremania scowled as she stumbled to find a proper title for the towering man standing before her.
Perrault’s grin spread. “It does.” He released Everett and strode passed Lady Tremaina’s glower.
At the hidden doorway, a gust of wintry air swirled up the winding wooden stairs vanishing into an arctic darkness below. Lady Tremania’s shadow draped Perrault’s shoulders, but he ignored her presence as he rolled Lian onto her back. She gave a weak groan and her eyes fluttered open for a moment, a weak smile crossing her peachy lips before her hazel eyes closed once more. Scooping her up, Perrault carried her free of the musty threshold. Her auburn head lolled against his shoulder and her skin felt clammy even through her dank dress. She coiled, like a frightened bird in his arms, one weakened after a fall and abandonment from a nest in a tree-top far overhead.
“What have you done to her?” Perrault asked with a scowl as Lian shivered.
“She was punished,” said Lady Tremania, her mouth taunt under his fierce stare. “The cellar is a fine place for a liar and a thief.” She licked her lips as spite leapt from her tongue. Squinting, she turned on Everett. “If he’s no longer the Prince, then who is?”
Everett glanced at his stack of papers as if the Gardonian lineage might be written within. “I’ll have to consult my documentation to be certain. Your Highness…” he rubbed at his temple and decided against finding a new name for Perrault, “was the next in line, behind his elder sister. Without him producing his own son, it would be up to Princess Cerella. Since she has three daughters already, I’m not certain she will be having more children.” His jowls wobbled with his pearl smile. He drummed a tune onto his parchment and bounced on his toes. “Which means, for the moment, there is no Prince of Gardonia.”
“No Prince?” asked Stasia, a frown creasing the plain of her forehead.
Lady Tremania grasped onto the chair’s arm. “Oh my child,” she said, laying one hand onto Druilla’s brittle shoulder.
“What does it matter?” Druilla asked, leaning back and folding her hands demurely in her lap. A Cheshire smile wound onto her slim lips. “There will be a Prince of Gardonia eventually.”
“In a few decades when he does appear,” said Perrault with a grin, “I’m certain he’ll be as delighted to make your acquaintance as I have been.”
He gave the trio of gaping faces a nod and swept from the living room, Lian in his arms and Everett quick on his heels.