The dungeon was dimly lit. Damp and cold stones lined the edges of the underground cavern. In the middle was a stone table, most commonly used for torture. Tonight, however, it had quite a different purpose.
There were three in the room. They were totally silent as they waited. They were listening, trying to determine if anybody had been following them.
After a minute, the silence was broken. It was Queen Maria who spoke, in hushed and careful tones.
“I’ve called this meeting,” she explained, “Because a bride has been chosen for our son.”
The others nodded. This was not news. The boy was five – a marriage was bound to be arranged at any time.
“Who?” asked Guiseppe. His brain had been studying the political impacts of this choice since the child had been born.
“Catherine, daughter of the Duke of Sadir.”
Guiseppe grimaced. He’d expected the answer, but he had hoped for something better. The Duke’s was a powerful family, and ruthless. Their rise would not fair well for the Queen’s family, or for his own.
“What efforts have been taken to block it?” asked Guiseppe.
“My family has exercised all of its influence. But it has not been enough.” the Queen explained, “I was chosen as Queen because we were a safe choice. Even with my position, we’ve haven’t the influence to stop the Duke. The Duke has grown wealthy, extremely wealthy. He has acquired significant force in his ‘bodyguard.’ And he has been blessed with a child who is expected to be smart and beautiful. She is an appropriate Queen-to-be from an appropriate family.”
Guiseppe thought, and then spoke, “It will not be good for us. They are a powerful family. With royalty, they will be dominant.”
The King watched their conversation with mildly interested eyes. He was King, his son would be King – and their lives would be identical. He had no real power, he was just a figurehead. He lived a life of luxury and a life of constraint. He was a gilded and weak man behind whom were concealed the family that actually dominated the Kingdom, the family of the Queen. The choice of Catherine marked the next step in the line of succession – the path of power.
“Why are we meeting?” he asked. He saw no useful course of action that could justify the risk this meeting posed. He was a man who was watched – nobody wanted a strong King.
The Queen smiled. “We are meeting because I want our son to be different. I want our family to have the power.”
Giuseppe smiled at the inanity of it. “Your Majesty,” he said with a tone of deference, “The boy’s ball will occur on his 21st birthday, just as your husband’s ball did. At that point, he must become engaged. When he does, the woman’s family will manage the country. And unless Catherine were to die, she will be that woman. The ball is just for show, as you know. And even if another girl were to be chosen, your son will not be a man of power. You could sooner move mountains.”
“Perhaps,” said the Queen, confidently, “I can also move mountains.”
Guiseppe and the King leaned forward, intrigued.
“We need a girl from an impeccable family – but no family at all.”
“A good riddle,” said the King, “But I do not understand.”
“We need,” said the Queen, “A noble orphan. An orphan from a minor family, and the sole survivor of that family. If our son were to marry such a woman, he would be King in more than name.”
“Do you have a girl in mind?” asked Giuseppe.
“I do,” said the Queen, “She lives with another noble family, one of little means. Her parents and her brothers died in a fire just after her first birthday. It was four years ago.”
“And when,” asked Giuseppe, curiously, “Did you pick this girl?”
“Just before the fire,” said the Queen.
Her words sank in. The girl had had a family, but the Queen had burned them alive so that she could become the perfect bride.
“And how?” asked Giuseppe, “Is this minor noble girl to be chosen? The Duke would revolt.”
“We’ll hold the ball,” explained the Queen, “And all the noble girls will attend. And this girl will attend. She will arrive in a gilded coach like none anybody else has ever seen. She will wear the most beautiful of clothes. And she will dance and speak with perfection.”
“An orphan girl adopted by a family of little means. How is she to dance and to speak?”
“Because,” said the Queen, “I have been visiting her on numerous occasions. The family does not know – I do not arrive by carriage and I do not announce my presence. But I have been training that girl. When the time comes, she will be ready.”
“And how” asked Giuseppe, “Is she to be chosen as Queen?”
The queen continued, “Nobody will know who she is. She will be a non-entity with an appearance like that of angel. The families will investigate. But they will find nothing. She is to arrive in a gilded carriage, but one that we have designed to collapse and be hidden. She will wear beautiful clothes – but beneath them will be servant’s garbs. She will attend the ball, our son will be enchanted, the common people will be given a glimpse of this magical woman, and then she will disappear.”
“And then Catherine’s elevation will occur, just as before.”
“No.” said the Queen. “We will call a second ball. An unprecedented event. Justified by the intrigue of the mystery girl.”
“And then?” asked Giuseppe.
“And then,” said the Queen, “This girl will appear again. She will be even more radiant than before. The Kingdom will know the Prince is in love. Catherine will be weakened. And then, for the second time, the girl will disappear.”
“The second time, the prince will be forced, by public outcry, to find her. The Duke of Sedir will be searching as well, to eliminate her. But they won’t find her – she is a noble, but she is an orphan and poor – they would never associate her with a gilded carriage.” said the Queen, “We will throw the common people into the search, we will make this magical girl a folk hero. Even the Duke will be forced to accede to her elevation, should she be found.”
“And how?” asked Giuseppe, “Are they to find this girl?”
“That, Guiseppe,” said the Queen, “is easy. We shall have her wear something that will fit no other girl. She can leave it behind. Then we’ll simply launch a search for the girl who matches the clothing.”
Giuseppe nodded. His mind was already working on options. But he was not satisfied, “Your majesty,” he said, “I concede there is some small chance this could work. But if it should fail, your family will be destroyed.”
The Queen nodded. It was a risk she had considered.
But the King, powerless though he was, was satisfied. “M’lady,” he asked, “What is the name of our son’s new bride-to-be?”
“Her name?” said the Queen, suddenly realizing she’d managed not to mention it. “Her name is Cinderella.”
“And I,” added the Queen with a pleasant smile, “Am her Fairy Godmother.”