by Marie Millard
The prince was having a ball. All the young ladies in the kingdom were expected to attend so that the prince could choose a bride.
Littlefoot was sitting in her room embroidering when her sisters burst in.
“Littlefoot! Did you hear about the ball? Whatever are we going to do?”
“I don’t know about you, but I plan to hide in the cellar.”
“No.” Benedella shook her head. “They’re sending the king’s men around to herd us all to the castle.”
“But,” Littlefoot said, “I hear the prince throws tantrums when he doesn’t get his way. I’m trying the cellar. Maybe they won’t look there. Worth a shot.”
Kindra nodded again. “And when his carriage comes by, his mouth is always hanging open. Like this.”
Littlefoot and Benedella laughed.
“I’ll try the cellar, too,” Benedella said. “But I’ll be wearing my ball gown just in case.”
“Not me,” said Littlefoot. “They can make me go to the ball, but I’ll be wearing my gardening clothes.”
Two weeks later, Littlefoot and her sisters sat quietly in the dark cellar, waiting for the sounds of the king’s men. Benedella and Kindra had decided on ball gowns, not to impress the prince but to impress the other townspeople, should they be forced to the castle. Kindra planned to sneak out of the castle and find a stable boy. Littlefoot wore her gardening clothes and tiny, mucky garden shoes. Just when she thought no one was coming for them, she heard horses’ hooves and the cry of a king’s announcer.
“Come to the ball! One lucky maiden will marry the prince! Come to the ball!”
The girls held their breath, listening to footsteps and knocking. Finally a knock on the cellar door.
“Spinach and chard,” Kindra swore. “They found us.”
The door opened and the girls filed out and trudged to their carriage, the announcer skipping to his own carriage announcing, “Lucky ladies!”
In the carriage, Littlefoot crossed her arms, then uncrossed them in order to rat her hair.
Up the lighted castle steps the girls climbed, delighted by the melody of the king’s musicians, but careful not to show it, lest their simple joy make their faces attractive to the prince. At the door, Kindra winked and veered off into the darkness, whispering, “I’ll find my own way home.” The guards greeted Benedella with a smile, and Littlefoot with undisguised horror.
“Here’s a bench in the corner,” Benedella whispered.
They sat and pinch-facedly enjoyed the music, trying not to make eye contact with the prince.
“Where is he?” Littlefoot would occasionally ask without moving her lips.
Benedella would peek up. “By the fountain. Dancing with Lily, the dressmaker’s daughter.”
“What time is it?”
“There’s no clock. Now stop asking questions so I don’t have to look up.”
Littlefoot groaned. “Too late. Here he comes.”
The prince stopped in front of Benedella. “How could I have missed this beautiful face all evening?” He asked in the even tone and meter of a new reader. He never blinked. “Would you like to dance?”
There was no refusing a prince, so Benedella got up. Littlefoot gave her a look of sympathy, while also congratulating herself for having chosen gardening clothes.
“Wait!” the prince shouted, looking back at Littlefoot. “Are you a girl?”
“Umm,” said Littlefoot.
“I thought you were a servant boy to this young lady.” He pointed to Benedella.
“Umm,” said Littlefoot.
“I choose you! I choose you for my bride! You won’t think you’re too good for the prince.”
“Spinach and chard,” thought Littlefoot. “I can’t win.”
A crowd had gathered in their corner, and Littlefoot’s armpits got sweaty. The prince didn’t know her name. If she escaped now, he couldn’t track her down. She bolted through the crowd, out the front door and down the steps.
“Wait!” she heard Benedella yell.
She stopped halfway down the steps to wait for her sister. Benedella took the steps two at a time, laughing and yelling, “Hurry!”
A snort escaped Littlefoot, and she continued down the stairs, not stopping for the shoe that flew off behind her.
The next day, Kindra woke Littlefoot before dawn.
“Did you hear?”
Littlefoot tried to open her eyes. “Hear what?”
“The prince is sending his men through the kingdom looking for you.”
“They won’t know who I am.”
“They have your shoe.”
Littlefoot sat up. “Spinach and chard. Curse my child-sized feet!”
“You could run away. Or eat a lot, so your feet spread.”
“Then he’d marry some poor ten-year-old. No, I think I’m going to be a damned princess.”
Benedella shuffled into the room in her nightdress. Kindra told her the news.
“How do you know?” Benedella asked.
“The stable boy.”
Just then, the king’s men arrived. Littlefoot let them in and resignedly showed them her other garden shoe. They kindly invited her to come to their carriage.
Littlefoot gasped. “Wait!”
She hurried past her confused sisters and quickly washed at the sink and ran to Benedella’s room. Benedella followed her in.
“Benedella, where’s your best dress?”
Benedella flew into action. She had her tightest, shimmeriest dress on Littlefoot in seconds. She swept Littlefoot’s hair into a twist and fastened a strand of gems around her neck. Littlefoot ran to her own room for shoes, and when she rejoined the king’s men, they looked around the room for the Littlefoot they remembered.
“I’m ready,” she said.
Littlefoot blew kisses to her sisters and said, “Wish me the best,” with a wink.
The carriage took her away and up to the castle, where she walked up the steps again and into the ballroom. One of the king’s men fetched the prince, who came tromping in on his heavy legs.
“Hello, my love,” cooed Littlefoot. “I hope you know how to treat a princess!”
The prince looked scornfully at the king’s men. “This is not the girl.”
“I am the girl, my love, but I’m afraid you caught me on a bad night at the ball. But now I am ready to begin life as a princess, and to be treated princessly.” She turned to a servant. “May I have some strawberries, with cream? And whatever jewels await the bride of the prince, bring them now.”
The prince paled. He said simply, “I have changed my mind. Take her back.”
One of the king’s men said, “But Prince -”
“I don’t want her! Take her back NOW!”
The king’s man started and grabbed Littlefoot by the elbow, whisking her out of the castle to the serenade of the prince’s tantrum.
“My lady,” he said as he helped her into the carriage. But he stopped, because one does not apologize for one’s prince.
“Never you mind, sir,” said Littlefoot. “Somehow I will go on.”