The minstrel plucked a string on his lute and sighed heavily. The queen really was a frustrating old biddy at times, he thought to himself as he adjusted the tension in the string. He gave it another pluck, then nodded in satisfaction. The tone was right, finally. It wouldn’t do for it to be off in the slightest, not for tonight’s performance. Not that he would ever consider playing an out-of-tune lute in front an audience; it was just that the old cow was going to be there and she’d have his head if anything went the slightest bit wrong.
He carefully laid the lute aside, then got up and walked over to one of the windows. The surrounding countryside appeared peaceful when viewed from one of the castle guest chambers, but the impression was a deceptive one. Outside of the court, the common folk lived in a state of quiet desperation, cowed into constant sycophantic fawning over their queen as a result of the old bitch’s unending thirst for adulation. The penalty for failing to keep the hag happy was always severe; in her younger day, immediately after snagging and marrying the young prince, she’d gone on a vicious retaliation spree against her two half-sisters. Even though the palace had dressed it up as a case of intense brutality against the innocent young princess-bride, the truth had been a lot more prosaic. In reality, her two half-sisters had been rivals for the love and attention of their father, as well as the legitimate heirs to his extensive estates and title.
The girl who would one day be queen, and a malicious bitch of one at that, had been born out of wedlock, the result of an earlier liaison between a duke and a young noblewoman. At the time, the woman had been serving as lady-in-waiting to the duke’s fiancée. When the pregnancy was discovered, not much of a fuss was made over it. These were lusty times that they were living in; bed-hopping was something of a sport for the nobles, and there were plenty of bastard children running about, even amongst commoners. The arranged marriage proceeded as planned, with the legitimate daughter and illegitimate one arriving only weeks apart.
The problem came a few years later, when the lady-in-waiting, now a full-fledged lady herself, married a local count then promptly died giving birth to their child. The baby died along with it’s mother, and the count – ever the pragmatist – decided to ship his late wife’s illegitimate child straight back to its father. A potential new bride, his reasoning ran, might indeed be willing to take on the responsibility for her husband-to-be’s own child by a deceased wife or lover, but most definitely not that of his late wife’s bastard offspring by another man. Even if such a gem of a woman existed who would willingly take on the burden for him, it was unfair to ask it of her when the child’s real father lived only a few estates away.
So, the child was packed off to her father’s, where her stepmother and half sisters somewhat grudgingly accepted her arrival.
The next few years perhaps not the halcyon days that some childhoods were, but neither were they the hell that the queen would later paint them as. The simple truth was that the girl had been spoiled rotten by her mother and step-father up until the two had conceived a child of their own. Had the child and its mother survived the birthing, it was fair to assume that the girl would have experienced a demotion in her importance within the family. It was only natural that bastard offspring be pushed aside once legitimate heirs were born, and in this girl’s case that was doubly so. She was neither a legitimate, nor illegitimate, heir. Her only relation to the count was through her mother having become his wife, and her status was entirely dependant on the man’s own sense of generosity towards her.
Truly, she was better off in her natural father’s house. There at least she had some claim to rank and position, for even an illegitimate bloodline was recognized.
The young, however, did not think that way. After years of being coddled, suddenly finding herself in a household where she was expected to partake in what she considered to be menial chores was something of a shock to the young girl. It didn’t matter that the household’s frugality was a dictum set and enforced by the duke’s father, or that it applied to every member of the family equally. The girl did not want to hear that. She became convinced that her stepmother and half-sisters were forcing her to become their charwoman. When her step-mother showed natural maternal preferences towards her own daughters, or those times inevitably occurred when her half-sisters attempted to shunt some of their own household chores onto her, she became petulant and took it as an intentional sleight instead of what it was: the natural dynamics of an extended family.
Before long, she came to despise her step-mother and half-sisters. She yearned to return to the life she had had before; the happy, easy life as the count’s step-daughter.
Despite having returned her to her father, where he felt she rightfully belonged, the count was not a heartless fellow. Whenever holidays or special events loomed, he remembered the girl. He saw to it that she was invited to social events and made acquaintances with people far beyond her natural rank as an illegitimate heir to a backwoods Duchy. In terms of connections he was a far more powerful man than her father. Her father was happy to abdicate responsibility for her introduction into society to someone more skilled at it when the time for her coming-out arrived.
It was at the grand party thrown for her by her step-father that the future queen met the prince. The dim-witted young lad was already well into his cups by the time she approached him and led him, unprotestingly, to an upstairs chamber where she proceeded to boink him into a state of exhaustion. He awoke the next morning in a strange room, with memories of a carnal experience many of his fellow princelings could only boast emptily about. But he, he had experienced it for real! He could barely wait to get back to the palace so that he could call his peers together and relate the experience!
The poor prince, third in line to the throne, didn’t realize what he’d gotten himself into. The woman of his erotic dreams had no intention of letting go once she’d gotten her claws into him. Unlike her mother, she wasn’t the type of woman who was willing to settle for scraps when she deserved to eat freely from the buffet. While the prince slept off the effects of his drunken carousing, she put her plan into action, though it wasn’t until some days later that he finally discovered his signet ring was missing. The prince was something of an idiot, and it was only when he tried to take it off in preparation for his weekly ablations that he noticed he was no longer wearing it. He had to strain his brain severely before he was able to remember the last time he was certain that it had been on his finger. It was then that he set out in pursuit of the young woman whose formal introduction into society he’d crashed a few nights previously.
What awaited that moron once he finally caught up to her wasn’t at all what he expected. He was ceremoniously ushered into the family drawing room by the girl, who clung to his arm as if he were some prize that she’d won at the town fair. When he requested the return of his ring, she claimed that he’d given it to her, of his own free will, in lieu of a more proper engagement ring. According to the tale that she now related in front of her family, and would later recount again in front of her step-father, she and the young prince had become betrothed during their night of passion and that it was only because of his amorous promises that she had given in to their mutual youthful lust.
The prince may have been a moron, but even he understood how thoroughly he’d been trapped. With the signet ring as proof, neither her father nor her step-father were about to let the matter drop. Worse yet, her step-father held considerable sway with amongst the king’s courtiers. There was no way he was going to be able to get out of this as easily as if he were first in line the throne with a reasonable chance at succession. His parents would have had the conniving witch and her family arrested and executed, even if it meant upsetting all of the courtiers if it had been his elder brother who’d gotten himself into this pickle. As it was, since there was little chance that he would ever become the reigning king, his parents were disinclined towards helping him get this illegitimate schemer out of his life. He had made his bed quite literally, they pointed out, and now he must lie in it.
That is how a scant few months later the duke’s bastard daughter became a member of the royal family.
The minstrel sighed deeply once again, and turned away from the window. But it hadn’t stopped there, now had it? First had come the war, and that unfortunate battle that had ended up costing the heir to the throne his life. Then, almost on its heels the plague broke out, costing the kingdom both its king and his successor. Within two years, the idiot third son was indeed seated on the throne with his ambitious, illegitimately born wife at his side. On their third wedding anniversary the young queen ordered her two half-sisters and her step-mother to be brought before her and beheaded in her presence. It was a sad ending to a sordid tale, parts of which he’d witnessed with his own eyes.
Twenty-five had passed since then, and now, to mark the tenth anniversary of her husband’s death and the tenth anniversary of her subsequent reign, she’d commissioned a ballad that would enshrine their love forever. That was the legend that she wanted down to history, even if she had to pay him handsomely to create it. He was the best of his generation, perhaps even one of the best of all time, and he didn’t come cheap. But what a story he’d have to weave…
Later that night, after the meal was eaten and the drinking well under way, he called for quiet and drawing his lute unto his lap, began a new ballad. “Let me tell you the story of a beautiful young woman, much abused by her step mother and two step-sisters. Her name was Cinderella,” he sang in a clear voice that many said could convince even the angels of things…
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