A Penguin Comes to Tea

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My Stepmother Remained as Evil as Ever

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I bet you think that when a story ends with the words, “And they all lived happily ever after,” that the people in the story do just that, dancing in the rose garden every day, holding hands, staring dreamily into each other’s eyes while the dishes wash themselves and the harvest jumps out of the fields and into the oven. In reality, life goes on much as it did before, only now you’re married and live in a different house. At least, that’s what happened to me after Prince Charming put the glass slipper back on my foot and led me to the altar as his bride.
When Char sent the carriage round to our house to collect my things—even though I’d told him I had barely anything to my name, and most of that was rags—my stepmother sent it back empty to the palace, saying that as she had lost a servant, she was entitled to another one.
“What do you mean she’s lost a servant?” asked Char, who really was clueless. “Are you bringing a maid with you? There’s no need, for we’ve plenty in the palace household, so your mother can keep hers.”
“Stepmother,” I corrected, “as in ‘wicked’. And no, I’m not bringing a servant with me—I’m the servant she’s referring to. I used to clean out the hearth, boil the water, wash the clothes, sweep the floor, peel the potatoes-”
Char interrupted my list with a kiss. I would have gone on, as there was tons more that I used to do, but he clearly didn’t understand domestic tasks.
“Well then, we’ll just send a palace servant to your mother’s house, and then all will be fine,” he said.
“Stepmother,” I muttered, feeling sure that all would not be fine.
Nor was it. Barely a week later, my stepmother marched up to the palace gates, demanding to see the king, saying that his servant was a no-good, idle, useless lazybones who was eating them out of house and home.
I was sitting outside by the lily pond, savouring a flaky croissant and watching the gardeners prune the roses while Char cantered his horse up and down the paths, so I heard all the commotion at the gates, and couldn’t really refuse to see her, the old bat. She was led over to my table, her eyes wide with jealousy, and before I could even offer her a seat, she launched her tirade at me.
“Just because you’ve moved in here, there’s no need to forget your father and your real family. Did you ever stop to think whether he’s getting enough to eat while you sit here and gorge yourself on these pastries? No, I bet you don’t spare a thought for those less fortunate, even though we’re your family, your own flesh and blood!”
I was about to point out that she had ample flesh of her own to worry about and not a drop of her blood belonged to me, but Char rode up at that moment and caught the bit about family, so he flashed his most handsome smile and made the most stupid suggestion.
“Cinders, why don’t you invite your family to move into the palace? There are plenty of spare rooms, and then you can see them every day.”
I shook my head and frowned, frantically signalling that this was the worst idea ever, but of course my beloved husband didn’t see me, and my stepmother immediately began to babble in her most obsequious tone, so in the wink of an eye, there I was, back where I had started, only in a bigger house.
Don’t worry; I didn’t have to clean out the grates, but Lucretia and Griselda still treated me like their personal slave, asking me to find them ribbons and help them try on the dresses they found in the palace wardrobes, and then they would flounce down to breakfast looking like a pair of flannel haystacks. The palace staff, who had begun by pitying me and being friendly, now treated me as if I’d brought a plague of locusts into the house, which I suppose was a good comparison as those two ugly sisters never stopped eating.
It was only when I noticed my stepmother looking through the book of royal guests that I realised what her plan was. She wanted to marry her daughters off to visiting royalty, and to that end, she kept suggesting we hold an elaborate ball every time a foreign delegation came to visit. Char would have agreed to it all, so empty-headed was he, but at least his father, the king, had a better hold of the royal purse strings, and so my stepmother had to be content with a series of banquets.
I fell ill just before the visit of the Carthenians, so I missed all the commotion when Lucretia overturned a soup tureen in the ambassador’s lap, and I was indisposed again when the Northerners came to the palace and Griselda fell off a horse. When I became unwell the day before the Islanders were due to arrive, I began to suspect my stepmother of deliberately poisoning me to keep me out of the way—presumably so that her daughters would be the only females under fifty in the same room as the foreign delegates.
“Char, you have to do something about her,” I pleaded when he came to my room bringing some foul-tasting broth, which I suspected my stepmother of preparing.
“She’ll make our life a misery, and those two will scare away all of your friends.”
“Don’t worry darling,” he said, patting my hand. “I have the perfect solution. We’re going to send them on a cruise around the southern ocean, only we’ll tell the captain to stay away from all shores for at least two years.”
“What about the poor crew?”
“We’ll give them ear plugs and tell them to always look busy, coiling ropes and stuff.”
So my stepmother and her two daughters went on an extended holiday while Char and I got on with living happily ever after.
Lucretia and Griselda came back three years later, with sailor husbands, and they all seemed to be very happy. As for my stepmother, they left her on an island inhabited by penguins, so she immediately declared herself their queen, and I suppose she is still as evil as ever.
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