Little Red Ballgown
-- A Little-Red-Cinderella Tale
Imagine if Cinderella had been told like a Red Riding Hood tale--or vice versa?
Shortly after Little Red's narrow escape from the Big Bad Wolf, by way of the village's local stalker...err, hunter, Little Red decided that it was clearly much too dangerous to live out in the country, so she decided to guilt trip her parents into moving to the City.
After waking up one too many times in the middle of the night from Little Red's shrieking, "The wolf's gonna get me...! Nooooo!" her parents finally gave in. They packed up the pony cart and moved out of their tiny rural village into a modest townhouse in the city.
Little Red was thrilled. She had a proper bed on the second floor--no more sleeping in the kitchen! Even better, she no longer had to set her alarm clock to wake up at two AM. Good thing too. Her throat was getting sore from all the shrieking.
Her parents, however, took their revenge on Little Red with a brand new and horrific form of daytime imprisonment known as Education, also called 'school'.
The years went by and Little Red actually found a few uses for Education, such as writing, so she could pass notes to her new-found friends. Even math proved useful for when she wanted to go shopping with said friends. Best of all, Red encountered not a single wolf. Oh, there were more than a few dogs around--most of them on the boys' side of the school, but not one "The better to eat you with, my dear!" wolf.
Then one afternoon, just as Red was leaving the schoolyard for the day, a Royal Herald in blue and gold livery strode to the well right in front of the school. He faced the gate and began to unroll a huge piece of heavy cloth. Within the cloth was a sheet of paper.
It was such an odd sight Red couldn't help but stop to stare.
She wasn't the only one. In a matter of seconds, just about every other student the school had came out of the gate to stare--even the boys.
The herald took a deep breath, and then he began to shout. "Oh Ye~! Oh Ye~! The King has proclaimed that all young ladies of marriageable age -- and at least moderate lineage -- are invited to a gala ball for the Royal Prince's eighteenth Birthday, in one month's time!"
Red didn't think much of it. She just shrugged and headed home.
Red's mother, however, thought it was the best thing since Baker Jenkins began selling his bread sliced. Mother was so happy, in fact, she invented a few new tortures to pile on Red's head; conversational etiquette, ballroom dancing, posture training, daily bathing, and worst of all--table manners.
Red's mother set the dictionary back on top of Red's head. "Don't walk heel-toe, glide! You're not supposed to go up and down when you take a step. Glide...!"
Red winced. That book was damned heavy. "But, Mom...!"
"Don't 'but, Mom' me! Your father and I paid good money to get you a decent education, so you wouldn't be an ignorant hick all your life. Now, that education is about to pay off!"
"The ball, my daughter, the ball...! I expect you come home with a rich suitor. With your looks, you should be able to catch three or four to chose from that are at least well-off. This is a once in a life-time chance to catch a decent husband--and I expect you to use it!"
"Wait..." Red blinked, while trying to maintain balance of the books on her head. "Did you say...husband?
Mom nodded and grinned. "Absolutely, so you can support your parents in their old age." Mom winced and ribbed her lower back. "Which happens to be coming up fast."
"Mom, I'm only sixteen!"
"Sixteen is perfectly legal to wed in this kingdom." Mom grinned and lifted her fist to give her daughter a thumb's-up. "Now, start walking, back and forth across the parlor--and keep that book on your head!"
Two days before the ball, Mom brought home The Dress. It was gorgeous; silk, satin, seed pearls, ribbons, chiffon, a bustle, lace, and...red. The dress was red, like her cape and hood had been. A chill ran up her spine. Truthfully, the dress was red and gold. A two-toned silk, her mother called it. Even so, when the light hit it just right, the dress turned a deep blood red.
Red took the dress upstairs, hung it up on her bedroom wall, then sat down on her small bed, and stared at it. As gorgeous as the dress was, red was a bad luck color for her. A really bad-luck color. Unfortunately, it was far too late to order a different color. There was no way any seamstress--or even a team of seamstresses--could make another dress in only two days.
The truly scary part was that she wanted to wear it. She liked the color red. She'd loved her hooded cape--until that wolf mangled it all to hell and gone while trying to make her into sandwich meat.
The day of the ball arrived.
Mom woke Red at the crack of dawn, and dragged her down to the kitchen to soak her hair in expensive henna. While that muddy mess was 'setting', Mom had Red sit down at the trestle table, pulled out a wooden spoon and began applying a thick paste on Red's shins. It BURNED.
Red yelped and jerked at her leg. "Holy crap! What the hell is that?"
"Quit moving!" Mom grabbed onto Red's ankle and refused to let go. "It's Turkish paste to get rid of the hair. Would you rather I used your dad's straight razor?"
Red winced and hissed in deep breaths. "It'd be faster!"
Mom grabbed the other leg and began using the wooden spoon to smear it with paste too. "A razor would also slice your legs to pieces. Once you get used you this, you won't even notice it. I use it myself."
Red shook her hands because she couldn't shake her legs. "Aren't the stockings supposed to cover up leg hair?"
Her mother rose to her feet. "Hair pokes through stockings, especially if they're silk." She pointed a finger at Red. "Stay right there. I'm going to get the hot water to wash that henna from your hair before it turns your scalp orange."
Red tapped her knees, hoping the distraction would keep her from realizing just how much her shins BURNED. "And then what?"
Mom came back with a bucket and two steaming pitchers. She set them on the kitchen trestle table. "And then...I get to teach you the joy of pin-curls!" She grinned broadly--with all of her teeth.
Red suddenly got the feeling that joy was the last thing she'd get from the experience.
To Red's horror, Mom spent the entire day on Red's...presentation. In addition to the hair stuff, she had Red rub her skin with extra virgin olive oil, then file and buff her nails...
Red rubbed at a stubborn nail edge with the metal file. "Why do this? Won't I be wearing gloves?"
Mom grinned broadly. "If you're lucky, you'll be asked to give one away as a keepsake."
Red's mouth fell open. "Are you serious?"
"Yep." She smiled fondly. "You're father still has one of my evening gloves."
"Evening gloves?" Red frowned. "You did this stuff too? I thought you were just a farmer's daughter?"
"Your grandpa wasn't always a farmer." Mom's jaw tightened and she spoke under her breath. "Stupid, wastrel brother... Had to leave town because of that ass." She went back to coiling Red's hair into tiny curls and bobby-pinning them to Red's scalp. "Now hold, still!"
The hours passed...
Back up in her bedroom, Red was seated in the tin tub and scrubbed again--with warm milk added to the bath water this time. She was then helped into her under garments, including the very sheer silk stockings, buttoned into her boots, and laced into her bosom to hip corset.
That's when Mom broke out the Cosmetics. Red was seated at the battered vanity table while Mom carefully, and lightly applied each one to Red's face; rice powder for the face, cheek powder for blush, the kohl stick for blackening her lashes, and finally lip paint. "Just so you know, never, never, never, use the white cream base."
Red held very still, her eyes pinned to the mirror and what her mom was doing. "Why not?"
Mom smiled grimly. "The lead in it eats your skin. Watched it happen to a bunch of my friends."
Red shuddered. "No cream base. Got it."
After the cosmetics came the hair. Red had a lot of it, and the henna had tinted the whole mass almost as red as her dress. Once Mom pulled out all the bobby pins, it was curly. Mom picked up the brush and the long-tooth comb and went to work. She brushed it out, swept it up, dipped her comb in a jar of water, and began to tame Red's hair, one curl at a time.
It took a mass of fresh bobby pins and tortoise shell combs, but Mom rolled it all into what looked like a careless knot and pinned it to the top of her head. The rat-tail comb teased out a few curls, tucked others away, and encouraged her whole head of hair to look as though it would all blow down with a sneeze.
Red was stunned. She'd never seen her mom do anything like it before. "Wow!"
Mom grinned. "The best part is that I used my secret setting recipe." She tapped the water jar with the comb. "Once your hair dries, it'll stay just like that--for hours." She rose to her feet. "Okay!" She took the dress from the bedroom wall and swept it over her arm. "Let's take this down to the kitchen."
Red frowned. "The kitchen? I'm getting dressed in the kitchen? What's wrong with doing it upstairs?"
Mom headed down the stairs. "Once I get you into that crinoline, you won't be able to walk down these stairs. Mostly because you won't be able to see where you're stepping, but also because there won't be room to walk down the stairs--the dress is that big, and that long. I've already moved the kitchen table to the side so we'll have plenty of room."
Red shook her head. "And people wear this stuff every day?"
Mom shook her head. "Only the nobility wear this stuff daily, but that's because they're expected to look perfect at all times.
Dressing took surprisingly little time. It was just a matter of stepping into the crinoline, fastening the bustle over it, then dropping the yards and yards of skirt over her head. Once the skirt was spread out properly over the rows and rows of white ruffles, the top of the dress slid over her arms, hooked together in the back, and then hooked to the skirt. The bulk of the work was smoothing out the fabric.
Mom fussed over the ruffles--a lot.
Red strongly suspected that Mom was wishing she could go too, but they hadn't been able to afford more than just the one dress. As it was, Red was going to the party with a friend whose mother was playing chaperon for them both. Red smiled. "You made me beautiful mom."
Mom smiled, but her eyes were suspiciously shiny. She shook her head suddenly. "Now, don't forget your manners--or how to use your fan..." Mom's eyes widened. "Your fan!" She looked around the kitchen. "Where's you're fan?"
Red shook her hands at her mom. "It's on my vanity table!"
"I'll get it." Mom bolted out of the kitchen and up the stairs then yelled out. "Found it!" Mom came back down the stairs brandishing the lacy gold fan.
The door knocker sounded loudly.
In a whirl of silk and velvet, Red was tucked into her wrap and her hat was carefully pinned to her head. She was then summarily shoved out the door, purse in one hand and fan in the other.
A lightly embellished evening carriage drawn by matching white horses stood waiting at the wrought iron front gate. Her friend waved from the carriage window.
The driver helped Red up into the carriage--mainly by helping her find the step for her foot.
It took more effort to climb that step than Red expected. It was hard to find the tiny carriage step when you couldn't see your own feet. Once she was in the carriage, then came the yards and yards, and yards of ruffles and silk. When she finally sat down, she discovered that despite there only being three people, the carriage was rather crowded. The dresses took up all the space.
The ride to the castle at the center of the city was actually quite fun. Lots of exaggerated fusing over wrinkles and ruffles and wind-blown curls. Happily, Red's hair stayed exactly where it was supposed to, just like Mom promised.
The castle itself looked far more like a huge stone house than a building to ward off dragons--or armies. Even so, it was a gigantic house. It went on and on for acres and acres and acres--and every inch of it was decorated with paintings, carvings, or gold leaf gilding.
At the base of the main entry staircase, Red, her friend, and her friend's mother were helped out of the carriage by a footman in a blue-velvet frock coat and a tall hat.
Happily, the stairs were very low and very wide. It was surprisingly easy to climb even in their gowns. Once inside, they were met by servants who took their wraps and guided them to the ladies lounge--to attend to any mischief their hair or dresses might have gotten into during the ride.
Red's friend turned to face Red and her eyes widened. "Your dress! I thought it was gold, but it's...red."
Red nodded and forced a smile. She still wasn't completely comfortable with the color. "Two-toned silk; it changes color." Red swept a hand down the side changing the angle of the light hitting the silk so that her friend could see the color change.
Her friend's mother frowned. "That silk... That design...!" Her eyes widened. "Good Lord, that's...a very expensive dress." She looked up at Red. "Who was your dressmaker?"
Red shook her head. "You'll have to ask Mom." She leaned close and spoke in a loud stage whisper. "I was told not to tell!" She winked and smiled.
More people arrived and all too soon, the ladies lounge was filled to bursting with hair catastrophes and dress malfunctions--and the ball hadn't even started.
Red stepped out of the room. Her dress was fine and her hair was still exactly where it was supposed to be.
Minutes later, her friend, and her friend's mother stepped out of the room too. Together, the three of them strolled into the ball room.
The ballroom was huge, at least three stories high, and domed with an enormous window of stained glass. Pillars of pink veined and green veined marble marched around the room supporting a balcony that ran almost all the way around. Cut glass doors opened on the gardens, and mirrors glittered with the reflections of thousands of candles, faceted crystals that dangled like grapes from every candle sconce and the gold gilt painted on every conceivable surface.
Just as Red was getting used to the dazzle of glitter, heavenly music began to play. She blinked in astonishment. They had an orchestra! She grinned. Well if everything else turns out to be a wash, at least the music was worth the visit! She meandered toward the music just to see who was playing.
A hand caught her elbow.
Startled, Red turned and looked up--and up.
The man who had her elbow, towered over her. He was also handsome, seriously handsome with eyes so light a brown they looked gold. His frock coat looked like it was made from hammered silver. The cuffs of his sleeves, the hem, and the lapels were thickly encrusted with gold thread embroidery. He gave her a bright, white, familiar smile. "Hello there, confection; aren't you a toothsome morsel. Care to dance?"
Red's heart skipped a beat--and not in a good way. No matter how handsome the guy was, she knew exactly what she was really looking at--a wolf.
Red pasted on a smile and bowed out of his hold. "My apologies, but I was on my way to see the orchestra."
All of a sudden, another wolf melted out of the crowd, also handsome, and also smiling with big white teeth. "God Lord, where did you find this little truffle?"
The wolf in the silver coat shook his head and his smile tightened. "Walked right past me, like I wasn't even there."
The second wolf's eyes widened. "You don't say...?" He turned to Red. "Oh, how cruel! You passed right by the birthday boy himself without even a 'congratulations, your highness'?
Red's blood chilled. He was the prince? She turned to face the first wolf. "You're highness?"
The wolf smiled. "Yes?"
Not knowing what else to do, she lowered her gaze and bobbed a curtsy. "My apologies."
The prince smiled. "Apology accepted, but now you must pay a penalty."
Red lifted a brow. "A penalty?"
The prince nodded. "I claim..." He rubbed his chin thoughtfully then suddenly smiled. "A kiss." He leaned closer and whispered against her ear. "You can consider it my birthday present."
Suddenly Red knew exactly why she had seen no wolves in the city. Rather than stalking the first thing that came along, these city wolves set a trap--a glittering whimsical, appealing trap--and simply waited for their preferred prey to come straight to them.
And here she was, all primped and polished, like the cherry at the top of a cake just waiting to be plucked--again.
~ * ~