I wake up with my head throbbing, my arms sore, and my back in pain. I open my eyes and blink. I am lying in a king-sized bed with a huge canopy. Geez, I must be in an amazing dream, a dream where we are rolling in dough.
“Miss Katriona!” A woman’s voice calls.
I blink again, and gradually the room comes into focus. I cannot believe my eyes. The canopy isn’t a figment of my imagination. It’s hanging all over the bed, tied to wooden posts by velvet ribbons. A small table next to the bed holds a candelabra, with three candles burning! And there’s a dresser in the corner with a ceramic pitcher on it. The last time I saw a pitcher like that was in the downtown museum.
Okay, time to wake up. I pinch my arm. Hard.
“Where are you hurting, Miss Katriona?” It’s the woman’s voice again. I see her now, a middle-aged woman wearing a white cap, full-length apron, and black cotton dress.
I yelp. “Who...who are you? Where’s Paige? What are you doing here?”
She gives me a weird look. “You really hit your head hard, didn’ ya? I’m Martha, miss. I changed ya nappies when you are still crawling about this house.”
Now I give her a weird look. “What did you just call me?”
“I mean when you called me Katriona. My name’s Katherine.”
She drops her jaw. “Good heavens, Miss Katriona! We’d better find a physician for ya, ya not talking right!”
What the hell is going on? I sit up, throwing off the blanket. It slides off my front, and I notice I am wearing a creamy white nightgown made entirely of silk. A dozen pink-and-blue bows run down the front.
I leap out of bed as though on fire and rush to the mirror. Thank God, I still look the same. Maybe a bit thinner, but my hair’s still red, my eyes still gray. Then I notice my freckles have multiplied—they’re over my cheek as well as my nose. Damn. The nightgown is horribly old-fashioned—long-sleeved, high-necked, and runs to my ankles. I’m even wearing a ridiculous nightcap that’s tied under my chin.
Then a soft voice, younger than Martha’s, comes from the doorway.
“May I come in?”
I whirl around. A girl around my age, wearing the same servant’s clothes as Martha’s, is standing in the doorway. She has honey-colored hair tucked in her cap, large baby-blue eyes, and a heart-shaped face that, despite being smudged with soot, is real pretty.
“I’ve come to sweep up the hearth, miss, if you please,” the girl says. She carries a pan and a broom; both of them look kind of crudely made.
“Er...” I look round the room and discover a real fireplace in front of my bed. With lumps of coal. Dang. “Who are you?”
“Lie back in bed, miss. You aren’t feeling well. We’ll get the doctor for ya tomorrow,” Martha says. Then, to the girl, she whispers, “She ain’t right in the head since she fell down the stairs. Doesn’t even remember who I am.”
The girl’s eyes widen. She takes a hesitant step toward my bed and gazes at me with fear in her eyes. “Don’t you remember me, miss? I’m Elle. Elle Thatcher. I’ve been in your service for several years.”
Martha nudges her and nods. “Told you so.”
“I’ll light up a new fire right away, the room’s getting cold,” the girl says. She catches up an iron poker that’s lying near the grate and arranges the coal into a large pile. “Perhaps she’ll feel better tomorrow?”
Sounds like a good idea. My head is still hurting; I guess I’m still dreaming. In a few hours, I’ll wake up again, in my own bed in Oakleigh, Indiana. This is just a nightmare.
“Girlie, wake up.”
I open my eyes again. This time it’s dark, but from the moonlight streaming through the window, I sense that I’m still in this strange old-fashioned room. The candelabra next to my bed has been snuffed out. The fire in the hearth has gone out, but the embers are still glowing.
Then I discover something more shocking than the weird room I’m in.
A semi-transparent being is hovering in thin air, right above the bed. It’s quite ugly—its eyes and nose look squashed together, and it has a stumpy body with arms and legs that look alarmingly short in proportion to the torso.
I am so shocked that I just stare with my mouth wide open. Is that ghost going to eat me up?
“Awake now, are we?” the ghost speaks. His voice is kind of high-pitched with a note of playfulness in it.
Oh no, not again. I pinch my arm again, really hard this time, and yelp in pain. My fingernails have drawn blood.
The ghost starts to laugh. “A hundred years later and humans are still as dumb as before.”
My stomach clenches. Here I am in a strange room with an ugly ghost, and no matter what I do I can’t wake up.
Maybe I’m dead. Maybe when I fell down the stairs I got hit with something really sharp and bled to death. Ouch. I run a hand over my head, but it seems all I’ve got is a sore spot that feels more like a bruise than a gaping wound. Besides, this room is a far cry from hell.
“Hey you,” I call to the ghost. “I’m dead, aren’t I? Is this a place before I go to heaven?”
The ghost throws his head back and laughs—a high, raucous sound. I’m surprised that no one hears him; either they can’t hear him or are too deep asleep. “She thinks this is heaven! Wait till I tell His Majesty…”
What the hell is going on? “Aren’t you a ghost?”
That only makes him laugh harder. He clutches his sides, wheezing, like I’m the greatest comedian in the world.
“You thick-headed, pea-brained human,” he gasps, wiping his eyes. “Haven’t you seen this room before?”
“In the downtown museum?”
“No, silly, in a book.”
Moonlight streams in through the window. Several framed paintings hang on the walls—the biggest one depicts a beautiful garden. The scene does look familiar. All it lacks is a maid kneeling in front of the fireplace.
“Cinderella?” I gasp. This is the room that’s illustrated on the first page. “Why am I seeing it in a dream?”
“She still thinks it’s a dream…” the ghost mutters, shaking his head. “Look, don’t you remember what happened to the book?”
I rub my temples. “It…fell apart?”
He nods. “When you ripped up the book our king created, a curse is triggered for tampering with his magic. So as punishment, you’re transported into the story itself.”
“Your king?” This is getting simply ridiculous. “Who is this king, and who are you?”
The ghost settles on the foot of my bed. “Might as well tell you, or you’ll never get it—I’m Krev. I’m in service of His Majesty Barthelius, the Goblin King.”
“Goblins?” I fall back on the pillow, narrowly missing the headboard. “Please tell me I’m hallucinating, or I got a concussion”
“We exist in another dimension, but our king has always been interested in human stories. That’s why he created his own books a hundred years ago. He left a few copies in your world, but never expected that they’d fall apart.”
“Oh God.” I sink down farther into the blankets. There has to be some mistake.
“You’ll find out soon enough. Or you can just go back to pinching your arm.” He rises in the air—now I notice he has a pair of tiny wings. “Bye.”
“Hang on,” I blurt, and sit up. “Okay, suppose I believe you. How am I going to get back?”
Krev grins, showing a row of pointy teeth. “Now you’re listening. All you have to do is put the story back together again.”
“Finish the story to the very end, where they live happily-ever-after.”
Damn. I’m in a role-playing game. Not that I’ve played any, but it just feels that way to me.
Speaking of role-playing…
“That woman Martha called me Katriona. She says I lost my memory, so I’m not a newcomer in this world. So who am I?”
His bulging, toad-like eyes gleam. “Guess.”
I scowl at him. Well, obviously I’m not Cinderella, given the silken nightdress I’m wearing. And obviously I’m not the evil stepmother either. In the mirror I look just as I am, not some middle-aged woman.
“Am I one of the ugly stepsisters?”
His grin grows wider.
Damn. “If I have to be in the story, why aren’t I Cinderella?”
The goblin goes off in a peal of laughter. “Cinderella! She thinks she’s pretty enough to be Cinderella!” And he rolls over and over in the air until I get dizzy and embarrassed. “Don’t you know how the spell works? You assume the role of the person you resemble most.”
Yeah, thanks for pointing out the impossibility of me being the protagonist. I suppose if Paige had been the one who dropped the book, she’d have become Cinderella.
And even though I still find the whole thing ridiculous, I’m kind of intrigued as well.
“So all I have to do is get Cinderella to the ball, the prince falls in love with her, and then the curse is broken and I can return?”
He waggles a crooked finger at me.
“Not yet. You can’t stop at the ball when she runs out and leaves her slipper behind. You must follow it all the way to the end. The story is only finished when they’re married with wedding bells pealing and white doves soaring.”
“So when is the ball?”
“Where’s the fairy godmother?”
I drop my jaw. “Hello? Are you telling me that I have to find everything on my own while you just hover there and do nothing?”
He shrugs. “That’s because you ripped everything off except the first page. The curse starts where you leave off.”
“And if I do nothing? What if the prince won’t hold the ball? What if I can’t find the godmother?”
Krev lets out an evil chuckle. I have an ominous sense of impending doom.
“Then you will remain in this book. Forever.”