When dawn finally crept in the half-open window, it found Cinders lying in her bed, eyes wide open, as they had been for the past hour at least. She had slept poorly, her worries and fears returning to haunt her in the night. At one point she had risen, moving to the chair where she kept watch that first night, to keep from waking Perrault in her restlessness but also to watch, his face relaxed in peaceful sleep, wondering when she might see him in such a state again.
When exhaustion finally coaxed her back into the bed, she fell into a restless sleep, filled with visions of Perrault falling, getting stuck, staring down a team of bandits and unable to defend himself… at last she had forced herself awake and lay in bed instead, staring up at the ceiling, focusing on the wooden beams overhead to clear the images from her mind. As the light spread through the room, Perrault stirred next to her, mumbled something, and then opened his eyes.
“Good morning,” he said. It was how he greeted her almost every day, but she could hear the tinge of nerves in his voice, and excitement, too. Cinders wanted to be happy for him, glad that he was ready to resume his old life, but she couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that he was rushing things. But as before, she bit her worries back. He had asked for time to figure it out for himself, and for now, she would give it to him.
“Good morning,” she replied, leaning down for a simple kiss. “How do you feel?”
He shrugged. “All right. Restless.” Kicking off the covers, he sat up and stretched the good arm, then got out of the bed. “Do you think breakfast is ready?”
Cinders stood up and started to dress. “I’ll go see to it, unless you’d like some assistance?”
Perrault glanced at his hand, then back up with a shake of his head. “I have it under control. And I packed yesterday, what little I have here. Go ahead; I’ll be down shortly.”
She tied back her hair. “Very well. I’ll see you downstairs then.” And she left the room before she could change her mind, heading toward the scent of fresh bread already wafting through the house from the kitchen.
“Good morning, m’lady.” The cook turned to her with a curtsey, holding the pan of rolls responsible for the delicious smell that had drawn Cinders here. “Any requests for breakfast today?”
Cinders took a hot roll out of the pan, bouncing it between her hands. “Just this for me, but something heartier for the Captain — he rides today.”
The cook bowed her head. “Aye, m’lady. I’ll see to it.” She headed into the cold room and emerged with a rasher of bacon; in the meantime, Cinders slathered the roll with butter and jam, poured herself a cup of tea, and went out to the porch to wait.
Almost an hour passed before Perrault emerged from the stable, leading his horse while the groom followed, carrying his satchel and a mounting stool. Perrault draped Millie’s reins around a fence post and patted her flank before coming up the steps to Cinders with a half smile.
She had to admit that he looked better than he had in weeks, although his hair needed a trim: shaved, dressed in a clean shirt and his second-best coat. He had not buckled on his breastplate, and Cinders wondered if he would ever be able to manage that on his own. When he reached her side, he took her hand in his gloved fingers, then kissed it. “Thank you. Again.” Cinders tightened her grip, and he straightened, squeezing her hand before pulling away. Then he went back to Millie and, grabbing the reigns, stepped on the mounting stool — Cinders had never seen him use one before — and hauled himself onto the horse. For a moment, he wobbled, and Cinders wondered if he might overbalance, but he held steady. He caught her eyes with a nod, and then he twitched the reins. Millie turned, and they rode away, Cinders watching all the while.
“So, he’s really leaving.” Cinders turned to see Sophia standing on the porch next to her; she shaded her eyes and squinted down the path at the cloud of dust, all that remained of Perrault’s departure. “Why is he going through with this? Doesn’t he see that he still needs help?”
Cinders sighed. “Even if he does, he can’t admit it to himself. And me badgering him about it isn’t going to change his mind — if anything, he’d just dig in his heels and be more determined to make it on his own.”
Sophia shook her head. “Men are stupid,” she said.
Cinders didn’t want to laugh, but she found a chuckle escaping her lips anyway. “Look on the bright side.” She nudged her stepsister’s shoulder. “You can start having the prince over for dinner again.” Sophia shot her a dirty look, eyes narrowed, one eyebrow raised. Cinders giggled again, then stepped away. “I should probably talk to Gloria about rescheduling that party anyway, that one we had to cancel in the spring. It looks to be good weather for a picnic this week.” And she went back inside, her thoughts turning to the running of the household and all the duties she had allowed to take second place for too long.