stepped onto the white-railed platform at the front of the pavilion and turned to face the chief fairy godmother. Azalea sat at a table draped in creamy silk and bordered with purple orchids. Her usual friendly smile had disappeared.
“Abra,” she began, “you are accused of making a laughing-stock of fairy godmothers everywhere.”
I lowered my eyes, but I couldn’t shut out her voice.
“You made Cinderella’s coach from a pumpkin.” At her words, the clatter of teacups in the audience receded.
“You made her horses from mice and her footmen from lizards.” Subdued whispers began to rise.
“Then you stooped so low as to make her coachman from a rat.” When Azalea stressed that last word, the clatter of teacups began again and louder whispers skittered from godmother to godmother.
But they worked, I thought. Her coach was magnificent.
“Worst of all,” Azalea continued, “you let the whole spell dissolve at midnight, ensuring its being gossiped about all through fairyland.”
And that was why I was here. All that laughter was about to get me banished.
I stood straight and lifted my chin, pressing my hands against the sides of my gown to hide their trembling. I knew what she would ask. And I knew what I would have to answer.
“Do you deny having done these things, Abra?”
“No,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “I cannot deny it.” I literally dared not. Azalea had cast a spell over the pavilion that would turn any liar’s skin purple as the orchids for a month.
I looked out at the hundred faces before me. Sunlight streamed through the trees above and glittered off gold and silver wands. My whole future was at stake, and there they sat in their white wicker chairs, sipping tea and nibbling on frosted cakes. Only my mother, seated at the back of the crowd, looked as worried as I felt.
Azalea raised her wand and Regula, the examiner, rose from her seat.
She came forward to stand directly in front of me. “Abra,” she said in the unyielding voice I knew only too well from my schooldays, “three of your fellow godmothers will tell us what they know of your past behavior. Then, before Azalea and I determine your punishment, you may speak briefly in your own defense.”
I looked at the godmothers in the closest chairs. The three Regula would call on would surely be among them. Some had been my teachers. Two or three had been fellow students. Some were friends and some were not. I tried to smile at them all, but the curve of my lips felt as counterfeit as it truly was.
Marigold came forward first, her yellow gown brushing against the white floor. I gave a real smile this time. She had been one of my favorite teachers.
“Marigold,” Regula said, “please tell us what Abra was like as a student.”
“She was always polite,” she said. “She got along well with the others as far as I could see. And she made very insightful comments in class.” She smiled kindly at me and started to return to her seat.
I could have hugged her. "Insightful comments" had to count for something. But of course Regula called her back.
“She had no faults?”
“I’m afraid her assignments were often late or unfinished. And she did appear to daydream quite a bit.”
I hated knowing I’d disappointed her. But I wasn’t exactly daydreaming. I was making up stories that I’d write down as soon as I got back to my room.
“And in the lab?”
“Abra was very good in the lab when she had studied the spells she needed to perform.”
“Had she always studied them?”
Marigold sighed. “No. She was often unprepared.”
She was right, of course. The textbooks didn’t usually interest me. I was in trouble. I could see it in my mother’s face.
“Thank you,” Regula said. “Zephyr, come forward, please.”
I relaxed a little. Zephyr was one of my dearest friends.
“What were Abra’s strengths as a student?” Regula began.
“She had a wonderful imagination. She wrote papers that made me see everything around me with new eyes. And she was completely loyal and kind to her friends.”
“Loyalty and kindness are laudatory traits,” Regula said.
But. I could hear the word coming before she spoke it.
“But I also want to hear about her weaknesses.”
“I guess she was distracted sometimes. She didn’t always read her assignments if she was spinning a tale.” She clasped her hands against her silvery gown and took a deep breath. “She cared more for tale-spinning than casting spells.”
She wouldn’t look at me, just turned and hurried back to her chair. I wanted to tell her it was all right, that it was my own fault the evidence was going against me. But I wasn’t permitted to speak yet. Regula would have silenced me in a heartbeat.
And she had cleverly saved the worst witness for last. Bluebell stood in front of me now, a smirk on her face. I knew I was sunk.
“What can you tell us about Abra’s time as a student?”
“She should never have been awarded her wand. She read story books instead of spell books, and she told her own tales in the dormitory instead of working on her assignments.” She smiled sweetly at me. “They weren’t even interesting tales. I couldn’t bear to listen to them.”
Bluebell’s skin began turning a sickly shade of lavender. I tried not to laugh, but I couldn’t hold it in.
“Silence, Abra,” Azalea broke in. “Bluebell, would you like to modify your last answer?”
She shook her head. “Why?”
“You might just glance at your hands.”
The look of horror on her face was gratifying. I knew she’d listened to my tales even though she always swore she didn’t.
“If you tell the truth now, I’m willing to leave your skin lavender for two months instead of deep purple for one,” Azalea said. “But hurry. The shade is darkening as we speak.”
“I loved her stories,” Bluebell said as fast as she could. The color stayed where it was.
“You may sit down, Bluebell,” Regula said. “I think we have enough evidence.”
“Abra” she said, “I have a few questions.”
“Of all the professions open to you, why did you choose to become a fairy godmother?”
I hadn’t seen that one coming, and I’d have given anything not to have to answer it with my mother in the room. “Because of my mother,” I finally said.
“Your mother is a dream-gatherer, isn’t she?”
“Yes.” But Regula was waiting for more.
“She always admired fairy godmother, loved their power to make things happen,” I said. “And from the time I was the tiniest of sprites, she urged me in that direction. I just couldn’t disappoint her.” I broke off, half sick inside. “And now I’ve disappointed her beyond all measure.”
The full force of my failure hit me then, and I felt my tears coming. I concentrated every ounce of energy on holding them back, but I knew I would dissolve if Regula forced me to say any more. And there was no way I could look at my mother’s face.
“So,” she said, “on the night of the prince’s ball, when Cinderella wept in the ashes, you came to her aid.”
I nodded, relieved that the questioning had moved away from my mother.
“And, fine as your intentions may have been, you botched your task from start to finish”
I nodded again.
As she spoke those last words, I heard what sounded like booted feet at the back of the pavilion and everyone began to talk at the same time. I looked up and saw Cinderella herself, hand in hand with the prince.
He spoke first. “Lady Regula, I expected a misdirection spell, but I didn’t expect you to use it on our horses. We could see the pavilion, but they kept trying to go east instead of south.”
Regula actually laughed. “I wanted to make sure you were serious about giving us your thoughts.”
Cinderella smiled at me as they came forward. “We are very serious,” she said. “Abra gave us a gift no other could have given.”
That confused me. Any fairy godmother worth her keep could have done what I did much more elegantly. I was the one who wasn’t worth her keep.
“If the whole spell hadn’t come undone at midnight,” the prince said, “I might have thought of Ella as only one more lovely lady. But when she vanished, I had to find her.” He looked a little embarrassed. “Being a prince,” he said, “I’m hardly ever thwarted. Having to search for her made me value her as I should.”
Now Cinderella blushed. “Letting the glass slipper remain was a stroke of genius,”she said. “I was the only one it could fit.”
I beamed at them both. ‘Stroke of genius,’ I thought. Who would ever have guessed? Certainly not me.
I finally dared to look at my mother. She was smiling.
“And we’ve had such good laughs over the rat and the lizards,” the prince went on. “Considering her penchant for creativity, we were hoping Abra could become the palace tale-spinner. She’d keep us enthralled forever.”
“And our children, too, when they come,” Cinderella said.
Regula looked at me and then at Azalea. “It would solve our problem, I suppose.” She looked at me again.“Though you certainly don’t deserve it.”
I looked as meek as I could. Behind Regula’s back, Cinderella winked at me.
My fingers itched for my pen and my vellum. What a great tale this was going to make!