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At the moment of Eleanor (Ella) of Frell's birth, she was unfortunately bestowed a "gift" by a fairy named Lucinda. Despite the objections from her mother and fairy godmother/family's cook (Mandy), Lucinda cursed Ella with the "gift" of obedience. From that day forward, Ella was to obey any direct order given to her by anybody, no matter what it was (orders ranging from hopping on one foot all day to chopping off her own head). Ella, however, remains lighthearted by making a game out of her curse and finding loopholes around orders. For example, if Mandy orders her to hold a bowl of cake batter, Ella runs around the kitchen, having Mandy chase after her until she gives her another order or request.
At her mother's funeral, Ella meets Prince Charmont a.k.a. Char, in the graveyard next to a large willow tree. The two have a long conversation full of laughs and wit until Ella's father takes her home. At home, Ella meets Dame Olga and her daughters, Hattie and Olive, whom she discovers have bad attitudes and are being sent to finishing school. After the three leave, Ella's father forces her to go to finishing school because he doesn't want his daughter to grow up being a clumsy cook's helper. The night before she is sent away, Mandy gives her a magical fairy book that can show her children's stories, journal entries, maps and, most precious to Ella, letters from friends and family. Mandy also gives Ella her mother's necklace.
The day she is sent to finishing school, she first goes on a small trip with Prince Char, who shows her all of her favorite places and promises to bring her a centaur. Ella gets in a carriage with Hattie and Olive, who automatically begin to take advantage of the curse, making her give up the necklace as well as her money. When they arrive at finishing school, Ella befriends an Ayorthian girl named Areida and the two are very close until Hattie forces Ella to end her friendship with an order. From her magic book, Ella learns of a Giant's wedding which both her father and Lucinda will attend. Eager to be free from the curse, she flees from finishing school in the night and makes her way to the Giant's wedding.
On the way, she meets a group of elves who give her a gift (a beautiful Agulen sculpture of a howling wolf) and a horse. After she leaves the elves, she's kidnapped by ogres who eat her horse and try to eat her. However, after observing the Ogrese language overnight, she hypnotizes them and is soon saved by Char and his knights. They bind the ogres and take them in, and Char lets one of his knights take her to the wedding. Ella meets Lucinda and begs her to remove the curse, while at the same time hoping Lucinda isn't offended and won't turn her into a squirrel. Lucinda refuses and orders her to be happy with her obedience.
This has serious after-effects. She meets her father and they return home. He is now a ruined man for selling an item that did not belong to him. In order to keep his family from being thrown into the streets, he plans to marry Ella off. At first Ella is happy, as Lucinda ordered her to be, and even meets one of her suitors at dinner. However, an order from Mandy telling her to feel however she feels about her curse allows her to change her mind. Her father refuses to marry Ella off, and instead decides to marry Dame Olga. Ella's worst fears unfold as Hattie and Olive are now her sisters.
At the wedding, she meets with Prince Char again, and they share a romantic evening together. They find glass slippers in a garden and Ella wears them as they dance together. It is the last time they see each other for some time, for he has to leave for Ayortha for a year, but they promise to keep in touch through letters. Lucinda arrives at the wedding and bestows a curse on the married couple, granting them eternal love. Any chance of Ella's father leaving Dame Olga has now been ruined. Instantly, Ella is turned into a slave in her own house, working with the servants and abiding by Hattie and Olive's ridiculous orders, while at the same time having fun slipping sleeping herbs into Dame Olga's supper.
After six months of correspondence, Ella receives a letter from Char, where he pours out his heart to her and proposes to her. At first she is happy, but soon realizes that marrying Char would make things much worse. Her stepsisters would take advantage of her completely, especially since she would be queen, and if she was ever captured by an enemy of Frell, she could be forced to kill Char or reveal state secrets. Ella sends a fraud letter to him saying that she has run away with another man and will be "smiling at her jewels and laughing at the world." Her fairy book shows a picture of Char burning her letters as well as a page from his journal stating how he despises her. It breaks Ella's heart, but she is happy that he is safe.
Mandy, fed up with Ella's torment, challenges Lucinda to a small game. She tells her to spend three months as a squirrel and three months cursed to be obedient, just to get a taste of what her "gifted ones" go through for their entire lives. At the end of this time, Lucinda has learned her lesson, and in return decides to help Ella. Char, returned from Ayortha, holds a royal ball that lasts for three nights. Lucinda uses her magic to turn mice and pumpkins into horses and a coach and dresses Ella in a beautiful dress, jewelry and a mask. Ella, now under the alias Lela, can go to the ball and see Char again.
On the third night of the ball, when she's dancing with Char, Hattie snatches off her mask. Ella flees Char, who is in complete and utter shock, and runs to the manor. Ella and Mandy plan to run away and make their living as cooks, but Char and his soldiers come to their house before they can leave. Ella puts on servants' clothes and dirties her face, in hopes that Char will not recognize her. But, of course, he does. Ella tries on the glass slippers from her father's wedding, and they fit her perfectly. Char unintentionally orders Ella to tell him honestly if she loves him or not, which she says she does, and happily he "orders" her to marry him. Ella realizes that she has put him in danger and fights the curse to refuse his order. In the end, her love and her willpower break the curse.
In the end, Olive marries a count only for food and money, Dame Olga is left still in eternal love, and Hattie never marries; Ella and Char live happily ever after.