Fiction

Lost Charm, Part I

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A Cinderella re-telling by R.A. Claborn

Once upon a time, in faraway land, a late-night party was in hand. A young maiden slipped through the palace grounds unnoticed. She ran her gloved hands over the delicately beaded bodice of her dress, knowing it was finer than most but hoped last season’s style did not bring attention. A clock chimed the midnight hour and she inwardly groaned as she slipped up the last steps and cursed her family’s late dining habits; it made arriving any sooner impossible and now she only had few hours to enjoy before the dawn.

One last adjustment on her mask and she greeted the hailer with a gold coin. If she learned anything in her life, it was a confident head and a coin could get her anywhere, like a prince’s masked ball. Not that she needed the persuasion, she had an invitation like everyone here, but unlike everyone here, her family had responded “deepest regrets” to the invite. A perfect opportunity. No family, no announced entrance, she could see what a party was really like without the crowds fawning over her. She wore a true mask, instead of the delicate lace applique preferred by her gender, as an extra precaution.

Bright dresses and jewels abounded, the young ladies all competing with each other, dressed like the new spring flowers to catch the prince’s eye. She drifted around the party’s edge, grabbed a glass and pastry from passing trays, and settled behind thick velvet curtains to watch the revelry. The music was delightful, she tapped her foot and bit back a desire to join the dancers. She did not need the close inspection of a partner revealing her identity. A sip of the wine and a bite of the dense confection told her father’s cellar was better stocked and her mother hired a better cook, but that was not surprising. Oh the scandal if she was found out, no two houses could be more at odds.

Movement caught her eye, a curtain in her alcove was disturbed by a dark figure with a grotesque mask; it looked like a pale devil, four horns protruded—two from the head, two the jaw—and displayed its tongue in a most vulgar manner.  She feared she was discovered, but the figure kept his focus on the ballroom and did not acknowledge his neighbor in the shadows. He was impeccably dressed despite the horrid façade, a detail years of wearing only the best had taught her to notice. It was a matter of time before he realized her presence too.

“I am afraid you will have to keep moving.” She gestured with her fan back down the hall behind him.

“I beg your pardon?” he appeared more startled by her statement than her unannounced presence.

“As you should, this is my hiding spot. Now scoot.”

He smiled and tilted his head, not the reaction she intended. She would have thought it endearing if not for his mask.

“Before I ‘scoot’ as you so humbly request, might I inquire why you are hiding?”

She tsked, “saying why I am hiding would be as bad as not hiding, don’t you think?”

“Might I wager a guess? Did you sneak through some unguarded corridor? Perhaps you are some lady’s maid who stole her mistress’s dress and came in hopes of stealing the prince’s heart?”

She chuckled and looked back over the dancers.  She muttered to no one, “where is he?”

“Ah, so you are looking for the prince,” he edged toward her, his tone almost disappointed.

“Well, I am curious, I’d like to know what poor soul needs such assistance with matchmaking, his family throws a party and invites every female in sight.”

“Young attractive maiden, disguised and attending a ball, which a single prince also happens to be attending? You sound like a real life fairy tale”

“You know fairy tales aren’t about real people? They’re morals wrapped up in magic, telling us how we should strive to be. And I’ll have you know,” she pointed her closed fan at this chest, “ I bought this dress at a ready-made store so I would not stand out.”

Her shoulders sagged as her eyes slide over the glittering ballroom below them, “you don’t know what it’s like to always have people watching you.”

He came to the railing next to her, his eyes taking the same path as hers before he leaned away, “you might be surprised.”

She looked at him, biting her lip to hold back a smile before facing him with square shoulders and an outstretched hand, “Lady Ki”

He shook it, “call me Fitz”

“Is Fitz short for something?”

He still shook her hand, “is Ki?”

She laughed, “you’re good, you won’t be slipping out undetected anytime soon–especially with that ghastly thing,” she pointed at his mask, “but good.”

He smiled in return and let go of her hand, reluctantly.

She put her hand on a popped hip, “why on earth did you chose that ghastly thing?”

He smiled, “well it is a masque is it not? I thought this one best hid my true self.”

She leaned against the railing, her chin rested on the fan in her hand, “are you saying you’re an angel?”

He smiled at her, “hardly, and I’m not as fascinating as you, Lady of Secrets.”

“If you must know, I’m not supposed to be here.”

He cocked his head; the longer she stared at his mask the more comical it became.

“Oh? You weren’t invited?”

“Of course I was invited,” she scoffed at the idea, but bit her lip and stared at the people dancing below them. “Let’s just say that my family and the crown are not great friends.”

“Some dispute of the past? A contested claim to the throne perhaps?” he shared her railing now, though he did not lean passed the curtains.

“Oh no, no, nothing so dramatic. My family finds the royals’ methods a little, old-fashioned.”

“Ah,” he adjusted his jacket, “they don’t care for o—their associating with the fey.”

“Magic in general really.” She blanched, “why am I telling you this, I believe you are supposed to be scooting now.” She pushed him away, his eyes widened at the casual touch but he smiled all the same.

“So, your parents would be upset with you attending?”

She nodded, “Neither side would want me here I believe.”

“And you came because?”

“Because I wanted to see what a party is really like, without being watched the whole time.”

“So you’re doing the watching”

“I would be, but this white demon won’t leave me alone.”

“But what if the demon just wants to do some people watching too? And you have chosen the perfect location.” He gestured toward their alcove but his eyes never left her.

She stood and examined him more thoroughly, he feigned a cough and looked away from her unabashed study.

“You are clearly no footman, and well-versed in the royals, so why are you hiding? Cause some scandal, hm? Seduced some noble’s daughter?” she leaned toward him, he attempted to lean away but a column stopped his escape.

He sputtered, “no!” his eyes darted around for anyone who heard his outburst before whispering, “no, nothing like that. Like you, I wanted to see what a ball is really like without an audience examining my every move.”

She stood back away from him, he could see enough of her eyes within the mask to see she squinted skeptically, “I believe you. Fine, you may stay.”

He made a deep bow, his mask slipped slightly in the gesture and he quickly reached to secure it, “my humblest thanks for your generosity.”

She turned back to the balcony, her attention returned to the party below. The dancing had been underway well before her arrival but no one showed signs of fatigue. In fact, an odd energy seemed to buzz through the room, particularly amongst the ladies without partners. Some whispered, some did not, but all searched about the room for something. She turned to ask her fellow hider if he knew what they were seeking only to discover his eyes were on her and not the scene before them. Her hand edged down her bodice to the skirt, it was still a lovely gown even though the new spring fashion didn’t care for capped sleeves. Had that caught his attention or was it her lack of gloves? Decorum may call for covered fingers but she had removed the silk accessories given how the heat of the dance floor wafted to her alcove and stayed there. she spied a half-grin between the horns before the musician’s fanfare broke his admiration.

They both looked back over the crowd, the king and queen walked slowly toward the raised platform, neither bothered with masks. Her companion sighed then looked back to her.

He bit his lip, “may I ask a favor?”

She quirked her head but made no remark.

“Do not leave this spot.”

He bounded away, more akin to a schoolboy late for lessons than a gentleman at a party, but she shrugged at her odd companion and returned to spying on the dance. The queen wore a heavy cream dress trimmed with gold that was oddly familiar, and a decidedly neutral expression. The king was a stark contrast, rich blue and red, covered in medals; he smiled proudly but rubbed his hands back and forth like he didn’t know what to do them.

The rubbing stopped when a mop of red hair nodded at him from the side of the stage, she would have missed him if it weren’t for man’s flaming tresses. Or rather, Magician’s. His occupational distinction, a black cape draped from one shoulder, swirled out when he turned to look behind. She leaned out to see what he was looking at but any further and she’d fall over the railing. What a fuss that would make, especially if she survived to see her parents.

A figure in the awkward gate of one trying to walk calm but hurried, emerged from under the balcony, and she suddenly knew why the queen’s dress was so familiar. her companion ascended the steps, or at least someone dressed as impeccably as her companion, for his face was freed from the devil mask abomination. a flash of white managed to steal her eye from the stage back to the magician, the bone white mask now in his hands.

Her bodice suddenly seemed ten times tighter. Her companion now stood on the stage next to the ruling monarchs. She would have convinced herself it was only a similar appearance if he hadn’t clearly looked up at her—twice—since joining his parents on the stage. The fanfare from his entrance died away and the king greeted their guests, she didn’t hear a word it, the room was suddenly too warm to tolerate anymore. Time to leave, she had been here long enough; and now that she knew her companion’s identity—well, furthering their exchange was no longer acceptable.

She couldn’t escape through the main door, it was too visible and she had a sneaking suspicion if the prince saw her exit he’d send royal hounds after her—if not himself—given his desire to keep her waiting in the balcony. The curtains fluttered in the corner and she thanked the heavens because a breeze meant an open door–she would even take a window at this juncture. She pulled away the curtains and revealed an open door to the gardens, no doubt left open by romancers wanting privacy. She glanced back over her shoulder and could still here talking from the ballroom. Good, no one to follow her yet. She shoved through the curtains, one clung to her arm like the palace was enchanted and wish to hold her back according to its owner’s wishes. She ripped her arm away, kicked off her heeled slippers, scooped them up along with her skirt, and made her way hastily to where the carriages waited.

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