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 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 a 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 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, no two houses could be more at odds.
Movement caught her eye, a curtain in her alcove 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.”
“You don’t know the prince?”
“Of course not, and before you say anything it is not because I am a maid, my fam—” her mouth stayed open though she stopped her words.
She pointed at his mask, “why on earth did you choose that ghastly thing?”
He smiled, “well it is a masquerade 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 past the curtains.
“Oh no, no, nothing so dramatic. My family finds the royals’ methods a little,” she paused, hunting for the right words, “old fashioned.”
“Ah,” he adjusted his jacket, “they don’t care for o—their associating with the fey.”
“Magic in general really.” She blanched, smacked her mask with the fan in her hand, “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 dancefloor wafted to her alcoved 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 spectacle below. The queen wore a heavy cream dress trimmed with gold that was 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 with 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 hurry but walk calmly, 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 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 of it, the room was 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 that 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 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 wished 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 to where the carriages waited.
“You’re still here?”
The prince looked up to the magician staring at him with folded arms and a quirked brow.
The prince sat up from his hunched posture, rubbing his temples as he did so, “I suppose I am being a tad dramatic.”
The magician nodded.
He had done his best to keep the worry from his face when he looked at the balcony and his mystery lady had disappeared. He blamed himself, he had dashed off without her promising to stay and then revealed he was the elusive prince.
Once his parents freed him from their public display, he raced back, hoping she had just retreated behind the curtains. Instead of a fluster young lady, he found a curtain fluttering from the cool night breeze let in by an open door. She was gone. After a moment to collect himself, he returned to the party, smiling and dancing to the delight of his parents and every single woman at the ball. However, once the last guest bid adieu, he returned to their dark alcove and searched for clues. when he found none, he slunk in a chair and replayed their encounter in his mind until dawn broke.
“Are you sure she wasn’t a magician? She has you bewitched,” the magician smirked.
“Ha ha,” the prince looked at him with a dead stare, “how long have you been sitting on that one?”
His flame-haired friend shrugged, the black cape exaggerating the gesture, “Sometime between the second and third time I found you up here.”
He sat across from the prince and rolled his shoulders, easing out tension from staying up all night, “So,”
“Must have been quite the pretty face to keep you brooding up here when every desirable female was parading around for you downstairs.”
The prince turned away and looked out the open door–he never closed it, “I never saw her face.”
“Oh boy,” the magician grimaced and rubbed his face.
The prince groaned, dropping his head into his hands, “I know.”
“Do your parents?”
“No,” the prince’s head snapped up and he leveled a glare at the magician, “and they aren’t going to find out–at least not yet.”
“Come on,” he couldn’t stop smiling at his friend’s misery, “I can already hear your mother squealing ‘how romantic!’”
“It’s complicated,” he turned back to the door.
“Complicated how? Besides the obvious of you having no clue who she is.”
The prince didn’t hear the question, he was distracted by an odd glint of light in the curtain. He hadn’t noticed it earlier, and now he bit back a hint of hope in his mind. He gingerly removed the trinket from the curtain’s tassels, and examined it in the morning light. A beautiful sun charm made from solid gold, his friend was at his side without a sound, peering at the jewelry with him.
“I remember now! she was wearing a bracelet–this has to be hers!” The prince was so excited he didn’t notice his companion’s odd expression.
“‘Complicated’, you said?”
The magician’s cold tone stopped the prince’s reverie. He clutched the charm in his hand like someone might steal it at any moment. “What is it? Did you use magic?”
“Oh, I don’t need magic on this mate.”
The prince gripped the magician’s arm, nothing good ever came when he said ‘mate.’
“What is it Rink?”
“This,” Rink proudly held up the little gold sun with a flourish.
The prince’s closed hand flew open, revealing an empty palm. He rolled his eyes at his friend’s dramatics.
Rink grinned all-the-more, “This, my good prince, is but one portion of…” he waved his hand and a silvery moon and star appeared alongside it. “This. Which happens to be the emblem of Stochia’s wealthiest trading house and family, and–”
The prince was white, “The most prominent opponents of the royal family.”
The magician clapped him on the shoulder and still smiling, “complicated indeed mate. Now, since I apparently pay more attention to our good capital city than yourself, I can tell you that this particular piece–” he flicked his hand and the moon and star disappeared, “belongs to none other than the beautiful Lady Ciana.”
The prince snatched the charm from the bowing magician’s hand, turning in it his palm in case it had more secrets.
“How am I going to see her again?”
“You know,” Rink leaned against the open door frame, his head nodded toward the garden path outside, “seems to me like she left in a hurry; she might not want to be seen.”
“I’m not going to let her vanish without a word,” the prince looked down at the charm, “besides, it would be terribly rude to not return this.”
“When you put it like that,” Rink clasped his hands behind his back, “I feel it is my duty to inform His Royal Highness that the Palinouros household is holding a celebration next week.” He smiled, “no one throws a shindig without inviting the palace–no matter their politics.”
Rink threw his arm around the prince’s shoulder and pointed at the charm in his open hand, “and this would make a perfect birthday present for a certain lovely heiress.”
A glimmer in the corner of her eye caught Ciana’s attention. It was her reflection in the hall mirror, her blue ball gown sparkled. She couldn’t help but twirl, letting the full skirt spread out around her, expertly curled tresses did the same. She smiled at the image.
“You really shouldn’t smile at yourself that much. Even though you are so beautiful, people will think you’re a narcissist.”
Ciana turned to Kiran, her younger sister by four years. She wore a simple but elegant pink gown, with a high collar.
“Oh really? And just who told you that?” Ciana laughed and spun in her gown, stopping to watch the fabric fall.
Ciana stepped away so Kiran could face the mirror. She adjusted her collar that didn’t need adjusting. She twirled but the skirt of her dress fell straight to the ground so it didn’t flare out like her sister’s. No corset tucked in her waist–not until she turned sixteen.
“When I turn sixteen, my gown will have the fullest skirt anyone has ever seen.”
“Twenty petticoats then?” Ciana giggled and fixed a pin in her sister’s hair.
“Ciana!” an out-of-breath Astra shouted from the top of the stairs. running down them at such a pace it is a wonder she didn’t fall flat on her face. Ciana had made her practice moving in heeled boots for just such reasons. She stopped just before her eldest sister, hands clasped and eyes sparkling.
“Do you think anyone will propose to you tonight? I hope it’s the prince!”
“Why? Do you want me married and out of the house? You want my room don’t you?” Ciana lightly pinched her little sister’s cheek.
Astra swatted her hand away, giggling, and joined Kiran in the mirror. Only two years apart, they wore matching dresses–although Astra’s was a rich emerald green; coupled with her dark locks and porcelain skin, she was an elegant twelve year old–running down stairs and all. Ciana examined one of her blonde locks then looked at both her brunette sisters. She dropped to the ground, her royal blue dress spilling out around her.
“I look like such an odd duck next to your two,” She propped her elbows on her knees, chin in both hands, fingers expertly avoiding her blush and eyeshadow.
Astra spun around, “oh but think what a lovely contrast your blonde hair will be when you dance with the prince and his beautiful black hair.”
Kiran sighed, “the prince is not coming,” she turned to study her profile, “the royals never come.”
Astra turned back, “But–”
“There you are.”
A woman dressed in a silver sleeved gown entered the room, the faintest shimmer of grey in her brown curls, partly pulled away from her face. The clip of boots followed her, their owner in a grey suit, and a greying beard.
“Now where’s our birthday girl?”
Ciana stood and took her father’s outstretched hand.
“Lovely as ever,” he smiled, though his eyes looked sad. “I insist on you saving me a dance, I don’t believe I will have many opportunities after this.”
“Oh goodness,” Ciana let go of his hand, grabbed her voluminous skirt and slipped around them all, “Are you all determined to see me married off tonight? I didn’t realize you are all so ready to be rid of me–well come on then, let’s go greet guests and get me betrothed!”
Her family laughed and followed after her. A few guests had already arrived, letting the staff relieve them of their coats and cloaks. Ciana enjoyed the guests greetings, a quick “hello” and “thank you for coming”, then they moved to the next person. No having to feign amusement or attachment like when she had a particularly boring dance partner. But that part of the evening was coming soon, she could see the guests and carriages outside and they were near the end.
The last guest had just greeted them all when heralds trumpted outside. Odd, they hardly used the horns. Ciana looked at her mother but she was just as perplexed. When the footman pulled open both outer doors everything in Ciana’s body froze. The prince entered, dressed in black and covered in military medals, followed a few steps away by the magician also dressed in black but he had switched his black cape for a red one.
When the prince stopped in front of Ciana, he seemed to grin the more she tried to keep a straight face. She curtseyed deeply, as deep as her tight corset would allow.
“Your Royal Highness, I am so humbled that you grace us with your presence.”
“Thank you,” he reached for her hand and helped her stand, “but truly, I preferred when you weren’t so formal.”
He kissed her gloved hand before letting go, Ciana blushed profusely and glared for the briefest moment.
“When weren’t you formal?” Astra appeared at her elbow despite having been several feet away.
“My good prince,” Ciana’s mother bowed, “Thank you for coming, though I believe the palace informed us your family would not be able to attend this evening.”
“Lady Sky,” The prince gave a subtle nod, “Yes, unfortunately my parents were unable to come, but when I discovered I could make the wonderful event, I felt it necessary to attend.” His eyes flicked toward Ciana then back to her mother, “Did you not receive my note?”
“Your note?” The words slipped out of Ciana’s mouth without her permission.
“This is what I was trying to tell you!” Astra bounced to get their attention, “The prince sent a note this week!”
“And just how do you know this?” Ciana put her hands on her hips, forgetting she was a ball hostess instead of an elder sister. The prince liked how it looked on her.
“Because I know what Papa thinks of the palace and he–”
Ciana spun her sister around, clamped a hand over her mouth, and called her other sister over–who was artfully eavesdropping. “Kiran dear, please take Astra to the refreshments, she looks positively parched don’t you agree?”
“Yes of course,” she took a protesting Astra away.
Ciana breathed for the first time since his appearance, but spotted her scowling father making his way toward them. Her mother at his elbow with her classic be calm dear expression, though it didn’t seem to have much effect.
“My good prince, I believe the dancing has started, would you honor me with my first of the evening?”
“A pleasure I hope to repeat many times.”
She took his offered arm, ensuring a pinch on his underarm as her hand slipped into the crook of his elbow. He bit back a laugh as he steered her to the dance floor.
The room hushed when they took the floor, even the musicians paused when they felt the shift in the room. Ciana gave them her best glare and they took up again. She did not need anymore attention right now. It took multiple pases across the floor before the staring stopped and the gossiping took up.
“What are you doing here?” She spoke through closed teeth.
“I have something for you.”
He spun her away from him, when she came back he held up his hand, a small golden sun in his palm.
“Where did you get this?” Her eyes wide.
“I like to think you left it for me to find.”
She looked at him with an untrusting squint while slipping the charm in her pocket.
“What? You clearly left it hidden in the drapes when you rushed away from your growing attraction to me.”
She scoffed as he twirled her again, he did dance well.
“I believe the city’s post works just fine.”
“Ah yes but,” he held her hand up to study the bracelet, he gently turned it until he found an empty ring, “something that special should be delivered in person. Besides, I wanted to see you again–you did end our evening far sooner than I expected.”
“You’re the future king! You can’t go frolicking after young women you hardly know and met in a dark corner.”
“Please, make our introduction sound more scandalous.” He dipped her, letting her linger in his arms longer than the dance called for, “If you haven’t noticed, I’m not king yet, so now seemed as good as time as any.”
He brought her upright and slipped his arm around her wait, holding her so close he could whisper in her ear. “Speaking of being king–”
“Based on my father’s current expression, keep holding me closer than proper decorum allows and I doubt you will make it to that day.”
He stole a glance at her family. Her father scowled at him while her mother appeared to be chidding him–smiling the entire time. Her sisters made no attempt to hide how closely they watched their sister and the prince dance. The youngest in particular bounced on her toes.
“Your sisters seem to like me,” he continued to whisper, letting her slip away sounded painful.
“Oh Astra’s in love with you, no wonder she squirreled away your note–the little sneak.” She twisted in his arms to face them, sticking her tongue out at the girl in green, who returned the gesture.
The prince laughed softly. She was so refined but entirely her own. They continued to dance in silence, she didn’t comment on his continuing to hold her close. When the music stopped she started to pull away, but he pulled her back into his arms, keeping her for the next dance. He noticed more than one angry look from the other young men in attendance. Ciana noticed his jaw tighten and she looked across the room to see what irked him.
“ I know it’s your birthday, but I must ask for a favor.”
“What favor?” She quirked a brow.
“Marry me and become queen”
“Become Quee—my father hates royalty, do you have any idea what he would say if I agree to marry you?”
“Oh something interesting,” he smiled at the crowds around them before leaning in and whispering, “but not nearly as interesting as the first words out of your mouth not being ‘no’”
Ciana’s mouth gaped open.
“Careful my lady,” the prince grinned, “you wouldn’t want anything to fly in there.”
She clamped her mouth shut and glared at him. He spun her around; before he pulled her back she spotted her parents, her father looking less irritated–thanks to her mother no doubt.
He pulled her back to him, “Was that an omission of feelings for me, or are you too kind a creature to refuse me to my face?”
“Oh I think we both know I would have no issues rejecting you to your face.”
“Confidence–a fine trait in a ruler”
“I am no ruler,” she scoffed.
“Oh but you are–you certainly rule my heart.”
She pulled away to look at him, “have you gotten into the punch?”
A splash of red caught his eye. The prince looked up to see the magician leaning against a column, his expression serious.
“Rink is dying to meet you”
He nodded, “he’s a good friend, but I will only introduce you if you both promise to not fall madly in love with each other.”
She smiled and batted her eyes at him, “but if he’s really a good friend, wouldn’t you want him to be happy?”
He growled and pulled her close, “not that good.”
She laughed, it was like the cool mist after a thunderstorm–invigorating and calming all at the same time. The feeling didn’t last forever; she stopped laughing, the music filled his ears, and he remembered this could be the last time he saw her. He pulled her away, they continued to dance but he wanted to see her face.
She looked concerned, “what is it?”
“Marry me.” he said it in earnest, no jest, no flirting.
She smiled and looked around to see if anyone near could hear them, “Why do you want me to?”
He pulled her in tight, unfortunately when they were within direct view of her father, who grunted in response, and whispered in her ear. “Because I have met every beautiful woman in this country and I don’t remember any of them.”
She leaned back to see his face, “but you remember me because I’m the fairest of them all?”
She looked puzzled when he shook his head and pulled her back in.
“Because I remembered you when I had never seen your face.”
He placed his hand on her face, gentle stroking her cheek with his thumb. He glanced at her father, who was not entirely scowling now but still flared at him. Oh well, a kiss was worth the risk.