Prologue

The length of corridor leading from her room, making its way through the upper house and over towards the stairs, had never felt such a long stretch before. And it was unclear if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

The Lady Chastity-Claire Babcock, daughter to Stewart Babcock, Duke of Bedford (and also the richest man in England) was unsure for a number of reasons, and each time she thought about an individual one, she tugged at her dress to make it even straighter than it already was. She was already in danger of pulling a seam loose, at this stage.

When she went to do it again, she balled her fist so it couldn't grasp the fabric and had to settle for ineffectively hitting her in the leg instead. This was her first ball, her introduction to society; she wanted to look just as beautiful as any other lady there! How embarrassing it would be if she didn't, and became memorable for all the wrong reasons!

Not that she was looking to be beautiful with the same intentions as the rest of them. From what C.C. had heard (she didn't know too much), the night was supposed to celebrate Prince Niles returning from serving in the military and to aid in finding him a bride (which, considering they were in the middle of a war with the Dutch and that King Joseph had no other surviving children, was a rather pressing matter, succession-wise). She had to be truthful in that the idea of seeing the prince made her curious. Not only was he a war hero (having played a vital role in the English victory in the battle of Lowestoft the previous year) but, according to every story she'd ever been told, he was also very handsome to look upon.

Unfortunately, that information was always followed with the fact that he was, rather famously, a womaniser, which discoloured any opinion she might've otherwise held. She had resolved to look at the man from afar, if she even saw him. She had no interest in marrying him – she was more concerned about looking elegant for the first time at a place such as Whitehall Palace than about finding a husband. Besides, when she eventually married, the last person she wanted to get married to was the kind of man who'd regularly cheat on her, hurt and humiliate her, war hero or not.

No, her first dance in society came first and foremost in her mind! She'd been practising enough that that couldn't possibly be humiliating at all – she knew every step, practically in her sleep by now! And at least she had the anonymity of the masquerade theme if she fell flat on her face. That had to reassure at least a little.

She was – finally – nearly at the stairs to make her way down, but as she passed the last few doors on the upper landing, the louder she could hear the heated discussion coming from her sister's room, even if D.D.'s voice was currently weakened by sickness.

"This isn't fair...!"

Their mother's voice was lower, but clearly firm in the matter.

"You'll thank us for it one day, when you are able to appreciate going in better health."

C.C. couldn't help frowning about the situation, her heart both troubled by her sister's illness and full of sympathy. She wouldn't know how she would've reacted in D.D.'s place – her little sister was far too sick to go. Fever and chills had been wracking her for hours, coming in turn, followed by bouts where she was too weak to stand, she'd vomited more times that day than C.C. could remember counting...

"I can get up; I can make it," D.D. insisted. It wasn't enough, but she was trying. "I am in perfect enough health to attend...!"

C.C. knew she would've been upset, too, if she'd had to miss out on the excitement of a ball, for some illness that she hadn't managed to shake yet. Especially one that had come on so fast...! She'd been fine, what, just that morning?

D.D. certainly was upset by it – the proof was written all over her pale, drawn face as she sat up in bed, her mother perched on the edge. C.C. watched from the doorway, gut twisting a little just looking at how sick her little sister appeared to be. Her father had told her it had to be a case of influenza, and that she'd be right as rain again in a few days, but...well, this made her unsure.

But her father was rarely ever wrong. He had to be right about this too, didn't he?

D.D. spotted her lingering in the doorway and jabbed a finger in her direction – slowly, but nonetheless indignantly.

"Why is she allowed to go while I'm not...?!"

C.C. saw the look of disapproval spread across her mother's face.

"We use names in this house, dear. And your sister is allowed to go because she is both old enough and well enough," she replied, with parental annoyance. "It will be your turn, soon enough! For now, you must stay here and recover!"

B.B. then turned towards C.C. and spoke quietly, making a slight ushering motion with her hand.

"You had best not keep your father waiting, Chastity. Go on...!"

C.C. nodded, continuing on her way. Her mother had always been something of a stickler for punctuality, but she knew it was also a measure to prevent D.D. from becoming any more upset. Seeing her sister, hair and makeup perfectly done and in a beautiful new dress, hardly had to help matters!

And C.C. wanted to help however she could; her options in that regard were just limited. Staying away to help her sister feel a little better while she was sick and upset was one of the few things she could do.

Taking in a deep breath, she went further away from the noise and made her way down the stairs, delicately placing her foot on each step so that she couldn't tear anything, trip or ruin the moment entirely by falling completely down the whole flight.

Knowing her luck, she could do any of those...!

She crossed the hallway more quickly, heading for the parlour and feeling a bit safer now she was on flat flooring. Her father was waiting there in the next room, hands patiently folded and looking expectantly towards the door. The moment she walked through it, he clutched at his chest and let out a deep, gushing sigh. Even from a distance, his eyes were clearly shining and a beaming smile – a smile a mile wide – spread across his face.

"Oh, my Kitten...!" he declared proudly, hurrying forward to meet her, even offering her a bow as he got close. "You're going to be magnificent in there! You look beautiful!"

C.C. wanted to laugh at her father's antics, but she found herself too busy turning bright pink at the choice of word. Granted, she thought she looked better than usual, but she wouldn't have gone so far as to say "beautiful"! She wasn't that type; her hair and makeup made her look...well, different, but that didn't mean it made her beautiful, or anything like that...!

Her dress, however… that was another thing entirely. It had been custom made for her by the best seamstress in Europe. Only the finest fabrics and threads had been used to create it, it was deep blue in colour and with sapphires sewn into it – how could anyone not look beautiful in such a fine piece of clothing?

On a real woman, it would have looked like what it was supposed to – an ordinary ride that flowed as naturally with their bodies as the tides did with the sea. She wasn't one of those women. She wasn't there for the benefit of the prince, and she certainly wasn't going to be marrying him!

But she had to be gracious about it to her father, and she smiled.

"You really are exaggerating, Papa," she said fondly, lightly taking his hands as she came forward to meet him. "But thank you. It should truly be doubled, really – I can't begin to appreciate you taking me to this ball enough...!"

Stewart chuckled and shook his head, slipping round so she was holding onto his arm.

"There's absolutely no need to thank me. Most fathers would probably balk at the idea of their daughters suddenly being ready for their introduction to society," he said gently. "But I've been looking forward to seeing mine grow up and find her own feet for a long time."

There was a pause then, probably as Stewart let a wave of nostalgia wash over him, before he continued.

"And I don't believe I'm exaggerating at all when I say you look beautiful. You'll outshine every other young lady in the place, and the gentlemen won't know what to do with themselves...!"

C.C. felt the faint blush on her cheeks start to spread. Her father really and truly was waxing lyrical where there was no reason or need...and to mention the young gentlemen who'd be at the ball? That made her feel...well, she wasn't truly sure how to feel about that!

She knew she'd probably be married – maybe to someone who was also attending that night – within the next few months to a year (or once she'd turned seventeen, as her mother had said, back when she'd had her first…monthly indisposition… almost two years ago). But this would be her first time ever meeting gentlemen her age. It made her wonder what they could be like. Would they be nice? Would they ask her to dance? It would be her first time ever dancing with an actual partner – she'd only ever practised alone before (with her bedroom door closed, in case D.D. had decided to come snooping, of course). She could only hope she was good enough at it not to make a fool of herself in front of them...! Even if she didn't find the man she'd marry from among those that she spoke to, she wanted to enjoy the masquerade above all else. And nothing would ruin that quite as much as tripping or fumbling or looking awkward in any way, shape or form!

Now wasn't the time to protest or argue about if, indeed, her attributes were as fair and as legendary as her father claimed, either (not to even mention the "gentlemen" situation!). It was time to get moving and go to the palace, where a wonderful party was awaiting them. She'd heard only wonders about the lavish soirées organised by King Joseph and Queen Marie. From artists native to distant and mysterious lands to the finest musicians on Earth, their parties had everything to entertain the crowned heads of Europe, and C.C. was certain no expenses had been spared this time, given that the party was in Prince Niles' honour. He was, after all, the heir to the English throne, a war hero, and the only (surviving) child of King Joseph and Queen Marie.

Not that that mattered much to her. It wasn't as though she was going with the intention of speaking to him, or trying to win him over. Out of any of the gentlemen she could meet over the course of the evening, a womanising cad had to be the one she held the least interest in. Unless, of course, someone cruder presented themselves over the course of the evening. And even then, that was a big "if". At any rate, she couldn't care less about the prince's own search for a wife. She only truly wanted to dance the night away.

Before C.C. could say anything at all to reply to her father, footsteps stomping into the room heralded the arrival of her mother. B.B. was busy pulling her sleeves back down and wore an expression like a gathering storm even as she came in, and that made Stewart frown immediately.

"D.D. still isn't happy about any of this...?" he asked tentatively.

B.B. let out a sigh that held the weight of the world and shook her head.

"I've tried everything with that girl...! Nothing seems to work!"

Looking like he was biting the inside of his lip, he offered his free hand out to his wife, which she took in comfort. He kissed her hand as she came close, and as soon as she was stood by him he kissed her cheek as well.

"I'm sure she'll be fine. She's just upset for now – besides, it isn't as though there won't be any more balls or masquerades after tonight," he then directed her attention towards their eldest daughter. "This one just happens to be C.C.'s turn. And, in turn, I just know she's going to turn a few heads...!"

He grinned, clearly pleased with his own little form of a joke. C.C. just about kept herself from rolling her eyes (even if her mother did not).

"Saying the same word over and over does not make it a pun, Papa...!"

Stewart didn't seem to mind her saying this; he was too caught up in the moment. He beamed between his wife and eldest daughter.

"Ah, our girl is going to be the cleverest there, as well as the most beautiful! It will be a magical evening," he said. "And C.C., you will be able to tell your sister everything – so it will be like she was there."

B.B. watched as their daughter nodded in return, and felt a lump catch a little in her throat. This truly was it; their girl – a girl no longer, really – was going out into society for the first time...! She was just as beautiful as Stewart had said she was; the young nobles and gentlemen would be queueing up to dance with her...

But of course, they still had to get there first! They were stood there sharing an emotional moment when they needed to be on their way if they were to go anywhere or meet anyone!

"You need to be moving if that is to happen, though," she reminded her husband with a smile. "No time for any more honeyed words! The ball is waiting!"

They knew she was right, of course, and Stewart joyfully had them all "snap to it" in order to get ready.

"Your mother is right, Kitten! We must be on our way if we're going to help the belle of the ball arrive!"

That time, C.C. had rolled her eyes good-naturedly, but she'd let go of her father's arm in order to pick up her mask, which had arrived that morning and had been waiting for her on the table ever since. No one was ready to go until everyone's mask was in place (at least, that was what her father had said).

When they were all suitably ready to attend such a magnificent event, the servants were all called in to practically form a guard of honour as they left, lining the doorway and calling out compliments and words of encouragement.

"You look absolutely beautiful, my lady!"

"Have a wonderful time!"

"Turn the prince's head, my lady...!"

C.C. beamed a little brighter at each one, though that last particular cry (from among the maids: no one owned up as to who it had been) had also made her want to laugh.

She held firm as her father escorted her past the stairs, where everyone called up to D.D. to offer goodbyes and their dearest wishes. None were returned, of course; she had to still be unhappy with the lot of them. It made C.C. sad to think that there wasn't much they could do in that regard. But she knew her sister needed to be well again before she faced any of this kind of excitement!

The compliments and good-natured words from the servants only stopped when the family butler opened the door for them all to head out to the carriage. The Babcocks all said their last goodbyes to everyone around them, and C.C. gripped at her father's jacket sleeve just that little bit tighter as they stepped over the threshold and headed out to their transportation.

The pathway crunched underneath them as they headed to the carriage, their footman opening the door for them in preparation as they got nearer. It was better that he did it early – both ladies needed help with their dresses as they tried to climb up into the carriage! It was awkward to move, heavy and far too complicated for them to do it by themselves, after all!

Both B.B. and Stewart insisted that C.C. be helped up first, so she climbed in and got comfortable in her seat while her parents got ready to make their way up the steps themselves. Her mother climbed in beside her, with some help both from the footman and her husband, and then Stewart took the seat opposite them. He smacked his hand on the carriage ceiling as soon as he was settled.

"Alright, we're all set, so let's go!"

The carriage driver must have heard him loud and clear because he immediately stirred the horses into action.

C.C. felt a tense excitement clench in her chest. They really were finally on their way – she was heading to her very first masquerade ball, and she was going to get to dance and meet people and just...just have a wonderful time, as the servants had said! Anything could happen that night, and she couldn't wait to find out exactly what it would be!

The carriage picked up speed the further away they got from the house, and C.C. turned her head to watch out the window as the countryside moved past them. She had to do it carefully, though – the servants had pinned her hair back, and she didn't want to turn up looking like a scarecrow instead of a woman. She had to keep out of any potential breeze.

Though if she danced as much as she hoped she would, it was possible her hair would come loose anyway…

Stewart could see her eagerness, without even saying so. He couldn't possibly have denied her this ball – even if it hadn't been commanded by King Joseph. Besides, he loved seeing her so excited. She was legally a woman now, but to him, she would always be the little girl who'd sit on his knee in the study while he read a great document or two on one subject or another.

This ball would be different, but wonderful nonetheless.

The further they moved into the city and the closer the carriage got to their destination, the more C.C. nearly began to physically press herself against the window. It was only the fact that she was conscientious of her hair, makeup and dress that she stopped herself!

She simply couldn't help leaning, angling her head to stare up in awe at the turrets and the high walls. They'd nearly arrived at the palace; the grandest building she'd ever seen in her life! Soon, they'd really be inside it, too! Dancing and mingling and chatting to other guests – she could practically hear the music already!

Stewart watched in amusement as his daughter clearly did everything she could not to jump out of the moving carriage and run to the palace, but at the same time leaning so far over that she might as well have done.

He chuckled, "Getting excited now, Kitten?"

"Obviously," replied B.B. for her child, giving a good-natured eye-roll at her husband. "She's on the edge of her seat as it is!"

C.C. could only agree. This was her first ball, and she wanted to make the best of it and enjoy her introduction to society as much as she could. Especially since she'd get, for the first time, to dance with a man that wasn't her father. This entire night signalled her passage into adulthood and she could only start to imagine the gentlemen that she might meet inside.

It truly would be something if she did end up meeting her future husband that night, though she obviously wouldn't know about it for some time yet. Her father would insist on them going through the "proper" motions and waiting until he was ready to arrange the match before anything happened. He was rather traditional that way, but C.C. didn't mind. She would enjoy every moment – especially the hours that were still to come that night.

And all of them were to come in the magnificent building they were approaching, passing through an enormous set of gates guarded by soldiers in gleaming armour and fine uniforms, the carriage slowing to a crawl as it joined the queue of others – a long caravan of nobility and other esteemed guests who had been invited to enjoy the evening.

C.C. felt her heart leap. It was really happening – she was practically staring the palace, enormous and awe-inspiring, right in the face. Granted, she was nearly pressed against the window again to do it, but still! She really was there, and she was being invited inside to dance and have fun and be a guest in a place that she doubted she'd ever go near again!

It truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience – for her, and for the other ladies that were all queueing to go in. She could see them all waiting, separately to their parents and chaperones, as the carriage turned to head towards the front of the line. They'd already put their masks on, "protecting" their identities before they were even announced. They'd all have their own pseudonyms ready and waiting, too. C.C. had spent quite some time coming up with hers, even though her father had reminded her on more than one occasion that she could pick anything she liked and it didn't really matter what it was. Still, she'd wanted to be clever about it, and "Lady Bird" had both seemed easy enough to remember and been a nifty play-on words of "bird" and "cock" from "Babcock"...

She was watching as the carriage pulled up the last stretch to the entrance, busy thinking about how she'd introduce herself to her first dance partner when her mother's voice cut clear across her thoughts, bringing her back to reality.

"Chastity, it's time to get down. Come, now..." she said as the carriage finally pulled up to a stop and a page opened the door.

Stewart was the first to get out, followed by his wife and, finally, his daughter. He gave C.C. a grin as he helped her down, standing steadfast as he allowed her to lean weight on him. He knew she needed a little bit of reassurance; it wasn't exactly lost on him that that would be the last she'd get for a while!

"You'll be fine," he said in a quick whisper. "Just have fun, darling…"

She appreciated that more than words could ever say…

Together, the little family walked up to the main entrance, where they shared a fond farewell before C.C. was directed by one of the footmen to the queue of young, marriageable ladies. There were plenty of women waiting where she was to stand, but they all were entitled to an announcement and to have their moment of glory in front of the other royals. They all looked stunning, in C.C.'s mind, and she briefly wondered how her father could possibly have thought that she'd outshine any of them that night. Well, maybe it would mean she'd blend in and she wouldn't have to...now, feel so nervous about being there...

She was so close to going in already – the queue might have been long, but it moved quickly. The excitement and the fear churned in her stomach the shorter the line got, and by the time she was making her own way through the door into the grand hallway, she didn't know which was dominant. It cut into everything, too; she was barely listening even as utterly gorgeous music floated around her ears, the smell of the food and perfumes that wafted in the air were dulled...she couldn't even focus on the beauty and majesty of the palace rooms!

All she could focus on was that twisting, wriggling feeling in her gut, and it carried her all the way to the front of the queue. She nearly fumbled and forgot herself when the footman present at the entrance to the ball asked for her name, but she remembered just in time and hoped that she hadn't sounded too much like an over-excited fool.

The servant didn't comment on it, of course. He just turned to the awaiting room and cried aloud.

"Lady Bird!"


The evening so far couldn't have been duller if it had been organised by monks, in Prince Niles' mind. Compared to the military, this party was practically Latin tutoring given in the morning, before a two hour-long lute recital.

Admittedly, both of those things were...a lot less horrific, and far more peaceful, than some of the things he'd seen in his three years away. The blood, gore, and the screaming of countless men as they died were hardly things to miss. They certainly weren't what he missed about the military, at all. No, he longed for the days of his training; the days before the war with the Dutch, and before he'd had to actually fight anybody. He'd been free to do practically whatever – and whomever – he'd wanted, whenever he'd wanted, back then. No one had been able to stop him.

After a day of training or marching to and fro, it wasn't as though the captain could deny his men some well-earned rest and recreation, either. So, they'd always headed down to the nearest tavern or whorehouse, paid for the drinks and the girls, enjoyed both well into the early hours of the morning, and then headed back to their camp or barracks while cracking jokes about all the sluts they'd bedded that night.

The training soldier's life had been full of fun and laughter, and even if it was often an early start with a lot of movement and aches at the end of the day, he'd enjoyed it wholeheartedly. It had felt much less like everyone needed his individual attention all the time (and not for anything interesting). It had been a lot less complicated.

It had been...freer.

At least, compared to the odd stuffiness he now felt, being back in a ballroom (it felt far too quiet in there, for one thing, despite the music and chatter) with a duty to fulfil as the heir to the throne. And not one which involved going to war – even if the war was still going on, and part of him was chomping at the bit to return. But his father would hardly allow that. He'd wanted his son home, safe, and away from any danger which could trigger a succession crisis.

That would've been the last thing the country needed in the middle of a war. So, whether he liked it or not, Niles understood his place was back right where he was.

And he didn't much like it at all.

Not that anyone cared if he liked it or not – such was the burden of the Crown, as his father would often remind him. Their position in life was certainly an enviable one, but it came at a steep price: they had to kowtow to duty and the needs of the Crown, whether they liked it or not. He'd always understood and agreed, whenever the king had brought out that phrase. It did mean resigning himself to the inevitable boredom of the task at hand, though.

Boredom that he'd been suffering through for the past hour, at least. He'd agreed with his father that he wouldn't reveal himself (he, too, was masked) until he'd found the woman he wanted to marry from amongst the rabble. Joseph had joked with him that it would give him enough time to "look over the harem" before he selected the finest one there. His mother had tried to interject and say that it would also give him a chance to get to know a few of them properly, but that had fallen on deaf ears.

Mostly, anyway. He was chatting here and there as the women came through, but the dullness had only increased, if anything.

Even as he kept on watching for new women to come through into the room, nothing changed. They were all the same – average-looking, airheaded and, frankly, unmemorable. He'd slept with plenty of maids and whores who were ten times more beautiful, and some who were even more intelligent, than most of the girls in the room. Why should he waste his talents on girls that weren't worth the effort? If he couldn't imagine looking at them for an hour or more at a time, why would he even think of putting himself inside them? Once, let alone how many times he would when he was supposed to be married?

He wanted to get out of there. Just the thought of getting inside a woman made him want to go looking for one of the more beautiful maids – perhaps one of his regulars. Or maybe even one of the more agreeable "ladies" at this party. He did enjoy the idea of a new conquest, and he was certain that the party could be livened up a bit if he found a more interesting one that was game—

"Lady Bird!"

The interruption brought him out of his thoughts. Sighing, Niles turned to look towards where the new lady – the Lady Bird, he thought the announcer had said? – had just been introduced to the room. He didn't know how long he could keep up the routine, but he supposed he should at least try...

Not that he had to try or even make an effort, the moment he set eyes on this latest guest.

If that really was her name, Lady Bird was a beauty, without question. Even with her mask perfectly in place, he could see it. Smooth skin, a strong jawline, ruby lips that he was already thinking of creating some poetic line for that she'd adore. Perhaps something about being a thief and planning on stealing them? It was...certainly a safer option to begin with, when it came to a lady such as herself. He had no clue who her father could be, but he was certain beyond doubt that he had a lot of money. The dress and mask that she had chosen for the evening – had probably been ordered for the evening – screamed it, from the fabrics that clung to her form, to every glittering jewel and gem that she wore.

Well, well...she was certainly already on her way to presenting an advantage that evening, if she was out to marry the prince. She was from a rich family and she was showing it, which certainly never hurt in a marriage of their standing.

If he did choose her as his bride that evening, of course.

But that would all come later. For now, he had to start at the beginning. He had to dance with her – see her up-close, and talk to her. He'd sooner throw himself from the balcony than talk about what mild weather they'd been having, and how lucky it was that the ball was scheduled for a clear night, yet again, so it wouldn't be on any of the boring "small talk" subjects he'd been idly passing through the last few conversations he'd managed to have. No, he'd put on the charm. It had hardly ever failed him and he wasn't expecting it to that night, either. He was a master of sweet talking, to get what he wanted or to set events in motion so that he got what he wanted.

And – at least in that moment – he wanted Lady Bird.

Of course, in order to start things off just right, he had to approach her. He knew just how to begin; it was his classic tactic, and it had worked so many times before it was practically second nature to him.

Trying not to let his smile become a smirk, he started to make his way over...

…only for at least half a dozen suitors ahead of him to break ranks and immediately head towards his prize, clearly already claiming dances.

Niles bristled, his face falling. That had never happened to him before. At any normal ball or party, or even just in an inn or tavern, when people knew his face they basically fell over themselves in order to get him what he wanted. Wine, food, women – he'd never had to wait. And no man had ever stood in the way of what he'd wanted.

He didn't want to reveal himself so early, but it was hard not to simply rip his mask off and demand that he got his share first. To let all those other, lesser men know that Lady Bird was his for the taking, and that they would either have to wait until he'd gotten bored or find one of the other bland offerings the ball had presented so far and dance with them instead.

But he couldn't do that. And the next hour passed like a kidney stone; slowly, painfully and with no apparent end in sight. Every time he tried to slip his way over, another nobleman would pop up from somewhere (seemingly only for the purpose of frustrating him) and ask for the next dance. Lady Bird, having the time of her life dancing with all these potential suitors, of course kept on accepting them, too!

His pace was at a crawl through the crowd, there was a queue of so many. It actually disgusted him; more than a handful of these men had to be at least three times Lady Bird's age – with fiancées, wives or even children. Even his father's friend and confidant, Charles Howard, Earl of Carlisle, was taking a turn! The man's mask barely covered anything, so Niles was sure it was him.

Niles was also sure that Carlisle should've been more focused on doing his duty as a married man and getting that wife of his pregnant, seeing as he was the same age as Joseph, but apparently it wasn't at all a concern that night. Even if Lady Carlisle was now in her forty-second year and the earldom still had no heirs. Perhaps if Carlisle spent less time chasing young women he didn't have a chance with (between the sluts he probably did have) and put more time and effort into his own marriage bed, they'd have at least one by now.

Here all these men were, clearly trying to live out some fantasy, whispering sweet nothings into her ear to make her laugh as they took their turn around the floor. The prince felt it gnawing at him sickeningly. This was a noble, courtable, marriageable lady – not some slut they could have picked from anywhere! If they were out looking for fun, they had come to the wrong place. Lady Bird wasn't the type of woman you used for fun.

The fact that some of them probably thought she could be persuaded in that direction only soured his mood even further. And it made him all the more determined to get to the front of that queue. He near-enough had to elbow his way there, but he got his wish. He finally had his turn.

If she had been stunning from afar, getting closer had only made her almost ethereal. No wonder all those other suitors had bowed so low when speaking to her – when you were close to a goddess, what else could you do?

Niles never normally bowed to anyone but his parents. He was the one who was bowed to. And knelt before. But he made a more than willing exception when it came to this beauty.

"Might I have this dance, my lady?" he asked.

Something wriggled – fluttered? – in his stomach when she turned fully to look at him. It felt odd.

"Of course," came her answer, as she smiled in a way that nearly had him weak in the knees. "I'd love to dance with you, Lord…?"

Before he forgot himself and his manners and any chance of succeeding, he came out of his bow.

"Carrick. Lord Carrick," he quickly replied. It was the least well-known of his titles, so it was perfect for an anonymous occasion. "And it is very much an honour, your Ladyship."

He saw her smile widen beneath her mask, and the strange fluttering was back. He flexed his hands, which also...seemed to be slightly numb...

"Lord Carrick," when she repeated his name, it was like music. "The pleasure is all mine."

He didn't know why, but he felt like laughing at that. Not in a cruel way, or even a tone of amusement – just...a sudden burst of delight? He didn't know; he'd never done that before. He just held it in before it burst out and she suddenly thought he was some sort of idiot.

Discreetly flexing his hand once more to get the feeling back, he offered it out and she delicately took it. They then made their way out onto the dance floor. Niles couldn't help the pride swelling in his chest as they went. They truly did look the part – even as they went, the crowds fell away in awe and apparent respect, both of them standing tall and magnificent in the middle of the room. Pride of place.

And Lady Bird was truly beautiful; he could admire and beam at every inch when he was stood less than a foot away – her hair was golden, and her dress sparkled in the light as the room's candelabras and chandeliers flickered against the sapphires on her dress. She looked like she'd come straight from Heaven itself. Perhaps she had. It certainly wouldn't hurt to ask, later – it couldn't ruin his chances now...

He held her hands in the correct position, perhaps trying to show off that he made a better dance partner than all those nobles she'd been forced to contend with before, and in the brief moment before the music began, he found himself absolutely taken in by her eyes. He couldn't have seen them before, not being so close, but they were bluer than the Mediterranean Sea, and held the promise of twice the riches and twice the adventure.

He was only brought back into the present with the swell of the music, and the subtle nudge with her foot that his partner gave him. He thanked her and apologised for being caught up in the moment. But he thought that that had made him sound particularly inept and awkward, so he tried to be more casual.

"So...Lady Bird," he enjoyed the way his words rolled off his tongue when he was being charming. "You don't look much like an insect."

He couldn't tell if the lady had raised her eyebrows beneath her mask, but from what she said next, he could only imagine that the answer was yes, she had.

"No, my lord – I do not," she replied, practically nonchalantly. "It truly is amazing what a mask and a good dress can hide, isn't it?"

Niles huffed out a laugh; so, she was witty as well as utterly beguiling in her looks...! Good. It certainly spoke volumes about her intelligence, which he was certainly keen to look for. If he had to be tied to one woman for the rest of his days, he at least wanted intriguing conversation occasionally.

The winning combination of wit, beauty and intelligence certainly was a rarity at this ball – and, indeed, with most of the women he'd met in his time. Usually, if one or two were present, there simply seemed to be no need one or both of the others. God giving with one hand and taking away with the other, and all that. But Lady Bird...she had it all. And that wasn't something to be passed over, or wasted. He'd made the right decision in choosing her to charm and win over. He wasn't going to muck it up or spoil it now – he'd double down on it, if anything, and show her he was serious about this.

Women liked it when you showed them that you meant it. Or, at least that you appeared to mean it.

Not that he had to lie or exaggerate anything this time around.

"It fails to hide your beauty," he told her. "Though I suspect neither mask nor shadow could dim that light."

If he had seen her full face, he believed he would've seen her raising an eyebrow, or perhaps even both.

"You certainly are a bold one, my lord," she said. It was a measured response, but playful as well. "Bold enough to declare such a thing to every woman and girl here tonight, perhaps?"

Niles felt his own eyebrows raising beneath his mask. She was clearly teasing him for a chase. And it was a chase that he was prepared to win.

"I only speak the truth in my words, my lady. Empty compliments serve only a selfish purpose," he replied. "I would never call a lady beautiful if I found her otherwise, and there have been many...unique individuals in this room tonight."

That explanation didn't seem to satisfy Lady Bird, who made a disbelieving noise.

"I'm sure there have been," her eyes looked about the room, trying to spot some of the others, no doubt.

Niles tried not to frown, but found the endeavour impossible. He knew exactly what she was doing. Or, rather, exactly what she was thinking.

She didn't believe him. She thought he was simply putting on a false front in order to charm her with sweet talk! In her mind, he must have tried the same tactic with every woman in the room, even though he honestly thought he'd rather die than speak to at least a handful of them again. Lady Bird was practically the first one he'd seen that night that he actually felt he could hold a conversation with!

He wasn't about to lose this one. Not when things had only just started going well for him that evening.

Making her understand that he had been as sincere as he could have been in his compliments became his aim instead. And that wasn't something he'd tried with any of the other mediocre offerings to be found around the ballroom, either.

"You will not find anyone in this room that I think more beautiful than you," he said, attempting to make his voice sound as earnest as possible while keeping it quiet enough for only her to hear. "And none of them even half as witty or interesting."

Again, the lady appeared to give the impression that she was raising her eyebrows beneath her mask.

"Really…" she stated.

It came without even a hint of a question to it or the tone of flattered and joyous hope that a young maiden might have when she was desperately wishing that the best looking boy in the village really did love her in return. That was the tone he was used to. The tone he'd...rather been expecting, if he was honest. Even if Lady Bird was different to the usual doe-eyed young things he spoke with for this long...

He'd underestimated her. He should've known there would only be amused sarcasm. Just as there had been in her single word reply, not even accompanied by a single sign that there was going to be anything else any time soon.

He hadn't ever come across a woman that had been so much of a frustration! He wasn't leading her on – not in the same way he might have, had she been born in the street rather than a fine home somewhere. And she might not have believed it, but he wanted her to. If he was going to have any chance of his never-failing system working with her that night, he needed to do better than this!

He wasn't accustomed to giving in. Especially not where women were involved.

But he wasn't going to have any luck in a ballroom surrounded by dozens of prying eyes. They needed to actually talk, and for that they needed to be alone. It would help – they could get to know each other a little better, and that would surely relax her enough that she'd open herself up to the possibility of his charms...

Luckily, he knew that the gardens would be open, and not off-limits. Couples often took walks there during balls, and he'd sometimes wandered out there in order to breathe in some fresh air when the heat of the room became too much. They were a rather grand sight, too, which often enthralled young ladies.

Yes...he could stand to take in a little night air. And he felt like taking it with Lady Bird.

"Really," he repeated, firmly and sincerely. "But, if you don't believe me for...any particular reason, at least allow me the chance to show you that my intentions are honourable."

Lady Bird looked at least a little intrigued beneath her mask, "Oh? How would you do that?"

"By walking with you in the gardens," he smiled. It was his victory smile, and he didn't think it at all premature. "If you will let me, of course. I'm sure it will be a much quieter place for us to talk and get to know each other..."

Countless bounders and cads had taken young ladies into gardens for far less chaste and honourable intentions, and he didn't want her thinking that he was going to be one of those men. Not with her, anyway. She wasn't the kind of woman you had up against a tree, or under a bush, and then laughed about with your friends afterwards. Having her would come if he decided to make her his wife. Considering the other candidates he'd been presented with so far, she was more than likely to get it, too.

And then she'd get him – he doubted she'd ever been touched before, but he'd soon see to that. Everything about her body was ripe for the taking, and he could very well see himself mounting her at night instead of having to go out to a brothel in order to pay for it. Besides, mounting her instead did mean heirs, and more of them the more times he went to his marriage bed instead of a whorehouse. Heirs that would have to be prettier and more handsome than the finest sculptures and artworks of Europe, considering their direct lineage. And considering he was currently the last of his own lineage, the more he had of them, the better.

They'd have the most beautiful, sought-after princesses in the world. Dukes and princes of all nations would come crawling to him for a chance to marry one. And any sons of his and Lady Bird's...well, they would be just like him, wouldn't they? Strong, proud stallions all – and the eldest would be his heir and continue his line. A bloodline that would make him proud. Of course, they could choose to have their own fun on the side, but as long as they put children in their wives as well, then nothing else mattered.

But those were thoughts for later. A simple walk and some high quality conversation would do for now – with his own subtle charisma influencing the rest, of course. And he would listen to what she had to say – which was quite a feat, honestly, considering most women he met had little to offer in the way of fascination. Or conversation to the level he had been educated and enjoyed. She was something different to most women. A prize fleck of gold amongst tin. He certainly intended to pick it out, too. As best he could.

But she had remained silent for some time, and that pleased him as he recognised the signs of her deliberation. He could always tell what a woman was thinking and she was no exception. She was wondering if she should go, what it could mean if she did, and probably what it could mean if she decided not to go as well...

He couldn't help but try to convince a little more, even if he knew she was still unlikely to take his word into account.

"It is a lovely night out, and we would not go too far," he said. "As I said, I feel like we might be able to get to know each other better, away from the crowds."

"Away from prying eyes, too, conveniently enough," replied the mysterious Lady Bird.

Niles felt a soft chuckle rising in the back of his throat, surprise and a small amount of incredulity bursting inside him. So, she wasn't entirely unaware of what a man might ask for, out in the gardens! She clearly knew that there were some people out there who were interested in getting her alone for purposes other than chatting, and she was already on the defensive end, should anybody try to suggest it to her.

She was beautiful, witty, intelligent and not as naïve as some might perceive her to be, considering her age and position in life. That in itself deserved exploring more than just taking her like some common slut. Not that he would tell her that – he would be honest, but not that honest.

Conquest stories – even ones that he simply alluded to – tended to put the more esteemed ones off, leaving him on the back foot to get them to come around. And the last thing he wanted to do was put Lady Bird off when he'd made it this far.

"My lady, I can quite assure you, my intentions are honourable," he told her again. "I would simply like the opportunity to speak with you more, in a slightly quieter setting."

Lady Bird apparently paused to consider his invitation, her silence stretching for a frustratingly long time. Of course she would be the type to leave him waiting and wondering what she would say; she was obviously more than intelligent enough to know what it would be doing to...most men. It would be making them worried or nervous about what she had to say next. The possibility that she might say no, and the conversation would end even before their dance had.

He was bordering apprehensive, but he was not nervous about his chances. He was never nervous about anything, especially when it came to charming and getting what he wanted from women. He always did, in the end.

The anticipation was just thick in the air as he waited for her reply.

"Very well, then," the lady eventually answered, bringing their dance to an end and stepping away from him. "Lead the way, Lord Carrick."

Niles beamed beneath his mask, pride slowly creeping back into his chest and making him stand up straighter. He'd managed it – after some doing, he'd managed to convince her! They'd take their walk and he would prove to her that he'd been telling the truth all along, too. He just wanted to get to know her right now. Spend some time on a quiet walk with (easily) the most intriguing woman he'd ever met. It would be relaxing, and it would be fun, too. If she continued being as witty as she had been in their talk so far, it would be fun, anyway. He couldn't wait to begin, either; he was too certain that they would have a lot to talk about.

And he wanted to know everything. If he stood any chance at all at taking this further, he would have to know everything.

"With pleasure, my lady," he gave a slight bow before taking her hand so that it rested on top of his, and leading her from the room in the direction of the gardens.

Their leaving didn't go unnoticed, however. Two sets of royal eyes were currently following them the whole way, and the pair that belonged to King Joseph were glimmering with a certain amount of interest and thought.

Niles, leaving with a rather sensational-looking girl already for a more quiet, private space...

"Well, it seems our boy has found something interesting in amongst the rabble," he commented, raising his goblet to take a hearty mouthful of wine.

The pair of eyes that belonged to Queen Marie didn't move from where their son was disappearing off with the young lady in question. She'd been watching them for some time – from the moment they'd met and decided to dance, near enough. They'd...seemed to be sharing easy conversation, even as they'd made their way around the floor. And Niles had been wearing a most peculiar expression for a lot of it – it actually looked like he'd been paying full attention to his dance partner.

That was certainly a rarity with her boy. He was becoming more and more like his father every day, so to see him treat a woman as though she wasn't a plaything...the action stood out from a mile away!

She also couldn't help but wonder if this meant anything. He seemed to revel in the idea of leaving a pile of women in his wake one day, but maybe if he found just the right woman...maybe he'd think twice about it and decide to settle down? To have a happy marriage, not marred by hurt or humiliation...

Perhaps this lady, whomever she was, was the one to do that? Perhaps Niles had found a woman he genuinely liked, not a woman he...just liked to do things to...

"Or it might just be a little taste of the most edible meal in the room...!" Joseph cut across her thoughts with a laugh.

Marie's hopeful mood immediately soured like milk left in the sun. Of course, the comment was perfectly typical of her louse of a husband, but that didn't soften the blow any more.

She'd just wanted to get out one wish – the wish to see her boy actually happy and fulfilled in a marriage that was good for him, as well as for his bride. A woman he actually loved, and wanted to be with. She didn't like thinking of him sneaking off simply to have his own selfish fun, before leaving that poor young woman in the dirt.

That comment ended Marie's self-imposed silence. She couldn't take it anymore.

"Why must you always assume zhe worst? 'E eez supposed to be finding a wife from zhis evening, not going off...peacocking around zhe place!"

Joseph gave his wife a dirty look in return, rolling his eyes as he did, "It was a joke, woman! You should learn about those sometime – they clearly didn't teach them to you in France."

There was another, burning silence, before the king calmly continued.

"Besides, he's a man. If he wants to fuck as many whores around the place as he can find, he's more than bloody well welcome to."

"Joseph!" snapped Marie, her cheeks taking on a bright red hue, both in shame and anger all at once. "Can't you at least pretend to 'ave some decorum?! Zhe whole of zhe English nobility eez 'ere!"

"I do have decorum," Joseph replied nonchalantly, reaching for his wine again. "If I had none, I'd be out in the gardens right now, taking as many trollops, harlots and strumpets as my hands and cock could manage at once. And you wouldn't be able to stop me, either."

His words sliced through Marie, her eyes flashing with anger and hurt as she turned away on her throne to look in the other direction. It was typical of her, really, even if it did still make him groan under his breath. She needed to learn to mind her place without getting in a state about it – it was irritating that she hadn't come around by now.

He was patient with her most of the time, of course, but whenever she got ideas in her head about policing him on what he could and couldn't do...that was the minute he stepped in. As forcefully as he needed to, as well. She was his wife; her sole purpose was to bear his children (something she hadn't particularly excelled at, given the fact they had but one surviving child), satisfy his needs when he desired it, and be his demure and steadfast support throughout his reign.

It was a pity that her good qualities were usually sullied by her aggravating habit of meddling in his own private affairs. He was a king, but most importantly he was a man. He didn't have to respond to anyone, least of all his wife. He'd carry on in private with whoever he wanted and whenever he wanted, whether Marie liked it or not. It was something she hadn't gotten used to, throughout their entire marriage. But he had no intention of stopping, or of even slowing down. Why should he, when there were still whores out there who could stroke his ego and other parts in just the right fashion?

Marie had once asked him if he respected her at all. He'd responded that respect was something reserved for men, and that was something he still firmly believed. The more women a man had had, the more worthy he was of respect, too. His son was shaping up nicely, to be worthy of the respect of men the whole world over.

Marie, meanwhile, couldn't even find it in herself to reply. She knew he'd meant what he'd said – practically everyone in the kingdom knew he'd had and slept with every woman he could find, ever since they'd been married. It still cut deeply every single time. The hurt and humiliation didn't stop just because you were used to it happening.

Especially not when your husband then openly laughed in your face about it. And bragged about it to other people.

Looking at Joseph was like having a nightmarish glimpse into what her son could become. Was going to become, if something didn't stop it. This ball was supposed to halt the transformation in its tracks, and stop Niles from causing untold pain and anguish to an innocent woman who didn't deserve it. To see him settling into a marriage he actually enjoyed, with no need to go out and ruin it all for his own self-serving purposes.

Marie would've wanted someone to do the same for her.

"You are disgusting," she hissed, getting to her feet, "And I shall not remain 'ere and listen to your vile words."

"Then leave," said Joseph, waving his hand dismissively, "You're no fun anyway."

He didn't need to say it twice. Marie leapt up from her seat, rage-filled eyes just starting to grow red around the outside.

"Va te faire chier! Tu n'est qu'un sac à merde!" she muttered, just low enough so that only he would hear. Then, she turned and stormed away.

Joseph watched her leave, and disappear into the crowd, with cold indifference. Even in French, the insult wasn't impressive. Marie would truly have to up her game if she ever wanted him to feel cut by her words. He'd been called far worse than a "bag of shit" in his lifetime, and by people he respected far more. So, he turned away from where his wife had vanished and continued sipping at his wine. He also ordered for more food to be brought to him. She'd get over it, eventually – she always did. Besides, he didn't have the time nor the patience to deal with a woman´s ridiculous tantrums. This was supposed to be a celebration – a night to honour his precious boy and heir.

It was almost impossible to believe that his Niles had turned into such a fine young man. He still remembered the day he'd first held him; he'd been...indecisive, about whether or not they should have even named the boy. He'd been so small, so weak, Joseph had been sure that he wouldn't live long enough for one to be of any use. Just like all the others...

But Niles had proved him wrong. He'd grown stronger. Healthier. More full of life than any of his other children had ever been. And now...well, now he had a fine young stallion of a son, whom he was proud to say grew to resemble his old man more and more every day. Joseph only hoped that his son realised just how proud he was of him, and how much he wanted for him to enjoy himself. No matter who tried to stand in his way.

He looked over, towards the windows that gave to the gardens, and rose his goblet to the air.

"God bless you, my son," he said with a devious smirk, "and may He bless your hunting tonight as well…"


The gardens were just as quiet as Niles had imagined they might be, and a blanket of stars covered the inky black of the night. The breeze was fairly warm, and it made being there feel refreshing. Invigorating. Livelier and more stimulating than inside could have ever been.

Of course, that could also have been the presence of his companion – he and Lady Bird had been walking, talking about every subject on Earth for well over an hour. Perhaps they had been there for two, now? He couldn't tell and he didn't truly care. All he knew was that they'd stopped to rest their feet by sitting on one of the benches overlooking the gardens, and their talking had turned to the stars and constellations.

He hadn't ever imagined he could be so astonished, or fascinated by conversation – especially not with a woman...! But it was near-enough impossible not to be completely taken in by what this one had to say. She could hold her own on topics that other women would've stared at him blankly for even mentioning; philosophy, politics, trade, literature, fine art – each one that passed between them in chatting was met with equal recognition and a sharp, insightful reply. She had been educated, and clearly enjoyed learning, and it was enough to make Niles think that she'd impress even some of his father's council, stuffy old codgers that they were…

She was the sharpest wit he'd ever come across, too; he didn't think he'd ever been so amused in talking with anyone. Lady Bird truly had a word for everything, and he could only hope to meet her replies with something equally entertaining. He really did want to meet her replies with something that would amuse her just as much. It didn't even matter to him that he'd never even tried so hard with men he'd called his friends. What he was doing right then felt...right. Or easy, anyway.

She really was everything a woman could be, and should inspire to be: beautiful, witty, educated, pleasant in conversation, a fine dancer...

The more they talked, and the more he sat there actually listening to what she had to say, the more he became convinced of the matter. And the more he thought that perhaps the objective of the ball had succeeded; that he had found the perfect candidate to be his wife.

It had to be her. Their conversation was entirely unlike any other time he had ever spent with a woman, which was more than a sign. He was genuinely enjoying the evening with her – hours that he'd usually spend trying to ply a woman with enough compliments to get her to agree to come back to his chambers or to just lift up her skirts if they were too far away. And then, when he was done, he'd show them the door – either until the next time he needed a plaything, if they lived or worked around the palace, or forever if they didn't.

If she were his wife, there would be more than ample time for all of that. And if the evening continued to go as well as it currently was, then she'd have that honour (and title) in no time at all. No one could possibly disagree with his choice – not with such a beautiful, learned creature. Any anyone who had their doubts would only have to look at them come into the room, announced as the royal couple, and they'd be utterly silenced...

He smiled to himself at the very idea. Before, the very notion of marriage did little for him in the way of joy or pleasure, but if it meant getting to take Lady Bird just as he wanted at any time of day or night, sharing conversations between each other and with noble dignitaries from across Europe, actually having a...a rather pleasant time, more often...he thought he might be able to bear it.

The thought that was being conjured up certainly seemed far less unpleasant than he'd been told by—

"Are you even listening to me...?!"

Lady Bird's mildly exasperated comment snapped him out of his contemplation. Had… had she asked him something? It clearly seemed like it, judging by the look she was giving him! Since when did he lose himself in thought when he was with a woman? He was an avid conqueror of women's hearts, for Christ's sake, not some brainless oaf!

"Pardon me, milady," he quickly replied. "I got lost in thought – you see, I was admiring your knowledge about stars."

"Is that so?" asked Lady Bird disbelievingly.

"Indeed, milady. I have never met such knowledgeable young lady, astronomy-wise," he replied with a grin. "But then again, I have realised that, since you are an angel from Heaven, it makes sense that you know the skies like the back of your delicate hand."

Lady Bird made a short, quiet, most certainly unimpressed noise in the back of her throat. It immediately told Niles that he might have gone too far with what he was saying. She was just such a rarity – the prized possession that all women should aspire to be – that the term had seemed appropriate. After all, angels were to be ranked above inferior mortals, for their beauty and their intelligence...

But it had actually done damage, in her eyes.

"I don't respond to honeyed words, sir," she told him, looking as though she intended to get up and walk away. "Particularly if I know they're hollow, and only intended for one purpose."

Niles felt the same tightening in his gut that came over him whenever he played the wrong hand at cards, or slipped and missed the target when practising archery. He had mucked it up, and he understood perfectly well that it was his fault. Lady Bird was unlike the women who could easily be brought into line (or into his bed) with a few remarks – no matter how true they were!

Perhaps he had been going about this whole evening the wrong way? All by underestimating Lady Bird. Which, of course, had never been his intention! How could it have been, when he already knew that he placed her so far above the other women present in that ballroom?

Maybe...well, he'd never done this for a woman before, but...he could probably start with an apology, and then use that to lead into an explanation that he had been speaking the truth. That was all it had ever been!

"No, milady, please wait – I did not mean to cause you any offence!" he cried out. "I am...truly sorry that I did."

That did halt her in her tracks as she started to walk away, but the tell-tale groan as she turned to look at him spoke volumes about what she thought. And he didn't even have to see her eyes to know they'd be rolling backwards into her head.

"Spare your breath and save your apologies, sir," she told him. Sharply, which stung a little. "I'm not interested in hearing them."

She turned to walk away again. Perhaps she meant to go back to the ballroom, and then she'd probably spend the rest of the evening avoiding him. But what was the point of the ball anymore if she did that? She was the only woman in the place he considered worth marrying!

The prince made a panicked step to follow, not wanting to lose the prize that had near-enough landed in his lap that night. He had to move, and act quickly – he had to do it, didn't he? He had to tell her everything, right then and there. Reveal his identity and declare his intentions, before she made it back into the ballroom and disappeared among the low quality stock!

He couldn't lose this one.

"Milady, please!" he cried, rushing past her to block her way. "I...I really am sorry for the way that sounded. But I can assure you, I am sincere! I meant it all, and if you'll just listen to what I have to say—"

"Kitten!"

The voice halted him in his tracks and made Lady Bird turn on her heel with a gasp. She turned in the direction of a figure hurrying faster than Niles had ever seen a man run down the garden path towards them, his face partially in shadow but mostly obscured by his mask.

"Papa?!" she cried, obviously surprised and confused by his presence. "What are you doing here?! What's wrong?!"

So, this man was her father...!

Niles found himself starting to grin again. The timing was so perfect, it was practically a sign! She had to be the one, if he was being granted the opportunity to ask her father for her hand so soon – neither one of them could refuse, either, once they knew he was the prince! They could get started on preparations right away. Their wedding would be the grandest celebration in Europe. Niles could feel it already.

He stepped forward, prepared to bow and to give a grand address that would impress his future father-in-law.

"Lord Bird, I presume? Please allow me to introduce myself; I am Lord Carrick."

But the older man barely even gave a glance in his direction. His eyes and his mind seemed focused on his daughter, and her only.

"We have to go, sweetheart," he said quickly, reaching out for her hand. "Now."

Niles' grin fell away. They were leaving?! But why?! What had happened? Couldn't it wait just a few more moments for him to finish? He was almost there – he was about to reveal his identity, for God's sake! He was certain that nothing was so important that he couldn't be allowed to finish this!

It would be more than worth it for them all, in the end.

He tried again, "My good lord and lady, I really must—"

"A page came from the house," Lord Bird explained, once more ignoring the prince as he cut him off. It almost seemed deliberate that time. "It's...it's your sister...they found buboes...!"

The word came like a punch in the gut. Buboes. This...this young woman's sister – she...that meant she'd been handed a death sentence! One he had not expected that night, or any other, for that matter! When everything had seemed so perfect, why would he expect to be interrupted by a plague diagnosis? Why would he expect the death of another young woman, when everything had seemed so happy only moments before?

It was no wonder Lady Bird near seemed to crumble before him then; her own flesh and blood was on the verge of passing away. The sorrow that must have been filling her heart would be overwhelming...

His sudden silence had left her a gap, though, which she used immediately.

"I...I have to go," she told him quickly, despairingly, clutching at her father's hand as they hurried away. "I'm sorry...!"

Watching her start to disappear snapped Niles out of the melancholy haze. He instead went straight into a panicked one.

He didn't even know who Lady Bird was! He hadn't found out her real name! But he needed it right away, before she was gone forever – he had to be able to find her again, and to tell her what he wanted to say!

Feeling his stomach squeeze itself into a knot, he rushed towards them, even as they blended in more and more with the shadows of the night.

"Wait! How will I find you? I don't even know your name!"

But they hadn't stopped. They were still running. He had no way of finding her, and even as he continued to try and follow, they were getting further and further away! He knew it, even if it was getting too dark to even guess where they were!

"Wait! Please!" he had never begged a woman for anything before, and yet he was begging now. "Please, tell me your name!"

He could only hear part of her reply as she continued to run and vanish out of sight, just behind her father. She didn't even turn around.

"I'm sorry!"

They were gone, leaving the night silent, before Niles could yell anything further. And that nearly made him want to scream in frustration. How the hell was he supposed to find Lady Bird?! He didn't know her real name, or where she lived – he didn't even have a clue about who her family could be!

He didn't have any idea where to start. How could this have happened?! How could he not have gotten his way, perhaps for the most important moment of his life?

A moment which, of course, had now passed. It wasn't going to come again, either – the inferior breeding stock he'd been left with at the ball wouldn't do. He wasn't interested in marrying any of those. He hadn't been interested in any of them – they hadn't offered him conversation, like Lady Bird had. No stimulating chats about every subject under the sun! Even if he could stand their bodies, none of them had her mind. Nor her wit.

They were not her. They never would be.

The celebration was over. And, with a new found misery tightening in his chest, the prince stalked back up to the palace.

At the door going back into the ballroom, his father was smirking at him as he leaned against the wall. Niles could guess why he was looking so pleased – this wasn't the first time he'd left a ballroom with a girl, and his father was always proud when he told him of his latest conquest. Not that anything like that had happened. Seeing the look on Joseph's face only really made everything worse; he hated telling his father he'd failed.

And tonight had been one colossal failure. Arguably, the biggest failure any future king could ever have.

Joseph's grin faded when he saw Niles' expression. But only momentarily.

"Too dull for your tastes, my boy?" he gave his son a joking nudge with his elbow. "Or just so bad at it that you left her out there?"

Niles felt his stomach churn unpleasantly. He didn't like his father what his father was suggesting, practically calling Lady Bird a whore, but he couldn't say it – he knew it was just how men talked about women.

If it were anybody else, he'd happily describe it all for his father. But she was no common slut, and he disliked the implication that she could be. Again, not that he could say that. But he didn't want to be around his father when he knew the king would press him for non-existent, slanderous details. And he could hardly stand the sight of other people having a good time when his own had been ruined.

He needed to be by himself. Not that he cared to stand around explaining why – he just wanted his bed, and as much wine as the servants could bring him.

"The ball is over," he told his father simply.

Joseph's face dropped its grin, "I'm sorry? What do you mean, "it's over"?"

"I mean that it's over!" Niles repeated, sounding slightly more forceful and turning around. "Tell the guests "thank you for coming" from me. Goodnight, Father."

He then marched purposefully away, heading in the direction of his room, shutting out the voice of his father as he tried to call him back.