Disclaimer: Don't sue me, Gail.
A/N: If anyone is still reading this after over a year of not posting I will be pleasantly shocked.
Summary: On the night of the third ball, everything went according to plan. She plans to forget Char and go on living with her curse in Dame Olga's house. But first loves always die hard.
Call It A Gift
By Blackberry Ink
Chapter Twelve: Shade Of A Shadow
"What lies behind us, and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Recap: Where we last left our heroine, she was hiding under the table of a sweet shop in Bast with Gareth, shoemaker's apprentice extraordinaire. Things are just starting to get back onto even ground between Ella and Gareth after their kiss. Gareth confesses his love for her, and Ella decides he deserves the truth. She confides in him everything about Char (well, everything except the reason why she couldn't be with him: the curse). Char is in Bast -- but is he there on business or for Lela, Ella's alter ego? Char and Ella run into each other in the sweet shop, but Gareth covers for Ella before Char can get a good look at her. Char invites Gareth and Ella to the ball being held for him the following evening.
"I can't do this," I said again. I'd been saying it all afternoon, ever since Char had come into the sweet shop.
"You don't have to, you know," Gareth reminded me for the hundredth time. "We never planned to stay in Bast forever, anyway. What better time to leave than now?"
I bit my lip and leaned my head back against the wall of the alleyway we rested in. "I can't do that to him. I think he's come here for me."
Gareth looked at me with a mixture of sadness and regret. "But Ella you said…" He mercifully left the rest of the sentence off, but I knew what the words left unsaid were. You said he hated you. And he did. He did hate me.
But he didn't hate Lela.
I took a breath and told Gareth the part of my story in which I'd invented Lela in order to be close to him once more. Gareth's eyes looked even sadder at this, the laugh lines around the edges of his face falling into something far less humorous.
He shook his head, and then I was surprised to see him smile ruefully. "I don't know who's worse when it comes to love: you or me."
I didn't know what to say. There was nothing to say. So I remained silent and let the moment pass.
I hadn't meant to fall in love with Char, just as Gareth hadn't intended to fall in love with me. But love had a way of striking in the worst directions possible, it seemed. I was glad to have Gareth, certainly, but I still felt sick to my stomach when I caught him gazing at me when he thought I wouldn't notice or when his hand brushed mine as we fell into step together.
It would be so easy to fall in love with him. Sometimes I thought that if I concentrated enough, I could transfer my feelings for Char over to Gareth. It would make my life simple and sweet. I may never have the blinding love for Gareth that I carried for Char, but we would be happy and content together.
All I had to do was turn around and he'd be there. I wondered if he'd always wait for me. But no: it was selfish to think such things. A terrible part of me enjoyed Gareth being in love with me, relished in the thought of being the center of someone's heart. It was utterly horrid to allow such thoughts to float about in my foolish brain, so I shoved them away as often as I could.
Gareth would get over me, I told myself, and live a happy life with a girl far less complicated than I was. It was coldheartedly cruel to even consider pretending to love him in the way he did me. It was a betrayal of how much he meant to me.
I brushed hair out of my face as though ridding myself of the thoughts that had just transpired. Gareth was looking at me again and quickly turned his head when I came back to focus.
"So what do you propose we do?" he asked me.
I sighed heavily and looked at the brick wall in front of me. "I'd give anything to go to that ball," I said. The words escaped me before I registered that as what I wanted.
Gareth's words were pained in a way that only someone who knew him well would notice. I noticed. But his voice was resigned. "If you're sure," he said, "then wait here. I'll be back."
"You'll what?" I said, but my words were only half heard, because he stood up and began to move out of the alley before I finished them.
"I'll be back by nightfall," he assured me. "Don't leave here."
Not that I could have anyway.
Even though I did as the curse bid me, my head ached. I was tremendously tired from leaning haphazardly against the alley wall and being alone and didn't want to fall asleep until Gareth came back.
It wasn't that I felt scared without him; I'd been on my own in a strange place many times before. It was more that I was scared for him. Where had he gone that he couldn't take the time to at least tell me?
The sun was gone by the time I saw a dark shadow appearing across the alley entryway. The figure looked far too hulking to be Gareth, and I pressed myself against the wall, willing myself to disappear into it.
"Miss me?" said the figure.
"Gareth?" I asked, my voice smaller than my feet.
"Who else would it be?" he said, and I felt my shoulders release with relief. As he got closer, I saw in the dim moonlight that the reason he'd looked so large was because he was carrying something quite as big as he was. He took it off of his shoulder with ease too great for something so large.
I could see his teeth shining in a grin. "Feel it and see."
I did so, and not only because the order compelled me. It felt like…fabric. Could it be -- ?
"Gareth!" I said sharply. "Where did you get this? Did you--?"
"I didn't steal it, if that's what you mean," he said, the happiness in his voice faltering only a little. "I just borrowed it."
"You borrowed it?" I could feel myself growing slightly hysterical. This was a gown! And I'd pressed and primed enough of Hattie's gowns in my time to know that this was a very nice one, just by the touch of it. The silk was irresistibly smooth.
"From my sister," Gareth confirmed. "Don't worry, she won't miss it."
With the inadvertent order not to worry, my misgivings evaporated, replaced by something like joy.
"Oh, Gareth," I said, giving way for my excitement, and I reached out and put my arms around his neck. He stiffened immediately, and I pulled back. "I'm sorry," I apologized, remembering.
"It's alright," he said, although his tone spoke differently. There was a moment of silence as we recalled what had happened between us. Gareth recovered first. "I got something for myself as well," he said, brandishing a fine formal outfit, fit for any knight. "Courtesy of Aderyn's husband, Evan. Of course, he doesn't quite know that it's being lent out. But I'm sure he wouldn't mind."
We both knew that he would mind, very much indeed, but somehow this seemed funny in spite of it all. I let a laugh escape and he did too.
"So we're going to the ball," I said, my smile not willing to leave my face just yet. "In stolen--"
"Borrowed," Gareth interjected.
"Borrowed clothes," I corrected. "After having not bathed for weeks."
"Speak for yourself," he said. "I took a dip in the stream before we left for Bast."
I hadn't been clean for a month before me left Frell, and now I had all the dirt and dust of our journey on top of that. Typical, really, that this would be the condition in which I would see my beloved again.
But I was seeing him. I was seeing Char.
To think that, during the nights when I was Lela, I thought that I would never see him again. Since then, our paths had crossed what seemed like a hundred times. Yet it was never enough.
It would have to do. My jaw set, I ran my hands across the gown. A grin flitted across my face. What would Mandy say if she knew what I was about to do? The grin disappeared as I remembered the heartbreak I would have to endure once again.
It was worth it, though, to see him again. To be near him, maybe even speak to him. Then I remembered --
"Gareth, we can't--"
"Oh, I almost forgot," he said over me. He reached into the inside of his shirt and produced two only slightly-bent masks. "We can't very well go to a royal ball without our masks, can we? The people will gossip."
My smile didn't disappear all night. I'd wager I slept with it on.
The next day went by in a blur of anticipation. Gareth and I used the last of the KJs Aderyn had given him to buy ourselves a meal at a nearby inn and the afternoon was spent wandering the streets of Bast. The city seemed much kinder on such a day as this.
"A rare thing, to 'ave a crown prince this far up as Bast," said the old barkeep at the inn. "The Queen was here once, many years ago…you two'd be far too young to remember it, course."
The rest of the town seemed to mirror the sentiments of the barkeep. Everyone had a little more bounce in their step and were much easier to smile.
We had nowhere to get ready for the ball, but I didn't mind dressing amongst some thick trees on the outskirts of the city. Gareth put on Evan's clothes and looked splendid in an instant, but I required a bit more of a wash and much more primping. It was extremely difficult to put a corset on oneself, I found.
When I emerged from the wood, Gareth was gripping a small carving knife he carried and was shaping the stray branch of a tree. I cleared my throat.
"It's about time, I was beginning to think that--"
He stopped talking, then, and blinked stupidly.
"I can't remember the last time I saw you at a loss for words," I said hesitantly. "Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?"
His mouth opened noiselessly a few times before he said, "A good thing. Trust me."
The ball was taking place at the greatest manor in Bast, and despite the fact that it was smaller than the palace in Frell, I felt much more intimidated by it. The castle at Frell had been one I'd grown up with, comfortable and familiar, always in the background of every sight I saw as a child. Here in Bast, the manor loomed over us, black and sprawling, doors opening wide to admit a hundred people I had never seen or heard of before.
Gareth and I were the only ones to arrive on foot. One meticulously dressed noble after another emerged from the dozens of carriages as they pulled up to the front of the manor. I was vaguely aware of the fact that we were garnering stares from each and every one of the arriving guests, but I didn't have the room in my mind to put any thought to it.
I was going to see Char.
Gareth guided my arm so that it linked with his, and the warmth of him was the only thing that stabilized me as I walked methodically through the manor doors.
A small part of me whispered that it was the almost-me -- Lela -- who was the reason Char was here. Hadn't he said he'd come to Bast whenever he could? To see me? I mean her? Because Lela wasn't me. Lela was someone Char could still love.
And so what, if Lela was the reason he came to Bast? It didn't matter, it wasn't as though she was anything to Char but a friend. But my heart was pounding roughly. I was only moments away from seeing Char, his smile, his eyes, his hands reaching for mine…
No. They wouldn't reach for mine. They'd reach for Lela's, if anything, and I couldn't guarantee even that.
I'd gone over and over the subtle differences in the way Lela acted: the lower voice, the fear of heights. There wasn't much, but if I didn't remember it, Char might suspect.
My mind and my heart were going crazy, running into each other inside of me and telling me different things and making me want to scream and shout and --
There he was.
I'd barely noticed us enter the grand ballroom, but we were there nonetheless. Gareth gripped my arm tightly as though afraid I might fall, which, in all honesty, was an excellent possibility.
Char stood off to the side, waiting on the end of a receiving line of guests -- mostly female, as it had been at the last ball. Their masks were already quickly coming off to reveal their ever-so charming faces as they fluttered their eyelashes in his direction. He looked as reposed as ever, his lips curving up slightly in a smile as he graciously kissed the hand of a bumbling woman who shamelessly courted his attention. As I studied him I felt my heart melt. The bend of his brow, the line of his jaw, the way his eyes flickered over the crowd with every chance he could spare them. It felt like an eternity since I'd last seen him, and yet it was only yesterday.
"How are you, Ella?" Gareth murmured in my ear. His breath on my skin would have brought me back to the present if it hadn't been for the fact that at that very moment, Char looked at me.
Our eyes locked and his smile turned genuine. He excused himself from the woman he had just introduced himself to and dashed through dancers, all agility and grace, until he reached me.
"Lady Lela?" he asked, smiling bright and breathing a little heavy. "It's you, isn't it?"
I pitched my voice lower as practiced. "It is, your highness."
Char's smile got, if possible, even wider. He reached out and took both of my hands in his, holding them as though he'd never let go. I found it hard for me to speak when I looked at him. It was too much to bear, having him look on me like this and not see that it was me, his Ella, and I wanted him more than anything.
I pulled my hands away to adjust my mask, trying to reject the nerves from my smile, and when I still couldn't find words, Gareth saved me.
"In case Lela never remembers to introduce me," he cut in, clearing his throat, "I'm Sir Gareth of Bast." He held out his hand for Char to shake, which Char graciously did, only taking his eyes off of me for a moment. Char looked at me, silently questioning my relationship with Gareth, I could tell. Did he think we were married? Was he jealous?
"Gareth is my oldest and dearest friend," I told Char when I recovered my voice, putting emphasis on the last word for Char's benefit.
"Ah," said Char, his eyes alight. "It's a pleasure to meet a friend of Lela's."
Gareth bowed his head a little. If I were in the condition to, I would have rolled my eyes at how much he was clearly enjoying his newfound title.
"Well, I must excuse myself," Gareth said, elegantly beginning to step away from me. "Lela has talked for ages of how she could not wait to see you again, Prince Charmont. I do not want to deny you both the privilege of catching up."
Char bowed, simultaneously wrapping my arm through his. I wondered if he could feel my heart beating with unruly speed. "Thank you, Sir Gareth," he said. "I'll try not to take her from you all evening."
Gareth shook his head. "Oh, please do, your highness. This night is for you. Lela knows she can see me any time."
Then, with the sadness in his eyes that only I could see, Gareth extracted himself from us and disappeared into the growing crowd of dancers.
My heart wrenched to see him so, but then Char tugged at my sleeve and directed us outside and away from the steady flow of people coming into the manor ballroom and I didn't have room in me to feel anything but swelling, overwhelming love for him.
"I've missed you," Char said earnestly as soon as we were out of earshot of the throng. "It's been so long."
"A year at least," I said, trying my best not to continue staring at him, which was all I wished to do.
"It feels like longer," he said, turning us leftwards and into a small indoor garden. "Please," he said, gesturing to a bench nearby, "sit down."
I sat as he commanded, checking that my shoddy mask was in tact as I did so.
"Well then, your highness," I said, proud that my voice was only slightly shaky. "What have you been doing all of these months?"
"I must insist that you call me Char," he said. The bench was small enough that our legs brushed against each other every time one of us moved.
The corner of my lips tilted upwards. "Char," I amended.
"Much better," he said. "Well, shortly after the ball in Frell I told my parents of my intentions never to marry."
"How did they take it?"
His mouth twisted at the memory of it. "Not well. My father, especially. He's been counting on me to continue the family line, you see."
"And what of your sister? Can that task not fall to her?"
"She is growing close to an Ayorthian prince," Char said, and I marveled at the way his eyes told me much more than his words did. Char wasn't pleased with the relationship his sister had struck up, but he could do nothing to stop it. He loved his parents but was tired of them burdening him with tasks he did not wish to complete. He loved his country but feared he wasn't doing right by Kyrria in choosing not to take a wife. I knew those eyes better than any other, even after all of this time.
I put a hand on his arm, wanting to do more than that to comfort him. He took his own hand and put it over mine, and we sat like that for a moment that I wished would go on forever. Then he let his hand drop and I was forced to drop mine, too.
"But what about you, Lela?" Char asked. "How has your year in Bast been?"
I took a few seconds to gather my thoughts before saying, "Very well, thank you. The only real problem has been with this new trend sweeping the city. You see, high heels are quickly becoming fashionable. I'm scared to death of how far up I am every time I put on my shoes."
Char laughed, clear and loud and making my hands tremble with fear of him finding out who I was and excitement that I still remembered how to make him laugh.
"Speaking of fashion," Char said after a bit, "what of those orange carriages you once told me about? I thought they were quite popular here, and still I have yet to see one."
Oh, dear, I'd forgotten about that. "Oh, well," I said, hoping upon hope that my voice was as light as I intended it to be. "The people of Bast are quite fickle. One day the carriages are orange and the next they are purple. Now, I'm afraid, our carriages have sobered up a bit."
Char was playfully serious. "I do hope it wasn't because of my arrival."
"I doubt it," I told him. "I think purple paint is just hard to come by at this time of year."
He laughed again, and I reveled in it. The way he tilted his head back and laughed unabashedly, not a care in the world, made me feel the rush of falling in love with him all over again.
"Why did you come to Bast?" I asked him, then, the words tumbling out before I could stop them.
His laughter eased away and he looked at me in a way that made me certain he could see straight through my thin disguise and directly into my heart.
"At first it was business," he admitted. "There were some problems with ogres in the area. But when that was taken care of, I made my knights come through Bast anyway."
"Why?" I asked again. I couldn't help myself. I wanted to hear him say it.
"I wanted to see you," he said, shrugging with a bit of embarrassment but grinning too.
I smiled back and let his words wash over me. I wanted to see you. In that instant, I couldn't think of a moment better than this one. "I'm glad you came," I said.
"As am I," said Char. The music got louder inside, bringing us harshly back to the present. He winced as though injured.
"You should probably spend some time with the other guests," I said before he could say it. "There was quite a line of ladies waiting to introduce themselves. Some of the most beautiful in Bast." I tried not to make my voice sound too bitter, but I feared it did.
"I'll get away as soon as I can," Char soothed, hearing my tone. He grimaced a bit as he looked over the crowd. "Will you come walk with me inside?"
In a daze I stood up, but then my complaints started, reminding me that he'd earlier order me to sit down. I made to go back to the bench. "I'm a bit tired…" I said weakly, putting a hand to my head and wishing my curse away.
"Oh, come with me, Lela, it's too early for you to be tired," said Char genially, and that was more than enough to make me stand.
We walked back through the garden and towards the swell of the music. My entire body ached as I knew I'd have to part with him in a minute, even if the parting was only brief. As we walked, I turned my head to search for a place where I could sit and watch him as he mingled with the nobles and courtiers.
Then, with not so much as a tug, I felt the ribbon tying my mask back slip. I threw my hands up to catch the mask before it fell, but to no avail. The mask must have crashed to the floor, but I heard to clatter.
It happened slowly. Char turned to look at me just as I turned full around to shield my face from his sight. As I turned to run, there was already someone standing in front of me, blocking my path.
It was Gareth. And he was holding my mask.
A/N: Seriously, I love everyone who has reviewed this story. It's so nice to the feedback I get here and there, even after so long a posting drought.
I am so, so pathetic for taking so long to get this chapter up. According to my plan, this story has one more chapter (and an epilogue if I'm up for it!). I'm heading off to college in two weeks, and my goal is to have the rest of the story posted by then. Of course, we all know how my promises to update tend to work out…
Anyway, thanks so much for reading and reviewing. You guys are awesome. I am not worthy.