Who is the girl behind the mask,
I have never seen such a beauty.
Who is the girl I long to ask-
Would she dance with me through the night?
She has won my heart, bewitched me so,
Who can she be? I've got to know!
Surely, surely she mustn't go,
Before I learn her name-tonight!
My bright orange carriage pulled into procession, a misfit among the other solemn black ones. I was too excited to care. My heart was thumping avidly in my chest, making it difficult to breathe. Char was here, in the palace. I'd get to see him again for the first time in almost a year. I'd get to talk to him, to make him laugh, to hear him laugh…
Carefully, I stepped out of my carriage and made my way towards the giant marble doors of the palace. I could not help gaping in awe at the splendor around me. A small squire appeared next to me, offering me a glass of wine. Happily, I accepted the wine and then obliged him with a dance. Afterwards, however, I excused myself and sat down on one of the gilded chairs next to the wall.
Char was there, greeting a procession beautiful young ladies. One after another, I watched as they all vied to capture his interest. Only one girl managed to do so, a slim blonde lady. Would Char find his new love here, at this ball? Would he forget about me? My hands shook at the thought. I told myself that it was for the best, but to no avail.
There was only one lady left in the line now. Well, she wouldn't be last. I would. Quickly, I slipped into line behind the girl.
He bowed. I curtsied. When we straightened, he asked, "What is your name, Lady?"
I loved his voice, so warm and full of laughter. Smiling, I teased, "I don't believe you've been gone that long, Char. Surely you remember what I look like?"
Confusion swept across his features, to be chased away by shocked recognition. "Ella?"
"The one and only."
"Ella. Wow… I mean…" Char fumbled adorably over his words. "What are you doing here?"
I smiled, my heart aching. "Attending a ball, of course."
Char nodded. "Yes. Of course." He looked uncertain for a moment. "Would you like to dance?"
I couldn't help the wave of sadness that washed over me. "I'd love to."
He took my hand in one of his and settled the other one around me waist, a warm presence resting gently around my hip. A feeling I relished.
We chatted as we danced. I told him about my adventures at home, and how Nancy's eleven year old daughter had been out picking blueberries the other day and came home with the tips of her hair dyed blue. In turn, he told me more about the customs of Ayortha.
It seems unfair that I had been one of the lucky ones who had found myself somebody to love, only to realize that I may never be with him because of some stupid fairy's curse. How long could I stand this torture, of being in his arms and never really being his?
A fast spirited gavotte was playing, and our conversation lulled. I was spun around the wide hallway, dancing around a succession of partners before finally being led back to Char. Then, the song ended and Char led me outside.
I turned to face him. "Won't you be missed?"
"Most probably," He shrugged. "I like it better out here with you, anyway."
Tears filled my eyes. "Char, you can't do this. You know you can't."
He stiffened. "Why not, Ella? I understand that you do not feel for me the same way I feel for you, but why does that mean I must spend the rest of my life in there," He waved a hand furiously towards the ballroom. "dancing with a succession of insipid girls?"
"Char, that's not fair." It broke my heart to say it. "I'm sure some of those girls were lovely. What about that blonde you were talking to? She seemed interesting"
Char ignored my words. Turning around, he grasped my shoulders firmly. "Ella, you were the one who admitted to not loving me. I never said I would give you up. Maybe if I found you were already married, or in love with someone else… " His grip on me tightened. "You're not, are you? Married, or in love with another bloke? Ella, please say you aren't, I don't think I could stand it if you were."
"No, no, I'm not." I gasped hurriedly, looking down. I could not stand to gaze into Char's eyes a second longer, seeing the empty, broken look in his face. My own tears were spilling down my face now.
The grip on my shoulders relaxed, and Char pushed me gently away. I stumbled back, my mask slipping sideways on my face. I didn't bother adjusting it. Clearing my throat, I began what must have been the hardest speech of my life.
"Char. Char you know that even if I were married, it shouldn't change anything. I'm so sorry for doing this to you, Char. I care about you so much." I stopped to draw in a ragged breath. "I love you." He would never know how true those words were, would he? "But-but only as a friend. As a best friend. We can still be friends, can't we?"
I peered up at his face anxiously, waiting for a response. None came.
The silence was ominous, pressing in around me. From the ballroom, sounds of music and merry laughter drifted in. In the dark coolness of the palace gardens, I couldn't stand the sound of silence.
He'd moved forwards, until he was standing directly in front of me. He was close enough for me to count his eyelashes, see the flecks of gold in his warm brown eyes, and smell the scent that wafted off his clothes. Struggling to control my breathing, I closed my eyes.
Fingers were stroking softly through my hair. I felt my mask fall away. Surprised, my eyes snapped open and I watched as Char leaned down and brushed a soft kiss on my cheek, right on top of the place where one of my tears still hovered.
"Ella, answer me truthfully. Why did you come here tonight?" I could barely hear his voice as he whispered the command so softly.
I whispered back, not even realizing that I was obeying an order. "I wanted to see you."
His order was still pulling at me, forcing me to speak with honesty. I felt my head throbbing, but I knew I must never admit to having any feelings for Char. He would never let me go if I were to tell him. "Because I missed you."
His eyes glinted in the darkness. "Why did you miss me?"
"Because you'd been gone for a year." I closed my own eyes to avoid having to look at him.
I heard his sigh of frustration. "So you don't love me?"
"I do love you, Char." I could have swallowed my tongue. I felt every hair of my body standing on end. What would he say to that?
"But only as a friend."
Thank goodness that wasn't a question. I didn't have answer him. I stood there, afraid to blink, and watched as Char turned away dejectedly.
"Just go, Ella. Just go."
I turned and ran, my heart beating in my throat. I felt like I was falling apart into a million pieces. I wanted Char's love so badly it hurt, but I didn't want to hurt him. Just a few minutes ago, I had been desperately trying to prevent Char from finding out my true feelings, but part of me had also longed for him to know the truth. That irrational, selfish part of me wanted him to take me into his arms and tell me that it was all going to be okay, that I could still marry him.
My steps slowed, and I turned to catch one last glimpse of Char. He had disappeared back indoors.
I took a deep breath, wiped away the tracks of my tears, tied my mask back on, and prepared myself for a long journey home.
When I finally arrived at home, it was two minutes before midnight. I stepped out of my carriage and watched as it rolled merrily away, until tomorrow night.
Maybe I wouldn't even go to the ball tomorrow. Char certainly doesn't want to see me. It would most likely be best for both of us if I just disappeared.
Just at that moment Mandy came out. I cast all of my morose thoughts away and smiled at her.
"You should have seen the palace, Mandy. It was absolutely beautiful. Tapestries covered every wall, and the floor was made of marble." I rattled on about all the conveniences the castle had to offer, not paying attention to a single word I said.
Mandy was not fooled. "And the prince, Lady? Did you see him?"
My cheerful façade crumpled around me. "I spoke to him, Mandy. He seemed so heartbroken. How could I do this to him? I'm making him suffer unduly. Perhaps I should just run away and never see him again. Or maybe I should just marry him. Then we'd both be happy."
"Except then Kyrria would be in danger, and Char too. No. I couldn't stand putting Char in danger. He will not die because of me." I made my way inside, collapsing at the kitchen table to let my tears pour out. "He will forget about me soon enough, when he finds another maiden who is deserving of his heart. One who is not cursed, who is lucky enough to be able to spend every day of her life with my prince." I felt a fresh wave of tears coming on. "Except he's not my prince, and never will be."
"Oh Lady," Mandy pulled a chair up next to mine and enveloped me in a hug. "Things will get better, Lady. It's not the end of the world."
"It's not the end of your world," I corrected. "just mine." I got up and kissed Mandy goodnight; I found my way to my room and climbed into bed, falling into a dreamless sleep.
Mum Olga and the others arrived home a few hours later, and Hattie immediately summoned me out of my slumber so I could help her out of her gown. Of course, all she really wanted to do was gloat.
"Ella! Ah, there you are, help me get out of this dress." An order, I moved over and started unhooking her corset. "Ahh… tonight was wondroo-us" I muffled a snort of laughter at hearing Hattie's attempt at a two-syllable word.
"Are you listening to me? Pay attention!" I immediately was hanging on to her every word. "Prince Charmont was at the ball with me tonight. The moment he laid eyes on me, I knew he was in love! Only good manners prevented him from spending the rest of the night by my side."
Oh? Was that the lie she made for herself? I wonder what story she would cook up to console herself when he married another. Then again, I wondered what story I would cook up.
"My Charmont was so charming! I just know he'll ask for my hand! Do you not think so as well, Ella? Do you not think I am the most beautiful creature on this Earth?"
"No." Her Charmont?
"Do not tell yourself such lies! Of course I am the most beautiful! I am your future queen! Admit it, Ella, I am the most elegant queen ever, I am perfect for Charmont."
Despite myself, my mouth opened. My lips formed the hated words. "You are the most elegant queen ever. You are perfect for Char."
Hattie laughed, "Char? Is that what you call the prince? That is most improper!"
"Oh, and I suppose calling him Charmont is not improper at all?" Anger boiled up inside me, she knew nothing about it.
Once again, she laughed, her rabbit teeth gleaming in the lamplight. "Of course not! Future husbands and wives should not use formal titles. And there is no doubt in my mind that I am to be Charmont's beloved! He told me himself just this evening that he would count the minutes until we met again!"
I hastily turned my laugh into a cough.
"Anyway," Hattie continued. "I know I am right because King Jerrold announced right after Charmont left that the Prince has a very good idea of the girl he will pick to marry. He means me, of course." My stepsister's rabbit eyes gleamed. "Just you watch, Ella, in two days time I will be officially named as the betrothed of the heir of Kyrria."
For the next hour, Hattie pored over the various wedding dress designs she would be looking at next week. Finally, I was allowed to slip back to my own bed. Of course, I dismissed Hattie's ramblings about Char's secret promise to wed her, but a small trigger of doubt nagged in my mind.
Mayhaps after I had left the ball, Char had danced with that blonde beauty again and realized his affection for her. Could he have fallen in love, and forgotten about me? Did King Jerrold really tell the court that Char had all but picked out his future bride?