The rest of the summer passed by like a…well, Clarisse could never come up with a good comparison. All she knew was that summer was over before she knew it. Between learning to be a gourmet chef, talking with the Twins, and ordinary things like sleeping and eating, she had very little time to just sit and enjoy the sunshine. As the warmth started to fade and autumn began to creep into Marit, the princess suddenly realized that summer was gone. Soon the sun would be buried behind a mound of stormy rain clouds, and then the dull gray snow clouds would take their place. The thought depressed her; it often seemed as though she received her energy from photosynthesis. As the days shortened, all she wanted to do was curl up and sleep until spring began to melt the winter snows.

The realization that the king would leave soon for the winter palace/hunting lodge made her feel even worse. She didn't want to leave Marlyn and Rosemary behind and go to the ugly stone castle again. When she brought up this worry, Rosemary chuckled. It wasn't an entirely happy chuckle.

"I'm afraid you won't be seeing us whether you go or not; Lady Marionetta's wedding is in three weeks. Marlyn and I will be going with her and her husband on their honeymoon. We'll probably be gone past midwinter. They want to spend all the cold months in the south."

"What? You're kidding."

"No. We found out a few days ago. Marlyn's a bit angry, I'm afraid."

Clarisse was a bit upset herself, albeit for different reasons then Marlyn.

"What'll I do without you two? The room will be so empty. I'll have to go sit with Kate or Anna or someone at lunch."

"We won't be so happy either, with you left behind. There'll be no one to lord our wealth of knowledge over." Rosemary grinned and patted the top of Clarisse's head as she rose. Clarisse smiled reluctantly and that was that.

A few weeks later, just as the leaves began to turn gold and fall off (a bit earlier than usual; the weather was unexpectedly cold for the time of year) Lady Marionetta was married with great pomp and circumstance, and the Twins left for the south. Clarisse waved good-bye to them mournfully as the caravan of wagons left. She was lonely immediately.

I might as well go back to the winter palace, she thought morosely. It would fit my mood pretty well.

She knew she would probably have to go when everyone left, no choice about it; the Head Cook always traveled with the king, and it was Constantin himself who gave her cooking lessons most of the time.

"I should, doubtlessly, be doing paperwork for more shipments," he would say pleasantly when she protested. "But this not only gets me out of that, it's constructive. If the king's steward should come to scold me about deadlines, then I can say I'm training a new chef."

"That doesn't sound very impressive," Clarisse had replied.

"It does sound better than saying I fell asleep at my desk, though. I'm a cook, not a paper-pusher. Sometimes I'm afraid I'll wake up and not know the difference between basting and broiling. It's good to practice every once in awhile, for the few occasions when the king orders me to cook for him."

Often he would say this while doing some trick Clarisse despaired of ever learning. She was usually able to resist the urge to snort at the thought of him forgetting how to cook. But sometimes it was hard.

As the leaves started to fall in greater and greater amounts, Clarisse's reluctance to leave her warm room in the castle grew. But it turned out her worry—which had begun to turn to dread—was in vain, because it became increasingly evident that the coming winter would be bitterly cold. The king decided to stay in the city that year and, privately, the servants rejoiced. Clarisse's spirits lifted slightly. The cold was too heavy an influence on her mood, however, to let them rise more than a little.

That winter really was bitterly cold; it was able to pierce to the heart of the kitchens, though the many fires and ovens were usually armor enough to keep out the greatest chill. Clarisse, sitting in her empty room one day, decided that enough was enough. Her teeth were chattering and her hands were stiff, even as she built up and lit a fire. She threw the wardrobe doors open wide and looked down at the mound of fur laying at the bottom. She bent down to wrap her hands in it, sighing as they grew warm. Her fur coat looked a lot different then it had the night she received it. It had gotten torn and wet during her flight through the woods. Since then, moths had been chewing at it slightly. It was still warm and clean, but it was no longer the beautiful thing it had once been. Indeed, it looked like a cast-off that a noble might give to a maid.

"Which is very lucky for me," muttered Clarisse as she removed her three gowns from it and stuffed them behind another pile in the back of the wardrobe. "Because I'm not going to take this off until spring. I wouldn't care if it had 'Princess Clarisse' embroidered on its back. It's warm."

Her fur coat caused quite a stir anyways, the first day she walked into the kitchens with it. Several of her second-level acquaintances laughed when they saw her. Alan, who had finished his apprenticeship and was feeling bold, remarked that he always knew Dahlia was part bear; now he was certain, seeing the winter coat she had grown. Clarisse answered him with a growl and a ferocious glare that sent him stumbling away. But it was true; she did slightly resemble a wild animal. The coat made her slender frame look bulkier and it was hard to tell where her black hair began and the coat left off.

The Head Cook was surprised by her new appearance as well. When she walked up to ask a question, he froze and stared at her. Then he chuckled and shook his head.

"I was startled to see a walking furball in front of me for a moment, before I realized it was you. Be careful not to drag that coat in the food."

"Oh," said the princess. "I didn't think of that." She looked down at her baggy coat. "It is alright to wear this in here, isn't it? This place is freezing."

"Just as long as you're careful," he replied. "It wouldn't do to get hair in the plum pudding, would it?"

Clarisse did keep it on, despite its unwieldiness. Unfortunately, Constantin's first impression of her stuck. The kitchen staff began to—affectionately—refer to her as Furball. Or, when she was being particularly snotty about it (as the servants said when Clarisse protested her nickname), Princess Furball. She grew used to it eventually, though she never grew to like it.

The months dragged by slowly in the absence of Marlyn and Rosemary; the prospect of seeing the two friends at meals and in the evening had always made the endless work seem easier. Often, that winter, the princess didn't go to lunch at all. Instead, she stayed in the kitchen with the first-level assistants. They were conceited, as Constantin had warned, but they were mostly friendly and almost always happy to teach. They would talk to her, like a flock of agreeable (if crusty) aunts and uncles, and make as many meat pasties as they could eat. It wasn't the same as eating with the Twins, but it was fun in a different way. Clarisse learned much that winter.

The only two events that the princess really remembered of that seemingly endless stretch of time happened at the beginning and the end. Clarisse's eighteenth birthday arrived a few weeks after the Twins left. She didn't tell anyone; having much fuss made over her always embarrassed the princess. Instead, she kept the knowledge to herself and remembered her last birthday. It had been about a month before she had run away.

I seem to remember a party, she thought vaguely. I can't picture much of it. I must have been too worried to pay much attention.

The day wasn't a very happy one, but it wasn't more than normally boring either. It was…a day.

The second event was much more exciting—not to mention much more widely known. It was the king's midwinter ball, one of the most anticipated events of the year. Midsummer was the commoners' holiday; midwinter belonged to the nobility. The celebration lasted three days, with a ball each night. Everyone was preparing for it long in advance; the kitchens couldn't start baking until a few days prior, but Clarisse knew the first- level assistants and Constantin were hard at work planning awhile before that. She had even been invited to listen (and perhaps contribute, every now and then) as an apprentice. It was rather boring.

Then, one week before the ball, something happened that upset many of the Head Cook's carefully made plans. A runner had arrived from the king, bearing a message; apparently he wanted something different for the dinner that year. Constantin had read it and scowled.

"Well, that disturbs everything."

"What is it?" asked a first-leveler named Maeve, the only woman in the group besides Clarisse.

"There's an old fashion from Kyrir that His Majesty wants to use at the ball this year, to make it interesting, he says."

"Kyrir? Why Kyrir?" It was a city-state by the sea, quite a distance from Marit.

"I suspect it has something to do with the pretty Kyriran duchess he's been making eyes at for the past three months. Anyways, he wants…where's the description? Ah."

"He wants 'a giant vat of soup, or perhaps several, enough to serve every guest. It is to be made in, or in a room connecting to, the ball room so that each guest should be able to drop in a token, a trinket of some type. Midway through the ball, when the food is served, each guest is to receive a bowl with a token in it. The lord or lady must then dance with whoever's token they've found. I hope you will not fail me in this, Constantin. I leave the preparation to you'. Isn't that sweet? I'm to make soup for the ball. I wonder if we'll be having any lords dancing with lords? Or even better, people dancing with themselves. I do not see how this could work." His voice held a touch of scorn in it. Clarisse could see he was greatly annoyed; the busyness of the past few weeks had worn his nerves to shreds.

Rather like the first time I met him, she though wryly. When the foresters brought me to ask for a job. He looked rather as he does now; I wonder if he had been preparing for the midwinter ball?

"It'll be alright, sir," said another cook, Vincent, cheerfully. "We'll figure it out."

"I'm sure you will. But how am I to make gallons of soup by myself?"

Suddenly all the assistants were looking at their hands, the table, or the floor—anything but into Constantin's eyes.

"Well, I'll be busy overseeing the cakes. Decorating them too," said Maeve quickly. All the others made some sort of excuse as well. The Head Cook's eyes roamed over everyone's faces. Clarisse scooted back farther in her chair, which was sitting in the corner of Constantin's small office. The movement, unfortunately, caught his attention.

"Ah hah! Dahlia, you can help me. You'll be a master at soups before this is over." He grinned; Clarisse saw a little sarcasm, a pinch of malice, and good portion of sympathy in his expression. He obviously realized the dismay she was feeling, being given a boring task like soup- making. Part of him stuck her with the job because of that. Misery loves company. Clarisse sighed.

"Yes, sir."

That was how, days later, she found herself sitting between two large cauldrons on a stool, looking and feeling incredibly sorry for herself. Usually, at an occasion such as this, she would be making last minute preparations for the ball or watching it from the musicians' gallery on the second level. Instead, she was stuck in a stuffy little room keeping an eye on soup. The boredom was nearly unbearable.

"Oh, cheer up," said Constantin, sitting across the room at the other fireplace, two other cauldrons next to him. The ladies would put their tokens in the soup by Clarisse; the lords would put their tokens in the soup by the Head Cook. It was a silly practice. Neither Clarisse nor Constantin knew why the king had required it.

"It's not really that bad. It's probably colder than this in the kitchens." The Head Cook was trying to think of reasons that they'd rather be there than anywhere else. Clarisse rolled her eyes, careful to keep her companion from seeing. As far as she was concerned, there were none.

"I have my coat. I'm not at all cold here and I wouldn't be there." She pulled the baggy fur around her more tightly.

"Oh, yes, I forgot. Princess Furball. I have to admit, I'm rather jealous; that thing looks warm."

Clarisse immediately suppressed a rather inappropriate idea that popped into her mind. He's your boss, she reminded herself. You shouldn't think such things.

She remained silent for a long time after that. The Head Cook sat without speaking, staring into the cauldrons next to him.

"I wish I could see the ball room, even just a glimpse of it from the gallery. This is the biggest party all year. It must beautiful," Clarisse sighed, chin leaning on her hand. Constantin glanced at her out of the corners of his eyes.

"I heard that the room's decorated wonderfully," she continued dreamily. "And it's a masquerade ball, so all the nobles will be a sight to see in their masks and costumes."

This time Constantin sighed. "The preparation is done for the soup, it's just cooking now. I suppose you could go out and look about for a little while, until we have to serve the stuff."

Clarisse perked up immediately. "What? Really? What about an hour?"

"Half an hour."

"Forty-five minutes?"

"Done. Now off with you. I've had enough of your moping." He smiled briefly and waved his hand toward the door. Clarisse jumped up and started to leave.

"Thank you!" She removed her apron and was gone. Clarisse raced down the passage that ran along side the ballroom, one of the servants' passages. She was headed toward the musician's gallery—Henri was used to her and let her up without Marlyn in attendance—but stopped when she saw light shining through a chink in the worn stone walls. Curious, she put her eye against the small hole. The sight she saw made her breath catch in her throat.

The room was practically glowing, golden walls hung with boughs of evergreen. The mural on the ceiling looked like real sky, suspended high above a land made of emerald and amber. Strains of music, just barely within hearing range, floated through the hole and into the princess's ears. And the people—oh, the people!—Clarisse remembered dressing like that, at another ball in the distant past. Nostalgia, bittersweet, enveloped her in its grasp.

They wore jeweled masks, masks covered in thinly hammered metal, masks mimicking birds and dragons and unicorns. The clothing matched the mask as well, in color and material if not in whimsicality. The princess saw a blue-green swan sweep past her, dressed in a gown of azure silk trimmed with sapphires. A man with a red gargoyle mask and a scarlet coat passed by after her, followed by a pair wearing matching green cat masks and jade velvet.

Watching them hungrily, Clarisse recognized the dance as well. It was a Verbonyan folk dance-turned-court dance that she had loved. Her heart ached.

I wish I could be there, she thought wistfully.

And an idea began to form in her head—why couldn't she? She had her gowns hidden in her wardrobe and her mask from midsummer. All she would have to do was change and get into the ballroom unseen.


Clarisse found herself running toward her room, shrugging off her coat and unlacing her gown the moment she shut the door behind her. She threw open the wardrobe doors and found the package that contained the dresses; reaching in, she pulled out the first one she touched. It was her brocade gown as golden as the sun, as golden as the room the nobility danced in. She slipped the shining thing over her head, hiding the drab petticoats and stays she wore underneath. It felt as heavy as chain mail, after a year without ball gowns. But it was a familiar, reassuring feeling. Clarisse smoothed the wide, unwrinkled skirts happily.

Next she regarded her hair in a tiny mirror Rosemary had hung on the wall. It was up in a smooth black bun. Not bad looking, but very simple. Clarisse unpinned it and let it fall free around her shoulders; then she braided her bangs, coiled the remainder of her hair back on top of her head, and tucked the tips of the thin braids underneath the coil. The two ebony ropes draped over the sides of her face and under her ears elegantly. The princess smiled at her reflection and donned her silver-and-gold bird mask.

Finally, she looked down at her feet in their scuffed leather boots. Saying they didn't match her gown was an understatement, and there was no way that she could dance in them. So, with a sigh, she sat on the edge of her bed and pulled them off, followed by her woolen stockings. The cold floor was like ice under her bare feet, but she had no slippers to wear.

She was ready.

Clarisse was sure to take the most rarely used passages up to the ballroom, afraid that one of the other servants would see her on the way. Luckily, she remained undiscovered. She finally arrived at the end of one particular passage. The princess pushed aside the tapestry covered it and stepped out, holding her breath.

She emerged between an enormous drape and one of the tall glass windows of the ballroom; she could feel the coldness outside seeping through the glass. The chill steadied her nerves and her wits; she assumed a regal posture and swept out from behind the curtains into the room. She stood as though she belonged there.

No one noticed her immediately, the young woman that stood along the wall. And though she didn't know it, the first people to sight her wondered how they could have missed her before, and why she was standing alone without a partner.

One of the people who discovered her first was His Highness, Prince Marius, younger brother of the king himself. Marius had been dancing with a young countess, bored with her constant chatter and staring straight ahead with glazed eyes. That was when he saw a patch of darkness against the shining walls; he focused on a black-haired woman standing away from the dancers. His long-lashed dark-chocolate eyes widened with interest as he gazed at her: even from that distance, he could tell she was beautiful. Her smooth skin was pale brown, an unusual color in the city-states surrounding Marit; her hair, the dark patch he had first noticed, was black as night, and her gown was of the richest silk brocade money could buy. And her figure…he licked his lips, smiling.

"Your Highness?" the countess's irritated voice brought his thoughts back to his immediate surroundings. He finished the dance with his attention on his partner, but after the music came to a close he strode off, intent on the black-haired woman. He slowed as he neared her, assuming a casual pace.

Clarisse had been gazing toward the center of the room when a smooth voice broke into her reverie; she looked up and saw a young man standing in front of her. She recognized him instantly, though she had only ever seen him from a distance.

Prince Marius was one of those very rare men who are truly beautiful; not handsome, not good-looking, but heart-stopping. Clarisse couldn't help but stare. His coloring was very similar to Marlyn's, with olive skin, brown eyes, and dark brown hair, but the colors on him were deeper and richer. The white linen of his shirt was very white against his skin, and even whiter next to his velvety black waistcoat and overcoat. His mask was black velvet as well, formed to resemble a stag; diamonds glittered around the eyeholes like stars. Looking closer at his eyes, Clarisse was half- shocked to see that they were outlined with kohl. She dropped a quick curtsey when she realized she was staring; the prince grabbed her arm gently and raised her back up.

"There is no need for that, milady," he said in a light mellow voice, letting her arm go. A quick smile flashed across his face. "You shall give me away, if there is anyone here that has not discovered my disguise yet." He leaned closer, as if to whisper a secret. "I hoped to hide from a few of them a little longer." He nodded toward a group of women standing a few yards away.

Clarisse was at a loss for what to say; the old Clarisse would have been haughty. The new Clarisse didn't want to be like that anymore, but she had never had a chance to relearn her court manners. Fortunately, the prince went on without a reply from her.

"But I came over here to find out who you were, and why such a beautiful lady was standing alone. Do you not wish to dance?"

"I would love to dance," she said without thinking. "But no one has asked me."

He offered her his hand, palm up. The princess took it, blushing behind her mask. He put his other hand on her waist and swept her off into the midst of the dancing couples.

"I cannot believe that no one has asked; are they blind, that they do not notice you? But perhaps they know something I don't, and I'm putting myself in danger. Do you have a particularly jealous husband, lady?" His voice took on a teasing tone; Clarisse, half charmed and half bemused by the young prince, laughed hesitantly.

"I have no husband, so you may be sure of your safety in that area."

"Then perhaps you are a witch, that will turn me into a toad if I step on your feet?"

"Nor do I know anything of magic."

"Well, it can't be that you dance badly, because I don't think I've ever met someone so light on their feet. I give up; what is your name? Maybe that will give me a clue." His head was tilted down, and he looked up at her through lowered eyelashes.

Does he know how compelling that look is? she thought in the back of her head. I'll bet he does.

"Oh, what would be the fun of that? This is a masquerade ball. Anyway, it is so much more convenient for no one to know who you are. It gives you more freedom, no?" Despite how hard Clarisse tried, a hint of her old manner crept into her voice. It was instinctive; she was in a ballroom and the snobby Princess took over. She didn't realize it, but her voice took on much the same tone as the prince's: a thread of aloofness in an otherwise friendly tone. The prince recognized this and smiled to himself.

"Well said, lady. I suppose I must leave the question alone for now, but I will try to find you out nonetheless. I know you are not a normal resident of this court, though, so that could narrow my search."

The dance ended soon after; Marius led Clarisse back to the fringes of the crowd. There, they were intercepted by two more masked courtiers. One of them the princess recognized very well, and she froze.

"Brother, you have not met Lady Naia yet, have you? You must dance with her next." It was the king himself. Clarisse felt like her heart was about to stop.

I was just going to come in and watch, maybe dance with a baron or two, she thought. But here I am, with the most goddamn beautiful prince I've ever seen on my arm, and the king standing in front of me. I really am good at getting in deeper than I mean to.

"Of course, sir," murmured the prince deferentially, though Clarisse could see a glint of annoyance in his eye. Marius bowed to Clarisse and kissed her hand.

"Thank you for a wonderful time, milady. I will see you later." His voice was light, but she heard the steel in 'will'. She thanked him and he went over to the lady Naia. The king went back the way he came, and the princess made her way back over to the place where she had entered the ballroom. She crept under the tapestry when she was sure no one was looking.

When she was safely back in her room, she dropped into a crouch on the floor and breathed deeply for a minute or two. Then she stood and smoothed nonexistent wrinkles in her skirt.

"Oi, Clarisse," she said aloud to the empty room. "You are in for it. No good can come of this." But she was flattered by the prince's attentions anyway. She was reluctant to strip off her ball gown and change back into her working clothes and coat, but she did it nonetheless. Her hair was smoothed back into a bun and her mask was put back in the wardrobe. Then she returned to the room where Constantin was waiting with the soup.

He was looking mildly worried when she arrived; when he saw her, his face relaxed.

"There you are. I was afraid you wouldn't make it in time to present the soup to the king. But here you are, with five minutes to spare."

"You want me to go in there with you?" She was surprised and more than a little alarmed. Constantin failed to notice.

"Of course. I plan to make my other assistants regret that they did not offer to help me. But more than that, you deserve some credit. You did half the work."

Clarisse disagreed, but didn't say so. She only hoped that Marius, if he saw her, would not recognize her in servants' clothing, without a mask. If he did… Clarisse did not want to think what would happen. Would she be punished? Would they discover her true identity?

She leaned over to inspect her two pots of soup; it was warm and fragrant, nicely cooked. She leaned farther over to get a better whiff of the delicious smell; then she felt something shift in her coat and looked down in horror as a tiny porcelain cat figurine fell into the soup with a musical 'plish'.

Oh, dear God! Her mind shrieked. I forgot—my mother's things that I brought with me. Have they been in my coat the entire time? Now it's in the soup, and I can't get it out! Oh, what can I do?

"Is the soup alright?" asked Constantin, coming over to peer into it. Clarisse nodded quickly, hiding the panicked look on her face.

"Yes, yes, it's fine. Smells very good."

"Good. It's about time to serve it now. But be careful; the king will have a fit if he finds hair in the soup." The Head Cook grinned at the princess before walking over to one of the many doors in room and saying something to someone outside of it. Clarisse rolled her eyes and sighed heavily. People made jokes about her coat whenever they could.

She pushed her fears about discovery—and the cat figurine—to the back of her mind when more servants entered the room and carried the cauldrons out to the ballroom; one side of it was raised slightly, and this side held a table covered in food and surrounded by courtiers. Clarisse looked through the door surreptitiously, just sticking her head out.

"Come on, Dahlia, don't be shy. You'll be fine. Just stand next to me while the soup is served; you don't have to say or do anything."

She followed the Head Cook out the door and into the glittering ballroom, feeling horribly exposed. She pulled her coat more tightly around her and bent her face toward the ground. She stopped when she saw Constantin's feet stop and turned to face the direction he faced. She looked up slowly when she saw more feet; those of the servers, taking a bowl full of soup and a trinket to each of the guests.

They were standing directly in front of the table where the royal party sat, though a few yards back, with the cauldrons in between them and the table. She watched, her curiosity becoming stronger than her fear for a moment. The king dipped a long, delicate spoon into his bowl, removing a small metallic object from it. Clarisse studied it—the object was too far away for her to make out clearly, but it appeared to be a tiny shield with a coat-of-arms blazoned across it in jewels. The king chuckled and showed it to a young woman sitting next to him.

"Well, my lady—it appears my next dance shall be promised to you." The lady blushed and murmured something that Clarisse could not hear.

"Princess Vanya, from Kyrir," breathed the Head Cook, so quietly the princess could barely hear him.

"That's the lady from Kyrir this nonsense is all for. You'd best look well. She'll probably be our queen before the next year is out."

She did look and came to the same conclusion; when she drew the king's token from her own bowl a few moments later, Vanya and Josef exchanged a glance that left little to be imagined. It was the same glance Marlyn and Henri had exchanged when he had handed her the mandolin he had won at the festival.

By then, most of the other nobles had received their own soup, and were fishing gold and silver trinkets out of it hesitantly. Clarisse hid her smile as she saw looks of dismay, pleasure, and resignation as people discovered whom they were being forced to dance with. Many of the older courtiers looked mildly disgusted at having to pick things from their food, but held their peace. The princess turned her eyes toward Marius; he was inspecting—Clarisse's eyes widened—two glittering objects in his hand. One was all too familiar to her.

"Lucky you, Marius," the king was saying, his eyebrows raised. "You have been given an extra."

"Indeed," murmured the prince. One of the tokens was, like most of the others, a small shield with a coat-of-arms upon it. But the other was a small cat figurine with golden gilt spots. He examined the cat more closely and Clarisse stared at it and him until King Josef addressed Constantin, startling her into self-awareness.

"I applaud you on a job well done, Constantin. I feel certain tomorrow night's feast shall be as well prepared," he announced, smiling at the Head Cook benevolently. The Head Cook bowed low.

"I am honored, your Majesty," he said clearly.

The king can't be any older than he is, thought the princess, disgruntled. Probably younger. How can he bear to be condescended to like that?

"I must admit, though, I could not have done it without the help of my new assistant, Dahlia." Constantin was standing upright again and smiling delicately. This was his revenge upon the first-level assistants, who were so unwilling to help him. Clarisse realized that she should be honored to be commended before the king, but she could only feel slightly sick. She curtseyed deeply anyways. The king nodded to her pleasantly.

"Assistant, eh? Well, I know I speak for all the court when I say we're happy to have another wonderful chef among us."

And that was that. His attention turned to something else and the two cooks were left standing there.

"Well, time to go. That wasn't so bad, was it?" Constantin patted her on the back and turned to go. Clarisse started to leave as well, looking back at the royal party one last time before she left.

The prince's eyes were on her, though she could see no sign of recognition in them. He smiled at her, long delicate fingers toying with the figurine in his hands. Clarisse flushed and followed her fellow cook out of the room. She could feel Marius's gaze on her back all the way.

The next night, Clarisse returned to the small room to prepare more soup for the king; the midwinter celebrations lasted three days and the king demanded the same diversion each evening. She had much to mull over that night, though, so the time did not drag by so slowly.

When she had first arrived in the little room and greeted Constantin, she was determined she would not go dance again that night. By the time the water had been poured in the large cauldrons to boil, she had changed her mind and decided that the danger of discovery was not that great. As she chopped vegetables, she had lost her nerve. When the time came to add the vegetables to the boiling water, she had convinced herself to go after all. By the time the mixture started to simmer, she had absolutely no idea what she wanted to do. She wanted to see the beautiful prince again, but she was half-afraid of it too.

The Head Cook didn't fail to notice her distraction. He watched her narrowly the entire time. As Clarisse decided she would never decide what to do, he spoke and broke the heavy silence in the room.

"Yes, you have permission to go watch the dancing. Please, go. You're driving me crazy with all your pacing."

Clarisse stopped circling the area by her cauldrons and blinked. She hadn't realized she had been walking. She glanced at him guiltily.

"Really, it's fine. Just be back in three-quarters of an hour, like last time."

She nodded and left, running down the passageways to her cold room once again. She retrieved her mask from the wardrobe and reached into the hidden bag that contained her dresses. The one she pulled out this time was silver satin, sewn with moonstones and shining ribbon. She put on the gown, took off her boots, and looked in the mirror.

"How can I keep him from recognizing me as Dahlia?" she asked her reflection. She pulled her hair down from its bun and let it hang loose over her shoulders and back.

"Not good enough," she complained. Then she had an idea. Being careful not to tear or wrinkle the fine satin, she returned to the wardrobe and bent down. At the very floor of it was the old hatbox in which Rosemary and Marlyn kept the cast-off cosmetics they had gotten shortly after Clarisse had arrived. There was still a bit left; she took the kohl and lipcream and rouge and painted her face with them; not too much, just enough that the change was noticeable. Looking in the mirror this time, she decided she looked different enough to pass a rudimentary examination.

So she took her coat, wrapped it around her to hide her dress, and tucked her mask underneath it. She checked the hallway for people before sneaking off into the least-used passages again. When she arrived behind the tapestry by the window, she shed her coat and put on her mask.

No one will know me, she reassured herself. The sound of the music by itself was enough to overcome her fears. She stepped into the ballroom and waited by the wall for a partner.

Maybe it was pure chance, or maybe he had been searching for her, but the prince spotted Clarisse soon after her arrival. This time he was without a partner, so he sauntered through the crowd over to her leisurely. His appearance surprised her as much as it had the night before.

"A good evening to you, Madame Unknown. Once again I find you standing alone."

She turned to the soft voice and barely restrained herself from curtseying. He smiled through his stag mask, this time midnight blue to match his clothing.

"And to you, your Highness. I see you have been able to hide from the admiring masses as well tonight." Princess Clarisse answered before Dahlia/Clarisse had time to formulate a reply. She was glad for the automatic reply, but the words seemed to come from a person who had faded away a long time ago. It disturbed Clarisse to know that the supercilious princess still lived inside of her.

"I have hoped to see you, lady, so I made an effort to go unnoticed."

This time she did blush, and the princess remained quiet. A quiet laugh emerged from her throat after a moment of embarrassed silence.

"I'm afraid that flattery will not convince me to tell you my name. You still have to find that out on your own."

Marius regarded her with hooded eyes and an indolent smile. "Ah, well, I thought I might as well try. Though, lady, you do yourself a disservice to think of it as mere flattery. I truly have been waiting to dance with you. Surely you would not refuse?"

She couldn't, though the prince still half frightened her. She knew he was fully capable of wrapping her around his finger if he wanted to. Perhaps he already was, because she danced with him despite her misgivings. She had come to ball to dance with him.

"So, I must figure out your name," he was saying. "Let's see—what clues do I have to this puzzle? I know you are not a Maritian courtier, or at least not one regularly in attendance. So that leaves two possibilities. A woman new to court or a foreigner." He paused as they did a particularly complicated dance step.

"I will give you another clue, then; I know the palace rather well." She didn't know what possessed her to say it, but she figured that the hint would steer him away from Verbonya and the truth. To be discovered as a servant might be marginally better than being sent back to her father—and her bridegroom.

"So who had recently been presented to the king? I'm afraid I do my best to avoid such functions, so I know few of the faces that go with the names."

"Well, you can't expect me to help you there. I suppose you'll have to look into it some other time."

"Yes," he murmured, regarding her with his amazing dark eyes. Clarisse looked down at the floor to avoid meeting that gaze. Suddenly, he was pushing her chin back up. She moved back and he put his arm back around her waist.

"There is no need to be shy, lady," he said in a mild tone.

If shyness doesn't protect me, she thought, I don't know what will.

The dance ended soon after. They returned to the sides. Clarisse looked up toward the elaborate clock, a true work of art, which was displayed on the mirrored walls. It was about time that she left.

"Mmm," she said, swallowing. "That left me rather thirsty. I don't suppose I could find myself something to drink anywhere here?" She glanced toward the table on the far side of the room; it wasn't prepared for the feast yet, but it was laden with tiny cakes, fruit, and punch."

"If you will allow me, I shall go retrieve us both something to drink," proposed Marius.

"If it's not too much trouble…?"

"Certainly not. I will return shortly." In truth, Marius knew a dismissal when he heard one. He was more skilled at this sort of thing than Clarisse, but he was content to let her go for the moment.

I have inquiries to make, he thought, smiling inwardly. But don't fear, my lady; I will discover you eventually. One way or another. I know a few methods to get the answer out of you.

Once he was out of sight, the princess slowly drifted toward the window again. When she was sure no one was looking at her, she moved behind the curtain and through the tapestry. She removed her mask, donned her coat, and returned to her room. She knew she had stayed a few minutes later than she had last time, so she practically tore the gown off of her, laced up her servant's dress, and pinned up her hair. She pulled her stockings on in a rush and tied on her boots clumsily; then she picked up her coat. Before she walked out the door, she remembered the make-up on her face; she wiped it off hurriedly and dashed to the anteroom where the soup and Constantin waited. Once again, his expression relaxed when he saw her.

"I thought you wouldn't make it; they're just about to take the soup out," he said, standing over the two cauldrons he had tended. "Does the stuff over there seem alright to you? I'm afraid this got a bit too hot."

She went over to check the other two cauldrons, glad for the chance to catch her breath. It seemed just the right temperature to her; she leaned over to test it with the tip of her finger…

Plop! She watched as something small disappeared into the soup. Cursing herself, she dug her hand into the coat pocket; the only thing in it was the small clockwork frog.

The ring, she thought. My ring fell in. Oh, dear god, why didn't I empty my pocket last night?

The door opened and the servers entered to carry the cauldrons to the nobles. Clarisse straightened hastily, her heart sore to lose another memento of her mother. But there was no way to get it back.

"The soup's alright," she called to the Head Cook before it was carried away. He nodded absently and took off the apron he was wearing. She followed him out, face tilted toward the floor like before.

It went pretty much like it had the other night; Clarisse paid no attention to the king, except to wonder sardonically if the game was rigged. Once again, he was given Princess Vanya's token.

The majority of her attention was focused on Marius, sitting at the king's left hand. She watched him through her eyelashes, since her face was to the ground. Once again—just my luck, she thought—he was given the thing she had dropped into the soup by mistake. A little silver ring set with a fire-opal carved into a rose. And once again, the king commented on his luck for having been given two. She stared at that little ring on the palm of his hand, mind empty. She replied to the king's compliments woodenly and it took a touch on her shoulder to get her to follow Constantin out of the room. All she was conscious of was the cat, the ring, and Marius.

She didn't see, after she turned to go, Marius elbowing the young man next to him in the side and nodding toward her back. The young man, a cousin of his, chuckled and said something rude. Marius narrowed his eyes thoughtfully.

She moves very gracefully for a servant, he reflected. I think it might be pleasant to get to know the wench a little better.

"Are you feeling alright?" asked Constantin curiously. They were walking down the passages to the kitchen, arms full of tiny bags of spices. They would be returned to a cabinet in his office and locked in; such things were as precious as gold and not to be left in just anyone's hands.

"I'm fine. Why?"

"You just seem a little edgy today. You don't have to help again tomorrow night if you're feeling sick. I'm sure Maeve or Vincent would be happy to help out now."

Clarisse smiled, remembering the expressions on the first-levelers' faces when they heard how Constantin and she had presented the food to the king.

"No, really, I'm fine. Just sleepy, I suppose. And I've spent too much time with them to give up an opportunity like this. I'll be a proper first-level assistant before long."

"That's too bad. I was just getting used to having someone around that didn't mind grunt work. Ah, well."

They arrived at his office soon after and locked up the spices safely. Then she returned to her room and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

The next morning came all too early, but most of Clarisse's stress had disappeared with her night's sleep. Unfortunately, she heard two things that day at lunch that she decided she could have gone without knowing. All the princess could do was grit her teeth and pretend it didn't bother her.

The first item of disturbing news was pretty common talk in the mess hall that day. She had been sitting quietly at the end of a table eating, the same as she had whenever she ate in the mess hall since the Twins left. Everyone was talking about the midwinter celebration—how they were celebrating and how the nobles were. It was one particular phrase the caught her attention. Indeed, it sent a chill down her back.

"…mystery lady at the ball," laughed a woman's voice from nearby. If the princess had been a dog or a horse, her ears would have perked up.

"What was that, Lucy?" Clarisse asked the middle-aged woman who had spoken. Lucy was the washerwoman who had taught Clarisse how to clean her own clothes. Lucy had a rather affectionate attitude toward the princess.

"Ah, I was talking about the lady who's appeared at the balls the past few nights—just shows up, in as pretty a dress as you could hope for, but no one knows who she is. Don't tell me you haven't heard about her." The woman looked thoughtful for a moment. "Haven't you been working up at the ball, lass? You didn't happen to catch sight of her, did you?"

"Oh, ah, no," replied Clarisse quickly, fumbling for an answer. "I've been pretty busy. But I have heard a few people speaking of her today. Does anyone have an idea of who she is?"

"Not a clue. They say young prince Marius has been working hard to find out, asking after every young lady visiting court." She chuckled. "He's been offending quite a few of the women his brother's been trying to foist off on him. I don't think the king's going to get him married until he's good and ready himself. That boy is a handful."

The conversation drifted to other things and Clarisse fell silent again, pushing around vegetables in her bowl of stew and thinking. It was then that she heard the other, far more troubling, piece of gossip.

Two girls slightly younger than the princess were sitting three seats down from her, whispering quietly to each other. Clarisse didn't know them by name but she recognized them as scullery maids from the kitchen. Usually she wouldn't have paid them any attention, but she heard the word 'Dahlia' from one of them. She stiffened and concentrated on their conversation.

"Little miss Furball was busy? Huh, I bet. I can just imagine how that girl got to first-level assistant's assistant so fast. Did you know she was a spit-turner just a year ago?"


"Yes, I heard she was hired at the winter palace."

"How did she get so high up? Gennie's been working in the kitchens for five years and she still hasn't gotten past third-level assistant."

"Oh, come on, don't be so naïve. With a face like hers? Men will do anything to get a pretty girl's gratitude. I bet the Head Cook was happy to promote her, no matter how she cooks."

"You aren't saying that…?"

Clarisse didn't want to hear anymore. At first she was utterly enraged that they dared to imply she was that type of girl—and that Constantin would do anything so disgusting; if he was sometimes bad-tempered, he had never offered her an inappropriate word or action. But then the anger was replaced with a sinking feeling in her stomach and the knowledge that she knew absolutely nothing about such things.

It can't be true, she thought wretchedly. He would never…some thing like that…. he wouldn't, would he? No. It's just ill-natured gossip from some spiteful girls.

But the doubt was still there.

She came to help with the soup that night rather reluctantly, though she hoped it didn't show. She tried to chat with Constantin just as casually as normal, but she found herself strangely unwilling to meet his eyes, as if he could see the maids' words imprinted on her irises. She wanted to believe the gossip wasn't true, but a little voice in the back of her mind whispered, What do you know? What if it is true? What if?

She was ashamed of herself for that tiny doubt, because she had come to respect Constantin as a good man as well as a superb cook. When she asked to watch the dancers, after the soup was prepared, and he consented, she fled the room quickly and was relieved when she reached her chamber.

"I'm relieved to sneak into the noble's ball and dance with an extraordinarily dangerous young man," she said wryly to her reflection as she braided her hair and arranged it on her head. "All this cooking has muddled my head. I need a holiday."

After she was content with her hairdo, she slipped on her one remaining gown, the white silk one sewn with tiny diamonds and embroidered with silver thread. It felt like a dream next to her bare skin; she sighed as she realized that this was the last night of midwinter parties. She might never get to wear her gowns again.

Before picking up her mask and putting on her coat, she remembered to do one last thing—she reached into the coat pocket and removed the golden frog that remained in it.

"There is no way I'm giving you a chance to jump into the soup. It would probably ruin you," she said to the frog sternly.

I'm talking to a toy, she thought wonderingly. I must be going crazy.

She placed it upon her bed, slipped on her coat, and hid the mask in its folds. Then she left once again—the last time—for the ball. She was rather used to the routine now. Sneak up to the ballroom, put on the mask, and leave the coat on the floor. It was easy, and she arrived earlier than usual. Still, the prince did not find her for sometime.

"Milady, I'm sorry if I have kept you waiting for long. My brother has been pushing women at me all night, in hopes that I might take a fancy to one." This was his greeting tonight. Clarisse smiled sympathetically at him. She remembered the feeling well.

"I have not been waiting too long; I am happy enough that you choose to dance with me at all."

"See, that is where you differ from most of the ladies here tonight—you do not take me quite so much for granted." He moved to lean against the wall next to her, watching Clarisse steadily. A slow smile spread across his exquisitely shaped mouth. "It is no wonder I like you better than the rest. You are not nearly so demanding."

Somehow I doubt anyone takes you for granted, a little voice in the back of Clarisse's mind said.

"Have you decided I am not one of your courtiers, then?" she asked, hoping to change the subject.

"Yes, indeed I have. I have made sure to see every single one of the young ladies new here, and you were not among them. So I suppose you must be visiting—perhaps from Kyrir, with my brother's dear Princess Vanya?"

"I wouldn't say so if I was," was her reply. It neither confirmed nor denied his guess.

"I suppose not. Tomorrow I shall have to go visiting the Kyriran delegation; perhaps I will see you there? It would be a pity if I were to never see you again after tonight."

"Well, I know I will miss dancing with you." She didn't want to offend him, but she didn't particularly want to flirt either. He took the hint and they joined the people already dancing in the center of the room. For once, they danced in silence. Clarisse was happy for it; she could relax and just enjoy the music and the movement, without having to think up replies to compliments or questions. She was sorry when that dance ended. It must have shown on her face, because they paused, far away from the main crowd, and Marius raised one gloved hand to stroke her cheek under her mask.

"You have such a sad look on your face, milady," he murmured. "You really are beautiful."

She blinked; it seemed an odd thing to say. She ducked her head away from his hand and moved back a step; by the cold behind her, she could tell that they were approaching the huge windows along the outside of the room. He moved closer to her, forcing Clarisse to look at him again.

"You don't have to be afraid of me. I'm not going to hurt you," he continued. She stared at him like a doe confronted by a hunter; hoping, perhaps, that if she stood still enough, the hunter wouldn't see her.

It's like looking into the sun, she thought vaguely. It hurts, but it's beautiful too. There he is, standing there with his jade green silk and curly brown hair and eyelashes as long as mine. God, he's probably wearing more make-up than I am. And I can't look away.

And then, with her frozen in place and unable to run, he leaned down to kiss her. She leaned into him—what else could she do, what could any woman do?—as he moved from her forehead to her eyes and finally to her lips. He circled her waist with both of his arms and she didn't move to stop him.

"You are beautiful," he repeated, his mouth moving against hers. And then, in the midst of all that, a very strange thought entered her mind.

…You'd do well to stay clear of him, though I don't know when you'd ever run into him. But, you never know, and I might as well warn you if you plan to work here for any length of time. You're not a plain woman, Dahlia; in fact, you're absolutely gorgeous. You should remember that, and be more careful whom you talk to because of it…

It was Marlyn's voice, from that night so long ago, when Clarisse had first seen the prince. It was as if the dark-haired woman was standing right next to her: she remembered the tone in her voice and the look on her face perfectly.

She's right, she thought in the back of her mind. He doesn't care for me, not really. I've been listening to gossip about what woman he's been keeping company with since I got here. He wants me, that's all. And he knows he can get me. He's too goddamn beautiful for his own good.

And suddenly, violently, she was filled with fury.

I am not going to give into him like everyone else. I am not going to fall into his arms just because he's beautiful.

Clarisse pushed away from him as hard as she could, sending him off balance and breaking free of his arms. He caught himself before he fell and stood there, gasping, staring at her with the first real emotion she had seen since she had met him. Then his amused mask was back and he lunged for her, catching her arm in a tight, almost painful, grasp.

"You are not getting away so easily, milady," he laughed, moving close to her. "Or should I say—Clarisse?"

Now she was not only angry. She was genuinely frightened.

This time, she ran. She ran into the curtains draping the windows behind them, ran through the tapestry and picked up her coat on the way, knowing full well that he was chasing behind her. But she had the head start. She ripped off her mask and dropped it on the ground, not caring where it landed. She threw the coat over her dress as they emerged from the side passage to a main one.

"Come back here, lady!" he called, the steel in his voice covered by a thin coating of laughter. She ran faster, though her lungs burned as the air raced in and out of them. She turned suddenly, but he followed her still. She considered trying to lose him in a more circuitous path, but was afraid of what would happen if he caught her alone.

She ran until she found the right passage, a short one that ended in a door. She pushed the door open as she ran; it was old and heavy, but moved easily on its hinges. The room she emerged in was very familiar, as was the face that stared as she burst in.

"Dahlia?" asked Constantin worriedly, walking over to wear she had collapsed on the floor. "Dahlia!" This time his face was astounded. She just looked back at him, too exhausted to talk. Something about his face struck her as strange, as he stared at the ball gown spilling out from under her coat.

Why, he can't be more than ten years older than I am, she thought wonderingly. Less than that, maybe. Maybe the shock on his face is what makes him look so young all the sudden. There's something about his face…but I have other things to worry about now.

"Please!" she gasped, standing up and moving to the far side of the room. She pointed to the doorway, where she could hear footsteps. "Don't let him…!"

Whatever questions the Head Cook might have had—or at least most of them—were answered when he saw Prince Marius walk through the door, his hair slightly windblown, but not breathing hard at all. Constantin's eyes narrowed as he regarded the prince.

"What mischief have you been up to?"

"No mischief," said the prince, smoothing his hair nonchalantly and sounding hurt. His dark eyes flicked to Clarisse, then back to look at Constantin.

"Somehow I doubt that," replied the Head Cook. "I hope you haven't been bothering Dahlia, Marius."

Clarisse was dazed. How could he be addressing the prince by his given name? Why on earth was he speaking so harshly? He was only a cook, and Marius was royalty!

"Is that what she's been calling herself?" His voice was, as always, soft and husky and composed. "I do not…bother women, Constantin."

"Well, she doesn't look to pleased, does she? I hope I won't have to speak to your brother again."

"Of course not. I was merely exploring these ever-so-interesting passageways and ended up here."

"Maybe you should return to the ball. The feast is about to start. I believe the king would notice if you weren't there. Then he might ask questions, and I'd be forced to tell him what you've been up to."

"And we can't have that, can we? Never fear, my dear cook, I am off. If you still wish to argue, you know where to find me." It amazed Clarisse that his voice could be so composed when he was being accused of attempted rape. With a last unreadable look at Clarisse, sitting on the floor, he left through one of the many doors in the room.

There was silence. The princess sat and tried to gather her wits. The Head Cook stood and rubbed his eyes with one hand.

"You will have to explain this all to me later," he said without looking at her. "I have to admit, I'm very curious. But you seem to have just suffered a bit of an ordeal and I have to go serve soup to the king."

He turned to look at her. Though his voice had been no more than tired, Clarisse had feared he was angry. His face, though, was free of reproach. She stood up shakily and kilted up her skirts so that they didn't show beneath the hem of her long oversized coat; then she wrapped it tightly around her and stood by the wall. A few minutes later, the servers came and took away all the soup. Constantin followed them and for a while, the princess was alone.

I am so tired, she thought. I should be afraid; the prince knows who I am and will doubtless spread it about. Or maybe he'll blackmail me. And soon I will have to tell Constantin too. But I can't find the energy to be more than tired.

When the Head Cook returned, she was ready to explain everything and hope for the best.

"Come on, there's no need to stay in here. With any luck, I won't ever have to return to this stuffy little room again," he declared.

"I don't know. If the king marries Princess Vanya, like everyone thinks, then we might end up doing this every year."

"Not exactly like this, I hope." He looked at her seriously. "I do not have the strength in me to stand up to Marius every year. But come back to my office and tell me everything. Why was he chasing you, where did you get that dress, and why does he think your name is other than Dahlia?"

So they walked down to his office, the small cluttered room next to the kitchens where she had been promoted. He sat down behind his desk and she pulled up one of the mismatched chairs that remained.

"I don't even know where to begin," she said, pulling her knees to her chest and resting her chin on them. "But first, will you promise me—whatever I say, you won't tell anyone?"

"I can't promise that. If you're planning to murder Miriam, or lead an invasion of Marit, than I'll be forced to say something." Clarisse didn't laugh, but she did take it as a 'yes' to her question. Nothing she had done since running away had hurt anyone but herself, or maybe her father (but she really didn't care what happened to him.)

"Alright. It all started a little more than a year ago…" she began. Then she told him everything. Her father forcing her to marry, her decision to run away, how she had been found by the two foresters and brought back to him for a job.

"And I just worked here quietly for a year. Until midwinter—that first night, I had every intention of just going up to the musicians' gallery and watching the nobles dance. But when I saw them, all these memories kept rushing back. I suppose I was lonely, too, without the Twins, so I ran down and got out one of the dresses my father had given me. With that and my mask from midsummer, I didn't think I'd ever be found out. I went to the ballroom and danced."

"The next night, I didn't decide whether to return until the last moment. But I did go, once again. Looking back, I don't know why. And then, tonight, I went back again. That's when the trouble started. I danced with the prince, and when the dance ended we were in a corner by the windows. And he…he tried to—." She was too embarrassed to say it.

I don't know why I should be embarrassed, she reflected. I didn't do anything out of line. It was the prince.

"I understand," put in the Head Cook kindly. She went on.

"So I ran. I ran into the servants' passageways, since there was an entrance close by. I thought I could lose him in there, but he followed me. Eventually I arrived at that little room, and you know what happened from then on."

"Yes." He thought for a moment. "That's quite a story, but I'm inclined to believe you. I don't know why no one ever figured out you were the runaway princess before. You have a very noticeable Verbonyan accent and not many people in this area of the world have your coloring." He smiled. "But everything's easier in hindsight, I suppose."

"Well, the prince knows who I am. He must have figured it out like you said." Her face grew solemn. "Do you think he'll tell anyone? He's probably mad at me."

"No, I don't think he will. Who'd believe him? And he'd get in big trouble with the king if the word got out he was less than polite to a princess." Constantin chuckled softly at the thought. Then Clarisse narrowed her eyes thoughtfully.

"And I have a question for you—who are you to talk so disrespectfully to your prince?"

That wiped the laughter off his face.

"Come on, I just revealed my life story to you. It would be mean of you not to tell me one little thing after that."

He sighed and shifted in his chair. "Oh, fine. I suppose it's already common knowledge."

"Our former king, who retired to his country estates a few years ago and left the kingdom to Josef, was almost as much as a ladies' man as Prince Marius. If a bit more polite about it. I happen to be his second oldest surviving bastard."

"What?" Clarisse felt her mouth drop open.

He's right, though, she noticed. He resembles Marius and Josef, ever so slightly, even though he's blond and blue-eyed like Rosemary. That's what I saw that surprised me, when he was berating the prince. I don't know what it is—maybe his nose or the way his eyes are set. Wow. I would never have guessed it.

"Usually, this wouldn't give me any edge over my legitimate half- brothers, but the king did sort of half-acknowledge me. Not legally, but he gave my mother a nice pension and visited me every now and then and gave me a horse for my fifteenth birthday. And he told Josef and Marius that they were always to treat us with respect. No sneering or teasing allowed. And he told me to look after my younger brothers."

"I worked in the kitchens of my own accord when I was young, so I saw Marius every now and then. He's about seven years younger than me. I would sneak him cakes or apples sometimes. Until he was old enough to realize that he was a prince and I was a kitchen boy, he was like a younger brother to me. After that, he drifted away. But I retain the right to lecture him every so often." The reminiscent look on his face turned grim. "This isn't the first time I've had to chase him away from my employees."

"Mmm. I guess we're even now. I won't spread gossip about you because you know my story, and likewise." She yawned.

"I wouldn't tell anyways, but I'm afraid you don't have much of a hold on me. I think most people below-stairs already know my story."

"Huh. Lucky you," she started, remembering the scullery maids who had slandered her. "No one ever says you didn't earn your position fairly, even though you're the king's son."

"Actually, they did, about five years ago when I first became Head Cook. I wasn't much older than you and no one thought I deserved it except the king's steward, who named me."

The full import of her words struck him then and he looked at her speculatively.

"What have they been saying to you?"

"Oh, nothing," she stammered, unwilling to repeat the girl's rumor.

"Don't worry, I can imagine what they said. And Dahlia, you earned your spot fairly. Not one of the first-level assistants will disagree with me. Neither will anyone else you've worked with."

"That makes me feel better, really, but it doesn't stop anybody from spreading gossip." She sighed and looked up at the ceiling. "I wish I hadn't been born pretty. Stupid and vain as that sounds. It seems like every single scrape I've gotten into since I was born happened because of that."

"Well, I don't know," commented Constantin lightly. "I think it was a simple lack of sense that got you into trouble with the prince. Everyone knows that it's Marius's goal in life to tumble every young woman in the palace before he turns twenty. How could you go off and dance with him?"

Clarisse found a small blank scrap of parchment, rolled it into a ball, and threw it at his head. He ducked before it hit him.

"Forgive me, your Highness," he said, holding up his hands as if to ward off blows. "I will be quiet."

Maybe Clarisse's exhaustion was affecting her head; maybe it was a release of tension after discovering her secret was safe; maybe it was a sudden burst of real affection. Whatever the cause, Clarisse stood up, bent down, and kissed Constantin lightly on the cheek.

They stared at each other, the princess just as surprised as the Head Cook was.

It's now or never, she thought. I don't know why, but this moment is important. What do I do?

She leaned forward and kissed him again, this time full on the mouth. Constantin wrapped his arms around her and, for a little while, her worries were gone.

A week later, Clarisse returned to her room in the evening to hear voices within. With a gasp of delight, she pushed the door open and saw Rosemary and Marlyn sitting on their respective beds. Just like they had never left.

"Dahlia!" cried Rosemary, getting up to give the princess a hug.

"Did you two just get back? I never heard anything…" said the princess, happy but confused. Marlyn hugged her too and gestured for her to sit down.

"We arrived two hours ago, but we had work to do, getting everything in order for Lady Marionetta again."

Clarisse nodded from her seat next to Rosemary.

"I've missed you two so much—how was the tour of the south? Was it warm?"

"It wasn't too great," commented Rosemary. "Everything smelled like fish when the wind blew the wrong way. But it was warm, which I can't say of this place. How do you keep from freezing? That enormous old coat you're wearing?"

"Yes. And, before you make fun of me for it, you'll be wishing you had a raggedy fur coat too before long."

"Why would we make fun of you?"

Clarisse eyed Marlyn speculatively, but she seemed to be sincere.

"Never mind. I'm not going to tell you what the kitchen helpers are calling me. It would just encourage them."

Then, suddenly, a glint on Marlyn's hand caught hr eye. She looked down, and saw…

"Marlyn!" she yelled, "Where did you get that?" It was a gold ring set with a single stone, on her left hand. Marlyn and Rosemary laughed; Marlyn was blushing slightly.

"Henri asked me to marry him," she explained shyly. It was the first time Clarisse had ever seen Marlyn do anything shyly.

This winter is getting stranger and stranger, she thought wryly. Glancing toward Rosemary, she saw something else she hadn't noticed before: the edges of her eyes were reddened, as I she had been crying.

"When are you going to be married?" Clarisse asked.

"This spring. We're not sure yet." The dark-haired woman sighed. "It feels so odd. I won't have to work as a maid anymore and I'll have a nice set of rooms of my own in the palace, since Henri is a member of the court. I'll miss living with you two so much! I'm happy, but I'm sad too."

Rosemary moved to sit next to Marlyn and wrapped an arm around her shoulders.

"Marlyn, listen. You've been like a sister to me for as long as I can remember. You getting married can't change that. I'm really glad that you won't have to slave away for milady anymore, and even more glad that you've found someone to love."

"And it's not like you'll never see us again," put in Clarisse. "We'll all still be living in the same palace. Who knows? Maybe someday, a handsome baronet will fall in love with Rosemary and you two can live next door to each other up on the fourth floor of the castle."

Marlyn grinned, as did Rosemary. The fourth floor was where the very lesser inhabitants of the court—like baronets and composers—lived.

"What about you, Dahlia?"

"Oh, I think I'm perfectly happy where I am. I'll be a first-level assistant soon enough, and—," she stopped abruptly.

"And what?" asked Rosemary curiously.

"Nothing," she replied with an innocent look on her face.

"Hmm," said Marlyn. "Has anything interesting happened here since we left?"

Clarisse's eyes widened as far as they would go; then, with a shaking breath, she started giggling uncontrollably.

Shall I tell them all of it? she asked herself, her mind filling with visions of Verbonya, her dresses, the prince, and Constantin. Maybe I will. But I will definitely tell them something of it.

She laughed until she cried. Against all odds, for now, everything seemed to have turned out all right.

Authors Note—Well, that's the end. How sad! I've been working on this for months now. I guess I'll have to start a new story to take its place. Anyways…Questions, comments, or concerns? Put them in your review or email me. I'm curious to see what everyone thought of the end. And if you liked this story (shameless plug alert), why don't you try any others?

Well, enough advertising. I'd just like to say, before I finish, ThankYouThankYouThankYou to anyone who read this story. You guys are so cool. I love my reviewers. ^____^ Ciao!