Ch. 24

The day of the Ball Masque was one filled with an air of excitement. Everyone busied themselves with finishing the final details, whether it was their costumes, hanging decorations, carving jack o' lanterns, baking pies and so on. The pumpkin carvings were a bittersweet reminder to everyone in Section III.

Lady Kavi worked with Alice very closely all day, making sure she learned the symbolism and themes, and understood the emotions she had to convey, and blocking key scenes.

"Just keep it as natural as possible," she kept telling Alice over and over as she was fitted in the costume department. "The Dove's entire purpose is to get the Gump's attention, and get him to remember their friendship." She grinned. "Of course, it blossoms into love, only for her to change back at midnight."

"Why doesn't the Gump change back?" Alice asked. "The wizard cast the same spell."

"The story only says that he plays human for so long, the spell changes him into a real man," Kavi replied. "The same thing happens in real life, too…well, sort of."

"What do you mean?"

Kavi shrugged. "Tell someone a lie long enough and they'll eventually accept it as the truth. However, you can also turn that into something positive, like the little engine that could."

Alice nodded in agreement and tried to stay focused on the story, but Kavi knew she was distracted. At one point she pulled her aside and said, "If you really think you can't do this, just tell me. I have plenty of back-up, just in case."

Alice gave a wan smile and shook her head. "I need to do this," she said. "I owe him this much, at least."

Security was very tight and ran through several possible scenarios. Septieme and Mr. Alan met with the royal family and finally brought up the problem of the 906. The princess insisted on inviting Martis along for both support and for any added details that could be necessary. Of course, the king knew all about the entire messy situation, thanks not only to his own personal guard and spy network, but also thanks to Prince Quintus who stared down at Martis like a hawk would a mouse.

"A fine job indeed, sister dear," he said. "Thank you so much for endangering our entire kingdom with that lot!"

"I refuse to hold the blame for what a small, cowardly group of soldiers decides to do!" Septieme retorted. She turned to look at the king. "I am glad you are well aware of the situation, Father.

Martis looked at the arrogant young prince. He stood with much the same bearing as his siblings, with the same genetic characteristics of white hair and violet eyes. He was shorter than his surviving older brother Duo, but it was clear adolescence had only begun, and no doubt he would grow into the body he was given soon enough.

King Octavius himself looked much the same, only older and far wiser. To Martis, he seemed like an ancient and very wily fox who knew all of the tricks of the trade, be it politics, war, foreign policy, and so on.

Quintus was about to continue when the king held up a hand. He gazed at Martis with mild curiosity.

"And who is this young man, my daughter?" he asked.

Martis bowed low as Septieme stepped forward. "This man is my proof of good will between Rodelia and the Imperial State, she said. "This is Sub-Lieutenant Martis, an esteemed member of Lady Malvin's Army platoon, the Imperial State's Intelligence Division, Section Three, also known as-."

"The Pumpkin Scissors," the king finished, bemused by the surprised look on Martis' face. "Yes, I've heard of them. A simple PR unit, but I've also heard wonderful reports about what you've accomplished so far in the Empire."

Martis bowed low again. "Thank you, Your Majesty."

King Octavius leaned forward for a better look and grinned mischievously. "Ah, so…this is the nice young soldier who helped you during your last little adventure, is it not?"

"Yes, Father," Septieme replied, her cheeks slightly pinker. "He has proven himself to be…a most worthy companion."

Martis couldn't help but notice the Princess' suddenly shy tone. He glanced at her and gulped.

The king chuckled. "I…see," he said, his eyes twinkling. He addressed Martis in a formal manner.

"Young man…noble sir, I'm quite certain you are aware that your selfless actions, not only during that particular incident but also in recent events have saved the life of my youngest here. I should like to thank you properly."

Martis was shocked, but happily so. "Oh…thank you, Your Majesty! I…I am most honored!"

"Tell me, noble sir," the king continued, "what sort of reward would you like? Information, perhaps? I've been told you're quite the thinker. Gemstones? I'm sure you can find a use for them in your country. Your own vineyard? I'll grant you one boon, within reason. Just name it."

Martis was both dumbstruck and worried. Although the king's actions were sincere, he also knew he himself had suddenly become a pawn in the royal family's game of chess. He wracked his brain as fast as he could, not only to come up with a clever answer, but also something that would help Septieme in the long run.

"You are too generous, Your Majesty," he said, "May I take some time to think on your most generous offer?"

"But of course!" the king said. "You have until the Ball Masque begins tonight. Choose well."

Lionel could feel the eyes of Septieme's entire household upon him. Although he was allowed to move about freely, there was never a moment where he was alone, not even in his suite. Per usual, he was unable to even meet with Alice, which perturbed him but knew would happen. So it was with some surprise that he was approached by Lady Kavi herself.

"I need your help, milord," she said. "It's vital for tonight to be a success."

Lionel raised an eyebrow. "The great Madame Minstrel needs me? Whatever for?"

She grinned like a Cheshire cat. "Well sir, I hate to admit it, but you'd make a very good prince."

Confused for a moment, he said nothing. When he realized what she meant, he laughed.

"My lady," he said, "I'd be honored to be in your play." He bowed with a flourish.

Lady Kavi kept smiling, but inside she was very troubled.

Damn, she thought, I was hoping the part would keep him busy. That means he either already has a plan in place, or he's not going to execute it tonight…no, that can't be! He's an attention whore. The most important peers of the realm will be here tonight, rubbing elbows with the commonfolk. If the Silver Wheel wants to overthrow anyone or make a power play, it would have to be tonight!

Out loud she said, "Splendid, milord! Step right this way so we can get you fitted!"

Oreldo woke to find Lucia gone. He was disappointed but unsurprised. However, he began to worry when he didn't see her doing her usual rounds. After asking Carlotta, it quickly became clear that no one knew where she was, or what happened to her.

"Find her!" he told Carlotta. "She can help tie this whole mess together!"

It was sunset when the festivities began. The carnival grounds were a hodgepodge of food, crafting, amazing feats, and fun. The costumes were wild as well as hidebound by tradition. Many came wearing their regional colors in different and elaborate designs.

Stecchin, who had rested well once she realized she was safe, had emerged weak but no longer woozy. Once Kavi learned of her musical talents, she allowed her to join the royal orchestra, which delighted Stecchin to no end. Having never studied Rodelian music before, she worked hard to keep up with the other trumpeters, and all were pleasantly surprised. Her costume for the evening was simple but tasteful, a ballgown in a Harlequin pattern, with all the colors of autumn. Her mask was a classic shape so as not to interfere with her playing, but it was made of gold cloth. When Oreldo, dressed a fox, saw her, he was downright flabbergasted. He made a show of kissing her hand. Her anger at him forgotten, she giggled and blushed to her toes.

Elsewhere backstage, Alice tread softly, her nerves frazzled, but only a tiny part of that was from stage fright. Her costume was fluffy and white, with a shorter skirt to keep her legs free, and a longer train to simulate the tail feathers of a dove. Slender wings sprouted from her shoulders and rose above her head, which made her appear more angelic than birdlike. Her mask was white lace with a long, beaky nose.

"You must go and greet him," Kavi said. "I promised him that I'd make every Dove do that."

"Why?" Alice asked.

Kavi chuckled and gave a sheepish grin. "Because one time, in the early days before he became a famous wrestler, we had a young Dove that took one look at him and screamed. She then ran for her life right off of the stage!"

Alice laughed. "Oh, no!"

"Oh, yes!" Kavi said. "After that, I began limiting my choices to a certain age, and I made sure to make introductions so they would see he doesn't bite!"

Alice smile but got nervous again. "What if he recognizes my voice?" she asked. "What if I trigger another migraine? I…I don't want to hurt him!"

"I wouldn't worry," Kavi soothed. "He's used to seeing Doves of all shapes and sizes. He won't know the difference, trust me. Now go!"

She gave Alice a playful shove toward Oland's dressing room. They both started walking toward it when they were met by Lionel.

Lionel, naturally, wore the visage of a lion. He did cut a rather dashing figure, wearing a royal military costume of blue and gold. Earlier, on his way to the backstage, he peered into the crowd until he found what he was looking for-a hooded and very well-done version of Gespenster Jaeger, albeit the person in question was a great deal shorter than the real thing. However, there was no mistaking his oversized, silver lantern. Lionel relaxed and continued to study his lines in his dressing room, until he decided to come out and peer at the audience once more. What a finale this was going to be!

He suddenly saw his beloved and sighed.

"Oh Princess," he said, going to her, "you truly are a sweet, little bird, after all."

Alice blushed and inclined her head. "Thank you, Master Taylor, and might I say that Lady Kavi has made an excellent choice for a regal prince? Your role…it suits you, my lord."

Lionel turned his head to the side. "I'm unsure whether I should take that as a compliment, my princess," he said, "since my role in this story is to be the villain."

Alice gasped. "Oh! I didn't mean it like that! I'm sorry!"

Lionel chuckled and kissed her hand. "Don't fret, my love. I was merely teasing." He turned to Kavi. "Might I have a brief word with my fiancé, Madame Minstrel? I want to wish her good luck."

Kavi gave a little bow. "Of course, my lord prince," she said. As she turned to walk away toward Oland's dressing room, she made the slightest gesture. At least 6 pairs of eyes were suddenly trained on the couple.

"You truly look lovely, my princess," Lionel said softly, grasping both of her hands. "I'm told it's good luck to say 'break a leg,' though I can't imagine why."

Alice laughed a little. "Thank you, my lord. I wish the same for you."

Gazing at her, Lionel felt a slight pang of jealousy, loneliness and regret.

"Do me a favor, my love," he said.

"What is it?"

He leaned to whisper in her ear. "Choose me tonight."

She jerked back in confusion. "What?"

"The play," he said. "Choose me. The prince, rather than the Gump…I want to show the true ending."

"What…are you talking about? Why?"

"Do you know the original ending?" Lionel asked her. When she didn't respond, he continued.

"I'm not surprised," he said. "It's been all but forgotten. At the ball, the Prince sees the Dove and falls in love with her. When the Gump turns into a man, the Dove goes back to being a bird, but not before the Prince sees it. As a man, the Gump is strong as an ox, and is hired to clean the royal stables and care for the horses. He takes to sleeping in the barn, outside, because that is what he's used to. The Dove follows him wherever he goes, and nests in the rafters of the barn. The Prince learns all of this and persuades the Wizard to change the Dove back into a woman permanently, but there is a price: for her to remain human, she has to become the Prince's bride. He takes her to wife, and she mothers his children. The Gump never learns the truth, but the Dove is allowed to see him every day when she goes riding."

"That's not much of an ending," Alice said.

"It's more realistic," Lionel said. "After all, most marriages' sole purpose is to expand one's holdings and status. As for the Prince, being royalty means taking whatever you want."

"I refuse to believe that!" Alice declared. "The dowry is old-fashioned and utterly unnecessary in this modern age! Both of my sisters and my parents married for love!"

"Isn't that why your father chose you to carry the title, instead of them?" Lionel asked. Alice made a sound of disgust and he laughed.

Don't fret so, my love," he said, "all I want you to do is fall in love with me instead. Let's make our own ending."

She stared at him for a long time. The words of Martis, Stecchin and Oreldo came back to her. Other bits and pieces of memories came to her, such as always asking for details on various missions, and like his knowledge of the Duke who had those ultra-modern rifles…he never did say how he'd known about that…and finally, how he couldn't understand why she didn't hate her little brother for inheriting the royal title.

She began to sweat. What if…good god, just what if Stecchin was right?


He stopped abruptly. "What?"

Alice crossed her arms. "I said no, Master Taylor. I will not choose you."

He frowned. "I…see. Are we still talking about the play?"

"I don't know; are we?" she said, growing angry. "I'm glad you're showing me your true colors at last, Master Taylor," she said. "How immature can you be, to ruin a play for not only adults but children, to be so jealous, even in a fictitious setting? I thought the Winter Ball last year was a fluke! Now I know that it isn't my love you want, but just my status. You sir, are an elitist and I no longer wish to be in your company. You may return home tomorrow…alone. I renounce our engagement, even if it means disgracing my family name."

She expected a tirade of some sort, but Lionel's reaction was one of none. He stood before her, silent, and made a formal bow.

"I am sorry to displease you, my princess," he said, "I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me."

Her neck tingled as he spun on his heel and walked back to his dressing room. Alice shivered and knew it wasn't over. What would her family say? Yet, her mind was made up. She couldn't marry Lord Taylor. At the same time she felt strangely light…almost relieved.

Kavi came back to her. "Are you all right?" she asked. Alice nodded and Kavi nudged her. "Well, come on, then," she said, and they knocked on Oland's dressing room.

As soon as Alice heard his voice, which was a very deep and muffled, "Come in," her heart was in her throat. Kavi stood to the side and gestured to the door. Alice hesitated, then chided herself for her cowardice.

Stupid! she thought. I've faced people with guns pointed to my head with more courage!

She took a deep breath, turned the knob and entered.

Elsewhere still, Septieme, Martis and Alan met with the royal family once more. The national animal for Rodelia was a white horse, and all of royalty were appropriately attired. Alan and the rest of the manservants and maidservants were dressed as jockeys to add to the effect. Martis felt rather awkward dressed as a horned owl, but Septieme reminded him earlier that it was considered an animal of wisdom. Septieme had left her long, white main down, but did have some of it braided with flowers. Martis complimented her kindly, and they had entered the carnival grounds with their arms linked, and Alan in tow.

As they stood before the king, who walked among the commoners but of course had a discreet entourage of security, they presented themselves formally.

"Have you made your decision, noble owl?" King Octavius asked.

Martis nodded. "Your Majesty," he said, "My request is twofold." He gestured to Septieme. "First, I ask that you dance with Her Highness at least three times tonight."

The king smiled, and Martis knew his chess move was a correct one. "Certainly, sir. And what, may I ask, is the second part?"

"That you grant whatever she asks of you tonight, please. Listen to her most carefully."

"That's three things, isn't it?" the king said, but when Martis fumbled for an answer, laughed heartily.

"You are a humble and wise young man, noble sir. I must speak with your platoon leader later on tonight. I'd like to commend her on training her men so well."

"Thank you, Your Majesty." Martis bowed. He only hoped his plan would work…

Alice paused in the doorway, expecting to see Oland's towering figure. When she didn't, she took a few tentative steps inside. She saw a dressing mirror, custom designed to fit his height, surrounded with electric lights and covered with photos. She began to walk toward it when a sound made her look up.

She gasped when she saw him standing behind the door, so tall he'd propped an arm over the top and was leaning on it.

"Well, hello," she heard him say, and her gaze traveled up and up to meet those familiar stormy eyes.

The word Corporal was on her lips but she bit it back. She didn't dare trigger a memory. Instead, she made a quick decision to pretend she was at any other ball, meeting another member of the nobility.

"Oh…G-good evening, Mr. Oland," she said. She gave a small curtsy and smiled. "It's an honor to finally meet you." She held out a hand.

Oland was dressed in a rich brown tuxedo that had a light textured pattern on it that echoed tree bark. His mask was dark green and leafy, reminiscent of the fabled Green Man. Alice thought it was a stroke of genius. Oland looked terrific.

She saw him widen his eyes and realized that he must have never been formally greeted before. He turned his head to the side and peered down at her, most curious. After a long moment, he took her hand, holding it as though it were a robin's egg, and shook it ever so gently.

"So you know of me," he said at last. Alice nodded, and he shook his head slowly. "My…Lady Kavi must have outdone herself this year. I don't think I've ever worked with Imperial nobility before. It's a pleasure to meet you, milady." He squinted. "But I have to ask you, if it's not improper…uh, just how old are you?"

Alice laughed in spite of herself. Kavi must have trained his speech somewhat.

"It's all right, Mr. Oland," she said. "I may be small, but I'll have you know I'm nearly twenty!"

Again, he seemed surprised, but pleasantly so.

"Oh, I beg your pardon, milady," he said, kneeling so he could get a better look at her. Close up, he could see she had a lovely figure, if a petite one.

"Why, I could fit you in my pocket," he said, blushing. "You really do look like a dove."

Was he flirting? She decided to play along.

"And you're as tall as an oak and twice as strong, I'll bet!"

The chuckle seemed to rumble out of his chest like gentle thunder. She laughed, although the back of her throat suddenly constricted and she felt like crying. Never before, not even in the barracks, was she allowed to speak this freely to him, or to tease him. She shook herself. If this was her only chance, she wasn't going to mess it up by getting sentimental.

He stood up. "Well, I'm glad," he said. "I know you'll do great. You've a courageous heart, Miss…?"

Rats! She'd completely forgotten! "Oh, how embarrassing!" she laughed. "And here I was hoping to make a good impression!"

"Oh, you have," he said softly. He suddenly cupped her chin. "You certainly have."

She froze at the unexpected tender gesture. She blushed, sheepish. "I'm…Lady Malvin, of the Grand House Malvin."

Oland's mouth slowly opened in awe. "Then…you're a real princess?" He dropped his hand.

Before she could answer he bowed low in Rodelian fashion. Alice suddenly felt awkward.

"You do have a courageous heart," he said again.

"Why do you say that, Mr. Oland?" Alice asked softly.

He looked up at hear and removed his mask. When she didn't react to his scar, he nodded.

"You're the first Dove I've ever worked with who wasn't at least a little afraid of me."

She smiled in relief. She'd been afraid her reaction, or lack thereof, was a mistake.

He leaned in a little closer. "You're also the first to meet me in full costume," he said softly. He reached for her mask but she withdrew.

"I…uh…rather not show you, Mr. Oland."

"Okay," he said, his expression a mix of puzzled amusement.

"My…uh, family doesn't know I'm doing this," she said. "They'll think it's…beneath me." She thought that last part was true, especially where her father was concerned.

"Besides, a mystery is better, don't you think?" she asked.

Still puzzled, he gave her a crooked grin, and her heart leapt. "Perhaps," he said.

"But, I promise I'll do my best!" she said, flashing a smile and curtsying again. "Break a leg!"

She spun around and hurried out the door. Oland watched her retreating winged bare back and was suddenly struck with a strange vision…the Valkyrie, in her war-torn golden dress, holding a tiny dagger.

Not again, he thought, a surge of pain shooting through the back of his head. Not now!

The migraines were getting worse.

Stop it! Please! Stop it now!