Once upon a time, a girl and her father lived happily on their manor in France. They were neither poor nor rich; they were simply content. The girl's mother died in childbirth, and the girl grew up to look the part of her mother and act a younger, more mischievous version of her father. The girl's name was Danielle, and she was as happy as she could be.
Or so she thought. Her father, Auguste, knew better. Danielle believed she could not be happier in life, because she did not know of anything that could make her happier. Auguste knew the girl needed a mother to soften and nurture and train her - to guide her as she grew too quickly from a girl to a lady.
The day came when Auguste found the woman he felt would make him the ideal wife and his little Danielle the ideal mother. After all, Rodmilla had two girls close to Danielle's age. He would give his daughter a mother and two sisters - what more could he ask? On the day they returned from their honeymoon to introduce the new family, the manor house itself seemed to be breathing and shuddering from all the excitement.
"I get a mother and sisters, all in one day! It's just like Christmas!" Danielle was in a celebrating mood.
Finally, the watchman called out and the carriage could be heard rolling down the long gravel lane. Servants lined up along the front of the house, the men dusting off their shirts and the women anxiously tucking in stray hairs. Danielle was nowhere to be found, and there was no time to fetch her. More than likely she was slinging mud with the servant boy Gustave.
The carriage pulled up, and Auguste climbed down from his driving seat. Auguste's head servant commented, "You've brought us a mistress, finally?"
"Maurice, I have brought you an entire household."
A delicate, gloved hand slipped between the curtains of the carriage, and Maurice eagerly helped the lady out of the carriage. The new mistress of the manor was expensively dressed, as were her two daughters, Marguerite and Jacqueline. Auguste proudly introduced the trio to the servants just as his own daughter came running to him, covered in mud. He hoisted her up, filth and all.
"Oh ho ho! I suppose Gustave is around here somewhere?"
Danielle eagerly shook her head. "No, Papa! I whipped him!"
It was at that moment that a small, brown, dripping figure stumbled around the corner where Danielle had come a few moments ago.
"So you did!" Auguste glanced back at his new wife, who was viewing the two with poorly veiled disgust. He brushed it from his mind and turned back to his little girl. "I had hoped to present a little lady. Well, I suppose you'll have to do." He set her on her feet and placed his hands on her shoulders, beaming. "Danielle, I present Baroness Rodmilla de Ghent, and her daughters, Marguerite and Jacqueline." The two girls curtsied, and the Baroness acknowledged Danielle with a nod. Her attention immediately went back to her groom.
"Auguste, you must show me around."
"Of course." He took her arm and turned to Danielle a final time. "Danielle, you'll have to show your new stepsisters the ropes around here. They're not used to getting their hands dirty."
He led his bride to the door, and Danielle smiled. Jacqueline smiled shyly back before glancing at Marguerite, who was beginning to look like she'd been born with a scowl.
The family began to settle in, but Auguste had to leave on matters of business after only a week. He promised his family to return within a fortnight. When his horse pulled away from the manor door, the Baroness wore the pout Danielle was already familiar with. Danielle herself could not muster a smile.
Before Auguste had even passed the gates at the end of the gravel lane, the Baroness's pout vanished beneath her natural sternness. "Come along now, girls. We mustn't neglect your lessons."
"Wait!" Danielle protested. "It's tradition. He always waves at the gate."
The Baroness glanced at the gate before continuing inside. Marguerite imitated her mother's stance and facial expression, while Jacqueline shrugged sympathetically at Danielle before following inside. Danielle ran to the lane and watched her father's horse continue plodding slowly toward the gate.
Before he reached it, his back hunched and he slipped sideways, falling onto the gravel and pulling the saddle askew. Danielle shrieked. "Papa!"
She pulled her thin skirt to her waist and streaked down the lane to her father. Her call brought Maurice and his wife and sister running, as well; the Baroness followed, her skirts billowing and her frail hand stopping her own cry. Soon the weak, coughing Auguste held his wife's hand on one side and his daughter's face on the other. Fighting to breath, he glanced from one to the other. Then, stroking Danielle's cheek, he choked out, "I love... you."
They were the last words he would ever speak.
Ten years later, Danielle awoke to yet another dawn on the manor. All the servants but Maurice and his family had been sold to pay off Marguerite and the Baroness's debts, so Danielle did the work of several men each day now. She rose from her place on the floor by the fireplace in an abanoned shack at the edge of their property. A quick glance outside told her she had slept in yet again - her own fault for reading late last night. Her last gift from her father had been a book that she could now cite by memory if she wanted. Still she cut into the few hours of sleep she had to read it again.
Danielle hurried through feeding and watering the few animals left on the manor before running to the orchard to harvest apples. She was nearly finished when she heard horses protesting in the stable. Movement from that direction caught her eye; a thief was attempting to ride away, but her father's horse was not cooperating.
Dropping her skirts and the apples, she kept a few firmly in her arms and ran to the field where the man was headed. She called out to him as she threw, hitting her mark with every apple thrown.
"Thief! This shall teach you to steal my father's horse!"
The man fell off the horse and hid under his velvet robe as he hobbled past Danielle. "Please! My own has slipped his shoe, and I have no choice!"
"And our choice is what? To let you?" She continued throwing apples at this strangely dressed criminal, picking up those that had rolled down the hill with her.
"I was simply borrowing it." He still covered his face carefully.
"Get out now, or I'll wake the household!" Her last apple hit him squarely in the head, knocking him back onto the ground. He reached his arms out to break his fall, consequently letting go of his robe. The minute the hood fell and he pushed himself back to his feet, Danielle recognized His Royal Highness, Prince Henry of France.
She fell instantly to her hands and knees, the worst dread she'd known in ten years filling her heart. "Forgive me, You Highness. I-I did not see you."
He glanced around for a moment, not seeming to realize that his cover had failed him. Breathlessly he replied, "Your aim - would suggest - otherwise."
She was going to die. She had called the prince a thief - had thrown an apple at his head! Surely she would be dead before this time tomorrow. "For that, I know I must die." Her fear did not reach her voice.
He retrieved the horse's reins and appeared startled by her statement. "Ah, well... uh, then- then speak of this to no one, and I shall be lenient."
She glanced up. He did not seem to be acting the way princes generally did. Wasn't royalty presumptuous, indignant, and self-absorped? They certainly had the power and money to be so. "We have other horses, Your Majesty. Younger, if that is your wish."
"My only wish is to be free of my guilded cage."
This statement was too much for Danielle. Reading philosophy and socializing with servants all day had not taught her how to hold her tongue when in the presence of royalty. "Do you not wish to be prince, Your Highness?"
Rather than angry at her question, he reacted somewhat eagerly. "Not at all! I find the life dull and constricting. I must always talk, dress, eat, sleep, marry, walk, and live in the way I am told. I'm never allowed to choose for myself. I shall marry the Princess of Spain and rule France and not think of things such as love or freedom, as other men do. Would you not also tire of such a life?" It was only with this last sentence that he seemed to remember he was speaking to somebody. She chose to risk answering.
"Think of all the wonderful things you could do - for your country, for the world."
If he had seemed startled that he had poured out his frustration to a servant, he was shocked to hear her answer. She was sure he was debating whether to ride away, or to arrest her for addressing royalty, or to simply continue the absurd conversation. Apparently he chose the last option, because he sat on the grass in front of her and let the horse's reins slide out of his hand.
"You might as well rise." She straightened her back and turned her legs more comfortably. They exchanged a sort of awkward smile, before he sighed forcefully and turned his focus to the grass.
"You have no idea how insufferable it is! To be defined by your position - to never be seen as who you are, but what you are - you have no idea!"
She smiled sadly and turned to look at the horse, who was grazing happily. "You might be surprised," she murmured. She hadn't really meant to say it out loud, but she had and he responded.
"Really?" It was an honest question. He truly wanted to know the opinion of a servant.
She sought an answer in her mind. How could she explain her frustration with being a servant - she who was born to a merchant? Regardless of these circumstances, she couldn't just pour out her life story to a stranger. Finally she settled on a safer reply. "A gypsy - for example. They're defined by their status as your title defines you, yet it is not who they are." She struggled to explain further. His full attention was on her now, and she did not want to disappoint him. "You have been born to privilege, and with that comes specific obligations."
His face was hard to read. She smiled, embarrassed, and turned to the grass. "I'm sorry. My mouth tends to run away with my mind, and it can be difficult to rein it back in."
He smiled in a strange way and shook his head before standing. "No..." He paused, crossing his arms and surveying her. "You are the first servant I have met outside the palace, and I must admit, you are not what I expected."
She smiled and looked up, feeling shy. Since he was standing, it only seemed right for her to rise, as well. He offered his assistance, and she took it as gracefully as possible. "Well, you are not what I expected either."
She longed to stay and speak with this prince who was so unusual, but the sun was already dangerously high. The Baroness and the girls would be at breakfast now, and they would wonder why she was not there to serve it. "I must go. Your Highness." She curtsied clumsily, attempting the move she had seen Marguerite and Jacqueline practice when they were younger. It was worse than even she expected; the prince was definitely hiding a laugh. "I am pleased to... make your acquaitance."
"The pleasure is all mine." Still smirking, he nodded and mounted her father's horse. This action seemed to remind him of what started the conversation, and he pulled a purse from his belt. He held it out to Danielle, who took it slowly. "For your silence," he explained, before galloping off into the nearby woods.
Danielle explained her tardiness with a comment about falling off the ladder in the orchard. The Baroness was skeptical, but Marguerite redirected the conversation with a comment on Danielle's soot-covered appearance. Marguerite was always harsh, but today Danielle was grateful for the distraction. Jacqueline smiled at Danielle and she accepted the common offering of sympathy. Being the younger and more pudgy of the Baroness's girls, Jacqueline was often overlooked by her family. As a result, she and Danielle had grown very close. Danielle considered her to be her closest friend - after Gustave, of course. The three of them often spent time together when they could find excuses convincing enough to throw off the Baroness.
A few days later, the Baroness and Marguerite left to buy a brooch. They often rode to the market while their debts grew steadily. On such outings Jacqueline generally stayed home to read or pick wildflowers, and she and Danielle were able to spend the time together. Often Danielle would work while they spoke. When it was a task she was capable of, Jacqueline would help. Today, however, the girls met with Gustave in the attic to discuss the prince.
Danielle had managed to mention the event to Jacqueline the day it happened, and she and Gustave had already spoken of it. The attic alcove was officially Danielle's room, although its only furniture was a small bed and she slept in the abandoned shack more often than the attic. Danielle and Gustave were sitting on the attic floor when Jacqueline climbed up the stairs and through the hatch.
"They just pulled away." Jacqueline's soft voice matched her personality and appearance so well. She perched on the edge of Danielle's bed before speaking again. "Now, Danielle, do tell. What was he like?"
Gustave smirked. "He was rich, and handsome, and a prince!" He raised his voice far too many notches and squeaked a terrible imitation of a female, "It was so dreamy!"
Danielle punched him in the shoulder. "He was rich, Pighead, but that's not the point. He cannot help being rich, you know." She turned to Jacqueline. "He was just... he's just another man. I expected something... haughty and pretentious. He was open and honest."
"That is because you are a servant and he paid you not to tell."
"Shut up, Gustave. I was talking to Jacqueline."
Jacqueline ignored them, as she often did. "So what happened? How did you even meet him?"
Danielle recounted the whole event, with Gustave interjecting often.
"He sounds quite nice, really." One could hardly expect any other assessment from Jacqueline.
Danielle turned to Gustave. "See? Jacqueline is not in love with the man, but she still finds him pleasant."
"All you womenfolk can find something to swoon about in a man who has wealth and youth. Admit it, Elly, you'd run off with him if he asked. I doubt you would even blink."
Jacqueline smiled and shook her head while Danielle chased Gustave down the stairs and out to the pig-pen.
The next day, Danielle took the hog to find truffles in the woods. She decided to take a swim in the lake, and returned home late as a result. When she did arrive, she found Margeurite and Jacqueline playing dice in the living room.
"Somebody's in trouble," Marguerite sang softly.
Danielle glanced quizzically at Jacqueline, but the Baroness chose that moment to burst into the room. She clasped onto Danielle's ear and thrust her into the nearest chair. "You stupid, stupid girl! How dare you do this to me! To Marquerite! It's deceitfulness, Danielle, and I will not tolerate it!"
"What did I do?" She glanced to the girls and back at the Baroness.
"Think, Danielle. Think really hard," Marguerite smirked.
Her gaze shifted from Marguerite to Jacqueline, who used her hands to mime a horse's galloping hooves. Marguerite glared at Jacqueline, who rolled the dice.
"Prince Henry stole our horse?" Danielle slowly responded.
"Yes! And that would explain why he returned it this afternoon!" The Baroness strutted proudly over to her favorite daughter, who basked in her mother's glory. "How dare you let him surprise us like that! Thankfully, Marguerite turned in a stunning performance."
"Yes, I shouldn't be surprised if he comes calling again." Marguerite picked up the dice and rolled.
The Baroness turned her scowl back on Danielle. "He said you exchanged words, that you were forceful. Come, I must know exactly what was said. The simplest phrase can have a thousand meanings."
She couldn't possibly tell her the entire conversation. That was a secret between the prince and herself. "I... I called him a thief." The Baroness's scowl deepened into one of shock. "I did not recognize him!"
Her scowl dissipated and a look of mocking pity replaced it. "Oh, you poor country girl." She paused, then bent down as though speaking to a small child. "Well, we must work extra hard to ensure the manor is spotless. We can't have a royal bottom sitting on a dirty chaise, now, can we?"
Danielle shook her head, grateful to have gotten out of the mess so easily. The Baroness turned to speak to her girls, and Danielle slipped away to the kitchen with the truffles.
Life continued as normal in the de Ghent household. Contrary to Marguerite's statement, the prince did not come calling again. However, his marriage to the Princess of Spain was postponed, and a royal ball was announced. Rumors regarding the prince's romantic intentions were many; the Baroness and Marguerite were thoroughly convinced that he did not intend to marry a Spanish princess at all, and this was their chance to seal the deal for themselves. Naturally, when an official messenger bearing an invitation to the ball presented himself at their door, they were overjoyed.
Danielle and Gustave enjoyed mimicing the shallow women, and Jacqueline lamented having to go to the ball. It was a masque, and all the dresses they could find were dull in comparison to those Marguerite was convinced others would be wearing. The best they managed to find were peacock and horse assembles, complete with an elaborate feathered mask for the peacock and a delicate wire headpiece for the horse. The Baroness, declaring that it was her job to be the mother of the bride and that her days as a bride were over, purchased a "simple" evening ballgown. Marguerite sighed that she would settle for the peacock ensemble, and the horse costume was delegated to Jacqueline.
"I do wish I could be the peacock. Next thing you know they'll have me pulling the carriage and scrubbing the floors with you!" she exclaimed to Danielle and Gustave the week before the ball. "Not that it would be too dreadful," she quickly added, "but... well, I am a member of this family too. As despicable as they are, we are flesh and blood."
"If it were my family, I'd rather be a real horse than their brother."
"Gustave!" Danielle tried desperately to hold back a laugh.
He tugged on Danielle's hair. "Admit it, you thought the same thing."
"Still. I'm related to them by marriage, too, so it is my lot as well. Therefore, I forbid you to go about speaking like that without permission."
Gustave shrugged. "I'm not sure which of you is worse off. A relative by blood they like on some occasions and pretend to on others, while a relative by matrimony they pretend they're being generous to while you polish their banisters."
The three of them sat for a moment, not sure how to respond, before Jacqueline changed back to their original conversation. "I wish you could come, Danielle. It would be much easier to bear if you were there to laugh at them with me."
Danielle shrugged. "I suppose I should like to go. After all, if the prince can be tolerable, perhaps a courtier or two might be as well. Although I doubt it, and I would never imagine going if you weren't."
Jacqueline sighed. "It is not as if it matters. Mother would never allow it."
Gustave smiled slyly. "You should go anyway, Elly. It is a masquerade - the Baroness wouldn't even have to know."
Danielle laughed, but Jacqueline perked up. "You could, you know. It would not be at all too difficult."
"Yes, except that I should need a gown and shoes, and of course a masque, and I have not the money, the time, or the excuse to go out shopping for any of that. Besides, everything will have already been purchased by the invited guests - and there's another problem. How am I to enter a royal ball without an invitation?"
Jacqueline looked defeated, but she continued, "You could wear something of mine. I know I'm a bit... larger, but with all your servant work your body is not as frail as Marguerite's. Still... I suppose yours is stronger while mine is just softer. Only my shoes would fit you truly well." She pouted at the failed plan.
Gustave's face held the gleam he often carried when plotting something illegal. "You shall have a dress and shoes and masque - and you shall go to the ball! In fact, I declare you'll be the belle of the ball!"
Danielle rolled her eyes at his enthusiasm. "And how will we arrange all this? Should we consult the fairies from a story-book, have them create an ensemble from mere air? I repeat: I have neither money, nor time, nor an excuse to be out dress shopping. Pighead."
Gustave pushed Danielle teasingly. "Just plan to go. You'll see." He pushed himself up and bounded down the narrow stairway.
Danielle shrugged and looked at Jacqueline. She smiled hopefully and shrugged back.
The day of the ball, the manor was in uproar. Maurice's wife, his sister, and Danielle were hard-pressed to assist the three women in dressing and preparing. As soon as the carriage had pulled away, Gustave appeared by Danielle's side.
"Hurry. Let's get you ready."
"Have you got a dress?" She peeked behind his back, but his hands were empty.
"What do you think?"
He led her into the house, and Maurice's wife and sister followed them into Jacqueline's bedchamber. He pulled open Jacqueline's wardrobe, despite severe protests from the women.
"Oh, don't worry. It took some work, but I convinced her to let me use it. She is a proper lady and all, but she'd do just about anything for Elly."
Pushing aside the gowns in the front, Gustave reached to the back and pulled out a delicate white gown, handing it to Maurice's wife. Compared to the dresses Marguerite and Rodmilla had considered for the masquerade, this one was simply made and much more tastefully decorated. It was truly breathtaking - a work of art. The neckline was lower than Danielle was used to, but still modest. It dipped gracefully in the middle, coming up to just below her shoulders on the sleeves. The details were exquisite, with small feathers on the open 'v' of the bodice and tiny pearl patterns along the sides. The sleeves were delicate layers of lace and pearls; the skirt consisted of a simple cream fabric with an overlying, open-fronted lace beauty.
Danielle stood fingering the dress silently as Gustave reached in the wardrobe again and pulled out the shoes. They, too, were absolutely beautiful, with dainty glass soles and small blue jewels forming a sunburst pattern.
"Oh, Gustave, they... you..."
"Wait." He smiled and reached into the wardrobe a final time, pulling out a masque made of dozens of tiny feathers like those on the dress, decorated with pearls and tiny blue jewels.
"Oh," Danielle breathed, unable to mutter anything else.
Gustave grinned proudly and handed the shoes and masque to Maurice's sister. "Hurry up now. You're already late, and I'm sure Jacqueline is waiting."
Danielle nodded, and Gustave left the room, pulling the door shut behind him. It only took a few moments to slip into the outfit; Maurice's sister used Jacqueline's beauty paints to alter Danielle's features. Once the masque and shoes were in place, Danielle could hardly recognize herself in Jacqueline's mirror. It was perfect.
Maurice's wife and sister pulled open the door and led Danielle out to the hall where Gustave was waiting. When she stepped out, his facial expression was one she had never seen before.
"Don't laugh. This was your idea."
"I'm not laughing," he said, and for once he was entirely serious. "Elly, you... you're beautiful."
Danielle could feel a flush crawl up her neck to her cheeks. "Well, it's your dress, Pighead." She couldn't help laughing a little at the thought. "Where did you get it, anyway? It fits perfectly."
Now Gustave was the embarrassed one. "Actually, I've had it. It's... sort of a family heirloom. The only thing of value I have, and a miracle my family came to own it in the first place."
Danielle nodded. A servant's family owning such an expensive garment was rare. "Did your mother make it?"
"My grandmother. Actually, my great-grandmother started it, but she couldn't afford the detail and all." He gestured to the feathers and lace and pearls. "She was making it for my grandmother's wedding, and the fabric part was completed in time for it to be used. As my grandmother grew older, though, she collected the pieces for the decorations and finished it in time for my mother to wear it at her own wedding."
"Oh." The sentimental value made the dress so much more personal in Danielle's mind. "Did she make the shoes and the masque, too?"
"The shoes were made the same way the dress was - started for my grandmother and finished in time for my mother's. The masque my grandmother made with the leftover trim, and my mother wore it in place of a veil. It took a lot to get the feathers and jewels and all. My grandmother didn't want to waste any of it."
Maurice's wife interrupted the conversation. "It's a lovely story, Gustave, but we must get the mistress going. She's late already."
Gustave nodded, forcing himself to look away from Danielle at Maurice's wife. "Yes. Is the carrige ready?"
"Carriage?" Danielle hadn't even thought of how to get to the ball. The family had only one carriage; the Baroness, Marguerite, and Jacqueline had taken it already.
"Jacqueline arranged for a friend at court to repay her a favor. You know how she is, all sweetness and kindness and willing to do anything for anybody. I told her you couldn't possibly walk all the way to the ball." He shrugged. "And we now have a carriage."
Danielle smiled. That was Jacqueline. There was not a young lady within the Baroness's social circle who did not owe Jacqueline in some way, and Jacqueline was rarely willing to accept anything in return.
Gustave helped Danielle into the carriage and climbed onto the driving seat. Hopefully the Baroness would not see them arriving - and if she did, she would assume that Gustave had been hired by another courtier to drive them. After all, he worked for whoever paid; he did not belong to the Baroness as Maurice's family did.
When they reached the gate at the end of the gravel lane, Danielle turned and waved at the two women who had raised her. Then she settled back and enjoyed the ride in an actual carriage.
The luxury of a carriage ride made it seem a much shorter ride than it was. All too soon Danielle and Gustave were pulling up to the palace. Gustave jumped down from the driving seat to help Danielle out of the carriage. He spoke quickly and quietly to her as he did, not letting go of her hand even after she was safely on the ground.
"Remember, Elly, you mustn't let the Baroness or Marguerite too close. If anyone asks about your invitation, you're a guest of Jacqueline's. I doubt it will come to that, though."
"Just be careful."
She nodded again. "I know, Pighead. You're forgetting it is me who takes all the blame if this does not work."
He nodded. "Yes, I suppose. Just - well, just have fun." He squeezed her hand and let it go rather reluctantly.
She smiled, took a deep breath, and walked quickly into the castle, doing her best to keep her head up and not look at the ground. She heard the carriage pull away behind her.
The court was full of gentlemen and ladies, milling about in clothing of all colors and fashions. A gleaming ship was rolling about on a fabric sea, certainly due to some machine. A dancing floor stood in the middle of the court, and couples turned about merrily to the music. Wide, swooping arches of the castle led to table upon table of food. Danielle wondered at how many servants the palace must have had to prepare such a generous bounty.
Her amazement at the glory around her was cut off when Jacqueline saw her and rushed to her side. "Oh, Danielle, you made it! I was so afraid something would go terribly wrong."
Danielle smiled. "I am here and well, as you see. Can you believe this place? I thought you said a ball would be dreadfully dull! How can so much color - so much life - so much food in one place be dull?"
Jacqueline smiled. "There is the food. And really, you are right. Still, I could not bear being here as a horse with only Marguerite and Mother."
Danielle surveyed Jacqueline's outfit. It really was drab compared to Marguerite's deep blue costume or her own elegant gown, but it still went well with Jacqueline's form, and she said so.
"You're just being nice. Your gown - why, it is truly a wonder! I wonder where Gustave found it?"
Danielle shrugged and smiled. If Gustave had not told Jacqueline about the dress's story, it was not her place to do so.
"Come now, we must meet the prince. Every young lady is expected to greet him."
"The prince?" Danielle panicked. Neither Gustave nor Jacqueline had mentioned this part. "But what if he recognizes me?"
"Between the masque and the paint, I barely recognize you. The whole purpose was to ensure that Mother and Marguerite cannot recognize you. If those in your own house do not know you, then surely you cannot expect an important man who met you one day to know you."
Danielle nodded. Jacqueline was right. Still, the thought of greeting the prince made her nervous.
They began to make their way to the front of the courtyard, where the prince stood a few feet in front of his parents' thrones. Several young ladies, as well as distinguished gentlemen, flocked around him as he made conversation and watched the dancers. Finally the two of them made their way close enough for him to notice them.
"Hello," he began.
"Your Highness," Jacqueline curtsied. Danielle attempted to do the same, wondering why Gustave had not thought to have her practice this. Why had neither of them warned her? Most likely it hadn't crossed their minds at all.
Danielle rose and cleared her throat nervously, then regretted it. Ladies probably did not clear their throats in public. "This is Lady Jacqueline de Ghent."
Jacqueline turned to Danielle, and Danielle saw a moment of panic fleet across her friend's face. They hadn't thought of how to introduce Danielle, either. This was a disaster!
Danielle decided it was better to abandon custom than to be exposed. "And I am Lady Nicole de Lancret."
They both curtsied again, and the prince bowed. Danielle allowed herself to relax. They rose, and the prince smoothed over her social blunder easily.
"Are you ladies enjoying youselves?"
"Indeed, Your Highness. The food is exquisite," Jacqueline replied seamlessly.
"And you?" The prince looked directly at Danielle. She forced down the nervous feeling, reminding herself that she could not possibly be recognizable.
"Yes, Your Majesty. It is all quite wonderful." From the look on Jacqueline's face, this comment must have come across as odd. But the prince seemed used to ignoring others' mistakes, and did so now.
After a brief pause in conversation, Jacqueline seemed about to speak, but the prince turned to Danielle. "Have we met before? You seem a bit familiar."
This was terrible. He did recognize her. She steadied herself and prayed her voice remained calm. "No, I do not believe so, Your Highness."
Jacqueline added, "You meet so many people from around the world, Your Highness. Perhaps she merely resembles another courtier you met before."
He nodded, but continued to look at Danielle in a way that made her slightly uncomfortable. She needed to get away from him before he made the connection. She glanced at Jacqueline, who understood perfectly. "It was a pleasure to meet you, Your Highness."
He bowed as they curtsied. "The pleasure was all mine." Danielle rose and followed Jacqueline back to the food tables.
After the encounter with the prince, Danielle avoided conversation in general while Jacqueline accepted a few invitations to dance. They both enjoyed the offerings of food a bit more than was proper. Danielle had finally relaxed and convinced herself that they had been successful in disguising her when the prince appeared by her side and took her hand.
"Lady Nicole, may I have this dance?"
She knew it was a question; she could refuse. She knew the more time she spent in his presence, the more likely he was to expose her. However, when the prince asks a lady to dance, Danielle did not think it quite proper for her to decline. So she answered honestly, "I would love to, but I fear I am not inclined to dance often. I would not be a very graceful partner."
Instead of letting her go, he continued to hold her hand. "Perhaps we might take a turn about the garden, then? It is my mother's pride and joy."
Danielle glanced back at Jacqueline, who nodded. There did not seem to be any way out. So she accepted and the prince led her arm in arm to the royal gardens.
They walked for quite a while, for the most part in silence. The prince attempted conversation at first, but Danielle was too nervous about spending so much time around him to carry her side of the conversation. She could not pretend to be knowledgable about common topics at court, and managed to end each attempt. The garden led to the castle, and the prince continued walking steadily through the halls that Danielle was sure were not intended for masquerade guests.
He led her up a narrow marble staircase which led out onto a castle wall. On the one side they could see the entire courtyard; on the other lay a beautiful view of the silent countryside. They stood for a moment, admiring the beauty of it all.
The prince eventually broke the silence. "You are not like the other courtiers, Lady Nicole. You do not seem much inclined towards conversation, for one."
She stumbled to answer. "I merely prefer to keep the true extent of my folly a secret, and let others believe I am more clever than I am."
He chuckled. "I doubt you are truly as foolish as you say."
She fingered the lace on her skirt. "You might be suprised."
He stared at her, not answering for a long while. "You are quite sure we've never met?"
She felt her entire being flush with heat. This time it was not an innocent question; she could see in his eyes that he knew her secret. She could not let him expose her; it was too dangerous. But to deny what the prince knew for a truth would be even more dangerous. She would have to consider her words carefully. For a long time she said nothing at all, so the prince spoke again.
"I shan't tell."
She looked up at him, and once again read his eyes easily. She could trust him. Turning back to look at the festivities below, she sighed. "I did not... intend... to deceive you, Your Highness."
He leaned against the castle wall beside her. "Why did you come? You are afraid of exposure; I can feel your worry."
She smiled, just barely. "Jacqueline - Lady Jacqueline de Ghent - she asked me to come. If the Baroness finds out, I know not what she would do to me." She added, "And there was the possibility of arrest."
The prince chuckled. "Yes, there is that."
She continued, speaking more quickly and nervously. "It was Gustave's idea, really. Jacqueline was saying how dull the ball would be with only Marguerite and the Baroness -" She caught herself. How could she paint Jacqueline as ungrateful or complaining? It was opposite of the girl's character. "Not to say she does not enjoy herself - it's a wonderful ball, really - just-"
He cut in. "You don't have to do that. Say what you mean. I shan't be offended."
She smiled for real this time. He was so human, so ordinary. "She's not fond of her blood relatives. Nobody is, but she's... well, stuck with them. So she was saying how much better it'd be if I could come, as well, and then Gustave said I should go. Next thing I know I'm wearing a dress from Gustave's great-grandmother and I'm trying to guess how to properly speak to a prince."
They both laughed at that, and the prince asked, "Who are these Jacqueline and Gustave?"
"Oh, Gustave's the servant boy. I've grown up with him. Jacqueline is the Baroness's youngest daughter. Her mother is really a dragon and her sister's vain and shallow. She can be venomous when you upset her. But Jacqueline's wonderful. She wouldn't hurt a fly, and she always wishes to help. The Baroness favors Marguerite, so Jacqueline stays with Gustave and I when her mother's not paying attention."
The prince nodded. "She seems like a nice girl. This Baroness - she sounds..." He shrugged, not sure what words to use.
Danielle nodded and laughed at the prince's expression. "She's not so bad. Most of the time she is, I guess, but she really loved my father... I think. He was fond enough of her to marry her, so I suppose she wasn't always all bad."
They stood in silence for a few moments, watching the guests mingling below. Some were starting to send their servants to fetch the carriages. Danielle watched as one carriage after another pulled up to take its weary owners home. It would be well past midnight now.
Then the wonder of the night crashed around her shoulders as she recognized one of the carriages.
"Oh! Your Majesty - Your Highness - I must - goodbye!"
"But - Nicole!"
Ignoring his words, she hoisted her skirts and ran back through the door they had entered from. The Baroness just could not arrive home before Danielle did - her life would be ruined, as if it weren't so already. Danielle could hear the prince calling after her, and she realized that she was being about as unladylike as possible at the moment.
But she had no time for propriety, and when she stumbled on the unfamiliar marble floors, she left the shoe that fell from her foot and continued stumbling out into the courtyard.
Jacqueline left in the carriage with the Baroness and Marguerite, naturally. Danielle finally managed to locate Gustave, who was frantically searching for her. They hurried off in their own carriage; Gustave drove at dangerous speeds, but they miraculously made it back safely before the Baroness's carriage ever came into sight.
Danielle hurried to hide her gown, masque, and remaining shoe in Jacqueline's wardrobe. It pained her to think of having lost a shoe that meant so much to Gustave, but she had to time to worry on that at the moment. She quickly slipped on her nightshift and slid into the attic just as Marguerite burst through the front doors of the manor.
The day after the ball, Danielle struggled to hide her fatigue. She managed to pass the Baroness's suspicion, and the next day Marguerite and the Baroness left to call on a courtier who they met at the ball. Jacqueline, Gustave, and Danielle took this opportunity to sit in the attic and discuss the excitement.
"I was so worried! When Mother came to fetch me, and I went to warn you - I could not find you anywhere! Then I thought perhaps you had gone already, but Gustave came to me to ask if I had seen you. Wherever were you?"
Danielle sighed. She didn't want to share her conversation with the prince, but she had nothing to hide. There was no reason not to tell. "I met the prince."
Gustave, who had been lying on the floor examining the ceiling, sat up and looked at Danielle with this statement. "Sir Young and Rich?"
Danielle pushed him back, but he remained sitting up. "Shut up. He's nicer than you, Pighead."
"I thought you liked me."
"Of course I do. But you're the only one of us that has yet to meet the man, and still you insist on tormenting us."
Gustave raised his hands in defeat. "Fair enough. I'll stop." He put his hands down and took on a more serious air. "Really though, Elly, what is it about him that makes you look like that?"
"Like what?" Danielle stuck her tongue out and scrunched up her face. "This?"
Gustave didn't laugh; surprised, Danielle answered honestly. "I don't know what you mean. But I do know that he's friendly, and open, and... well, trustworthy."
"Did you learn all that in one night?" This was from Jacqueline.
Danielle turned to her. "He recognized me. When he asked if we had met? He recognized me. While you were dancing he took me through the gardens, and then into the castle. I was terrified that he would arrest me for the fraud I was. But instead he took me out onto a castle wall. The view was amazing - I could see the entire masquerade and the countryside. All the houses on one side and the people on the other, looking like two different worlds in miniature." She sighed at the memory and continued.
"He asked me again if we'd met, but I could tell he knew. There was something in his eyes. So I told him - about you two, about our plan. We talked for a little while before I saw the carriage pull up, and then I ran very unladylike to find Gustave."
He pushed her shoulder, but his face held a strange expression. He didn't seem himself. What was it about the prince that he hated so? But then Danielle remembered that she still had to tell him about the shoe. "Gustave, there's another thing... when I was running off, I - I fell. And... well, I lost one of the shoes."
A long moment passed before Gustave swallowed hard and forced a smile. "It's all right. At least you weren't caught." But Danielle could tell nothing was all right.
Jacqueline could not find another chance to spend time with Danielle over the next several days, and Gustave was acting very odd. At first she thought he was upset over the shoe, but it seemed more than that. Regardless, they began to avoid each other. It hurt to act like such strangers; Danielle did her best to put him out of her mind.
Then the messenger came. The prince had met a lady at the masquerade - a lady that had captured his heart. However, he knew not how she looked beneath her masque. A message was being sent out for her to send a maidservant to retrieve the article. The lady in question would know who to send, and the prince would know the lady by her servant.
Danielle, of course, knew the message was for her. The Baroness and Marguerite knew only that it was not for them. However, they were no less determined to win the prince for Marguerite, so it was determined that Danielle would be sent. The Baroness made all sorts of instructions and threats for the next few days, before finally deciding that it was time she set out. Danielle reluctantly left for the palace.
She knew the prince would be so happy to see her, and certainly wish to court her. Might he even ask her hand in marriage? This was no ordinary situation, but it could only be expected that such a bold and mysterious proclamation would lead to something. He knew her living situation. It would make more sense for them to get to know each other after an official engagement, so she could stay in the castle out of the Baroness's influence. What Danielle was unsure of was whether or not to accept.
On the one hand, she would certainly be happy. She would live in luxury, never having to wash another chemise or dump another chamberpot. The prince would treat her well, and she would never have to worry again. He was a wonderful man. She had her family to think of, too - no blood relatives alive, but she considered Maurice's family and Jacqueline and Gustave as family. She could bring them all to the palace, and their lives would be so improved.
But the thought of Gustave bothered her. She could not let go of his opinion of the prince. He did have a point; as amazing as the prince seemed, how well did she really know him? Two meetings wasn't possibly enough to get to know a person's heart. Thinking about the prince's heart raised yet another question: that of love. Growing up and hearing her father read to her, true love sounded so wonderful. But the reality was that many couples who claimed to love each other were very different from those in stories. How was she to know what was merely friendship and admiration? Where did love come in? Could she possibly be in love with a man she'd spoken with only twice?
Her thoughts swirled around until she was walking as slowly as possible, dreading the time she'd reach the palace and have to make her decision. Somehow Gustave kept coming to the forefront. She remembered him covered in mud after their fights as children. She thought of the harebrained ideas he often came up with, including her going to the masquerade. This brought to mind his reaction when she came out dressed in his mother's wedding gown and masque. And what of his strange behavior the past several days? Her heart seemed to be saying something, but Danielle wasn't quite sure what.
She loved Pighead, that was certain. It was a friendly sort of love, though, nothing romantic. Wasn't it? He had no say in who she married, or whether she even married in the first place. The prince... Danielle knew she admired the prince and found him a very likeable person. Did she love him? No. But could she? Did their love just need time to bloom? She couldn't say.
As she passed through the woods, she decided to turn aside and stop at the lake for just a moment. She was surprised to find Gustave standing near her swimming spot, facing away from her towards the lake. She knew he came here often, but it was unsettling to see him when she couldn't seem to straighten out her feelings toward him. Danielle tried to slip back into the woods and continue unnoticed, but he turned around.
They stood for a moment. His eyes were unfocused and staring at her feet. Finally, he spoke, without glancing up. "Don't go."
Her frustrations boiled over and her tangled thoughts came tumbling out. "Why not? What say do you have in my life? You think because we grew up together and you lent me a dress means you can control me? I'm tired of you always teasing me and telling me what I should and shouldn't do. I'm tired of you acting so strange around me. It didn't used to be this way. Now I have a chance at bettering my life and taking care of everyone - you want me to throw it away?"
He didn't reply; that only frustrated her more. She kicked at the leaves and branches on the ground while he continued to stare down. "Gustave, please. I feel I no longer know you. What's happening to us?"
His eyes finally found hers, and the expression in them was so intense it scared her. It was something she'd never seen in him before. When he spoke, it sounded painful. "I love you, Elly."
She didn't know what to say. How could she respond to that? After a minute, he continued.
"I love you. I always have, and I always will. I just didn't know it. Not until you came out in that dress. Then I knew. I knew I loved you. I knew I always will. And I knew I'd never be right again unless you wore that dress for what it was made."
She was embarrassed and so confused. Again she scuffed her shoe against a root, letting her eyes fall from his.
"I didn't want you to go to the masquerade - not after I saw you. I knew if you did I might lose you. Now I'm afraid I have. Tell me, Elly. Have I lost you to him?"
She opened and closed her mouth, but no words came. Images flashed through her mind - young Gustave, dripping with mud. Gustave laughing on the attic floor. Gustave staring at her in his mother's dress. Gustave avoiding her glance as they passed in the hall.
Finally, he turned away and spoke with a bitter, angry tone. "Just go. You won't have to work another day in your life. Be happy, then."
Only then did Danielle know her decision.
The prince was beginning to lose hope. He had thought the woman he'd fallen so easily for returned his feelings, but perhaps he had misread her interest. It had been five days already, and he had spoken with more servants than he had thought possible. Still she did not come.
If she did not come after a full week, he would cancel the announcement and marry the princess of Spain. The idea was not pleasant, but he saw no other option.
The doors to the throne room pulled open, and a servant ushered in yet another maid. This one, however, he knew.
"Your Highness." A curtsy. A pause. "I... I should like to have the glass slipper returned, Your Majesty."
He nodded. A servant carried out the requested article on a red velvet cushion, while another brought out a richly upholstered chair.
She sat. The servant pulled off her shoe and slid on the delicately beaded slipper.
It was a perfect fit.
Gustave and his wife were among the many servants across the country who received a full week of holiday to celebrate the prince's wedding. The months of preparation had finally ended, and it seemed the entire kingdom crowded into the palace to watch the royal couple say their vows. Gustave's wife was expecting, however, so they chose to remain at home, despite the future princess's personal invitation. After the newlyweds were officially sent off in a carriage to their honeymoon at the summer palace, they stopped at Gustave's tiny home on the edge of the woods. The new bride and expecting mother walked by the lake for a short while before the latter tired out and they returned to the cottage.
The visit ended all too soon, and the royal couple pulled away to finish their ride to the palace while Gustave helped his wife back into bed. She knew she could have been in that carriage, but Danielle would not have given up her Pighead for all the summer palaces in the world. Besides, Jacqueline deserved some attention.
~May 28, 2012