I felt my jaw drop. My Mama had been there for me for most of my life—how could she not know me? Yet I could see the cloudy confusion in her eyes; she was sincere. I snapped my mouth shut due to good breeding, but continued to stare at the woman who had raised me from childhood.
“Are you a servant?” I opened my mouth again, this time to object—and realized that I was in my servant’s uniform.
“I’m—" I began, and received an elbow in the ribs from Sarah. I looked at her, and she shook her head. I wrinkled my forehead, confused.
“Yes, Mama, she is,” Sarah lied. “She needs us for just a moment. We’ll be back.” And then my sister stood, marching me out of the room.
Antony locked the door to the parlor as the four of us gathered inside.
“What’s going on?” I demanded. Suzanne sighed, and looked to Antony. Antony sat slowly, his hand on his chest, making a face as though he were in pain.
“We can’t tell Mama about you,” Sarah cut in.
“Tell her what?” I asked. “Why not? I don’t understand!” It was Antony’s turn to sigh.
“Mama’s memory reaches back to the year I was eleven. She doesn’t remember anything since that.” I gasped.
“But—that’s before she met Papa! Or—or—“ the world was spinning again, and I closed my eyes to shut it out. I felt like I would be sick.
“Or you,” Antony finished. “Yes. And we can’t tell her everything yet. Just seeing how old the three of us are made her faint. We’re afraid that if she faints again, she’ll go back into her sleep… it was a miracle that she woke up once. We can’t count on that again.” Antony groaned, his hand on his ribs.
“Oh.” I said quietly. I didn’t know what else to say.
I became a ghost, drifting silently around the manor. Nobody knew what to say to me, so no one spoke. Even Henri stayed away, and in the rare moments that I wasn’t worrying about Mama, I fretted about him. Even counting my first few weeks under Cook’s direction, I had never been so lonesome.
My brother and sisters were constantly with Mama, trying to ease her back into her memories, but nothing seemed to help. In fact, Antony confessed to me, Mama simply became confused at times, until she refused to listen to any more recollections.
One afternoon I was walking out to the garden when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to see Antony standing behind me. He raised his eyebrows at me, jerking his chin out at the gardens. We walked for over an hour, not speaking to one another. It was enough for both of us not to be alone.
Antony and my walks became a daily ritual after that. Without ever speaking of it, we would spend an hour or so every day in the gardens together, sometimes with our hands clasped in mutual fear and worry. It was the same every day until one rainy afternoon.
I sighed, looking out the window. There would be no walk today. Antony joined me in his quiet way, putting a hand on my back in greeting. We stood side by side for a few minutes, until finally he let out an exasperated sigh.
“Would you like to play a round of cards?” Antony asked. I smiled at him—probably for the first time since we started spending our afternoons together. I loved cards.
We were in the middle of our third game when Cook entered the room. I looked up at her, a question in my eyes. She curtsied to us and announced that the Prince had arrived.
Antony and I both perked up as Henri entered the room. He looked at us for a moment, then came and sat at the small table where we were playing.
“May I join in?” he asked.
The moment Henri joined us, the ice that had frozen over Antony and myself shattered. Suddenly we could talk again, could laugh again, could say what we were feeling about Mama. Henri had always been that way; he could make anyone feel at ease. I pondered for a moment about how that would make him a good ruler. And suddenly it occurred to me that the man sitting across from me was the future King of Fresnia.
“Henri!” I exclaimed. He looked up, eyes still smiling from something Antony had said. “You’re—“ I faltered. He knew exactly who he was. “You’re the prince,” I mumbled. Henri stared at me for a moment, and then burst into laughter.
“Did you just figure that out, Ell? I was wondering how many years it would take you.”
“What?” I stammered.
“You’ve never acted like I was anything special—no, that’s not right. You’ve never acted like my position was anything special. From the day we met, I’ve always been just your friend Henri. I wondered when you would realize that I’m also a prince.” He laughed again, and, after a mortified moment, I joined him. Henri wasn’t laughing at me; he was laughing at a good joke. As he chuckled, I giggled, and Antony wheezed (so as not to hurt his ribs,) Cook entered the room again. She smiled, seeing how happy we were, then told me that Suzanne was waiting for me.
After excusing myself from Henri and Antony, I turned to leave—then twirled back around and dropped the most formal curtsy I could.
“Your Highness,” I said. Henri’s laughter followed me down the hall.
Up until this point, I imagine you’ve found very few similarities between the tales you’ve heard about me and the story I’m telling. I suppose the reason for that is that my story is, after all, fairly straightforward, with very little that could be considered unusual. In other words, it’s boring. And so, my subjects embroidered a little—and their friends tagged on a bit, and eventually the original story got lost in the imaginations of inventive people. But I think you will find the next part of the story, by contrast, rather unsurprising.
Because Suzanne had called me to her for a reason you may have already guessed: a letter had arrived. From the palace. An invitation, to be exact—to a series of balls at which our Crown Prince, Henri, would choose a wife.
I think my head was tired from spinning so many times. Or perhaps I always suspected that Henri’s parents would eventually become impatient with him and demand a daughter-in-law and all-important heirs. At any rate, the news barely surprised me. Suzanne was all a-flutter, noisy for Suzanne (meaning that she let out a single squeal), and excited for something, finally, to look forward to in our presently dismal lives. But I could not catch the spirit of her excitement.
“It’s not that I don’t like the idea of a ball,” I told Cook while chopping carrots a bit too vigorously.
“It’s the idea of a ball intended to find Henri a bride?” Cook guessed. I felt myself flush. Privately, I struggled with the idea of Henri belonging to some other woman. But I had rejected him, and I told myself sternly that I had no right to envy the woman who would be wiser than I.
“No, I think it’s the idea of a ball without Mama,” I lied quickly. It was really more of a half-truth; I did hate the idea of a ball in the midst of all the worry about Mama. But at the same time, I desperately wanted something to take my mind off of my fears.
In the end, Henri’s ball did take my mind off of Mama. But not in the way it drove other girls to distraction. Because I knew the secret, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it one bit.
The rumors were true. I knew because I cornered Henri and asked him myself. He was to choose a bride by the end of the final ball. What the rumor mills hadn’t picked up was that the candidates for his marriage were not, in fact, every eligible maiden in Fresnia. They weren’t Fresnian at all.
“Your parents want you to what?” I nearly shouted.
“Apparently this has been their plan all along, to marry me off to some foreign princess or high noblewoman from a politically suitable country.”
“But what about—love?” I asked before I could stop myself, incredulous.
“What about it?” Henri asked sadly.
In all our years of friendship, I had never really felt sorry for the Prince until that day.
It seemed that everyone we knew had been invited. People often came by our estate to ask after Mama and comfort us as best they could. In the weeks after the invitations to the balls came out, the conversation would inevitably turn to the impending Event. Gossip flew about which ladies would have the loveliest dresses, or which thought they could catch Henri’s eye. I said nothing, to the frustration of many of the more gossip-inclined; my close friendship with Henri was well known among the nobility.
Meanwhile, I did my best not to think what Henri’s marriage would do to me. Before the invitation had come, I had quietly nurtured hope of winning Henri again, perhaps of his repeated proposal. Now, knowing what I did, I did my best not to despair.
The situation with Mama didn’t help any. I tried to go in to read to her a few days after she woke; she demanded to know who had taught a “servant” to read, and sent me back to the kitchens.
I longed to have a Mama again; to bury myself in her comforting presence, to fall asleep in her arms to her soft humming. I ached and prayed and wished on every star that some miracle would happen to bring her back to me. But it didn’t come.
Papa finally arrived at home, in a panicked state, apologizing for his lateness as he ran up to Mama’s room. The rest of us stayed away, then, hoping, fearing. Finally after two hours, I could bear it no more. I knocked quietly on Mama’s door; Papa called softly for me to enter.
He sat in a straight-backed chair next to Mama’s bed, holding her hand while she slept.
“Papa? Has she—well, has she been asleep this whole time? Hasn’t she seen you?” Papa shook his head.
“No, my Ell. As long as she’s sleeping, she’s still my loving—wife—oh.” Papa lowered his face into his palm, weeping. Mama had been Papa’s best friend and councilor, as well as the place to rest his weary heart. For the first time, I felt worse for someone else than I did for myself.
We cried together, Papa and I, until Cook summoned us for supper. And Mama slept on.
I will never forget the night of that first ball. It was as wonderful, as intoxicating, and as terrifying as the first ball I had ever attended—although for different reasons. Reason, singular, actually. My delight, and my horror, were centered on Henri.
I startled with fear every time his eyes lingered on another woman. In my mind, I kicked myself every time this happened. He’s not yours to be jealous over, I reminded myself. But still, no matter how engaging my dance partner, I could not tear my eyes off of the Prince.
I was not the only woman to suffer this particular ailment. Nearly every woman looked past the man she was with to spy on Henri. They had various reasons—to collect gossip was the cause for many of these stares. Some were hoping to draw his attention and eventually his heart. A few, like me, were jealous.
But none of them know him like I do, I thought. None of them… love him… like I do.
And there it was. I loved him. There was no escaping this fact, now that I had thought it solidly. I loved him, and I wanted more than anything to be his bride. I was so startled by the vehemence of my own emotions that I stumbled then, stepping less than daintily on my partner’s foot.
“My apologies, my Lord,” I mumbled to the Count I was dancing with.
“No need to be sorry, my dear,” he responded jovially. “No Count can hold a woman’s attention tonight. The Prince is all any of you can see.” After this comment I tried to focus more on my partners, but I was still always watching Henri from the corner of my eye.
At ten o’clock I began to fear that Henri would never ask me to dance.
He had asked both of my sisters, of course, and numerous other friends. But, though he smiled at me every time our eyes met, there was something too formal in that smile, as if I were just another courtier, and not a woman he knew as well as he knew his own name. My smile became heavy, and every so often I felt the corners of my mouth twitch. Oh, no, I thought, you don’t get to weep, Ell. I smoothed my skirts then, and was about to go charging off in search of a partner when one found me.
“Ell, would you like to dance?” And there was Antony, saving me. I took his offered hand readily, and we fell into step with grace.
That was the first and only time I lost track of the Prince all night. I twirled and laughed with my Antony, and thought again and again how grateful I was for him.
Just before the musicians finished the song, I felt a tap on my left shoulder. I turned my head, keeping my feet in step with Antony’s, and smiled broadly. Standing there, seeming tall and handsome to perfection, was Henri.
“May I cut in?” He asked with a smile. I looked at Antony, who nodded, and passed my hand to Henri’s without a moment’s pause.
“Your Highness,” Antony said, ever the respectful servant to the crown—at least, in public—and stepped away.
The musicians finished playing, and Henri pulled me in for the next dance.
“I suppose I could have waited until the end of the song, but I wanted to dance with you right now,” Henri said. I tried and failed to suppress a smile; the thought that Henri had been impatient to see me, even if that feeling came after he had danced with most of the room’s other women, was a nice one.
“Antony seems well,” he mused as the next song began.
“Yes, m’lord,” I said, addressing him formally, as I always did in public. “But I fear he is in much pain that he does not speak of. I think I will forbid his coming to the next ball if he doesn’t choose to stay home.”
“Mmm,” Henri replied, staring over my head.
“You seem to be enjoying yourself,” I added, trying not to let my bit of bitterness seep into my voice.
“Yes,” he answered shortly. I was beginning to be frustrated.
“Has any lady caught your eye tonight, m’lord?” I asked, desperate for conversation.
“I’m afraid not,” Henri said. A small inner part of me applauded these words.
“And the King and Queen, has anyone caught their attention for you?” Henri looked me in the eye at that.
“You know my situation, Ell,” he muttered. “I was hoping to escape the subject of my impending nuptials with you, but evidently, that is not to be.” I stumbled out of sheer surprise; Henri had never once snapped at me before. I looked into his face, searching for an explanation. And there it was. His eyes shone with unshed tears of stress, dread, and frustration. Henri had come to me as a friend, and I had acted the part of the courtier.
“I’m sorry, Henri,” I said. I could not embrace him in public, but I stepped closer to him then, resting my forehead on his shoulder.
We stayed that way for the rest of the night. A song would end, I would mumble something about him attending to his duties, and I would try to pull away. And Henri would pull me closer toward him, forbidding me with his arms to go. How was I supposed to deny him? This was the man I loved, the man I would give anything for. So I stayed with him, and danced in his arms, until the clock struck twelve.
“Ell, we must go,” I heard Sarah say. I felt as though I were waking from a dream; I didn’t want it to end. “Antony is not well, he’s in a great deal of pain. The carriage is waiting for us,” Sarah continued. “I’m sorry to steal your partner, your Highness, but I’m afraid we really must be leaving.”
“But of course, m’lady,” Henri said with a bow, letting me go at last.
I curtsied to Henri and followed my sister out of the palace’s Grand Hall. As my siblings and I were about halfway down the stairs, I heard a shout. I turned, and Henri was waving to us. We waved in return, grinning and making promises of tomorrow.
You’ve heard that I left something on those palace steps, I’m sure. And my shoes do figure into this story. But if truth be told, my slippers are not what were really left behind on that occasion. No, I left behind my heart.
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