“The prince is giving a ball!”
“In the middle of a war?” Marian looked at the thin, sallow, pastry chef who didn’t look like he’d ever tasted his own wares. “Are you serious? A party during a major offensive?”
The sallow chef nodded eagerly. “Oh, yes! The prince will choose a bride, the king will abdicate, and the whole war will be over.”
Marian nodded slowly. “So, what I’m hearing is… your side is losing?”
“My side?” The thin man looked confused.
“The king is losing, isn’t he?”
The man’s eyes widened. “I would never say something so traitorous!”
“Of course not.” She gave him a polite smile. “A fudge brownie please.” She pointed a the rich confection and waited as he bagged her purchase.
“Three coppers, if you please.”
She slid a silver piece across the counter. “The stars shine on those who show charity today,” she said and walked out, skirts swirling around her.
The baker wasn’t the only one with the news. The whole square was buzzing with people rushing to prepare for the upcoming party. Dress shops had lines of customers and coaches waiting outside. The grocers cart was empty. Flower sellers were scarce, or possibly just waiting in line for a seasonable dress.
One very determined hat seller stepped into Marian’s path, advancing at her with a bright green horror stuffed with purple feathers. “Have you something fetching to wear to the ball, Milady?”
“No,” Marian said, trying to sidestep the feather tickling her nose.
“Have you considered green, Milady? It would be a most becoming color on you.”
“Yes, if I had darker skin or fairer hair I’m sure it would be. But, since I have neither, I think perhaps another color.”
“Purple?” The hat seller waved the plumes closer to her face.
“No, lime and plum aren’t the right shades for me. Thank you.”
The hat seller pounced, placing the hat on her head and stabbing it in place with a five inch hair pin.
Marian glared as she counted, in Greek, to ten. “Remove the hat.”
“But for just a few silvers…” the seller wheedled.
“REMOVE THE HAT!!!” Thunder cracked through the clear sky.
The seller grabbed the hat, ripping the felt, and ran.
Marian removed the pin from her hair and tossed it on the ground. Around her the natives edged away, fearful of what she might do next. She rolled her eyes and walked back to the inn she’d checked into late last night. It wasn’t the fanciest place she’d ever spent the night, but it wasn’t the worst.
She tossed a small bag of silver pieces to the innkeeper for a hot bath and a warm meal and walked up the stairs, musing over the worst place she’d spent the night. Probably in the burnt out hovel last year, the one where the ruins were still smoking and the air smelt of burnt flesh. She slept in the stone cellar, on the floor, waiting for the pain to stop.
Opening the door to her small room she paused. No, the cellar was the second worst. The first worst had to have been that palace three years back, the hideous pink silk and white lace covering everything affair. That was the worst. Definitely.
Someone knocked. “Water, miss, for your bath.”
She opened the door and smiled at the fresh-faced maid carrying two buckets of steaming water. “Please, bring them right in.”
“Here you go, miss. Getting ready for the ball, are you?”
“Me?” Marian shook her head. “I wasn’t planning on going.”
The girl sighed, starry eyed. “Oh, but a ball. Doesn’t everyone want to go and dance the night away?”
Marian wrinkled her nose. “Pinched shoes, creaking corsets, and the smell of old women marinating in their perfume. It really isn’t all that grand.”
“But, to meet the prince!” The girl put the buckets by the fireplace, not spilling a drop. “I’d love to go, just to see everything. To maybe see the prince.”
“And I suppose your wicked stepmother is making you stay home and polish the silver?” Marian asked.
The girl blushed. “No, mother wouldn’t mind if I went. But I’ve nothing to wear. Nothing nice. I wouldn’t get past the guards.”
She waved her hand. “Nonsense! You’re quite a lovely girl. Hurry and fetch my bath and perhaps I can find a suitable tip for you.”
The girl curtsied. “That’s quite all right, miss. Even if we had a spare silver or two all the nice dresses have been bought up.”
Marian shooed her out. “Get my bath and let me worry about the tip.” She opened the door to the room’s armoire and studied the dresses inside. Fine blonde hair, pink cheeks, deep blue eyes and brown muddy feet…. The girl needed something full length and dusky. Marian discarded the idea of dressing the girl in red, to wanton. And pink was just cruel, the poor girl would look like a shepherdess who’d lost her nursery rhyme. Blue was the obvious answer, but too obvious.
From the back of the armoire she pulled out a lilac gown with silk, seed pearls, and diamonds fastened around the low collar. Perfect. Even if the girl didn’t net the prince in this affair, which might be a blessing considering the political situation; she’d find some suitor willing to marry her for the dress alone.
The maid backed into the room, carrying the wooden sitting tub and turning red in the face.
“Just set in down there by the fireplace,” Marian instructed. “It’s to warm for a fire, but it does seem the proper place for a bath. Do you have a screen, perchance? The windows are lovely but, well, a maiden and her modesty and all that…”
The maid turned around, nodding again, and stopped to stare at the gown. “Oh! That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen! Are you wearing it tonight?”
“This?” Marian made a show of regarding the gown with great skepticism. “It really isn’t my color. Far to regal, and to pale, for my skin I think. Do you like it?”
She maid wiped her hands on her own brown skirt and gently fingered the hem of the lilac gown. “It’s so lovely…”
“I really do think it’s a tattered old thing. You can have it if you like.” Marian tossed the dress at her. “Go and try it on, if you hurry your mother will have time to fit it to you before the ball.”
Her eyes went wide. “But, your bath…”
Marian shrugged. “I can handle that. Go on, have fun tonight.” The maid left and Marian started humming herself. She bathed, ate a leisurely meal, taking pleasure in watching people bustle through the streets rushing to prepare for the festival, and then she took a nap.
She woke when the bell on the tower tolled ten, she had two hours to midnight. With great care she dressed in a perfect white gown with a belled skirt and a low neckline. Out of her traveling gear she picked a fine gold chain with a white opal pendant that flashed fire in the candlelight. In the window she could see her reflection, the perfect vision of a mysterious princess arriving late for the ball. Down in the alley she could even see the perfect coach, just waiting to whisk her away.
Marian swept down the stairs and out the back door, unnoticed by the snoozing innkeeper. The coachman didn’t say a word as she touched her necklace and tucked her head like a coy innocent. She smiled as they clattered through the cobblestone streets, charms were almost cheating. Well, not charms plural, Marian reminded herself, Charm, singular, and not the kind that witches and sorceresses used. A single simple charm to make everyone love her.
There was a momentary twinge of guilt, what if the nice little maid had charmed the prince? Marian furrowed her brow, wondering how she would work that one out. As the coach rolled to a stop at the palace gates, the tower bells chimed eleven, the page ran up to open her door, and with a sigh Marian gave up worrying about the dilemma. All she could do was hope for the best, and kill anyone who got in her way.
With innate grace she swept up the stairs, walked down the halls, and paused at the grand entrance waiting for the final flourish in the music and the perfect dramatic entrance. She tapped her foot. The music hit its crescendo and the she walked through the door.
The prince’s hand dropped away form the blue-clad beauty’s waist he’d been dancing with. Marian curtsied at a distance, hiding a snigger. A pale blue dress on a blue-eyed blonde with upswept hair, really? How clichéd could a fair godmother get? If she had a copper for every time a well-meaning interloper put a blue dress on a blue-eyed girl she’d have enough for a retirement fund, or at least a vacation somewhere tropical.
She forced a blush as the prince ran up the short staircase to bow low over her hand.
“May I have this dance?”
“I’d be delighted,” she simpered. It took practice to simper, and it paid off. The prince danced her around the room, staring deeply into her eyes like a fool in love. And then danced her into the moonlit gardens.
“Am I really in love? Or is this some magic? A dream?” he whispered as he leaned close.
“Magic,” Marian whispered back. “A charm enchantment.”
“Do you love me?” The prince tenderly brushed a finger along her cheek. “I love you.”
“I know.” She stepped away from him. “But it won’t last past dawn.”
He stepped closer. “If we have only to dawn, let us dance the night away.”
She smothered a laugh in her hand, pretending to cough. “Virgin!” Recovering herself she smiled at the prince. “I have a carriage, let’s run away together.”
He put his hands on her hips and pulled her close. “I’ll do anything you say.”
“Smart kid.” Marian patted his cheek. “Take my hand and lead me the back way to the carriages. And then pick the fastest one.”
“Where are we going?” he asked, showing the first real sign of independent thought, which wasn’t promising. A strong willed person would fight the charm enchantment, the prince wasn’t fighting at all.
Really, she was doing the kingdom a favor by removing him from the line for the throne.
“We’re running away together,” Marian told him as he led her through dark rose gardens and down marble steps to the courtyard full of carriages. “By the way, you have a beautiful castle.”
“We have a beautiful castle,” he told her. “Forever we, you and I together in love.”
“At least until dawn or death do us part.” Marian let him hand her into the carriage. In a high up window she saw a young woman, radiant in lilac and diamonds, flirting with a powerful young duke.
At least someone got a happy ending.