That night, the ballroom was filled to the brim with guests, and not only humans were in attendance. There was a distinct scent of magic in the air, like the smell of a sweet dust. However, it was obvious to Lila that the separation between humans and magical creatures was strict. Many of the women whispered behind their fans while the men stared openly at the creatures, seemingly surprised that they did, indeed, live in the same world. However, Lila couldn't blame them completely. It was somewhat odd to see unicorns and ogres walking among humans, and in the castle ballroom, no less. Every guest was greeted and announced at the opening of the ballroom. They were then escorted to the thrones of the king and queen where they were expected to show their respect. Each guest, human and magical, bowed or curtsied, and then proceeded to the floor for dancing, idle gossip, or food.
"Are there many people?" Giselle asked tentatively. Karmella peered around the edge of the wall, her head resting on top of Lila's.
"Yes, along with plenty of gnomes, fairies, and elves. No sight of the mermaids, though," she replied with a smile. Giselle let out a breath.
"Oh, do be kind! I'm nervous enough as it is," she said shakily. Lila and Karmella turned to see Giselle wringing her hands and doing some sort of anxious dance. It took all they had for Lila and Karmella to keep their composure.
"You will be wonderful, Highness," Lila said in a voice she hoped was soothing. Giselle turned around while chewing on her bottom lip. She was wearing the fitted blue gown with the ivory sash that was swept into a large bow in the back. Her hair and makeup were glorious, and light reflected off of the large drops at her ears. Lila had always known Giselle to be beautiful, but tonight she looked stunning. Dimitrius wouldn't be able to keep his eyes off of her, and despite everything, Lila wasn't sure how she felt about that. Suddenly, trumpets started to play, signaling Giselle and Dimitrius's entrance.
"Oh, it's time, it's time," Giselle whispered very quickly. Lila took a small breath, and clasped her hand. Giselle looked up, small tears forming in the corners of her eyes.
"You two do mean the world to me. Really, you do," she said to Lila and Karmella. She flashed a smile and started towards the stairs where she would meet Dimitrius, before quickly running back towards the two servants. She reached into the small purse hanging from her wrist and pulled out two long, fabric ties.
"I almost forgot to give you these. They came with your dresses. Wrap them around your hair buns, and do wish me luck!" Giselle said quickly while shoving the hair ties into Lila's hand. She smiled once more, and rushed away to make her entrance. Lila wrapped the silver hair tie around her bun, while Karmella did the same with the black tie. They listened for the trumpets to stop and the regular music to pick up, waiting for the entrance to end. Lila could only imagine what was happening.
Dimitrius would be waiting for Giselle at the top of the grand staircase at the opening of the ballroom. She would meet him there, her face flushed and bright. He would bow to her, and she would curtsey for him. They would take each other by the hand, and lean in ever so close, close enough for their lips to meet. Lila felt the blood drain from her face, and her stomach felt uneasy. Despite all that she had learned, despite all that she knew about Dimitrius and how he had toyed with her emotions, Lila knew that she loved him. She knew that he had impacted her, whether or not he had intended to. Her eyes welled up with tears.
“Lila, are you alright?” Karmella asked, her concern evident. She gently placed her hand on Lila’s shoulder. It only took one look for Karmella to realize what was so upsetting.
“It will be okay, Lila, I promise. You can get through this,” Karmella whispered. Lila let the tears flow freely.
“How could I have been so stupid? I never expected this. I don’t know why it has to be him!” she cried. Karmella wrapped her arms around the brunette, a small attempt to soothe her. Lila let herself crumple into Karmella’s arms.
“I’ve been so stupid. I don’t know why he affects me the way that he does. After everything, after our interactions and him helping me to find my parents’ graves…I don’t know, I just…I thought he might actually love me. Oh, Karmella, I’m so, so stupid!” Lila whimpered.
“Hush, now,” Karmella said while running her fingers through Lila’s wavy hair, “You’re not stupid. You’re human. I’m so sorry that the prince has made you feel this way.”
The two young women stood there in a simple embrace, one comforting the other to the best of her ability. After a few moments, Lila’s tears subsided. Karmella cupped her face in her hands.
“You will get through this, Lila Brede. You’re my best friend, and I won’t leave you in the dust,” she said calmly. Lila sniffed, but gave a small smile in return.
“Thank you, Karmella,” Lila said. The two embraced once more before turning to look around the wall.
The band had started to play a lush, savory song. The guests had paired up and were dancing a popular waltz. Lila noticed the king and queen sitting in their thrones on the raised dais at the back of the ballroom. They seemed happy as ever, probably relieved that Giselle had finally found a prince to marry. Lila followed their gaze to the center of the ballroom. Giselle and Dimitrius were sweeping gracefully across the floor. The princess had a genuine smile splayed across her face. However, Lila noted that Dimitrius’ smile was visibly forced. Whenever he spun Giselle, he turned his head from side to side, as if searching for something. Or someone. Lila felt her heart flutter, but immediately pushed that feeling out of her system. Seemingly sensing her distress, Karmella squeezed Lila’s hand gently. The two smiled weakly at each other before heading down the grand staircase. They had been neglecting their servant duties for too long.
The rest of the evening seemed to pass rather quickly for Lila. She and Karmella attended to their work, which mostly included kitchen duty; restocking the banquet tables, baking, cooking, and cleaning. Lila was thankful for the distraction. It allowed her no time to think of the prince or how badly he had hurt her.
The few moments that she had seen Dimitrius, Lila had been replacing empty plates at the banquet tables with plates of sumptuous food. After sneaking a grape or two from one of the fruit platters, Lila had looked up to see the princes twirling a very giddy Giselle. He paused for only a moment to watch Lila, his face lighting up like torch. His smiled widened and glowed and his eyes sparkled, but Lila knew that it was farce. She continued her work while Giselle quickly pulled Dimitrius into another dance. Neither woman noticed the prince’s face fall at the action.
It was somewhere around one thirty in the morning when the last of the guests began to leave. Lila had been given orders to take some of the decorative tapestries back to their proper storage rooms. The tapestries were massive in size and weight, and could only be carried one at a time. However, Lila was convinced that she could take two at a time and cut the work time in half.
She managed the first two without much trouble, but she was having difficulties with the next two. Lila piled them into her arms, not caring that much of the fabric was dragging along the castle floor.
“Do you need a hand with those, Lila?” a voice said. Lila jumped at the surprise, dropping the tapestries in the process. She looked up with annoyance at the source of the voice.
“Oh, nicely done, sire,” Lila snapped at Dimitrius, emphasizing his title. She bent down and began gathering the tapestries up in her arms once more.
“Here, let me help you,” Dimitrius said. Lila shrugged off his open arms.
“That’s fine, highness. You’ve done enough already,” she sneered. Dimitrius tried again to take one of the tapestries, but Lila wretched them away, bent on completing her work on her own. Not letting up, the prince pulled one of the tapestries from the top, causing Lila to drop the other. The two ended up in a no holds barred tug-of-war on a decades-old tapestry.
“Let go!” Lila huffed. Dimitrius pursed his lips.
“No, Lila, I just want to help you!” he replied angrily. Lila let out a harsh laugh to hide her tears.
“Oh yes, I’m sure that’s just what you want to do,” she muttered. Finally, Dimitrius let go of the tapestry with one hand and reached for Lila. She stumbled slightly, but regained her footing.
“No! Don’t touch me! Don’t come anywhere near me!” Lila screamed, dropping the tapestry to the floor. Dimitrius paused, clearly confused.
“Lila, what on earth-“
“Don’t start with me, Dimitrius,” she began, “I know what you’re doing! You might be able to hide it from everyone else, but not from me!”
Dimitrius opened his mouth, but then closed it. He seemed genuinely confused.
“Lila, what are you on about?” he asked tentatively. Had she lost her mind?
“Oh, please, don’t start. You must think me incredibly daft! And you know what? You’re right! I was daft enough to trust you! But not anymore. I know your game, Dimitrius. You’re a prince, you’re Princess Giselle’s betrothed. How could I have been so stupid?” Lila laughed. She kicked at the tapestries on the floor, doubled over in harsh laughter. Eventually, laughter turned into heaving, and heaving turned into tears, which led to sobs. Lila fell to the floor, not caring that she must appear insane, not caring that she was probably destroying the valuable tapestries. She knelt on her knees, her face in her hands, and she let herself become overcome with grief, her body wracking with sobs. After a few second, Dimitrius approached Lila and knelt beside her, but he did not touch her.
“Lila…I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to say,” he whispered. Lila continued to sob, tears flowing down her face. Dimitrius sighed.
“I can’t imagine the pain that I’ve caused you. I’ve made some poor choices, to say the least. I’ve made you feel pain, and I’ll never forgive myself for that. I’ve been true with some, while leading others on. I’ve been a right prick, and Lila, I’m so, so sorry. I know that nothing I can say will make this okay…but I don’t know what else to do,” the prince said with so much sincerity Lila felt her heart break further. Dimitrius carefully lifted his hand and placed is gently on Lila’s shoulder. She stiffened at his touch, but soon relaxed. They stayed there for a few moments before Lila lifted her head up and wiped away any remaining tears. She knew she must look frightful, but even so, she turned to the prince, who looked worse for wear, as well.
“Why did you do this, Dimitrius? Why did you play with my heart like this?” Lila asked quietly. Dimitrius scrunched his eyebrows together.
“Lila, I didn’t play with your heart-“
“Dimitrius, come off it already,” Lila interjected, “You just admitted to being a prick and leading people on. Stop denying it.”
“If you would let me speak for a second, then maybe you’d understand better!” Dimitrius said, raising his voice in frustration. He ran a hand through his hair, and for a moment, Lila could see that he was as troubled as she was.
“I came here with the intent to meet Giselle. My father had practically threatened to denounce me if I didn’t ensure a marriage between the two of us. So, I traveled from Enderth to Nouvelle, knowing that if I did not send word of marriage plans within the week, I would be facing more trouble than I’d ever been in,” Dimitrius said. Lila watched with cautious curiosity. Where was he going with this? Dimitrius continued.
“All my life, I’ve been held to a certain standard, Lila. I can’t put one foot out of line without the entire court erupting in gossip. Gossip leads to uncertainty, uncertainty leads to rebellion, and my father couldn’t have that, now could he? I know your life as a servant is not ideal, but being a royal isn’t always as glamorous as it may seem. Having your every move monitored and questioned…it’s a tiring game, Lila, and all I am is a pawn,” he continued. There was a moment of silence before Lila motioned for Dimitrius to go on.
“When I arrived here, I was expecting everything. I knew the game, I knew the motions. But then…then I met you, Lila. The moment I heard you talking about me outside of Giselle’s bedroom, I knew the game had changed. I knew that you were different; bold and unafraid. That’s what drew me to you. I had no intentions of following you the way that I did, but when you were sent to the dungeons that one night…I couldn’t make myself stay away. I knew what had happened at the table wasn’t your fault, and I knew that it was my words that had sent you to the depths. I think I knew that first night in the dungeons, Lila. And ever since that night, I’ve been trying to keep up appearances while trying my hardest to get to know you better. I shouldn’t have done it. I know that now. I’ve put you in too many difficult situations,” Dimitrius finished. Lila felt her cheeks burn. She knew what he was saying. She understood. But, for some reason, she needed to hear it out loud.
“What are you saying?” she heard herself ask. Dimitrius looked down at Lila, his eyes meeting hers.
“I’m saying that I’ve fallen in love with you, Lila Brede. Despite the fact that you’re the most frustrating woman I’ve ever known, I love you,” he said with a laugh. Lila felt her heart beat rapidly; she didn’t know what to do. He had never strung her along; he had never toyed with her emotions like she had thought. He loved her. The crowned Prince Dimitrius Cane of Enderth loved her. Lila felt warmth come over her, something she had never experienced before.
“Please say something,” Dimitrius whispered. Lila looked up at him with a smile, and, stubborn as always, she didn’t say a word. She kissed him instead.
Lila felt the prince smile against her mouth before he scooped her into his arms. She wrapped her arms around Dimitrius’ neck as he pulled at her bun, her hair falling to her shoulders. Dimitrius stood pulling Lila up with him before backing her against the wall. She deepened the kiss, their lips fighting for sweet dominance. The prince framed her face in his hands and kissed her deeply. A million stars crossed Lila’s eyes, her stomach doing flips. She couldn’t believe that this was happening. Dimitrius trailed kisses down her jaw to her neck. Lila let her eyes flutter closed before reality hit her.
“Wait,” she said, stopping Dimitrius in his tracks. He looked down at her questioningly.
“You’re a prince,” Lila said lamely. Dimitrius smirked.
“Yes, I think we’ve established that by now,” he replied. Lila rolled her eyes, trying her hardest to stay focused.
“This won’t work, Dimitrius. You’re betrothed to Giselle, and I can’t do this to her. Not to mention we’ll both be beheaded if we’re caught,” Lila said carefully. Dimitrius didn’t hesitate.
“Then run away with me. We’ll leave them all behind. Just you and me,” he said staring into Lila’s eyes unblinkingly. Her eyes widened in surprise. Could she do it? Could she really leave everything behind? It’s all she’s known…and yet, there’s so much more to know. But then a thought occurred to her.
“I can’t leave Karmella here. She’s the best friend I’ve ever had,” Lila protested. Dimitrius nodded immediately.
“Then she’ll come with us. The three of us will leave, and we’ll all be free from our respective chains and bindings. Think of it; no one telling us how to live, what to do, who to love. We’ll go to a new kingdom, somewhere completely new, where nobody knows us,” Dimitrius said. Lila nodded her head in agreement.
“We’d have to go soon,” she countered.
“It’s nearly two in the morning now,” Dimitrius said, speaking out loud, “Meet me in orchards at three-thirty. I’ll have the horses ready, and that gives you time prepare.”
Lila hesitated. Could they really pull this off? Would Karmella go with them? She’d want to, wouldn’t she? Lila knew that Karmella would disapprove at first, but she was sure that eventually, she would see reason. Dimitrius wouldn’t leave without them, Lila knew. It would work. It had to. So, Lila nodded her head at Dimitrius, who smiled brilliantly. They kissed once more before going in opposite directions.
“Remember,” Dimitrius whispered, “The orchards, three-thirty. I‘ll be waiting. I love you.”
Lila smiled back at the prince. She watched as he disappeared down the corridor and around a corner. Filled with adrenaline, Lila scooped up the two tapestries and hurried toward a storage room. She had to be fast; tonight would be her last night in Nouvelle.
Fendrel Forthwind rushed through the castle corridors. He panted as he ran, not wanting to miss his opportunity. The servant overseer ran out of the kitchens and took a hard left, only to be faced with a weakly hinged wooden door. He did not bother to knock before entering. Inside, he found his friend and protector; Ulric Wintwater sprawled out in a chair, snoring loudly.
“Ulric!” Fendrel whispered urgently as he shook him awake. Ulric pushed grabbed at Fendrel’s tunic, ready to punch him.
“What on earth do you want? I’m trying to sleep!” he roared. Fendrel winced slightly, but held his ground.
“The prince is having an affair with a servant!” he whispered loudly. Ulric stopped his fist midair. His eyes twinkled with unholy delight. Ulric lowered his fist and let go of Fendrel’s tunic.
“One of our little muskrats?” he asked. Fendrel nodded.
“Well which one? Lila or Karmella?” Ulric urged gruffly. Fendrel faltered.
“I’m not sure,” he whispered. Ulric growled.
“How can you not be sure? Either you know which one or you don’t!” he said gruffly. Fendrel put his hands up in defense.
“I heard the prince talking to someone from another corridor. He told her to meet him in the orchards at three-thirty. Then he told her he loved her,” Fendrel said sourly. Ulric looked as if he had been given the best gift in the world.
“Can you imagine the praise we’ll get for this discovery?” Ulric said hungrily, “The fame, the promotion…the gold, even.”
Fendrel looked on intently. He knew that this tidbit of information would get them everything and more. Now it was only a matter of what to do.
“How should we handle this?” Fendrel asked. Ulric smiled grimly as he slid his knife out of the holster around his waist. He looked at it intently as he twirled it skillfully.
“I’m sure we’ll come up with something. Something that will be worthy of a reward,” Ulric replied. Fendrel grinned.
“Now,” Ulric said, looking from his knife to Fendrel, his eyes hard and black, “Which of one of our little muskrats has run out of time?”
Fendrel’s nasty grin broadened as he held up the evidence that he had found at the scene: a silver hair tie.