I could feel the excitement rising in my stomach as my maid helped me into my dress that evening. Julian had been right about the ball; my father had brought the subject up at lunch, insisting that I tell no one at the ball my real name. Not that anyone should ask me. That’s the real attraction of a masked ball; the fact that you could be anyone behind your mask. I could be a Queen or a peasant and nobody would be any the wiser.
‘Are you excited my lady?’ My maid asked as she put the finishing touches to my dress.
‘I am Jenny,’ I said, smiling like an idiot. ‘I love parties, and a masked ball is just so thrilling.’
‘I meant about meeting your suitors.’ A little of my joy faded away at the mention of the men, all waiting to meet me, desperate to become my husband. ‘It must be exciting knowing your future husband is in the Great Hall?’
‘Yes,’ I said, the enthusiasm gone from my voice. ‘Very exciting.’
‘There you go my lady. You’re ready.’
I walked over to my mirror to examine myself. I felt so pretty when I saw myself in my dress, the shape giving me an hourglass figure and the deep red fabric falling in foaming waves to the floor. The roses, stitched onto the bodice in black thread stood out dramatically from the rest of the dress, intertwining and forming beautiful patterns across the fabric. My dark hair was hanging loose, apart from the very top layer, which had been pulled back into a bun and out of the way, but the majority of it fell to my waist. My make-up was very simple; no one would see it under my mask.
‘Thank you so much Jenny,’ I gushed as she handed me my mask, which was the same red as my dress with a black lace trimming.
‘I did nothing, honestly my lady. You look beautiful.’ I blushed at the compliment.
‘Thank you. Now where are my gloves,’ I said, trying to take the focus away from me.
‘Here my lady,’ Jenny said, handing them to me. I put them on, pulling them all the way up above my elbows. They would probably end up cutting off the circulation to my lower arms but at least I looked fashionable. Jenny helped me put my mask on, tying the ribbon just below my high bun.
‘I think I’m ready to go,’ I said, taking one last look at myself in the mirror. ‘Wish me luck.’
‘One last thing my lady,’ Jenny said, hurrying over to my dressing table and picking something up. ‘I almost forgot this,’ she said, reaching up to pin a large dark rose into my bun. ‘Now you’re ready.’
I was feeling so nervous as I headed towards the Great Hall. What if none of the suitors found me? What was I meant to do then? My father hadn’t been overly generous with the details, and neither had Julian, so I was worried I would do something wrong.
I entered the Great Hall along with the rest of our guests. I couldn’t make a big entrance or everyone would know it was me, so I slipped in as quietly as I could. The entire court had been invited, as well as any suitors who had arrived to claim my hand. This meant the hall was packed with people; it was very hard to move through the crowd. I eventually found a butler holding a tray of drinks and picked one up, taking a sip as my eyes scanned the room.
Of course everyone was wearing masks so I couldn’t see any familiar faces, although everyone else was chatting away in small groups, clearly able to recognise friends from behind their masks.
‘It’s funny isn’t it,’ a voice next to me commented. ‘Watching them, all pretending to be something they’re not. Hiding behind their masks when all they really want is to be noticed.’
‘I suppose,’ I said, unsure what to say in this sort of situation. Normally people would tiptoe around me, trying to make sure they didn’t say anything to offend me. I wasn’t used to being talked to in such a bold way.
‘What do you mean by that?’
‘You know what, I’m not sure,’ I giggled nervously. ‘I’m not very good at these sorts of situations.’ I shocked myself with my honesty, actually bringing a hand to my mouth to stop myself from speaking. ‘And I shouldn’t have said that either. I’m not off to a very good start.’ The man next to me laughed, a low rumbling laugh that I felt in my chest, making me shudder slightly.
‘Well I think you’re doing wonderfully.’
‘You don’t have to be so kind,’ I said shyly.
‘What if I want to be kind? Would you stop me from being a nice person then?’
‘I suppose not,’ I said, giggling nervously again.
‘Then it’s settled,’ he said, holding out his hand. ‘It will be my job to be kind for the rest of the evening. Do we have a deal?’
‘Deal,’ I said, shaking his hand and for the first time I looked up into his face. He was very tall, almost a head taller than me and his mask was in the shape of a fox, with a pointed nose and ears. His dirty-blonde hair was pulled back into a neat ponytail at the nape of his neck. But there was something in his eyes that grabbed me.
‘I know this is going to sound stupid, but have we met before?’
‘No, I don’t think we have,’ I breathed, suddenly finding that my voice had stopped working.
‘I could have sworn I recognised you. But I would definitely remember someone so beautiful.’ I bowed my head, flushing at the attention this stranger was paying me. ‘Don’t look away,’ he said, putting a hand under my chin and lifting my face towards his. ‘You’re too pretty to hide your face.’