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.