The luxury of a carriage ride made it seem a much shorter ride than it was. All too soon Danielle and Gustave were pulling up to the palace. Gustave jumped down from the driving seat to help Danielle out of the carriage. He spoke quickly and quietly to her as he did, not letting go of her hand even after she was safely on the ground.
"Remember, Elly, you mustn't let the Baroness or Marguerite too close. If anyone asks about your invitation, you're a guest of Jacqueline's. I doubt it will come to that, though."
"Just be careful."
She nodded again. "I know, Pighead. You're forgetting it is me who takes all the blame if this does not work."
He nodded. "Yes, I suppose. Just - well, just have fun." He squeezed her hand and let it go rather reluctantly.
She smiled, took a deep breath, and walked quickly into the castle, doing her best to keep her head up and not look at the ground. She heard the carriage pull away behind her.
The court was full of gentlemen and ladies, milling about in clothing of all colors and fashions. A gleaming ship was rolling about on a fabric sea, certainly due to some machine. A dancing floor stood in the middle of the court, and couples turned about merrily to the music. Wide, swooping arches of the castle led to table upon table of food. Danielle wondered at how many servants the palace must have had to prepare such a generous bounty.
Her amazement at the glory around her was cut off when Jacqueline saw her and rushed to her side. "Oh, Danielle, you made it! I was so afraid something would go terribly wrong."
Danielle smiled. "I am here and well, as you see. Can you believe this place? I thought you said a ball would be dreadfully dull! How can so much color - so much life - so much food in one place be dull?"
Jacqueline smiled. "There is the food. And really, you are right. Still, I could not bear being here as a horse with only Marguerite and Mother."
Danielle surveyed Jacqueline's outfit. It really was drab compared to Marguerite's deep blue costume or her own elegant gown, but it still went well with Jacqueline's form, and she said so.
"You're just being nice. Your gown - why, it is truly a wonder! I wonder where Gustave found it?"
Danielle shrugged and smiled. If Gustave had not told Jacqueline about the dress's story, it was not her place to do so.
"Come now, we must meet the prince. Every young lady is expected to greet him."
"The prince?" Danielle panicked. Neither Gustave nor Jacqueline had mentioned this part. "But what if he recognizes me?"
"Between the masque and the paint, I barely recognize you. The whole purpose was to ensure that Mother and Marguerite cannot recognize you. If those in your own house do not know you, then surely you cannot expect an important man who met you one day to know you."
Danielle nodded. Jacqueline was right. Still, the thought of greeting the prince made her nervous.
They began to make their way to the front of the courtyard, where the prince stood a few feet in front of his parents' thrones. Several young ladies, as well as distinguished gentlemen, flocked around him as he made conversation and watched the dancers. Finally the two of them made their way close enough for him to notice them.
"Hello," he began.
"Your Highness," Jacqueline curtsied. Danielle attempted to do the same, wondering why Gustave had not thought to have her practice this. Why had neither of them warned her? Most likely it hadn't crossed their minds at all.
Danielle rose and cleared her throat nervously, then regretted it. Ladies probably did not clear their throats in public. "This is Lady Jacqueline de Ghent."
Jacqueline turned to Danielle, and Danielle saw a moment of panic fleet across her friend's face. They hadn't thought of how to introduce Danielle, either. This was a disaster!
Danielle decided it was better to abandon custom than to be exposed. "And I am Lady Nicole de Lancret."
They both curtsied again, and the prince bowed. Danielle allowed herself to relax. They rose, and the prince smoothed over her social blunder easily.
"Are you ladies enjoying youselves?"
"Indeed, Your Highness. The food is exquisite," Jacqueline replied seamlessly.
"And you?" The prince looked directly at Danielle. She forced down the nervous feeling, reminding herself that she could not possibly be recognizable.
"Yes, Your Majesty. It is all quite wonderful." From the look on Jacqueline's face, this comment must have come across as odd. But the prince seemed used to ignoring others' mistakes, and did so now.
After a brief pause in conversation, Jacqueline seemed about to speak, but the prince turned to Danielle. "Have we met before? You seem a bit familiar."
This was terrible. He did recognize her. She steadied herself and prayed her voice remained calm. "No, I do not believe so, Your Highness."
Jacqueline added, "You meet so many people from around the world, Your Highness. Perhaps she merely resembles another courtier you met before."
He nodded, but continued to look at Danielle in a way that made her slightly uncomfortable. She needed to get away from him before he made the connection. She glanced at Jacqueline, who understood perfectly. "It was a pleasure to meet you, Your Highness."
He bowed as they curtsied. "The pleasure was all mine." Danielle rose and followed Jacqueline back to the food tables.
After the encounter with the prince, Danielle avoided conversation in general while Jacqueline accepted a few invitations to dance. They both enjoyed the offerings of food a bit more than was proper. Danielle had finally relaxed and convinced herself that they had been successful in disguising her when the prince appeared by her side and took her hand.
"Lady Nicole, may I have this dance?"
She knew it was a question; she could refuse. She knew the more time she spent in his presence, the more likely he was to expose her. However, when the prince asks a lady to dance, Danielle did not think it quite proper for her to decline. So she answered honestly, "I would love to, but I fear I am not inclined to dance often. I would not be a very graceful partner."
Instead of letting her go, he continued to hold her hand. "Perhaps we might take a turn about the garden, then? It is my mother's pride and joy."
Danielle glanced back at Jacqueline, who nodded. There did not seem to be any way out. So she accepted and the prince led her arm in arm to the royal gardens.
They walked for quite a while, for the most part in silence. The prince attempted conversation at first, but Danielle was too nervous about spending so much time around him to carry her side of the conversation. She could not pretend to be knowledgable about common topics at court, and managed to end each attempt. The garden led to the castle, and the prince continued walking steadily through the halls that Danielle was sure were not intended for masquerade guests.
He led her up a narrow marble staircase which led out onto a castle wall. On the one side they could see the entire courtyard; on the other lay a beautiful view of the silent countryside. They stood for a moment, admiring the beauty of it all.
The prince eventually broke the silence. "You are not like the other courtiers, Lady Nicole. You do not seem much inclined towards conversation, for one."
She stumbled to answer. "I merely prefer to keep the true extent of my folly a secret, and let others believe I am more clever than I am."
He chuckled. "I doubt you are truly as foolish as you say."
She fingered the lace on her skirt. "You might be suprised."
He stared at her, not answering for a long while. "You are quite sure we've never met?"
She felt her entire being flush with heat. This time it was not an innocent question; she could see in his eyes that he knew her secret. She could not let him expose her; it was too dangerous. But to deny what the prince knew for a truth would be even more dangerous. She would have to consider her words carefully. For a long time she said nothing at all, so the prince spoke again.
"I shan't tell."
She looked up at him, and once again read his eyes easily. She could trust him. Turning back to look at the festivities below, she sighed. "I did not... intend... to deceive you, Your Highness."
He leaned against the castle wall beside her. "Why did you come? You are afraid of exposure; I can feel your worry."
She smiled, just barely. "Jacqueline - Lady Jacqueline de Ghent - she asked me to come. If the Baroness finds out, I know not what she would do to me." She added, "And there was the possibility of arrest."
The prince chuckled. "Yes, there is that."
She continued, speaking more quickly and nervously. "It was Gustave's idea, really. Jacqueline was saying how dull the ball would be with only Marguerite and the Baroness -" She caught herself. How could she paint Jacqueline as ungrateful or complaining? It was opposite of the girl's character. "Not to say she does not enjoy herself - it's a wonderful ball, really - just-"
He cut in. "You don't have to do that. Say what you mean. I shan't be offended."
She smiled for real this time. He was so human, so ordinary. "She's not fond of her blood relatives. Nobody is, but she's... well, stuck with them. So she was saying how much better it'd be if I could come, as well, and then Gustave said I should go. Next thing I know I'm wearing a dress from Gustave's great-grandmother and I'm trying to guess how to properly speak to a prince."
They both laughed at that, and the prince asked, "Who are these Jacqueline and Gustave?"
"Oh, Gustave's the servant boy. I've grown up with him. Jacqueline is the Baroness's youngest daughter. Her mother is really a dragon and her sister's vain and shallow. She can be venomous when you upset her. But Jacqueline's wonderful. She wouldn't hurt a fly, and she always wishes to help. The Baroness favors Marguerite, so Jacqueline stays with Gustave and I when her mother's not paying attention."
The prince nodded. "She seems like a nice girl. This Baroness - she sounds..." He shrugged, not sure what words to use.
Danielle nodded and laughed at the prince's expression. "She's not so bad. Most of the time she is, I guess, but she really loved my father... I think. He was fond enough of her to marry her, so I suppose she wasn't always all bad."
They stood in silence for a few moments, watching the guests mingling below. Some were starting to send their servants to fetch the carriages. Danielle watched as one carriage after another pulled up to take its weary owners home. It would be well past midnight now.
Then the wonder of the night crashed around her shoulders as she recognized one of the carriages.
"Oh! Your Majesty - Your Highness - I must - goodbye!"
"But - Nicole!"
Ignoring his words, she hoisted her skirts and ran back through the door they had entered from. The Baroness just could not arrive home before Danielle did - her life would be ruined, as if it weren't so already. Danielle could hear the prince calling after her, and she realized that she was being about as unladylike as possible at the moment.
But she had no time for propriety, and when she stumbled on the unfamiliar marble floors, she left the shoe that fell from her foot and continued stumbling out into the courtyard.
Jacqueline left in the carriage with the Baroness and Marguerite, naturally. Danielle finally managed to locate Gustave, who was frantically searching for her. They hurried off in their own carriage; Gustave drove at dangerous speeds, but they miraculously made it back safely before the Baroness's carriage ever came into sight.
Danielle hurried to hide her gown, masque, and remaining shoe in Jacqueline's wardrobe. It pained her to think of having lost a shoe that meant so much to Gustave, but she had to time to worry on that at the moment. She quickly slipped on her nightshift and slid into the attic just as Marguerite burst through the front doors of the manor.
To Be Continued...