The maidservant, Agnes, yanked on the laces of my bodice, as if they could get any tighter. I was already light headed from lack of oxygen and I’d only been wearing the cursed thing for minutes.
“It’s too tight,” I said breathlessly, attempting to loosen the laces.
Mother slapped my hands away. “It can never be too tight, dear. Just suck in your stomach a little more.” She said.
I glared at her back as she paced around my room, waiting for me to finish getting ready. She paused and narrowed her eyes at me, before continuing to pace.
Agnes finished brushing out my hair and pinned it back, so that it cascaded down my back in long, dark curls. She stepped back to admire her work. She nodded once and then beamed at me. “You look beautiful, miss.”
“Thank you, Agnes,” I replied uncertainly, turning to face the mirror. I did look beautiful, I thought. The gown was a deep crimson color; it was a sleeveless gown with hand-draped tulle and a patterned tulle skirt, with embellished lace and ruffles.
I loved the dress, and wanted to twirl in it, but I would do no such thing in front of my mother. I turned to her, expecting some grand reaction for the lovely dress. “What do you think?”
Mother narrowed her eyes at the dress. “It will do.” she said stiffly, before turning and heading out the door.
My shoulders drooped a little at this, and I loosed a long breath, trying not to seem all that disappointed by her terse reply.
Agnes’s arm slipped around my shoulders in a hug. “Every woman will want to be you and every man will have their eyes on you tonight.” She whispered reassuringly.
I gave her a small smile, before slipping my feet into the red satin slippers, grabbing my book, and walking out to the carriage. Our coachman, Walter, held out his hand for me and helped me into the carriage.
Alice was already waiting inside the carriage, her back rigid, her hands folded in front of her. She wore a beautiful gold gown that accentuated her breasts, I’m sure Mother intended for that. She did not even glance at me as I slid onto the bench across from her.
Mother sat next to her on the carriage bench, her eyes narrowed at me in scrutiny.
I sat next to the window, opposite my mother and sister, and opened my book.
“You’re going to read on the way to the palace?” My sister wrinkled her nose in disgust.
“Yes,” I said, looking down at the book in my hands.
“Put it away, Erika.” Mother said to me. “A woman like you should not be reading. You should be looking for a husband. You can’t do that with your nose in a book.”
Reluctantly, I shut the book, and did not argue.
We arrived at the palace, along with the steady flow of carriages. Walter helped my mother, my sister, and me out of the carriage and then drove off. A footman at the palace door announced our arrival and we walked into the grand palace, and walked down the long hallway to the ballroom.
The music, played by musicians in the corner of the room, was loud as we entered. The room was large, and decorated extravagantly. Couples danced in the center of the room, stewards carried trays of different food and drink for the people. On one side there was a raised dais, where King Henry and his wife, Queen Alexia, sat on their thrones, watching the festivities.
“Where is Father?” I asked.
“He had a meeting with some dignitaries. He’ll be along soon.” Mother replied before walking off, Alice following behind.
Left alone, I went and found a chair in the corner of the room, where I sat and began reading my book. I lost track of time as I got engrossed in the plot, the characters, the book itself. Over the years, I’d found books to be very reliable. In my chaotic, ever-changing life, books were the only constant, and I was grateful for that.
I loved that I could often relate to the protagonist, that I could get absorbed in the plot. I could go anywhere, do anything, and I never had to leave my bedroom.
“You’re reading at the king’s ball?” I heard from my left.
I started, slamming my book shut, and looked up to see who had interrupted me. I found a man that looked to be close to my age, maybe a year older, with dark hair and vivid blue eyes watching me. He was wearing a black doublet with gold edging and black trousers. I thought he was rather attractive, and immediately felt my cheeks heat up.
I opened my mouth and then closed it, not quite sure what to say. “Yes,” I finally managed. “I find these sort of events rather . . . dull.”
He raised an eyebrow at me. “Dull? Well, I suppose it’s a matter of opinion. I think you just need to be shown that it can be enjoyable.” He smiled, flashing perfect, white teeth. “What is your name?”
“Erika Lovet of Locksley.” I said slowly.
“Well, Miss Lovet, would you be so kind as to honor me with a dance?” He asked, holding out his hand.
I felt my cheeks burning scarlet and I looked down at my hands nervously. “I’m not a very good dancer.” I said softly.
“I’m sure you’re an excellent dancer.” He replied.
I took his hand hesitantly and set my book down. He led me to the center of the room, where others were dancing to the music.
“I apologize, in advance, for whatever injuries I may cause you during the dance, or for just not being a good dancer.” I said.
He rolled his eyes, smiling. “I bet you’re better than you’re letting on, Miss Lovet.”
He bowed and I curtsied to him and then he wrapped an arm around my waist, taking my hand with his free one, and led me around the room as we danced.
I could feel eyes on my back as I danced with this man, whom I still didn’t know the name of. He was a very good dancer, confident, where as I stumbled occasionally or made a wrong step and ended up apologizing (this happened several times). I was grateful when he didn’t point out my flaws or laugh at me for not being as awful at dancing as I had warned him I would be. Every time I made a slight misstep or a clumsy mistake, I thought of Alice, knowing she would never make such mistakes while dancing.
When the song finally came to an end, he escorted me off to the side of the room and bowed again, and I curtsied.
“Oh my, why was he dancing with her? She has two left feet!” A woman off to the side said, not even bothering to keep her voice down. The girls next to her tittered at the comment.
I looked down at my feet, feeling completely embarrassed. They weren’t wrong.
“Ignore them. I’m sure you’ve noticed that women at court are rather . . .” He paused as if searching for the right word, “petty.”
“I’m sorry, again, for being so clumsy.” I said, my cheeks burning.
He laughed softly. “You were not as bad as you claimed to be. I was a little worried when you apologized for ‘injuries’ I may receive during the dance. You did not cause me any, so you are a better dancer than you give yourself credit for.”
I smiled timidly. “My sister is a much better dancer than I am. She wouldn’t have stepped on your foot once.”
“Oh? Well that’s quite boring.” He remarked amiably.
I laughed. “I’m sorry, what is your name?”
He looked surprised by my question, but I couldn’t imagine why. “William.” He said after a moment.
“Surely you have a title, William?” I inquired.
“I do. But I am not going to tell you what it is.” His sapphire eyes gleamed mysteriously in the lamplight.
“Why not?” I asked, crossing my arms.
He leaned in really closely, right next to my ear, and whispered conspiratorially, “Because it’s a secret.”
I laughed at this and I opened my mouth to respond, but was cut off abruptly by my mother.
“Erika!” Mother snapped, and I turned to find her walking toward me, looking angry, for some unknown reason.
She stopped before us and turned to William. She curtsied to him. “Your Highness,” she said, bowing her head respectfully, before straightening and turning back to me.
“What are you doing?” She asked harshly.
“I was just talking with William, and--” She didn’t let me finish.
Her face looked as red as my gown. “William! You do not get to address him so casually! What were you thinking?” She turned to William and curtsied again. “I’m terribly sorry for my daughter’s ignorance. She means nothing by it.”
“No, no, it’s quite alright.” He said slowly, turning to me.
“Are you sure, Your Highness?” My mother began haltingly. “If she’s bothering you--”
“She isn’t.” He said patiently. “But I do thank you for your concern. If you’ll excuse us . . .” He waited for my mother to take the hint.
Her nostrils flared as she glared at me and then she turned on her heel and marched away.
I looked up at William, speechless. “So . . . you’re . . .”
“Yes, I’m Prince William.” He said, ducking his head and looking uncomfortable.
And suddenly, I was horrified. I told him his father’s party was dull, he caught me reading and knew I didn’t want to be here, I stepped on his foot and practically tripped him while dancing . . . I shuddered at all the things I’d done wrong, and we hadn’t even been here an hour.
I felt like crying. “I am so terribly sorry. I didn’t realize you were him. I’ve been so disrespectful and rude.”
He laughed and shook his head, looking embarrassed. “I really didn’t mind. I didn’t tell you because you would have acted differently. I think you’re charming.” He smiled.
I laughed nervously, unsure of what to say.
“I must say, I was a little surprised when you didn’t know who I was. Most people would have recognized me.”
“My mother often tells me I’m unobservant. I’m beginning to understand why.”
He laughed. “Can I see you again, Erika?” He asked, his beautiful smile making my heart melt a little.
I hesitated. I knew my sister had plans for marrying him. Father and King Henry were very close. I didn’t want to ruin those plans. But I couldn’t just say no to the Crown Prince of Belhaven.
“Of course.” I said, my heart pounding so loud I was surprised he couldn’t hear it.
“How about tomorrow?”
“Alright. I will meet you tomorrow, when the third monastery bell has rung.”
“Meet me outside the palace gates.”
I nodded and curtsied. “Goodnight, Your Highness.”
“Goodnight, Erika of Locksley.” He said, bowing, before he turned and disappeared into the throng of people.
I leaned against the wall, watching couples dance, and couldn’t help the smile that spread across my face, or the queasiness I felt in the pit of my stomach. Though I was in a much better mood the rest of the night.