It was a mistake to think that she might make it to her first ball in Maldonia without Charlotte La Bouff in tow.
“Tiana!” Lottie cries, cheeks breathless and pink. “You simply cannot go back to Maldonia without me. Last time I went anywhere was at Christmas and that was New York City and that simply does not count compared to Maldonia.” She pouts. “Does it, Big Daddy?”
“It certainly does not,” Big Daddy responds over his newspaper, mouth full of beignet.
Tiana gives Lottie a deliberate shrug. “Well, I have to check with Naveen first—”
“That’s the best part!” Lottie exclaims even louder. “I already asked him for you! And he thought it was a great idea! What would be a better gift than a trip halfway across the world with your very best friend?!” She grins broadly. “He was very pleased with himself.”
“I’m sure he was,” Tiana murmurs, conjuring an image of her oft-befuddled husband becoming distracted by Lottie’s enthusiasm and grand gesticulations. “Well then, I guess it’s settled. We’re all going to Maldonia. Together.”
When Tiana doesn’t greet him with the usual kiss, Naveen looks at his feet sheepishly. “I have not done well, have I?” he mumbles. “She was so excited, Tiana! And is she not your best friend? Should she not be there when I present you to the Maldonian court?”
Tiana flops backward onto their bed, hand on forehead. (That is about as much melodrama as she allows herself.) “Yes, but, it’s just—” She sighs. “She is my best friend. And I love her, I do. But this is the first time your entire country is going to meet me. I’m already a foreigner and, worse, a commoner. How much more horrible will I look next to the blond and bubbly and perfect Charlotte La Bouff?”
Naveen leans back in bed and gently brushes the hair from her face. “You will look like a princess!” he assures her. “A beautiful, intelligent, magnificent princess!”
She doesn’t tell him that his words are completely empty and wishful. After all, even if she’s not a princess, she’s a hard enough worker that she will become a princess.
“It’s better than looking like a frog,” she concedes.
She doesn’t tell herself that for the first time in her life, she’s encountered a problem that even hard work might not be able to fix.
One day in Maldonia and she’s already almost caused an international incident.
When she arrived, Naveen’s parents and younger brother were still oddly warm toward her—too effusive for them to actually approve, she thought—but the moment Lottie came out, they threw themselves on her like Tabasco to jambalaya. Lottie, in return, squealed and hugged them (whereas Tiana had awkwardly bowed).
That night, amidst the nobles of Maldonia, she sat quietly eating her dinner while Lottie regaled them all with stories of America.
“Oh, honey, you haven’t lived until you’ve been to Mardi Gras!” Lottie said to Lord Whatsit. “Why, I was the Mardi Gras Princess, I’ll have you know!”
Lord Whatsit smiled a little too intimately at Lottie in return. “I have no doubt you would make the loveliest princess.”
Naveen shook his head. “Not more lovely than my Tiana,” he insisted, taking her hand.
Tiana was suddenly aware that the entire court was just looking at her, expecting her to say something. She swallowed her food quickly. This is your chance, she thought, Shine!
“Well, Naveen, thank you. But as they say in Maldonia, Faldous faldon vendici!” She gave them all a giant smile and in return, they gave her a look of shock.
Lottie leaned in to her. “You just told them to…well, just smile, honey.” Even Lottie's Maldonian was better than hers.
Amid the horrified glares, Tiana didn’t think it could get much worse.
Three days later and Tiana has miraculously found a way to make everything that much worse. She forgot Naveen’s great uncle’s name and could not for the life of her play the Maldonian pastime of what roughly translated to “ball and sticks” (a much harder, more competitive version of field hockey, she assessed) and continues to butcher Maldonian in a way that even made the servants snigger.
Lottie is no help. She just talks and laughs and enchants everyone, making the striking comparison between the two girls even larger. Naveen, on the other hand, seems to have no idea how badly everything is going and instead continues to show her off (when in reality he is just showing how bad of a princess she is).
Tiana has spent time underwater as a frog, but never before has she felt closer to drowning.
Finally it is the night of the ball. Tiana has been dressed and pressed for the past three hours—at least getting ready early is something she has control over—and is using flashcards to review all the attendants, as she has done for the past week.
Naveen kisses the nape of her neck. “Darling, I want you to have fun!” he says, reaching for the flashcards.
She takes the flashcards into her lap so he can’t reach them. “There’ll be time for fun later, Naveen. If your countrymen are even going to tolerate me, I need to study.”
“They love you already,” he insists. “How could they not?”
She returns to her flashcards. “I’ll be ready in thirty minutes. Don’t let Lottie drink too much champagne before I get there.”
The ball is grandiose, but not in the way that Mardi Gras is grandiose. Here the palate is smaller, more refined, and she is not wearing costume jewelry, although she certainly feels like she’s wearing a costume.
Naveen parades her around like a prized pony and Tiana smiles and nods and bows as best she can. She avoids talking, as that just seems to get her into trouble.
Around a half-hour in, Lottie saddles up next to her. “Oh, Tiana! I’m so glad you brought me. Look at all these princes! It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.” She giggles with glee.
A handsome man in a top hat approaches them and Naveen smiles. “Ah, Edward! Let me introduce you to my beautiful wife.” He leans into Tiana. “Prince of Wales,” he whispers and Lottie looks like she’s about to combust.
Edward takes Lottie’s hand into his and kisses it. “Charmed.”
Lottie giggles. “Oh sugar, I’m not the princess. She is,” she says, pointing to Tiana.
“Ah,” Edward says, looking Tiana up and down. “Charmed.” His eyes fall back onto Lottie. “Are you married?”
Lottie quickly shakes her head. “No, no, absolutely not!”
He laughs. “Would you care to dance?”
Lottie’s eyes almost bulge out of her head. “I would love to!”
As Lottie and her new prince escape to the dance floor, Tiana frowns. “Did you see the way he looked at me?” she murmurs. “He thought Lottie was your wife!”
Naveen takes her hands into his and looks Tiana straight in the eye. “Those things do not matter to me, Tiana. If they do not matter to me, they should not matter to you.”
“Of course they matter!” Tiana insists. “I wish they didn’t, but that’s how the world works, Naveen.”
Naveen looks at her sadly. “I wish you could see yourself as I see you, Tiana. You are the most beautiful woman in this room. And if you believed in yourself, you would be more than a goddess.” He kisses her forehead. “Now come. Let me twirl you about. It will be fun!”
She wants to shake her head no, but Naveen is so earnest that she lets him escort her to the dance floor. They join a trio of couples, all handsomely dressed, and begin the dance. Tiana is so busy counting in her head that she barely notices when it’s time to exchange partners.
She switches partners with the auburn-haired woman in a pale yellow dress and finds herself in the arms of a lanky yet handsome young man, all bangs and bravado, but in an entirely self-conscious way that Naveen lacks. He steps on her foot once—twice—and apologizes. “Sorry, Your Highness. I must have webbing between my toes.”
“Webbing would actually give you more balance,” she remarks with a smile. He gruffly nods in response.
Three more steps—one, two, three—and he’s picked up the rhythm. His eyes look up from their feet and catch her eyes. He clears his throat. “It’s good to finally meet you, Princess.”
“Yes, you too, um…” she starts and then flounders. It strikes her that she does not know this man’s name. How could this happen? She had pored over the guest list. She throws on her waitress smile to quickly cover up her discomfort.
Think, Tiana, she snaps at herself. The auburn-haired girl—she’s awfully familiar, even if this man isn’t. She racks her brain for every name of every princess she’s met but is coming up blank.
The man leans in closer and her heart beats quickly, as if she’s about to be found out. “The Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia,” he whispers in her ear.
The face and the name click into place. “Yes, of course,” she murmurs. “I knew that.”
The man gives her an amused look. “Of course you did. I would never suggest that you didn’t.”
Tiana sorts through her memorized photos and files. “You’re the Grand Duchess’ consort?” He nods. “So you’re a…duke?”
They separate and bow. “There really aren’t any dukedoms to bestow to commoners now in Russia,” he remarks mildly. “Let me rephrase—there are no dukedoms to bestow because the entirety of Russia is owned by the common man. Perhaps we are all dukes.” His mouth curls in disdain.
“So what do people call you?” Tiana asks with pointed toe.
“Some do address me as ‘Duke’, however inaccurate. Others use the more English sort of ‘Prince Consort’. ‘His Royal Highness’ does in a pinch. Most people avoid referring to me at all.” He spins her out and then back in, so that she is pressed against his breath. “But, to be honest, Princess, I prefer to be called Dimitri.”
“Dimitri,” she repeats, unraveling back out from his embrace. The name strikes her as very Russian. “Please call me Tiana. I’m not quite used to ‘Princess’ yet.” She sighs. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it.”
Dimitri laughs. “It’s strange, isn’t it? If you had told me that I was going to marry a grand duchess back when I was working as a kitchen boy in the palace, I would have thought you were a few kopeks short of a ruble.”
“You worked in the kitchen?” Tiana asks before she realizes that that was obviously the least important part of the entire exchange.
Dimitri graciously overlooks her peculiar enthusiasm. “Not that I ever really learned how to cook. But I am still better than Anya—the Grand Duchess—if that means anything. Not that I would ever imply that the Grand Duchess is not a good cook,” he backtracks.
Tiana grins. “Well, if it makes you feel better, Naveen has only recently mastered mincing.”
“At least you have that! Anya still has to graduate from slicing to dicing before we even try mincing.” He gives her a deadpan look. “You really can’t trust the girl with sharp objects.”
The snort escapes Tiana’s nose before she can contain it. Dimitri looks at her with a raised eyebrow. “Sorry, I just—” she tries to think of an excuse, but while her mind is reeling, her feet trip on his and Dimitri can barely catch her before she slips onto the floor. Her cheeks grow pink. It’s silly in this large court of thousands, but she can feel the heat of everyone in the court judging yet another misstep from the barrel-bottom princess.
Dimitri lifts her back into standing attention. “I’m sorry, Princess,” he says loudly. “Two left feet. Would you like me to get you some ice?”
Tiana gratefully nods and she follows him to the bar. Much to her surprise, he takes her hand and pulls her behind the curtain and down a dark, dank corridor. “Where are we going?” she hisses.
“Wait and you’ll see,” Dimitri says. “You princesses are an impatient bunch.”
Suddenly she hears the familiar sound of silverware clattering and fires roaring and feels the rush of heat against her skin. “Dimitri—”
He pushes the door and she finds herself in a bustling kitchen. Food and curses are flying and in this culinary hailstorm, Tiana finally feels at home.
Dimitri leans against the wall. “Better?” he asks.
“Much,” Tiana confesses. “I think I just needed—”
“A little room to breathe?” Dimitri finishes and Tiana nods.
She lifts up an apple. The royal family has its own orchard filled with their own variety of apples—the skin is dark green and the insides are almost too sweet. She slips a knife from the block and begins to carve.
“You’re quite handy in the kitchen,” Dimitri notes.
“Always have been,” Tiana answers, staring closely at the slick curves made by the knife. “I own my own restaurant back in America.”
The corner of Dimitri’s mouth turns upward. “A princess who owns her own restaurant.”
“It was always my dream. Most little girls dream of being a princess. My best friend Lottie—oh, you must have seen her, blonde and rosy-cheeked with endless energy?—she dreamed all the time of marrying a prince. All I ever wanted was to own my own restaurant.” She smiles sadly at the thought of her father and how he never saw their dream come true.
Dimitri crosses his arms in front of his chest jauntily. “I envy you, Tiana. I sometimes miss my previous career. It’s not quite royalty-appropriate.” The way his eyes glitter, Tiana knows not to ask for any more details.
Tiana puts the finishing touches on the apple and then offers it to Dimitri for inspection. “A swan,” he recognizes. “It’s beautiful.”
He hands the apple back to her. She considers it. “The apple isn’t crisp enough to make good cuts,” she notes out loud, but even with its slightly muddled imperfections, she has to agree that it looks beautiful. “Lottie loved The Swan Princess almost as much as she loved The Princess and the Frog.” The thought hits her like a dream. “A beautiful princess is cursed by an evil sorcerer—by day, she is a swan and by night, she transforms back into a princess. A prince falls in love with her but before he can make a vow of love to her and break the curse, he is tricked by the sorcerer into making the vow to the sorcerer’s disguised assistant instead. Of course, in the end, true love breaks the spell. It always does,” she affirms with a smile. “I always thought being transformed into a swan was a luxurious sort of curse. You’re still beautiful and elegant and prized. Not like, say, a frog.”
“Swan Lake,” Dimitri notes. “Your story. It’s from a ballet. Russian. I’ll let you know that in the version I saw, the spell was never broken and rather than live separately as man and swan, the prince and princess drowned themselves.”
Tiana frowned. “That’s exactly why I don’t put stock in fairy tales. They’re just all about people reacting badly to ridiculous circumstances. They blame everything and trust everyone but themselves. It’s as if they’ve never heard of hard work.”
“So what should they have done?” Dimitri asks with a dramatic arm toward Tiana.
Rolling her eyes, she throws her hands up in the air. “I don’t know, but they shouldn’t have killed themselves. They shouldn’t have given up. They could have found another sorcerer. Even if she couldn’t become human, maybe he could have become a swan.”
Dimitri gives her that amused smile again. “He should have become a swan?”
“If you love someone, you will do anything to be with them. It’s hard work and you have to make sacrifices, but you do it because you love them.” The words escape firmly from her lips as her heart falls into her stomach. “I love Naveen. I love him so much. He fits in back home in New Orleans—my mama loves him and he’s learned to love the simple life.”
She tucks a ratty, escaped curl back behind her ear. “But I’m such a terrible excuse for a princess. After all, princesses are supposed to be beautiful and personable and remember the names of the guests at their parties. They're supposed to be like Lottie. And I'm just...a waitress.”
The smile leaves Dimitri’s lips and instead he looks at her seriously, unblinking. “Sometimes I feel like I'm in on the greatest con in history,” Dimitri confesses. “Servant boy becomes some semblance of royalty.”
“Yes, exactly,” Tiana agrees. She looks at Dimitri. His eyes are sad and dark and despite all her strength, she sees her unconfessed self in his silence.
She can't tell Naveen because it sounds so ungrateful and she can't tell Lottie because, well, she's Lottie and she would never understand. But in this kitchen boy, she sees herself, struggling wildly against the roar and ruthlessness of royalty. And so she speaks everything she wouldn’t dare let herself even feel.
“Hard work has gotten me everywhere. You save and you keep trying and eventually you get your dreams. But now I have more than I could have ever dreamed possible and no matter how hard I try to hold on, it just seems to slip through my fingers.” She blinks back ghost tears. “It’s hard to think that you might not just disappoint yourself, but an entire country.”
Dimitri has found the cuticles on his nails suddenly very interesting. “Or in disappointing an entire country, disappointing the one person who means more to you than the entire world.” His voice is like gravel. “There are reasonable concerns with marrying someone with a low birth like us. I didn’t realize how much Anya would have to give up.”
The hangnail on his thumb is beginning to bleed. “The throne. She gave up the throne for me.”
It strikes Tiana that she has not heard anything about Anastasia reclaiming the empty Imperial seat once the Soviets are done with Russia. “How is that possible?”
“It’s boring. Paul I, dismissal of morganatic marriages—stuff I had never thought of when I was starving on the streets of St. Petersburg. Stuff I didn’t even think of when Anya and I eloped.” He blots his thumb with his index finger. “It’s hard when the thoughts creep in—can I provide her with a life that is worth giving up so much? At the functions we still have to attend, am I an embarrassment to her?”
Tiana thinks about how Naveen is willing to spend so much time away from his country to let her pursue her dream back home. They hadn’t discussed his possible abdication, but now her mind is spinning—why would he promise that if he were king of a country thousands of miles away?
“The thoughts never go away,” Dimitri confirms, “but you can’t let them rule you and ruin you.” With a delicate edge, he leans in closer to Tiana. “A man once told me that money and notoriety change everything for the worse. And they do. If I weren’t married to Anya, I wouldn’t have to bear this consuming self-doubt or the sickening smiles from every member of the world elite. But you will gain nothing from playing their game. There’s only one thing that makes it all worthwhile.”
He pulls out a flower from the pocket of his jacket. It’s withered and pink, but he holds it like it is something wick about to grow. “Love. Love is what makes all the insanity fall away.”
His gaze returns to Tiana. “I didn’t know Naveen before you met him, but from what I hear, he was an entitled, arrogant ass. People may talk about your low birth, but they’re just jealous that you tamed the beast. You may never be the perfect princess, but that isn’t who he fell in love with. It’s not about titles and formalities or who he was born as. It’s about where his home is. And his home is with you. The real you, not some painted princess.”
A blush creeps across Tiana’s face. “Thank you, Dimitri.”
“Anything for a fellow kitchen kid,” he says with a smile.
When they return to the ballroom, Naveen is being chatted up by the beautiful countess from Genovia. Dimitri slips his hand into Tiana’s and gives her a reassuring squeeze. She thanks him with a smile and approaches them.
“—an alligator! A giant, enormous alligator! He plays jazz.” Naveen sees Tiana approaching and his eyes brighten. “Tiana, I was telling Mignonette about your wonderful restaurant! The best restaurant in the whole world! The food is so very tasty. And I’m even allowed to help!” he remarks proudly. “Isn’t that right, my darling princess?” He takes her hand in his and kisses the tips of her knuckles.
Every thought that Tiana had considered over the course of the night returns to her in that instant—her horrid hair, her terrible dancing, her boring stories, her forgetfulness, her low birth, her foreign citizenship—but in the glow of Naveen’s adoration, they all fade from her mind. She gazes at him with equal enchantment. “He’s the best mincer I know,” she affirms.
Across the room, a grand duchess is given a swan apple from her Dimitri and she kisses him soundly in return.