When the carriage drives away without her, Ella doesn't cry.
She'd thought perhaps she would, if she couldn't leave all of this behind for one night, one night like she used to have when she was young, when she could find a hidden corner and watch people in bright dresses swing past her, dancing steps she didn't know as a child and never learned in the years between.
But hasn't she learned, after all these years, not to get her hopes up?
Ella looks down at the torn dress she made from scraps, ruined from sheer spite, and she sighs and walks slowly upstairs to fetch a needle and thread.
This ball is going to last two more nights, and she's always been a fast seamstress.
By the time her stepmother and stepsisters stumble home at dawn, sore-footed and smug about scraps of attention from the prince, Ella is done, all the mistakes hidden with more scrounged lace and neat seams.
“You wouldn't have enjoyed it anyway, Cinderella,” says her stepmother in what Ella thinks is supposed to be magnanimity. The nickname ruins it, but she appreciates even the effort at peace. “Who would you have had to talk to?”
In another life, her stepmother and her sisters. “No one, I suppose.” She lowers her eyes. “Do you want anything before you go to bed?”
“You have to be up to make us breakfast,” she says, and Ella doesn't wait for her to change her mind, just flees to the kitchen and the warmth of the embers.
When she hears the question, Maude frowns, but Ella thinks she's more pitying then upset. Ella can bear pity. “We do. Father said he was only going the first night, so you'd be welcome company for Mother and me.” She makes a restless movement. “They won't even let you in their carriage, when every woman who wants to even think of trying for the crown is ordered to come? They could be arrested for that.”
“I'd rather ride with you, that's all.”
Maude puts her hand on Ella's arm. “You can tell me if it's more than that.”
What can Ella say to that? Of course she can't. “Can I come with you?”
“I just said you can.” Maude closes her eyes. “Will they be angry if they see you?”
“Maybe.” Yes. “But what can they really do?”
Maude frowns, knowing too many answers to that question, and Ella clutches her basket and gets ready to move on. “We won't leave until you come,” Maude says, and Ella can only nod and duck her head as she walks away.
Maude smiles when Ella shows up on her doorstep, and then laughs and bites the inside of her cheek when she looks her up and down and finds that Ella is wearing her everyday shoes, patched-over leather that are barely clean enough to wear. “You can't dance in those.”
“I didn't have any others.”
“You'll take mine,” says Maude's mother, and purses her lips at Ella. “And my second-best shawl, too.”
“I can't take your shoes. You need them!”
“Nobody's there to dance with the old matrons. I'll wear a different pair, and you'll wear these.”
Ella knows the sound of a woman who won't be argued with, and she stammers her way through thanks and puts them on. They're still a little big, but they fit well enough and they're a pretty shade of blue.
“There,” says Maude's mother, handing her a shawl. “You look lovely. You must have made that dress yourself.”
Ella wonders when she stopped knowing what to do with kindness. “Yes,” she says. “And mended it, too.”
She changes her shoes in the wagon and wedges her regular ones under the seat, and neither Maude nor her mother tries to make her talk much on the ride to the palace. They talk about Maude's Caleb instead, and how likely it is that he'll propose before the festival is over.
“We have to leave at midnight if we want the horse to have enough rest to carry Papa on a job in the morning,” Maude says, hand on Ella's arm. “Find me if you want to. And avoid your stepfamily if you can.”
They wouldn't do anything here, if they saw Ella tonight, but they would do something at home. “I'll be careful,” says Ella, and means it.
The ball spills from the ballroom into courtyards and gardens and public areas of the palace, and it's not just one ball, Ella quickly discovers. There's the real ball, the one with the ladies rich enough and exciting enough have a real chance of seeing the prince, and there's the ball that Ella's a part of, everyone there to enjoy a night of sparkling lights and rich food and watching the aristocracy at its courting and dancing. She's not sure where her stepfamily will be—it used to be that they would be part of the glittering crowd, but they've lost face since her father died and the estate began falling apart.
Ella watches the dancers for a few minutes, doing steps that she never knew or forgot years ago. There are more women than men at this ball. All the aristocrats, they brought brothers and fathers and cousins to catch the ladies not chosen, but most of the working men seem to have decided not to bother with the second night, like Maude's father. Perhaps Ella won't get to dance with anyone after all.
The ballroom gets warm, and Maude has found Caleb to dance with, so Ella ducks outside into the cool evening air and the gardens where the music barely reaches.
When she was a child, Ella thinks she liked the castle gardens. She remembers gardens, anyway. Hedges so tall to her young self that they may as well have been a maze, though there isn't one on palace grounds. The smell of flowers at night, strong enough in her nose to make her sneeze. The cool water of a fountain spraying against her face.
Now she's taller, and the gardens aren't big enough to get lost in. They're full, just as full as the castle, but the people out here aren't dancing. Some are walking, alone or in pairs, talking to friends, or just gaping like Ella is. Others are hidden behind hedges, romancing, not bothering to try to catch a prince when there's someone better-liked or with a better chance in reach.
Ella lets it wash over her, the chatter of the crowd drowning out the music, the lights drowning out the stars, the castle full of more people than live in the town.
She doesn't realize how long she's been standing at the top of the steps leading down to the garden until someone comes to stand next to her. “Didn't have time to look your fill last night?” the someone asks. A man. No one Ella knows.
“I wasn't here last night.” She turns just enough to look at him. He's one of the richly-dressed ones, perhaps a princess's brother, judging by the circlet on his head. He's certainly not anyone who should be talking to a girl who made every stitch of her own dress, too many of them twice over. “My lord,” she guesses, the best compromise she can find between “sir” and “your highness.”
“You weren't?” He smiles like there's some kind of joke that both of them are in on. “I suppose you had something more exciting to do.”
Ella laughs, though she thinks her joke is different from his. “I needed to stay home. I didn't have anything to wear.”
He thinks she's funny. “What, then? You had to wait for a sister who attended last night, tailor it to you today?”
She has too much pride and too much fear to take her sisters' fine gowns. This made-over piece from the rag bin is danger enough. “I had to sew it.”
“Last night? You were a little late doing it. Though it's lovely.”
“It was lovelier before I had to mend it.”
“You must be clumsy to have to mend it so soon.” When she glances again, he's smiling, honest, eyes crinkling at the corners. He still thinks she's joking. Maybe even flirting. “Perhaps I shouldn't ask you to dance after all.”
Ella goes back to staring at her hands. It's safer. “I didn't know you were planning to.”
“Isn't that why any man approaches a pretty woman at a ball?”
She makes a small gesture out to the gardens. “Some ask them to go walking.” Stupid to say. The walks, she thinks, tend to end in shadowy corners, and this man is too rich to go to a shadowy corner with.
“I'd rather dance,” he says, but some of the joke has faded from his tone and the smile is dropping from his face. The thin line of his mouth looks like a habit, one she can understand. “It's what I'm here for.”
“To dance with peasants here to gawk?”
“To—” He breaks off, mouth quirking. “Yes, actually. Why did you come to the ball, if not to dance? It's a lot of effort just to gawk, as you say.”
Ella gestures to the gardens again. “You can't think everyone here came hoping to marry the prince? Especially not the ones in made-over gowns. It's kind of them to give us a bit of hope, but I came to watch. To have a night away from my life.”
“Well, can your night away include a dance?”
If she dances inside, with a man as rich as he must be, her stepfamily might see her. “I don't know how. And I don't think I can, inside.”
“Very well.” He frowns. “Perhaps tomorrow night?”
“I don't know if I can come tomorrow night.”
“Only coming to the middle night of a three-night festival? That's an odd choice.”
“Not my own.”
“No one's allowed to bar you from coming to this festival if you want to. All women are supposed to have a chance to try for the prince's hand if they want it.”
Ella smiles. “I'm not sure it's a battle I want to fight.”
Inside, the song changes, and her companion sighs, looking over his shoulder like someone called his name. “If I can't have a dance with you, I'm afraid I need to go in and have one with someone else. I'll look out for you tomorrow night. I'd be honored, if you decide to fight that battle.”
“I'll be easy to spot. I only have the one fine dress.”
He looks a little startled, but he smiles and gives her a little bow before he turns to go back inside.
“I've been enjoying the gardens, and the scenery.”
“Not hunting for a husband?” Maude's mother asks, quiet and gentle and knowing that it's one of three ways Ella has out of her stepmother's house.
Who would have her? Who would she have? “There was too much to look at.”
“And you weren't even in here with the prince! Poor man looks tired. Who knows why he decided to have these balls instead of finding a wife a sensible way?”
Ella follows her attention out into the crowd of dancers, where there's a man dancing dutifully with a woman in a gown so beautiful Ella feels ashamed of her own. She recognizes the serious lines of his face before she recognizes the circlet on his head.
Well, then. She waits for the sting of shame, for the sure knowledge that he was joking with her, a girl in a mended and out-of-style gown. But if he was teasing, it was kindly meant, or at least she hopes so. And besides, he's as trapped by all the eyes on him as she is by her circumstances. She can't grudge him his fun, if that was what he was doing.
“Maybe,” she says, “he's hoping to fall in love.”
Ella hides her dress in the attic and busies herself around the house, making it look like she's kept the fire burning and her fingers busy all night, and in a few hours, her stepfamily comes home, full of stories and scorn, and none of them suspects a thing.
For the first time in a long time, Ella has a good secret, a giddy one, and she falls asleep smiling.
She only has the one dress, and she doesn't have the time to change anything about it, so she puts on her work shoes and carries the dancing slippers and walks to Maude's house.
Maude's mother greets her at the door and purses her lips at the sight of Ella. “I suppose we don't have the time to tailor anything of ours to fit you.”
“I have better shoes tonight, anyway.”
Maude appears from the side and puts her arm through Ella's. “Well then, perhaps I can talk you into dancing. I'll even give Caleb up for a dance, you know him so it can't be awkward. Let me do something with your hair before we go, and I think I have a necklace that might suit the dress.”
Ella has seen Maude many times over the years, and she doesn't recognize the necklace she pulls out of a chest. It looks new or newly-shined, and Ella swallows and thanks her for it and lets Maude braid her hair like they're sisters before they leave for the last night of the ball.
“You'll dance with Caleb first,” says Maude. “They won't see you if they're celebrating her triumph, and he can propose to me later. You deserve a good memory.”
Ella tries to object, to tell Maude that this is her night and Ella is more than content to have the chance to watch the ball for a second night, but she finds herself delivered into Caleb's arms anyway. She doesn't know him well, since he works the land outside the village and is never in market when she's there, but he talks about Maude and treats her with as much courtly grace as a lord would before he bows at the end of the dance and takes her back to Maude and her mother.
He dances Maude away next, and Maude's mother spies another matron from town she wants to speak to, and Ella fades into the crowd again. The prince is dancing with another sparkling lady, head bent so he can listen to whatever she's saying, his face serious.
Tonight, Ella doesn't retreat to the garden. Her stepfamily is too busy crowing about their success to notice her, and she wants to watch the crowd. Everyone seems to have saved their most gorgeous clothes for this night of the ball, hoping the prince will pluck them out of the crowd and their lives to marry them.
There are enough people that even the prince eventually gets lost among them, and Ella doesn't look for him, because one conversation in a garden doesn't mean much at all.
She hadn't expected to speak to the prince ever again, much less for him to remember her and speak to her unprompted, and she clenches her hands in her skirt as she turns and curtsies. “I'm not very good. I agree to dance with the ones who won't mind if I step on their toes.”
He smiles, more gentle than teasing. “I'm not worried. These are very good boots.”
Ella frowns at the floor, not quite brave enough to frown at his face. “Everyone watches your partners. I would be embarrassed.”
“I'll only ask the once. And if you'd be embarrassed, or you worry about scuffs on my boots, I won't mind. But I want to ask. Will you reconsider dancing with me?”
He doesn't know everything he's asking her to decide. Even if he doesn't propose to her, suddenly and madly in love like she knows he isn't, dancing with him would force her out of her stepfamily's house, the house her father and mother lived in during the happy years of her childhood, the only place she has in the world. Someone would recognize her, or someone in her stepfamily would see her, and she can never go home again if she dances with the prince.
If her home can be taken from her for the crime of a simple dance, is it a home at all?
When Ella looks up, he's waiting with his hand held out, offering more than expecting. She places her hand in his, and knows she's sealing her fate and won't know what comes next until morning.
The brightness of his smile surprises her, and he gently takes hold of her to lead her to the floor.
Ella is clumsy, not used to dancing, especially in her stepsister's worn-out slippers, but he's good enough to make up for it, and Ella concentrates on him and on her feet rather than on looking at the crowd to see if her stepfamily has noticed her. She's heard people gossiping about every partner the prince has taken these past two nights. Word will get around to them if they aren't watching right now.
“You look very serious,” says the prince. “Is it such a chore to dance with me? Or to remember the steps?”
“It's not a chore to dance with you, you make it very easy. I'm just thinking about when the dance is done. People pay attention to who you spend time with.”
He frowns. “I shouldn't have asked you, then. If you're worried about the attention. I know how hard it is to say no to royalty.”
“If my life weren't what it is, I would have said yes right away.”
“And what is your life? If you're going to come to harm, you can tell me.”
Ella thinks she really could, that the prince could be worth trusting, which many princes are not. And maybe he would jail her stepfamily or give her a job in the palace. But she doesn't want to owe him, when he would insist she doesn't owe him anything. “I know I can. But I don't think I'm going to come to harm.”
He squeezes her hand. “You can tell me if you change your mind.”
“In the ten minutes more I have of your acquaintance? It's the last night of the ball.”
“You don't plan to continue the acquaintance?”
A shrug doesn't look natural with the movements of the dance, but Ella does her best. “When would we have the chance?”
“I could be planning to ask you to marry me in the morning.”
People talk about the prince in the marketplace sometimes. They talk about how dutiful he is, how sober. Sometimes they tut a little over a lost childhood, over the reckless youth that hasn't ever quite appeared. “Why did you have these balls?” Ella asks, because it's the question on everyone's mind. It's not a tradition, and she doesn't think he's one to believe in love at first sight, or even first dance.
“I was hoping for something.”
“Has it happened?”
The music winds to a beautiful close, and Ella steps back and curtsies. He catches her hand again just to give it another squeeze. “I'll try to find you again before the night is over. Perhaps I can persuade you to trust me.”
Ella turns away and catches three sets of too-familiar eyes, all watching her, all ready to take this brief reprieve away from her. “Perhaps. But for now I must go.”
She thinks he says something else, something worried, but Ella ducks into the crowd as far away from her stepfamily as she can get and heads for the gardens. There's cover there, so she can avoid them and let them think perhaps it was their imaginations.
They'll never believe that.
Ella takes a few gulps of cool night air and starts walking, because she's not sure what else to do, and she can't go back into the ballroom to be captured by her family, quietly humiliated the same way she always is. She starts walking instead, knowing she won't make it far in her thin slippers.
She finds herself in cleared field full of carriages and wagons where all the coachmen seem to be having a merry party of their own. Ella isn't the only one who's slipped out to dance to the raw sound of an inexpert fiddle, and someone tries to catch her hand with a laugh, but she smiles and demurs and finds the wagon she came in. It's empty, but that suits her.
She doesn't know how long she sits before one of the temporary coachmen comes, there to ferry the wagon to the door so Maude and her mother can drive it home. He blinks and bows when he sees her. “Miss, you could have sent for someone before, if you wanted to leave.”
“I just wanted to sit. Don't worry, I belong in this wagon. Maude and her mother must be worried.”
“They did mention they were waiting for someone.” He frowns. “Are you well, miss?”
“As well as I can be. And I'll be better when I'm with them.”
Maude is waiting in front of the palace when they arrive and she waves and dashes in as soon as she sees them, fetching her mother. They get in the coach in a bustle of skirts, Maude taking the reins from the coachman, who gives them all a polite bow and goes to take care of his next duty.
“We were worried,” Maude says over her shoulder as they drive away. “You danced with him and you disappeared. We thought perhaps your family ...”
“They saw me.” Ella looks down at her lap and blinks. She doesn't know why the tears are coming now when they didn't two nights ago when they ripped her dress and forbade her even one night of hope. When they didn't come two years ago when they finally stopped keeping up the fiction that she was anything but a servant. When they didn't come two years before that when she lost her father and the last blood connection she had in the world. “I don't think I can go home.”
Maude's mother puts her arm around Ella's shoulders, pulls her in to hug her gently, rock her in a way Ella can't remember ever being rocked. “Well, it seems my daughter is to marry soon and go off to be a farmer's wife. We'll have a bed in our home, and work that needs doing, if you need somewhere to stay.”
Ella wants to say she can't accept that much kindness, but she must, if she doesn't want to go home to whatever punishment her stepmother devises. She'll just have to work hard to make up for the imposition. “He proposed, then?” she asks, and knows they'll take it as a yes.
Maude smiles back at her. “You missed it. But I'll forgive you if you let me tell you all about it now.”
“I'd like that.”
Maude's mother's voice is raised when Ella comes inside after washing her hands at the pump, and when she hears the door she cuts off in the middle of whatever she was saying.
Maude is the one who comes out of the back room to see her. “Your stepfamily was here. They left a few things for you.”
“And had a few things to say, no doubt.”
“I'm very glad you weren't here to hear them.”
Ella goes into the back room. There's a small trunk, one of the broken ones from the attic, and Maude's mother is standing over it, scowling. Ella goes to the trunk, curious, if nothing else, what these people who were supposed to be her family thought she would want or miss. What they thought they owed her.
As she might have expected, the box is a mix of dutiful, cruel, and almost-kind. Her worn-out old dresses, a chipped plate from her mother's wedding china, a heavy old ring of her father's with paste stones, never sold when her stepmother was selling everything she could find to make her daughters' lives better. There's one necklace in a box that she thinks belonged to her mother, part of the inheritance her father meant her to have, and she offers that to Maude's mother.
“As payment,” she says when she doesn't reach to take it.
“No need for payment,” says Maude's father from the doorway. “Girl worked harder all day than you ever did, Maudie. Does your Caleb know what kind of bride he's getting?”
Ella tenses, waiting for frowns, waiting for resentment, but Maude just laughs and hugs her father, getting a smudge of soot on her arm for her troubles, and Maude's mother crouches to put her hand over Ella's. “Would you like me to put the necklace on for you?”
It's too fine for right now, when she needs to clean up and all they're doing tonight is having dinner and, she's told, dissect all the gossip from three nights of the finest festival anyone in the town has been to for years. But Ella won't go anywhere the necklace wouldn't look out of place again. She bends her neck and gives the box to Maude's mother. “Please.”
Ella is a little curious, but not curious enough to ask.
Everyone wants to gossip about the prince and the balls, though. Ella is gently teased by all the girls in town for being one of the few girls without a title to be honored with a dance, and they all ask her what he's like, if he said who he's thinking of proposing to, since there's been no sign of it since the ball.
Some of the men who sit on the benches in front of the tavern during the day worry loudly about the prince being flighty, about the need to secure the succession. Some of the girls sigh that the woman he wants didn't come to the balls, or perhaps that she came but he couldn't convince her to marry him.
“Perhaps he fell in love with you,” Maude says with an elbow in Ella's gut and a smile on her face, and Ella even manages to smile back.
It's not true. Maybe he thinks of her sometimes, but Ella didn't leave anything at the palace but her past, not even her name. If he thinks of her, he won't bother to find her, and wouldn't know where to look.
Ella, in the middle of making dinner, frowns at Maude, who's wearing a dangerous kind of smile, a teasing one that still manages to be kindly meant. Ella isn't quite used to that yet. “You've been dealing with customers a long time now. Why would I need to go?”
“Because I think he wants to see you.”
“If the miller's son is here again—”
“He's not. Go on, Papa can only distract him so long and he has no idea what to ask for.”
It can't be true, but Maude is smiling and there are only so many people who wouldn't know what to ask for at a blacksmith's forge. Ella wipes her palms on her skirt and walks to the forge.
There's the prince, concentrating on something Maude's father is telling him, bent over the anvil, a smudge on his fine white shirt. When she opens the door, he looks up, then stands up, a smile growing on his face that Ella can't quite understand. “I bought a bucket of nails,” he says before she finds words to ask him what he's doing there. “It seemed like the thing to do.”
“You're here for me,” says Ella, and in the face of his awkwardness it stops being a question.
“We never had our second dance. I thought perhaps a walk instead. If you're willing.”
There are a hundred questions and hesitations, but Ella's life is different than it was at the balls, when she came in a gown she'd made and mended herself, in borrowed slippers and terrified. “I'm willing.”
His smile is wider and sweeter in the daylight than she expects. Maude is behind her, stopped in the doorway and watching, and Maude's father has averted his eyes but he's grinning down at his fire. Ella lets their happiness steady her. “I never did get your name,” he says. “I would have found you much sooner if I had.”
Someday, perhaps, she'll ask him what made him want to know her so badly that he would hunt her down when he should have been considering an advantageous marriage. She'll ask him how he found her in Maude's house, and what made him speak to her in the garden on the night of the second ball. They aren't questions for now, though. “Ella,” she says. “I'm Ella.”
“And I'm Charles.” No title, no expectation, just the simple name. “Do you think we can start from there?”
Maude pushes her gently forward, and Ella walks until she could reach out and take his hand, if she wanted to. She thinks she might want to. He's still smiling, waiting, gentler than any prince should be. “Yes,” she says, and watches his smile grow. “I think we can.”