“Of course you must go to the ball, Lydia!” Madame Martin stood tall over her daughter, her eyes flashing almost as fiercely as Lydia’s own. Lydia wet her lips and stood up, knocking her book to the floor.
“Mother, you know I love another! Besides—“ she stopped herself, then continued more quietly. “Besides, I will not marry somebody who cannot love me back.”
Madame Martin gasped, clapping her hand over her daughter’s mouth. Stiles paused his sweeping to stare. “Do not speak of him that way,” she hissed. Her eyes darted around and settled on Stiles, who looked down hastily. “Somebody important could have heard. I won’t hear more talk of this. He is holding a ball for a wife, and you will attend.”
Lydia frowned. “Let me at least take Jackson as an escort.”
Her mother glanced disdainfully at her. “You cannot be distracted the whole night. You may take that boy as your escort.” She turned on her heel and walked away.
Stiles saw an angry tear escape from Lydia’s eye before her face hardened and she turned back to her studying.
Stiles found her in the garden an hour later. He sat down next to her, and she threw her arms around him, bursting into tears. He patted her carefully on the back. “He’ll be back in a week,” he murmured.
“And I could leave him in another week!” She exclaimed, looking up at him, eyes red. He wondered how much she had been crying. “I don’t want a prince, I want a stable boy. Why will Mother never listen to me?”
“She doesn’t listen to anybody,” Stiles said sadly. “She barely listened to my father even before they were married.” His heart clenched at the memory of his father, dead now almost three years. “I’m sorry she won’t listen to you,” he kept his arms tight around her.
“I’ve loved him for six years now,” Lydia curled into him, tiny feet peeking out from her gown. “I just wish I could wed him. He loves me too, you know.”
“I know,” Stiles said. “More than I ever did, even.”
Lydia giggled, sitting up. She poked him in the chest. “More than you ever could.” They grinned at each other. He had loved her since they had met, drawn to her intelligence and brightness and laughter. And the unattainableness of her beauty and position. But now he loved her as a sister, a friend, not as a man loves a woman. Not like Jackson loved her. Not as a stable boy loved a countess. “I’m glad you’re coming with me. I wouldn’t rather it be anybody else.”
Stiles hadn’t been fitted for new clothing since before his father died. But even Madame Martin admitted that he would need a new coat and breeches for the royal ball. He had forgotten how exhausting it was. Standing still would be the death of him. The one time he’d moved, he had been stuck with about ten different pins. And he had an itch on the right side of his nose that wouldn’t go away.
The seamstresses were terrifying, and the tailor he thought was worse. He’d never felt such itchy fabrics, and they refused to answer his questions or listen to his opinions. They shushed him every time he tried to speak, and he felt like he was about to explode.
Lydia burst into the room, trailing ribbons and two seamstresses, hurrying after her clutching fabrics. She was a bustle of pink silk, and she was furious. “Where is my mother? They will not take me out of this horrible pink!” Stiles stared, open-mouthed. “Oh, you’re useless!” She ran out, and the seamstresses scurried after her.
“I do believe we may be done here,” the tailor said pompously. He made no reaction to Lydia’s outburst. He gestured the the seamstresses, and they began to pill the pins out of Stiles’ clothing and disrobe him. Stiles winced as they poked him. “We will have your coat ready by the ball.”
He felt naked as they left, the door shutting behind him. He hadn’t seen a mirror in years. He stood there in his underclothes, peering at himself in the highly polished glass. He looked older than he remembered, more like his father. But also skinnier and stronger. He had forgotten how many moles he had dotting his skin. He picked up his threadbare hand-me-down clothes from the floor and slipped into them, doing up his buttons himself. He almost wished Lydia loved him, and not a stable boy. She might have been allowed to wed him, and then perhaps Madame Martin would treat him better than the lowest servant boy.
Jackson’s return arrived sooner than he thought. Lydia was positively giddy, flying through her lessons and poking herself more often than usual during her embroidery hour. He returned, tall and blonde, making Stiles feel smaller and less important than ever. Madame Martin ignored him as usual, but even Lydia seemed to have no time for him with Jackson’s return. She would ask him to walk with her in the gardens, only to abandon him for Jackson’s arms once they reached the woods. He sat on a rock by the stream, lonely as ever, and scratched ink into poetry. He heard Lydia’s laugh and Jackson’s low murmur in the distance, and grew jealous. He hadn’t loved Lydia for a long time, but he wanted somebody who would look at him the way they looked at one another.
The week before the ball flowed by, and too soon he was being deposited into a carriage with Lydia. Madame Martin poked her head into the carriage and whispered harshly to them, “I forbid you to come back earlier than midnight.” Lydia tensed.
As the carriage took off, he felt itchy in his coat, but she looked iridescent in a shimmering blue gown, her hair up in braids and curls. She took his hand in the fold of her skirts. Her hand was shaking, betraying her nerves.
“It’ll be alright,” he murmured softly. “He’ll wait for you, no matter what happens.”
Lydia nodded, lips tight. “Do you think he’ll choose me?” She said in a small voice.
“I don’t know.” His eyebrows came together. “I hope not.”
Derek paced in his room, fists clenching and unclenching. His older sister, Laura, sat on his bed. She looked exasperated. “You must choose a wife! You will soon be too old to be unwed.”
She was correct, as always. He would soon be twenty-eight, far too old for an eligible man—particularly a prince—to be without a wife. He wanted to punch a wall. He did not want a wife. He had never wanted a wife. He had tried to fall in love with a girl many years ago, with disastrous results.
“Derek, you just need to pick one.” She twisted her hands in her lap painfully.
He turned angrily on her, “You know why I can’t!”
Her eyes grew wide with pity, and her voice softened. “I do. But we all have a duty to the crown. None of us can marry for love. You know this.”
He shrank down on the wall, his anger deflating. He shouldn’t take this out on Laura. She couldn’t change the rules anymore than he could.
“I won’t love her,” he said.
“You don’t have to,” she whispered. She walked over to him and held out her hand to help him stand up. He towered over her, but felt so small. “We’ll find a way for you, Derek. I promise.”
As Stiles had expected, every eye in the room turned to Lydia as she descended the stairs on her arm. Even masked as they were, Lydia lit up the room with her presence. She smiled softly, knowingly, aware of all the admiration and jealously in the eyes of the people below her. As she reached the bottom of the stairs, a man came to her. He bowed deeply, his crown glinting in the light. He reached out his hand. “May I have this dance?” he asked, deep voice causing Stiles’ stomach to clench nervously. His mask did nothing to hide his identity. Stiles knew, that by the end of the night, Lydia would be betrothed to a man she did not love, and who could never love her back.
Hours later, Stiles stared out at the quiet gardens behind the palace. He was strangely calm, the cool breeze brushing past him on the balcony. “I had hoped no one would be out here.” Stiles startled. The man sounded resigned, shutting the heavy wooden door behind him.
“Er… I could leave, if you wanted?” Stiles had no idea how to respond to the dark-haired man’s rudeness.
“Stay.” Stiles narrowed his eyes. The masked man seemed to collapse onto the railing next to him. “Do you ever feel as if you were born into the wrong place?”
“Constantly,” Stiles responded. “I mean, I guess I feel like I was born into the right place, actually—but that place is really long ago. I was born in another country, in Polska. It was beautiful, and my childhood was filled with life and my mother and father always had time for me. My parents are both gone now, for a few years, and I feel that I am unwanted now. I feel always—well, I feel always alone. Even my best friend, my step-sister has no time for me now with her beau. I loved her once, but she never had time for me then. But now that I do not love her anymore, she has time for me again, except for when he is around, of course. She understands me. She also does not want to wed, except for, well, for different reasons…“ he trailed off, embarrassed at his near admission and turned to the man beside him. “I apologize, I am rambling.”
The man shook his head. “I must wed against my will as well.”
“Why?” Stiles felt himself asking.
“Duty.” The man sounded almost angry.
Stiles nodded. He felt a need for fill the silence. So he did. He told him about his parents, and Lydia’s impossible love for Jackson, and his poetry, and his thoughts. The man nodded along, silently, listening carefully. Stiles watched him. His eyes, even behind the mask, are beautiful and filled with color. But a question itched on his tongue, and it slipped out, almost against his will. “Why? Why don’t you want to wed?”
The man hesitated, wetting his lips. He muttered, so quietly Stiles almost did not catch it. “I cannot love her.” He glanced at Stiles, and saw recognition in his eyes. The man’s eyes widened, and he backed away, turning towards the door.
Stiles reached out, surprised, and caught his wrist. “No… I… I understand,” he whispered. “I also cannot love a woman.” The man stepped closer to Stiles. He reached out, hesitant, and touched a hand softly to his face. He felt skittish, like a cat. But Stiles pressed his cheek to the man’s hand, and the hand dropped softly to trace his lips. And then the man dipped down and pressed their lips together.
The door banged open, and they jump apart. Stiles recognized her immediately, her long dark hair and her crown giving her away as the crown princess. “Derek!” she whispers, her eyes flashing between the two of them. “What are you doing?”
Stiles felt his stomach sink. Derek? Prince Derek? Crown Princess Laura grabbed his hand. “Never mind now. You must choose your bride now, it is nearly midnight!”
Stiles ran into the ballroom, seeking Lydia. He found her almost immediately, and pulled her aside. “We must leave!” Stiles was frantic. She saw the panic in his eyes and nodded quickly, and they turn together and run up the stairs just as the clock begins to strike midnight. Lydia stumbled, losing her shoe, and Stiles glanced back to see the prince running towards them. They have no time, and he pulled her on. They burst through the doors of the palace just as the clock began to strike midnight. As their carriage took off, Lydia turned towards him, panting. “I danced with the prince!” she exclaimed, clearly upset.
Stiles sits silently.
Behind them, the prince picked up a glass slipper. The crown princess glided gracefully up the stairs to his side. They conversed for a moment, then she held out the slipper. “My brother will marry the woman who fits this shoe and no other!”
By the time they woke up the next morning, the news is all over the kingdom. Lydia was miserable, and even Jackson could not console her. Stiles was shocked and confused. He kissed the prince. He kissed a man, who is the prince. And the prince, who is also a man, kissed him. And now the prince wanted to marry Lydia. The three of them sat in the stables, Lydia softly crying, her lovely green dress creased and covered with hay. Jackson held her close, and Stiles braided long strands of hay together over and over again. The head maid found them there, and ushered Lydia and Stiles to the castle where the prince, the slipper, and an engagement were waiting.
Lydia was defiant and red-eyed as she held out her foot, and the prince slipped the slipper on. His face split into a broad grin, and his eyes flickered not to her face, but to the people surrounding her. He was searching, and his eyes passed right over Stiles in his old servants’ clothes. Stiles wanted to go to him, to feel the soft lips against his again, to be able to smile up at him, to feel his understanding and hope and love, but he remained rooted to the ground. The prince’s smile dropped, and he looked at Lydia. He saw her red hair, so distinctive even from just seeing her run away last night. His eyebrows narrowed in confusion.
Madame Martin exclaimed loudly. “We accept, we accept of course! My daughter, the countess Lydia, will of course be your bride!” The prince frowned, but she does not notice. “We will make arrangements at once! Out, out everybody! Leave the prince to his love!” She bustled everybody out of the room.
Derek was still at Lydia’s feet, sitting back on his heels. He looked up at her. “You love another,” he said. Lydia nodded. “The stable boy.” She nodded again, eyebrows coming together in suspicion. “If you marry me, he can share your bed every night.”
Lydia gasped, shocked. Her face creased in confusion, before realization flashed in her eyes. “And you will not have to. The rumors are true,” she said quietly. “You are not here for me, are you?”
“No,” he said. “I came to offer you an escape. You cannot marry the man you love, but if you marry me, you can be with him still.”
“His name is Stiles,” she said. “My escort. My step-brother. You are here for him, are you not?” Derek’s ears flushed red, all the answer she needed. Lydia sat back in her chair. “You swear to me that you will allow the stable boy to be my lover?”
Derek nodded. “Whomever you wish. As many as you wish. I care not. Countess… I cannot consummate our marriage.”
Lydia frowned, pensive. “I will agree to marry you. Bring my stable boy to the castle. My step-brother will come to the castle with me when we wed. It will be a way out for the both of us.”
She rang a bell and clasped Derek’s hand, and the head maid came into the room. Her eyes dart between the two of them. “Countess?”
“Send my brother into the room.” The maid nodded and left.
Stiles tripped into the room a moment later, upset and Derek stood, dropping Lydia’s hand. “You,” Derek says, eyes soft. He reached for him.
“What is happening?” Stiles questioned angrily, and Derek pulled his hand back like he had been burned. “Lydia?”
“I will wed the prince,” Lydia said gently.
Stiles’ face grew red, and he turned to Derek. “I told you! I told you she loves another, and now you insist on wedding her! I told you everything, and now you break into my life and—“ Derek strode forward and clasped his hands in his larger ones. “And take that away from her,“ Stiles said.
“He is not taking anything away from me, Stiles,” Lydia said. “He is offering me—he is offering us—an escape. Jackson will share my bed, and you…” she trailed off, clearly uncertain.
“If you wished, you could share mine,” Derek said softly, holding Stiles’ hands tightly.
Stiles looked at Lydia, sitting calmly and regally in her chair. “You wish this?”
“I wish an escape,” said Lydia. “The prince is offering me one. I can still love my stable boy, and it is a good match. Mother will be pleased. He does not want me, Stiles. He is like you.”
“From the moment you opened your mouth, I was enraptured,” Derek whispers. “I felt that you understood me. I fell in love with you last night in only seconds.” The words are private, meant only for him. Lydia turns away and studies her nails.
Stiles jerked forwards and kissed him, arms around the Derek’s neck. Derek froze for a second, then wrapped his arms around Stiles’ waist, drawing him in. Stiles felt the hard, strong body against his own and felt, for once in his life, in the right place.