Once upon a time there was a fair young maiden named Corrine. This fair young maiden met her prince and grew to be a beautiful queen, so beautiful that everyone invited her to every ball.
One day, however, the prince died, very suddenly, and Corrine was left with nothing save for four perfect children, royalty themselves.
Corrine hid them up in a castle, for nowhere in the fairy tales does a prince ever fall in love with a princess with children.
“I’ll tell them later,” she promised, smiling and twirling. She still was as beautiful as she was a princess. “It’s important to stay up in this tower, where things are safe.” And thus she hid them from the outside world.
Her oldest daughter was a beautiful girl named Cathy, whose eyes burned like the smoldering of embers and whose smile could cut like a sliver of black ice. If people had seen Cathy, they would have told Corrine that she had grown from an awkward little girl into a beautiful young woman.
But there was no one there to see Cathy’s beauty, no one except Corrine that was. And she feared the affect the world might have on her.
Cathy dreamed of being able to go to a magical ball, full of princes who would bow for her hand, who would pull her into a gentle waltz and take her away from it all. She would tell the stories in her head to her younger sister Carrie, pretty too but much younger and still awkward in the way that children have always been awkward.
“The princes will dance right up to us,” she would say, storybook wide in her lap, “And tell us that they have traveled far and wide to meet us, to earn our hand in marriage.”
“But how will we decide which one is the very best prince?” Carrie asked, “If there’s so many.”
“Well,” Cathy told her, “We’d have to find the handsomest, most noble prince of them all. There would have to be a test.”
“There’s going to be a ball tonight, a fantastic ball!” Corrine told her daughters a few weeks later. “I’ve been invited. They must think I’m years younger than I am. Oh, I can just hear it now. ‘Corrine, you are the most beautiful woman ever to have graced this kingdom.’”
“I’d love to go to the ball,” Cathy ventured. “What if Carrie and I went too? We could pretend that we didn’t know you! I mean… it’s probably a masked ball, it would have to be, right? So that way the prince only sees inside the deepest part of your heart instead of always looking at the outside.” Cathy’s heart swelled as she thought of it – a prince, a real prince, for she and Carrie both. They could get out of the tower and never think of it again, be happy for the rest of their lives. Sing songs with chipmunks and robins the way that princesses did.
“You can’t. I know you think no one would realize who you were, but if anyone did… We would be peasants all over again, Cathy, and I can’t let that happen.”
With that, she walked out the door and closed and locked it, as Cathy screamed and threw herself across it.
She hated her, hated, hated, hated her.
She would climb out the window, and Carrie would come with her. Carrie was getting smaller by the day, and she needed something to bring her spirits, something to bring her light.
Cathy’s brother Chris didn’t understand.
“Why do you always need to fight with her?”
Cathy didn’t listen to him. She had been spinning a dress for weeks, hiding it in a slat in the ceiling and making sure no one could find out. No one could ruin this night for her, not now.
Her dress was a bright, beautiful yellow. The color of the shining sun.
She pulled the dress on after she hit the ground, and she topped it off with a mask doused in dark red sparkles.
Carrie stayed behind. She’d been too frightened, too tired.
“I don’t want to be a princess, Cathy,” she told her. “I just want to go home again.” She had cried herself to sleep.
Cathy would come back for her when she was a real princess. She would have to. She couldn’t leave Carrie behind.
But right now, she couldn’t take her with her, either.
She stepped into the ball and it took her breath away. The hall that she had stepped into was huge, and there were three chandeliers in the middle of the room, hanging and covered in candles that had all been lit.
As soon as she stepped inside, her mask covering her face, a man arrived to take her hand.
“You may be the most mysterious girl at the ball,” the man said. He was wearing a mask as well, and he was tall and thin and seemed to have his eye on her in a way that made Cathy shiver. Perhaps he suspected who she was, suspected that she shouldn’t really be here. That she shouldn’t truly be a princess at all but should be locked up inside her tower so that her mother would be given the time to shine that she had always deserved, or said she deserved.
“I am mysterious, aren’t I?” Cathy said, trying on a different kind of voice, one that was more commanding; one that made the new masked stranger take notice. Maybe he would take her away from it all, if she could ever tell him. She could save Carrie… and Cory, too, little forgotten Cory. She forgot about him sometimes, so quiet curled up in a corner of the attic.
A little, sick, pale prince.
He smiled at her – she could feel it – but then he glided away to greet someone else, and Cathy nearly cursed with disappointment. Maybe she hadn’t made enough of an entrance, or maybe she just wasn’t as pretty as she had imagined herself to be.
She was about to turn and walk away, climb back up the tower and forget it all, when she felt a hand on her shoulder, soft and brushing, stroking her neck.
She wanted to flinch, but instead she turned towards the figure. He had on a black face mask and she could only see his eyes, big and blue and shining.
“Hello,” she managed to gasp out.
He extended a hand.
“Would you care to dance, my princess?” the man asked. There was something familiar about his voice…
He pulled her into a waltz, first, softly gliding along the dance floor with their arms locked. Cathy’s mind lost all thought of what her mother would say, and what horrible things would be waiting for her back in the attic.
She had to know this stranger’s name; but she knew that when she did, some of the magic would fly away. Maybe this wouldn’t be a story where she was swept away at the end – women who got to know men got to know all of them, the habits and attributes that one just couldn’t abide sometimes.
Maybe she could just close her eyes and listen – someone in the corner of the room was playing a harp, an actual harp, and Cathy was ready to dissolve into a fit of giggles because it all seemed so surreal. She wished that she could see how she looked; she wished she had looked in a mirror or better yet, she wished she had asked Chris. He always gave her his honest opinion, after all.
“Are you new here in town?” the masked man asked as he whirled her around.
“Sort of,” Cathy replied, “I feel new.”
She could feel a smile emerge on the masked man’s face.
“I feel new, too.”
They didn’t even notice when all the other couples left, until a guard walked over and tapped them on the shoulder, telling them it was late and that “the fair lady” should be returned home at once before the streets would be made unsafe by highwaymen.
They were offered the chance to stay at the castle, but Cathy declined – the thought of walking along the road at night with her new suitor made her heart speed up, made her blood rush, over the guilt that she felt for leaving her family behind.
She would find a way to help them. There was a point to all of this.
The moon was high in the sky, shining down on them, and Cathy could see fireflies dancing in the dust. She wanted to capture this moment on a canvas – she only wished she knew how to paint. Maybe she could make a dance out of it, out of the feeling, and could show Carrie.
She wished that Carrie could feel her heart racing like this one day, but it would only happen if she rescued them all from the attic, otherwise she would wilt and never grow and never know…
“I need to see your face.”
“Why?” the masked man asked.
“Because I can’t fall in love with a man whose face I can’t see.”
She was lying. She was already his. He was touching her shoulder and she was ready to say “yes” to anything that he asked her, no matter how big.
She hoped he would ask her to be his princess for the rest of time.
He squeezed her shoulders for a long moment, as if he was hesitating. What could he be hiding? Maybe he didn’t really come from a noble family; maybe he was one of the servants who just sneakily watched the royalty move around and had learned how to imitate them.
She knew how that felt, watching from afar, never being able to be a part of things but wanting to, desperately. She could remember watching her grandfather through a crack in the wall in the attic, knowing that he had the power to order her death if she was ever discovered in her tower. Part of her still wanted to go out, to be seen by someone no matter what the consequences would be. But it wasn’t only about her.
“Please show me your face.” She reached up and pulled, slowly, on his mask, wanting to savor the moment. It would be caught in her memory like this forever, it would be…
She stared at him for a long moment, her mind not quite comprehending what it is she saw. He looked different, somehow, the blonde blonder and the eyes so much bluer. She should have known him all along, of course.
He looked at her and smiled.
“You wouldn’t listen to me, when I told you not to go,” he said. “So I had to make sure that someone else wasn’t taking advantage.”
“So all that stuff you said? It was all… just… you being protective? You looking out for me?” Cathy’s voice rose, a little shrill and panicked. “You didn’t mean all of it. All you want is to be my big protective older brother.”
“No. That isn’t all I want.”
He leaned down and pressed his lips against hers, and Cathy found herself speechless for the first time in a very long time.
They waited for Corrinne to come back from the ball, silent and still as a mouse waiting for a moment to slip out and steal unguarded peanut butter.
“What if she doesn’t come back?” Chris asked, a hand lingering on Cathy’s shoulder.
Carrie and Cory both stirred in their sleep, Carrie tucked under Cory’s tiny arm. Cathy wondered what they were dreaming about. Fairies, maybe – that was the kind of thing she had loved when she had been their age. She was sure she had seen them from her window once or twice, tiny blue flashes gliding by on the tails of shooting stars.
It felt like so long ago.
“Are we really going to do this?” Chris asked again.
Cathy’s eyes glinted.
“Yes, yes, we will.”
The door to the attic, the tower, opened, a beautiful creaking sound.
“Hello, Mother,” Cathy said with a big smile. Corrinne was dressed in a blue gown, not as beautiful as Cathy’s but stunning, showing off her figure and most of all, her eyes.
Cathy knew now that those eyes were a lie. That her mother had never been a true princess; that that was Cathy now and forever more.
Royalty was in the blood, after all.
“Oh, hello, Cathy, I didn’t realize you were still up.”
“Would you not have come by to see us if you knew I was still up?”
“Oh, no, I wanted to see you. Of course I did. I just… didn’t know if I was too late.”
“Or did you only want to see Chris?” Cathy asked, taking a step into the light. She was still wearing her dress.
“Did you… where did you get that dress? It’s very pretty? You didn’t… leave the tower, did you Cathy? You know that you can’t do that, right?”
“Oh… and why is that again, Corrinne?”
“What did you just call me?”
She wheeled around, raising her hand as Cathy stepped back.
She ran full-speed ahead, not bothering to stop and steel herself.
They heard her scream all the way down.
There was a window in this tower, and it was open at last.
Princess Cathy became the most beautiful woman in the land, and no one asked why Prince Chris looked so similar to her. All their subjects simply assumed that perfection was a similarity. The new ideal of beauty became long blonde hair and blue eyes.
The twins were the kingdom’s darlings, and everyone stopped to pinch their little cheeks.
The flowers bloomed all around them.
And they lived happily ever after.