Among the noble flowers that have gathered for the ball, the hopeful young ladies in lavender and spring green and pink, she stands out like a rose, red-black as venous blood. The prince sees her from across the grand hall, and wonders how he overlooked her until now. Did the footmen not announce her? Was he distracted when she entered, his time and attention imprisoned by some insipid girl in powder blue? What kept his eye from this beauty?
Drawn to the upswept gleam of her dark hair, the shining silver of her mask, he tries to make his way toward her, but others intervene. Earls and counts, their faces concealed behind suns and stags and stars. Duchesses eager to climb yet higher, to marry their daughters to the royal line. Only one can attain the exalted height of the princely bed, and so they are merciless in their maneuvering, none willing to relinquish the prince's attention to another. He struggles through the press of bodies, only to find she has moved on. His progress is undone by a general he cannot snub. He meets her gaze once, and her black eyes hold him pinned, like a moth transfixed to a card.
Then she is gone, and he cannot find her again.
The morning after the masquerade, his royal parents ask for his decision, whom he will take to wife. His answer displeases them, for it is no decision at all. Another ball, he demands; he must have another opportunity to consider his choices.
And so a second ball is announced. Again the invitations go out; again the parents of potential brides turn to their tailors and jewelers and hairdressers and mask-makers, to render their daughters the loveliest of all.
Again they come, and again he sees her.
She alone wears the same mask and gown as before, silver as smooth as time, silk that flows like blood. He dances with her this night, and her hand rests in his, cool and dry. Her scent he cannot place. Her face is unreadable, hidden as it is; her eyes give nothing away. She does not answer when he asks her name. She does not speak at all.
When he tries to bring her before his parents, just before midnight, she slips from his grasp and vanishes into the crowd.
Guards go in search. They tell him she came in a carriage of pine and wrought iron, drawn by horses black as night. They find no sign of the lady or her escort: only footprints on the palace steps, the muddy tracks of bare feet, that carry an odd smell.
The prince will not be deterred. The marks are measured for length and width, shoes made that will fit such feet. Tiny as they are, few women could wear them. A dozen pairs of the shoes go out, royal servants sent to find their match. And one by one, the kingdom's ladies try them all, and one by one they fail.
Next they turn to the merchants and housewives; they even try the servants and char-women. No woman living within the kingdom's borders can fit into the shoes.
The prince will not listen to reason. No other lady will he accept: only the dark-haired stranger in the crimson dress. So a third ball is convened, at ruinous expense. The nobles and their daughters come once more, filling the hall with their silks and gems, but everyone knows this time is not the same.
As the night draws on, the woman appears again, and dances with the prince. Her silk whispers against his legs as they waltz, and around them the others observe.
The dance concludes. And, as she has done before, she tries to slip away.
But the doors are locked, and guards stand by them; the windows are too high to reach. The light of a thousand candles burns pitilessly as the guests draw back, watching events unfold.
The prince speaks from the dais, making his offer to her. She has no reason to fear. He loves her, only her, and he will make her his bride.
The palace bells begin tolling midnight.
The horses vanish first, outside, where only a few guards and hostlers are present to see. They fade into nothingness, and behind them the carriage drops to the ground, nothing more than a plain pine box.
Her shoes go next, leaving her barefoot on the polished floor, her feet trailing something that is not mud.
Then the dress. Its liquid shine sheets down her body, flowing and puddling on the floor, red-black as venous blood.
Last the mask. Silver fades, lifeless and dull, the sickly grey of a corpse's skin, and then it slips loose and falls, releasing a stench that permeates the hall.
The doors are locked, and the guards cannot find their keys quickly enough. Some climb for the windows, trying escape the creature the prince should have let go, the thing that looked so beautiful in its gown of blood and mask of skin, this horror that was once a living woman. She leaves tiny footprints of rotted slime on the floor as she approaches the prince where he stands, transfixed, on the dais.
He has made his offer, and cannot take it back. The mouth that would scream denial, repudiation, is robbed of its ability to speak.
Tongueless, she cannot voice her acceptance, but as the last stroke of midnight tolls she kneels at his feet and presses her putrid lips to his hand. And so those present, prince and court and all, are drawn away into the realms of the dead, and when the palace servants come the next morning, tremulous with fear, all they find is a trail of footprints, that climb the dais and vanish.