As Helene and her sisters climbed slowly back up the long staircase in the early morning, she tried to summon up the determination and pride she used to feel - but she only felt tired. It had been another long night of dancing, and she could hardly bear to face the thought of doing it all over again the very next night.
The underground ball had been brilliant as usual: candles blazing, the fairies' sumptuous clothing gleaming in the light, the smell of delicious food almost overwhelming.
By this time the fairy balls were familiar. She and her sisters had been attending nightly for - oh, too long, ever since the fairy king saw them dancing at the solstice ball two years ago and came to her with his devil's bargain. She knew which of the fairy men were the best dance partners, and knew how to maneuver the situation to spend most of the night with them. She knew which fairies had the most political power, and took care to keep on their good side as much as she could. And she knew better than to take the current situation for granted.
The first night after she and her sisters had made their pact with the fairies, Helene was so relieved that she was giddy all night, barely noticing how tired her legs became, how worn-out her slippers. Everything was charming to her. She'd known she and her sisters had saved their kingdom, and the knowledge was intoxicating.
Now she was more wary. After all, the agreement had a cost: the fairies would only refrain from usurping their father's kingship for as long as she and her sisters graced their balls. If even a single sister failed to appear for a single night, everything would be over and their kingdom forfeit.
Helene enjoyed dancing, but so much dancing would take a toll on even the hardiest woman.
She collapsed into bed and was asleep before she could even remove her dancing slippers.
When she woke the day was well advanced, though her sisters were still asleep. When she went to dress, her maid let her know she was summoned to see the king her father. She went, still yawning.
"My dear," said the king, as Helene came into the room, "Will you still not tell me what you and your sisters do each night?"
"I will not," she said, as dignified as she could.
The king sighed. "You know I worry about all of you. And you are the eldest, and should be more responsible."
Responsible - that's exactly what she was being. The fairies had made their silence a condition of the agreement. She could not tell anyone, not even her father, who most ought to know. She said nothing, and the king sighed again.
"You refuse to tell me anything. You have evaded the watch I set on you. You humiliated my chief of guard when he stood watch himself. What am I supposed to do? Something is wrong."
Helene said nothing again.
"I am putting out a proclamation," the king said heavily. "Any man who wishes may make the effort to learn what my daughters do at night, and if he succeeds he may marry whichever daughter he chooses."
"As you command," Helene said, curtsied perfunctorily, and left without being dismissed.
This was a complication indeed. They would be inundated with impudent men who would feel entitled to behave in the worst ways in order to win their prize. The guards had at least been professional and respectful.
She returned to the room she shared with her sisters and shut the door. "Wake up," she said sharply.
"Leave us to sleep," Cateline moaned.
"We have a problem," Helene said. "Wake up."
Groaning and muttering, the other eleven slowly roused themselves. Marguerite, the youngest, rubbing her eyes, said, "What's wrong?"
Helene sat down on her bed and said, "We're going to have a watch again. But worse this time - Father's promised one of us in marriage to any man who can find out what we're doing."
"Let them," Jehanne said. "We'll fool them like we did the guards, no problem." Her smile was sharp. "We're clever, and they'll be either too infatuated or too power-mad to be thinking straight."
"But we have to be prepared," said Clarimond. "Liliola, you'd better be the one to steal more opium from the stillroom. You're the best at going unnoticed."
Liliola nodded her agreement.
"Do it today," said Helene. "We don't know how much time we'll have until the first one shows up."
"All right, we've got a plan, can I go back to sleep now?" Cateline said.
Clarimond threw a pillow at her. "This is important," Clarimond said. "Far more important than your sleep. Have you forgotten what will happen if we fail?"
Cateline glared. "We'll be fine, stop fussing."
"We'd be fine but our kingdom wouldn't be, if we fail," Helene said, exasperated. "You know how the fairy king rules in the land below. If he usurps our father, what do you think will happen to our land? Our people?"
"It'll be all right, Helene," Ysabeau said. She crossed the room to sit beside Helene, and took her hand. "You know how capable we are. We won't fail."
Helene hoped this would be true.
But Ysabeau was right - the hopeful suitors came night after night, and each time the sisters were easily able to drug the men into sleep before slipping away down the trapdoor into the fairy kingdom below. They talked with with the hopefuls each night at dinner, and were able to learn their weaknesses. For the lecherous men they sent Cateline, the prettiest sister; for the arrogant and self-congratulatory men they sent Marguerite, the youngest and most innocent-looking sister; for the nervous or timid they sent Jehanne, the most carelessly confident sister. The men all drank the wine unsuspecting. And the dancing continued each night as usual. The sisters relaxed into the new routine, and giggled with each other over the obtuseness of the princes.
Then they got a hopeful who seemed worryingly competent. A retired soldier, sharp-eyed and limping, made his bow to the princesses and asked careful leading questions over dinner. Helene quickly made the decision that she had best monopolize his conversation, so that her younger sisters wouldn't be drawn into revealing something they didn't mean to say.
Helene and the soldier, whose name was Michel, were shortly deep into a conversation about the political ramifications of the latest military skirmishes with their neighbouring country to the south. The conversation ranged from there into other matters, and the end of the dinner came as a surprise to Helene. She had enjoyed talking with Michel, much more than she'd expected.
After she and her sisters retired to their quarters for the evening, there was unanimous agreement that Helene should be the one to deliver the drugged wine to Michel, as the two had built a rapport over dinner.
Helene carried the wine to the adjoining room. He thanked her for the wine and drank it down, but there was a gleam in his eye that made Helene wonder what he was thinking.
And shortly he was snoring gently on his bed. Success for another night. The princesses put on their dancing finery, glanced through the open door to make sure he was really asleep, and called up the trap door.
That night there were a few odd happenings on their familiar journey to the underground castle. Marguerite's dress caught on the stairs, there was a loud crack as they passed through the forest, and one of the boats traveled more slowly than usual. At first Helene thought nothing of it, but as they entered the resplendent ballroom, she remembered who their watcher was that evening: the clever, thoughtful, resourceful ex-soldier. Had he perhaps found a way to follow them?
But she cast aside the thought the moment she had it, because now that they had arrived she had a duty. She turned to the nearest fairy gentleman, curtseyed gracefully, and accepted his hand for the first dance.
But throughout her dancing she was distracted from her role as a conversational partner, because it was clear there was something going on. An ever-changing cluster of fairies stood at the side of the dance floor, whispering with each other. And the fairy king spent more time talking than dancing - highly unusual.
Near the end of the night, when Helene was growing weary, she managed to finagle a dance with the king.
"You seem distracted tonight," she commented to him when they were well engaged in the set.
"Nothing of the kind, pet," he said. "Indeed, I am very focused." Focused on what, he didn't say. He smiled his inhumanly lovely smile as the pattern of the dance drew them closer, and she knew better than to look away.
When their dancing shoes were all worn out, it was time to return home again, where the sisters collapsed exhausted into their beds once more.
When Helene rose the next day, it was to discover that Michel had requested a private audience with her. She dressed with care, and met him in the lilac room, an understated sitting room not often used politically.
He rose when she entered, and they exchanged courtesies then sat down.
"I wanted to talk with you before going to your father," he said.
Helene remembered her concerns from the previous night. She had been right to worry, it seemed. "About what?" she asked warily.
He paused, then said bluntly, "I followed you last night. I saw you and your sisters dance with the fairies underground."
"Did you," she said. "How strange, for we were asleep in our beds all night." She wouldn't let her liking for this man draw her into admitting anything.
"Of course." He smiled slightly. "I must have dreamed it. Such a vivid dream. But tell me - if you did dance nightly with the fairies, and you had a reason for doing so, would you desire an escape from the obligation?"
With dignity she replied, "If I were doing such a thing, I would only cease if the reason for doing so were no longer a factor."
Michel leaned forward. "Let me help you," he said. "I know how mercurial fairies can be, and last night they seemed entirely delighted by me. Perhaps I can use their fondness to alter your case with them."
And the strange thing was, she believed him, believed he wanted to help them.
Their arrangement with the fairies couldn't last forever, Helene knew. Someday one of the twelve sisters would be too sick to dance, or injured, or even dead. They might have years until this calamity or it might happen tomorrow. They needed a more reliable long-term plan.
But she was bound by the terms of the agreement. She couldn't openly discuss the matter with anyone.
"Thank you for your kindness of your intentions," she said. "If this dream were reality, I am sure I would be appreciative of any true assistance you could give. But dreams are not worth discussing."
Michel stood. "I understand. Thank you for your time, Princess," he said. "I will wait for another night or two to pass before speaking with your father, I think."
Helene nodded at him, and he bowed and departed. When he was gone, she sank back into her seat, almost dizzy with hope. She had never anticipated something like this. She had never dared think that they might be able to recruit assistance without hardly saying a word, that they might someday be free of the burden of this pact.
Of course, Michel might not be able to come through. Helene liked him, and respected his abilities, certainly. But she didn't know him well enough yet to be able to trust.
Well, she would find out within a day or two if he was worthy of her trust. Taking a breath, she stood, straightened her gown, and left the room.
That night things proceeded as they had the previous night. Michel was not in obvious attendance, but all the fairies were atwitter with something, and the fairy king was even more distracted than before.
And when Helene met with Michel the following day, he was glowing with hopeful pleasure.
"The fairies are willing to make a new agreement!" he said.
Helene couldn't help but smile in return, but her words were measured. "The fairies of your dream?"
"Yes - of course, you cannot talk about it. But I will tell you what I have discussed, and you can indicate your feelings on the matter, at least."
Helene nodded, and Michel continued. "The fairies, out of their great liking for me - I am a favourite because I can no longer dance, you know." He indicated his lamed leg. "So I'm no threat on a dance floor." He paused, uncertain, and Helene nodded encouragingly. "They have decided," he said, " that the only acceptable substitute for their king as ruler of your kingdom is - myself." He sounded embarrassed.
"I did not suggest this for my own benefit. It was the fairy king's idea, and once he seized upon it he would not be swayed. If you married me, if you would not object, I would become heir. The fairies would be content with this, and allow your father to rule the rest of his life, and you and your sisters to be free of your obligations at the fairy balls, so long as you and I are the inheritors of this kingdom." He paused again. "You would not mind it, being married to me?"
Helene, having listened to this unromantic proposal in mounting hope, responded with a peal of joyful laughter. Michel startled for a moment, and began to back away, until he looked at her face and understood. She held out her hand to him, smiling unrestrainedly, burbles of laughter still threatening to escape, and he took it.
They smiled at each other in happy agreement, clutching each other's hands. Michel said, "You will have to return for one last dance tonight, when I will formalize the arrangement with the fairy king. Then you will be free, and we can tell your father tomorrow."
"I like your dreams," Helene said.
That night, just before it was time to go to the dance, Helene turned to her sisters and said, "Tonight is the last night."
"What has happened?" Clarimond said, in a shocked tone. "Surely you don't intend to give up!"
Helene made a shushing gesture, cutting off the exclamations of the others. "With Michel's help, we have a new arrangement with the fairies. We don't need to dance for them anymore. Our dancing will be for ourselves again."
"He hasn't been following us!" Marguerite exclaimed.
Doubtfully, Ysabeau said, "You trust this man?"
"You'll see," said Helene, and she knocked on the door of the adjoining room to call Michel over.
When they descended the steps, Michel followed, fully visible. And when they reached the underground palace, Michel and the fairy king bowed to each other as equals. "I accept your agreement," Michel said clearly, and he and the king shook hands solemnly.
There was a momentous pause, the air pregnant with expectation, broken by a sudden wild peal of bells.
As the clangs died off in the distance, the musicians raised their instruments and struck up a lively dance tune.
"And now we dance!" said the fairy king. "A final celebration of appreciation for the twelve ladies who have graced our presence for years."
A general cheer went up through the hall, and the floor was soon filled with dancers.
Helene accepted the fairy king's hand for the dance, her heart feeling as light as it had at her very first dance in this land, so long ago. She and her sisters were free, her kingdom was safe, and she would be marrying a man worthy of her trust and affection.
She danced with joy.