Prologue

The bottom of the stairs had never felt such a long way down. And it was unclear if this was a good thing or a bad thing.

The Lady Chastity-Claire Babcock, daughter to Stewart Babcock, Duke of Bedford and the richest man in England, was unsure for a number of reasons, and each time she thought about an individual one, she tugged at her dress to make it even straighter than it already was. She was already in danger of pulling a seam loose, at this stage.

When she went to do it again, she balled her fist so it couldn't grasp the fabric and had to settle for ineffectively hitting her in the leg instead. This was her first ball, and she wanted to look just as beautiful as any other lady there.

Not for the same reasons as most of them, however. The night was supposed to celebrate Prince Niles returning from his military training and to aid in finding him a bride. Not that C.C. held any interest in him – she was more concerned about looking elegant for the first time at a place such as Whitehall palace than on finding a husband.

At least she had the anonymity of the masquerade theme if she fell flat on her face. That had to reassure at least a little.

She could hear the heated discussion coming from her sister's room, too, even if D.D.'s voice was currently weakened by sickness.

C.C. couldn't help frowning about it either, her heart both troubled by her sister's illness and full of sympathy. She wouldn't know how she would've reacted in D.D.'s place – her little sister having been sick for quite a few days now. Fever and chills wracked her near-constantly, coming in turn, she was often too weak to stand, she'd vomited more times than C.C. could remember counting...

She knew she would've been upset, too, if she'd had to miss out on the excitement of a ball, for some strange illness that she hadn't managed to shake yet.

D.D. certainly was upset by it.

"Why is she allowed to go and I'm not...?!"

"Because your sister is both old enough and well enough," came her mother's annoyed (and very parental) reply. "It will be your turn, soon enough, my dear! For now, you must stay here and recover!"

C.C. turned away from the noise, not about to jump in where she only knew she'd hinder, rather than help. Taking in a deep breath, she made her way down the stairs to where her father was waiting. His eyes were shining, and his jaw had dropped.

"Kitten...!" he gasped, coming forward to meet her. "You look beautiful!"

C.C. thought she looked better than usual, but she wouldn't have gone so far as to say "beautiful". Her dress, however… that was another thing entirely. It had been custom made for her by the best seamstress in Europe. Only the finest fabrics and threads had been used to create it, it was deep blue in colour and with sapphires sewn into it – how could anyone not look beautiful in such a fine piece of clothing? On a real woman, it'd look like what it was supposed to – an ordinary ride that flowed as naturally with their bodies as the tides did with the sea.

She wasn't one of those women. She wasn't there for the benefit of the Prince, and she certainly wasn't going to be marrying him!

But she had to be gracious about it to her father, and she smiled.

"Thank you, Papa," she took his hands lightly as she closed the gap. "I really appreciate you taking me to this masquerade!"

"It's only right, my sweet girl," her father replied, coming to offer her his arm, "The invitation clearly stated that all marriageable, well-born ladies ought to be in attendance. And, if I might say so, I believe you will outshine them all."

C.C. couldn't help the faint blush in her cheeks – her father was prone to waxing lyrical on her beauty, even if most of the time she didn't feel half as beautiful as he said she was. But it wasn't the time to argue about if, indeed, her attributes were as fair and as legendary as her father claimed. It was time to get moving and go to the palace, where a wonderful party awaited.

She'd heard only wonders about the lavish soirées organised by the monarchic couple. From artists native to distant and mysterious lands to the finest musicians on Earth, their parties had everything to entertain the crowned heads of Europe, and C.C. was certain no expenses had been spared this time, given that the party was in Prince Niles' honour. He was, after all, the heir to the English throne, and the only (surviving) child of King Joseph and Queen Marie.

Truth to be told, she didn't know much about the Prince – although she'd heard through the grapevine that he was a bit of a womanizer – but since she had little interest in marrying him, she couldn't care less.

She only wanted to dance the night away.

And, God willing, she would do so tonight.

It was a few good minutes until her mother finally managed to come downstairs – minutes that she spent being complimented by her father and the gathered servants who wished to see them off. They were saying that she'd surely turn the prince's head! She wasn't sure about that, but she still thanked them all politely.

The compliments only stopped when the servants had to help B.B. with her coat. C.C. then said her goodbyes to her staff and her sister (calling to her from the stairway, as her parents would not allow D.D. to leave her bed and would not let C.C. close enough to catch whatever her sister had), and finally, let her father escort her and her mother to the carriage.

They were off in no time, and the closer to the palace the carriage got, the more excited she was. All the preparation had been fun so far, from picking out dresses and masques to getting ready. And now she finally was almost there!

She could see the palace in the distance if she looked at a certain angle from the window. She had to do so carefully – the servants had pinned her hair back, and she didn't want to turn up looking like a scarecrow instead of a woman. She had to keep out of any potential breeze.

Though if she danced as much as she hoped she would, it was possible her hair would come loose anyway.

Stewart could see her eagerness, without even saying so. He couldn't possibly have denied her this ball – even if it hadn't been commanded by King Joseph.

Besides, he loved seeing her so excited. She was legally a woman now, but to him, she would always be the little girl who'd sit on his knee in the study while he read a great document or two on one subject or another.

This ball would be different, but wonderful nonetheless.

He chuckled, "Having fun, Kitten?"

"Obviously," replied B.B. for her child, giving a good-natured eye-roll at her husband. "She's on the edge of her seat as it is!"

C.C. could only agree. This was her first ball, and she wanted to make the best of it and enjoy her introduction to society as much as she could. Especially since she'd get, for the first time, to dance with a man that wasn't her father.

Not to get her wrong, she cared not for romantic pursuits – she was confident that, in due time, her father would secure a suitable marriage for her – but in a way, this signalled her passage into adulthood.

It was a milestone she'd looked forward to for years now!

"We'd better put our masks on," commented B.B. when the carriage eventually pulled up Whitehall Palace's driveway.

Soon, the Babcocks had their faces hidden beneath their expensive masks; C.C. could hear the blood pumping in her ears.

It was almost time.

Upon descending from the carriage (and since she was a marriageable maiden) she was guided by one of the footmen to the designated entrance for all the young ladies. There were plenty of women waiting there, but they all were entitled to be announced and have their moment of glory in front of the other royals. They would not be announced by their real name, though. They were to use a pseudonym of their own choice – to preserve a sense of mystery, of course.

Unbeknownst to the ladies, the prince was not to be announced – he'd mingled with the rest of the attendants, safely hidden beneath his gilded mask.

At first, he'd thoroughly enjoyed the endless parade of ladies that, in all certainty, were ready and willing to offer themselves to him. But now, after having seen and interacted with countless women, he'd become bored. They were all the same – average-looking, airheaded and, frankly, unmemorable. He'd slept with plenty of maids and whores who were ten times more beautiful than most of the girls in the room, and part of him had begun daydreaming about slipping away of the party and into the nearest brothel…

But soon enough that idea was well out of his head, and his eyes were on the newly-announced marriageable lady – the Lady Bird.

It was as though new life had been breathed into him. With it came the sense of sweet, fresh air filling his lungs, a newfound sense of relaxation, and a renewed ability to appreciate beauty.

And Lady Bird was a beauty, without question. Even with her mask perfectly in place, he could see it. He just had to dance with her (eventually, he obviously couldn't right then) - he had to see her up-close, and talk to her. And it wouldn't be boring small talk, such as the kind he'd been passing off for at least the last five conversations he'd had with women in passing. He'd sooner throw himself from the balcony than talk about what mild weather they'd been having, and how lucky it was that the ball was scheduled for a clear night, for a dozenth (or even more so) time.

Not when there were more interesting topics to be discussed.

Of course, in order to talk about any of them, Lady Bird had to come his way. But at least half a dozen suitors were already making their ways towards her, clearly claiming dances.

That made Niles stiffen, and suddenly he hated the fact that he could only stand. He'd agreed with his father that he'd reveal himself when he was ready, and he had to make an almost inhuman effort not to yank his mask off and demand that all suitors stay away from the Lady Bird.

Not that Lady Bird was her real name – part of the fun was having a pseudonym. And she had certainly chosen one which implied she had a sense of humour.

Ladies were usually to use something that implied the territorial designation taken from their fathers' titles or surnames, but he could not for the life of him figure out which nobleman was the one that had fathered the gorgeous creature!

But, if he found her to be a marriageable prospect, he only needed to find out who her father was and ask for his daughter's hand in marriage.

For the next hour or so, he could only watch how nobleman after nobleman (some of them were even married!) danced with Lady Bird and whispered sweet nothings into her ear. That, obviously, only served to spoil his mood. But finally (and after practically having to elbow his way to her) he got his turn.

"Of course," she said upon his request for a dance, smiling in a way that was making him weak in the knees, "I'd love to dance with you, Lord…?"

"Lord Carrick," he quickly said. "And it's an honour, your Ladyship."

He saw her smile widen beneath her mask, and thought his heart had just grown wings to soar like an eagle.

"Lord Carrick," when she repeated his name, it was like music. "The pleasure is all mine."

He offered her his hand, which she delicately took, and they made their way out onto the dance floor. Even as they went, they parted crowds, both standing tall and magnificent in the middle of the room. She was truly beautiful, even more so when he was stood less than a foot away – her hair was golden, and her dress sparkled in the light as the room's candelabras and chandeliers flickered against the sapphires on her dress.

Everything else fell away for Niles again when they prepared to dance. He had her hands in the correct position, and in the brief moment before the music began, he found himself lost in her eyes.

Bluer than the Mediterranean Sea, and held the promise of twice the adventure.

He was only brought back into the present with the swell of the music, and the subtle nudge with her foot that his partner gave him. He thanked her and apologised for being caught up in the moment. But he thought that that had made him sound particularly inept and awkward, so he tried to be more casual.

"So...Lady Bird," he enjoyed the way his words rolled off his tongue when he was trying to be charming. "You don't look much like an insect."

He couldn't tell if the lady had raised her eyebrows beneath her mask, but from what she said next, he could only imagine that the answer was yes, she had.

"No, my lord – I do not," she replied. "It truly is amazing what a mask and a good dress can hide, isn't it?"

Niles huffed out a laugh and studied her in movement. She was clearly a natural dancer, with wonderful rhythm and flair for music. She was educated and refined. Beautiful and a fashionable dresser. She had wit and intelligence...

She was perfect in every way.

Perhaps...no, it was too early to tell if she was completely the one. He had to at least finish the dance before he made up his mind. Although seeing her there in front of him, movements as graceful and refined as a swan's, made it very hard for him to think that she could possibly be anything less than perfect.

He wanted to keep talking to her, which truly had been a rarity at that ball, and in his interactions with women previously. This one was simply remarkable to him, in every way.

He was determined to show her that he was serious, too.

"It fails to hide your beauty," he told her, not even a breath of it meant in meaningless, empty charm. "Though I suspect neither mask nor shadow could dim that light."

If he had seen her full face, he believed he would've seen her raising an eyebrow, or perhaps even both.

"You certainly are a bold one, my lord," she said. It was a measured response, but playful as well. "Bold enough to declare such a thing to every woman and girl here tonight, perhaps?"

Niles felt his own eyebrows raising beneath his mask. She was clearly teasing him for a chase. And it was a chase that he was prepared to win.

"I only speak the truth in my words, my lady. Empty compliments serve only a selfish purpose," he replied. "I would never call a lady beautiful if I found her otherwise, and there have been many...unique individuals in this room tonight."

That explanation didn't seem to satisfy Lady Bird, who made a disbelieving noise.

"I'm sure there have been," her eyes looked about the room, trying to spot some of the others no doubt.

He knew exactly what she was doing. For some reason, it made him start to worry – what if she did think he might've liked another partner better? He knew he'd declare his intentions in her favour, but he did not want her mind plagued by doubt.

"You will not find anyone that I think more beautiful than you," he said. "And none of them even half as witty or interesting."

Again, the lady appeared to give the impression that she was raising her eyebrows beneath her mask.

"Really…" she stated.

It came without even a hint of a question to it or the tone of flattered and joyous hope that a young maiden might have when she was desperately wishing that the best looking boy in the village really did love her in return. There was only amused sarcasm in her single word, and not a single sign that there was going to be anything else any time soon.

She still didn't believe him, and that made the prince's stomach tighten. How could he make her see that he really was interested in her, and not just leading her on so that he could gain something from it? Or that he wasn't then going to say the same thing to someone else, and smooth talk his way through the night?

They needed to be alone. There were too many other people around that could make her doubt – too many other young ladies he had no intention of ever even speaking to again, once this night was over.

Luckily, he knew that the gardens would be open, and not off-limits. Couples often took walks there during balls, and he'd sometimes wandered out there in order to breathe in some fresh air when the heat of the room became too much...

And he felt like taking in the night air with this Lady Bird.

"Really," he repeated, firmly and sincerely. "And I would certainly be happy to take a walk with you in the gardens, away from the noise, where we might hear each other better."

He really and truly hoped that she would say yes and that what he'd just said hadn't sounded too much in her ears like a proposition. Countless bounders and cads had taken young ladies into gardens for far less chaste and honourable intentions, and he didn't want her thinking that he was going to be one of those men, either.

Even though she would probably immediately think it. She'd immediately thought that he'd intended to use the same honeyed nothings on every young woman in the room, dangling bait like he was fishing for them and triumphing when he landed them.

She didn't trust that he wouldn't throw her away again in the morning.

But she had remained silent for some time, and that sent a spark of hope to his heart as he recognised the signs of her deliberation. She was wondering if she should go, what it could mean if she did (though he intended for nothing untoward to happen), and probably what it could mean if she decided not to go as well...

He couldn't help but try to convince a little more, even if he knew she was still unlikely to take his word into account.

"It is a lovely night out, and we would not go too far," he said. "I feel like we might be able to get to know each other better, away from the crowds."

"Away from prying eyes, too, conveniently enough," replied the mysterious Lady Bird.

"My Lady, I assure you, my intentions are honourable!" exclaimed the prince, feeling himself starting to sweat – he'd never been bothered by women before! He'd never felt nervous our unsure around them before, and yet this young lady's potential rejection was making him uneasy.

He unintentionally held his breath as the Lady Bird considered his invitation, her silence stretching for well over a minute.

"Very well, then," the Lady eventually spoke, bringing their dance to an end and stepping away from him, "Lead the way, Lord Carrick."

That lifted some of the worry (which had been creeping up on him ever faster, as he waited), and he relaxed and silently let out his breath. He obviously didn't want her to hear that he'd been holding it. His father had always told him to never show that he was worried, for anyone or anything, and that went double for women. He'd always said (and continued to say to this day) that they could sense when a man wasn't a real man, and that a lack of interest from them proved that a man wasn't enough of one.

Niles hadn't had trouble in that regard, but he didn't want it to apply to Lady Bird. Even more so in this case than any other he'd ever come across. Not that he would say so just yet – he would wait until the formal announcement, before he declared his intentions.

His real intentions, in this case.

"With pleasure, my Lady," he gave a slight bow – which he thought must have made her roll her eyes yet again, beneath her mask – before taking her hand so that it rested on top of his, and leading her from the room in the direction of the gardens.

Their leaving hadn't gone unnoticed, though. Two sets of royal eyes had been following them the whole way, and the pair that belonged to King Joseph were shining with pride and gleeful delight.

Their boy, leading a girl out of the room into the gardens in the night, where no one would see them...ah, he was already earning his place as a man's man, and he would be able to cover the floors of the palace with the number of women and girls that he'd had, by the time he was king!

Queen Marie, who was already cringing internally, only felt it all get worse as she saw her husband's chest start to inflate with satisfaction, and a smirk start to form on his face as well.

"Well, it seems as though our young stag has found himself a doe to mount for the evening...!"

He practically announced the news to the whole room, he was so loud. He was probably pleased with the fact that their boy was on a fast road to becoming just like him. Stuck with a self-image comparable to Narcissus, believing that he should get his way in everything and be treated like God's gift to women, and never finding or having love because he did not know how to respect a woman, let alone love one.

The very thought made Marie sick.

It only got worse when he continued, "Of course, stags have harems so this might just be the first one of the night...!"

That comment ended Marie's self-imposed silence, "Your son eez supposed to be 'ere to choose a bride, and you applaud 'im for peacocking around?!"

Joseph gave his wife a dirty look, "He is a man, My Lady, and men have needs – needs that are sometimes satisfied by pretty little flowers, such as the one our son has laid his eyes on."

"My Lord!" snapped Marie, her cheeks taking on a bright red hue, "Can't you at least pretend to 'ave some decorum?! Zhe whole of zhe English nobility eez 'ere!"

"I am," replied the King, reaching over for his goblet, which was set atop a small table in between his and Marie's thrones. "If I weren't I wouldn't be sitting here with you, woman."

The implication in his words sliced through Marie, just as he'd expected. He was patient with her most of the times, but the minute she got ideas in her head about policing him on what he could and couldn't do, it was the minute he put her right in her place.

She was his wife. Her sole purpose was to bear his children (something she hadn't particularly excelled at, given the fact they had but one surviving child), satisfy his needs when he desired her to, and be his demure and steadfast support throughout his reign.

To give credit where credit was due, however, he had to admit she was a good wife. Most of the times…

It was a pity that her good qualities were usually sullied by her irritating habit of meddling in his own private affairs. He was a king, but most importantly he was a man. He didn't have to respond to anyone, least of all his wife. He'd carry on in private with whoever he wanted and whenever he wanted, whether Marie liked it or not.

It was something she hadn't gotten used to, throughout their entire marriage. But he had no intention of stopping, or of even slowing down. Why should he, when there were still whores out there who could stroke his ego and other parts in just the right fashion?

Marie had once asked him if he respected her at all. He'd responded that respect was something reserved for men, and that was something he still firmly believed. The more women a man had had, the more worthy he was of respect, too. His son was shaping up nicely, to be worthy of the respect of men the whole world over.

Marie, meanwhile, was thinking just the opposite. If Niles ended up just like his father – a conniving, cheating bastard – he would end up a laughing stock and so would the kingdom. Having two womanising, disgusting... pigs on the throne would only give a reason for other countries to ridicule them! And with ridicule came a loss of respect, and taking advantage of an apparently weak nation soon followed...

Not that Joseph seemed to know, or probably even care about that. His head had been inflated with self-importance since the day he'd been crowned, and all remaining thought had been redirected to the contents of his britches.

It was why she was so desperate for Niles to not end up the same way. Not that it seemed her prayers were being answered on that matter. If he had taken that girl outside to simply have his way and then drop her like a toy he no longer wanted, at the ball where he was due to choose a wife, then she didn't think she could see any more hope that things could be better.

Not to mention that, by the time he was actually married, she'd pity the girl who would have to call her womanizing son "husband".

This was all Joseph's doing! That… that libertine cad! And he had the gall to ridicule her by declaring to everyone who would hear him that he'd rather lie with a common harlot than with his own wife.

"You are disgusting," she hissed, getting to her feet, "And I shall not remain 'ere and listen to your vile words."

"Then leave," said Joseph, waving his hand dismissively, "You are no fun anyway."

He didn't need to say it twice – she was gone in the blink of an eye, her elaborately ornate dress billowing about her as she went. He watched her go with cold indifference as he sipped at his wine and ordered for more food to be brought to him. She'd get over it, eventually – she always did.

Besides, he didn't have the time nor the patience to deal with a woman´s ridiculous tantrum. It was a time for celebration – a night to honour his precious boy and heir.

It was almost impossible to believe that his Niles had turned into a fine young man. He still remembered the day he'd first held him, and how grateful he'd been for his God-given gift. He would be a fine king, Joseph knew, and carry on his legacy.

Although sometimes he wished he was able to do so, he simply couldn't stop time. His boy was growing, and this night was his. Whether he truly and really found a wife or not was unimportant to Joseph. He would get married, eventually. He only hoped that his son realised just how proud he was of him, and how much he wanted for him to enjoy himself.

He looked over, towards the windows that gave to the gardens, and rose his goblet to the air.

"God bless you, my son," he said with a devious smirk, "and may He bless your hunting tonight as well…"


The gardens were just as quiet as Niles had imagined they might be, and a blanket of stars covered the inky black of the night. The breeze was fairly warm, and it made walking around there feel...refreshing...

Of course, that could also have been the presence of his companion. Lady Bird was the most interesting person he'd had the pleasure of listening to and spending time with in...well, a very long time, indeed! She was the sharpest wit he'd ever come across, had the intellect to rival any learned scholar or tutor, and had beauty and grace to match both!

She really was everything a woman could be. And he was genuinely enjoying spending the time with her that they were now occupying – time he'd usually spend trying to ply a woman with enough compliments to get her to agree to come back to his chambers or to just lift up her skirts if they were too far away. And then, when he was done, he'd show them the door – either until the next time he needed a plaything, if they lived or worked around the palace, or forever if they didn't.

He didn't want to do that this time. Lady Bird felt like a rarity, and the thought of casting her aside after some fun was suddenly more uncomfortable than it usually felt.

He...liked her. As a person, not for what he could get from her (though he knew he'd be lying if the thought hadn't briefly crossed his mind). That wasn't something he'd ever thought about anybody before, but he knew that he should get used to it if he was to declare his intentions that night.

Lady Bird seemed, in every way, the perfect choice to declare them for, too.

Neither of them had said much since they'd left the ballroom, but the little talking that had been done had been commandeered by the Lady Bird. He had hung onto her every word, listening intently to her wisdom about the different constellations that littered the night sky.

She was well versed in astronomy, it seemed. He'd never met a woman that knew about stars befo–

"Are you listening to me?!"

Lady Bird's mildly exasperated comment brought him out of his contemplation. Had… had she asked him something? It clearly seemed like it, judging by the look she was giving him! Since when did he lose himself in thought when he was with a woman? He was an avid conqueror of women's hearts, for Christ's sake! Not some brainless poltroon!

"Pardon me, Milady," he quickly replied, bowing to her, "I got lost in thought – you see, I was admiring your knowledge about stars."

"Is that so?" said the Lady Bird disbelievingly.

"Indeed, Milady. I have never met such knowledgeable young lady, astronomy-wise," he replied, "But then again, I have realised that, since you are an angel from Heaven, it makes sense that you know the skies like the back of your delicate hand."

Lady Bird made a short, quiet, most certainly unimpressed noise in the back of her throat. It immediately told Niles that he might have gone too far with what he was saying, but he just hadn't been able to help himself.

But it had already done damage, in her eyes.

"I don't respond to honeyed words, sir," she told him, slipping her hand off his and looking as though she intended to walk away. "Particularly if I know they're hollow, and only intended for one purpose."

Niles felt his stomach tightening at her words and movements. Perhaps she meant to go back to the ballroom, and then she'd probably spend the rest of the evening avoiding him...

He wasn't simply being flattering for the sake of it. He often was, but he knew the difference and he knew that he truly meant what he'd said this time. She wasn't some plaything, like the rest. He wanted her to know that he was being sincere, and saw beyond the body that he'd normally be focused on.

Though how he would do that, he wasn't quite sure.

Maybe...well, he'd never done this for a woman before, but...he could probably start with an apology, and then use that to lead into an explanation that he had been speaking the truth...

He had simply spoken too much truth, without even realising.

He had to think quick, at any rate — she was indeed turning her back on him, intending to return to the ballroom without him!

"Milady, wait!" he cried, rushing past her to block her way, "I...I am deeply sorry if I have offended you in any capacity. My words are true just like my heart it—"

"And how might I know your heart is true, my Lord?" she said, folding her arms over her chest. "Men don't give their hearts easily, and more often than not honeyed words and flattery are but mere illusions of love."

Niles felt himself deflate — what would it take for her to believe him?! He wanted to lay claim on this woman. He wanted her. She had to see! But again, he had to think quickly. He was trading a paper-thin line, and he had a feeling grand gestures — those that would make most women swoon and throw themselves at his feet — would get him nowhere with her.

She wasn't like most women, and as such he couldn't rely on the seducing tactics he normally used.

He had to improvise.

"I know that, Milady," he said, giving a step closer to her and reaching out to hold her hand in his. "I don't blame you for not trusting adorned words. But know this – I have never offered my heart before. This is a...feeling I have never experienced before. My words are true, but if they have offended you, I beg you forgive a foolish man. I only thought they would be a way to convey just how...how much I—"

"Kitten!"

The voice halted him in his tracks and made Lady Bird turn on her heel with a gasp.

She turned in the direction of a figure hurrying faster than Niles had ever seen a man run down the garden path towards them, his face partially in shadow but mostly obscured by his mask.

"Papa?!" she cried, obviously surprised and confused by his presence. "What are you doing here?! What's wrong?!"

So, this man was her father...

The timing could be perfect, even if it did slightly break the tradition (in private – no one would ever know if they then went back up to the palace and ended the ball). Whomever he was beneath that mask, Niles knew what he had to do right then and there. If he could get a quick word in without being interrupted, then maybe he could speak to the man himself about arranging–

"Sweetheart, you must come right now," the man said to his daughter.

What?! They were leaving?! Why?! Niles didn't understand...!

The same questions seemed to be in the mind of Lady Bird, as she looked back at her father, "I don't understand...! Papa, what's going on?!"

The man sighed, before taking on what Niles could see was a grave expression.

"A page came from the house," he explained, starting to look like he was going to crumble. "They...your sister...they found buboes..."

That seemed enough of a reason to Lady Bird. Her eyes widened as her mouth fell open, and all of a sudden she had turned to Niles again.

"I...I have to go," she told him quickly, heading in the direction of her father and starting to disappear into the shadows. "I'm sorry...!"

What? She was going?! She couldn't yet – he hadn't finished! It would only be a minute at the most! He had to be able to find her again, and to tell her what he wanted to say!

Feeling his heart squeeze itself into a knot, Niles took a rushed few steps towards her, "Wait! How will I find you? I don't even know your name!"

But they hadn't stopped. They were still running. He had no way of finding her, and even as he continued to try and follow, they were getting further and further away!

"Wait! Please!" he had never begged a woman for anything before, and yet he was begging now, with a pained heart and a crushed sense coming over his entire body. "Please, don't go yet!"

He could only hear part of her reply as she continued to run and vanish out of sight, just behind her father.

"I'm sorry!"

They were gone before Niles could yell anything further. Part of him swore that he could still hear Lady Bird's crying, echoing somewhere in the night, but he wasn't sure if he was hearing her still, coming from somewhere, or if he was simply hearing it in his own head.

It wouldn't surprise him if it was the latter. Lady Bird had swept her way in there, gone straight through all of him and announced herself in his heart without any warning, and appeared to be there to stay.

Well, the memory of her was. He wouldn't have walked alone back up to the ballroom if she'd still been there for real...

He would have continued to listen to all her fascinating tales and pieces of information. He would have laughed at her jokes, and made his own in turn. He would have asked her to dance again, and then told his father that he was ready to announce his intentions...!

But only part of one of those things waited for him. At the door going back into the ballroom, his father was smirking at him as he leaned against the wall.

Niles could guess why he was looking so pleased – this wasn't the first time he'd left a ballroom with a girl, and his father was always proud when he told him of his latest conquest. Not that anything like that had happened, nor anything else that might have brought even more happiness...

"Well then, my boy," the king began. "How was she? Tight like it was her first time or more of a seasoned harlot than a young lady...?"

Niles felt his stomach churn unpleasantly. He didn't like his father calling her that, but he couldn't say so – he knew it was just how men were supposed to talk about women.

If it were anybody else, he'd happily describe it all for his father. But right then, he couldn't think of it.

Just like he couldn't think of going back into a room full of people having a good time.

He thought he needed to be by himself. Not that he cared to stand around explaining why – he was feeling far too heavy and like he was sinking for that.

"The ball is over," he told his father simply.

Joseph's face dropped its grin, "I'm sorry? What do you mean, "it's over"?"

"I mean that it's over!" Niles repeated, sounding slightly more forceful and turning around. "Tell the guests "thank you for coming" from me. Goodnight, Father."

He then marched purposefully away, heading in the direction of his room, shutting out the voice of his father as he tried to call him back.