I have always told everyone that I didn't believe in love at first sight. My father has always agreed with my sentiments: "In fact, my boy, there's no such thing as love at all. Merely infatuation of the physical and emotional realms. We become physically attracted to other human beings and from that physical attraction we grow to become emotionally attracted to them until finally we get so confused about the definition and the line between physical and emotional that we calm ourselves by labeling our state 'love.'"
My mother has always brushed me off whenever I have tried to discuss marriage and love with her. "Marriage is a discussion for men and men and for women and women. As for love, I know nothing of it."
The ball was not my idea. Some say that it was mine, that I became so desperate to find love that I finally went to my father and begged him to throw me a ball at which I would choose a wife, rather than have him name a wife for me. All false. All lies. I would never have thought a ball could bring me love, if there was such a thing as love.
The ball, in fact, was simply held as part of the Christmastime madrigal celebrations. "Ball" is not the appropriate term even; "festival," more like. It was to be a three day festival of dancing and eating and music and games, and that's precisely what it was.
It was also when I realized that love at first sight is more than a possibility; it was real.
I remember the first time she entered. She wasn't stunningly beautiful as they've always said. She had no hair of gold or black as midnight or red as the sun. It was brown. Her dress was not pure white or dazzling golden or sky blue. It was green.
And she was barefoot.
Oh, yes, she was. I know the rumors you've heard. Shoes of gold, shoes of grass, shoes of fur, shoes of glass… Nonsense. No, my pretty maid wore nothing on her feet and this made her all the more beautiful to me. She tried to hide it, of course, and perhaps that's where the rumors started. Few people saw her feet because of her long skirts and those who did swore they could see straight through her shoes, for who would go barefoot to the king's festival?
There were no trumpets as she entered and the crowds did not grow silent and no one turned to gawk at her any more than they did at anyone else.
Her mask did not match the rest of her costume. Where the rest of her was springtime, with intricately embroidered leaves and flowers, her masque was plain white.
I did not speak to her that first night.
She fled at midnight, that was true, but the first night I was not worried. I would surely see her again at the following night's festivities.
I spent the day wondering what she was doing. As I woke, I sensed that she woke at the precise same moment. As I ate my meals, I wondered if she ate her meals simultaneously. As I dressed for the ball, I wondered if she dressed for the ball as well.
That night's festivities were wilder than the night before. Singing groups that had found each other the previous evening were now performing together, jugglers were everywhere, and you couldn't take three steps without tripping over a flutist or a fiddler or a piper.
There were two girls there that night that I vaguely remembered from the previous night, only this night they were far more determined to catch my attention. The one wore pink and the other mauve and they both smelled as if they had had far too much to drink. They were not ugly girls by any means, they both had long, swanlike necks and flaxen hair done up in a series of curls, but they batted their eyelashes far too much and giggled like there were a thousand invisible fingers tickling them at every waking moment.
It was as these two girls fought for my attention that I noticed her. Her gown was autumn that night and she wore the same white mask.
Her feet were bare again.
As I approached her, she looked somewhat alarmed, although she was not watching me but rather the two fair-haired girls that trailed me. They did not seem to pay much attention to her, however, and eventually we managed to lose them in the crowd of entertainers.
I admitted to watching her the previous evening and she made a similar confession. I asked who she was and where she hailed from. She told me she came from northern France, although there was not a hint of French in her dialect. She told me she was a princess and I knew she lied, for I had met all of the French princesses, but I decided to ignore her lies and fed her a lie of my own: "I don't believe in love at first sight."
Well, I believed it was truth then.
"I do." She told me a tale of two lovers, a man and a woman. The woman was sleeping beside a brook when the man fell in love with her and he decided to declare his love by kissing her until she woke. He did so and when she woke, she did not protest, but rather fell in love with him instantly. "They were my parents. But they're dead now."
"Who do you live with then? Surely you are not alone?"
Before she could answer the clock struck midnight and she fled. I called after her and begged her to wait, but the two fair-haired sisters, now thoroughly drunk, seized the opportunity to distract me with their froglike singing.
I did not sleep that night. I sat in the castle's courtyard until dawn, ripping up grass and chewing on flowers, thinking only of her.
I dressed carefully that night. She, I had decided, was to be my wife and the Queen of my country. I did not care who she was beneath that mask, I did not care that she lied about hailing from France, I did not care that she wore no shoes. I only knew that I would have her hand in marriage before midnight at that evening's festivals, or she may be lost to me forever.
The two girls had returned, not smelling so strongly of alcohol this night. They dressed in flashy fashion and spoke to me of how carefully they had chosen their clothing and tried to crowd my eyesight with visions of diamonds and emeralds on their fingers and round their necks. They could not hold my attention for I was searching for her too desperately.
She arrived later than usual and wore pure white this time, not a speck otherwise. She wore the same mask; tonight, it matched.
Her feet were bare again. It was quickly becoming an endearing quirk.
She avoided me all evening. I found myself dancing with the two fair-haired girls, but watching her dance with other gentlemen. I managed to corner her before too long.
"May I have a dance?"
"Please don't." She did not accept the hand I had offered, but lowered her chin and closed her soft eyes. "Please…"
I tried to lift her chin. "Do you not love me as I love you?"
Her lips trembled. "I love you… I do. But I… I've lied to you, my prince, and I cannot deserve to dance with you."
I knelt before her. "You deserve tonight's dance and so much more, my pretty one." I suddenly longed to see her face, to see more than those pretty pink lips, more than just dark eyes shadowed by the mask. "You deserve the dance of life, the dance of… of love. Only tell me your name and I will be yours forever."
"I cannot tell you, my prince."
Without a second thought, I tore the mask from her eyes. She looked up in panic and I was greeted by a wounded face – a pink scar tore across her forehead, between her eyes, and down onto one of her cheeks and she bore a set of purple bruises around her left eye.
The sisters stormed up behind me. "You!" the taller one screamed, directing her attention to the exposed girl before me. "Why are you here? Get home!"
"Cinderwench!" the younger snapped. "Fireface!"
Covering her face, my pretty one burst into tears and fled the festivities. No one batted an eye and the sisters immediately turned their attentions back to flattering me.
I stood still and silent. I did not follow her. I did not run. And I have no bigger regret.
I don't remember much else of last night. I have no shoe to find my beautiful one, my Cindergirl, I suppose. I have only a white mask and a set of memories.
But now I realize that I have more than that. I have love.
I throw the mask in the fire and watch it burn. I wish she had never hid behind that wretched mask. She is beautiful as she is. Nothing she could ever hide behind would change that.