With a heavy sigh, I sat down on the edge of the roaring fountain, letting the cool mist chill the back of my neck. Mother would have been furious if she had seen me sitting there in my expensive, custom-made gown. But at the time, I couldn’t have cared less. I just needed time to myself, and the royal garden was the only place where that seemed possible.
I tilted my head back and closed my eyes, allowing the blessed outdoor quiet to flood my ears. A gentle breeze played through the late evening, rustling the willows and wafting heavenly scents through the air. I smiled as an owl hooted its benevolent call in a nearby tree. In neighboring fountains, bullfrogs croaked and chirped to each other from atop their giant lily pads. I could still hear the string quartet faintly in the background, but their sharp notes no longer pierced my eardrums.
I opened my eyes and saw naught but stars and treetops above me. Tiny pinpricks in the navy blue of the sky were shaped by the dark shadows of the tall willow trees, blinking in and out. I gazed up at them, remembering the constellations we had learned from our governess and slowly tracing them with my eyes. The air was slightly chilly—normal for late October—but although I shivered, my goosebumps mattered about as much as having my dress seated on the fountain wall. Yes, sitting there was much better than being in that stuffy ballroom, with the chatter and the gossip and the pushing…
I should have been flattered, really. Not many sixteen-year-olds were invited to that particular ball. In fact, sixteen-year-olds rarely attended at all, as sixteen is considered a bit young for dancing and late-night frivolity. Actually, when the invitation first arrived at my parents’ mansion, my heart leapt. A night alone again, I thought excitedly. My sisters, eighteen-year-old Diana and nineteen-year-old Gwen, would of course be the ones invited. Mother and father would attend as well. Mother would spend her night scouting the young men for my sisters’ potential husbands, while Father would conduct business with the other nobles and lords of court. I had never been to a ball, but the stories my sisters ecstatically recounted to me the next morning always sounded dull to me. I had never been much of a dancer, for one thing, and the gossip they chattered on about always made me uncomfortable. It almost sounded like they couldn’t be themselves when they spoke to other people there.
So imagine my surprise, and my disappointment, when the invitation included the entire family. My sisters had a wonderful laugh as they thought of me awkwardly dancing with some lord’s son, tripping over my own feet or stepping on his toes. They mockingly told me that, “You’re not allowed to play with the king’s dogs. You know that, right, Kitty? And there won’t be any vagabond boys to play stickball with.” It was all in good fun for them—my sisters love me, really—but their point was clear: I am not suited for balls.
I had pleaded with my parents to let me stay at home. No matter how hard I begged and cried, though, Mother and Father insisted I come along, as I was invited and should be honored. All I remember feeling is my heart sinking to my feet. Balls are for girls who are graceful, proper, beautiful, poised, and unwavering in their etiquette. While I was no poor peasant girl (my father was a knighted lord, after all), I was easily the least ball-oriented child in the family. Unlike Gwen and Diana, I rode my horses fast along the trails, played in the kennels with the hunting dogs, and (when I could get away with it) ran with the local boys through the city streets. I loathed etiquette lessons, I stumbled through dancing, and I hated tight-fitting corsets and blister-causing slippers. My parents were disappointed in me, I knew, for not growing into a proper woman worthy of marriage into a rich household, but I didn’t know how to be that way. I tried—really, I did—to dance well, stand this way, eat that way, and look beautiful, but I could never seem to manage it the way my sisters did.
So, there I sat, longing to play fetch with Bailey, my favorite hunting dog. She was probably whining at the door of her kennel, wondering where her friend was. We usually played around that time of night, when my sisters had retired to their rooms and Mother and Father were sitting in the den. A loud and boisterous cheer suddenly exploded from the ballroom, making me start. It was the breaking of the piñata, a tradition assimilated from our western neighbors into our late-fall celebration of All Souls’ Night. As the cheer dimmed to a loud rustle, I pictured millions of treats—candies, small favors, coins—falling like rain from the enormous paper lion that was suspended from the ballroom ceiling. Then courtiers of all shapes, sizes, and costumes converged on the dance floor, grasping at whatever they can reach. My sisters would gorge themselves, surely.
All Souls’ Night is an annual holiday dedicated to the fall equinox, when it is believed that the spirits of our ancestors walk the earth in search of us. If we’re found, the malevolent dead will seep into us, telling us our futures and torturing us with guilt over past wrong-doings. To fool them, we dress in costumes, hiding our identities until morning. Few still hold to this paradigm, though, and prefer the more modern view that All Souls’ Night is a time to be anyone except oneself. Costumes are no longer for hiding but for attracting. Ladies wear plunging necklines and flirt openly with men wearing transparent shirts. Adults drink heavily, children gorge themselves on candy, and parties run late into the night. It can be dangerous sometimes, which is partly why I was so surprised to be invited at that age, but All Souls’ is also a time for breaking rules and traditions, so I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised me too much.
That year, to keep my ornery late grandmother from yelling at me over some slight I dealt her as a child, I was a rose. I was wearing a floor-length red dress with a long, billowing skirt that mimicked flower petals whenever I moved. My bodice was covered with a layer of delicate red lace, which then continued upon my shoulders into simple transparent sleeves that traveled to my elbows. My long brown hair was twisted up into a complicated style at the back of my head, decorated with small, clear glass beads that mimicked the dewdrops that collect on flower petals in the morning. These same beads also formed my necklace and earrings. My eye mask was the same shade of red as my dress, and covered in the same lace as my bodice. In either corner, just over my temples, were real, fully-bloomed red roses. I could no longer smell them, but when the mask was first placed on my face, it was all I could do to prevent my eyes from watering at their overpowering aroma.
Honestly, I really hated my costume. It was Mother’s idea, all of it. She had the city’s most renowned dress maker custom-make everything, ensuring that no other young woman at the ball would look the same. My lace overlays were hand-crafted by artists overseas. The fabric was even imported. It was an outfit fit for a princess, but I felt like a fool. Walking through the ballroom the first time, I had received dozens of complements from men and woman alike on how beautiful I looked, but I didn’t believe any of them. As far as I was concerned, it was impossible for me to be as intoxicating as Gwen, dressed as a butterfly and complete with wings, or Diana, dressed as a peacock with her lovely colors and feathers. They certainly looked like they belonged there, but I wanted nothing more than to get out.
I finally became restless as I sat on the fountain wall, and I had to get up and walk. I wandered further away from the palace, slowly making my way through the gardens, leaving all the noises of the ball behind me. I thought about how angry Mother must have been at not being able to find me. She probably had three or four rich young men lined up to meet me, hoping they will be either too drunk or too stupid to spot my un-ladylike nature before it’s too late. My attire, she no doubt hoped, would mask my flaws just long enough for one of them to make a commitment.
I pushed these thoughts away as I passed fountain after fountain, and crossed bridge after bridge over slow-moving streams. I had no idea where I was going, and no idea how to return to the palace, but I was at peace as the quiet enveloped me, and that was all that mattered. Perhaps being out here, I thought, will rush the night forward, and it will be over by the time I return.
I wandered for what seemed like hours, until suddenly I heard a new sound. Well, it wasn’t really a new sound—I had certainly heard it many times before—but it was unexpected. I heard barking. I took a few more steps in the direction of the sound, and then I was sure. It was the baying barks of hunting dogs.
I lifted my skirts and rushed forward. Sure enough, on the opposite side of a tall hedge, I found the royal kennels. Nearly five dozen hounds were in their cages, lined up neatly in the meticulously-mown grass. Most were already asleep in their small shelters, or sat quietly against their fences, but a few were still very much awake. My heart leapt as I walked along the cages, watching as the dogs jumped to greet me, bayed for attention, or simply looked up from their sleeping spots. I don’t know what it is about them—their wagging tails, their smiling snouts, their cute floppy ears—but I have always loved dogs. To me, they are the friendliest of creatures. Unless you’re a fox, of course.
One hound in particular caught my attention. It was the one making the most noise. I found him in the very last kennel of the row, and again and again, he howled up at the sky. He seemed to be barking at nothing at all, simply making noise for the sake of making noise. I strode up to his cage and, unlike all of the others, there was no name plate on his.
“Cease!” I demanded, thrusting out my hand with my palm facing him. It was a command that Father used with his dogs whenever they became too rambunctious. The nameless hound fell quiet immediately, his bright eyes locked onto mine as his tail whipped back and forth, waiting for another command. Like the other dogs, he was barely knee-height, with short brown fur and a mantle of black. His white paws seemed to glow against the dark grass, and his dark eyes shone with intelligence.
I put my hands on my hips. “There now, what was all that noise about?” I asked him. “You’re disturbing your brothers and sisters.”
The dog whined in response, then sank into a play bow, his hind quarters in the air with his front end plunged into the grass.
“Oh, is that what you want? You want someone to play with?” I asked. Hunting dogs are highly trained, so I felt no fear as I moved forward and unlatched the cage, opening the gate and releasing the dog. Sure enough, he bounded back to his shelter and retrieved a bright red rubber ball before leaping out into the open. He stopped just in front of me and dropped the ball at my feet.
I laughed. “Would you like me to throw that?” I asked. The hound sank into another play bow and yipped at me.
“All right,” I said, picking up the ball. “Go get it, boy!”
I threw the ball as hard as I could away from the kennels and into the open field beyond. The dog took off like a bullet, kicking up grass as he bolted after his toy. He slowly vanished into the dark, where the only hint of his whereabouts was the thudding of his paws on the earth. In no time, he comes darting back to me with the ball in his mouth, bounding to a stop at my feet. He looked up at me, wagging his tail back and forth with the ball held firmly in his jaws.
“Leave it,” I said, pointing to the ground. Without hesitation, the dog obediently dropped the ball at the hem of my skirt. I thanked him and took it up again. Just as before, he was more than happy to bring it back to me. “What a good boy you are,” I cooed.
I threw the ball again and again, trying to get it as far away as possible to give the dog exercise. As I watched him happily dash away and return every time, I could feel all the stresses of the day begin to unravel. As they always did when I played with my father’s hunting dogs, my muscles began to relax. Suddenly my corset didn’t feel quite as tight, breathing came easier, and my heart wasn’t pounding anymore.
“Wow, that’s amazing.”
All at once, my tension returned. I gasped and whipped around, searching for the source of the voice. Cursing the dark, I scanned the surrounding yard, and my eyes fell on a young man standing against a nearby tree. He could have been standing there the entire time, and I never would have known. It was so dark by then that he blended in with the background.
Before I could stop him, the dog I’d been playing with rushed past me, dropping his ball and barking excitedly as he bounded up to the newcomer. The young man bent down and greeted the dog affectionately, scratching behind his ears and rubbing his back. The dog rolled over and let the young man scratch his chest and belly, kicking his leg again and again. It was like they had known each other all their lives.
In honor of the holiday, the young man was in costume. He was dressed as an Arabian dancer, wearing a loose-fitting shirt and pants that came alive with colors. His eye mask was bright orange, which shone brightly against his glossy jet-black hair.
“How long have you been standing there?” I asked nervously, wrenching my hands together.
“Long enough,” the young man said with a laugh. He rose and walked towards me with the dog in tow, picking up the ball on his way. When he reached me, he grinned widely, flashing bright white teeth.
“I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m sorry,” he said genuinely, patting the dog on the head. “Seriously, though, I can’t believe you actually got him to play fetch. He doesn’t listen to anyone.”
“Oh?” was the most intelligent thing I could think to say. What the young man said surprised me, since I had such an easy time getting the dog to obey me, but I was still so scared that I couldn’t quite find my voice.
“Yeah. You got him to quit barking, too. I don’t think anybody’s been able to do that.”
“He’s a good boy,” I said.
The young man laughed again. It was an easy laugh, as if he hadn’t a care in the world, and it starts to put me at ease. “He’s good for you, maybe, but he can’t go hunting with the others because no one can get him to listen.”
I recoiled. “Really?” I asked. It made me sad to hear this. He was a hunting dog, after all. He should have been out running after foxes with his brothers and sisters, not sitting back in a cage while he watched the others go out. No wonder he wouldn’t listen. No one would give him the chance.
“Maybe if you tried taking him hunting, he would listen more. He barks so much because he’s bored. He needs exercise to tire him out. He just needs a little extra attention is all.”
The young man looked up at me, and I felt a sense of dread. Great, there I go again, opening my big mouth and being completely un-ladylike. I should have just kept quiet. That’s what my governess would have told me to do.
But the young man didn’t scold me, nor did he shy away from this girl who clearly didn’t know her place. He looked up at me and tilted his head to one side, as if he had never considered this option before.
“You think so?” he asked. “You think he could start hunting with the others?”
“With the right kind of attention,” I answered, a bit more confidently.
“I guess you’re right,” the young man conceded. “Whenever we play with the dogs, it’s always in groups, and commands are given to the hunting party instead of to individual dogs, so maybe all he needs is one-on-one training. I’ll have to try that out.” He looked up at me. “Thanks,” he said with another wide and friendly grin.
“Um…sure,” I answered uncertainly.
I watched as the young man routinely put the dog back into his cage. He opened the gate, and the dog immediately retreated into his shelter. He laid down obediently and put his head on his paws, closing his eyes. The young man laughed and shook his head in disbelief, as if marveling at how easy it was to get the dog to go to sleep for the night. He looked down at the red rubber ball still in his hand, bounced it on his palm a few times, then put it in his pocket.
“So you look after the dogs?” I asked.
The young man snickered. “You could say that.”
“Then why doesn’t he have a name?” I asked.
He shrugged. “No one’s ever given him one. He’s so disobedient that he doesn’t get a lot of attention, so no one has bothered to try. I just keep calling him Trouble.”
I sighed sadly. Poor baby, I thought.
“Did you want to give him one?” he asked.
Startled at the opportunity to name a royal hunting hound, I walked up to the cage and looked in at the animal nestled inside his shelter. He looked like he was already asleep. I looked at the way his head gently sloped, and at his long and muscular legs. Whenever he ran, it was always with a straight back and upright tail. He moved as if he thought very highly of himself, as if he knew he was handsome. It was the way I had always imagined royalty moving—as if they know they’re a cut above the rest.
“Prince,” I said.
This elicited another snicker from the handler. “Prince, huh?” he asked.
“I think it suits him,” I answered. “What’s so funny?”
“Nothing,” he said in response. “It’s perfect. His name is Prince.”
We stood there for awhile, watching as Prince’s chest heaved up and down with sleep. After a bit, I noticed his paws beginning to twitch, and his tail started to flop up and down on the soft padding in his bed. His breathing became slightly irregular, and his snout started to quiver.
“He’s dreaming,” I said with a giggle.
“Yeah. I wonder what about?” the young man said.
“Probably catching that ball,” I suggested. “Or a fox.”
He laughed. “Maybe.”
We stood awkwardly together for another minute or two before I felt like I had to break the silence. “Well, I should probably be getting back to the ball,” I said.
The young man barked with laughter, this time sounding slightly venomous instead of happy. “If you want, but trust me, there’s no rush. They’re still celebrating as strongly as they were when the ball started. But come on, I’ll escort you.”
He straightened his back and offered me his arm. I took it uncertainly, unsure how to read his unwavering kindness. Who was this man? Why was he out here too when he could have been celebrating?
“Shall we take a turn about the garden first?” he asked. “It will still be a few hours before the party dies down, and I am in no rush to return.”
“Nor I,” I responded. “Okay, if you know your way around. I found my way here by accident.”
He laughed. “Not to worry, I know these gardens very well.”
We started down the way I had come, emerging from the kennel yards and onto the garden path. As we wandered, we began to talk. We started with the subject of hunting dogs and all the different hounds we had owned, both good and bad. When that subject ran dry, we moved easily on to whatever came to mind: music, plays, dancing, recreational activities, and even the flowers lining the path. There were periods of quiet as well, but they were not awkward. In fact, the more we talked, the more comfortable we were with each other. As we conversed, meandering aimlessly through the royal gardens, I felt more and more that I didn’t have to adhere to my etiquette lessons for guidance on what to say or how to speak. My companion smiled and laughed at just about everything I said, and his easy-going nature put me at peace and boosted my confidence. In turn, I found the young man very interesting. He had worked with hunting dogs since he was very young, enjoyed fast rides through the woods, and even liked reading. We found that we have a good deal in common.
As the mood lightened more and more, I found myself studying the contours of his face, trying to imagine what it would look like without the eye mask. I kept my grip on his arm, and my face flushed when I felt the hardened muscles beneath. I had been around plenty of boys before, but this one made me feel different from the others. He wasn’t a boy, I realized, he was a man.
But, at long last, it was time for us to return to the ball. The young man had been slowly circling us back to the doors from which I had escaped hours earlier, and I could hear the faint sounds of the string quartet again. The merriment sounded just as rowdy as it had when I left, and I prayed that my family was ready to depart for home, even though I didn’t want to leave my new friend.
As we came to the fountain where I first sat down, the young man stopped me, pulling me so we faced each other. His sudden closeness made me nervous, but not the same way the ball did. This nervousness was in my chest instead of my stomach, and it made my heart leap the same way it had when I first found the royal kennels. I looked up, and for the first time, I could see his eyes through his mask. They were deep brown, so dark they’re almost black, and they shone with a friendly, carefree warmth.
“I feel terrible asking this question so late after meeting you,” he said quietly, “but it occurs to me that I don’t know your name.”
I recoiled because it hadn’t yet occurred to me to ask for his name either. I guess it didn’t really matter, since we were getting along so well. Still, it would have been helpful to know.
“I’m Ki—er—Katherine,” I answered awkwardly. “Lord Williams is my father.”
“Katherine, huh?” the young man said with a sly smile. “You hesitated. What were you going to say?”
I smiled shyly at the ground. “Kitty,” I murmured. “My family calls me Kitty for short.”
He nodded and smiled even wider, making my heart flutter. “I like Kitty much better.”
“Thank you,” I said meekly. “So do I.” Suddenly I was frightfully aware that there might be mud at the hem of my dress, and that my heavy eye makeup might be smudged. I felt my cheeks grow hot.
“Would you care to dance?” my companion asked.
Oh no, I thought dismally. Just what I’ve been afraid of. My giddy happiness gave way to dread. The last time I had danced with a boy, I had nearly broken his little toe. This was precisely the situation that I had been trying to avoid by bolting from the ballroom.
“Oh, um…I…see…” I stammered. I didn’t want to disappoint him, but I didn’t want to embarrass myself, either, especially in front of the entire court. My sisters would have never let me hear the end of it.
“What’s wrong?” he asked in concern. “You don’t want to?” It was the first time he wasn’t smiling, and I found that I greatly disliked the way his face fell.
“No, no, I do!” I responded quickly. “I really do, it’s just…I’m terrible at it.”
Thankfully, his easy smile returned, and he laughed with relief. “You can’t be that bad.”
“I nearly broke a boy’s toe once,” I reluctantly admitted. “And anyway, what happened to not being in a rush to get back?”
“I didn’t want to dance before,” he answered simply. “Now I do.”
I was so flattered that I had no idea how to respond to him. I sighed heavily, trying to think of another reason to try and tell him no.
“I’m sure you’ll do just fine,” he insisted. “Come on, I dance well, so I’ll lead you.”
Before I could object, he grasped my hand and hurried toward the ballroom with me in tow. We burst through the doors and, to my horror, straight to the center of the dance floor. Somewhere in the crowd, I could hear one of my sisters shout my name in surprise. In fact, there was general shock travelling through the guests as my partner and I took the floor, though I was too nervous to contemplate why. He gently took my right hand in his left, and gingerly placed his right hand on my waist. I set my left hand on his shoulder, and we fell into time with the music.
I held my breath, waiting for my feet to trip over themselves as my partner gracefully led me in twirling circles. But as we danced, I actually felt myself begin to relax. Somehow, my feet were finding their place through the waltz, and it was easier than it had ever been during my lessons at home. Before I knew it, I was smiling from ear to ear, enjoying a dance for the first time in my entire life.
My partner smiled back at me, and in the light of the ballroom, I finally got a better idea of his facial features. He had thin, soft lips, a thin nose, high cheekbones, and a strong, angular jaw. His skin was soft and clear. I didn’t need to see the upper half of his face to know that he was beautiful.
We danced and we danced, and it got easier and easier. I felt graceful for the first time in my life, and genuinely happy just to be around this mysterious young man. I had never imagined that I would ever feel this way, but this stranger made me feel like I was special, instead of just another one of the boys or some defective female. It was this boy I wanted to be around most of all.
And that’s when I realized that although I had told him my name, he never told me his.
“Who are you?” I asked. “You never told me your name.”
My partner hesitated, seemingly reluctant to answer me.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I’m afraid you’ll be mad at me if I tell you,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Well…I’ve kind of been deceiving you a little,” he answered.
My heart sank. “Just a little?” I asked seriously.
He heaved a heavy sigh. “I am Byron, Crowned Prince of the Realm.”
I immediately stopped dancing and pulled away from my partner, the young man who claimed to be royalty. I looked into his face and saw fear begin to take shape, his eyes widening in panic as he bit at his lower lip, and I knew he was telling the truth. Suddenly I could hear my heartbeat in my ears, and it drowned out everything else. I no longer heard the quartet, the chatter of the ballroom, or the shuffling of dancing feet. Instead, I listened to my heart race as my mind whirred, trying to make sense of it.
It can’t be, I think. That doesn't make any sense!
But it did make sense, I realized. He had knowledge of hunting dogs, which of course he would if he were the prince because he probably goes hunting with them. It also explained how he had known his way around the gardens so well—he lived there, after all. He danced so well because he had been taking lessons since he was a toddler. The audience’s reaction to our entrance, and his reluctance to tell me his name. Everything fit. This was the crowned prince of the realm, eighteen-year-old Byron of the First House of Roald, and heir to the throne…and I had been talking to him as if he were just another commoner!
“Kitty, I’m sorry I kept it from you, but I was scared you wouldn’t like me if you knew,” Byron said quickly. “You seemed so…so extraordinary out by the kennels that I wanted to get to know you, and I thought you would act differently if you knew who I am.”
I was so taken aback that I could no longer find my voice, or even the capability of forming a cohesive thought. I could only blink stupidly at Byron, who continued explaining himself.
“Look, I…” he lowered his voice to a whisper as he stepped closer to me, “…I hate balls. Mother and Father have been using them to try to find me a wife since I turned sixteen, but every girl I meet is the same. They’re all prim and proper, and they don’t know how to be themselves. They treat me like I’m some kind of godling, agreeing with everything I say, even if it means lying to get my approval. I can’t stand it. When I talk about how much I love hunting, they go blank, like it’s a completely foreign topic to them, and they treat my hunting dogs like filthy vermin. They worry too much about what will happen to their dresses.” He rolls his eyes and rattles his head, as if remembering a particularly horrible girl.
“But when I saw you playing with Prince tonight, I knew you were different. I wasn’t lying when I said that no one has gotten him to play fetch before. You’re the first person he’ll bring the ball back to without being commanded. And you got him to listen! It was amazing! Then when we were walking in the garden, I finally felt like I found a girl I could talk to without her batting her eyelashes or giggling behind her hand. It didn’t feel like a game for once.”
I was still rooted to the spot, completely flabbergasted by everything Byron was saying. Of course it hadn’t been a game. I didn’t know how to play that way. Fetch was the only game I had ever really been good at.
“I’m not asking you to marry me or anything, even though I think you look as pretty as a rose tonight,” Byron continued, blushing a little, “but I would love it if you and I could be friends. I would love it if you would come over so you and I could play with Prince, or walk in the garden, or talk together.”
He took Prince’s red rubber ball out of his pocket and offered it to me. In the bright light of the ballroom, I could finally see it clearly. It was as red as an apple, with teeth marks puncturing the surface, and a thin layer of slimy dog saliva and blades of grass. It was old, but certainly well-loved.
I felt my cheeks grow hot again. Somehow, his flattery meant much more to me than the empty compliments paid by the other guests at the ball. I was starting to calm down, though, and I could actually start forming thoughts again. My heartbeat faded from my ears, and I could hear the quartet change the pace of the music to something more upbeat.
“Kitty?” Byron asked nervously. “Are you okay?”
I took a deep and cleansing breath. “Yes,” I answered. “I was just startled is all. I’m not angry with you.”
Seeing the relief in Byron’s face made me smile.
“I would love to come over and play with Prince,” I said. “I mean, you’ll never get him trained without me anyway.” I took the ball from Byron and set it in my hand.
We laughed together, and with one sweeping motion, Prince Byron took me into his arms again. We continued around the dance floor, the red rubber ball still clutched in my hand.