Compared to the time it would have taken to walk to the castle, the carriage ride was a short trip. But to me, it seemed to go on forever. With every bump and jolt of the cart, my heart swelled with anticipation of seeing Lothar again as it beat in rhythm to the clip-clopping of the horse’s hooves against the cobblestones below.
But at last, here I am.
I hadn’t realized the event would be so big. The birth of a princess is a momentous occasion, certainly, but I expected to find only witches. There are so many people in masks outside the castle gates. I recognize a few of my former sisters among the strangers. The others must be members of court or nobles. I do not recall this much fanfare for the birth of Dracarus.
It is funny to me that I can walk right past the guards without them accosting me. I do not need the king’s seal of approval to enter the castle this time. My costume is enough.
The marble throne room has become a ball room. I see more people I know dancing jovially beside people I don’t. Ivaine must have spent royal funds to dress the witches in finery. I can see how she would want everything to be perfect for her celebration. A ball for a baby is silly, in my opinion, considering Viletti is far too young to appreciate or understand the event. The noise alone would disturb her. No, this ball is strictly for Ivaine.
And what a ball it is! The costumes are magnificent. Some of the masks cover only their wearer’s eyes, while others are far more extravagant with feathers and bright colors.
Musicians play a spirited tune on stringed instruments to keep the guests dancing away.
And I have to admit, I cannot recall seeing the witches have so much fun.
Of course, Ivaine is the center of it all. She dances alone atop the dais in a lavish scarlet and black ball gown with a skirt wide enough to take up all the space on the platform. Her waist is cinched so tightly it would be unlikely to guess she has recently borne a child. Ivaine waves her arms and shouts for the musicians to play and her guests to dance on. She is so caught up in the revelry, I doubt she’s even noticed me come in.
But where is Lothar? I do not see him anywhere.
I exit the ballroom and ask around if anyone has seen him, but no one has. At least, that is the answer they give me. Do I see contempt behind their masks or am I only imagining it?
“Isn’t the king supposed to be here?” I ask Garim, the head knight of the castle guard. “Do you know where he is?”
But Garim does not even acknowledge I have spoken.
I walk outside to the courtyard to see if perhaps he is waiting for me in our place, the place he once promised we would marry. But he is not here either. Not that we would have any privacy. The garden is also full of masked people. What had Lothar planned for this night, anyway? I wish his letter had been more specific.
“Hello there, my lady!” A young man in a white mask and striped tunic calls out to me as he approaches.
“And hello to you, sir!” I answer excitedly. Perhaps Lothar has sent him to greet me and instruct me where to find him. I hope.
“You’re so… beautiful!” the young man exclaims. I can tell her has had much wine to drink. “Would you care to dance with me?”
“Oh.” I attempt to hide my disappointment behind a soft voice and a smile. “My apologies, but I am waiting for someone. I was supposed to meet him and I thought he might be out here.”
“We could always dance until he gets here,” he suggests.
“No, thank you. I’m sure you’ll find a much prettier lady to dance with.”
“Doubtful.” His grin remains, but it fades around the edges.
I curtsy to him and say, “The best of luck to you, sir. Farewell.” And then I turn to leave the garden and head back to the castle.
My next thought is that he might be in his bedroom. But the guards have blocked access to the stairs. He must be some place where I can find him. I wander through a narrow corridor until I find the door of a chamber. Could Lothar be waiting for me behind it?
The door is unlocked so I enter and take a look around.
I have found myself in a study and it is soon apparent that I am not alone.
Love noises fill the air. When I see who is making them, I cannot contain my shock.
My best friend lies in the throes of passion on a sofa, wrapped in the arms of her lover who wears a gold mask, but can be no one else but Lathian.
She gazes at him with pure love in her eyes, completely oblivious to my presence.
“Keiry?” I gasp, in spite of myself.
She gasps as well at the sound of my voice.
“I could have sworn I locked that door,” Lathian mutters.
“Corynne?” she asks with a sheepish smile, her face burning red with the embarrassment of being caught. “What are you doing in here?”
“I’m sorry.” I shield my eyes as they scramble to put their clothes back on. “I was just looking for Lothar… you haven’t seen him, have you?”
“Actually, I haven’t seen him all day,” Lathian says. “But I’m sure he will be around. It is unlike him to miss his daughter’s party.”
“Oh. Thank you. I’ll just… leave you two alone.” My face must be as red as Keiry’s. I awkwardly back out of the chamber and hurry away down the hall.
“Corynne, wait!” Keiry calls after me.
“What are you doing?” she demands once she has caught up.
“What are you doing?” I counter. “You and Lathian, huh?”
“It is not important,” she says quickly.
“Not important enough to tell your best friend? It looks like I am not the only one having a secret affair.”
“Lathian is not married to a hateful shrew who has the power to end my life and would not hesitate to,” she argues.
“Then why the secrecy?” I ask. “Why did you never tell me? How long has it been going on?”
“This isn’t about me,” she says. “How can you still be chasing after Lothar even though you know what I overheard? Don’t you care about your life, Corynne?”
“I love him,” I answer quietly.
Keiry looks over her shoulder at the sound of footsteps. But no one appears to be coming towards us.
“Perhaps we should not be discussing this in the castle,” she whispers in my ear. “Ivaine could have spies anywhere.”
I turn away from her and say, “I have to find him.”
Keiry grabs my arm and pulls me back. “Please stop being so foolish!”
“I thought you were on my side!” I exclaim, feeling hurt.
“Corynne,” she says in a tone that reminds me of my mother. “I have always been on your side, even when the witches advised me not to be.
“I understand that you love him. Honestly, I do. But…
“I love you.” Her voice cracks a little. “I don’t want to lose you. Please, just be careful.”
“I’m always careful.” I smile to make her feel better. “Do not worry about me.”
She sighs. “I can’t help it.”
“Go dance with Lathian,” I encourage her. “I will be fine. I promise.”
“I do hope so,” she says in a defeated tone.
I’ll be fine when I find him, at least.
I walk away from Keiry and this time she lets me go.
As I make my way down winding corridors, deeper into the heart of the castle, my mind flashes back the night of that fateful mating ceremony. It’s like my life is repeating itself. Why is he not here for me? I fight the urge to think the worst.
An old woman steps out from behind a corner. “Lost, my dear?”
“No,” I say, “I’m just looking for…”
My breath catches at the sight of the woman’s haggard appearance as she steps into the light and I immediately feel ashamed of myself for it.
“I know what you’re looking for,” she says.
“You do?” I ask, startled.
“Come with me, dear. I will show you all you need to know.”
I wonder if she can actually help me. In any case, I am sure I have gotten myself lost. Perhaps this woman can lead me out of here… and to Lothar.
I follow her to a parlor room where a crystal ball sits on a table.
“Are you a seer?” I ask.
What is it with seers, anyway?
“In a manner of speaking,” she answers. “I see things just as they are and I only speak the truth. And you, my pretty one, are in dire need of some truth.”
I sit at the table across from the old woman as she peers down into the crystal ball. I hope she does not expect payment.
“I see love,” she says. “You desperately love someone.”
“Oh, yes,” I sigh. “I love him with all my heart.”
But alas,” she croaks. “It is someone you have no business loving.”
The smile falls from my face. “If only there was some way for us to be together, then—”
“But there is not,” she cuts me off. “Everything has come against you, and it is no accident.”
“No, it isn’t,” I reply coldly. “Dark forces are at work, forces that have kept me from my love at every turn. How do I overcome them?”
“You don’t.” Her voice is without pity. “He was never meant to be yours to begin with. He belongs to another.”
“No,” I whisper. “No, that cannot be true. Lothar loves me. He’s loved me from the beginning and none of the witches or even the queen herself can change that.”
“Oh?” she asks, sounding intrigued.
“Our love is unconquerable,” I say with all the conviction I can muster.
“In that case, perhaps I can be of some help.”
“Really?” I cry in elation. “You can?”
“Please. I’ll do anything to be with him.”
“Close your eyes,” she commands.
The strangest sensation comes over me. I feel as though I am burning, but not consumed. And then… my body starts changing. Joints become stiff. My shoulders tighten, causing my back to hunch over. And my face… My face! Is it melting?
When the burning stops, I take off my mask to see my reflection in the crystal ball. But the face staring back at me is not mine. It is withered and ancient, with warts and liver spots, just like the old woman’s.
“What have you done to me?!” I gasp in horror. But the voice is not mine either. It sounds as craggy and haggard as my new face.
My blood runs cold as I realize I am not the only one who has changed. The old woman whose face I now wear has transformed into Galaea. “Now everyone can see you for what you truly are, and the true ugliness that has been inside your heart all along.”
“YOU!” I shriek.
She laughs—a harsh, barking sound. “Did you honestly think I would let you go through with stealing my daughter’s happiness and ruining my best laid plans?”
Change me back!” I snap at her. The roughness of my own voice startles me.
“Never. I’ll die with the curse. Let us see how much your precious Lothar wants you without your beauty.”
I stand to my feet and face her. “My beauty never mattered! Lothar loves me for who I am.”
“Foolish girl. No one ever loved you for your wicked heart. The men were far too distracted by what was on the outside. But now I’ve changed all that.”
“I’ll tell him!” I shout. “I’ll show him what you’ve done to me and then everyone will know what you truly are.”
“You will do no such thing,” she snarls.
Galaea wraps her hands around my throat and squeezes.
“You will not breathe a word about this curse, nor will you tell a soul who you are…
“Or you will die.”
She is squeezing too tightly. I can’t breathe! I’m dying!
Is she really going to kill me now?!
At last, she releases me. I clutch my hand to my raw throat as I breathe again.
Before Galaea can change her mind and decides to murder me, I burst through the door of the parlor and run as fast as my strange new body allows. I race down the hallway, through its winding twists and turns, to find my way out of this labyrinth and as far away from that woman as I can get.
I skid to a halt as I pass a mirror hanging on the wall. In it, I fully take in the hideousness of my face. It makes me recoil.
Is Galaea correct? Did Lothar only ever love me for my beauty? His often repeated words now echo through my mind. Corynne, my beautiful… I recall what he told the ladies of court at the king’s table the evening of that awful dinner. How he wanted to marry me because I was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen.
How could he possibly want me now?
I can’t even tell him my name!
I peer into the glass and try to say it to my reflection.
I am Corynne. Say it.
“I am C—”
My throat closes tightly before the name can escape it. It as if Galaea is choking me once again. I fight to breathe.
I am Corynne. I am Corynne! My mind screams it as the invisible hand grips me harder.
My breath only returns when I let the thought go.
Damn that witch!
First she stole my love and the life I could have had with him.
Then she stole my face. My voice.
And now, she has stolen my name.
I find my way back to the castle foyer, where people stand and stare at the ugly crone before them. This was a mistake. The blind seer was right; I never should have come back here.
I need to leave this place.
I have to go home.
And so, I run away.