“Sebastian, take notes. I’m planning to host a ball.” Queen Ella breezed into the study where her chief steward sat at his desk. Before he could rise in greeting, she’d collapsed into the plush, red velvet chair across from him. “This will be an event for everyone, not just the elite, but the bourgeoisie and even the working class. No one shall be turned away.”
“Yes, Madam.” Sebastian put aside his ledger and took out a new piece of parchment. He dipped his quill in the inkpot. The pen scratched across the surface, turning the queen’s idea into a royal proclamation.
She rolled her neck against the back of the chair, hoping to ease the tension that corded her muscles. It had been too long since she’d had any amusement, too long that the weight of governing the country had burdened her. When he’d abandoned the throne and left the kingdom, Charming’s duties had settled on her like a mantle fashioned of chain mail. The young girl who’d once pinned all her hopes and dreams on romance was gone, replaced by strong-willed Queen Ella, ruler of a nation.
“You think I’m being capricious, don’t you?” She studied Sebastian’s long face as he wrote. As always, he was an enigma. He obeyed her commands and gave her advice on matters of state, but never volunteered an unsolicited opinion. She wondered how he entertained himself on his own time. It was difficult to imagine her serious, reliable chief steward laughing or having fun.
When he offered no reply to her question, she sighed. “Well, maybe I am. A ball is a foolish expense given the precarious state of the economy. There are no political reasons to have a ball, no foreign dignitaries or royalty to impress. Quite honestly, the idea only just occurred to me out of the blue.”
Sebastian lowered his quill and looked up. His dark, heavy-lidded gaze seemed to see into her as if he could read her secret thoughts. Too bad she could never read his.
“You’re the queen. You have a right to host an event for no particular reason, and your subjects will love you for making this inclusive gesture. However, you’ll have to find some way to limit the guest list. You can’t invite every single person in the entire kingdom.”
“No, of course not.” She smiled. “But can you imagine watching swineherds and dukes rubbing shoulders? The idea is intriguing.”
She pictured herself at sixteen in the gossamer gown her godmother had created for her out of thin air. She’d danced until the glass slippers cut into her feet and hadn’t even minded the pain because she was in Prince Charming’s arms—she, a mere servant in her stepmother’s house. Oh how naïve and young she’d been. But would she have chosen differently if she’d known then what she knew now? Would she have been content to marry Johnny, the blacksmith’s son, and live a simple life?
At least with Johnny sex might’ve made up for the lack of money and power. She fondly remembered fumblings in the haymow and stolen kisses when she’d secretly met him at the market in the village square.
“Do you ever think about other paths your life could have taken?” she asked Sebastian.
“Everyone does, I think.” He paused, and Ella waited because when he said something it was usually worth listening to and because she always hoped to learn more about his mysterious past.
“I believe in making your own future, but there are things that happen to people that are beyond their control sometimes. Illness, death, poverty. Those can be difficult to overcome. Sometimes your chosen path is blocked by a boulder and you have to navigate around it.”
“That’s true. I know my life isn’t exactly what I’d envisioned, but there wasn’t a lot I could do to force Charming to stay. He had his own path to follow.”
“An unusual one for a king.” One of his rare smiles flickered across Sebastian’s wide mouth, the curve of his generous lips softening his severe expression.
“Yes it was.” Ella could smile about it now, although the pain of abandonment still stung. In their eighth year of marriage, long after he’d stopped coming to her bed, Charming had disappeared from the castle, leaving behind a signed note of abdication, entrusting the throne to Ella’s keeping.
“You have been a loyal wife, and the failing in our marriage has been mine,” the note read. “Already you are more popular with the people than I have ever been. They accept you as their own. You’re smart, innovative, even-minded, and you should have no difficulty in ruling the kingdom.
“I must leave as I have fallen in love with another, a simple goose girl named Myra. She understands me like no one else ever has. I’m sorry for any pain I’ve caused you and wish you the best in your future.”
That betrayal had been horrible, but Ella had made it through the time of transition. She’d grown into a leader and a stronger woman than she’d ever thought herself capable of being. The second, more humorous blow came a couple of years later, when she’d learned Charming had left the goose girl and was living onboard a pirate ship as the captain’s special friend. He’d embarked on another sort of adventure.
At last she’d let go of her guilt in not being able to please her husband. There was nothing she could’ve done to keep Charming from fulfilling his own unusual destiny.
“So you’ll have a gala to please yourself and invite anyone you wish,” Sebastian continued. “You deserve some pleasure.”
Little do you know, she thought, for there was a hidden agenda to her desire for a masquerade ball. She’d spent too long sleeping in an empty bed and wished to indulge all her wildest sexual fantasies. Sebastian was right: a queen was entitled to some play time. She hadn’t taken a moment for herself since assuming the crown. What better way to meet potential sexual partners than at a masquerade? Of course people weren’t truly anonymous at these affairs, but wearing a mask enabled one to act more freely than usual.
“All right, then,” Ella said briskly. “Take notes. It will be held in two weeks and this is what I want…” She proceeded to describe the theme, the food, the orchestra, the limits to the guest list while Sebastian dutifully took notes.
When she ran out of ideas, her mood was lighter than it had been for months, what with the downturn in the economy and the threat of war with neighboring Malevolin. For a short while she would allow herself to, not put aside her duties because the governing of a country never ceased, but to indulge in a little make-believe, a little magic and mystery. The ball would be beautiful, and hopefully by the end of the evening she’d find a sexual partner to put some spark back into her life—at least for one night.
Ella rose from her chair. “I guess that’s everything, Sebastian. Thank you for your help in organizing this affair.”
“Whatever you wish, Madam. I’m here to serve you.”
Why did his customary reply always send a little shiver through her? Something about the way he said “to serve” made her stomach tighten in an unusual way.
“Yes. Very well,” she stammered, and swept from the room.
Sebastian inhaled to catch a faint trace of the perfume that lingered behind her. He listened for the rustle of her gown and the soft tread of her slippers fading down the hallway. When he could no longer hear her, he sank back into his seat and cast his pen on the desk, leaving a black blot on the list of things to accomplish before the ball.
He should resign his post, leave the castle and find employment elsewhere. The woman had other advisors to help her navigate through the mire of politics. But even as he imagined another life, perhaps with a wife and child, Sebastian knew he would never leave. Duty bound him to Ella with stronger chains than those that moored the ships in the harbor.
She’d relied on him ever since that joke of a king had abdicated, leaving her to shoulder all his responsibilities. Sebastian couldn’t abandon her even if it meant he never had a home and family of his own, even if it meant he suffered at the scent of her perfume. He would remain here and do his job to the best of his ability for as long as she needed him.