Rooglewood Press on Shakespir
The Moon Master’s Ball
Copyright © 2016 by Anne Elisabeth Stengl
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—for example, electronic, photocopy, recording—without the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, incidents, and dialogues are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Cover art – A.E. de Silva
Book design – A.E. de Silva
Stock image by Faestock
To my wonderful family for all the many ideas.
About the Author
What Eyes Can See
Leaves swirled on the moonlit streets of Winslow village as Tilly Higgins sped past closed shops, her arms wrapped tightly about herself to keep out the cold autumn wind. The thought of hot cider made her quicken her pace, and she ran up to a crooked little inn, opened the door, and rushed inside.
Apple Tree Inn, the nightly gathering place of all Winslow residents, and in many ways the core of the town’s happiness, always had a warm fire crackling on the hearth and was known for its good cider and company. Low ceilings and the smell of cooked apples made the inn feel like home to anyone who would wish to enter, and clusters of candles glowed softly on each table, lighting up all corners of the room.
“Tilly! We were beginning to think you wouldn’t come tonight.” Bruce, the rotund butcher, spoke around his pipe from his warm seat by the fireplace. His comment was followed by murmurs of agreement throughout the inn.
“Sorry,” Tilly answered as she unwound the scarf from her neck and unbuttoned her coat, revealing an ankle-length maid’s dress. “I had quite a bit of work to finish up.” She walked to the rough wooden counter near the back of the room where Caroline, the owner of Apple Tree, was serving up her famous cider.
“You seem upset, Tilly.” Caroline, who was like a mother to almost every young person in the town, addressed Tilly without even looking at her while pouring fragrant cider into an aged mug.
Tilly didn’t respond. Instead, she sat in a rickety chair and waited for Caroline to hand her the drink. “Thanks.” She sipped it and closed her eyes.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Caroline leaned over the counter, brushing a graying strand of hair away from her eyes.
Tilly set down the mug and fingered a small chip on its rim. “You know about the new family that just moved into Baker Woodlow’s old house across the street?”
“Aye. But none of us have seen hide nor hair of them since they arrived two days ago!” Caroline squinted. “Whatever can this new family have done to make our girl so unhappy?” The inn suddenly became quiet as the other villagers heard mention of the newcomers and listened to what Tilly had to say.
“The mother, Mrs. Carlisle, sent her application in to Lord Hollingberry. She and her daughter will be working at Winslow Manor, and Mrs. Carlisle got the position of head housekeeper.”
Outraged whispers rippled through the room, rising above the growling of logs shifting in the fireplace. Caroline was silent for a moment then patted Tilly’s hand, offering her a comforting look. “I know how hard you’ve been working for Lord Hollingberry. You’ve devoted the past two years of your life to your duties at Winslow Manor! It don’t seem right that he gave this new woman the position and not you. But cheer up, sweet girl. Perhaps they’ll be a nice family to work with. You never know.”
Satisfied, the other inn residents resumed their own conversations. But Caroline’s kind remarks didn’t make Tilly feel any better. She had already sunk into the bowels of self-pity—in her mind she played out a scene of voicing her angry thoughts to Lord Hollingberry. But deep down in her heart she knew she was wrong. She was too young to be a housekeeper; girls of seventeen served as maids. Besides, several of the other girls working at Winslow Manor were far more experienced than she.
But Tilly still felt a bit slighted by her employer. Lord Hollingberry had taken her under his wing two years ago, when her father died, and allowed her to stay in a small room by the kitchen in Winslow Manor. Due to his kindness, Tilly worked long and hard. She was grateful for all he had done for her; and yet, since she had labored so faithfully, she couldn’t help expecting some kind of promotion . . . however unrealistic that may be.
Mrs. Carlisle was now in charge of Winslow Manor—a disgruntling fact, but one Tilly had to accept. This was how normal maids were treated, and Tilly wanted nothing more than to lead a normal life.
Just as she took another sip of cider, someone grabbed her shoulders from behind, and the hot drink sloshed into her lap. Startled, she jumped out of her chair and snatched a rag from the counter.
“Whoops! I didn’t think you’d make a mess on yourself.”
Dabbing at her now cider-spotted maid’s uniform, Tilly glared at the young man responsible for jolting her. “Rodger. I might have known. What are you doing, sneaking about and scaring defenseless girls?” She threw the soiled cloth at her friend and smirked, forgetting her self-pity for a moment.
Rodger grinned and tossed the rag back at her, then leaned against the counter while Caroline poured cider for another villager. “Oh, you know. A boy has to tease a girl every once in a while or else he ceases to exist.”
“Is that so?” She smiled at Rodger. He was the sort of person everyone liked. If he walked into a room, he undoubtedly knew everyone in it. Rodger was a little on the short side, and a mop of unruly brown hair dangled in his sparkling hazel eyes. But it was his friendly personality that made him completely charming.
“I heard what you said. Everyone did. And we’re all on your side.” He became serious and looked at her the way a little boy would look at a wounded puppy.
“There aren’t sides.” Tilly shook her head but was secretly happy that her friends supported her. “Thank you, though.”
Rodger winked at her. “Anytime.” Then, with a glint in his eye, he abruptly changed subjects. “So, will you be going this year?”
She set her mug down and bit her lip. “Going where?”
“You know where I mean. It’s time you had a bit of fun, and you’ve never been before! I’ll be your escort, if that makes you feel any better.”
“Rodger, I have been before, and I saw something that frightened me very much. I’ve never forgotten it . . . not to mention I don’t care for magic.”
“You’re a big girl now! Why don’t you give it another try?”
“I’ll think about it.” Tilly knew this was the only answer that would satisfy him, at least temporarily. She watched him walk over to the coat rack and slip on his short tweed jacket.
“You want me to walk you home?” he asked, wrapping a blue scarf around his neck.
“No. I’ll be fine.” She smiled at him as he ambled to the door.
“Goodnight, fair maiden!” Rodger bowed dramatically, and someone in the inn clapped. With another flourish he stepped outside.
Tilly decided she was ready to depart as well. The next day she would meet Mrs. Carlisle and her daughter, and she wanted to be well rested for the encounter.
“Goodnight!” she called to everyone in Apple Tree Inn, then buttoned up her coat and headed towards Winslow Manor. The wind felt even colder now that she had been inside the warm inn, and she covered her mouth and nose with her scarf. As she walked home, the heels of her laced-up boots clicking hollowly on the cobbled street, she looked around at the little town she had grown up in.
The village of Winslow was the quaintest place imaginable, and rustling leaves and scents of fall made it more whimsical than ever. Little groups of cottages with pumpkins on their steps were scattered throughout the village, and at the end of the main street, towering above them all with authority, stood Winslow Manor. No gate or wall separated Lord Hollingberry’s great house from its neighbors, and the village folk were proud of its stately position; it provided a sense of security and welcoming warmth.
Tilly sighed again when she thought of meeting Mrs. Carlisle and her daughter. For the past few years of her life she had worked alongside other maids who didn’t get in each other’s way. It was hard work, to be sure, but she and the other maids had developed their own method of cleaning and organizing which the two Carlisle women were sure to uproot. Change was necessary, she reasoned with herself, and the Manor was Lord Hollingberry’s and no one else’s. If he wanted his bed to be made one way or another then he would tell Mrs. Carlisle.
But for all her reasoning, Tilly wasn’t convinced that she and this Mrs. Carlisle would be compatible.
The street’s emptiness caused chills to crawl up her spine, and she suddenly wished she had accepted Rodger’s invitation to accompany her home. A gap between the cottages and Winslow Manor gave her a perfect view of Bromley Meadow—to most people, a place of magic and delight.
To Tilly, a place of fear.
She knew it wasn’t wise to stop and look at the meadow on such an eerie night, but there was something enticing about the silver halo the moon cast over the rolling hills. She peered to her left and gazed at its haunting beauty.
The meadow itself had never seemed terribly extraordinary to Tilly, but extraordinary things did occur amongst its soft grass and swaying dandelions. Rodger was hoping she would go to Bromley Meadow this year, but she didn’t think she had the courage.
An image of blood-red eyes and sharp yellow teeth flashed in her mind.
Tilly rushed around behind the manor and flew to the back door, desperate to get away from the moon’s glow highlighting the meadow.
Calming herself, she stepped over the threshold and into the kitchen to find Mrs. Gregson, the cook, sipping tea quietly at a small table, a plate of freshly baked cookies before her. All of the other servants went home each night, but since Tilly was an orphan and Mrs. Gregson was widowed, Lord Hollingberry insisted that Winslow Manor be their home.
“Hello, Mrs. Gregson. Busy day?” Tilly knew that warm cookies and tea meant Mrs. Gregson wasn’t feeling in the most favorable of moods.
The cook lifted her red face and looked at Tilly, gesturing to the seat across from hers. “Sit down, Tilly. I’ve got somethin’ on my mind that needs to be said.”
Tilly raised her eyebrows and sat as the cook had bidden her, nabbing a cookie and munching on it while waiting for the older woman to speak.
“I don’t like this Carlisle business,” Mrs. Gregson began. “You and I have worked together for two years, and everything has turned out splendidly! I don’t get in your way, you don’t get in mine. We both get to do things how we want to. But now Lord Hollingberry—I’m not sayin’ anything bad ’bout him!—has given this woman the keys to the house and is allowing her to tell us and everyone else what to do. Mrs. Carlisle is a stranger to Winslow. She don’t know the way things work here.” The cook poked an emphatic finger Tilly’s way then sipped her tea again.
“I agree with you, of course.” Tilly tucked a strand of her black hair behind her ear. “Lord Hollingberry knows what he’s doing, though, and has his reasons. But don’t think I’m not just as upset as you are, because I am.” She finished off her cookie and rubbed her hands together, dropping crumbs in her lap.
“Go on to bed, Tilly.” The cook heaved a sigh. “Thank you for listening. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Tilly told her friend goodnight and slipped from the kitchen. Once safely in her room across the hall, she took out a matchbox and lit a candle by her window, then sat down on her bed and looked around the small space she called home.
An oak wardrobe stood in front of her, and to her right a floor-length mirror leaned against the wall. A vase on a little table sprouted the marigolds and ferns she had picked that morning, and a clump of dried lavender was suspended above her window. It wasn’t a large space, but Tilly loved it. Her room was a safe haven.
She stood again, looked at herself in the mirror, and realized how tired she appeared. Her dark maid’s dress brought out the shadows under her eyes, and she had grown thin in the past few months. Tilly suddenly realized that what she really needed was a holiday from cleaning.
She thought about what Rodger had said. He was right; she did need to enjoy herself and have a bit of fun. Tilly slipped on her nightdress and blew out the candle.
Some minutes later, after she had turned to one side then decided she was more comfortable on the other, a scuttling noise caused her eyes to open wide. Ears alert, Tilly glanced towards the window. A shadow darted just beyond her vision.
She fumbled desperately for the matchbox. Keeping well away from the window, she held the lighted candle towards the glass and squinted, her trembling hand causing wax to spill over.
The wavering light revealed no menacing creature.
Once her heart had calmed, Tilly exhaled slowly, blew out the candle, crawled back in bed, and forced her eyes closed. She told herself there had been nothing outside, nothing peering in at her from the darkness.
Nothing at all.
The sun’s early rays slowly woke Tilly. She opened her eyes, feeling rested and happy, only to have that feeling crushed by the sudden remembrance of the invading Mrs. Carlisle and her daughter. She sat up and rubbed her eyes, allowing herself a few moments of tranquility before the day’s mad rush began.
Mrs. Gregson’s voice bellowed at the door, accompanied by a frantic rattling. “Tilly! You’ve slept too late! The Carlisle women are comin’ up the front steps right now, and everyone else is already lined up to meet ’em!”
“Coming Mrs. Gregson! Thank you!”
Now Tilly understood why she felt so rested. How stupid of her, sleeping in on a day like this! She leapt up from her bed, mentally thanking Mrs. Gregson over and over again. A minute later she was dressed, her hair up under her maid’s cap. Dark, unpinned tendrils fell in her eyes. She scrambled to the back door and rushed around to the front of the Manor, lining up beside Ellen, her fellow maid.
“You’re late,” Ellen whispered the obvious from the corner of her mouth.
Tilly didn’t respond but watched as Mrs. Carlisle climbed to the top of the steps, her daughter following close behind. The woman curtsied to Lord Hollingberry, and the daughter followed suit.
“Well, well. We’re quite happy to have you here, quite happy. I know the girls will be glad to have you as their authority. Glad, yes, they’ll be glad.” Lord Hollingberry was in the habit of repeating himself several times over, and he looked as though he could be blown off the steps of Winslow Manor if a strong enough gust of wind hit him.
The lord was a dear old man who loved his servants and treated them as though they were his own family. Tilly often thought he must have been tall and handsome in his youth, even if he was hunched over and wrinkled now, much like a candle exposed to too much heat. He had big eyes that resembled a pug’s, and, like a pug’s, they watered when he got excited, so he was often dabbing at them with his handkerchief.
Tilly hoped neither he nor Mrs. Carlisle had noticed her absence, although Lord Hollingberry always observed more than people thought.
“Come inside, and I’ll introduce you to the girls.” As he ushered Mrs. Carlisle and her daughter through the door, Lord Hollingberry called over his shoulder to the maids. “Come along, girls. Come along.”
As she and the other maids lined up side by side on the foyer’s gleaming hardwood floor, Tilly was able to get her first good look at the two Carlisle women. Mrs. Carlisle was only a bit taller than Lord Hollingberry. She had a plump face, a long, crooked nose, and dark eyes. Tilly thought Mrs. Carlisle should have seemed like a sweet old lady, but the plumpness made her look disgusting rather than grandmotherly. Instead of firm round cheeks and chin, hers were soft and sagging, giving her a lazy appearance. In fact, her skin almost looked leathery.
However, after one glance at the daughter Tilly realized, with an unreasonable pang of jealousy, that the girl was nothing like her mother: She was very beautiful.
“Now, since you’re all here, I’ll introduce . . . Oh, dear me! Where is Mrs. Gregson?” Lord Hollingberry left the small group and teetered down a hallway towards the kitchen stairs, muttering, “Excuse me. Excuse me.”
The maids stood mute in front of Mrs. Carlisle and her daughter, feeling a bit awkward. The old grandfather clock’s silver chime seemed thunderously loud as it echoed throughout the house.
But it couldn’t deafen their ears to another sound ringing up through the floor.
“I’m not goin’ out there with that woman!”
Everyone in the foyer could hear Mrs. Gregson’s voice bellow from the kitchen beneath their feet, followed by the soft voice of Lord Hollingberry.
“Mrs. Gregson! Please, dear lady. You’ll quite like her, I’m sure of it. Come upstairs for me. Please.”
After more muttering from Mrs. Gregson, which they couldn’t quite make out, Tilly heard the approaching footsteps of Lord Hollingberry and his cook.
“You’ll have to pardon Mrs. Gregson. She wasn’t feeling quite up to meeting anyone today, but I convinced her to come.” The kind old man patted Mrs. Gregson’s shoulder before she walked over and stood grumpily beside Tilly.
“Mrs. Carlisle, I would like to introduce you to Daphne, Florence, Laura, Ellen, Tilly, and Mrs. Gregson, our cook. Girls, meet Mrs. Carlisle, the new housekeeper, and her daughter, Drosselyn. That is . . . correct, isn’t it?” Lord Hollingberry put a finger to his chin as he turned questioningly to Mrs. Carlisle’s daughter.
“Yes sir, that’s right.” Drosselyn answered sweetly and smiled at the maids before her. “I do hope we’ll all get to be good friends.”
Mrs. Gregson snorted and clenched the spatula in her hand as though she might challenge the newcomers to a duel at any moment.
“Well, well.” Lord Hollingberry looked fondly at his maids and then turned to Mrs. Carlisle. “I suppose I’ll leave you all to start your new routine.” He chuckled slowly the way old men do, and turned, creaking sluggishly upstairs to his study.
“Well!” Mrs. Carlisle clapped her hands briskly and smiled. “I certainly am excited to get to know you all. But first, let me inform you that this house is to be run on a strict schedule. I shall tolerate no tardiness whatsoever.” She looked pointedly at Tilly and Mrs. Gregson. “I shall not allow any of you to be lazy, and you will have no male callers here at the manor.” Mrs. Carlisle was certainly adept at making up rules. She turned to the rest of the girls. “Now get to work!”
She clapped her hands again as though this would spur them on to do her bidding. Slowly the girls went about their usual tasks. Tilly caught Mrs. Gregson’s eye, and the two shared an exasperated look before Tilly headed upstairs.
“Mrs. Gregson?” Mrs. Carlisle stopped the cook as she was making her way to her kitchen. “My daughter and I require tea, if you please. We’ll take it in the parlor.” With that, she turned and ushered her daughter into the room, closing the door softly behind them.
Mrs. Gregson looked up at Tilly, who had watched this exchange over the banister; then she gave a grunt and stomped off to make a pot of tea. With a shrug, Tilly hurried on up to join the other maids.
She found them huddled in the upstairs hallway, muttering. “. . . and did you see her daughter? Standin’ there, lookin’ at us like she was so much better!” At Tilly’s approach they looked guilty for a moment but relaxed upon seeing their fellow maid.
“Tilly! What do you think about them?” Ellen asked, and all four girls turned to hear Tilly’s opinion.
“They’ll take some getting used to.” Tilly swiped absent-mindedly with her feather duster at a painting of Lord Hollingberry’s late wife.
Daphne, an attractive brunette, snorted. “That’s not an answer. I can tell you don’t like them either. And where is her daughter now? I was under the impression she would be a maid alongside us.” She picked up her bucket, dunked her rag, and swirled it angrily in the water before wiping off a stained-glass window at the end of the hall.
Tilly frowned and answered her friend without looking at her. “They’re having tea in the parlor. Those women are marching around here like they’ve lived in Winslow all their lives!” She couldn’t suppress her feelings even though she knew it was wrong to be talking in such a way to the rest of the girls. But if Lord Hollingberry had wanted a housekeeper other than herself, he should have chosen Daphne! She was twenty-one, smart, and had been working at Winslow Manor longer than anyone else save Mrs. Gregson.
“I’m sorry.” Tilly brushed her duster violently over Lady Hollingberry’s face, nearly knocking the painting off the wall. “This just doesn’t seem right.”
A door suddenly opened, revealing Lord Hollingberry’s hunched frame, and the girls froze like rabbits caught in a trap. All of them had forgotten they were working just outside his study.
“My! Does it take so many maids to clean one hallway?” He laughed quietly and rubbed his sagging chin with his fingertips. “I know you are all upset about Mrs. Carlisle. I do believe I would be upset if I were you, too!” He clasped his hands behind his back. “But I have my reasons for bringing her here. Let her do what she wants. But for now, why don’t you all spread out a bit, hmm?”
The girls muttered, “Yes sir,” and Tilly began to leave with them. But Lord Hollingberry put out a staying hand. “Not you, Tilly. Come into my study. Come in, come in.”
Tilly looked quickly at the painting she had nearly knocked down and wondered if Lord Hollingberry somehow knew she’d been rough with it. Meekly she stepped into his study, waiting for some kind of rebuke.
“Ah, yes!” he said suddenly. “You’re a bright girl, Tilly. Very bright. That’s something I’ve always admired about you.” And he returned to the hall, lifted the portrait off the wall, and carried it past her into his study. Had she somehow damaged it?
But he said only, “If you would please close the door, my dear . . .”
She hurried to obey. He didn’t seem upset. Perhaps he wasn’t planning on scolding her.
When she turned back to the room, Lord Hollingberry stood gazing down at the painting of his wife. He suddenly seemed not quite so crooked and bent, not so wrinkled as before. He glanced at Tilly. “Aminia would have enjoyed your company, of this I am sure.” Then, to Tilly’s surprise, he slipped the portrait into a cupboard, shut it away, and turned back, brushing off his hands.
“I don’t like Mrs. Carlisle. In fact, I quite despise the woman. But there are greater things taking place here, Tilly.” His expression was grave.
“I . . .” Tilly was at a loss for words.
The old man continued as though oblivious to her discomfort. “There are greater things taking place.” He said this to himself, as though remembering something he had long ago thought forgotten.
“Would you like me to go, sir?” Tilly inched towards the door, not understanding exactly why he wanted to speak to her.
“Do you recall, Tilly, the time you asked if my wife and I ever had a child?”
She stopped moving and thought carefully. She seemed to recall an instance when she had asked Lord Hollingberry this. “Y—yes sir.”
“And what did I tell you?”
She bit her lip. “You told me that you and your wife lost your child.”
He sighed and looked at her with a faraway expression. “That wasn’t entirely true. We never had a baby of our own. I was . . . a godfather of sorts. But what is true is that we lost him. Are you going this year?”
The question startled Tilly. “Going?” She played nervously with her feather duster and avoided his eyes.
“Yes, are you going?”
She didn’t need to ask him where. He could only mean one thing. “I had a . . . bad experience when I was a child. You know I never . . . go.” Tilly felt pressure welling up inside her.
In her mind’s eye she saw the wispy shadow, yellow teeth dripping with saliva, and glowing red eyes. All at once Tilly wanted to scream, to run away from Winslow Manor and Mrs. Carlisle and Bromley Meadow. But Lord Hollingberry’s earnest eyes kept her feet planted on the soft rug in his study, and she realized he was grasping her small hand in his large knobby one.
“Things are about to change. As I said, there is something greater at work here. I need you to be here. You are special, Tilly; I know it. And I’m going to need you to go this year. For me. And . . . for someone else. Can you do this for me? For Winslow?”
Tilly wanted to say no, to shake her head and tell him he wasn’t acting like himself. But she felt her head nodding up and down in spite of what her heart was telling her to do, and she heard her voice whisper, “I’ll try.”
“Thank you. Thank you, my dear.”
And then Lord Hollingberry was once more hunched over and frail, pulling his fob watch from his vest with shaking hands that had been strong a moment ago.
“Goodness me! Look at the time. You have work to do, and I’ve kept you too long. Too long.” He opened the door and ushered her out of the room. “Goodbye! Work hard, dear.” The old man started to close the door behind her but then quickly opened it again. “And don’t tell any of the other girls this.” He tapped the side of his nose as if they were both children sharing a secret. “We want things to work out properly, you know.”
His eyes began to water, and he dabbed at them with his kerchief while closing the door, leaving a terribly bewildered Tilly standing in the corridor, holding her feather duster limply at her side.
Lord Hollingberry stood a moment before shuffling over to his desk. He groaned as he sat down in his plush, paisley chair, but then thought about Tilly and smiled. Sweet girl, that. Poor dear had no idea what she would have to do in the upcoming days. Was she ready?
The old man frowned at the question in his mind.
No matter if she was or wasn’t, he told himself. It had to happen now.
Muttering quietly in agreement with himself, Lord Hollingberry leaned forward and lifted a sheet of thick ivory paper from his desk. Dabbing the nib of his pen in the inkwell, he began to write in smooth, long strokes. After folding the paper up, he stamped the Hollingberry seal on it. His wrinkled hands flipped the letter over and addressed it to:
The Moon Master.
Tilly remained quiet the rest of the day, mulling the strange conversation she had shared with Lord Hollingberry over in her mind and preparing what she would say to him when he asked her to go.
“No, Lord Hollingberry, I’m afraid I can’t go . . .” She sighed heavily while sweeping out the mud tracked into the foyer by the new arrivals. “Oh, that’s no good.” Frowning, she leaned on her broom, trying to think of another way to phrase the sentence. “Lord Hollingberry—”
“Tilly!” Ellen rushed into the foyer. “Tilly, there’s only one room left for us to clean! And we figured you were the best one to tidy up the parlor.” She grabbed the broom from Tilly. “I’ll finish this.”
Tilly chuckled at her friend. “None of you wanted to brave the dangerous Mrs. Carlisle and her daughter?” She shook her head. “I can’t believe they’re still in there. They’ve been sitting in that room all day!” Tilly looked out the windows framing the front door and saw that the sun was setting. “Fine. I’ll finish up. You all owe me.”
“Yes, we do!” Ellen replied happily as Tilly headed off to the parlor.
Approaching the parlor door, Tilly slowed then stopped, uncertain. Should she knock? Common courtesy dictated that she should, so only after thumping her knuckles against the thick wooden door and hearing a soft “Enter” did she walk into the room.
The parlor’s walls were painted a soft blue that looked like the sky was just preparing to display its stars. A long window in the center of the room offered a perfect view of Bromley Meadow. Two settees graced the room, and three chairs, the cushions of which had been stitched delicately by Genevieve, the village’s most renowned seamstress.
The room’s prettiness was darkened, however, by the two silhouettes lounging in those lovely settees and chairs.
“Yes?” Mrs. Carlisle turned her head slightly when Tilly entered; then she smiled. “Ah, Tilly the Tardy! Come to clean the parlor, have you?” She chortled.
Tilly gritted her teeth. “Yes ma’am. It won’t take long. I’ve only got to dust.” She entered the room and began to do just that, hoping some dirt fluffed into Mrs. Carlisle’s lungs and made her miserable.
“You missed a spot.”
It was Drosselyn who spoke this time. Tilly didn’t acknowledge that she had said anything.
“I said you’ve missed a spot. Right there.”
Tilly turned to see Drosselyn pointing languidly from her seat, her luxuriant hair framing her face like the dark petals of a flower.
Tilly brushed over that spot vigorously.
“You seem to be a smart girl, Tilly,” Mrs. Carlisle stated.
“Thank you, ma’am.” Tilly continued to dust, eager to leave the room and go to Apple Tree Inn with the rest of the girls.
“There has been much talk of something exciting happening soon. If you could enlighten us to what this special occasion is, we would be most eager to hear.”
Tilly clenched her hands and moved to the other side of the room, turning her back to Mrs. Carlisle. “I can’t say that I could, ma’am.” She didn’t want to talk about it. Not to them.
“How disappointing! It seems as though everyone here knows what’s going to happen except us. Isn’t that right, daughter of mine?”
“Yes, Mother.” Drosselyn responded in monotone as though she spoke the words every minute of every day.
“I’m sure you could tell us something,” Mrs. Carlisle continued, fixing her small, staring eyes upon Tilly.
“Yes ma’am. I could.” Tilly turned around to face the two reclining ladies. “But it’s not a pretty story and not something I wish to tell. All I can say is that you’ll know what this ‘special occasion’ is when you see it. Look for it in Bromley Meadow.”
Mrs. Carlisle’s face didn’t change. She did, however, click her teeth together in a thoughtful manner. The sound repulsed Tilly.
“Thank you,” Mrs. Carlisle said, her head twitching oddly.
Tilly finished dusting the last table and left the room in a whirl, her face flushed with anger. She marched down the back stairs to her room, grabbed her coat and scarf, and rushed out of the house as quickly as possible.
Those women! Disgusting, detestable, prying, rude, snobbish—
“I was wondering when you’d show up.”
For the second night in a row Rodger startled Tilly half to death. She spun about, letting out a gasp. Rodger leaned against the back wall of the manor as though he was about to fall asleep.
“Scared you good, didn’t I? And I wasn’t even meaning to!” He laughed and walked towards Tilly, his presence like a breath of fresh air. “Ellen said you were staying to finish up, and I thought I’d escort you to the inn, since I’m such a dashing, protective man.”
“Thank you, Rodger.” Tilly’s voice caught when she said his name, and his quirky smile suddenly vanished.
“Was today really that bad?” All joviality left his face, leaving nothing but concern in its place.
She nodded numbly and sniffled when he put his arm around her.
“You need to be ’round people who love you tonight. Come on. Let’s get to the inn. What happened?”
Tilly let out an exhausted sigh. “It’s . . . Everyone wants to know if I’m going. And I don’t want to. It scares me, Rodger! I know that everyone else here loves it, but I saw something different than the rest of you!”
“You don’t have to go, Tilly. It’s all right. You can stay home all week when they come, bundled up in your blankets and drinking hot tea with honey.” He smiled one of his most infectious smiles and patted her shoulder.
Tilly nodded. “You’re right. I’m sorry. It’s been quite a long day.”
“That’s all right. Perhaps we’ll toast some bread with cheese over Caroline’s fire tonight. And we can have some fresh cranberry sauce with it as well! Eggs sound good to me, but I know you’re more for the bread and cheese . . .” He continued talking as they headed to the inn, lifting her spirits with every word.
But in spite of Rodger’s assurances, she huddled beneath his arm, feeling the need of some protection against the sightless stare of Bromley Meadow looming behind them.
The next day Tilly scrubbed the kitchen floor while listening to Mrs. Gregson rant about Mrs. Carlisle and her daughter. “They didn’t leave ’til past dark! If they ever did leave. I never saw ’em go.”
“Wait.” Tilly sat back on her heels and looked up at Mrs. Gregson. “They’re not even here yet. It’s half past seven.”
Tilly the Tardy indeed!
“I’ll be right back, Mrs. Gregson.” Tilly dropped her scrub brush and nearly overturned her soap-filled bucket in her haste to scramble up. Ignoring Mrs. Gregson’s questioning shout, she dashed upstairs and into the parlor and began cleaning furiously before the new housekeeper could set up camp in the room. “Daphne! Ellen! Could you come help—”
Then she glanced out the parlor’s large window and staggered backwards, bumping into a table and sending a vase full of flowers crashing to the floor. Tilly gripped the table with both hands and squeezed her eyes shut. Calm down. It’s not as though you’ve never seen it.
But, in truth, she could never get used to the sight. Every autumn for ever-so-many years, she had seen this phenomenon occur. One minute there was nothing but dandelions atop Bromley Meadow, and the next minute . . .
It had arrived.
Tilly could hear the excited shouts of other villagers as they saw it too, but she wasn’t listening. The memories of that terrifying moment of many years ago flashed through her mind, and she felt bile rising in her throat.
“Tilly! It’s here! Lord Hollingberry has given us the whole week off!”
The other maids rushed about the house, never stopping to notice Tilly’s terrified state. Already she saw families hurrying out to Bromley Meadow to have a grand time. Shops closed and children were let out of school . . .
. . . For there, reaching up to the sky, was a massive tent painted in the most magnificent colors. Emerald-green stripes, deep-burgundy stripes, gold stripes, and even peacock-blue stripes adorned the tall tent; and scattered around it were little, aged wagons of pastel colors and booths with vendors awaiting their first customers.
A slight fog still clung rebelliously to the meadow’s rolling hills and, as the sun shone down, the grass twinkled with dew. It was a beautiful sight to the people of Winslow and, while they rushed to get ready for the day, the thought of it danced about in their minds. For a week there would be nothing but fun in the village.
Bromley’s Circus had arrived.
While down on her hands and knees cleaning up the broken vase and flowers, Tilly pondered Rodger’s suggestion of the night before. Once her work was finished, she decided, she would bundle up in her room and not come out for the whole week. And she would ask Mrs. Gregson for tea. Perhaps she would read the book Daphne had lent her.
Her thoughts stopped abruptly when she heard a noise coming from underneath the wooden floorboards. It sounded like scratching and . . . something else. Whispering. Scratches and whispers.
Tilly pressed her ear to the floor, and the whispering got louder, though she couldn’t pick out any specific words. The noise sounded familiar, as if she had heard it once a long time ago. But it ended abruptly when Lord Hollingberry stepped suddenly into the room.
“Tilly? Why are you still here?” The old man looked around the parlor and smiled. “My dear wife loved this room.” The smile faded a little as he looked at Tilly again. “Come along now; leave the cleaning for another time. Do you remember the conversation we had yesterday?”
Tilly gulped and scrambled to her feet, trying to think of a way to escape Lord Hollingberry’s question. “I—I do, sir.”
As she stepped into the foyer, he closed the door behind her and spoke very quietly, as if afraid someone might overhear. “My dear, I know something happened to make you afraid of the Circus. It is a strange place, after all. But I need you to suppress that fear and do something for me.”
Tilly was already shaking her head frantically, her face pale. “I’m sorry, sir, but I can’t. I just can’t.”
Once more, Lord Hollingberry’s voice and manner became strangely young. “What if I told you that a man’s fate rests in your hands?”
“Sir, please, you aren’t making any sense—”
“When have I ever lied to you? I’ve taken you in, given you a home, and treated you with as much kindness and consideration as you could wish. Now grant me this one favor,” he said just above a whisper. “I’m only asking you to go to the Circus, find Indigo Bromley, and tell him you must see the Moon Master to deliver this letter from me. It’s as simple as that.”
Lord Hollingberry stretched out his hand to Tilly, offering her an ivory letter with a midnight-blue wax seal.
Tilly shook her head. “I’m sorry, I—”
“Tilly. What is happening right here, right now, is bigger than your fear. Be brave. I will make sure you are protected from any harm.”
It was a simple task. Take the letter, go to Indigo Bromley, and give the letter to the Moon Master. Simple.
And yet she was terrified.
But Lord Hollingberry had been so good to her. She should stop complaining and complete this small task! With this thought firmly planted in her brain, Tilly held out her hand and allowed Lord Hollingberry to place that crisp letter in her palm.
“Thank you, Tilly. Thank you so very much.” Lord Hollingberry turned to leave, but she stopped him with a question.
“Why can’t you take it, sir?”
The lord slowly looked at her over his shoulder, a deep pool of sadness rippling in his eyes. “I was banished from Bromley’s Circus a long time ago.”
With that, he left.
Tilly walked slowly down to her room, every step more resistant than the last. She inspected the letter and wondered what sort of message was scribbled within it. Then she looked in her mirror, folding back the collar of her maid’s uniform. A long white scar ran from her neck down to her collar bone.
She let out a sob and sat on her bed. Why had she agreed to go back?
“Where is my blasted necktie?”
Indigo Bromley always made doubly certain his personal wagon was set up behind the main tent in order to best avoid the Winslow residents rushing to buy Circus wares. But at present he couldn’t think about his Circus. A weightier matter consumed all thought: He was missing his peacock necktie with its emerald pin, and a magician cannot be a magician if he is not properly dressed.
“Scatter! Scatter, come here this instant!” Bromley looked in his mirror and made sure every hair of his black beard was where it should be. Delicately he twirled the tips of his mustache. Then he placed his dangling ruby-and-diamond earring in his right ear. “Scatter! Where is that little—”
“I’m afraid you cannot disturb Indigo Bromley.” The guard outside his door spoke in a low grumble.
“Oh, but I must see him!” A girl’s voice replied. “It’s a matter of the utmost importance!”
“Sorry, miss. Have you seen the magic pumpkin carvings? You might enjoy that.”
“Please, Lord Hollingberry sent me!”
Indigo Bromley stopped searching for his necktie and peeked around his curtain at the girl outside. She was young. Pretty, too, and she looked absolutely petrified.
Hoping to make a dramatic entrance even without his necktie, Indigo Bromley flung open the curtains of his wagon and flared out his long, green-and-black, sparkling coattails.
“Let her in, Dudlow,” he said in a deep, unidentifiable accent. With a shrug, Dudlow let the girl step into the wagon. Bromley closed the curtains again and turned to her, twirling his mustache absentmindedly. “And what is the beautiful lady’s name?” He bowed and grasped her fingertips, planting a kiss on them.
She snatched her hand away. “Higgins,” she said in a trembling voice. “Tilly Higgins. Lord Hollingberry sent me. I have a letter, you see.” Her hand shaking, she pulled out a letter with the Hollingberry seal on it.
“Hmm.” Indigo Bromley extended a ring-clad hand to take it, but Tilly jerked the letter out of his reach.
“M—my instructions were to show it to the Moon Master. No one else.”
Bromley raised an already-arched eyebrow. “I see. I don’t think you’ll like him very much. You’re already quite frightened about something, and he’ll only scare you further.”
Tucking the letter away, Tilly took a deep breath. “But I still must deliver the letter to him.”
“Very well.” Indigo Bromley turned away from her. “Scatter!” He bellowed out, making Tilly jump. “Jittery, aren’t you?” The magician smirked.
“Yes sir.” Tilly lowered her gaze and hoped Bromley would hurry and take her where she needed to go. She heard a rustling noise beneath the wagon. Looking down, she saw a hole in the floor. The rustling noise got louder until a little white head poked up from the hole. Tilly jumped backwards and knocked into Indigo Bromley’s full-length mirror, nearly sending it crashing to the ground.
“Good heavens, girl, watch what you’re doing!” Bromley barked, and then addressed the white mouse climbing up from the hole in his floor. “Scatter. It’s about time you got here.”
The mouse chattered then looked at Tilly almost apologetically.
“Take the girl to the Moon Master. And find my necktie!”
With a chirp, Scatter gestured with its tiny pink paw for Tilly to follow. She didn’t move.
“What’s the matter, girl?” Bromley looked exasperated.
“I’m not . . . not fond of . . . rodents.” She wrung her hands and glanced at the mouse again.
“Neither am I. Now go with Scatter to the Moon Master. Or you can give me the letter.”
Tilly didn’t respond. Steeling herself, she followed Scatter from the wagon and past the guard to the main tent.
This tent was as gigantic as she remembered, towering high above the village below the meadow. Its curtains were open wide as if they wanted to embrace each visitor, but Tilly didn’t feel up to a hug. It was too crowded inside, and she only wanted to get away from the noise and the pushy vendors. The mouse bounded inside then turned to look at her with his glistening black eyes. When she didn’t move, he sat on his haunches and began to clean his whiskers.
“Hello, Tilly! Beautiful day, isn’t it?” the village folk asked as they passed her and strolled into the Circus. Tilly nodded and smiled at each one, knowing she must look silly standing there outside the tent, quivering with nerves.
Closing her eyes, she tried to forget about the small but terribly powerful creature that had attacked her. It had been nighttime that first time she came, so perhaps the creature was nocturnal. Or maybe, after all these years, it was dead.
Yes, it was surely dead, she told herself and plunged into the tent. She clutched the letter tightly inside her dress pocket and followed Scatter deeper into the lights and shadows of the Circus.
The noise of vendors calling to village folk and the villagers calling back was deafening. Her ears felt suffocated by the noises, and she ran to keep up with the mouse, which wound between peoples’ legs and scurried under booths.
“Scatter! You’re going too—Oh, excuse me!” Tilly apologized when she bumped into a man and sent his hat flying to the grass.
“Quite all right,” the man grumbled as he placed the hat back on his head, then watched in astonishment as she turned from him to follow a small white mouse through the thick crowd.
Scatter led her, weaving across the length of the Circus tent until they reached its farthest and darkest corner. Tilly glanced around, wondering where the Moon Master could possibly be. At least it was quiet in this area. There was no interesting act or delicious food to attract anyone. In fact, there was nothing in the corner at all.
But then, as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, Tilly noticed a pair of green curtains that reminded her of a dense forest covering the entrance of a small black wagon. The mouse climbed up to it and scurried underneath the curtains, leaving Tilly to assume she should follow. She spread the silk apart cautiously and peeked inside.
“Hello?” She slid between the curtains and entered the black wagon, her eyes opening wide as she looked around. Candles lit up the small space, illuminating the piles of velvet ribbons distributed about the room. Each ribbon was more unique than the last, and Tilly walked closer to inspect them. Gems she had never seen before inlaid every strip, making them finer than the most expensive ribbons one could find at a dress shop. There were stones as black as night sewn into a ribbon the color of an aged rose. Tilly reached out her hand to touch it.
“I believe you’ve entered the wrong wagon.”
She jerked her hand back like a child caught stealing a cookie and looked around for the speaker. A man who must have been standing in a back corner of the wagon now slowly approached her. “Are you lost?” he asked with a voice that reminded her of chocolate and caramel mixed together.
“I . . .” Tilly stared up at the strange, tall form before her and wondered how he could stand so perfectly straight in such a small space. He was painfully thin, and his dark clothes hung on his gaunt frame, making him appear willowy and fragile. Yet something about the way he held himself made Tilly certain he was anything but fragile. His pale face was young, though he was older than Tilly. Chestnut hair hung in his wintry grey eyes, just brushing his shoulders when he tilted his head to study Tilly.
“Are you quite well?”
Tilly gathered herself and blinked several times. “Y—yes. I’m fine. Are you the Moon Master?”
His eyes narrowed. “Who’s asking?” There was a hint of hostility in his voice.
“My name is Tilly Higgins. Lord Hollingberry sent me. I have a letter.” She held out the letter to him, making certain he could see the Hollingberry seal.
“Lord Hollingberry?” He took the letter gently from her grasp and opened it a bit awkwardly with one hand. His eyes scanned the paper several times before he folded and held it back out to her.
“Don’t you want to keep it?” Tilly looked from him to the letter.
“I have no need to.” He watched as she took the letter from him and placed it back in her pocket.
“I’ll just . . . I’ll just be going now.” Feeling awkward, Tilly took a step backwards and startled when something dashed past her feet. Scatter climbed up to the Moon Master’s shoulder and perched there like a proper parrot. Placing his paws on either side of his Master’s ear, the mouse leaned in and whispered. The Moon Master smirked and patted Scatter’s head with one finger.
“Well, we won’t tell him you’ve made it into a nest, will we?”
Tilly turned to leave, giving the lovely ribbons one last glance.
She turned around when the Moon Master spoke to her.
“Take a ribbon, please, Tilly Higgins.” He gestured generously.
Even though her task was accomplished—even though she wanted nothing more than to escape the Circus—Tilly paused and looked at the beauty before her. Giving the Moon Master a cautious glance, she fingered a yellow ribbon with green gems.
“May I?” From a near pile he selected a pair of ribbons the color of a frosted violet with gems that shone like stars. “These are my favorite.” He held the two ribbons out to her.
“Thank you. They’re lovely.” Tilly took them and rubbed the silkiness between her fingers. She could not help noticing that he only ever used one hand.
“Have we met before, Miss Higgins?”
The Moon Master’s question shocked Tilly, and she looked sharply up at him. “No. We haven’t,” she said a bit more emphatically than she meant to. “I never come to the Circus. I only came now because Lord Hollingberry requested it of me.”
“I see. Forgive me if I offended you.” He dipped his head graciously and then nodded to the curtains. “Make your escape. I know you’re dying to leave.”
Without further ado, Tilly left the Moon Master and the mouse on his shoulder, suddenly feeling claustrophobic.
When the curtains were closed again, the Moon Master sat down in his rickety chair, placing his head in one palm. “I scared her away, Scatter. I spoke too soon.”
The mouse patted his cheek.
“Follow her. Make certain she is safe.”
With a loyal chirp, the mouse darted off his master’s shoulder and followed the young girl, who was running towards the safety of Winslow village.
Once well away from Bromley’s Circus, Tilly stopped to catch her breath, sitting down in the meadow’s grass. The sun was setting behind the Circus tent. She couldn’t believe she had gone back. The day seemed too surreal to comprehend. But, at Lord Hollingberry’s request, she had returned to the Circus, and she had seen the Moon Master. The task was done.
Why had he seemed to recognize her? And what was Lord Hollingberry’s connection to the strange Moon Master? Tilly felt her dress pocket, remembering the letter tucked inside, waiting to be read. Little caring whether or not she was doing the right thing, she pulled it out and fingered the broken seal.
“Tilly! What are you doing here?”
She shoved the letter back into hiding and looked up at Rodger approaching with his two little sisters. Rising, she brushed herself off, trying very hard not to look guilty. “Hello, Rodger. I’m just on my way back to Winslow Manor.” She offered the two girls clinging to his hands a shaky smile then started to walk past them.
“Wait a moment.” Rodger let go of his sisters and stopped her. “Just last night you were upset about the Circus, and now here you are, sitting in Bromley Meadow. What made you change your mind?”
It was a reasonable question, but Tilly certainly didn’t feel like answering, nor did she think it was right to. After all, she didn’t have all the answers; Lord Hollingberry did.
“I was running an errand. Please, Rodger. I don’t want to talk about it.”
Rodger pursed his lips and watched her walk away, noticing that she took a shuddery breath. Glancing towards the Circus, he saw Ellen waving at him. He waved back, then leaned down to his sisters and said, “Girls, see Ellen over there? Go to her, and she’ll take you around the Circus. I’ll be right back.” Then he ran to catch up with Tilly.
“Mind if I walk you home?” He appeared beside her and sauntered along, hands in pockets.
Tilly turned to him, somewhat aggravated. “Not today, Rodger. Go be with your sisters.” She walked faster, but Rodger sped up and dodged in front of her, walking backwards.
“Well, I feel like walking you home. Is that all right?”
Tilly sighed, truly not wanting his company at the moment. “If you wish.”
Rodger grinned triumphantly. They made quick progress back to Winslow Manor since Tilly set such a fast pace. Neither one said a word until they reached their destination.
When they stood at the back entrance, Tilly turned to Rodger. “Well, I’m here, safe and sound. Go back to your sisters, Rodger.” She opened the door, but Rodger drew it shut again. She sighed. “What now?”
“I want to make sure you’re all right.” He gazed upon her with all the concern in the world, which only made Tilly angry.
“Do you?” She crossed her arms and glared at him. “Fine. I’m not all right. In fact, I’ve had a completely horrible day, and I don’t want to talk about it. I’ve been used, and I’ve been scared, and I just want to be left alone.”
Rodger took a step closer, a strange expression on his face. Then he reached out and gently took her hand. Tilly pulled half-heartedly away, only making his grip tighten. “In case you didn’t notice, Tilly, I care about you, and I want to be sure you’re safe.”
“Stop it, Rodger! You’re being ridiculous.” She pulled away again.
“Very well.” He let go of her and grinned, albeit ruefully. “I’ll leave you alone. Just promise me you’ll take care of yourself.”
Tilly nodded. Then she rushed inside, closed the door, and leaned her back against it, breathing hard. When she cautiously peeked out the window, Rodger still stood there gazing at the spot where she had been. Then he turned back towards the meadow without the usual jaunty spring in his step.
Without wasting another minute, Tilly sped up two flights of stairs to Lord Hollingberry’s study, only just stopped herself from barging in, and raised her fist to knock on the door. She hesitated, however, when she heard voices from within the room.
“She’s back. It’s time.” That was Lord Hollingberry’s voice.
“Are you absolutely certain? We only have one shot at this, or that poor boy will be—” A woman was speaking, but the lord cut her off.
“You don’t need to tell me the consequences if we fail. This isn’t going to be easy, but we must take a chance.” He emphasized the last phrase by pounding his hand on his desk.
Feeling a bit wicked for eavesdropping, Tilly knocked on the door to alert them of her presence. There was a long pause, and then she heard Lord Hollingberry’s voice say, “Come in.”
She opened the door and inhaled sharply when she saw Caroline, the innkeeper, sitting in the chair in front of Lord Hollingberry’s desk. “Caroline?” Her voice quavered when she spoke.
“’Ello, dear.” Caroline rose and faced Tilly, placing her bonnet on her head. “I was just leaving.” She walked towards the gaping young girl then turned to face Lord Hollingberry, who had risen politely. “Proceed as you so desire.” With these words she left, patting Tilly on the cheek as she brushed past.
“Come in, Tilly. Come in.” Lord Hollingberry waved her inside, and she shut the door behind her. “My, you seem a bit flustered!” He chuckled, but stopped quickly when Tilly didn’t join in. “Did you do as I asked?”
Tilly nodded. “I did. The Moon Master appears to have seen me before. Also, a mouse rode on his shoulder and whispered in his ear.”
“Ah well, things haven’t changed much.” Lord Hollingberry walked around his desk to her. “I’m sorry, dear girl. I know that must have frightened you a great deal.”
She clenched her hands but didn’t speak.
“I wish you would trust me. You must know I would not have put you in that situation if it weren’t absolutely necessary. Remember, there is something greater taking place.”
Tilly sighed and rubbed her forehead with one hand. “Why won’t you tell me what that ‘something greater’ is?”
Lord Hollingberry gazed upon his maid, his tired old eyes full of compassion. “I cannot. The time is not yet right.” He brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes and smiled at her. “Why don’t you go clean yourself up, hmm? Get some sleep. You’ve earned a good rest.”
Tilly felt her anger evaporate, leaving only tired confusion in its place. She nodded, turning to the door.
She looked around.
“He isn’t your enemy. Try to understand that.”
Tilly tried to speak but found she had no words. With a little shake of her head, she left the study and hastened down to her bedroom, collapsing on her bed. Something crackled in her dress as she did so, and she pulled out the letter she had almost forgotten about. Too tired to feel guilty about reading a private message, Tilly slid her finger under the broken seal and saw only two words scrawled across the page.
Her heartbeat quickened, and she felt as though she would faint at any moment. She read the words again, making certain they were real. Sure enough, those letters were not some odd illusion caused by her exhausted brain.
The only words on the crisp piece of paper spelled out a name:
Scatter squeezed himself under the back door to follow Tilly inside the manor. He quickly scampered to a dark corner from which he watched her charge upstairs, but he didn’t follow. His master had told him to make sure she was safe, so he would have to search the house and make certain.
Starting in the basement, the little mouse began inspecting each floor of the house quickly and silently, his delicate nose and whiskers twitching back and forth, picking up all manner of scents. Crumbs caught on his whiskers in the dining room, and he sniffed spilt tea on the drawing-room carpet, but none of these scents were hostile.
The mouse scurried to the upper floors, thankful that Lord Hollingberry did not keep a cat, and checked the rooms there. Nothing.
Scatter was about to leave when he thought perhaps he could bring back some cheese for his Master. Oh, that would make him so happy! And then he would pat Scatter’s little head and tell him, “Thank you!”
Yes. Scatter would bring back cheese. He scuttled down to the foyer, his pointy nose telling him which direction to go, but suddenly stopped, whiskers twitching. There was a room he had not noticed before.
How had he missed it? The white mouse made his way into the room . . . and immediately wanted to dart back out again, for the room reeked of magic. Magic always stank.
But there was another foul smell concealed in the room. He sensed it beneath the floorboards. Scatter’s large ears fanned out when he heard a sound, and he crept cautiously closer. Despite the stench, he kept his nose pressed firmly to the floor, determined to know what was causing the smell.
Then the loyal creature’s tiny heart began to pump harder, faster, filling with fear. He realized what was hidden under the floorboards.
And what was concealed beneath the floorboards knew he was there, too.
Scatter barely had a moment to bound backwards and dart for the door before a hairy paw with claws twice the size of his small body smashed up through the floorboards, sending splinters flying through the room. The black paw slammed down again on the wood, claws scraping horribly until they fell into the hole again.
Scatter knew he had to escape before the creature leaped out from its hiding place. Desperately he headed for the nearest door and barely managed to squeeze under, then skittered down the front steps and bounded towards Bromley Meadow. He nearly flew across the cobbled drive, his tiny paws pounding furiously. He had to get to his master! He had to tell him that the girl was not safe!
The meadow lay just ahead when there was a crashing sound behind him—the creature had broken through the door! Dodging between tall blades of grass, Scatter gasped for breath. Soon he heard deep grunting and a vicious snarl. His enemy was gaining on him more quickly than he had anticipated!
The Circus still seemed to be miles away. Scatter’s legs and lungs burned from running so far and so quickly. At last the mouse reached the tall tent, slipped inside, and ran around the edge of it, unnoticed by the crowds of people.
He was almost to his master; his master would protect him! Only a few more feet to go, then he would be safe!
Scatter leapt towards the booth with the dark green curtains, but something caught the fur on his back, suspending him in mid-air. Hearing a guttural growl that sounded almost like some kind of twisted chuckle, he closed his eyes.
Pain erupted throughout Scatter’s tiny body.
Tilly woke up wearing the same dirty dress she’d worn the day before, still clutching the letter with one hand. She blinked groggily, feeling a bit disoriented, and got up. Leaving the crumpled letter on her bed, she staggered over to her washbasin, slipped out of her dress, and splashed water on her face.
What did it matter if Lord Hollingberry had given her the whole week off? There was nothing for her to do but go to the Circus, and she wasn’t about to do that. So she pulled out her maid’s uniform, preparing to work all day.
But first she headed to the kitchen for a bite to eat and some company. Mrs. Gregson was the only other person in Winslow who remained unmoved by the Circus’s charisma. In fact, she called it “a place of cheap tricks and bamboozlers.” Tilly and the cook rarely discussed Bromley’s Circus; they were each happy to know that the other agreed on the subject and left the topic alone.
“Morning, Mrs. Gregson!”
The old woman snorted. “Morning, indeed. It’s past ten! You, my girl, are turning into a sleepyhead.” She chuckled to herself and took out an egg, cracking it over a copper bowl.
Tilly scrounged up a piece of leftover apple pie from the night before. “You certainly seem happy this morning.” Settling at the table, she took a bite.
“It’s just nice to have the house all to ourselves. You and me and Lord Hollingberry. That’s the way it should be all the time.”
Tilly smiled and chewed on pie, wishing she could feel as carefree as Mrs. Gregson. Finished, she rinsed her plate in the basin. “If you need me, I’ll be cleaning the dining room.”
The hours passed slowly and easily. Tilly spent them working and stayed out of Lord Hollingberry’s way, determined not to think about the Circus again. However, no matter what she did, Bromley’s Circus and the strange Moon Master kept flashing before her mind’s eye.
Why had he asked if they had met? She would certainly remember someone like him. Yet his voice had seemed somehow . . . familiar.
There were also the ribbons, the Moon Master’s gift. They were beautiful, far too beautiful for her! Nevertheless, she kept them.
And then there was Rodger.
Was he actually interested in her, or was he merely fond of her as a friend? Tilly had never thought of a relationship between the two of them; Rodger had been her friend and support ever since they were children. She had never noticed him acting strange around her until yesterday, after she left the Circus. Hopefully she was only imagining his interest.
She closed the drapes in the front drawing room and took a deep breath. Another day was almost over. Soon the week would be past and the Circus, gone! She wasn’t feeling sociable enough to head to Caroline’s inn that evening. Rodger would probably be there, and she wanted to stay away from him for the next few days. With any luck, whatever feelings he had suddenly developed for her would soon evaporate.
“Tilly?” Lord Hollingberry called from somewhere nearby.
Tilly squeezed her eyes shut. She had thought herself safe from any odd conversations that day, but apparently she’d been wrong.
“Tilly, are you quite well?” He sounded anxious.
Reluctantly Tilly stepped into the foyer, only to see Lord Hollingberry staring fixedly into the parlor . . . which she had forgotten to clean. How strange! Until that moment, Tilly had been sure she’d cleaned every room in the house.
“I’m here, sir.”
He turned to her quickly. “Thank God you’re all right!” he said, breathing a sigh of relief. “You didn’t notice the . . . the parlor?”
Tilly shook her head and hurried to join him. “I’m sorry, I didn’t even think about it. I’ll clean it right—” Her sentence ended abruptly when she looked into the parlor for the first time that day.
There was a hole in the middle of the wooden floor. Claw marks led from this hole to the doorway where they stood, then across the foyer to the Manor’s front door, which bore another hole, as if something had plowed straight through the wood.
How had she not seen this?
“Tilly,” said Lord Hollingberry, “I need you to deliver another message for me to the Moon Master.”
If Lord Hollingberry had asked her the same question earlier that day, Tilly would have refused without a moment’s hesitation; but now there was a hole in the floor of the parlor. Whatever had caused it was bound to be more sinister than the Moon Master.
So, once again, Tilly felt the weight of a letter in her pocket. She also felt, pressing against her heart, the weight of something much bigger and more important than her fear of the Circus.
Lord Hollingberry was surely telling the truth when he insisted there was something much greater taking place in the village of Winslow.
A low fog was rolling in. Tilly tucked her coat tightly around herself as she trekked towards colorful Bromley’s Circus. The afternoon had been cool and wet, and heavy clouds cast a gray shadow over Winslow, yet people scurried excitedly past her towards the Circus. The sounds of children laughing and people gasping in astonishment made the twinkling merry-go-rounds and inviting vendors even more appealing. Lanterns adorning a nearby carousel were eerie yellow orbs glowing through the fog, yet somehow they cast the Circus in an entrancing light. Tilly almost wished she didn’t hate the place so much.
But beneath all the glitter and false magic lay something deep and sad which she couldn’t quite understand. She felt sorry for everyone in the Circus, even the foppish Indigo Bromley. Perhaps she was wrong to feel such hatred towards this otherworldly place. Everyone else in Winslow adored it. She reminded herself that she, too, would have loved it if not for the horrible night when her neck was scarred.
“It’s Tilly, isn’t it?”
Tilly had been so caught up in her thoughts that she hadn’t noticed she was skirting the edge of the main tent, unmindful of where she was going. She turned around to see who had addressed her.
“Y—yes. It is.” To her great dismay she recognized Mrs. Carlisle’s daughter. “I’m sorry; I can’t seem to recall your name.”
The young woman laughed, waving her hand dismissively. “Don’t worry about it. My name is Drosselyn. I recall that you were late the day we arrived. Mother was quite upset with you.”
Tilly nodded, recalling that horrible morning. Was it only two days ago? So much had happened since then!
Drosselyn smiled and nodded at Tilly’s coat. “That’s quite lovely. I adore those silver buttons.” Then she snapped her fingers as though an idea had struck her. “Do you know there’s a dress shop here, and all the dresses were made by the faeries of the Winslow Wood themselves?” Her eyes were wide as she waited for Tilly to respond.
“I didn’t know. But there aren’t really faeries in the Wood.” Tilly felt a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. Perhaps Drosselyn wasn’t quite as bad as her mother.
“No, I suppose there aren’t. But it’s awfully fun to think there are.” Drosselyn grinned and tugged on a shiny brown curl. “Why don’t we look at the dresses together?” She seemed truly eager, even hopeful.
“Oh.” Tilly looked behind herself at the huge tent towering above. “Perhaps some other time.”
“It’s just that Mother is at home,” Drosselyn persisted, looking a bit like a child who had just dropped her candy in the muddy grass. “I couldn’t convince her to leave.” She frowned.
“Well, I’m afraid I have something that I must get done. And I’m not terribly fond of this Circus.” Tilly looked cautiously around, as though the creature that haunted her dreams might spring upon her at any moment.
“Oh?” Drosselyn took a step closer. “Why aren’t you?” She tilted her head, still playing with her hair.
“Just . . .” Tilly thought desperately for an excuse. “Childish reasons.”
“Perhaps you’re afraid?”
Tilly blinked. “Excuse me?”
Drosselyn’s smile was sweet as honey. “I would be afraid if I were you.” Her sweet bearing vanished for a moment, revealing a steely look of determination and . . . jealousy? Tilly couldn’t quite tell.
But the moment passed. “Well!” Drosselyn smiled brightly, the strange expression gone from her eyes. “I’ll leave you to accomplish that something you were about to do before I apprehended you. Goodbye.”
Tilly watched Drosselyn until she disappeared into the crowd, heading off towards a shimmering emerald-and-gold tent, over the entryway of which hung the banner “Tippets and Pumpkins.” Taking a step backwards, Tilly shook her head. It would appear that odd conversations were becoming part of her daily routine.
As she stepped into the main tent once again, she couldn’t help but marvel at the huge poles reaching up to support the heavy canvas, and at the various stunning acts taking place all around her. Trying to ignore a woman walking across a thin rope high above her, Tilly maneuvered around diverse onlookers and headed towards the Moon Master’s wagon at the back of the tent. It seemed stranger than ever without the mouse guiding her, and she suddenly missed the small companion who had so unsettled her only the day before.
She found herself standing in front of the dark green curtains, and for a moment she wished there was a door instead so she could knock. “Um . . . hello?” she called out, feeling awkward. “It’s Tilly Higgins again. I have another message from Lord Hollingberry.”
There was a long silence before she heard the Moon Master’s melancholy voice. “You may come in.”
Tilly spread apart the curtains and stepped through. It was darker inside the wagon than it had been the day before. “H—hello?” Once again, she couldn’t find the Moon Master. Could he blend in with the shadows? Tilly jumped when he suddenly appeared as if emerging from the back of the wagon.
“Yes?” He stared at her blankly, and she saw that his eyes were red and puffy. He looked almost as though he had been weeping.
“Lord Hollingberry has another, um, letter for you.” Tilly pulled it from her pocket and handed it to him, trying not to stare at his disheveled clothes.
He took the letter without even glancing her way, again opened it with only one hand, and read it quickly before folding it back up and stuffing it inside his shirt. “Thank you.” He turned his back as though to leave, but stopped abruptly. “When you leave, would you mind telling Indigo Bromley that it’s time?” His normally rich voice was strangely dull, much like the hollow hoot of an owl.
“It’s time? That’s all?” Tilly asked.
He nodded. “Yes. Goodbye, Miss Higgins.” He began to walk off into the shadows of the wagon, and Tilly wondered if it was really as small as it appeared.
He stopped, not turning around to face her.
“I . . .” Now that she had stopped him, she didn’t know what to say. For some reason she couldn’t explain, Tilly felt that letting him dissolve back into the darkness would be wrong. “Are you all right?” She didn’t know why she cared. Her mission was almost accomplished; she should talk to Indigo Bromley and then go home. But the Moon Master’s shoulders, which had seemed so strong the day before, now seemed weak, crushed.
He turned his head until Tilly could see his angular profile. “Do you recall the mouse on my shoulder yesterday?”
She nodded. “Yes. Scatter was his name.”
The Moon Master’s hand clenched into a fist. “He . . . he was killed last night. And what’s worse even than his death”—he turned slowly to face her, passion suddenly strong in his voice—“is that they killed him for no reason.”
Tilly blinked. “Who? Who would do such a thing?”
Lifting one hand to his face, the Moon Master rubbed his eyes. “Forget I said anything at all, Miss Higgins.” He waved her away and began to move back into the shadows. “Forgive me for darkening your day.”
Then he was gone again, and Tilly almost felt inclined to follow him. Who had killed Scatter? And why?
The Moon Master didn’t appear to be completely of a sound mind. Perhaps the mouse had simply run afoul of a hungry cat, and he had convinced himself that a creature more sinister had killed his pet
Something told her this wasn’t the truth.
Tilly frowned as she stepped out of the wagon. Somehow she had become more a messenger than a maid in the past few days. Now another message for Indigo Bromley. Yesterday she had found the magician in his personal wagon outside the main tent, so she maneuvered her way towards the exit. Her life seemed crazier than the bizarre acts playing out around her. Would she ever lead a normal existence?
“Well, well. Hello again, Miss Higgins.”
Tilly nearly jumped out of her skin before she recognized the familiar voice of Indigo Bromley. He chuckled. “Still as jittery as ever, I see.”
Tilly exhaled slowly. “I was looking for you.”
“It would seem you weren’t looking, since you walked past without even noticing me.” Bromley’s deeply accented voice rumbled from his throat. “What is it that you require, little maid?”
“The Moon Master told me to tell you that . . . it’s time. That was all he said.”
All charm evaporated from Indigo Bromley’s bearing. His face looked ashen. “You’re . . . you’re sure that’s what he said?”
She nodded. “Yes. What does it mean?”
He looked away from her and cleared his throat.
Tilly suddenly wished she could take back the question. “Well . . .” she said, backing away from him. “I’ll be leaving then.”
Indigo didn’t respond as she slipped away. He stood frozen, looking like a flamboyant and colorful statue. His extreme reaction upset Tilly. Everyone around her knew something big and terrible that she didn’t know, and they were all playing with her as if she were a doll in a child’s game. Determined not to be left in the dark any longer, Tilly marched towards Winslow village and the small inn that was lazily puffing smoke from its chimney.
She wouldn’t go back to Winslow Manor just yet. Whatever this web of secrets that had formed around the village and the Circus was, Lord Hollingberry and Caroline were at the center of it, Tilly was sure. It was time to take out her feather duster and brush away the cobweb of secrets woven throughout her life.
It was time to speak to Caroline.
Mrs. Gregson was enjoying her day alone in the kitchen. Little was on her mind as she stirred together the ingredients to a lemon poppy-seed cake, Lord Hollingberry’s favorite. No one else was home but the lord himself, and although the cook was terribly fond of Tilly, she was glad to be alone. She bustled about her domain, thinking there was nothing better in life than a clean kitchen.
The back door creaked and she heard someone enter. It was probably Tilly, home from wherever she had got off to.
“Tilly?” the cook called as she squeezed some lemon into the batter. “Would you mind handin’ me the—” Mrs. Gregson stopped. It wasn’t Tilly who had entered after all.
Anger swelled up from her chest and shone brightly in her eyes as she saw Mrs. Carlisle in her kitchen.
“Hello, Mrs. Gregson. What are your skilled hands baking today?” Mrs. Carlisle asked as she roamed the large space, gazing at different pots displayed on the walls.
Mrs. Gregson huffed. “Get out.”
“I suppose the reason your food is so utterly delicious is that you use magic to make it. Am I correct?” Mrs. Carlisle continued, ignoring Mrs. Gregson.
The cook grabbed a sturdy nearby pot and brandished it menacingly towards Mrs. Carlisle. “You’re mad!” she stated.
The invading housekeeper chattered her teeth thoughtfully before muttering foreign words under her breath.
Mrs. Gregson started to move towards the woman she so despised. “What’s that gibberish you’re mumblin’? I said, get out!”
Before she quite knew what was happening, Mrs. Gregson’s raised arm froze and the pot slipped from her grasp to clatter on the floor. Her eyes felt heavy, and though she fought to keep them open, her eyelids slid shut. She fell, joining her pot on the hard kitchen floor.
Mrs. Carlisle clicked her teeth again, shaking her head as she focused her small black eyes down at Mrs. Gregson. “I expected more from you.”
Then she slipped quietly from Winslow Manor, scurrying quickly back to her home.
Tilly hastened down the street with her back towards Winslow Manor, trying to ignore its imposing shadow that leaned over the other houses to glare disapprovingly at her. She knew Lord Hollingberry wouldn’t commend her for going to see Caroline behind his back; but since he wouldn’t answer her questions himself, Tilly felt that she must ask her old friend instead. Perhaps nothing unusual was going on in Winslow. Perhaps she was simply being used as a courier between a delirious old lord and a crazed young man.
But why had Caroline been talking to Lord Hollingberry the day before, when Tilly had just returned from the Circus? Tilly had never known them to have any sort of relationship before.
She mulled these thoughts over as she mounted the steps of Apple Tree Inn, noting absent-mindedly that weeds were reigning supreme in the flower garden. Pushing open the inn door, she felt the chill of an absent fire in the hearth. In fact, there was no hearth at all in the small room. No chairs or tables were set up, and no candles glowed placidly in the corners. Indeed, this didn’t appear to be Caroline’s inn at all.
“You were right, Mother. It did work.”
Tilly whirled around to face the person who had just spoken behind her. Drosselyn closed the whining door and looked at her mother, who was stepping out of the shadows.
“Of course it worked. My magic always does, silly girl.” The old woman chuckled and rubbed her hands together, looking at Tilly with glistening, beady eyes that resembled a rodent’s. “But I have to say that was surprisingly simple.”
“M—Mrs. Carlisle. Drosselyn.” Tilly nodded to each of the women. “Hello. I seem to have entered the wrong place. Silly me.” She smiled, hoping they would do the same. But their returning smiles made her stomach clench with sudden dread.
“Oh, no,” said Mrs. Carlisle, taking a step nearer. “You came to the right place. Didn’t she, dear?”
Drosselyn tossed her hair over one shoulder and sighed, apparently bored with the whole ordeal. “She did.”
“I don’t think you understand—” Tilly began, but Mrs. Carlisle cut her off.
“Don’t play innocent, darling.” The woman walked towards her. “We have you now, and we also took care of your little fairy godmother, so don’t expect any rescue attempts. Mallory?” Mrs. Carlisle turned to the shadows and addressed someone. “Escort Tilly the Tardy to the basement, will you?”
A dusty old floorboard creaked, and Tilly peered into the shadows. A pair of glimmering red eyes stared back at her from the darkness. As the creature moved into the dim light, a large, strong body with black, matted hair and yellow teeth that looked sharp enough to gnaw through anything followed. The scar on Tilly’s neck suddenly began to itch as she backed desperately away.
There, directly in front of her, stood the monster from her worst nightmares.
The rat had found Tilly again at last.
Fair maidens in fairy tales were constantly fainting when horrible beasts caught them in their foul clutches. Back when Tilly’s father had read the old tales to her, she remembered looking up at him, scrunching her nose and saying, “I would never be like that, Daddy.”
If only her father could see her now! She had fainted dead away like a proper fair maiden after glimpsing the dreadful creature that attacked her so many years ago.
Tilly groaned as she slowly woke up, her eyes opening to slits. She wished she were still asleep, because no monster and no mad Carlisle woman could invade blessed unconsciousness. Hoping it had all been a dream, she forced her eyes open wide and scanned her surroundings.
An old staircase led down to the dirty floor of what Tilly assumed to be the basement. It was dark; the only light came from a flickering lantern beside her feet. She shifted her weight and tried to move her hands, but swiftly realized they were bound firmly in place with a rough rope.
Lord Hollingberry had tried to convince Tilly that something greater was taking place in Winslow, but she hadn’t believed him. Now she was the prisoner of a woman who seemed to have magic on her side. Though Tilly had never completely believed in magic, she was quickly developing faith in it.
Moth-eaten rags in the corner of the basement suddenly rippled, sending dust floating to the ground and startling Tilly out of her thoughts. She remembered Mrs. Carlisle telling the rat to escort her down to the basement. Was it still down here with her?
Not wanting to see but unable to tear her eyes away, Tilly watched the pile of old clothes with growing anxiety. They shifted again before a mouse—a perfectly normal, small mouse—came scuttling out from underneath.
She breathed a sigh of relief, struggled to sit up with her back against the wall, and searched the area for a way of escape. From what she could see by the dim light, there was nothing in the basement of any use to her. Unable to believe that she was actually tied up in a housekeeper’s basement, she closed her eyes and blamed the Circus for all her misfortunes. That horrible place had been haunting her ever since she was a child, and Tilly hated it with every ounce of passion in her heart. It was unjust that she should be here, tied up, and at a complete loss as to why.
A scratching in a dark corner to her left startled her. Tilly pretended not to notice. She focused on wriggling her hands out of her bonds, determined not to be distracted. If she could just loosen the knots—
The voice whispered again, sounding more persistent. The scratching noise sounded again, and Tilly’s head whirled towards it. Familiar glinting red eyes beamed out from the darkness underneath the staircase. Tilly squirmed, trying to escape her bonds faster.
The rat crept out from the shadows, staring at the girl, who writhed desperately.
“Get away.” Tilly shifted awkwardly. When it didn’t stop moving, she tried again. “Please, stop!”
To her dismay, the rat approached more quickly. “Stop it! Just leave me alone!” She began to sob, the long scar on her neck throbbing with horrible remembrance. Still the rat continued until it was next to her bound hands. Then, to Tilly’s increasing terror, it began to climb up her arm, latching its long claws into the sleeve of her dress and proceeding up to her shoulder.
“Get off me! Get off me!” She shook her shoulder, but the rat only coiled its thick, scaly tail around her arm, balancing itself there. With maddening slowness, the rat placed one paw on her cheek and the other on her head, its sharp claws somehow not scratching her.
The rat leaned in, its black snout close to her ear. Tilly shook uncontrollably, waiting for the creature to kill her, to swipe its deadly claws across her throat and be done with her.
But that blow never came. Instead, the rat took a shuddery breath and whispered in her ear.
Even as the rat repeated its whispered plea, there was suddenly a loud bang from above, as though someone had opened the door to the house and let it swing to hit the wall. Two voices began talking tensely, but Tilly couldn’t tell what they were saying. The rat, still perched on her shoulder, appeared to listen as well; but when the door at the top of the basement stairs opened, it leapt down and dove into the darkness, its tail following behind like a pale snake.
Two dark figures creaked down the stairs and approached Tilly. “Are you all right?” one of them asked.
Tilly’s tears stopped flowing when she realized who was speaking to her. “L—Lord Hollingberry?” She sniffled.
“That’s right, love, that’s right.” As the lantern’s light touched his face he smiled, warming Tilly to the bone with his kindness. How could she have ever been upset with the dear old man?
“’Ello, Tilly.” The person hovering behind the lord spoke, and Tilly remembered there was someone else in the room.
“Caroline?” She might have known the innkeeper would be with him. Tilly leaned forward as Lord Hollingberry untied her.
“Yes, dear.” Caroline offered her a motherly smile.
“What . . . ?” Her eyes got blurry again from tears, and Lord Hollingberry patted her back.
“It’s all right,” he soothed her. “I know this is all a bit surprising. We really were going to choose a better time to tell you, but circumstances being what they are . . .” Lord Hollingberry’s voice faded away as he helped Tilly stand up, groaning as he did so. “There, that’s better. Goodness me, I’m not as young as I once was!” He began to hobble off towards the stairs.
“Wait.” Tilly looked into the shadows beneath the staircase where the rat had escaped. “There was a rat.”
Caroline shot Lord Hollingberry a look. “So you were right. They do have one.”
He shushed her as he scooped up the lantern from the floor and held it towards the corner still shrouded in darkness, where the rat had disappeared. Caroline wrapped a protective arm around Tilly’s shoulder when in the gloom of the flickering lantern they saw the rat huddled with one paw over its eyes. It suddenly looked so much smaller than before, so much less terrifying. It was chanting over and over again something Tilly couldn’t quite understand.
“Ooooriann . . . Ooooriann . . . Ooooriann . . .”
Lord Hollingberry looked back at Caroline. “I think we have a convert.”
Caroline nodded. “Do you suppose it’s the one that was in your parlor?” she asked.
“No,” Lord Hollingberry said firmly. “Whatever was in the parlor was far fouler than this fellow and cloaked in magic.”
“What is it exactly?” Tilly asked, nervously moving closer to Caroline.
Lord Hollingberry didn’t look at her as he responded. “It’s a Dorian Rat.”
“But what is a Dorian Rat?”
Caroline looked at the rat and then at Tilly. “They were given the name Dorian Rat because it sounds as though they are always whispering the name ‘Dorian.’ They serve anyone brave enough to capture them, and they can shape-shift. Never seen one do it, though.”
Tilly looked back at the rat and suddenly felt pity for it. Perhaps it wasn’t the same one that had given her the scar so many years ago. “Can you help it?”
“Of course, dear! And we will. But we need to take care of you right now.” Caroline herded Tilly to the stairs and started up. “Bring the Dorian Rat,” she called over her shoulder to Lord Hollingberry. “After you take care of him, meet us back at my place.”
“All right. I’ll see you in a bit, Tilly. I’ll see you in a bit.”
As Lord Hollingberry hobbled off towards the Dorian Rat, Tilly almost cautioned him against getting too close. But then she reminded herself that Lord Hollingberry was so much more than he seemed. If he could set her free from the Carlisle women, then he could take care of a rat. Tilly and Caroline made their way upstairs and into the main room of the Carlisle women’s house.
“Where are they?” Tilly asked, avoiding a dusty gray rocking chair. The place looked long deserted.
“Mrs. Carlisle and Drosselyn?” Caroline asked. “They’ve gone. Don’t know where, but I’m sure we’ll run into each other again before the night is over.” She opened the front door and ushered Tilly outside.
They trudged across the street toward Apple Tree Inn. “What I don’t understand,” said Tilly, “is how I mistook that old shack for your inn.” She followed the innkeeper up the steps.
“A simple masking spell, dear. Anyone might’ve fallen for it.” The old woman bobbed inside her inn, pulling Tilly along with her. “Come now. I have something to show you.” She giggled like a schoolgirl and led the way behind the counter to a small hallway. Tilly, who had never passed that counter before, hesitantly followed, wondering what her friend could possibly want to show her.
At the end of the hallway, Caroline bent over and pulled up on two iron rings, revealing the basement below. “Come along!” she called to Tilly as she began to thump gaily down the stairs.
“I think I’ve had enough of basements for one day,” Tilly groaned, but nevertheless followed the woman.
She should have known Caroline’s basement would look nothing like Mrs. Carlisle’s. As Tilly stepped off the last step, her boots touched floorboards of polished cherry wood. A basket of ripe, red apples sat over in a dark corner beside a glowing fire on the hearth. Several of the apples had rolled onto the floor and warmed themselves in front of the fire, their scent filling the room. A crystal chandelier suspended from the center of the ceiling looked entirely out of place, but its pendants knocking together caused a lovely chime to ring throughout the basement. It was altogether a warm, comfortable arrangement.
But lovelier by far than the apples or the fire or even the chiming chandelier was the gown displayed on a dressmaker’s form in the center of the room.
With her hand over her mouth, Tilly walked towards it, unable to resist its beauty. Folds of luxurious creamy silk peeked out from beneath a frosty lavender overlay, and the bodice was soft velvet of the same color. As she circled the dress, Tilly saw shining silver buttons marching up the back of the dress like little round soldiers.
“Like it?” Caroline asked, her voice brimming with excitement.
“It’s beautiful!” Tilly fingered the velvet and looked back at Caroline. “Whose is it?”
The innkeeper smiled. “It’s yours, dear.”
Tilly stepped away from the dress as though it were the plague. “What?” She looked sharply at her old friend.
Caroline ambled over to a settee Tilly hadn’t noticed before and sat down. “I believe now is the time for some explanations.” She patted the cushion next to her and waited for the girl to sit. “There is going to be a ball tonight, and you must attend.” She spoke in a low voice as though they were planning something devious. “The Moon Master’s Ball, to be exact.”
Tilly choked. “The Moon Master from Bromley’s Circus?” Her eyes opened wide.
“The very same, love.” Caroline nodded.
Tilly shook her head. “What is this about?”
“It’s about my wife.”
Tilly and Caroline both turned to see Lord Hollingberry at the base of the stairs, the Dorian Rat perched on his shoulder.
Tilly’s lips parted in another question, but Lord Hollingberry held up his hand, stopping her. “My wife,” he said, his eyes misty in the firelight, “was fairy godmother to a boy named Jasper.”
“But there’s no such—” Tilly began.
Caroline interrupted her. “Don’t say that!” she huffed, looking like a plump cat that had missed dinner time. “Magic is very real, and the sooner you start believing in it, the wiser you’ll be.”
“Years ago I accepted a boy—an orphan like you—named Jasper to be my ward.” The old man spoke to the floor. “I met his godmother and fell in love. But our happy life together didn’t last as long as we had hoped. Jasper was cursed, and my dear wife gave her life in one final attempt to save him.”
Lord Hollingberry slowly approached, dabbing at his eyes. “Since Aminia died, unable to save her godson, by the laws of magic I am not allowed to visit him.”
Realization dawned brightly upon Tilly. “The Moon Master is Jasper?”
“Yes, my dear. You probably wouldn’t remember him; you were only a child when he was cursed. But every curse has a way to be broken. Jasper has one night when he can have the chance to be free by finding someone to save him. And after all these years of waiting, he has chosen tonight to be that night.” He reached out a hand and clutched Tilly’s shoulder. “If he isn’t freed, he will belong to Mrs. Carlisle . . . and that poor boy doesn’t deserve such a fate.”
Pressure bubbled up inside Tilly’s chest. What did they expect her to do? Hadn’t she done enough already? She shrugged off Lord Hollingberry’s grasp, got up quickly, and walked towards the fire, avoiding his penetrating gaze. “What do you want of me? I must go to the ball? And do what, exactly?” she asked bitterly.
The Dorian Rat leaped off Lord Hollingberry’s shoulder, landing heavily on the ground. It scuttled close to Tilly’s feet, causing her to back away. Reaching out a paw, it tugged at her skirt as though asking her to listen to what it had to say.
“Get away!” Tilly pulled her dress away from its claws. “I’ve had enough of you!”
Flattening its ears against its head, the rat ran into the shadows and hid itself there.
“What?” Tilly rubbed her nose with the sleeve of her dress, glaring at Lord Hollingberry and Caroline, who were staring at her. “I’m sick of secrets and darkness. I want to have a normal life!” Tears of frustration welled up in her eyes. “I just . . .”
Tilly dropped her forehead into the palm of her hand and sneaked a sideways look at the beautiful dress. She thought of the Moon Master’s wintry eyes, eyes which had seen so much more sorrow than she had. She thought of the way he held himself, so powerful and yet so beaten down. She thought of poor Aminia, and of the woman’s devoted husband who was trying so hard to save the young man he couldn’t even speak to. And she thought of Caroline . . .
What exactly was Caroline’s part in this?
With a little gasp, Tilly spun about to face the innkeeper. Even though she had guessed the answer already, she asked, “Who are you?”
Caroline’s brow crinkled. “Didn’t I say?” She squinted her eyes and thought. “S’pose I didn’t. Well, dear,” she smiled brightly, “I’m your fairy godmother.”
The Moon Master sat shrouded in the cold darkness of his cursed wagon. If the night had been normal, he would have candles lit.
If the night had been normal, he would have been listening to Scatter’s latest news about the Circus: whether there had been any accidents, if Indigo Bromley was in a foul mood, or if the clown’s dreadful act had improved at all. The Moon Master glanced at the little corner to his right where a peacock necktie, somewhat shredded, had been arranged into a cozy nest. An emerald pin lay discarded beside it, Scatter having found no use for it.
The little mouse would never sleep there again.
Dark thoughts flitted across the Moon Master’s mind, for the recent visits of Tilly Higgins had stirred troubling memories. He idly rubbed one of his ribbons between his fingers. His jaw clenched as he thought over his life of ten years ago. He and Aminia and Lord Hollingberry had all been so happy.
Then, on his fifteenth birthday, Mrs. Carlisle had gone hunting for him.
He squeezed his eyes shut as though he could somehow shut out further recollections. But he couldn’t. Visions of Aminia leading Mrs. Carlisle away from Winslow and sacrificing herself for her beloved godson played out in his mind. Her death had been in vain, however. Mrs. Carlisle had cursed him regardless of Aminia’s death. His long fingers clenched the ribbon angrily.
At least Mrs. Carlisle knew nothing of Lord Hollingberry’s relationship to him.
And the girl . . .
Perhaps there was hope after all. His brow furrowed when he thought of the danger she was in. Surely Lord Hollingberry would keep her safe.
But no matter how much he reassured himself, he couldn’t suppress the feeling of dread growing in his chest. He stood, slowly, and drew a shaky breath.
The Moon Master must prepare for the ball.
Once again Tilly found herself unable to refuse Lord Hollingberry’s wishes. As he had said, there was something greater taking place, and it was up to Tilly to free the Moon Master from Mrs. Carlisle.
How she was supposed to accomplish this was beyond her reckoning. Jasper had been held captive for many years under a curse that allowed him to leave his wagon for only one night to find a girl brave enough to save him.
Otherwise, he would be Mrs. Carlisle’s forever.
Tilly hated vagueness, and Caroline and Lord Hollingberry were nothing but vague. Now, alone in the cozy basement, she paced the floor, pulled at the collar of her dress, and fretted. Lord Hollingberry had left for Winslow Manor after saying he had unfinished business to address, and Caroline was bustling about upstairs.
The fire popped unexpectedly, causing Tilly to jerk and peer cautiously at the shadows where she had last seen the Dorian Rat. It hadn’t reappeared since she told it to leave, and Tilly felt a little sorry for speaking harshly to it.
Someone began creaking down the stairs, halting her guilty feelings about the rat. To her relief, it was Caroline. “Hollingberry is outside, waiting for your grand appearance.” Grinning, Caroline walked over to the ballgown and held out her hand to her goddaughter. “For you,” she said.
Tilly looked at the two ribbons in Caroline’s hand and accepted them gently. “How did you know about them?”
“I didn’t,” she replied. “Hollingberry did. He knew Jasper would give them to the girl he believed could save him. Thank goodness Mrs. Carlisle didn’t get a hold of them!”
Tilly rubbed the ribbons between her fingers, admiring the shining stones. “They’re more than just ribbons, aren’t they?” she asked, her voice soft.
“Yes,” Caroline grunted as she fumbled with the buttons on the gown. “They were Aminia’s last gift to him. Get out of that dreadful thing you have on.” She gestured to her goddaughter’s dress.
With a clap of Caroline’s plump hands, a tub overflowing with bubbles appeared before the fireplace. Tilly suddenly realized how grimy she felt. A minute later she was basking in a magical bath of the most perfect temperature. Her back and arms had ached since her imprisonment in Mrs. Carlisle’s basement, but now all pain slipped away as her fairy godmother rubbed a light, sweet-smelling ointment into her hair then rinsed it out. Tilly’s scalp tingled delightfully.
“Caroline,” Tilly began drowsily, the smell of apples lulling her to sleep. “How did things go so terribly wrong with Aminia and Jasper?”
Conjuring a white lace robe from mid-air, Caroline handed it to Tilly and returned to the gown, admiring her own handiwork. “Amina was teaching Jasper the ways of magic in a land far beyond Winslow.” She recounted the tale with a frown. “During their travels, they met another fairy godmother, Mrs. Carlisle, and her goddaughter.”
Tilly listened intently, not wishing to interrupt her godmother’s story.
“Jasper never was a handsome sort of fellow, but he always has possessed a certain charm that makes him appealing.” She glanced towards Tilly. “Drosselyn found him very much to her liking, the spoiled little milksop. Jasper, in turn, liked her very little.”
Caroline paused to pull a stray thread off the dress. “You can imagine how this angered Mrs. Carlisle. Her magic was so powerful that Jasper and Aminia fled, taking refuge here in this obscure little village and . . . Mrs. Carlisle pursued. You know the rest. He’s been cursed these past ten years. When Mrs. Carlisle and her goddaughter returned to Winslow, we knew the time had come.”
Tilly suddenly realized that she didn’t feel anymore as though Caroline and Lord Hollingberry were forcing her into helping them. She truly wanted to help them, not because of Lord Hollingberry’s kindness, but because it was simply the right thing to do. Jasper had suffered and so had she. They were the same in many ways, she thought.
But there was one question still lingering in the back of Tilly’s mind. “Why did Lord Hollingberry invite Mrs. Carlisle into Winslow Manor?”
Caroline grinned triumphantly. “Ah! We tricked Mrs. Carlisle quite well, Hollingberry and I. She never knew that Aminia was married. And she never suspected any connection between Lord Hollingberry and Jasper. We’ve been able to keep a close eye on that Carlisle woman since she came back!” The fairy godmother sniffed, quite delighted with her own cleverness. “Come now,” she said. “We’ve got to get you ready for the ball.”
Minutes later, Tilly was wearing a gown more beautiful than she could ever have imagined. She couldn’t help but twirl, watching the silken folds of cream and lavender fan out like the petals of a rimed tulip.
“Slow down, girl!” Caroline sounded annoyed, but the smile on her lips said otherwise. Tilly’s godmother pinned up her hair in soft curls, adding sprigs of dried lilac throughout. When the girl, who in recent years had worn only a maid’s uniform, looked at herself in the mirror, her heart thrilled with delight.
“You look stunning, my love,” said Caroline. For the first time, Tilly saw tears shining in her fairy godmother’s eyes. “But we’re not done yet!” Caroline wiped the tears away quickly and told Tilly to sit on the settee. “Where are those ribbons?” she looked around the room.
Tilly held them out to her, and the old woman snatched them away. “We’d best get you to that ball quickly! Midnight will come before too long.” She draped the shining ribbons across her goddaughter’s feet.
“What happens at midnight?” Tilly asked, once again confused.
“Hush, I’m thinking.” Caroline tapped her chin with one finger. “Oh, how does that old rhyme go? Ah, yes.” Rubbing her hands together, she cleared her throat and closed her eyes.
“Light, show yourself pure and strong,
Save a man from evil’s throng.
Take a form, small and white,
Give this girl the strength to fight.”
When Caroline had uttered the last word, something happened to Tilly’s feet. She felt a coldness slide across each foot up to her ankle, but it wasn’t an unpleasant feeling. It reminded Tilly of slipping her feet into a cool set of sheets before bedtime. She looked down to see what exactly was happening and saw a pair of shining crystal slippers adorning her feet. The violet ribbons laced through tiny holes in the slippers and tied into delicate bows at her ankles. They made Tilly feel even more beautiful, and she touched the crystal gently.
“They’re gorgeous,” she whispered.
“So are you. Come along! Your carriage awaits.”
Tilly followed her godmother back upstairs, stumbling a bit from the heavy folds of her dress, and out to the front of the inn. Lord Hollingberry was standing in front of a majestic horse-drawn carriage, his breath visible in the starlight.
“Tilly!” He stared at her. “You look stunning.”
She was about to respond when she looked a little more closely at the carriage, and her mouth dropped open. “A pumpkin?”
Lord Hollingberry looked from her to the carriage that was indeed shaped like a pumpkin. “I realized my carriage was terribly old and dirty, so I had to improvise. There was a nice little pumpkin sitting out in the garden, and I think, overall, it looks quite nice. Yes, quite nice.” He nodded to himself and then stepped forward to help Tilly climb into it.
“Did Aminia teach you that trick?” asked Caroline. “You seem to have forgotten a coachman. You certainly can’t drive it.” She crossed her arms, and one of the horses attached to the carriage snorted in agreement.
“Naturally I picked up a few things from my dear departed wife. And I did not forget a coachman. What do you think took me so long over at Winslow Manor? I had to create a spell from scratch! Plus, I had to rescue Mrs. Gregson from a nasty sleeping enchantment I imagine our friend Mrs. Carlisle gave her.”
“Mrs. Gregson? Is she all right?” Tilly asked, panicked.
“She’s rampaging about the Manor at the moment, but yes, she is quite all right. I suspect she had the misfortune to be mistaken for your fairy godmother! And now, Tilly”—Lord Hollingberry motioned for her to lean out the carriage window and look where he pointed—“meet your coachman.”
Leaves rustled beside the inn, and Tilly watched as a man, a very tall man, stepped out from the shadows, tugging awkwardly on his coat. His wispy black hair was braided down his neck, and his narrow face looked as though it had seen far too much sorrow.
Caroline gasped. “Is that the Dorian Rat?” she asked, mouth agape.
“Mallory is his name,” Lord Hollingberry said soothingly. “And he is on our side. He wanted to help Tilly.”
“Is he quite safe?” Tilly asked, not taking her eyes off Mallory.
Lord Hollingberry nodded. “Absolutely.”
“Well, then,” Tilly said, drawing a shuddery breath. “Take me to the Ball, Mallory.”
The people of Winslow had scarcely left Bromley’s Circus since it arrived, and they milled about Bromley Meadow, bubbling with excitement. Men, women, and children alike wore attire they had purchased at the Circus. The pumpkin carriage rumbled easily up the meadow and stopped once it arrived at the colorful Circus tent. The tent’s curtains were closed, and a platform had been set up outside, with a huge silk banner hanging above it reading “The Moon Master’s Ball.”
The steady murmur of the village folk’s voices rang through the cool night air, lending the atmosphere a festive vibe. Tilly shivered as Mallory opened the door to the carriage, offering her his hand. She ignored it, determined not to forget he had once been a rat, and walked into the thick crowd.
“I hoped I would see you tonight,” a soft voice said behind her.
Tilly turned, knowing full well to whom the voice belonged.
“You look beautiful,” Rodger said, his eyes scanning slowly across her dress.
She tucked a loose strand of hair nervously behind her ear, annoyed when it popped back out. “Thank you. You look . . . very nice as well.” She stumbled over her words, trying not to show her uneasiness at being around him.
He laughed his most contagious laugh and shook his head. Then his face became suddenly serious, and he took a step closer, speaking in a low voice. “What are you playing at, Tilly? You’ve turned so mysterious of late. We used to be friends.” He touched the back of her hand hesitantly.
Tilly stepped backwards, giving him a stern look. “I believe our friendship changed the day you wanted it to be something more.” Biting her lip, she looked at the lush grass beneath her feet. “I’m sorry—”
“Don’t be.” He shook his head. “You’ve changed, Tilly. You’ve become . . . distant.” Rodger stuffed his hands into his pockets. “I thought you felt something for me.”
She opened her mouth to say that she did feel for him—as a brother and friend. But he held up his hand.
“I wish you all the happiness in the world.”
He left her then, his dark green jacket disappearing into the crowd, leaving Tilly with many unsaid words sitting on her tongue. She swallowed them and turned, nearly bumping in to her coachman.
“Mallory!” she exclaimed, and he looked at her with an expression she couldn’t identify. “Get back to the carriage. You aren’t needed here.” Tilly moved to step around him, but he stopped her.
“I . . .” His voice was deep and strong, and he appeared to be shocked when it left his mouth. “I must protect you.”
“If I need protection from anything, it’s from your kind.” Tears stung her eyes as she thought of her lost friendship with Rodger. “Now please, return to the coach.”
“It was not my kind that killed the white mouse,” Mallory said quietly.
But Tilly didn’t hear. The voice of Indigo Bromley swept over the meadow, sufficiently stopping any chatter and making heads whip around towards the platform.
“Ladies and gentlemen! Welcome to the Moon Master’s Ball! Tonight I will introduce to you a man of mystery and magic.” Bromley paced about the wooden stage, his colorful coattails swishing behind him. “He has chosen to reveal himself to you all this evening, and only for this evening will you be permitted to know him.” Bromley stopped and winked at a group of plump old ladies who had forced themselves to the front of the crowd. “I give you the glorious, the stupendous Moon Master!”
He disappeared in a puff of smoke, leaving a lone figure standing where he had been. The crowd went silent in anticipation as the smoke cleared, giving Tilly a complete view of the Moon Master’s tall form.
As he stepped into the light, she saw that he was no longer the broken man confined in an endless wagon. He was strong, standing tall above the people of Winslow with grace and authority. He wore a coat of dusky blue and silver that shimmered in the moonlight and emphasized his cool eyes. Those eyes flitted across the crowd, lighting a moment longer on Tilly than on anyone else.
Then he spoke:
“Welcome, dear people of Winslow. You have supported this Circus throughout many years, and for this, I thank you.” Placing his hand over his chest, he dipped his head in acknowledgement. “As you well know, I am the Moon Master, and I invite you to celebrate life, freedom, and courage here tonight in this colorful place.”
The Moon Master smiled, causing women to swoon all across the meadow. Then with painful slowness, he raised his arm, looked up at the sky, and snapped his fingers. The light of the moon was snuffed out as though it were nothing more than one of the weak candles flickering in Apple Tree Inn.
The crowd gasped in astonishment. An inky blackness settled around the people of Winslow, and Tilly could hear the panic rushing into their voices as they asked what was happening.
But before the panic truly took hold, a light shone in front of them. It was only a small golden sliver at first, but it grew by the second. The curtains of Bromley’s Circus were opening, and the people of Winslow rushed towards the light, thrilled anew with their beloved Circus.
Tilly followed behind, not desiring to be crushed by the wild townsfolk crowding around her. For a brief moment she wondered where Mallory was. Probably already in the Circus, she thought, skulking around in some dark corner.
Pushing all thoughts of the rat-man aside, she lifted the skirts of her ballgown, displaying her crystal slippers, and entered the tent. Endless rows of tables had been set up under the big top. There were no odd acts taking place, and members of the Circus troupe looked relatively normal as they offered dainty entrees to the villagers.
A man offered Tilly what looked like a baked mushroom wrapped in lemongrass, but she declined, her stomach suddenly in knots. What was she to do here? It was certainly a strange night at the Circus; though really, when had the Circus been anything but strange?
“I hoped I would see you tonight.” A silky voice spoke the same words Rodger had said earlier, yet with a completely different meaning. Tilly turned at the sound of his voice, thinking that while Rodger had sounded apprehensive and worried, the Moon Master sounded earnest and thankful.
“Hello, Jasper.” Tilly fiddled with her hands, feeling the absence of one of Lord Hollingberry’s letters to play with.
His eyes lit up. “It’s been so long since I’ve heard my name. I had almost forgotten it.” The Moon Master offered her what was barely recognizable as a smile. “I am glad you were first to say it.”
Tilly squirmed under his unwavering gaze. “Oh. Well. I’m glad I know it now. I felt strange calling you the Moon Master.” She laughed half-heartedly at herself and crossed her arms to ensure that they wouldn’t hang ungracefully.
“You now know my sad story then.” He placed his hand lightly on her back to direct her towards a table serving a sparkling red drink.
Tilly nodded. “Yes. I’m sorry about A—Aminia,” she stuttered, wondering if she should have brought up the fairy godmother.
“That is the saddest part of my story,” he stated. “Losing someone close to you is more haunting than a life of cursed solitude.” Jasper picked up a glass and filled it with the drink, handing it to Tilly.
She took it. “What is this?” she asked, inspecting the different berries floating inside.
“Dewdrop punch,” he said. “The berries are gathered early in the morning in Winslow Wood and are made into this drink. The sparkles you see are the dewdrops themselves.” His eyes smiled at the incredulous look she gave him.
Tilly took a cautious sip and then another. It tasted like the early morning air one breathes in on cool days when the fog is still drifting about the earth. Tilly had never thought such a taste could exist, but as she sipped the drink again, it transported her to an image of ripe berries frosted over with dew.
The sound of a clock chiming ten echoed across the tent, causing Tilly nearly to spill her drink. She set the cup down on a table and noticed that Jasper’s posture had gone stiff with tension.
“Miss Higgins?” The Moon Master’s silky voice made Tilly’s eyes snap up to his face. “Would you care to dance?”
It was then, as Jasper led Tilly towards the dance floor, she noticed that the Circus no longer looked like a Circus at all. The tent was gloriously draped in luxurious cloths of ruby, gold, emerald green, and peacock blue. It looked like the dance hall of a grand palace. An orchestra started playing a simple waltz, and Jasper led Tilly through the steps. He held her with only one arm, his left arm hanging limp at his side. She tripped several times, Jasper’s constant grace making her feel inadequate.
“Why,” Tilly asked to cover a misstep, “did Mrs. Carlisle imprison you?”
His arm tightened about her waist. “She imprisons everyone who does not give her what she wishes.”
She looked around at the people serving the villagers. “You mean everyone else in the Circus is captured as well?”
“Sadly, yes.” He nodded and spoke no more on the topic.
Tilly looked at his lifeless arm. “What happened . . .” She paused, unsure if she should finish. “What happened to your arm?”
Jasper sighed but continued to lead her flawlessly through the dance. “Many years ago, in the black of night, a little girl strayed away from her parents. When she happened by my wagon, I watched her, enjoying her innocence of the horrors of life.” His voice was entrancing as he told his story. “I sensed that she was special. That one day, she might even be able to help me.” He looked pointedly at her. “But my enemy sensed this as well.”
Tilly’s breath began to come in shallow puffs. “Stop, please.” She didn’t want to know where this story was going.
“She was attacked by a strange, large rat, and I reached out my arm in an attempt to help her,” he continued, heedless of her attempts to silence him. “Since Isla Carlisle cursed me to never be able to leave the wagon, my arm was crushed instantly, and the girl”—Jasper looked sadly at the scar on Tilly’s neck—“was left with a scar that changed her life. Remember, Tilly.” He drew her close and whispered in her ear. “Your enemy is my enemy.”
She pulled away from him and stumbled from the dance floor. All her life she had thought she was the only person who knew of that scar and the horrible story that went with it. Jasper moved to follow her, but a glistening mass of pink silk got in his way.
Drosselyn stood before him, gazing up at the tall man from beneath her dark eyelashes. With the look of a cat who knew it would get its way in a moment, she held out her hand. Tilly, watching from a distance, saw color rise to Jasper’s cheeks. Was he blushing? Or did he flush with anger?
Tilly held back, observing as he began to dance with Drosselyn, wondering what part she played in Mrs. Carlisle’s evil, trying to recall details of Caroline’s story. Soon the clock chimed eleven, reminding her that Caroline had mentioned something happening at twelve. But her brain felt strangely fuzzy. Finding her appetite, Tilly sampled the delicacies being served, hoping food would fill the emptiness she felt when watching Jasper with Drosselyn.
“Enjoying yourself, darling?”
Hearing Mrs. Carlisle’s voice behind her, Tilly spun around, barely able to swallow the mushroom she’d been chewing. “You’re not welcome here,” she stated flatly.
Mrs. Carlisle chortled. “I’d imagine I’m not.” She gazed upon Jasper and Drosselyn. “Look at them. Such a lovely couple, and so completely in love.” The old woman turned her gloating gaze back to Tilly. “He will be hers before the night is over.”
She took a glass of dewdrop punch and sipped it. Then she set down her drink and looked at Tilly with her awful, rodent-like eyes. “You should leave now if you ever want to lead a normal life. You can stay with your godmother, Mrs. Gregson, if ever she wakes up.” When Tilly didn’t move, she snapped, “Now, before that chance expires.”
A whirlwind of thoughts rushed through Tilly’s head. Lord Hollingberry counted on her to save his godson, and she owed it to herself to help a man who had suffered at the hands of evil. Just as she had suffered all those years ago. And Scatter . . . the patient little mouse whose death had been useless.
Just as useless as Jasper’s life would be if she didn’t save him.
“I’ll never leave,” she said.
Mrs. Carlisle shrugged. “Your choice.”
The silvery chime of the clock rang again, alerting Tilly that it was midnight. Jasper left the dance floor and ran towards her. He barely had enough time to reach her and whisper, “Be brave!” before the lights extinguished all across the enormous tent.
Pandemonium broke out as people ran into each other, screaming and frantic without the moonlight or light from the tent. It was pitch black, but Tilly stayed where she was, too frightened to move and wondering where Jasper was.
Then she saw a light. Not a familiar golden or silvery light like the sun or the moon, but a red light. Two red orbs floating in the air close together. She knew instantly that it was the light of a rat’s eyes, and she backed away, terror ramming in her throat.
“Silly girl!” a raspy voice uttered. “Thinking you could defeat me!”
Tilly collapsed to the ground, crawling away backwards in a final attempt to escape the rat.
“Did you really think he could ever be yours?” the rat asked. “He is Drosselyn’s and only hers, you filthy little swine. I should have destroyed you that night long ago!”
Tilly screamed when she saw the eyes rise up into the air, imagining the rat pouncing on her as she crouched defenseless in the darkness.
But it never descended upon her, for a second pair of red eyes joined the first rat’s; the two beasts collided in mid-air, grunting and squealing as they fell to the ground. Tilly scrounged desperately around in the blackness, hoping to find a fork or knife with which to defend herself, but she found nothing.
Then and there, although her heart pounded desperately, Tilly realized that this was her time to free herself and Jasper from the hateful, wicked godmother who had kept them both in bondage for so many years. She stood, resolutely bracing herself.
Taking a step towards the scuffling, shrieking noise of battle, she saw a faint light peep out from beneath her skirt. Another step, and the light grew. Tilly’s glass slippers were glowing! Moving closer and trying not to think of what she was about to do, she raised her foot, aiming the pointed heel of the crystal slipper towards the larger of the two creatures squirming on the ground. With all her might, she plunged the crystal heel down into the heart of her opponent.
A dreadful squeal sliced through the tent and echoed throughout the silence of Winslow village.
Slowly, as if afraid to come back too soon, the candles in the tent flickered to life, lighting up a huge, hairy rat much larger and uglier than a Dorian Rat. A crystal slipper was embedded in its chest.
With a death rattle, the rat changed form, melting from a horrible creature into an even more disgusting woman. And then the body of Mrs. Carlisle faded away until it was nothing but dust on the grass. Tilly’s lone slipper, which had slid from her foot after she stabbed the rat, now sat pure and untainted by the grotesque godmother’s blood.
Tilly stumbled backwards, tripped, and sat down hard. Hot tears flowed down her cheeks, and she didn’t bother to wipe them away. All in one night she had faced and killed her greatest fear, and the sense that her world would be safe again flooded her heart with relief.
As her senses slowly returned, Tilly heard heavy panting. Turning, she saw Mallory crouched nearby with long, bloody scratches running down his arms and chest. Not bothering to stand, Tilly crawled over to where he sat and hugged him, apologizing and thanking him over and over for protecting her in the darkness.
All around them, terrified townsfolk ran to escape the Circus, not wanting to be trapped in midnight shadows again. They flowed past like a brook weaving its way around a pebble, and Tilly watched them go. Among them she saw the familiar forms of Ellen and Daphne hurrying away, and, between the girls, someone she knew all too well. Rodger had a protective arm around each of her friends. At the entrance he let go of the girls and ushered them out of the Circus, then turned around to see if anyone else needed assistance. His eyes met Tilly’s, and he rushed towards her, fighting his way through the fleeing crowds.
“Are you all right?” he asked once near, shoving a fallen table away and kneeling down to Tilly’s level.
Finding it hard to look him in the eyes, she nodded reassuringly. “I’m fine.” Only then did she realize that Mallory was no longer beside her. How had he vanished so completely?
Rodger tugged on her hand, encouraging her to stand up. She rose awkwardly, the lack of a second slipper disrupting her balance.
“Let’s leave this place.” He wrapped an arm around her waist and began to tow her towards the exit.
“No, Rodger, I’m fine.” Tilly slipped out of his grasp and looked sadly at her old friend. “You go on. Take care of Ellen and Daphne.”
“Tilly,” he spoke her name softly. “Always you’ve been afraid of the Circus. Now I can’t seem to get you away from it.”
Tilly smiled sadly at the irony of the situation.
“You’ve been up to something these past days. Tell me what it is,” he persisted.
She shook her head. “It’s too much to explain right now. Go on, Rodger. Leave. I’ll catch up with you later.”
“What?” He took a step towards her. “No. I’ll never leave you.”
She thought her heart must be cracking slowly in two. “I . . . Rodger, I meant what I said earlier. There’s nothing . . .” She closed her eyes and chose her words carefully. “There’s nothing between us but friendship.”
Rodger looked down at his boots. “You really believe that?”
She nodded slowly. “I do.”
He looked up at her, the familiar twinkle barely visible in his eyes. “Well, then.” He offered her a rueful smile. “Whatever you say.” He turned to leave, intending to catch up with Ellen and Daphne and escort them home.
“Rodger!” Tilly called after him and he turned, eyebrows raised. “I’ll see you at Caroline’s tomorrow night.” She smiled, hoping he would do the same.
“’Course you will!” he responded. “You’ve got a lot of explaining to do.” With a roguish wink, he followed the crowd out of the Circus, a bit of dash returned to his bearing.
“No! Please, I didn’t mean to! I didn’t mean any of it!”
Dreadful wails fell upon Tilly’s ears, and she turned to see who was screaming so desperately. Drosselyn clawed frantically at Jasper’s arm. He wrenched himself out of her grasp, and she collapsed on the grassy ground.
“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!” She buried her face in her delicate hands.
Jasper looked down at her and sighed. “I forgive you.”
Drosselyn’s sobs quieted, and she looked up at him hopefully. “You . . . you mean—”
He cut her off, saying, “I mean nothing but that. I forgive you, Drosselyn. That is all.” When her piercing wails began again, Jasper walked away, pinching the bridge of his nose and looking downward. His eyes lit up, however, when he saw Tilly limping towards him.
“Tilly,” he said, reaching out to take her hands as he met her halfway. “How can I ever thank you for what you’ve done tonight?”
“I was bound by Mrs. Carlisle as much as you.” She couldn’t help smiling at his tousled clothes and hair. Caroline hadn’t lied when she said there was a certain charm about Jasper.
“That girl really did love me, I think,” Jasper said suddenly, glancing back at the heartbroken Drosselyn. “A strange, twisted love. But strong enough that she wished her fairy godmother would enslave me until I agreed to be hers.” He shuddered.
Tilly gently squeezed his hands . . . and suddenly realized that she held both his hands. “Your arm!” she cried in delight.
“Yes, it returned to normal as soon as you broke the curse.” His eyes, filled with gratitude, no longer seemed wintry.
The rest of Carlisle’s Circus slaves, also freed from her magic, rushed from the tent with noisy excitement. Even Indigo Bromley was running away with glee.
“Come on. Let’s get out of here.” As Jasper urged Tilly towards the exit, she took two steps and remembered something.
Jasper followed her gaze to her lonely glass slipper in the grass and stooped to pick it up. Then he went down on one knee at Tilly’s feet and looked up at her with a smile. She obligingly lifted her skirts, and he placed the slipper back on her foot then tied the ribbon securely at her ankle.
Tilly felt too shy to say anything but gladly took his offered arm. Together they walked toward the tent’s entrance.
Glimpsing a shadow from the corner of her eye, Tilly turned back to find Mallory following close behind them. “Please join us, Mallory,” she invited him with a genuine smile.
When Jasper, too, thanked him for courageously defending Tilly, the rat-man seemed nearly overwhelmed by the attention. But he did keep close behind. At the tent’s entrance they all stopped.
The night was pure and fresh, holding no terror of vengeful fairy godmothers in rat form. It was the perfect autumnal night, Tilly thought. But when the tall man beside her snapped his fingers, the moon returned to the sky, making it more perfect still.
“How do you do that?” she asked, looking up at him with bright eyes.
He grinned. “Magic.”
Tilly chuckled. “I doubt the people of Winslow will want more of the Circus after tonight!”
They laughed together, and even Mallory joined in. But when the three of them stepped out of the tent, Bromley’s Circus was no more. It disappeared just as it did every year, although this time Tilly doubted it would ever come back.
“I daresay I’m in the mood for some of Caroline’s apple cider,” Jasper declared, his voice content. “It’s been far too long.”
Tilly smiled. “So am I. Although I have no idea how she makes it so delicious.”
Jasper shot Tilly a look. “You mean you really don’t know?”
“What?” she asked, peering up at him in the moonlight. “Do you?”
He leaned down and whispered in her ear. “She uses magic to make the cider. That’s why her inn is so famous.”
Again Tilly laughed, absolutely brimming with happiness. As the trio walked home, Jasper held her hand. And for the first time in many years, she felt truly safe. Lord Hollingberry and Caroline would be waiting for her when they got back, and they would recount the night over a warm cup of cider. She had found a loyal friend in a Dorian Rat and perhaps something more in the mysterious Moon Master. It wasn’t the normal life she had dreamed of since childhood.
But it was a good life. A life she wanted to live.
CLARA DIANE THOMPSON lives in the swamps of Louisiana with her loving family, dashing dog, and a very confused frog that resides in the birdhouse outside her window. Aside from writing she enjoys playing guitar, singing, Broadway plays (particularly The Phantom of the Opera), ballet, tea with friends, and long BBC movies. An enchanted circus may or may not appear occasionally in her back yard.
You can find out more about Clara and her writing on her blog: www.ClaraDianeThompson.blogspot.com
Found in the Five Glass Slippers anthology
“Please don’t make me go,” Arella begged, her large eyes pleading.
Her stepmother sighed. “It’s a matter of etiquette. One simply cannot refuse an invitation to the prince’s royal ball.”
“But I’m insignificant, Stepmother. No one will even notice I’m missing!” Arella persisted hopefully. “You and the other girls will certainly be good enough representations of our family.”
“At important functions such as this, child, everyone who attends or does not attend is noted. I assure you, your absence would be taken as a personal affront to the entire royal family. And they would not look kindly on the slight.” The stern lines in Duchess Germaine’s face softened. “Besides, Arella, you are far from insignificant. You are one of the most beautiful girls in the kingdom and will surely be noticed by the prince.”
Arella’s face filled with worry. “I don’t want him to notice me,” she said quietly.
Drusilla, Arella’s older stepsister, gave her a sympathetic smile. But Anastasia, the youngest, rolled her eyes. “Goodness, Arella, why not? What more could you possibly ask?”
Drusilla watched the stepsisters exchange tense glances. The two were as different as light and shadow: Anastasia vivacious, sparkling—Arella quiet, retiring. Anastasia would never understand why Arella hated these functions, and Arella would never understand why Anastasia loved them. Drusilla, her personality falling somewhere between these polar opposites, had always acted as the buffer, doing her best to understand both of her little sisters and keep the peace.
“I just . . . don’t want to meet him. That’s all,” Arella finally answered, her face revealing her discomfort. “Maybe you could tell them I’m ill? Or travelling to visit relations?”
“You should know better than to lie,” said the duchess. Her brow furrowed in concern, and she placed a gentle hand on Arella’s forehead. “Are you truly ill, child?”
“No, I’m feeling well, Stepmother,” Arella admitted. “I just don’t like balls.”
“You are an aristocrat, and as such you are not always allowed to act according to your likes or dislikes. You are expected to attend, and attend you will. I cannot permit you to behave in a selfish and rude manner, Arella. Such would not be a credit to your father.”
“Yes, Stepmother,” Arella murmured, her downcast eyes filling with tears. Drusilla, always observant, saw that telltale glimmer and wondered. Did the mention of Arella’s father cause this sudden sorrow? Or was the poor girl simply upset about not getting her own way? There was no way to know for certain. Even Drusilla struggled to interpret Arella’s reticent moods.
The duchess gazed upon her stepdaughter with a mixture of compassion and exasperation. “There, there, child! It can’t be as bad as that. After all, it will be the grandest occasion in many years. The royal family will spare no expense. Foreign nobles and dignitaries from across the world will be in attendance.”
Arella didn’t seem in the least cheered by this prospect.
“We shall all have new dresses! Lovelier dresses than we have ever had.”
Arella’s forlorn face remained unimpressed.
“And we shall take a silver coach, with our finest horses.”
Still nothing. What did the child want? The duchess shook her head. “Very well. If it is this distressing to you, I shall allow you to leave at midnight—but no sooner. And then only if you promise me to do your best to be pleasant to the prince and the nobles. Agreed?”
“Yes, Stepmother,” Arella whispered.
At least Stepmother had approved the notion of Arella’s making her own dress. This was some consolation. Arella sat on the floor of the dusty attic among boxes and trunks, remembering her conversation with the duchess that morning.
“You don’t want to go to the dressmaker’s with us?” Duchess Germaine had asked in surprise.
“I’d rather wear one of my mother’s dresses,” Arella had implored. “I’ll make it over so it won’t look too old-fashioned.”
The duchess had bowed her head. All these years, and she still didn’t understand this girl. “You can wear your mother’s gowns anytime. This is a special occasion. Don’t you want something new, something that will look like all the other girls?”
“No,” Arella had replied.
Duchess Germaine, tired of fighting, had conceded. It had been hard enough to convince the girl to go to the ball in the first place. Arella was so beautiful that it wouldn’t matter if she wasn’t dressed in the latest fashion, and perhaps if she wore one of her mother’s gowns she would feel more comfortable. “Very well. Would you like to accompany us to help your sisters pick out their gowns?”
“If I’m going to make my own, I should probably start working on it.”
“Very well,” the Duchess had said again, sighing a little in resignation. “Drusilla, Anastasia, and I are leaving now, dear. We shall return by suppertime.”
Now Arella was rummaging in the attic, accompanied only by one of her lively kittens. She loved the smell of her mother’s things: lavender from the sachets tucked among the clothing, leather from the ornate trunks, a nearly imperceptible sweetness . . . Was it her mother’s old perfume? She pulled out dress after dress, inhaling deeply with each one. Too much lace. Too bright. Too antiquated . . .
Ah! This one would do.
The rose-colored gown she held was simple, elegant enough to blend in with the fine apparel worn at a royal ball, yet not flashy enough to attract undue attention. Scrutinizing it carefully, Arella decided her mother had probably worn it as a breakfast gown. Such had been the fashion back then.
Arella smiled. “You probably didn’t guess your daughter would wear it to the crown prince’s royal ball,” she whispered. She rubbed the smooth fabric absentmindedly. Was this one of her mother’s favorites? Had her father liked to see her mother wearing it? Arella closed her eyes, trying to conjure an image of her mother in this dress, trying to find a memory.
None came. The only face she could see was the one from the portrait hanging in her bedroom.
Arella carefully repacked the long gowns in the old dusty trunk then picked up the selected gown and descended the attic stairs. “A little sash and some lace at the bottom should do to make this appropriate for the ball,” Arella decided. She made her way to the sewing room and set to work. If she had to go, she may as well wear something she liked.
“What do you think?” Drusilla asked her mother and sister, holding the smooth silk up to her body. She hoped the pale green would lend some of its color to her murky eyes and soften the brightness of her red hair. Surveying herself in the mirror, she ruefully admitted that they were as murky and red, respectively, as ever.
“I like it,” Anastasia answered. “It brings out the green in your eyes.”
Drusilla glanced at her doubtfully. “Really? I didn’t think it helped much.”
“Try the darker green,” her mother suggested. “I think it would suit your complexion better.” The duchess handed her eldest daughter a different length of silk.
She nodded approvingly as Drusilla held up the new piece. “Very becoming. I think you should choose this one.”
Anastasia and the dressmaker echoed the duchess’s commendation. Drusilla wrinkled her nose at the reflection; nothing seemed to be particularly becoming. But if her mother and sister liked it . . . “All right then.” Drusilla shrugged. “Dark green it is.”
“Very well, my lady,” said the dressmaker, taking the silk and placing it with the lavender Anastasia had already selected. “And how would you want them made?”
“Ball gowns for the prince’s ball,” Duchess Germaine responded. “Make them according to the latest fashions—full skirt, bustle, plenty of lace. After all, this is the event of the year. Perhaps of the decade!” She smiled brightly at her girls. New dresses never ceased to be exciting.
Except to Arella.
The Duchess’s smile faded somewhat as she thought of her stepdaughter. Of course, it was understandable that the girl would like to wear her mother’s things. Though Duchess Germaine had tried to take a mother’s place in the girl’s heart, Arella always maintained a quiet shell, especially after the duke passed away—scarcely a year after he and Germaine were married, when Arella was still so young.
Drusilla noticed when her mother’s smile slipped and knew she was worrying about Arella again. That girl! She could have come to the dressmaker’s with them today and found a bright blue to match her clear eyes. She could have at least come and helped them to select their silks.
Instead, she was by herself in a dusty attic and would probably pick the simplest dress she could find. It didn’t matter too much—she was a beautiful girl, and a plain dress would not conceal that fact from the prince. Still, it would be nice if she could try to be involved with her family for a change.
Drusilla smiled at her mother, hoping to ease her worry. “And what about you, Mother? Shan’t you have a new dress for the ball? It is the event of the decade, after all.”
Duchess Germaine returned her daughter’s smile. “One of last year’s dresses will do nicely for me. I am not being evaluated for the prince’s bride!”
Neither am I, thought Drusilla behind her smile. Nor anyone else’s bride, for that matter. “But think, Mother,” she replied brightly, “of all the nobility who will be there! You don’t want to be the only one in last season’s dress, do you?”
Anastasia added her voice. “Oh, do get a new dress with us, Mother. It would be such fun! And here’s a silk that would look perfect with your complexion.” She held up a pale peach fabric.
The Duchess laughed. “Goodness, child, I am much too old to wear that shade! But I think—yes, I shall have a new dress.” She indicated a sophisticated silver. “If you please, Mrs. Montgomery. And while we’re here, I shall order one for Arella—this blue matches her eyes so well. Perhaps she has changed her mind and would like a new dress after all. We’ll surprise her.”
Drusilla tapped gently on the half-open door then poked her head through. “Arella?” she called.
“Come in,” replied her stepsister’s gentle voice. Arella looked up from where she sat on a low stool surrounded by dull pink silk. One fluffy gray kitten napped on a chair near her while another pawed a spool of thread on the floor. “Did you need something?”
“No,” Drusilla answered. She picked up the sleeping kitten and sat down. The little furry bundle curled up in her lap and fell immediately back to sleep. “I just came to see how you were getting along.”
“Oh,” Arella responded, focusing on her work. “Quite well, thank you. Did you have a nice outing?”
“It was very nice. Bustles are still in style, but sleeves have changed considerably. Apparently long sleeves are horrid now.” Drusilla smiled at her stepsister. “Not that it makes any difference to you.”
“Not much,” admitted Arella. “I’ve never liked bustles. But I never liked those long sleeves, either. They got in the way.”
“Did you need any help? A thread-snipper? Errand-runner? Someone to amuse you?” Drusilla asked cheerfully, stroking the drowsy kitten.
Arella smiled but shook her head. “No, thank you. I have everything I need here, and there really isn’t much to do.”
Drusilla watched her stepsister’s nimble fingers move deftly though the layers of fabric. “Is that one of your mother’s dresses?” she inquired, more to make conversation than anything else.
“Yes,” Arella replied. “I think it’s lovely.”
“It is,” agreed Drusilla, admiring what she could see of the gown draped over Arella’s lap. The first Duchess of Abendroth must have been a woman of no mean taste; each of her dresses was costly and impeccably designed. This one, though simply cut, was no different. “What are you doing to it?”
“I’m just adding a little ruffle to the bottom. And I’ll make a sash.”
“No bustle?” Drusilla teased.
“No bustle,” Arella answered. Considering a moment, she added doubtfully, “Do you think Stepmother will approve?”
Approve? Or understand? Drusilla thought. She paused before replying. “I think she wants you to feel comfortable.” Their eyes met—Arella’s blue, lovely, innocent; Drusilla’s hazel, kindly, wise.
Arella nodded. “Do you think it will stand out if I don’t?”
“You, my dear sister, stand out wherever you go and however you dress. So wear what you want.”
Arella sighed. “I wish it were a masquerade,” she said. “Costumes are much more interesting.”
“You forget the purpose of this ball,” Drusilla replied with a small laugh. “I believe the prince is trying to find a beautiful girl to make his wife. Masks would scarcely help him in that endeavor.”
Arella made a face. “It’s silly that I have to go then. I wouldn’t marry him even if he wanted me to.”
“You haven’t met him,” Drusilla said, arching a brow. “Perhaps he will sweep you off your feet with charm.”
“If you say so.”
A silence lingered in the room for some moments. Realizing there was nothing more to be had from her quiet stepsister, Drusilla rose. “I suppose I’ll give Sleepy his chair back, then.” She replaced the kitten on the chair, planted a quick kiss on Arella’s head, and left the room.
Arella watched Drusilla go. And she thought, No prince will sweep me off my feet. No one can.
Seated in his mother’s sitting room, Prince Frederick listened half-heartedly to the queen reading the list of eligible females who would be attending his royal ball. He had finished his education and was about to celebrate his twentieth birthday. Therefore, according to precedent, he must marry. And his bride would be found among the noble young ladies dancing in the castle two weeks from now.
“Princess Miranda—a good match, but not exceptional. Her father’s kingdom is too small to be a useful ally. Alice, daughter of the Duke of Stelstek—sickly constitution. Amala de Perperand’s family isn’t old money. Oh, the daughter of the Emperor of Verdemons! She would be an excellent choice.”
The prince listened to the seemingly endless list of names and descriptions, but none struck his fancy. The ridiculous thought crossed his mind that this process was like buying a horse. Except, unlike a horse, the woman he chose would stay with him for the rest of his life. The woman he chose would have the power to make him happy or miserable. The power to make his reign—his entire kingdom, even—strong or weak.
Queen Thalia looked up from her lists and raised her delicate eyebrows. “I am not wearying you, son?” Her voice, cultured and melodious, held the faintest hint of reprimand.
“Of course not, Mother,” Frederick quickly reassured her. “I was just wondering what my life will be like if I pick the wrong one.” He drummed his fingers nervously on his leg.
“Don’t pick the wrong one, then,” his mother replied calmly.
Frederick half smiled but without amusement. “Out of so many? How will I know?”
“My son, when you marry, you take not only a bride but also a queen. Make sure she is worthy to be queen.” Queen Thalia returned her gaze to her lists, ready to pick up where she had been interrupted. “Lady Anna von Dalber, reputed to be very pretty. Elissa Galott, daughter of the Earl of Middlefield . . .”
Frederick found this advice scarcely helpful, but his mother was not a woman one questioned twice. Apparently she believed this information ought to be enough for him.
A woman worthy of being queen. He tightened his jaw. Challenge it may be, but Frederick had never been known to back down from a challenge. He would find her.
The night of the ball rapidly approached—not rapidly enough for Anastasia, too rapidly for Arella. When the day itself arrived, Arella felt her stomach knotting itself tighter and tighter as the hours ticked by. If only there were some way she could excuse herself, some way to sneak out to the stables or the garden and vanish! But she knew that was impossible.
Early in the afternoon the hairdresser set about primping the four women. Anastasia’s excitement could not be contained. This was her first ball—and what a first ball! The duchess smiled at her exuberant chatter. “I’m afraid no other ball will ever compare to this, child,” she said with chuckle. “Every experience you have from now on will seem dull.”
Anastasia was certain this couldn’t be true. Different, perhaps, but never dull. And even if it were true, so be it! Any amount of future dullness would be worth the wonder of tonight. Would the prince dance with every girl there?
“Heavens, no!” her mother assured her, much to Anastasia’s disappointment. “He doesn’t have enough time to pay attention to everyone. You will be introduced to him, however, and there will be plenty of other young nobles to pay attention to you.”
Quick to sorrow but quicker still to delight, Anastasia surveyed herself in the mirror, her dark eyes sparkling. Whether or not the prince danced with her, tonight would be the best night of her life.
Arella was silent, though this was hardly unusual for her. As the hairdresser expertly piled her hair into a mass of golden curls, she fought back the panic rising in her heart. She knew, as Drusilla had told her, that she would dance with the prince tonight. She could not deny her own beauty. But how did one act when dancing with a prince? Or with any noble, for that matter? Though she had officially entered society last year, she had avoided attending as many balls as possible. Crowds made her feel awkward and shy. She lacked the polish her stepsisters had acquired.
If only Anastasia had been the beautiful one, she thought with distress. She knows how to behave around princes. Arella set her jaw. Please, don’t let me be a disgrace to my family!
Drusilla reached over and silently squeezed her sister’s hand. Arella took a deep breath. At least Drusilla would be with her throughout the night.
“Arella,” the duchess called merrily, “How did your dress turn out?”
“Very well, Stepmother. I have it in my dressing room,” the girl replied.
“And you like it?” Duchess Germaine asked.
“Yes, Stepmother.” After a moment she added, “It’s pink.”
“Very good, child. And you’re sure you don’t regret not getting a new one?”
“Wonderful. Run along then and get changed.” Duchess Germaine had hoped Arella would show some sign of disappointment; she had so looked forward to surprising her with a new gown! However, Arella seemed happy with her choice, so the duchess wouldn’t interfere.
“No,” Arella moaned, standing aghast in the doorway.
She had stopped short upon opening her door, shocked at the scene before her. Earlier she had painstakingly laid out her dress, smoothing away any wrinkles with a loving hand, smelling once more the scent of her mother. Then she had shut the door and left.
She had forgotten that her kittens were in the room. Apparently they loved the scent of her mother, too.
“Sleepy!” she cried. “Frisky! How could you?”
One of the kittens scampered under a table to hide while the other lazily stretched, his claws catching on the smooth silk of her mother’s gown, which lay crumpled on the floor. Arella ran to the dress and picked it up. The kittens had gnawed the bow at the waist and run their claws down the skirt. Arella squeezed her eyes closed, wishing the scene away like a bad dream. But when she looked again, she saw the same thing. The dress was certainly not wearable—sash in disarray, one sleeve half off. “What do I do now?”
From the room next door Drusilla heard her cries of chagrin and came over. “Arella? Is everything all right?”
“No.” Arella turned to her, holding up the soiled gown. “I didn’t know cats ate dresses.”
“Oh, Arella!” Drusilla exclaimed, entering the room. “Your mother’s gown! Is there anything we can do to fix it?”
“No,” sighed Arella. “There isn’t enough time.”
Drusilla hesitated a moment, uncertain what to do. Then she took the dress from her sister and grabbed her hand. “I know. It won’t be your mother’s dress, but it will have to do.” She led Arella down the hallway to the duchess’s room. Knocking, she called out, “Mother?”
“Come in,” the duchess responded. Drusilla and Arella entered, bringing the torn gown in with them.
“Arella’s dress,” Drusilla explained simply. “The kittens got it.”
“Oh dear!” Duchess Germaine cried. “How dreadful!”
“What shall I do?” Arella asked, her eyes brimming with anxiety.
The duchess inspected the damaged gown. “Well, you certainly cannot wear this, can you?” She smiled, lifting a mysterious eyebrow. “But I may have something that will work.” From her wardrobe she produced the blue gown she had ordered. “I wondered if this would come in handy.”
Arella accepted the dress, managing a small smile of gratitude. “Thank you, Stepmother.” The style was completely unlike the simpler frock she had wanted to wear, but it didn’t seem she had much choice now. She turned to head back to her dressing room.
“One more thing, child,” the duchess called. “Here.” She handed Arella a shoebox. “The glass slippers I wore a long time ago when King Hendrick had his royal ball. By right, Drusilla should wear them—”
“—but my feet are too big!” Drusilla smiled encouragingly at her stepsister. “You don’t mind wearing them for me, do you?”
“No,” Arella returned. “I’m just sorry you can’t wear them.”
Drusilla waved an indifferent hand. “It’s no matter. But enough chitchat—we have a ball to dress for!” She put an arm around her stepsister’s shoulders and guided her from the room.
Her eyes prickling with tears she couldn’t quite suppress, Arella clutched the shoebox tightly in both hands. Despite the ruining of her mother’s dress and the dread she felt about the impending ball, she met Drusilla’s warm smile and managed a small smile of her own in return.
Arella’s heart beat faster and faster as they alighted from the carriage and swept their way up the palace stairs. The knot in her stomach tightened, and she fought to keep her face calm. Yards of skirt rustled about her, and the dainty heels of her glass slippers made a delicate tapping as she walked. She looked like a princess—which she certainly neither was nor wished to be.
They hesitated at the entrance to the ballroom. In due time the herald would announce them and they would go forward to meet the prince. Arella tried to control her heartbeat while they waited, watching the prince greet the numerous nobles. Stepmother promised I could leave at midnight. That’s not too long to bear.
Prince Frederick repressed a yawn as a line moved along. “Alice Laroche of Stelstek,” he heard the herald pronounce. Frederick bowed courteously over the hand of a young girl with a white face and lank hair.
“I’m delighted to meet you,” he declared. It wasn’t a lie, exactly, just like wishing someone a good day wasn’t a lie even though one often didn’t really care how good the other’s day was. She tittered up at him, batting pale eyelashes. He forced himself to suppress a grimace. Did all these girls actually believe that tactic to be attractive? Alice moved on, throwing a flirtatious glance—or at least what she hoped was one—over her shoulder as she left.
No. Definitely not Alice.
“Duchess Germaine Abendroth, Miss Drusilla Bessette, Miss Arella Abendroth, and Miss Anastasia Bessette,” the herald droned. The duchess moved forward, her daughters following.
And Frederick fought to keep himself from gaping as the loveliest girl he had ever seen approached.
She met his gaze and started in nervous surprise. Is it even fair that one girl should possess so much beauty? he wondered.
The four women curtsied deeply as they drew near, and he returned an even deeper bow. “Duchess, Miss Bessette, Miss Abendroth, Miss Anastasia—I am so very pleased you could come.” Especially you, his eyes said to Arella.
She glanced at him before looking down modestly.
No simpering. That’s new, he thought. “I trust I may have the pleasure of dancing with—each of you before the night is over?” It would hardly be courteous to single out only one. Especially when there was an older sister—or stepsister, apparently—involved.
Anastasia’s eyes flew wide open in delight. I’m to dance with the prince! she thought jubilantly.
Drusilla felt only shock. I can thank Arella’s beauty for this invitation, she realized. Glancing at Arella, she saw her stepsister’s face flooded with blushes. They looked becoming on her. The prince was obviously smitten already. Drusilla smiled to herself but felt worried. Could the prince charm Arella?
Murmuring their “I would be honored”s, the family moved on. The duchess smiled proudly. All three of her daughters had elicited an invitation to dance with the prince himself. An accomplishment indeed!
“I have to dance with him!” Arella whispered frantically to Drusilla behind her fan, out of earshot of the prince. He continued to bow to young ladies and their parents but sent frequent glances in Arella’s direction.
“Just what every other girl wishes to do,” Drusilla whispered back. Now was not the time to let Arella indulge in solitude. Like it or not, she would have to make herself agreeable.
“Why can’t he dance with every other girl, then?” Arella whimpered.
“Because you are the prettiest.”
“I hate being the prettiest!”
It was the most vehement speech Drusilla had ever heard her stepsister utter. “I’m afraid that isn’t for you to choose. Dance with him, agree with what he says, smile a little, and then it will be over. Surely you can manage that?”
Arella bit her lip.
“It will be just like dancing with any other young man,” Drusilla continued. “Don’t be nervous. Everything will turn out well.”
Arella cast a dissatisfied glance at Drusilla. “I hate dancing with all of them, too!”
Their conversation was interrupted when a friend of the duchess joined their party to visit.
Drusilla sighed. Please, Arella, just behave.
The evening dragged on forever, Frederick thought. At least the part of the evening until he could dance with Arella.
First he had suffered through all those formal introductions, and now he must dance through a list of noble ladies at his mother’s behest. The daughter of the Emperor of Verdemons, for example; it would hardly do to ignore her.
Just dance with her and a few more, and then I’ll be able to speak to the beautiful Arella. Frederick sneaked another glance her way. She stood beside her sister, the picture of elegance and grace. As far as he had been able to tell, she hadn’t looked his way once.
But a little shyness isn’t necessarily a bad thing, he reflected as Amala de Perperand boldly fluttered past him, eyelashes batting for all they were worth. In fact, I think I like that in a woman.
“Excuse me.” Drusilla heard a deep voice behind her shoulder. “I believe you honored me with the promise of a dance?”
She turned to see the prince waiting, hand outstretched. She dropped a graceful curtsey. “The honor is mine, Your Highness.” She allowed him to lead her to the center of the room.
It was indeed an honor for her; this was the beginning of her fourth season in society, and she had never boasted any serious beaux. In the opinion of most young men, her fortune was not enough to offset her awkward height, plain face, and flaming hair. Thanks to her stepsister’s charm, however, she was now dancing with the crown prince.
I believe this is one of those stories spinster aunts tell their nieces ad nauseam, she mused. “Did you hear about the time I danced with the prince?” Drusilla felt sorry for her future nieces.
The prince was charming in every way. His dancing was impeccable, and his smile made her heart beat faster, even though she knew it was on Arella’s account. She could see why all the other girls in the room tittered foolishly at him.
Frederick forced himself to focus on Drusilla instead of letting his eyes wander to her lovely stepsister. “I trust you and your family are in good health this evening?” he began courteously.
“Very good health, Your Highness, I thank you. I trust the same for you.” Drusilla didn’t know if what she had just said was technically true; Arella seemed rather unwell, actually. But Drusilla was never one to be remiss regarding etiquette.
Frederick nodded an acknowledgment to her good wishes. He was tired of conversations such as this—polite tidbits that interested neither party. At least this girl didn’t simper. And she danced well—very well, in fact. No great beauty, but quite acceptable for a stepsister-in-law.
Tired or not of such conversation, such conversation must be had. They spoke courteously throughout the rest of the dance. With the closing chord, he made an elegant bow, matched by her equally elegant curtsey. “I thank you for the dance,” he said. “It was a pleasure.”
“The pleasure was all mine, Your Highness.” If she had lied a bit earlier regarding the health of her family, at least this statement was entirely true.
Another man claimed her. Though not sought after as a wife, Drusilla was a good dancer and had sufficient partners.
Frederick smiled. Now he could finally speak to Arella.
A Magical Retelling of a Beloved Fairy Tale! After her terrifying experience there several years ago, the one place young housemaid Tilly longs to avoid is Bromley's Circus. But when kindly Lord Hollingberry begs her to deliver a message to the mysterious Moon Master hidden away among the circus dwellers, Tilly can't refuse . . . and finds herself ensnared in a web of enchantment cast by the loathsome Mrs. Carlisle and her beautiful goddaughter.