The prince gave his courtiers a smile that was blandly appropriate and did his best to mask the fact that he was thinking about the puzzle that was the young woman sitting near him. As she listened intently to the chattering of the eldest daughter of some viscount from the west, the prince noted that she seemed quite enthralled with the complaints of the woman. Ella had been quiet for much of the evening as she watched the crowd with a thread of anxiety through her demeanor. The musicians began to play a merry tune and dancers took the floor.
The prince's distraction led to him missing details from the viscount's story about his recent hunting trip. The viscount fell quiet, waiting for his liege to say something about the story. The prince's gaze snapped to the spindly man standing before him. "I must speak with this young woman," he said to the viscount. The viscount's expression flickered to disappointment when he realized that the prince was not speaking of his daughter. However, the man made a graceful gesture and turned his attention to another minor noble that was hoping to rub elbows with the prince.
Ella looked at the dancers and was filled with despair. She knew the hour was getting late. While her stepmother and her stepsisters seemed to have forgotten her, Ella suspected that the next day was going to be pure torment. She was so caught up in her worries that she missed the prince's quiet question. She looked over at him, mildly confused. The prince saw the expression of bafflement on her face and he smiled. Just when he thought she couldn't become more endearing, she somehow managed to accomplish it.
"Will you have need of an escort to see you home safely?" he asked again. Ella swallowed uncomfortably. "I would be happy to send someone with you. The little you have told me of your stepmother and stepsisters, I am concerned that something untoward would happen to you tonight. I would like to see you again," he said. Ella shook her head. The prince reached over an took her hand in his. "If you have no need of an escort, at least let me send word that your stepmother and stepsisters are to treat you well because you have my favor," he said, "They will not dare refuse me."
Ella heard someone comment that it was nigh eleven thirty. Her eyes widened in panic. "I must leave," she said. The prince looked at her in curiosity. "Please," she said,"I must go. I am late." The prince let her slip her hand from his.
"I would have you come again," he said, "The third ball is to be held in three nights. Come and keep me company. These affairs are terribly boring with out pleasant company." Ella started away from him.
"I will try," she said before darting off through the crowd. The prince motioned one of his trusted friends over. They had a quick, quiet conversation. Then the short man set off quickly to catch up with and follow Ella. The prince turned his attention to the viscount and his daughter. As he exchanged pleasantries and gave a bland offer to dance to the young woman, the prince thought about the purpose of the balls.
He was to find a wife. Though he was the fourth son, his father deemed it necessary that he wed by his twenty first birthday. Surrounded by all of the eligible, wealthy young women of the court and several from afar, the prince could not help but question who Ella was and what sparked such fear in her.
The prince's friend rushed after the woman in the golden dress. He reached the courtyard as the white carriage raced away down the lane from the chateau. As the short man with the crooked nose turned and walked into the castle, he noted the coat of arms he had seen briefly as it raced away. It confused him, for it was arms he did not recognize, though the looked familiar somehow. He gave the guard a curt nod and continued back to the ballroom.
The sight that met his eyes was the prince dancing with a wealthy young widow of some northern count. Despite the beauty of the woman in his arms, the prince had an expression on his face that his dear friend recognized. A look of forced pleasantry, much like the one he had when his father announced the balls were to take place. The man gave noncommittal greetings to several people as he passed. To others he mumbled apologies for disrupting them on their way to where he knew the prince would head when the dance was finished.
The dance set complete, the prince made his way to a quiet corner where his friend awaited him. "She is somehow of noble birth," he said, "The carriage was white but upon the back was a coat of arms. A lily upon a blue field with a golden pennant behind. I can't place why it is familiar, though." An older man overheard them speaking. He leaned towards them.
"Those are the arms of Lord Ambery. An ancient house that lost its fortunes when the eldest son died in battle many long years ago. The second son was sent in to poverty with his young wife when the creditors came for his brother's debts. It was quiet the scandal. No one knows what became of them after that," the older man said, "But Ambery's line is all but vanished. Their lands were seized by your father, m'lord," he continued, "You and your brothers were children when this happened. If some heir were to appear, it would complicate things."
The prince looked towards the older man, considering what he had said. "It seems that I must talk with my father," he said.