It was 8 o'clock, barely just an hour after the ball began, and Prince Gladion was already tired of the whole affair. As the guest-of-honour, he couldn't simply sneak out and disappear, especially when all the single (and some married) women present were determined to dance with him and catch his attention. Although nothing had been written in the invitations or proclamations about marriage, somehow every single person in the kingdom knew that the ball was being hosted to find their crown prince a bride.
The only saving grace was that he had managed to convince the orchestra to play as many six- and four- dances as they can, so he can get though more ladies in a shorter amount of time. So he danced with his people, scowling endlessly every second. He had tried plastering a fake smile on at first, but he soon realised that no matter how hard he was frowning, nobody got offended, and the women merely tittered on about how dashing he looked with that melancholy, dark expression beneath his long blond hair. So he gave up the effort, and scowled at everybody.
Most of all at Lord Faba, the mastermind behind his suffering. The Lord Chancellor had been ruling the kingdom for years while Gladion was being fostered in neighbouring lands, studying and training to be a good king. Upon his return, he quickly assured Gladion that all was well, the land and people were happy and prosperous, and his first duty was to find a queen before his coronation.
It was the most absurd thing ever. Faba thought he was too stupid to realise that all of the nonsense he was organising was intended to be a distraction from his true intentions. But, Gladion thought as he twirled the lady-of-the-moment around, he would pretend to agree with Lord Faba's words, at least for now. The man had the support of many the most powerful nobles around, and he could not sack him without a reason.
He had to bide his time, and wait, and watch, until he could find concrete proof that Faba was up to no good.
Deciding that he needed a break, Gladion bowed to his two partners as the song ended, then turned and walked quickly to the refreshment tables before anyone else could approach him for the next dance.
On the surface, he had to admit that the kingdom looked fine. The people filling the Great Hall were splendid in their finery, the food on the tables were plentiful. When he rode in through the streets to the castle, the roads were clean and the crowds cheered him. If they had been discontent with the aristocracy, they would have jeered at his return.
So where, exactly, was the problem?
At that thought, when he stood and sipped his cider while a whole group of women stood nearby, eagerly waiting for him to finish. But suddenly the chattering died, leaving only the music of the orchestra playing, until they too stopped, surprised at the sudden silence.
Gladion looked up. And saw her.
She was coming down the staircase, dressed in a gown of pure white silk. An overlay of of silver organza covered the fabric, with embroidery all over it in the shape of crescent moons, so that she sparkled and shimmered with every move. Her black hair was arranged in short curls around her face, under a silver tiara set with moonstones. Her mask was silver as well, glittering with sequins. Soft white sheer puffs on her sleeves contrasted with the silk satin of her long white gloves.
She looked unbelievably stunning. Gladion had seen many beautiful women in pretty dresses before; some of them had been circling him all evening. But for some reason, he couldn't take his eyes off this white lady, shining like the moon. It was her fair skin, peeking from beneath her mask. It was her confident walk as she moved straight to him, no embarrassment or coyness or any kind of care for social conventions that dictated that a man should approach the woman first.
Slowly, the crowd began muttering again. Nobody seemed to know who she was, or who her dressmaker was. Gladion watched her glide towards him. Five strides, then three, then one. She curtseyed gracefully, swishing her skirts about her, then looked up at him.
Almost as if he were in a daze, Gladion held out his hand, and she took it. The orchestra began to play again, one of the solo dances, and then they began to dance.
The logical part of Gladion's brain knew that it was stupid to be so affected by a lady. Basic attraction was… well, basic. He wasn't about to declare his undying love for her, nor was he about to announce his engagement to her right there. But she was a good dancer, following his lead easily. Her gaze on his face was steady, not shy (or faked shy), without being too aggressive like she wanted to eat him (or his crown) up. As they waltzed across the ballroom floor, he realised that she was the first partner he had the whole evening that he felt pleasure dancing with.
In addition of course, he could feel the warmth of her soft skin through her gloves. The curve of her slender neck, the gentle swells rising above her décolletage, the sleek shiny black curls and her rosy cheeks in combination were a delightful feast for the eyes (and he definitely looked). His hands were tempted to pull her closer than the respectable distance. But she was a stranger after all, and he didn't want to scare her off, even though she had obviously made a beeline for him the moment she arrived.
That thought killed his enjoyment a little.
"I'm guessing you're not from this land," said Gladion. "Seems like everyone's wondering who you are."
The moon lady smiled again. "Is that your roundabout way of asking me who I am? I thought it was against the rules to ask about identities at a masquerade ball."
It was, but all the ladies who had promptly introduced themselves and their heritage this evening hadn't seemed to care.
"You obviously know who I am."
"His Royal Highness, Gla-dion Rupert—"
"Don't say my full—"
"Windemere Vladimir Karl Alexander Francois Reginald Lancelot Herman Gregory James." The moon lady recited, laughing at his disgusted face. "They sang it about a hundred times in the town square."
Gladion smirked. "So the moon lady is from the town?"
The lady's eyes widened, and she bit her lip. "You're smart," she said.
"That's a compliment, but the surprise in your voice sounds insulting instead," Gladion snorted.
"What can I say?" The moon lady spun out in a half circle, raising her arm gracefully. "I don't really know anything about you."
"That's new," said Gladion. "Every one else here this evening couldn't wait to tell me how they already know everything about me, my likes and dislikes, habits, fashion opinions."
"I'm not surprised. Gossip, especially gossip about the nobility, spreads like wildfire."
He could almost swear that he saw a look of regret on her face then, as if she had suffered from wildfire gossip. But it was gone almost the moment it appeared, and she smiled at him as the music progressed to the next movement.
His hand shifted to her waist, and he lifted her. She was small and light, and she beamed with delight when he spun them around so the layers of her skirts whirled out in a circle.
"This is my favourite part," she said as he set her down gently.
"You like dancing, then." It wasn't much of a surprise. Most ladies loved dancing.
"I do, but I haven't danced in two years," she replied with a slight shrug as they stepped around each other in a tight circle.
"Which town do you live in? To not have had dancing for two years?" asked Gladion, puzzled.
"That, I'm not saying," she replied evasively. "Can't give all my secrets away in the first ten minutes, you know."
He rolled his eyes as she batted her eyes at him dramatically. Other ladies had been doing that all evening, but her eyelash fluttering was so obviously over-the-top that he knew she was chuckling deep down, too.
"You have a lot of secrets in your past to hide, then?"
"They say men like ladies of mysteries, after all," she winked.
Gladion raised an eyebrow, but found himself grinning reluctantly back at her flippant tone. "You don't sound like you believe in that yourself."
"I believe in honesty, and transparency." She looked at him, her gaze suddenly strangely sharp. "I hope you will, too."
"What's that supposed to mean?" asked Gladion, feeling unsettled at the change in her demeanour.
"Only that there are some answers you might not like. But you must learn them if you are to be any kind of a good king," she replied.
Gladion stiffened. "You consider yourself an expert in government and political matters?" He had, for the last five minutes, been enjoying himself with this young lady. Beauty aside, she was witty and charming, and had more to say than extol his virtues or the cut of his coat, or list her personal qualities like a shopping list. Yet all of a sudden she was insinuating that he wasn't honest with his governing.
When the truth was, he hadn't done any governing at all. But nobody should know that.
"No," the moon lady said calmly. "I merely wish to remind you that beautiful as this ball is, not everyone in the kingdom has the privilege to enjoy it. You should keep that in mind while you're searching the masses for a pretty queen."
"I'm aware of that." He wondered if he should tell her about his suspicions. But he knew Faba was watching them, and he still had no idea what her intentions were. Until he figured that out, he could not act rashly. "You speak of honesty, yet you won't to tell me who you are."
The lady eyed him. "You're right. Let's leave it at that for the present," she said with a wry smile.
They continued dancing in silence for a while, watching each other just as closely, each trying to seek out meaning behind the other's eyes.
She twirled back into his hold, her back almost against his chest (with the respectable distance between them still). "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to ruin this."
Placing his hands on her waist, Gladion lifted her and swung her around in time to the music, and she laughed out loud.
A sweet laugh. A very familiar laugh. He had heard that laugh before.
"Have we… met?"
He set her down, several breaths closer than before. She gazed up at him, her grey eyes soft, looking like stardust had been sprinkled in them. Her pink lips were parted slightly, her cheeks glowing from the light of the chandeliers.
"We met," she whispered. "Ten minutes ago."
A long, drawn out silence.
"Who are you?" asked Gladion. She tilted her head slightly.
"You can call me Lady Moon."
Then the music was drawing to a close, and she curtseyed once more. Other women swarmed in to take her place, smiling eagerly, and she melted into the crowd.
For the rest of the night, Gladion danced distractedly, watching the moon lady out of the corner of his eye. Ignoring the chatter of his partners, only responding now and then with a noncommittal hum. He searched for her over the shoulders of his partners, and found her often surrounded by other noblemen.
A stab of jealousy shot through him, amusing and annoying him at the same time.
He made up his mind when he saw Lord Ilima bow over her hand. His own dance was ending, and he bowed swiftly to his dance partner. Then he strode over to them.
The young viscount's eyes widened, but he bowed gracefully and relinquished his hold over Lady Moon's hand, leaving them to start the next dance together.
"Should you really be dancing a second dance with me?" Lady Moon asked with a slight smile. "When you have any number of beautiful ladies in that crowd behind you?"
"They're..." He could feel their scowls upon them, even though most of them were probably hidden behind folding fans. Faba would probably be annoyed, and scold him for not behaving like a prince should.
But he didn't care. For the first time since he returned, someone was being honest with him.
"They're not you," said Gladion bluntly.
"Should I take that as a compliment?" asked Moon with a laugh. Gladion took a deep breath. Then he pulled her closer.
Closer than acceptable.
"It's a compliment," he murmured. Moon's eyes widened. But she didn't pull away. Her fingers tightened slightly further on his arm, even as her chin tilted up even more to maintain eye contact with him. He could feel the warmth from her slight body, could almost hear her quickening breath alongside his own underneath the orchestra music.
They danced in a slow, repetitive pattern, ignoring the beats that were meant for lifts and twirls, choosing instead to maintain the same movement, keeping each other close. The people around them faded to a blur as they danced across the hall, aware only of each other, and conscious of the places where they touch. Their clasped hands. His other hand at the small of her back. Hers upon his arm. Slowly, oh so slowly, they moved closer together until they were only a hair's breath apart when the music came to an end.
They stood at the edge of the room, almost in the shadow of a large curtain. Somehow his feet had stopped moving, and so had hers. They gazed at each other, emerald green eyes staring into grey eyes.
Then he leaned down, and she was rising up, and they met in a kiss.
Her lips were as soft as they looked, molding to his easily. He touched her chin lightly, tilting her head backwards even more so he could taste her more firmly. She made a small sound in her throat, halfway between a gasp and a moan that almost undid him. Instead, he traced the seam of her lips with his tongue, and she opened for him in ready invitation, welcoming his onslaught into her hot mouth.
She tasted of sweet rosewater. His head felt giddy with desire, and his arms closed around her, feeling his control stretch tight when she gripped the fabric on his chest tightly as she met his probing tongue with hers.
And then she was pulling away from him, look of panic on her face.
"I have to go," she gasped. The clock in the Hall was striking midnight.
She seized one of his hands tightly. "Prince Gladion. Listen to your people," she gabbled. "Listen to all of them. Not just what the nobles are saying."
"You need to open your eyes to what's happening in your kingdom!" she insisted.
"What are you saying-"
"Thank you... for the lovely night."
And then she was fleeing up the stairs, skirts bunched up in her hands.
Gladion blinked, staring after her blankly before he realized that she was running away and he... he wasn't ready for her to go.
"Wait!" he yelled, running after her. But thanks to his shock, she had too much of a headstart, and he had to dodge several ladies' grasping hands before he could charge up the staircase.
Dashing out of the front door, he snapped at the guards, demanding to know which carriage the lady was in. But none of them had seen any lady, and none of the carriages had left.
Gladion ran past them, his eyes searching the night for any sign of the moon lady. But no matter where he looked, there was nothing.
All she left behind was the scent of rosewater on his lips, and the memory of a lovely night. And a plea for him to listen to his people.
Gladion clenched his fists tightly.
It was time to demand some answers from Faba. Time to start acting like the future king.
And when everything was solved, he would hunt for his queen.