The Duchess Annaleigh's house was enormous. Sure, their own castle was ten times bigger than any normal home, but compared the flat fields surrounding the manor, hers was a mountain. Emerald lawns dotted the front walk, boxwoods trimmed into horses and fish were spotted in abundance, and fancy carriages were packed along the gravel drive. As the royal carriage jolted its way up this path, Princess Melody glued her face to the window, eyeing the elaborately clothed guests.
"It's not nearly time for the party yet, why on earth are so many people here already?" Melody asked.
Eric and Ariel exchanged a knowing glance. "Your aunt is a bit…festive." Her father said with a grin. "She's fairly well known for her parties and the best part is always the beginning."
"She'll be very excited to see you, Melody, she's apparently whipped up something very nice for you tonight." Ariel added.
Melody unstuck her face from the window. "You mean, like clothes?" She said dubiously.
"Of course. You'll be her little project. She did the same thing to me when we first met- now don't look at me like that," Ariel caught her daughter's skeptical expression, "Her dresses are works of art, she makes half of them herself."
Melody raised an eyebrow, but didn't offer any reply. She was determined to get this over with quickly. The carriage bypassed its cousins, the horses trotting merrily into the private back entrance, a green-garbed footman waiting for them by the door. With a low bow, he swept open the carriage door. She winced as her feet crunched down on the tiny stones, regretting her decision to leave her boots in her chest. Her toes ached complainingly as Melody tenderly hopped out of her parent's way, thankful her dress at least covered her feet. Nodding quickly to the footman, she practically skipped up the walkway, purposefully ignoring her mother's titters, not stopping until she found shelter on the warm, smooth marble stairs.
Half distracted by the chatter streaming from the front of the building, Melody was almost bowled over by the mass of purple tulle that came bustling through the broad oak doors, with a squeal of "Eric, darling!"
A stream of handmaidens, all clad in the same forest green, shouting admonishments at their Lady, followed this. The purple mass pounced on King Eric with the air of a worried mother, picking at his hair and straightening his jacket.
"You look magnificent, Eric, the ocean does you well. And what have we here? Ariel! That dress is su-perb."
Melody caught her mother's eye, trying desperately not to dissolve into laughter. The Duchess Annaleigh cooed over her parents like they were babies, completely ignoring the handmaidens trying to tie her sash and fix her hair.
"Oh shoo, don't you have other things to do?" The Duchess said impatiently, waving her hand at them as if they were flies. "Now, I simply must see your darling Melody!"
Ariel slipped well into Annaleigh's chatter as they strode briskly up the stair, leaving a rather befuddled Eric in their wake. Now that Melody could finally get a look at her aunt, she was positive she'd never seen anyone more dolled up in her life. The Duchess's hair was teased up to a ridiculous height, just as pitch black as her own and dusted with some sort of shimmer, dotted with tiny gems that couldn't be real precious stones. But the height of her hair was nothing compared to the height of her shoes, Melody's own feet giving one throb of their own as the purple skirts swished up to reveal the spiky boots.
"You two certainly make a beautiful child." Melody found herself clasped to her aunts' chest, arms tighter than any corset. As they drew apart, she was taken aback by the sparkle in the older woman's eyes, rivaling the lines in her face. "I haven't seen you since you were up to my knee, and my, haven't you gotten better with age?"
"Um, thanks?" Melody was rather bewildered, but Ariel gave her a small nod of approval.
"It's a compliment, dear. My, my, though, haven't you prepared to put up a fight?" The Duchess tutted, running her hand over Melody's dried out hair. "No matter, you'll look as ravishing as your mother once I'm through with you."
"Go on, Melody," Eric said, seeming to have recovered. He rested his hand in the small of Ariel's back, giving his queen a smile. "We'll wait for you in the ballroom."
The warmth of the sun melted off her face as Annaleigh propelled her through the doors, blabbering about stucco and curtains. The plush carpet was like a cloud on her feet, and Melody lifted up her skirts, noticing the trail of dusty footprints following her. The Duchess glanced down.
"Oh, darling, where on earth are your shoes?"
Melody felt born again, and not in the good way. She'd been drenched down, soaped up, and scrubbed until her skin was pink and stinging. On top of that, she'd just realized her hair smelled like lavender and cherries, and was choosing to blame it on the many pink oils that had been dumped in her bath. Or maybe the foam that had been rubbed into her hair, which the Duchess was styling into something that highly resembled one of her fancy boxwoods.
It was almost pampering, almost, is not for her aunt's affinity with shimmery hairspray. "Is my hair supposed to be crunchy?"
"No one will be touching except me, God forbid you lay a finger on it missy." The Duchess chirped. "You made a deal with me, no corset, I get to style your hair."
"But it's curly," Melody tried to touch her normally floppy bangs, only to have her hand swatted away.
"But it's gorgeous."
"Can it be smaller?"
"Can you wear heels?"
Melody narrowed her eyes at her ten-times-older reflection, weighing the pros and cons of this bargain; the more recent in a series of deals the two had been swapping all evening. One thing she had inherited from her mother was an inability to function in high-heeled shoes. That was one aspect of being a royal the two could agree on, but in feeling her aching neck, the young girl decided it was worth it.
Trying not to let herself be yanked back again as her aunt teased her hair down, Melody clamped on the stool's edges, crossing her legs as she eyed herself in the mirror again. However gaudy the Duchess was with her hairstyles, she made up for it with a light-handed make up brush. Somehow, those exotic gray tinged minerals and berry-tinted blushes had brought a much older, much more royal Princess Melody out of hiding.
The dove gray accented her blue eyes, the powder coaxing cheekbones out she didn't even know she possessed. She had actual eyelashes! She almost looked like-
Patting down her pouf of hair, Lady Annaleigh nestled a small silver tiara over her bangs.
-Her mother. Sensing her inability to speak, the Duchess leaned down, pressing her cheek against her niece's, and Melody got an unexpected peek at what she might look like when she was an older woman, and even more dolled up.
"Beautiful. I'm telling you, I'm an artist." The Duchess smiled. "Hair to big?"
Feeling along the teased bun resting on her head, Melody shyly smiled back. "It'll do."
"We'd better move onto the main event then, I fixed up something special for you, child. Put these on."
As her aunt waltzed away into her closets, Melody eyed the simple black, heeled boots with an air of suspicion. They were very similar to her normal day boots, just with some extra height, but nothing to fragile and spindly. Folding the skirt of her slip over her lap, she bent down and began to tug on the first one, grunting with surprise as she felt the cushioned bottom.
"These are way to comfortable," she mumbled, ears perked to the rustling going on in the next room.
"Melody, darling, get in here!"
With a small groan, Melody pushed herself to her feet, wobbling her way through the plush carpet. "Yes, Au-"
Her mother hadn't lied. The Duchess had earned the proud smile fixed on her face, but the way she held the dress up to her body didn't give it justice. It was blue, but that word couldn't begin to describe the thousands of shades layered and blended together in the silky fabric. It shimmered silver in the light, but a more dignified shine than blocky sequins, brighter than the crest of a wave at noon. It was a wave, and Melody couldn't wait to dive into it.
"I know," her aunt waved her hand, but Melody could see her smiling, "Now try it on, we're going to be late."
She would've made a bristling comment back, if the cloth and the pattern didn't so oddly entrance her. The Duchess seemed to realize it was one of the odd times Melody wanted to wear something so fancy, and helped undo the buttons, slipping it over her head. The silky texture was like jumping into the ocean itself, the ends just tickling her covered toes. Managing to stay upright as she was pushed towards the mirror, Melody just had time to fix her tiara when she was parked in front of the armoire.
The female in the mirror was like an old friend, someone you recognize but don't necessarily know. She wasn't a woman, but certainly wasn't a child. The dress was tighter than usual, showing off her shape without making her too sensual, the heels made her throw back her shoulders, holding her posture like…like a princess. Melody leaned in, stroking her cheek as her free hand ran over the fabric.
"Wow. This is incredible." She said, awestruck by her own reflection.
"Yes, you are darling, now, one last touch." Melody stood stock still as the Duchess slipped four pearl encrusted clips into her hair, wrapping around her bun. "You truly are a girl from the sea, you and your mother. It seems only natural you should wear a bit of it on you."
If only you knew.
"Milady, the orchestra is starting!"
"Yes, Alice, yes, we'll be right down!"
Melody was torn away from the mirror, and thrust into the corridor with a cry of "off to the ball room, darling!"
As she padded down the hallway, she began to feel a bit shy without her boisterous aunt beside her. The rush of chaotic conversation poured over her as she neared the ballroom, the carpet turning to marble underfoot. She paused just at the top of the stair, just hidden from sight. She was torn between rushing back to the room, ripping off the dress, wiping of the makeup, letting down her hair and actually going down into the crowd. She could her mother at the bottom of the stairs, hair up and crown on her head, bantering with some handsome brown haired man Melody didn't recognize. Just then, her father glanced up the stairs, and his eyes locked on his daughter.
A wide grin split his face and he waved a hand for her to join them, murmuring in his queen's ear. This one gesture gave Melody the strength to set foot on the stair, not trembling in her heels, head held high as every being in the room swiveled to see her. Remembering her training, Melody paused at the middle of the stair, one hand trailing the railing, and graced a benevolent smile on the crowd. They were transfixed. Confidence welling up in her, she extended one leg and continued her way down the stair. Wadding one hand the folds of her dress, she focused on that last step, knowing if she made it there, it was over. She let out a shaky breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding, coming to a smooth halt by her mother, still not managing to shake off the feeling that she was forgetting something.
"Curtsy, darling." Ariel whispered.
Melody bent her knees like a marionette, drawing the flowing gown out as she bent her head to the mesmerized crowd. She came up to swell of applause, complete strangers, clapping for their princess, and the glow of fame that occupied Ariel and Eric budded inside her.
As the music began to swell again and the crowd resumed its chatter, her parents turned to her, beaming.
"You look amazing, Melody." Ariel sighed, brushing a finger over the pearl clips.
"A true princess. Annaleigh did a fabulous job." Eric added.
"You should have seen the crowd from our-"
"Excuse me, your Highness?"
The trio turned to the twenty-something blonde who had approached them. "May I have this dance?"
It took but a second for Ariel to realize he was referring to her daughter, and she prodded the startled Melody softly in the side. "Go on."
"Oh, yes, of course." She blurted, letting him take her hand and lead her out onto the dance floor.
He was a handsome young man, who was gaining confidence as she lost it, the one hand on his hip burning at her, the other in her hand draining her. The music flourished and she began to panic, how does this work again?
But he led her across the floor was a skill that almost made it appear as if she was the guide and he the confused student. She felt herself slipping into the familiar pattern until, with one twirl, he made the mistake she needed to correct. Unable to smother her delighted laugh, he spun her around with one grand swell of the music, smiling at the young girl's excitement.
"You looked ravishing upon the stair, Princess. More beautiful than any other night." He said, as they glided across the floor.
"I daresay you have no other night to compare me to." She said, eyes still fixated upon her own feet.
"I have no need for any other comparison, Highness, for your beauty is striking and any vanity well earned." The courtier was smooth, more formal than the ones at home, and Melody was reminded of something Sebastian had remarked to her.
However old fashioned, how ever romantic they seemed, every dance or festival had these men, members of the court who fawned upon any woman of note-worthy birth. Once, when she was fourteen, she'd developed quite a crush on a courtier named George, not realizing the sweet words he said were merely a part of his job.
Courtier-talk was a language her mother was well fluent in, and Melody tried to remember the easy banter she'd recognized. "You have no need to match me against the other ladies of this dance? A fair face is easily found in these halls, one more regal than mine own, more tempting to your eye."
"My eyes are blind to your splendor, fair Melody," his eyes were sparkling, seeing a chance to go over the top with this girl. "There is no lady in this hall, nor in all the land who could rival your raven curls and pale visage."
Melody let out a laugh, letting herself get swept along by the cheeky young man. Raven curls, huh? She was well aware of her mother following their travel across the ballroom, the two bantering as easily as a Queen and her footman. She was almost sorry when the song was over and they exchanged a bow and curtsy, but she was barely allowed time to breathe when another man came and swept her into a livelier swing.
It seemed the princess was a valuable commodity that night, when she attempted to grab a drink, another man could request a dance with her. Some were old, some young, some witty, some bland, even her first courtier visited her again, with even more poetry to spin. At first it was like a wonderful fantasy, in which no one though of her as the weird girl who talked to sea creatures, but as something to be desired. The night wore on and she found herself reciting the same lines, with the same tinny laugh to go along with it. It seemed each compliment was rehearsed, each step felt like knives in her feet, and the various colognes were as suffocating as the accents she encountered. Melody just managed to escape the cattle call when an older man who seemed like he'd prefer her with her dress off just as much as on ambushed her. Wiping his slimy kiss off her hand, Melody managed to stumble to the sidelines with her father.
"Having fun, Melody?" He asked, watching Ariel waltz with the Duke.
"I suppose. There are quite a lot of men here." She said weakly, fighting of nausea.
"Mmm. Quite a lot interested in you."
Melody blinked, regarding the old man with a quite different light. "E-Excuse me?"
"You are getting a bit older, Melody, there are quite a few nobles here you might want to consider as suitors."
"Suitors? You mean…like marriage?"
"Of course. That man you just danced with is a very prominent figure in our kingdom. An honorable man. "
Bile starting rising in her throat, watching the weasel fawning over a dolled up woman in a tight black dress. "I-I think I need some air."
Fighting her way through clouds of perfume and feathery wraps, Melody burst out into the gardens, the shoes that seemed so comfortable before, biting viciously into her feet. Just as she was about to sink onto a stone bench, she was almost stabbed in the tight by a flailing couple making for the gardens. And she kept running, leaving the shoes behind, her panty hose flapping against the damp grass. She didn't know where she was going, but the mental image of her and the old man on the altar was seared in her brain.
Somehow the glamour of the party had rubbed off, like cheap paint trying to pass off as gold leaf. The greed and vanity was now etched into the faces of each guest, lust and jealousy inscribed in each wrinkle and each bauble. Did her own expression show this as well? Her face was sweating under her makeup, her updo tugging at her skull. What was she doing? What was she thinking? Did she want this? Relief washed over her as she recognized the glint of moonlight on water, and she fairly collapsed next a round pond tucked into the back corners of the garden. Her mother's watchful eyes pierced her through the night, the casualness in her father's suggestion to marry a man three times her age grasped an icy hand around her heart, and she felt a shiver of disgust run through her, visualizing the Melody of hours before, flirting with any man who passed by like a lusty milk maid. She felt like she was running a fever, panting ever so slightly, and suddenly noticed the strong urge to get out of all these layers, now.
The stockings were the simplest, discarding themselves in a grassy heap. The earrings and the bracelets jingled as she flung them off, like a prisoner prying off their manacles. The clasp of her necklace refused to cooperate, and in a fit of panic, she ripped the chain from around her neck, sending the pearls scattering like buttons along the ground. Her hair sent glitter wafting into the night, blown along by the breeze that could finally reach her, as her dark curls tumbled around her shoulders. The smell of cherries and lavender enveloped her and Melody resisted the urge to cough. Her eyes came to rest on the water in front of her, koi flitting through its depths. Some tiny civilized part of her brain reminded her that her reputation would be ruined if she were found. The other part wanted that perfume gone. The dress was the one article of clothing she treated with any care, folding it onto the mossy bench. Goosebumps crawled up her flesh as she perched on the edge of the pond, the cold wind blowing through the thin cotton of her slip. Turning her head ever so slightly, she glanced back at the party, a swell of music catching her attention, that little doubt all humans get when they're alone crawling its way up her curved spine. No. This wasn't right. She wouldn't let a few violins mark her like a puppet. Her muscles coiled like springs and she launched herself into the pond headfirst. She didn't know how deep it was. She hardly cared.
The water closed around her like a familiar friend, warm as melted chocolate, the sounds of the party muffled to nonexistence. Melody let out a smile giggle as the koi skittered around, finally coming over and pecking curiously at her red feet. She could feel the scrubs and lotions wafting off, and wildly rubbing her arms and scrubbing at her hair, she could sense even more disappearing. Flipping her head upside down, Melody continued rubbing, ignoring the steady burn rising in her chest. She stopped once her fingers began to twinge, curling up in a tiny ball and letting the water surround her completely. She could almost image her serene ocean. Almost.
Out of nowhere, her peace exploded. The water was shattered into a thousand tiny bubbles as some foreign body entered the pond, and a pair of rough hands wrapped around her waist. Her shriek was lost in to the collision as she beat her fists against her captor. She just made out a muffle yelp, and she was released, kicking her way violently to the surface. They reached the surface at the same time, gasping for air. Not even bothering with who had grabbed her, she attempted to swim away again but he, she realized it was a he, grabbed her forearm and managed to wrap an arm around her midriff, lifting her squirming form onto the gravel with huge effort.
Catching both her wrists, the strange man tried to calm her down. "Hey, hey, stop fighting, I'm trying to help you!" She heaved one more huge breath and finally stopped her flailing efforts, peering up at him. She gazed into piercing blue eyes, a sharp, tanned face twisted in concern peering down at her. He didn't look like any sort of attacker, but she was also pretty sure that he wasn't a guardian angel either. "Are you alright?"
She glared at him, yanking out of his grasp. "Fine." She said without looking at him and trying to scrabble back up the bank.
"What on earth were you thinking?" He demanded, following her. If anything, her eyes became even harder at this.
"What were you?" She questioned demandingly, rubbing her wrists.
"I was trying to save whatever stupid girl ended up falling i-" He stopped dead, staring at her ruined makeup and shining hair. "Princess?"
"Present." She said, refusing to let him see the dread gathering in her stomach. "And I didn't fall in, I jumped. Who takes off all their clothes before falling into a pond?"
"This is too good. Princess Melody taking a midnight dip. And I can see that." He gestured to her soaked slip. "Isn't that a bit thin for someone your age?" She resisted the urge to cover fold her arms over her chest and give him the satisfaction of knowing he'd managed to unnerve her.
"I didn't expect anybody would try to join me." Her voice hinted at a challenge that brought a glint of mischief to his striking eyes.
"I got you didn't I?" He questioned.
"I was distracted." She said bluntly.
"I'll bet you were." She raised an eyebrow at him, successfully hiding her annoyance at his confidence and her own interest in him.
"Who are you anyways?" She asked suddenly.
He turned to look at her, a curious expression on his defined features. "Someone obviously more sane than you."
Melody felt the moment become more and more awkward, biting down on her lip she made to pick up her clothing, shivering ever so slightly. His voice suddenly interrupted her.
"The name's Jim. Jim Hawkins. Traveling kitchen boy, and rescuer of drowning damsels, at your service."
Melody snorted. "I'm sure said damsels would rather rescue themselves."
His cocky laugh was infuriating. "And no need to ask who you are, Princess."
"M-Melody." She said, hating the chatter of her teeth and the unease it spoke of.
"You're freezing." He bluntly stated. "At least let me help you with that."
Melody spun to face him in surprise and he jerked his head in the direction of the manor. "Come to the kitchens. I can get you dried up before your mother comes to tuck you in."
She stared at him, her drenched curls framing her face like a tendril of ivy. He cocked an eyebrow, his eyes boring into her own. "Would you like to freeze?"
"Then come on." He gave her one more grin, turning towards the servant's corridors. Without thinking, Melody followed him. She couldn't comprehend the spontaneous blind faith she had for this stranger. She knew she should be careful, but he was part of the palace staff and he had been trying to help her. It almost scared her, how much she didn't care. But it didn't stop her from accepting his arm when she numbly stumbled over a pair of boots someone had discarded in the middle of the path.
Jim grabbed her by the hand, leading her around back of the kitchens before he motioned for her to wait. She tried to ignore the butterflies in her stomach as his hand slid out of hers, combing her fingers through her drenched hair if only to have something to do with her hands. Cautiously checking behind her, she realized he'd led them into the perfect hiding place, nestled in the shadows away from the crowd.
Why is he helping me?
"C'mon, Abby is out in the ballroom." His voice came from behind a knotted old door, and she snuck through it like a ghost, sighing as the heat of the kitchens washed over her.
"Why are you helping me?"
He silently slung his jacket off his shoulders, flipping out the sleeves before tossing it to her. The sudden movement almost caught her off guard but she didn't let it show as she pulled it on. "Thanks." Her voice was so quiet he could barely be sure she'd said anything at all.
"No problem. We just have to go around back and we'll be scot free."
"If you insist." She said, letting herself draw his jacket tighter around her frigid body, half fighting the cold and half hiding how exposed the see-thru slip made he feel.
He chuckled and took her hand again, "No need to act friendly." He gently tugged her around the main ovens, the kitchen staff to invested in feeding the mass of people to notice their kitchen boy and the drenched princess sneaking through the kitchens.
"This is where we keep the ovens going." He said, slowly slipping the door shut. "Usually my job."
"It feels amazing." Melody sighed, sitting on an up turned crate, shrugging the jacket off her shoulders and leaning into the radiating heat, letting her hair fall around her face.
"Not a high noon, when you've been there for hours. But you're a special case." He dragged a barrel over and perched himself on top of it. "Though I believe an apology is in order."
She ran her fingers over the buttons of the leather jacket, snorting at his comment. She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, noticing the odd sincerity in his face. "Alright," Melody said. "Thank you for trying to save my life, and I'm sorry for making you drench yourself."
"Very refreshing, a royal rebel with manners."
"Though I didn't need saving and you should have been in the kitchens anyways."
"Of course." He said seriously. "But what's the point of following the rules?"
A laugh bubbled up melodiously from her chest and for a second he seemed intrigued by the sound.
"Very nice, Jim Hawkins." She said, her voice a bit teasing. "And none, none at all."
"Hence the random diving into a pond during the biggest ball we've had all year?"
Melody's eyes strayed to where he'd laid her clothes out to dry. "Yes…yes of course."
Jim seemed to catch the change of tone. "Was that the only reason you were out there?" he said.
"To much perfume. I was drowning, but not in the water."
The corner of his mouth twitched up. "Well, your makeup certainly didn't make it." The space between then was so suddenly closed, Melody flinched slightly as he slowly reached over and daubed at the streak of gray along her cheek with a spare cloth. It was such a cautious and somewhat shy movement for this cocky young man, she felt the pit of her stomach make a little tingle again. "There we go. Perfect again."
There was a moment of silence, but a comfortable one.
"Of course, I'll have to burn the rag now." He quickly added.
"I should be going." Melody said, questioning her own words as they spurted out. She didn't want to go anywhere, but her legs began to crouch and gather up her things.
"Oh..oh of course." The moment was shattered and he bent down next to her, plucking up the bobby pins that formed her hair do. "Don't forget these." He slowly tipped them into her palm. "Knowing the Duchess, they're probably solid gold."
"Thank you." There was small catch in her voice as she pushed his jacket into his waiting hands. "Really. Thank you."
He smiled. "Sure you won't get lost trying to find your room?"
"Of course, I'm not that miserable of a damsel." She said with the tiniest of smiles. She was acutely aware of his hand in the small of her back as they slipped back to the door. Resting her hand on the door knob, she turned to look back at her rescuer. The fire added another layer to him, the reds and golds catching in his brown hair, a single golden earring glinting.
"Good bye Jim." She said slowly.
He nodded, smiling ever so slightly. "Bye-Bye, Princess."