PRW Runner-Up Tour: Ballrooms and Bloodlust by Rachel Schieffelbein
Whispers moved among the village, floating from mouth to ear and sending shivers down spines. Five dead girls in less than a fortnight. Some evil had entered our tiny corner of the world and no one knew where, or whom, it would strike next.
So when the letter came from the palace Mother said no immediately. Even Ella’s tear could not sway her.
“But Mother, the prince is looking for a bride. How can you deny Ingrid and me this opportunity?” She held Mother’s hand, her big blue eyes pleading. She included me in her begging, but it was just to be kind. We both knew which one of us had a chance at catching the eye of a prince.
Ella’s beauty was practically legendary. Her hair as pale as moonlight, her eyes as blue as the midday sky. But it was her sweetness that made her shine. Despite having been blessed with beauty, she didn’t grow vain and spoiled. She remained kind and selfless. No one could deny Ella, but it was a power she never abused.
Except now, when she needed it most, her power failed her. Mother stood firm. She stroked Ella’s cheek, then motioned for me to step forward as well. She took both our hands and held them carefully, tenderly, but her voice was firm as fate.
“You won’t be able to marry a prince if you die before the carriage can get you there. I’m sorry, my loves, but I must keep you safe. And that means not going out at night, not now. There will be other balls.” She dropped our hands, patted our cheeks like we were still children, and strode out of the hall. But she didn’t take the conversation with her.
“We just have to go to the ball,” Ella said with a sigh, wrapping her arms around me and lying her head on my shoulder. I stroked her hair, soft as a cloud. My own straw-like hair was twisted in a braid that ran down my back. My fingers looked course and out of place touching her. I tried to imagine myself in a ball gown, walking up the steps to the palace. No, Ella was wrong. We did not have to go the ball.
“You have five days to convince her to let you go,” I told her, wiping a tear from her cheek. But I didn’t believe she had any chance of changing Mother’s mind. Mother was the nervous sort, always afraid of the worst possible outcome. But this time I agreed with her.
Ella was only a year younger than me, but it could have been ten. She was naïve, trusting. We became sisters when we were still quite young, and I loved her like she was blood. Protected her like an older sister should.
Ella lifted her head and smiled at me. “And you, too? You have to come, too, Ingrid. We would be the bells of the ball.”
I just smiled, clenching my stomach to hold down the jealousy inside me. I loved that Ella wanted to include me in her palace fantasy. But she had to know her words weren’t true. Did she know that it hurt me to hear them?
At the market the next day Ella lingered behind Mother, still angry with her. The sun shone down safe when we left, but now dark clouds rolled in, creating dark corners for danger to hide. Worry tickled in my throat and I stayed close to Ella. She trusted the world to keep her safe. I knew the world was not the place she believed it to be.
She wandered to a stand selling fruit. I lifted a ripe peach to my nose, breathing in its sweet aroma. Trumpets sounded and it nearly slipped from my hand. Everyone stopped what they were doing, craning their necks to see down the cobblestone street. Two knights rode before him, and two behind. But all eyes focused on the prince.
He sat tall in his saddle, his dark bay stallion snorting at the crowd. Ella clung to my arm as she stared at him, admiration painted with heavy strokes in her eyes. He nodded at villagers as he passed, a smug smile on his full lips, paying little attention to the people themselves. Until he saw Ella.
His eyes widened for a second and he pulled back his reins, halting in front us. His hair was as dark as his steed’s, and his eyes were black as night. Hard and cold as night, too.
“Good day, my lady,” he said, tipping his head. Ella’s grin grew like the sun coming over the horizon, warming over the night. His eyes softened and I let out the breath I’d been holding.
“Sir,” the knight behind him called, pointing to the sky. Lighting shot down in the distance. The prince glanced back at him, his lips curving down. But he nodded and nudged his horse forward. “I hope to see you at the ball,” he said to Ella before continuing on his way.
Once they were all gone, even the kicked-up dust from their horse no longer visible, Ella broke from her trance and resumed begging Mother to let her go to the ball, tugging on the sleeves of her dress. But Mother stood firm. Soon fat raindrops started to fall on our heads, so we gathered our wares and hurried home.
On the edge of town I tripped, my basket of apples spilling out onto the dirt road. Mother stopped as I started to gather them, but thunder cracked and she gasped, gripping the front of her long skirt. Thunderstorms brought out the worst of mother’s anxiety. “Gather them up quickly and hurry straight home,” she instructed me as she pushed Ella on.
We were only a few houses away from home, and I would only be a moment behind them. The attacks were happening at night, not during the day. Mother wouldn’t have left me if I wasn’t perfectly safe. All these things I told myself as I grabbed each apple and tossed it back into my basket.
I set a bright red apple on top of the others, then turned to make sure I had them all. Behind me stood one of the prince’s knights. I flinched backward and the apples tumbled back to the dirt. He bent to pick them up for me, but I couldn’t move. I clutched the basket to my chest.
“I’m sorry I startled you, my lady,” he said, holding the apples out to me rather than trying to set them in my quivering basket. I relaxed some, and I took them back, noticing the bruises they’d received due to my clumsiness.
“I saw you earlier, at the market?” He raised his eyebrows, looking for me to confirm it. I nodded, my tongue still tied even though my hands had stopped trembling. “Was that your sister you were with?”
He nodded, understanding flashing across his face. Certainly that made more sense. How could Ella and I ever be related by blood?
“Will the two of you be attending Prince Jarvis’s ball?”
“No.” I looked down at my feet, suddenly embarrassed we wouldn’t be going. Even though surely the prince didn’t care if we were there or not.
“And why ever not?”
“The village is not a safe place these days, and my mother doesn’t want us out after dark.”
The knight took a step closer, his dark boots coming close to my rain-splattered skirt. “It is dark now, my lady.”
A cold chill ran down my spine as I stared at his boots. I could not speak, could not move. The rain, no longer a few spare sprinkles, ran down my cheeks and fell off my chin like tears.
“What if I could promise you safe passage to the palace?”
I jerked my head up and stared at him. “I . . . I don’t know. My mother─”
“What if your mother didn’t have to know? The prince was quite taken with your sister. He’d very much like to meet her. We can send someone to bring you to the palace safely. Both of you.” He looked into my eyes and I wondered if he could tell how much I longed to be included. “Two such beautiful ladies as yourselves must attend the ball,” he continued. “You will be our special guests.”
The only person to ever call me beautiful, and actually look like he meant it, was my father. He’d died when I was only five. But something about the way this knight looked at me, I believed him.
“We couldn’t.” I shook my head, but I couldn’t shake his gaze. His deep brown eyes looked at me so intently.
“Why not?” he asked, a whisper in the rain.
“We . . . we wouldn’t have anything to wear.” A silly excuse, even if it was true. Something about this man made my brain turn to pudding and I could not form a solid thought.
He smiled, a lovely smile filled with promises. “I could bring a gown for both of you tomorrow, if you’ll meet me here.”
“You would do that? But why?”
“Just consider me your fairy godmother.” He winked at me, and something started to spin and dance in my chest. He leaned down, his face so close to mine I could see each drop of rain as it ran down his skin. “You would look beautiful in red.”
Perhaps I could be beautiful. I could go to the ball. Not to fall in love with a prince, I had no grand illusions, but I could go. I could dance and fit in with all the other beautiful women. And Ella, dear sweet Ella, would shine. She deserved to go. We deserved to go. And surely I could keep Ella safe.
So I agreed to meet him again the next day. And I told him where we lived. I told him when to come for us.
Ella squealed with delight when I told her about my conversation in the rain.
“Shh, you’ll wake Mother,” I warned, although part of me hoped she would. I was already beginning to regret what I’d done. What if something happened? If Mother caught us beforehand, I would get in tremendous trouble, but at least we would be safe.
“Oh Ingrid, it will be wonderful.”
I closed my eyes and pictured the knight, his brown eyes shining. Perhaps Ella was right.
As soon as I reached the village, I heard the news. Another girl had been found. The story was basically the same every time. A dark alley, a pale, lifeless body. Two wounds to the neck. The only details that changed were the girls themselves. This one blonde and poor, scraping to get by. That one brunette, a smart girl with a bright future. But each one was said to be beautiful.
I listened to the people share what they’d heard, and tried to decipher what was true and what was the product of rumor in a small village. Some said her eyes were still open, her lips still smiling. Others said her body was drained of blood. My stomach turned at the thought, and I rushed to get the peaches I’d used as an excuse to come to market.
I tried to close my ears to the whispers, but it wasn’t easy. The smell of the peaches, which I’d loved the day before, only added to my nausea. I bought enough to make a peach cobbler, then hurried to where I had agreed to meet the knight.
He was already there when I arrived, and his smile spread across his face when he saw me. My stomach stopped churning, filling instead with butterflies. My cheeks warmed. I had no business feeling this way. I had agreed to this for Ella. Ella needed to go to the ball and fall in love and move away from us and our small cottage. She never fit in there, standing out like a diamond in a coal mine. I needed to stay and care for Mother, care for our land. It was where I belonged.
“You are looking lovely today.” He reached out and took my hand, pressing his lips softly against my knuckles. “I’ve brought two beautiful gowns. Hopefully they can do justice to the ladies who will wear them. Pale blue for your sister. Red, the color of flames and passion, for you.” He still held my hand and his eyes sparkled, his lips curled in a teasing grin. I turned away from him. My face, no doubt, as red as the gown he’d picked for me. He handed me the packages, apologizing for not being able to carry them home for me.
“Thank you, for everything you’ve done for us.” With his hand holding mine, my fears melted away. I didn’t think of the dead girls. I didn’t think of the danger I was putting us into. I didn’t think of Mother, or Ella. “Will you be at the ball?” I asked.
“Yes. Yes I will.”
The night of the ball we waited anxiously for Mother to fall asleep. Ella was walking on clouds, her eyes filled with stars, but I felt heavy as a mountain. Giant boulders filled my stomach, and nerves flowed like icy streams through my body.
Once we heard soft snoring on the other side of our bedroom wall, Ella flew into action, pulling out the gowns and shoes, brushing her hair until it practically glowed. Then she turned her expertise on me. She twisted my hair into intricate braids, and I slipped into my gown. It hugged my waist and chest, and flowed out over my hips in waves of sunset red. When I turned to look at myself in the glass, I hardly recognized the girl staring back. I was beautiful.
Until Ella stepped up next to me. She was the moon, pale and glowing, romantic and mesmerizing. Her hair was like starlight, her eyes bright as comets. She was the entire night sky.
I was grounded, but for once I didn’t think that seemed so bad. I was rose red, I was warm earth. I might not compare to the moon, but I still contained beauty.
We were both grinning wildly when we heard carriage wheels on the cobblestone street. Ella pulled me out to the yard. A lovely carriage turned off the cobblestones and onto the short dirt road to our cottage.
“You must be Ella and Ingrid,” a young man in a crisp suit said as he held out his hand to help us into the carriage. Deep blue velvet lined the seats, which were much softer than our straw-filled beds. The driver clicked at the horses, the straps of the reins gently slapping against them, and we jolted forward.
One of Ella’s hands rested on the window, as she leaned out and looked at the world pass by. Her other hand gripped mine. The town looked different at night. More frightening. But we would stay together and I wouldn’t let anything happen to her. I gripped Ella’s hand tighter. I had gotten us into this position, for better or worse, and I promised myself I would keep her safe.
The palace was lit up, showing no signs of the dangerous world of dead girls and unknown killers. It looked magical and it was hard to believe anything bad could happen there. My concerns didn’t disappear, but they lightened. My guilt for disobeying my mother and bringing Ella there melted into the cushioned seats of the carriage. This would be a good night, a wonderful night. I had done the right thing.
I strode up the staircase, Ella floated next to me. The ballroom was white and gold, beautiful as a fairy tale. My eyes were drawn to where the prince stood, but not to the prince. Next to him stood the knight, even more handsome out of his armor and dressed in a suit fitting for royalty. Perhaps he felt me staring at him, for his eyes quickly met mine. His smile spread across his face and I felt more beautiful than I ever had before.
In a breath the knight and the prince had crossed the busy dance floor and stood before us, offering their hands to dance. I turned to Ella, her face lit up as she stared at Prince Jarvis, totally oblivious to me. And the second my knight’s hand touched mine I was oblivious to her as well.
He guided me to the dance floor, wrapping a strong arm around my waist.. I didn’t notice the other dancers, the candlelight, not even the music. All that mattered was the man in front of me.
I am ashamed to admit that I forgot about Ella. I had told myself she was the reason we needed to be at the ball, she needed to meet the prince. And I would protect her from any and all dangers. But now, in my knight’s arms, this was my night. And didn’t I deserve to have one night to myself, one night to be more than just Ella’s plain step-sister?
I was lost in a dream when the clock began to strike off the hours. It was nearing morning. “Oh no,” I called, stopping suddenly.
“What’s the matter?” the knight asked, stroking my worried cheek.
“We need to go, my mother will wake soon. She’ll be terrified if we’re not there. I need to find Ella!” I took off across the dance floor, wondering where my sister had gone. How had all this time passed without me thinking to check on her even once?
My heart pounded in my chest as my feet pounded on the marble floors. The knight chased me, calling my name, but I couldn’t stop. I had to find her. It wasn’t just about Mother, or worrying about getting caught. Suddenly a much deeper fear invaded my thoughts. I had to find Ella.
When I did, it was too late.
I swept open a curtain and saw them, standing at the edge of a wide balcony. Ella was wrapped in the prince’s arms. The prince’s teeth sunk into Ella’s neck.
My mouth opened to scream, but a hand slapped over it, and an arm grabbed me around the waist and tugged me backward. The curtain closed in front of me. But the image of what I’d seen was already burned into my brain. My sister’s murder. And her blood would be on my hands.
The knight held me to him, my back pressed against his chest as I struggled to breathe, sobs racking my body. His hand stayed firmly over my mouth as he whispered into my ear. “It’s okay. But you need to be quiet, if he hears you, if he knows you saw them then your life is forfeit. Please listen to me, he’s not going to kill her. He’s chosen her.”
I sucked air through my nose, trying to understand. I forced myself to calm down, stop struggling. He didn’t let me go, but he did lift his hand from my lips.
“Chosen her? For what? What do you mean?”
“She will be his bride. He is making her like him, immortal, and they can live together forever.”
“And what about the other girls? Did he kill them?”
The knight was silent, his breathing heavy in my ear. Finally he sighed. “Yes. When it comes time for his kind to choose a bride, they long for blood.”
Chills ran down my arms and bile rose in my throat.
“He can’t help it.”
At that I found the strength to push him off of me. “He can’t help it? And how about you? Did you help him to lure those girls to their death, too?”
He cringed, avoiding my eye contact. “No. We’ve all been trying to contain him. He’s been trying to keep himself locked away, too. I helped get your sister here because now it will end. Now that he has his bride.”
“And was she given a choice?”
He didn’t answer, didn’t meet my gaze.
The curtains pulled back and Ella stepped out with her prince, her arm tucked around his. Her eyes were a paler blue than I’d ever seen, and they shone like polished silver. She didn’t see me as she strolled past. Hot tears filled my eyes. What had I done? Why had I brought us here?
The knight reached out and touched my arm. I flinched. Vanity. That was my answer. A handsome man made me feel beautiful, and I went against all my better judgment. A silly, foolish mistake.
“She looks happy, doesn’t she?” he whispered in my ear. I watched as Ella danced with Prince Jarvis. She was no longer herself. He had transformed her into something else, something inhuman. What would become of her? What would her life be like? Would she be able to have children, a family? She would live to see everyone she knew and loved grow old and die. She would never meet her mother in Heaven.
But she did look happy. She looked even more beautiful than ever. Everyone in the ballroom watched her as they danced. She would be immortal, and surely her story would live as long as her. I couldn’t help but wonder what would be said of me, the sister who failed her.
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