“So, he wasn’t just spouting lies. There is something out there intent on destroying us.”
“Not only us, but other countries as well. So far they haven’t been able to gain a toehold here, but they seem to be narrowing their focus on us.”
“Why? The Erlauf royal family has escaped curses and magic-based attacks thus far,” Cinderella said.
“They are aiming for the royal family, yes, but they also try to stir up unrest in general. We are an easy target not because of the royal family, but due to the bitterness that dwells between our people,” Friedrich said. “Darkness is strongest among black emotions like rage, hatred, and bitterness.”
Cinderella stared unseeingly at Friedrich’s desk.
“Cinderella? Have I upset you?” Friedrich asked.
“No,” Cinderella said. “I am angry with myself. I never thought—I didn’t see any of this. The darkness, the evil.”
“You have been occupied with Aveyron, and it is not your job to wipe out threats to our country.”
“No, but…,” Cinderella sighed. She was quiet for several moments before she shook her head. “I need to think. Am I free to go? I assume you must organize your men for the Victory Ball. It will start soon, won’t it?”
“I don’t want you to leave like this,” Friedrich said. “You are upset.”
“I’m only thinking,” Cinderella said, smiling wanly. “Don’t worry about me; I’ll be fine,” she said as Friedrich helped her stand.
“Do not take this as a personal affront, Cinderella,” Friedrich said. “Our people have chosen this path of destruction. It isn’t your fault.”
“Of course,” Cinderella said, her smile growing stronger.
In the early evening hours, Cinderella listlessly sat in what used to be Aveyron’s gardens. She leaned against a functioning bird bath and stared at a blooming wild rose bush that had grown to impressive new heights since the gardener was recruited to supervise crop fields.
What do I do? Aveyron is saved…but if we are attacked…
Cinderella cut the thought off.
“Over here,” Cinderella called.
Mariska, Lady Klara’s youngest daughter, minced her way around the overgrown rose bush. “Mama said to tell you we are leaving for the ball. Our friends have come to pick us up,” she said, smoothing the skirts of her saffron dress. The orange-yellow color complimented her dark hair.
“You look beautiful,” Cinderella said.
Mariska smiled. “Thank you. I have a mask, see?” she said, slipping a mask of the same saffron hue of her dress over her face. It covered her nose, circled her eyes, and was edged with gold beads. “It is to be a masquerade ball.”
“How charming,” Cinderella said.
“Silla insists it is a stupid idea, but I think it is romantic,” Mariska said, removing her mask.
“I am sure you will have a fine time.”
“Thank you, I do hope so,” Mariska said. She awkwardly clasped her mask. “You are certain you don’t want to come?”
Cinderella held in a harsh bark of laughter. “I am certain. Even if I wished to, it is too late now. I don’t have anything to wear.”
“You could borrow something,” Mariska offered. “Although I think your hair would clash with all of my clothes, and I am rather tall…”
“I thank you for your kindness, but I shall have to refuse,” Cinderella said. “Enjoy your evening, Mariska.”
“Thank you. Good bye,” Mariska said, saluting Cinderella with her mask before she hurried out of the gardens.
Cinderella listened to the clip-clop of horse hooves as the carriage Lady Klara’s friends arrived in started on its way.
Cinderella rested her head against the bird bath. “It’s so bleak. This is a war, but our soldiers can’t even see the enemy and have no choice but to remain defensive…”
Cinderella sighed. “And this country…Even if I wish we didn’t hate each other, both sides still exchange insults. Queen Freja strangles money out of us, and then we fester with hate and snarl at her soldiers who then smash us to prevent unrest. The searches, the constant patrols. They wouldn’t be performed if they weren’t necessary. Both sides hate each other too much. I don’t think it can be breeched.”
Cinderella shifted and recalled a conversation she had with Friedrich. It felt like years ago, but it took place only two or three weeks prior.
“You can conquer a country with forgiveness.” He said.
“Erlauf won’t forgive. Queen Freja has proven she will not forgive,” Cinderella said. She looked over her shoulder at the immense chateau. “I have enough trouble as it is. I don’t need to go solving our country’s problems as well.”
Cinderella’s mind was assaulted with the memory of the mage holding the poor, defenseless Erlauf woman above his head, his hands covered with black magic.