Prince Cristoph led Cinderella through the crowd—which opened up before him like magic—and out to a balcony.
It was of Trieux design, so naturally the balcony was beautiful. There was a white fountain placed perfectly so when silver moonlight struck the trickling water, the surface glowed. Sculpted, well-trimmed plants—the only sign of the Erlauf takeover, Cinderella suspected—made a stark contrast of green among the white balcony, fountain, and benches.
There were three soldiers on the balcony, but as soon as they saw Prince Cristoph, they leaped to their feet, bowed, and made a speedy exit.
“Your argument is well thought out,” Prince Cristoph said when they were alone.
Cinderella left him at the fountain and seated herself on a nearby bench, sighing in relief. The glass slippers were comfortable, but her feet ached from all the dancing. She hadn’t danced this must since her dance instructor declared her accomplished at age fourteen.
“Thank you, Your Highness,” Cinderella said, smoothing her dress over the bench.
“But why such passion?”
“I beg your pardon?”
Prince Cristoph gestured widely. “Why subject yourself to such cares and worries? You are a beautiful woman. You could marry and wash your hands of the affair, forgetting the matter. You do not have to save Erlauf.”
As tired as she was, the Prince’s words propelled Cinderella into standing. “First of all, I resent the idea that if a woman marries, her lot in life is to be empty-headed and pampered.”
“I did not say that,” Prince Cristoph said.
“You implied if I married, things like the country would no longer worry me. Why wouldn’t they? No one is bothering themselves to address this issue. Marriage would not change that, nor would it blind me to the truth that there is much work to be done, and everyone is too selfish to compromise or give up any comforts to see this situation changed,” Cinderella said, her voice hot and angry.
“Make no mistake, whether you and your great mother decide to help me or not, I will face this problem even if I must go at it alone,” Cinderella said, clenching her hands into fists.
Prince Cristoph pushed off from his perch on the fountain. “Your passion gives you much credit,” he said, stepping close to Cinderella. “And your dedication is admirable. I apologize for any offense my thoughtless words gave.”
Her temper cooling, Cinderella shook her head. “I am afraid, Your Highness. If we don’t make amends, will Erlauf survive?”
Prince Cristoph extended a hand towards Cinderella’s face. “We will—,” he cut himself off when Cinderella jerked away before he could graze her cheek with his fingers.
“I apologize again for my apparently offensive act,” Prince Cristoph said, his words slow and carefully pronounced.
“Oh, it isn’t—you misunderstood,” Cinderella said, clasping her hands in front of her. “It’s only…,” she trailed off, aware that she was starting to blush.
“You already have a man you care for?” Prince Cristoph guessed.
Startled, Cinderella fixed her eyes on his mask. It was to her shame, but he was right. Before she pulled away she hadn’t thought of her marriage prospects, as was her usual concern, but of the disappointed face Friedrich was sure to give her.
“How did you know?” she said, her eyes wide.
“Just a guess,” Prince Cristoph said, his voice cool. “A Trieux nobleman, I assume? Together you would have a better chance of molding the minds of Trieux commoners.”
“What? How would—what time is it?” Cinderella said, her heart freezing over when she realized she did not know the hour.
“I am not certain. So he is from Trieux?”
“Where can I find a clock?” Cinderella asked.
“A clock! Where can I find a clock?”
“There is one above the ballroom entrance, but—,”
Cinderella was already scurrying into the hot ballroom. She covered her mouth to hold in a shriek when she saw the time—she had fifteen minutes before the magic would fade. In that time she needed to leave the palace, and get out of Werra!
Cinderella ran back to the threshold of the balcony and curtsied. “I thank you for your time, Prince Cristoph, you have been most gracious,” Cinderella before she turned on her heels and ran.
“Mademoiselle, wait! Mademoiselle,” Prince Cristoph shouted.
Cinderella ignored the calls and slipped her way out of the ballroom, apologizing to anyone she ran into in her hurry.
Cinderella fled the ballroom and ran down the hallway. She was shocked when she heard the prince call to her. “Can’t you wait, Mademoiselle!”
She just reached the palace entrance when she heard the Prince order “Wait, stop her!”
Cinderella gave up running like a lady. She picked up her skirts and ran down the long line of stairs where her carriage waited.