Charles was ready to give up the charade, but he also knew that a royal proclamation was a royal proclamation; processes need to be adhered to and his father, the king, would have it no other way. Father, you and your politics, he thought bitterly. Charles sighed as he was led down the hall of the Flaubert residence, which smelled of polished wood, oranges, and quiet desperation. Before stepping across the threshold into what appeared to be a study, Charles took a breath and steeled himself. He knew exactly what was waiting for him.
As he rounded the corner, Capucine Flaubert straightened up in the gold and blue embroidered chair upon which she sat. She took a deep breath in through her nose and then out through the small “o” of her mouth. Her sister, Brigitte, removed her pinky from her ear and smiled at him, exposing the small gap between her two front teeth. Charles had heard that Brigitte could drink a draught of wine through that small space in less than five minutes. The sisters leaned forward in their chairs, the colorful folds of their dresses rustling a welcome tune, one Charles had no desire to hear.
The matron of the house, Josephine, a withered but beautiful woman, sat squarely in the corner, her lips pursed, amusement and expectation raising her thin eyebrows.
Madame, there are wolves in your study, Charles wanted to say to her. And it appears they are in good company.
“Your Highness,” Josephine purred, thick and sweet as coffee. She let her chin sink to her chest. Her daughters did the same, but their gazes never extinguished fully behind their open eyelids. Charles swallowed hard, feeling as if he were standing before the three women in merely a tunic.
“Madame Flaubert,” Charles acknowledged. “Thank you for welcoming me into your home.”
“Thank you for visiting,” Josephine said. “To what do we owe the honor?”
Playing coy are we? Charles thought. The Flaubert women were wearing their most expensive garments. Jewels dangled from their earlobes. A small tray of goat cheese and crusty bread sat on the table before them. They were expecting him.
“A very important matter,” Charles said, launching into the speech he’d recited at least 15 times during the course of the morning. “Last night, at the royal ball, I met an incredibly intriguing and beautiful young lady. However, before I was able to ask for her family’s name―or any other information about her―she disappeared into the night. Luckily, she left behind a small token.”
Charles glanced over his shoulder and Guillaume, his valet, hurried into the room holding an orange cushion upon which sat a glass slipper. Even in the dim light, Charles could make out the intricate etchings of flowers and birds in the glass. The shoe glowed with opportunity.
Capucine held her breath. Brigitte scooted forward in her seat. Josephine smiled like a cat. They waited for him to continue.
“I am looking for the owner of this shoe,” Charles said, “for whomever owns this shoe also owns my heart.” He cleared his throat and swallowed. “When I find her, I intend to ask for her hand in marriage.”
Which is why I hope I never find her, Charles thought.
Charles closed his eyes and remembered holding the shoe in the air the previous night, spouting nonsense about love and beauty in his low baritone voice. He kissed the shoe and then treated it to a romantic waltz to music only he could hear. Seated nearby and observing this silly escapade, Guillaume smiled broadly, rolled his eyes, and took another sip of wine. Then, Charles said the words that would damn him forever: “I swear, I would take the girl who wore this slipper as my wife.”
By the time Charles and Guillaume dissolved into drunken fits of laughter, the king, who had been watching the farce from the opposite doorway unbeknownst to the young men, retreated down a dark corridor. He’d heard enough―enough to draft a royal proclamation.
By sunrise, Charles was doomed.
“Why, that shoe belongs to me,” Capucine said, rising from her chair. “I’ve been looking for it all morning.”
“Have you?” Charles countered. Liar, he thought. She had red hair when the girl from the night before had been blond.
Capucine nodded and took a step toward him. “I enjoyed waltzing with you last night,” she said in a loud whisper, her blue eyes boring into him.
Why must they all act like hungry animals? Charles thought. He took a deep breath and banished the thought. It was time for the test.
“Which suite was your favorite to dance to?” he asked Capucine, a smile creeping across his mouth.
Capucine’s eyes widened. She glanced up at the ceiling and scratched the back of her hand.
It’s not fun being cornered, is it? Charles thought.
Suddenly, a smile spread across Capucine’s cheeks. “All of them,” she announced.
“But dearest, remember, we only had time to dance to one set before you ran off―Beauchen’s Springtime Suite,” Charles said.
Capucine blushed and remained quiet. For a heavy minute, no one in the study moved and Charles wondered if she’d be like the others. A number of girls who had inaccurately answered the question earlier in the day had run from the room crying or simply apologized over and over, knowing they had ruined their chances at happily ever after with a single incorrect response.
“It seemed like so much more than one dance,” Capucine finally managed, staring at the floor between them.
Charles sighed. She would not bow out gracefully. He would have to move forward with a fitting.
“No matter,” Charles said, the amusement gone from his voice. “I’m sure the excitement of the night has stripped your memory. Shall we see if the shoe fits?”
Capucine nodded and moved across the room to a vacant chaise draped in loud red fabric with gold trim. The chair didn’t match the rest of the room, which was decorated largely in cool tones of deep purple, forest green, and oak. The red chaise had clearly been staged. Capucine sat down, removed her right shoe, and held out her foot expectantly.
Charles suppressed a sigh. Why did all of these women expect him to touch their feet?
He took the glass slipper off the orange cushion and lowered himself to one knee, the left knee since the right was starting to bruise. He slipped the shoe over Capucine’s toes, but could not seem to coerce the slipper over her heel. Charles took a deep breath and swallowed relief.
Capucine looked to her mother—who simply raised an eyebrow—and then turned her attention back to the prince. Capucine pushed her foot forward and wiggled her toes, trying to create space in the shoe that simply did not exist.
“But,” she started, “but…you surely must understand that…”
“That…?” Charles asked.
“…my feet are…swollen…from dancing last night,” Capucine said.
Charles blinked hard to keep from rolling his eyes at the young girl.
Josephine cleared her throat. “Darling, I think there’s been a misunderstanding,” she said. “Perhaps you let your sister borrow those shoes last night? I believe you’ve outgrown them?”
Capucine’s shoulders sank. “Oh yes,” she muttered, placing her discarded shoe back on her right foot. “You must be right, Mother. I must have worn a different pair last night.”
Defeated and caught in a lie, Capucine slunk back to her chair, took a seat beside her sister, and crossed her arms over her chest.
Brigitte rose, knowing it was her turn, and walked to the red chaise as if it were her wedding day, her hands clasped in front of her belly like she was holding blooming flowers. Guillaume’s grunt of disapproval was nearly imperceptible.
One more foot, Charles chanted, one more foot. He and Guillaume had visited the homes of all the other eligible young women in the kingdom earlier in the day. Charles imagined the look on his father’s face when he reported he could not find the young lady who owned the glass slipper, despite a full day of searching. Charles smiled. Brigitte did the same, believing the smile was for her.
“Are you ready?” Charles asked.
“Of course,” Brigitte said. “I’ve been waiting for this.”
Just as the glass was about to touch Brigitte’s toes, a crash sounded from overhead. Charles sprang to his feet and looked up to the ceiling. “What was that?” he asked.
“Perhaps a rodent has made its way into the house,” Josephine said coolly. “Paulette!”
A large woman swaddled in layer after layer of white cotton appeared in the doorway a few moments later. “Madame?”
“I need you to go upstairs and see what’s making all that noise,” Josephine said.
“Paulette, please make sure there are no further disturbances.”
“And you have my permission to use whatever force necessary. Do you understand?”
The maid nodded and Josephine settled back in her chair.
Charles listened to the maid ascend the stairs to the second floor. A door opened and shut and then he could hear nothing at all.
“Madame Flaubert, I could come back tomorrow morning if you have other things to attend to,” Charles offered, hoping this was his chance to escape.
“There is no need for that, Your Highness,” Josephine said. “The problem is being addressed. Please, proceed.”
Brigitte held out her foot and Charles dropped to one knee. When the glass kissed Brigitte’s foot, she giggled and Charles winced. Expecting the shoe to again fall short, Charles made a big show of leaning his weight into Brigitte to coerce the shoe onto her foot. Unfortunately, he didn’t have to try very hard. The shoe slipped onto Brigitte’s foot as if it had been made for her.
Charles’ mouth dropped open and Brigitte smiled. Charles stared at her brown hair, the gap between her teeth, the hunger in her eyes and knew that he’d lost. He was backed into a corner.
“It fits,” Brigitte said proudly.
“It does,” Charles conceded.
Feeling numb to his surroundings, Charles climbed to his feet and took a step toward Josephine.
“Madame, may I have Brigitte Flaubert’s hand in marriage?”
The wheels creaked and wind whipped the carriage from time to time, but Charles and Guillaume remained silent during their return to the palace. Charles replayed the fateful moment when Brigitte’s foot slipped into the shoe over and over in his mind, but it deteriorated a little more each time. It was like a dream, runny at the edges so that he couldn’t quite pin it down, couldn’t remember it clearly. If he thought it through enough, broke down the memory so that it no longer made sense, could he claim it had never happened?
They’d stopped moving. Charles looked up into Guillaume’s green eyes and didn’t know what to say.
And that single word, his name, almost broke him.
“What are we going to do?” Guillaume asked.
“I should have known this was going to happen,” Charles said. “I pretended it wouldn’t…I’m sorry. It isn’t fair to you.”
“Your father,” Guillaume said.
“Yes, my father,” Charles acknowledged.
“Do you think he knows?”
“I’m not sure.”
Guillaume closed his eyes and clenched his jaw. Charles wanted to reach out and rub the stubble on Guillaume’s cheek, but the royal guards were in close proximity. Charles had become very good at suppressing urges, but for what? A royal decree that would leave him cold and alone.
“You know,” Charles said, “we don’t have to stop.”
“No.” Charles paused, formulating his response carefully. “Brigitte was not the girl from last night. I am positive of that. She’s lying to me, so I don’t see anything wrong with lying to her.”
Charles could see Guillaume turning the thought over in his head and then a broad grin stretched across his handsome face. Longing swelled in Charles’ chest. Guillaume’s brow crinkled and Charles knew he’d lost the young man to his thoughts.
“What are you thinking?” Charles asked.
“I’m thinking that Brigitte is a wolf,” Guillaume mused, “but it’s a little unfair to her, don’t you think—working so hard to trap a prince in her lair only to find she can’t eat him for dinner?”
Charles grinned. “Well, a royal proclamation is a royal proclamation.”
Photo license – Glamhag