Huge, white and golden gates loomed up in front of them.
“Wow…” Cristi and Ella whispered together.
They slowed to a stop as the cars in front of them braked, waiting patiently in line for their turn to hand the guards their invitation and be waved through the gates.
Slowly, ever so slowly, Cristi inched forwards until they were stopped again by a guard who bent down, blue-gloved hand extended.
“Invitation please.” His deep voice rumbled. Ella handed it to him and he waved a scanner over the top of it. The scanner beeped green, he handed the paper back and sent them through the fence and into a parking lot beyond.
More assistants were waiting to show them to a parking place where Cristi said goodbye and started her trip back out of the maze of sparkling clean cars.
As Ella walked up to the Palace steps, she noticed that all the cars around her seemed to be much newer models or in way nicer condition that Cristi’s had been.
She also realized that the outfit that had made her feels so extraordinary at her house was common place in this crowd of elegant people, twittering quietly amongst themselves as they made their way to the massive oak doors, which gaped slightly open, welcoming its visitors.
Yet more guards stood, once more scanning invitations as people passed through.
Ella was given her paper back as the guard called “Next!” to the person behind her. She was then ushered into a magnificent welcoming hall, where, even as people were being sent through to the courtyard below, hors d’oeuvres were being passed out by girls in white aprons and gloves.
The ceiling was hard to see without craning your neck, and stained glass windows cast colorful lighting on all who were below them.
A balcony was next, marble stairs leading to a huge courtyard below. Gowns and suits, lights and music and laughter were all that could be seen. Ella started towards it eagerly but was stopped by another guard.
“Invitation please, miss.” She complied, wondering how many times throughout the evening this was going to happen.
“Excuse me, please step this way Miss.” He placed a gentle hand on her back and led her into a separate room where a couple dozen others were waiting.
“What’s going on?” She asked in bewilderment.
“All of the Royal Family’s personal guests are going to be announced fifteen minutes after the ball starts. Drinks and food are provided until then, enjoy yourself.” He left.
Everyone who had turned to look at her when she’d walked in was now going back to what they had been doing. It was much quieter and calmer in here rather than out with the big crowd.
Ella looked up at a large clock on the wall which had carvings of inspirational quotes all around it, one for each hour. It was nearly seven now and Ella giggled at the quote beside the small clocks’ needle.
“Everything is Figureoutable…” She repeated to herself. She was suddenly startled by a familiar voice next to her.
“I’m not sure if that’s really a word.” Turning, she saw Prince Frederick was standing near her shoulder, a grin on his face.
“I’m glad you came.” He took her hand, kissing it lightly as he bowed.
“Um. I am too…” She said awkwardly. He tilted his head back some, laughing.
A few other people were coming up to him now to say hi, but most were staying in a group around whom Ella supposed must be his parents, although she couldn’t really see them through the throng.
She tried to slip aside, not wanting to get in other’s way, but he caught her arm, “It’ll just be a minute, hang on.”
But ten minutes later, he was still being bombarded with questions, comments and concerns by the critics around him.
Before he had gotten a chance to give her any more thought, the same guard who had showed Ella in stepped inside and raised a hand for quiet. When that didn’t work, he grabbed a goblet and knife from a passing waiter and clanged them together a few times. The crowd fell silent.
“We will be announcing the Royal Family, followed by their guests, in just 5 minutes. Thank you.” He closed the door behind him and everyone quickly grabbed clutches, checked their dresses and jewelry, and made sure they were presentable.
Now that the group had dispersed, Fred turned back to Ella. He opened his mouth to say something but then his father, the King, had placed a hand on his shoulder.
“So this must be your lovely date.” He boomed.
“What?” Ella and Fred said at the same time.
The Queen joined him. “It’s very nice to meet you dear. Now, come with us, you’ll be introduced alongside Fred so they’ll want your name in advance.”
The four of them were moved to the doors where none other than Maurice was standing to greet them.
“Your Majesty’s.” He bowed low, although with his height it merely made him closer to the King’s short stature. “It will be just a moment, I apologize for any delay. Now,” He turned towards Frederick and Ella, “Who is your- Well, well, well. Miss Ella.”
The royals looked confused. “You know each other?” Fred asked.
“He delivered my step-family’s invitations.” Ella explained.
Maurice straightened up and fixed his lapel. “It’s time.”
The heavy door opened from the outside, pulled by its sentinels. Maurice walked out, followed by the King and Queen and trailing in the back were Fred and Ella.
Fred linked his ram through hers, leading the way to the balcony. “I’m sorry for the confusion.” He whispered.
She nodded back, to nervous to say anything. They stopped on the balcony, still in their pairs. The crowd below was turned to them, cheering.
Maurice raised his arms and they quieted. He was handed a microphone into which he spoke, “Introducing, His Majesty, King Daniel the Third, and the Lovely Queen Demitri the Sixth.” Screams of approval from below welcomed them as they waved and smiled easily.
They stepped to the side and Ella made to follow them, but Fred gently pushed her the other way. Maurice smiled down with his lips, but his eyes were cold.
“Introducing His Royal Highness, Crown Prince Frederick, and his Guest of Honor, Miss Ella Bonds.” Everyone cheered loudly as Ella followed Fred’s example and waved at them below.
The crowd hushed more quickly this time, as the spotlight that was shining brightly down on the balcony caught Ella’s metal hand as she waved it.
A short silence followed, before the King cleared his throat and Maurice spoke up again.
“Yes, now, let the dancing commence!” He shouted, and the music started up once more.
Ella was breathing heavily. Fred guided her to the stairs, and they followed his parents into the crowd below where, instead of being suffocated by fans as Ella had expected, they were given plenty of space and even bowed to as they passed.
Jealous girls frowned at Ella, and some others backed up hurriedly when they saw her hand hanging at her side.
“Let’s dance.” Fred said once they got to the middle of the floor. They assumed the Waltz closed position and she counted the beats of the music as he swept her into a turning box step. He spun her and her skirt swirled pleasantly about her legs.
They glided around, the only ones dancing so far. After a minute the King and Queen joined, and soon many couples were spinning across the floor, although plenty of space was still given to the Royals and Ella.
For the next while they laughed and talked, dancing and eating and truly enjoying themselves. They learned quite a bit about each other, and Ella noticed that what London had said about him was all true.
“Do you like horses?” He asked her randomly.
“Yes, I love them why?” She responded.
“Well, I was just thinking, I have access to quite a few, and wonderful riding grounds, and if you would like, perhaps you could come with me sometime?” He glanced sideways at her.
She smiled, “I would love to.”
Looking relieved, he offered her his arm once more. “May I have this dance?”
Ella let him lead her onto the dance floor, and they began a smooth samba.
About halfway through the song Ella saw a very familiar, very angry face watching her from the crowd.
She could feel the color drain from her face.
“What’s wrong?” Fred asked concernedly. “Are you done with the dance?”
“Adri.” She gasped, freezing in place, although she wanted badly to run.
His eyes followed hers and he frowned. “Is that your step mother?” He asked as Adri swept towards them looking livid.
“May I have a moment alone with Ella, please?” She asked through gritted teeth.
Fred slipped a protective arm around his partner. “No you may not.”
Adri looked upset but quickly tried to hide it. She curtsied slightly as she apologized to Fred, “I’m sorry for the intrusion, but this girl is under my jurisdiction and not supposed to be here.”
“Your jurisdiction? What’s that supposed to mean?” Ella asked harshly.
Adri stared at her, eyes squinted in anger. “How dare you leave without my permission,” she whispered.
“She had mine.” Fred stated simply.
Ella saw a pair of guards making their way towards Fred, noticing the disturbance. “Where are the twins?” She asked, deciding she should keep Adri occupied until the soldiers could intervene.
“Dancing. They met a couple of…Dukes.” She said, wrinkling her nose on the last word.
“Well, I’m sure they won’t miss you much.” Ella said as a guard caught Adri’s elbow.
“Get off of me!” She squealed, surprised to see someone so much taller than her.
“Your Highness.” The guard looked to Fred. He waved his hand and the guards marched Adri away, as she shouted obscenities at them.
“Thank you, sir!” Ella called after them.
“I believe we should have your sisters found as well and-”
Ella cut them off. “And I should take them home.”
Fred was shocked, but masked it. “Are you sure you want to leave?” He asked uncertainly.
“I need to take care of them. She’s hurt them too. In fact, I pity them, she starved them and stuffed them in tiny clothes and trained them to obey like pets instead of children. Adri used them to her advantage. I’m trying to be a shoulder for them to cry on lately.”
Fred nodded. “Let’s find them, I’ll have a car take you home.” He paused. “Do you mind if I come with you? I don’t really want to be here alone.” He glanced pointedly at a group of young teenage girls that had been staring at him for some time.
“Sure. But our place is nothing like yours.” They laughed, and with the help of a few servants, had soon found the twins. They explained the situation, although the girls seemed to be having trouble paying attention while the Prince was standing there.
Fred arranged for a car and his bodyguard followed them in a separate, ordinary looking vehicle.
They got to the apartment, and once inside the twins started sniffling. “What’s going to happen to our mom?” They asked.
“She’ll be charged with harassment and abusing you three.” Fred answered bluntly.
The twins sobbed louder, and Ella threw him a look as she wrapped her arms around them. “You two will be fine. I’ll take care of you, don’t worry.”
Fred volunteered to make dinner while Ella got the twins into more comfortable clothes. Then the two of them sat the other two down on the couch and within a few minutes, all four were sprawled across it eating Chinese takeout (which Fred had ordered instead of attempting to cook) and watching a cheesy chick flick that Paris had picked.
And even though they all knew it wasn’t going to be easy, they did all know that eventually, their kindness to each other would help get them through whatever challenges lied ahead.
It was like Ella’s mother, Emilie, had said, “Have Courage, and Be Kind.”
Ella’s father had repeated the phrase often since his wife’s death, and Ella had never payed to much attention until now.
But in that moment, as she lied on an old couch with her little sisters and the Prince, who was wrinkling his fancy suit, an arm around each of the twins to comfort them, having courage and being kind seemed to be the most important thing in the world.