The man who was in the twilight of his life and the boy who was in the full dawn of his passed in the wide hall. But as they did, each paused and half-turned and looked back. Their eyes met. For a moment, each thought he knew the other. But then they shrugged and ever so slightly shook their heads and went on.
* * *
The prince sighed just as his friend Degrades joined him on the balcony overlooking the palace courtyard.
Below, a young royal and his lady walked hand-in-hand.
"I see our minds are on the same thing," Degrades said.
"On women, yes," the prince said, "but we think in different ways about them. I'm not like you—every woman doesn't turn me on."
"Perhaps your standards are too high."
"Perhaps yours are too low."
His handsome friend turned down his mouth, considered that possibility, shook his head.
"I am happy, Prince." He smiled at two attractive young ladies below. Seeing this, they lowered their eyes and giggled together behind their hands. "I have many ... potentials. You, on the other hand, have no prospects in hand—and none in sight."
The prince did not bother to deny the truth of what his friend had said. Women courted him, flirted with him, were presented or offered to him. There were many; what young girl did not want to marry a handsome young prince of a mighty kingdom which would one day be his? But none made his heart pound or quickened his breathing.
"A man does not have control over such things," was all he said.
"If it's romance and a wife you want, then do something. What's the point of being a prince if you don't take advantage of it."
"Give a ball."
"Women love them. Make the announcement, they will come. In the hundreds. And among all those girls, you will find that special someone." He smacked his hands together and rubbed them in anticipation of the prince's leftovers.
But the gray-haired counselor whose job it was to guide the king's only son shook a finger from the chair where he had sat quietly listening.
"He's not a playboy like you, Degrades. He wants a wife and a mother for his children. For that, the old-fashioned one-on-one meeting is best. A cattle call is no way to meet the one who will bear your children and you will spend the rest of your life with."
Degrades admired the blue sky overhead, pretending he hadn't heard the old man.
The prince walked behind the ancient and put a hand on one frail shoulder.
"What you say is true, wise one. I am no playboy like Degrades ... but I find the idea of a ball and meeting hundreds of the prettiest, sexiest women ever to walk the Earth, dressed in their finest gowns, all at once, intriguing and exciting." He looked down at the old man, saw the frown lines.
"I am getting old, sir, like you. It's time I married and started a family. As you say, one-on-one is best. After verifying lineages and temperaments and possible mental and physical shortcomings, our representatives meet and, if they agree, we proceed to well-chaperoned meetings and if we are compatible, we marry."
The old man nodded. "That is the way it should be done!"
"But I have done that more than a dozen times. And not one has been even close to being what I want for a wife."
"Perhaps if you were more flexible, young prince."
The prince sighed. "Perhaps you're right, dear counselor. In fact, I will try to be in the future, though, as I told Degrades, a man has no control over such things. But for now, I find the idea of a ball to which I will invite all the young, beautiful and eligible girls of good reputation, wonderful."
The counselor shook his head in disapproval.
"What harm can come of it, sir? It binds me to nothing. A night of good music, dancing, the best food and entertainment."
The old man shook his head yet again, still unhappy with the idea.
* * *
The prince consulted other advisors; they were more supportive. Those who were always ready to help the young prince, including his friend Degrades, immediately started making plans. Within days announcements went out across the kingdom: The handsome young prince seeks a bride. Send your finest unwed daughters. All are invited.
He had new clothes made, got a haircut by a foreign barber and worked out for weeks to put his body in its best shape.
The morning and day of the ball passed slowly.
The scents of their perfumes and bodies filled the air of the palace. Never had he seen so many beautiful women in one place. Each had gone to great lengths to make sure she would stand out. But as yet he'd failed to find that special one. He waited impatiently for the hours to go by, for the moment when the ballroom would be packed with women.
The anticipation of meeting all those beautiful girls was almost unbearable. The evening of the ball, seeing himself in the mirrors, seeing how handsome he looked, he was pleased. How could any girl resist him? And a prince too.
The great hall sparkled and glittered with chandeliers. Buzzed with the sound of two hundred young, eager girls, each more beautiful than the previous.
Through peepholes, he watched them assemble and make last minute adjustments. An advisor whose skill was in knowing about everyone told him about each who interested him. Which were royal, which were not. Which had pleasant personalities, which did not. The hobbies of this one, the predilections of that one. Speculations about their virginity. The young prince eliminated those with bad reputations.
He never stopped studying them. Surely one would be her. He listened to their voices, their laughter, wondered which would be the one he'd waited his whole life for.
He looked at their feet and eliminated those with big ones. And as he watched and listened unseen, he realized the agenda for many of the young ladies who felt themselves worthy was to snare him. A rich kingdom, a handsome prince. Apparently it was every girl's dream. Love had nothing to do with it.
Looking out over what seemed like a sea of gowns, he saw a number of girls he liked. He enjoyed the attractiveness of many of them. The way they moved. The way their bosoms heaved; he had never seen so much cleavage in his life. He should have been happy.
But in truth he saw a crowd of greedy, determined women he would never want to spend any time with, let alone marry. His dream of meeting the love of his life was confronting reality and guttering. It became clear he was a fish they were determined to hook. Whether he liked it or not.
But he did not give up, for he knew he would not be happy until he met the one of his dreams. He would know her when he saw her. Till then ... he would have to endure this party, these young ladies.
They swarmed like locusts when he made his entrance. They pushed and jockeyed for position, by sheer force setting up a pecking order.
They held his hands and would not let them go, pressed their bosoms against him with determination.
He danced, talked. But his heart was not in it, for despite all the girls and women there, for all their beauty, charm and sensuality, none ignited that fire within him. He began to wonder: would he ever meet her?
"They make no bones of it," he confided to Degrades. "They want me for all the things I represent." He shook his head. "I could be anyone who is good-looking and a prince."
The night stretched before him, long and depressing. The time advanced moment by interminable moment. It began to look like it was a wasted evening ... when the living sea parted and the great ballroom fell silent.
A young girl of exquisite beauty glided through the empty path into the great hall. Slim, elegant, she wore a white gown. White-gloves. Long slender neck. He could only stand and stare as she came to him. She was wonderful, a mysterious smile upon her face. Lips so soft. Her slimness, her curves, the combination, entranced him.
His pulse pounded, hammered more than it ever had. His blood surged through his veins and arteries like a great surf. He couldn't breathe. His feet seemed to lose contact with the ground. She strode through the parted sea of women, walked in the awed silence, straight to him.
Once he made eye contact, he couldn't look away. Her eyes were calm pools of black ink he couldn't help sinking in. His feet must have grown wings for he seemed to float higher and higher above the floor.
She stopped and stood demurely before him, giving him a chance to look her over.
He put out his hands and she took them. From that moment on, their hands were never still in contact, but ever moving, caressing, touching, teasing, palming. They danced so close, and yet without pressing against each other, that it was a miracle. He wanted to kiss her, touch her everywhere. If hands could kiss, theirs would have. They did everything but. And all under the scrutiny of the crowd, most of which were jealous young ladies.
As they waltzed about the great ballroom like skaters on virgin ice, he thrilled to the slimness of her waist in his hand. The firmness of her flesh. The way she looked into his eyes and did not bother him with a lot of questions or needless chatter. He knew he could be happy with this young lady. This was the one he had waited for, the one he had been looking for. The ballroom, the other women, faded to unreality. Did they dance on clouds? He was conscious of the mingling of their breaths, of the mixing of their hearts. Of the bonding of their souls.
He danced the rest of the ball with her. After her, there was no one else. The others had become invisible as air to him.
They stood close as the evening drew to an end. He did not want it to, but all things end. Especially the ones one enjoys.
"Are you dissatisfied with life?" she whispered, her voice a caress of his soul, a long lingering stroke along the length of his spine.
"Until tonight, yes," he said. "But now, no more."
She nodded, almost imperceptibly. "Till tonight, I too was dissatisfied. Now, I too," she breathed, "am no longer so."
They stood together, content just to be in each other's presence. He took a deep breath, knowing it would soon be time to say goodbye.
"I'll be back," she said suddenly. And as she turned and slipped into the crowd, he saw something fall from her hair.
"Wait," he said and bent to retrieve it. He straightened up and made to hand it to her. But she had disappeared. He looked at what he had picked up. It was a diamond-and-silver hair ornament, exquisitely crafted, worth a small fortune. He closed his hand lovingly about it and waited for her return.
She never came back.
Finally, he searched the ballroom, the attendant rooms and the grounds. There was nothing of her except the silver-and-diamond hair ornament he'd picked up when it had fallen.
In the days and weeks thereafter, he asked everywhere, to whom does this hair ornament belong? Who made it? Who bought it? Who sold it?
He questioned everyone. No one knew anything.
Finally, in frustration he went to a wise old woman some would call a witch, who lived well in a large estatehouse with a wide hall, told her the story, showed her the hair ornament.
She shook her head at the story. Held the hair ornament briefly in her wrinkled, spotted fingers, examined it, peered at it with near-blind eyes and said, "Throw it away—"
"What!?" He jerked in astonishment, his eyes opening wide, the question of her sanity between his lips and about to be spat to the world.
"Bury it or throw it in the sea so you will never see it again," she said before he could speak further.
His need to know about the hair ornament won out over the question of her sanity. "But why?" he asked, unable to believe what he'd heard.
"You are familiar with the Cinderella story?"
"Yes!" he said. "Her station does not matter to me. I will find her, marry her and we will live happily forever after!"
The witch woman shook her head, mashed something with her gums.
"You had one beautiful night with her, did you not?"
"Yes!" he declared, trying with that one word to convey how she'd made him feel. "Wonderful. She was divine. Witty. Beautiful. She floated in my arms. Several kisses—like biting into sweet cherries. I will remember those kisses, that soft skin, the rest of my life. I must have her."
The wise woman many called a witch nodded. Her jaw moved up and down in a series of fitful moves before she spoke again.
"Have you ever heard of this woman since?" Her eyes glittered. She watched him closely.
"No—but the world is big. I have given other balls hoping she would appear." He shook his head sadly. "She didn't."
"A woman of such beauty would be in great demand, would she not?"
"Yes—who could resist her? I have spent many nights dreaming of her, many days thinking of her. I remember every word, every touch, every kiss, every smile of our so brief time together. Her face is before me throughout the day." He heard himself breathing in the quiet of her audience room.
"Many say I'm a witch."
He nodded, neither agreeing nor disagreeing.
"Not true." She sighed. "But it is hard to convince them otherwise. I have seen a lot, heard a lot—because I listen and I read the ancient books—and many of the new ones. Your story is familiar."
"Familiar? How so?"
"There are other tales such as yours—of a mysterious young woman, beautiful beyond all others, who comes from nowhere and wins a young man's heart. He can be prince or king, warlord or stableboy. The story is always the same—lips as sweet as cherries, skin like the smoothest silk, eyes like pools of darkest ink. Some would call her an enchantress. Whence she or they—if there is more than one—come from, I don't know. I don't think anyone knows. I do not. You have sent agents throughout the known world and they have reported what?"
"No one has ever seen or heard of such a woman."
She nodded. "Precisely. And this is the important thing to remember, young prince—if she felt about you as you feel about her...."
He nodded, leaned forward, anxious to hear her words.
"She would be at your side."
"But she may be held by kidnappers or her family. Maybe she's ill!"
"Why does no one know of her?"
He shook his head, he didn't know.
"Your agents have scoured the land, offered large rewards for her presentation or knowledge of her whereabouts," she told him.
He nodded agreement.
Now it was her turn to lean forward and listen for the answer.
"Nothing. Women were pointed out or brought forth, but none was her. They were just people who wanted the reward or to take her place and live as a princess."
The old woman settled back in her throne-like chair of oak and nodded. She groped for, found and took a book from beside herself and opened to a page. She read without looking at it, as if from memory: "A small dark girl, with eyes like the blackest night, skin so soft and so smooth as to defy description. When I kissed her tender lips, they were as sweet as ripened Bing cherries."
His eyes opened. "That's her!" But then he caught himself. "You didn't look at the page. You made it up."
She extended her hand and the book. The young prince took it, reversed it and read. His eyes went wide for as she had spoken, so was it written.
He closed the book, nodded to himself as he was forced to believe her story. He put the tattered book down next to him.
"I move from place to place," she said. "My clients follow me. You passed a man in the hall on your way in?"
He nodded. "An old gentleman."
"Of regal bearing?"
"Yes. For a moment I thought I knew him—and he me, for he paused and looked at me. Our eyes met, but we didn't know each other."
"But you do know each other."
"No, I've never met him."
"True. But you know him and he knows you in that you are both phases of the same story."
He frowned. "Same story?"
"When he was your age and a prince, he gave a ball and there appeared a young girl whose description he dictated to me and which I wrote in that book almost forty years ago and read to you just now."
"Forty years! It's a different woman."
She shrugged, bony shoulders shifting the cloth of the thick woollen shawl covering her. "I know only that his description of the woman who captured his heart matches that of the woman who captured yours. In circumstances almost identical."
"You're saying she's not real."
"I'm saying what I am saying. That such a woman has been known to appear, win the heart and mind of a young man and disappear, never to be seen again. How many times that has happened that I don't know of, I cannot say. But I do know of half a dozen instances. And therefore I say forget her."
"No!" he shouted, getting up and balling his fists as if he would pound the old lady for making such a suggestion. "I will not—I cannot! I feel her everywhere. See her always. In the night. In the daytime. I smell her scent always. Remember her kisses—those lips, that tongue. The touch of her skin beneath my fingers. No way I can ever forget her!"
The old wise woman many called a witch nodded. She had not retreated, or cringed, before his wrath. In fact, she seemed indifferent to it.
"He said the same," she said softly.
"Who?" he asked, having, in the emotion of the moment, lost track of what had gone before.
"The old man you passed in the hall. I gave him the same advice when he first came to me. Forty years ago."
"Our women are not the same," he told her.
She shrugged again, the shawl rising and falling once more. "You come to me for advice. I give it: Sometimes just the memory of a thing should be enough—in fact, must be enough. Take your memories of her and be content. You have been blessed once by meeting her. If she is the woman of half a dozen stories, among which is that of the old man I told you about, she will never come again.
"If you disregard my advice, you will, as that old man did, spend your entire life looking, searching, thinking of her. And you will never find her. That is the true story of Cinderella. Not a happy ending, but an unhappy one. The version told is a fantasy to please the souls and hearts of those who hear it. The pockets of storytellers who leave their audiences happy are fat. The pockets of those who leave them unhappy are slim. The truth in this case is sad."
He sat, shook his head. "It can't be. I refuse to believe such a story."
"Go to the old man—I will give you his name and tell you where he lives. Talk to him. He gave up everything to find her. And in the end had nothing."
"If what you say is true, is she a ghost or a supernatural be ing?"
The wise woman many called a witch shook her head. "I do not know what she is. I only know her by her actions and her appearance. She is a woman of incomparable beauty and sensuousness. She glides into a ball or a party or a gathering and wins a young man's heart ... and then departs, never to be seen again by him. And she always leaves something behind—a shoe, a ribbon or, in your case, a piece of jewelry."
He continued to sit, silent, not knowing what to think.
"Speak to the old man and make your decision." She reached out and patted his knee tenderly.
He rose as if in a dream, opened his purse, dug in it, pulled out a coin, tossed it at her feet and walked out.
She looked at the coin he had thrown her and sighed. "It is not only the purses of storytellers that stay slim with unhappy stories!"
After talking to the old man who had once been a prince and could have ruled a kingdom, he rode several days to a cliff facing the sea. He dismounted and walked to the edge. He stood there and looked down at the raging waters smashing into the base below.
He took out the silver-and-diamond hair ornament. How the diamonds sparkled and the metal shone. He raised it to his lips and kissed it. Then he drew his arm back and threw the piece of jewelry as far out into the sea as he could. And as he stood there, he saw her as beautiful as ever before him, saw the flashing white of her eyes about the stygian circles, the sweet lips, the high cheekbones, the little chin. For a moment, his heart faltered, but only for a moment. He drew a deep breath and screamed into the wind until she went away.
"God damn you, Cinderella! God damn you!"