The Longest Dance
Brevis told Nelumbella stories about balls. He proudly described several balls, which he attended as a boy, and how he had nearly ruined them. He recounted the way he attempted to flirt with the ladies when he was nearly a man (he also told her to kick any male who tried any of the things he had). He told her how boring balls became when the novelty wore off. He mimicked the way ladies behaved at balls. He explained to her the history of balls, the function, and balls, the functioning object. Best of all, he told her tales of princesses and balls. Like all wonderful things, the tales came from Loti. They were stories of princesses who overcame diversity and falling in love. Nelumbella found the tales enchanting. She wanted to be like those princesses. They had small feet, were beautiful, and married the loves of their lives. How balls were not enjoyable, she did not understand. She wanted to meet a charming man—to be swept off her big feet, and fall in love.
At her first ball, Nelumbella nervously stood in the corner of the hall, unaccustomed to the large crowd. All the ladies wore vibrant dresses and did their hair high. Their painted faces were powdered to a chalky finish, and their lips were red; eyes were lined to elongate and widen. Some of the men painted their faces as well. Some did so as dramatically as the women, and others did less so. The majority of men wore suits as frilly as the dresses. They were the sort of suits her Uncle Brevis had sworn he would never wear again. Nelumbella thought they looked intriguing, but she was not as decorated.
Her mother had asked her if she wanted to dress up for the ball. While Nelumbella donned a dress just as breath-taking as the others, she had not wanted to clown herself. Dresses were not as free as she liked. She recalled the wacky faces she had seen in some of the art her uncle collected, which she likened to the way women, and some men, painted their faces. Although Nelumbella stood out due to her decision, this time, she did so as a supposed natural beauty.
Nelumbella wished her uncle came with her, but he was in a country named Jonquil doing diplomatic princely things. (Brevis was very careful to plan his journeys around such occasions.) From what she knew, it was one of his favourite places to visit. Then again, he would not willingly go near a ball unless his brother commanded him. At least she had her parents with her, but they were not really with her. They hosted the balls, but they no longer truly attended the events. They claimed they were too old for such gatherings even though there were people who were their elder attending. Her father and mother had followed in her uncle’s lead, only making appearance when necessary, entering the ballroom occasionally, and escaping elsewhere during the evening.
Her parents were with her at the start, and they remained with her for a short period. They encouraged her to have fun, but she tried to dance and talk to no one. The last time she had been around so many people was when she was a child.
However, she was the Princess! The guests flocked around Nelumbella; both old and young, men and women, all were eager to become friends with her. No matter where she went, they knew where she was. Several times, Nelumbella was told, ‘Princess, you are so tall and so beautiful. To keep one’s eyes off your beauty is the greatest challenge.’
When the men had asked her to dance, she feared she might step on their feet, but she did not know how to refuse them. Most were shorter than she was, and it worried her. She recalled how she had stepped on her uncle’s feet when they were practicing. Stumbling, the heel of her shoe went straight through his foot, piercing him. She had to practice alone for weeks until he healed. Dancing with her uncle was also much easier compared to dancing with shorter men. She had assumed her uncle was of average height, but being introduced to more men, she realized her uncle was tall. She knew that if she took off her shoes she could dance easily and not injure her partner as seriously. Out of fear of the reaction that could occur if she revealed her true self, Nelumbella kept her shoes on, hunched over, and took smaller steps. She stared at her partner’s feet, attempting to keep him safe.
The night dragged on, and Nelumbella grew tired from all the dancing. Feet aching, she escaped the ballroom the first moment she had to herself. She walked to what she thought would be an empty corridor, but as she turned the corner, she heard giggles and chatter. Nelumbella saw a trio of young women, slumped against the wall, with bare and sore feet. ‘Oh, I hate to dance,’ one said. ‘Dancing shoes are the most uncomfortable.’ The other two nodded in agreement. The one who spoke noticed Nelumbella. ‘You are the Princess,’ she said. ‘It is a pleasure to meet you. We were afraid we missed the chance. Sit with us. I am certain your feet are sore as well.’
Nelumbella’s feet were painfully sore. She took the offer and sat with them—shoes remaining on. The trio thought it was odd, but Nelumbella told them princesses were not allowed to show their feet. A couple of the girls put their shoes back on, wanting to be like the princess, while one kept her feet free of shoes but covered with a pair of dainty socks.
The trio introduced themselves. The one who first spoke was named Trachelle. She sat in the centre. The one who sat furthest from Nelumbella was named Alveola. The nearest was named Phary. The girls were from similar wealthy backgrounds. Nelumbella learned that they knew each other since childhood, as their parents were friends. They were tightly bonded, but they were also eager to have Nelumbella in their group. After all, she was the Princess. Nelumbella was merely happy to befriend females her own age. As much as she adored her uncle, having female company, who was not her mother, was pleasant.
They talked about feminine things. Nelumbella was just able to understand the basics of their topics thanks to her mother, but the girls went into such detail that Nelumbella was constantly lost. She had much to learn. Luckily, Nelumbella was very aware of the many types of shoes; and thus, she was able to impress them with her knowledge in footwear. She even told them about shoes they never heard of. Her biggest downfall was that she was not aware of how things came in and out of fashion. For her, there were the dresses she was supposed to wear, and the pants and shirt she liked to wear. For them, there was the out of date, the newest, and the trendiest.
The girls also talked about suitors. Two of them were secretly seeing a special someone, while the other one spent her time admiring from a distance. Nelumbella understood most of it. People paired up and married. She wanted that for herself too. What Nelumbella did not understand was whether the girls were embellishing themselves due to female competition or for the men they vied after.
Things with her uncle were much simpler. These girls kept asking, ‘Do you think he likes me?’ Then they would say this and that, and question what the man did, ‘What do you think that means?’ Each girl had comforting words. Most times, Nelumbella did not know what to answer. She was neither male nor a psychic. In most of the described situations, Nelumbella wanted to tell her new friends to kick the fellow. She wanted to give the same advice her uncle had given her, but it did not seem princess like, and she wanted to make a good impression.
When the clock struck midnight, Nelumbella decided she could not take any more of their nonsense. ‘I must end our night together,’ Nelumbella said. ‘My bedtime is approaching, and I must have my beauty sleep. I will see you again next time, yes?’
‘Of course!’ the girls said in unison. They hugged her and made their goodnights.
Nelumbella hurried away. They were her friends, but they made her head ache. She finally understood why her uncle did not enjoy balls. For a man like himself to encounter such females must have been a fright! She did not enjoy their topics, and he definitely would not either. Nonetheless, she was determined to understand them better. She was willing to adapt even though they were different from what she was accustomed.
When she returned to her chambers and removed her diamond shoes, her feet were more bloodied and blistered than before. Her feet needed to rest and breath. During her practices, her uncle insisted that she received many breaks so that she would not hurt as badly. He had told her to stretch out her toes every hour whenever she wore the shoes. Not having listened, Nelumbella faced the repercussions.
The following week, Nelumbella learned the ball was a success. Her awkwardness went unnoticed; and all who met her was as charmed with her as the people were with King Talus in his youth. From that day on, the King and Queen forgot their worries. When her new friends came to the palace to seek Nelumbella, her parents had even let her leave the gates. The memories of a deformed princess faded into a distant memory. For Nelumbella, the pain was worth it.
Nelumbella’s experience with second ball was far better than her first. She better understood how to talk to the people, and she figured out how to refuse offers to dance without insulting the person. Unfortunately, her parents had started to believe her feet had shrunk and that she had grew. Between her time at home and the time she spent with her friends, her feet had no opportunity to heal. To avoid dancing was all that she could do.
Instead of waltzing, Nelumbella spent the evening with the girl in the group who had given up on the boy who was the object of her desires. ‘He does not notice me, let alone care for me,’ Phary brooded. ‘I can recall the first time he spoke to me, but he has not even spoken to me in over half a year! He is an ogre, I say.’
Nelumbella listened and comforted the girl. ‘You will find someone better—someone worthy of you,’ she said. She had learned the ideal words to say from the Trachelle and Alveola
‘Yes, you are correct,’ said Phary. ’It is good you will be Queen. You are most wise. That boy—he is not worth anyone’s time and definitely not worth mine!′
The night dragged on. Phary continued to complain about the boy. His name was Umbilicus, but they called him Charming. ‘He is so handsome—but stupid,’ Phary said, ’and very charming. The nickname is not only between us girls either. Everyone calls him Charming. They gave him the name because he is so handsome. He is quite repelling otherwise. I do not even know how someone like him became a knight. All of us had a crush on him one time or another, but he definitely is not good enough to be a knight. Trachelle liked him first. Trachelle does everything first. I was lucky enough to be bit by his charming little love bug last! It is only a matter of time before you fall for him. The moment you see him, he will take over your mind. But you are the Princess, so you will win his heart.′ Phary let out a stream of tears.
Nelumbella did not know what to do. Her friends liked attention, but they also did not like to look like fools. Perhaps if she pushed Phary into a group of men, one of them would take pity on her and sweep her off her feet. Some of her uncle’s stories included pity, but generally without pushing. The scenario in his stories played out more along the lines of: the girl walks by, a prince becomes smitten, and they lived happily ever after.
Sensing that it was unwise idea, Nelumbella took Phary to the gardens to escape from the crowd and for fresh air. Nelumbella sighed in relief as Phary’s sobbing stopped and turned into heaving breaths. After plenty of comforting words, and pats on the back, Phary was quiet.
The sky was dark; and the stars were out. Surprisingly, Nelumbella enjoyed Phary’s company. She was rather pleasant to be around when she was not talking or crying, but the silence was broken with a gasp from Phary. ‘That’s him,’ she said, pointing with a low hand, in the direction of a lone carriage.
‘Who?’ Nelumbella asked, unable to make out the figure stepping out.
‘Charming of course,’ Phary said, hushed but giddy. ‘Maybe you will meet him. Do not say anything. Oh, I cannot say that to a Princess. Just do not let him know anything I told you. What will you say? Are you excited? I am excited. He is so handsome—but he is not nice. Remember that. He is stupid too! Please do not embarrass me.’
‘Do not worry,’ Nelumbella assured. ‘He is only a boy, and from what you have told me, he will not come our way.’
Nelumbella was wrong. He had no interest in the girl whose name he could not remember, but he did have interest in the princess. Intending on making a lasting impression, he arrived a little more than casually late. He wanted the Princess to see him as the dashing young man he thought he was.
‘He is coming our way,’ said Phary, patting Nelumbella’s arm. ‘You will see what I mean. If I faint, catch me. Oh, gosh, I cannot take this. I need to hide.’
‘What am I suppose to do?’ Nelumbella asked as Phary made her escape. She had spoken to young men, and handsome men, but she had yet to speak to a handsome young man!
‘Be a princess,’ Phary sputtered. ‘Let me live vicariously. Give the boy a taste of his own medicine and charm Charming.’ Phary ran behind a pillar to spy on the scene that was about to unfold.
As Charming approached, Nelumbella saw that Phary had not exaggerated when she described him. He was very handsome—so handsome she was tempted to describe him as pretty. With cropped bright blond hair, blue eyes sparkling in the moonlight, simple formal wear without frills or clownish makeup, the young man’s appearance lived up to his name; he did not need embellishments.
When he introduced himself, Nelumbella blushed. She was as smitten as Phary said she would be. Their exchange was short, but Nelumbella finally understood why her friends were so fixated on boys.
Charming left and Phary came out of hiding. In one breath Phary said, ‘My goodness, he spoke more than a sentence to you. You are so lucky! Did you see the way he looked at you? Of course you did. He was looking at you. He thinks you are pretty! We must tell the girls.’
The pair returned inside to find their friends. Gathering in the hallway where they met, they gossiped about what happened with Charming and the progress they made with their soon to be men. This time, Nelumbella fully participated.
Before Nelumbella’s third ball, her three friends arrived early to prepare. Her friends had planned for Nelumbella to win Charming as her beau.
They did their hair together, and they encouraged Nelumbella to paint her face. They attempted to teach her how to apply makeup, but she was not skilled with a brush so they did task for her. Nelumbella had never worn make up before. She had been so consumed with her feet that how her face appeared never crossed her mind. Nelumbella likened makeup to the bright feathers of male birds. Musing about birds, Nelumbella realized that Trachelle, Alveola, and Phary always wore bright colours. Their actions made sense to her, as it reflected how birds attracted their mates.
Unlike the previous balls Nelumbella had attended, this one was the final one of the season, and thus the largest. Although her uncle was not coming, many important people were, including all the knights. Thus, the girls were certain Charming would be there, which was why, according to Trachelle, their efforts in their looks was necessary.
As usual, the trio’s antics did not completely make sense to Nelumbella. She had one brief exchange with Charming, and he was the first handsome young man she had met. Even though she was a tad infatuated, she did not know if peacocking for him was the right thing to do. She figured the world had more handsome men, and she was unsure if settling down in her first months of partial freedom was a good plan. ‘Do you not think I am too young to be a wooing a man?’ asked Nelumbella, wanting a second opinion.
‘Oh, heavens no,’ said Alveola.
‘How old were your parents when they married?’ asked Trachelle.
‘Eighteen,’ replied Nelumbella.
‘How old are you?’ asked Trachelle.
‘Sixteen,’ said Nelumbella.
‘Exactly,’ Trachelle said, ‘In two years you will be expected to marry. You have to start searching for a husband.’
‘It is true,’ Alveola said, nodding. ‘If I do not find a husband by the time I am twenty, my father will find a husband for me.’
‘She is lucky,’ Phary added. ’If I do not find a husband by my eighteenth birthday, I will be forced to marry that thing, Gastris.
‘Gastris!’ gasped Nelumbella, ‘the smelly one?’
‘Yes, Gassy Gastris, the smelly one,’ confirmed Phary.
‘See why you have to find a husband now?’ said Trachelle. ‘Even if you do not have to marry in a couple years, the decent men will be already taken.’
‘She is right,’ said Alveola. ‘It is for the best.’
Nelumbella knew then that she had to win Charming’s affections. The girls gave her plenty of advice on what to do. She was supposed to make him try, but not try too hard. Trachelle and Alveola told Nelumbella what had worked with their current beau; and they each pitched in, sharing what had failed on Charming, which seemed to be everything. Evidently, Phary was hopeless. Her single tactic was to simply spy on the boy. According to Trachelle, Phary had always been socially challenged.
The four girls entered the ball together. Nelumbella still did not know how to charm Charming. She recalled Phary telling her to be a princess, but she did not know how to act like a princess. Her friends did not know that she had failed her princess lessons. She was not suited to be a prince either. The majority of what her uncle taught her had been skills he learned on his own accord—skills that were not included in what a prince had to know.
‘He is here!’ squealed Phary. ‘You are so lucky. I just know he will talk to you. He likes you. I know he does.’ Nelumbella turned to the direction Phary was looking to see the handsome knight swagger into the room with a group of relatively dashing young men.
‘So lucky,’ Alveola repeated with a sigh.
‘Remember to let him come to you,’ Trachelle said. ‘Men like to feel as if they have caught something.’
Nelumbella liked to catch things too, but she kept quiet and waited for Charming to approach. She stood alone. Her friends had abandoned her, claiming that it made her appear more available and ready for the taking. Nelumbella did not believe them. She saw Trachelle and Alveola flirting as a duo with a group of boys their age; and Phary stood nearby, consistently glancing over to see if Nelumbella was talking to Charming. Phary’s predictions proved to be correct. Had a pair of older women not stopped him, he most likely would have gone straight to her.
When he finally approached, he took her to the gardens to speak privately. Nelumbella listened to him talk, not knowing what to say. And even if she knew what to say, she was not sure if she was supposed to speak. He seemed full of himself. Nelumbella preferred to appreciate him from afar. Maybe another potential beau was at the ball. When she contemplated leaving, she remembered Gastris and his friends. She realized that compared to them, Charming was charming. She was lucky to have the attention of the most handsome young man at the event. In a way, it was like the tales her uncle told her. Then again, she was half-sure that, had he been present, her Uncle Brevis would have told her to kick Charming.
Charming was not too bad. He was courteous and had offered her his coat when she was cold. Despite his attempts at wooing, Nelumbella still thought he was silly for talking so much. Trachelle, Alveola, and Phary talked a lot, but that was when someone was responding. She did not know why he did not leave her, a tongue tied fool. But he was all smiles. Obviously, he liked quiet women. If Phary were able to spy on him by his side, they would be the perfect couple. He would talk, and she would stare at him while she took notes about everything he said and claimed he did.
When Nelumbella hoped Charming was out of breath, he asked her to dance and led her inside before she was able to respond. Nelumbella paled. She quickly realized that Charming was a better dancer than he was a conversationalist. To her dismay, like his talking, he kept going.
Poor Nelumbella, her feet were already sore from constantly wearing the shoes. Dancing hurt, but she tried to keep up, needing to maintain her image. She was sure that her diamond shoes looked like ruby because of blood. Peering over his shoulder, Nelumbella saw that her friends had regrouped and were looking at her encouragingly. Nelumbella used them as a way out. ‘I see someone I need to speak with,’ she said. ‘Excuse me.’
‘Only if you promise to dance with me again,’ said Charming.
Nelumbella blanched but readily agreed. She needed rest! She darted to the trio of girls.
‘What are you doing?’ asked Trachelle.
‘Go dance with Charming,’ Phary said, shooing Nelumbella. ‘Could you not stare at him for hours? Dancing is the best excuse for staring.’
‘That is true, but I could tell you about my walk with him and dancing with him instead,’ suggested Nelumbella.
‘Yes,’ Alveola sighed.
The girls returned to their corridor. Trachelle, Alveola, and Phary slipped off their shoes but left their socks on. They wiggled their toes in a manner that Nelumbella thought was most pleasing. She wished she could do the same, but she knew her feet were more hideous than ever. In that moment, if she had her pre-diamond shoed feet, she would have happily removed her shoes for them to see.
Nelumbella told them everything he had said to her, buying as much time as she could. Trachelle sat facing away from Nelumbella but listened. Alveola and Phary leaned in, hanging on to each word. They were much more interested in his words than Nelumbella was. Maybe Charming was more charming than she perceived. Alveola and Phary constantly described her night as the most magical night possible.
Eventually, Nelumbella ran out of things to say. Trachelle took over, as she usually did, and led the conversation. They gossiped about the dresses other women wore and her beau, who Trachelle claimed to be as perfect as Charming. Alveola and Phary thought otherwise. Charming was the most perfect. He was perfect enough for their Princess.
‘I am waiting for him to come and sweep her off her feet,’ said Alveola.
‘He does not know where to find her,’ said Trachelle, her nose turned up.
‘Oh, he will,’ said Phary. ‘He is watching her like I watch him. He knows exactly where she is. She has also been gone for over an hour. In the past, whenever he was interested in a woman, he was barely able to keep away.’
‘He will be here in no time,’ nodded Alveola.
Nelumbella wished Phary warned her earlier. If she had known, she would have left for a safer place—a place Charming could not find her. Phary knew Charming too well; and as she had said, Charming was there in a matter of minutes, ready to steal Nelumbella.
‘Princess, may I have the dance you promised me?’ asked Charming, bowing.
Nelumbella feared how long dancing with him would be. Unlike sensible people who changed partners every song or so, he went on and on. When she danced with him, she could not tell where one song ended and the other began; and with his sweeping movements, she lacked regular opportunities to breathe. Feeling the pressure from her the girls, Nelumbella apprehensively left to dance with Charming.
Dancing was a bit easier, because her feet had briefly rested. Why her uncle did not like balls was becoming more prevalent with each event. Despite hurting less, her feet still hurt. All people did was dance, and dancing was not as fun as it seemed. The attendees always wanted to escape. She had even met her friends because of how miserable the functions were.
Charming was oblivious to her pain. They danced for hours. Nelumbella heard the clock strike ten; and she heard the clock strike eleven. He did not stop, relentlessly leading her to complete intricate steps. Her feet hurt, but she had trained for this, and she wanted to prevail.
‘You dance beautifully,’ Charming said. ‘I love how you are so tall. Your height makes dancing much easier. Shorter girls are harder to move with.’
Nelumbella thanked him for the compliment and sighed. At least one of them danced with ease. He was a tad shorter than she was currently, and she preferred her dance partners to be equal in height with her or taller, but in her heels, men like that were difficult to come by. She almost laughed from the thought of removing her shoes to shock him with her much shorter frame. ‘You dance wonderfully too,’ she said, falsely reciprocating with a smile, exhausted.
He grinned, self-satisfied. Nelumbella thought that if she were Phary, she would have fainted.
The clock struck midnight. Nelumbella was more than ready to return to her quarters. ‘I must go,’ she said. ‘A princess needs her beauty sleep.’ She tried to break away from him, but he held on to her hand.
‘Wait. Do not go,’ said Charming. ‘The night is still young. Please stay and enjoy it with me.’
‘I really cannot,’ said Nelumbella.
Charming pouted. ‘Do you not like me?’ he asked, hurt.
‘Yes, but I do have to go,’ Nelumbella insisted, trying to tug free. She was more than tempted to kick him, but they were in the middle of the room with several people watching, her friends included.
‘Do not go,’ he tried again, strengthening his grip.
’I have to go,′ she said firmly, yanking her hand away.
Nelumbella slipped. Diamond screeched and twisted on the floor. She landed on her bum. Her skirt bunched up past her knees, revealing her shoes to the gasping audience.
‘Princess,’ Charming said, wide eyed. He knelt down to her feet and took a dramatically shaped, ruby hued, slipper in his hands. The onlookers watched silently, awaiting their next move. The shoes were the largest jewels anyone in the room had seen, and it shimmered with blood. Charming removed the shoe from her foot.
‘I would not stand so close to that thing if I were you,’ said a woman.
Nelumbella was ready to run. They had forgotten about what they had seen when she was a child, but she had reminded of her deformed body due to her own carelessness. Worst of all, she no longer had the fresh skin of a child. They saw her feet in bloodied and blistered glory.
‘Show us the other one!’ the people jeered.
Tears falling, Nelumbella quailed, curling her legs inward to protect her feet from prying eyes, yet failing due to the size of her monstrous appendages. Through blurred vision, she saw Charming horrified, retreating into the crowd.
‘No princess is built like that,’ he said in disbelief.
Trachelle approached Nelumbella. Nelumbella thought her friend was coming to help, but Trachelle grabbed her ankle, attempting to pull her foot out for the audience. ‘No sense in hiding now,’ said Trachelle. Nelumbella’s strong legs kept her foot in place, but Trachelle relentlessly pulled. Nelumbella kicked Trachelle with her shoeless foot, flashing what they wanted to see, and sent Trachelle backwards.
‘We found Bigfoot,’ screeched Alveola.
‘You are an ogre! The Princess is an ogre!’ Trachelle yelled.
The bolder members of the crowd tried to force Nelumbella to reveal her feet in the same manner Trachelle had, grabbing at her legs; but one at a time, Nelumbella kicked them away with her injured, but strong, foot. She took off her other shoe as she stood, and kicked them with that foot too.
‘She is not human!’ a voice yelled.
‘Ogre! Ogre!’ the crowd chanted.
The people’s heartless behaviour appalled the King and Queen. They shouted, commanding the madness to stop, but in the commotion, their voices were lost. In panic, the Queen ran to inform a guard on what was happening. A large troop of men stormed into the ballroom to disperse and detain the guests. Those injured by Nelumbella’s feet were sent to an infirmary off the property; others were arrested. Not one person who witnessed the ordeal was permitted to remain.
As people were forced to leave, a voice stood out to Nelumbella. ‘Forgive me, Princess!’ Charming yelled, waving her shoe and trying to stand ground as he was pushed out. ‘I will return to be with you!’
Nelumbella saw an opportunity. She could finally escape. She took her remaining shoe, hiked up her skirts, and ran. Lost in the chaos, no one saw her flee. She headed downstairs. She went to the bottom floor and found the maid’s laundry empty. The hour was late, and those who remained were too curious about happenings to stay at their workstations.
Nelumbella put on a clean maid’s dress and took a cloak. She tore her ball gown into strips of silk. Knowing that her feet would give away her identity, she bound her feet the same way the women in the paintings had, contorting them into little lumps. The length and width of her feet were barely normal. Although hurting more than her diamond shoes, she did not let pain slow her. She stuffed the scraps of her dress behind a cabinet and left the laundry room.
She wobbled up the stairs and fetched Dirus from her chambers. Nelumbella found that her teetering balance hindered her ability to mount her wolf. Dirus lowered himself, and after several tries, she climbed on. With the Princess on his back, Dirus ran. They went through the back doors and through the gates, heading for the only way out they knew of.