After the ball was over, all that was left were ash and cinders.
I was just a servant. My job was to be as quiet and invisible as possible as I refilled the guest's goblets and wine glasses. I saw so many guests, all dressed in their brightly colored finery; princes and dignitaries, duchesses and regents. Twenty boars had been killed and cooked for this ball and their apple-stuffed faces looked at me as I passed them by.
I, like the rest of the servants, was nobody. Just someone trying to earn an honest living. The servants were all dressed in black, with the same black half-masks, so everyone would know who we were. The guests, on the other hand, had a variety of masks to choose from—everything from small diamond masks to elaborate face masks made from porcelain and gold.
Everyone noticed when she stepped into the room. How could we not? She was the most beautiful among them. Her dress was a golden yellow and her hair was a deep red.
But though she looked like them, she did not act like them. I later learned that she was a simple servant girl from a different house who scrubbed and cleaned. How she had managed to make such a gorgeous dress I do not know—perhaps it was magic. Perhaps whatever entity possessed her that night made it for her.
In any case, she tried to fit in, but could not. It was plainly obvious to the rest that, despite her beauty, she wasn't one of them. In fact, her beauty caused them to be more cruel in their whispers, creating more lies for their rumors.
If this was a fairy tale, the night would end with her dancing with a prince and losing a shoe. But this is not a fairy tale. The night ended when one of the guests—perhaps he was a prince, I do not know—got a bit too drunk and decided that he wanted her and tried to take her.
She resisted and pushed him away, but the damage had been done already. More whispers, more cruel lies surrounded her. As she tried to slip away, someone grabbed her dress and ripped it. She looked down at the rip, her mask slowly slipping from her face.
Someone must have recognized her—perhaps someone from the house she cleaned was at the ball, I do not know—for the whispers intensified.
I thought perhaps I should do something then, perhaps lead her outside, to protect her, to shield her. But I did nothing. Sometimes I wonder if I should have stayed and become ash with the others. I deserve it, for doing nothing.
Her mask was gone and her face was a vision of beauty and sadness and pain. She looked around at the various guests and then looked up. "You were right," she said. "You were right."
Then her face looked down upon us and her sadness had transformed into something else: anger. She was someone else at that point. Her body glowed incandescently, as if she was hot metal on an iron. She raised her arms, her hands upturned, and sparks flashes from her fingertips. The sparks caught on her dress and it went up in flames. She laughed and twirled around, the fire spreading out from her like waves. She was beautiful and deadly. Those closest to her burned first, then the rest. The fire seemed to be alive even as we ran. It caught those behind me with tendrils of flame.
I do not know exactly why I was able to leave and the others were not. Perhaps she wanted someone to spread the story. Perhaps she simply did not care enough to kill me.
All I can remember as I ran is the heat and the sound of her laughter. And after the ball was over, when all that was left were ash and cinders, as the smoke curled around me, all I could do was shiver.