(For anyone interested, there is an audio recording of this piece, narrated by Mariah Avix, which can be found through the podcast 600 Second Saga at insani-x.com)
Ann poked her head out the door to the castle gardens. Her eyes widened as they adjusted to the darkness. She tiptoed out and shut the door behind her. The combined scents of lavender and sweet pea wafted toward her and her nose twitched in appreciation.
Cheery laughter drew her attention to her goal. Just one look at the pretty gowns, then she’d sneak back to her rooms to prepare for the birthday celebration. Nana would never know she was gone. She turned toward the courtyard, creeping from shadow to shadow.
Finally, she crouched behind the large sweet pea covered trellis that bordered the fire lit courtyard. All the ladies. All the gowns. And even prettier than her eight year old heart could have dreamed. Everything sparkled, like they were all floating on a sea of diamonds. A sigh escaped her lips.
A squeeze on her upper arm was her only warning before she was yanked onto her backside. She peered up toward the sky and crumpled in on herself when she saw who stood above her.
Princess Stella was several years older than her and much taller, so from Ann’s vantage point, cowering at her feet, Stella practically loomed.
“Spying on the higher class, orphan?” she sneered. “Hoping to dig up some dirt? Or perhaps you planned to soil the whole occasion with your lowly presence.”
Ann stammered. Surely Stella knew Ann had been invited, didn’t she?
“Hey, girls,” the princess called over her shoulder. “Look what I found.”
Ann clambered to her feet as Stella’s jewel encrusted friends joined them in the shadows. “I h-have as m-much right to be here as you.”
“Ha, we’ll see about that. Ladies, how much would you say that scarf is worth?”
Prices were shouted out, each more outrageous than the next and Ann’s hands darted up to cover the glittering fabric that concealed her hair and ears. Stella smirked and held up a hand to quiet the group.
“Certainly more than a petty orphan could afford, wouldn’t you say?”
This was met with snickers and jeers.
“It w-was a gift, from my father. He’s the k-king’s Ambassador.”
The snickers elevated to chuckles and guffaws. Stella’s brows rose in mock surprise.
“Oh, is he now?” Stella mocked, glancing over her shoulder at her co-conspirators.
Ann’s eyes began to sting. Stella’s eyes narrowed to slits and her lips quirked up on one side. Ann decided in that moment that she must have been a demon dressed in the princess’s body. Stella was the only one in that courtyard who knew who she was, but Stella would go to her grave before admitting their acquaintance in public.
“Nellie, what is the punishment for stealing?”
Ann’s stomach turned to sludge.
“For a first offense, cutting off the hand.”
“Well, then. It looks like you have a choice, orphan. Give me the scarf, or suffer the consequences.”
Ann gasped and clutched the scarf tighter to her head. “But I didn’t steal it. My father gave it to me.”
“Hand it over, or I’ll call the soldiers.”
She shuddered. She’d overheard stories, seen the soldiers training. Stella was a kitten compared to them. Ann lowered her hands to the knot at the nape of her neck, but paused before untying it.
Her father would be so disappointed if she lost another gift. And Ann was too ashamed to admit that Stella was taking them from her. Picturing his downcast face as he learned of her missing scarf, her gut clenched. She’d had enough.
Ann took a deep breath. She met Stella’s smug stare with icy resolve. She lowered her hands. Then spun and ran.
Shouts and crunching footsteps followed her, but she knew the gardens better than any of them. She was going to beat Stella this time.
She jumped over daffodils, ducked around azalea’s and climbed over short trellises, avoiding the paths altogether. She paused beneath some draping wisteria and held her breath. A sharp crack to her left startled her and she stumbled onto the path. Her foot crunched on gravel, giving away her location.
Panicking, she pushed her way through a row of unruly forsythia and stumbled into the courtyard. She paused as several pairs of eyes turned to her in surprise. The sparkly gowns she’d admired moments before, now surrounded her in flurries of glitter.
Then a rustling and shouting from behind made her jump and turn. A few girls from Stella’s posse tumbled out of the forsythia and spotted her. Ann bolted for the courtyard’s main doors, ignoring the shouts of the guests.
She didn’t make it more than a few steps, though, when she spotted Stella from the corner of her eye. The princess charged straight at Ann. Her feet flew, but she wasn’t fast enough. Ann felt a sharp tug on her scalp and her feet slipped as Stella yanked the scarf from her head, pulling out a handful of pins and hair along with it.
Her heart dropped into her sludgy stomach as gasps surrounded her, followed by an eerie silence. Ann turned to see Stella standing frozen. Stella stared at her like Ann’s eyeballs had fallen out of her head. Her silver scarf dripped from the princess’s fingers.
She’d always known she looked a little odd, that her hair and ears were a little different from everyone else. But she’d always thought of her oddities like having a large nose or being unusually short. Something she could be teased about, but nothing more.
Tonight, as she stared back at the horrified faces surrounding her, she finally noticed what her father had never told her. The real reason he’d always made her wear her scarves. Why she’d been privately tutored all these years.
Not a single head in that crowd bore green hair, nor did a single ear show the slightest hint of a point.
Her throat tightened more and more with each achingly silent second that passed. Then sharp footsteps drew her attention to the courtyard doors. Her father plowed through the doorway and stumbled to a stop as his terrified gaze landed on her. Her sludge soaked heart wrung itself dry. Then a gentle zephyr plucked the scarf from the ground and as it drifted past her, Ann desperately wished she could follow it to the twinkling stars.