She sat there. A sigh escaped her lips. She stared into the trees and up at the sky. They were beautiful. Looking down at her dress, she already knew this wouldn’t last. Yet she couldn’t help but continue to wonder. What would happen if she could stay here for just a moment more? What would happen if the night never ended? What would happen if she didn’t just have one more minute.
A tear escaped her eye. She didn’t want to go back home. Not in the slightest. She looked down at the glistening gown that adorned her. It was lovely. But it wasn’t hers to keep. In a few seconds, she would have to return to the life that she belonged to. Return to that world that didn’t have a shred of happiness. She continued to sit, despite knowing that she should’ve long been leaving. She couldn’t get caught in her normal clothes, not in a place like this.
She sighed. But she didn’t want to leave yet either. Even if it was just for a moment longer, she wanted to linger. It wasn’t often that she had the opportunity to see the world. The beauty around her. Regularly locked away in the safety of home, bogged down by the seemingly endless chores, it wasn’t often that she got to experience the breath of freedom.
She felt the stone beneath her. The cold fountain marble. It was so smooth. As if untarnished by the world. Beautiful. She ran a finger along its edge, admiring it’s beauty. She let out a contented breath. She stood. Though it was short, she was grateful that she was given the opportunity to have a taste of freedom and of the world’s beauty, even if it was brief.
But all things eventually come to an end. Whether she were willing or otherwise. Even if she stayed, the magic would still fade. Luckily, she wasn’t far from the place where her family left her. As long as no one caught sight of her at the moment of transition, she could explain her absence with the castle’s size as an excuse. It’s not like the maid uniform that her step-mother specially prepared for her had usable pockets anyways.
Rounding corner after corner, careful to remain out of sight as long as her dress remained unchanged, she made it back to the room assigned to her family. She let out a breath. Somehow, despite the seemingly long time that passed since she last saw the clock outside, she managed to make it back to the room before the clock struck midnight. It was empty. But that was how she expected it. The party was to last till early morning. With everyone’s interest in catching the prince’s attention, few would be interested in retiring early.
The prince. She put a hand to her chest. If she had accepted his offer…perhaps she could live a different life. She sighed. It was impossible. He didn’t know who she really was. He didn’t know what she really looked like. And she doubted his ability to grant her the life that she really wanted.
Though life in the castle was a beautiful package on the outside, with wealth and power, it was also a prison. A ruler had to ensure that they took care of their people. He would need to ensure that his peoples’ needs are satisfied, and that the general populace was happy. A marriage with a maid would never do that. Furthermore, life as a ruler meant a life within the public eye. A life without freedom. A life that she hardly wanted, and could hardly afford.
She shook her head to clear the thoughts from her mind. She couldn’t think along those lines. It was far too dangerous. Her focus should be on her sisters, rather than on herself. As long as her sisters gained a good marriage, her step-mother would let her go. Her sisters wouldn’t need a maid from home if they married into wealth, where servants were plentiful. Perhaps, this ball would be her ticket to freedom. Her sisters were beautiful. Surely, the prince’s interest wouldn’t be limited to her.
She stepped out of the room. There was no one in the hall. Perhaps, she could go help them a bit. There were too many people demanding the prince’s attention tonight. Perhaps, she could play a role in piqueing the prince’s interest in one of her sisters. With one of them married off, she would be one step closer to her goal. Considering her options, she rested her arm on the rail, and looked down toward the party.
Seeing her gloved hand, she suddenly realized that her dress was still that very same one that she had been wearing outside, only moments ago. Wait, what? Certainly a minute had long passed. It suddenly occurred to her that it was quiet. Too quiet for a party with this many people.
Looking down into the crowd, she realized that the orchestra was still. Absolutely still. It didn’t look like they were taking a break. Their musical instruments still in their playing postures, it was strange that they were just frozen in place like that. Scanning the crowd, she realized that it wasn’t just the music and the musicians, the other partygoers were equally unmoving.
She stood there for a moment. She couldn’t be caught in the transitory state, in front of everyone. If someone caught sight of it and took her as a witch, she could only expect persecution. Worse, if her step-mother found out, she would only be suspected of trying to steal opportunity from her sisters, given the prince’s sudden open interest in her. It would ruin her chances for freedom.
She waited. But no matter how long she seemed to wait, nothing seemed to change. Strange. Perhaps she was too much in a hurry. Time always seemed to pass slowly when she wasn’t enjoying herself. She would count to sixty, to be certain of the time this time.
After what was certainly sixty seconds, she descended into the crowd. To her shock, everything was just as still as it appeared from above. There wasn’t an announcement or anything. Looking around, it seemed like people were staring straight into space. She lifted her hand, waving it before the first person she could see. No reaction from any of them.
Catching sight of her own hand, she realized that after sixty seconds her glove was still there. She still hadn’t changed back. Could it be that the fairy godmother had been lying to her? Was the dress hers to keep? It didn’t matter for now. Her family didn’t seem to recognize her while she was dressed up in this manner. As long as she made it home before anyone else in her family, they shouldn’t suspect. With the current outfit, the prince probably wouldn’t object to sending a carriage for her anyways.
But why were people absolutely still? If it were a game, then why did everyone seem involved? She clapped her hands in front of another person. Once. And again. No response. Not even a flinch or a blink. Something was seriously wrong. She swatted the next person on the back. No response. It was as if everyone here were under some kind of trance.
She needed a way to contact her fairy godmother. Somehow that spell must’ve gone wrong. The woman had warned her time and time again that she had to expect for everything to return to normal at midnight. But midnight should’ve long been here, and these people should be moving. Did the parameters of the spell somehow affect everyone else?
But she hadn’t had the slightest idea on how to reach the woman. She hadn’t even meant to conjure her fairy godmother the first time. As if aware of the world’s events, the woman simply appeared to her one day, while her family wasn’t home, and gave her instructions. On the day of the ball, a dress adorned her the moment that her family stepped out of view. Curious of how it felt outside the control of her step-mother, she didn’t decline the fairy’s gift. But, in her haste, she had also forgotten to ask for a method to communicate with the woman.
Leaving everyone like this wasn’t a solution. Although she wanted her freedoms to persist, and although she didn’t exactly get along with her family, she couldn’t just leave everyone frozen like this. Perhaps the way to break the spell was somewhere nearby. She needed to search. Turning, she crashed into a figure.
“Agh!” A familiar voice shouted. Looking up, she realized that it was the prince. Wait. He wasn’t frozen either. She was pretty certain that the spell parameters didn’t include him. Her fairy godmother only told her that the spell would grant her clothes that fit the setting, give her a chance for freedom, and that everything would end at the moment that the clock struck midnight.
But she already had the clothes, and already had the opportunity to taste freedom. Though the clock shoud’ve long struck midnight, everything else fit her expectations. Could it be that the prince were somehow involved in the fairy godmother’s definition of freedom? Did that mean that the chance of freedom wasn’t the moment away from her step-mother’s gaze, as she had previously presumed? She had to help them somehow.
“What are you doing here?” The prince asked, apparently unaware of the crowd.
Her face darkened, as she nodded at the unmoving crowd. He probably wouldn’t believe her even if she mentioned the incident with the fairy godmother. And how could she tell him without revealing her identity and treatment at home? But collaborating with him might be the only way to save all these people.
“What happened to them?” He asked.
“I’m not sure, but we have to somehow save them.” She said.
“Of course.” He answered.
“Where were you earlier?” She questioned, as it suddenly occurred to her that the reason that the two of them might were unaffected might’ve had something to do with the fact that the two of them were away from the ballroom, and possibly the castle when it happened.
“Outside.” He replied, looking away.
So he hadn’t returned to the ballroom after their separation either. It was understandable, there were so many people there. She couldn’t imagine being the center of all of that attention. Especially, when much of that attention carried ulterior motives. Despite his wealth and apparent life of luxury, he was as much a prisoner as she was, wasn’t he?
She sighed. Even if she helped her sisters secure better lives for themselves, she couldn’t guarantee herself a life of freedom either. A life too wealthy, too far into the public eye, and she’d be forced to live a life of careful calculation, her every action having the potential to bear unthinkable consequences. A life too far into poverty, and financial woes would relentlessly bog her down, consuming her every moment, and following her with every decision. Was life really just one form of enslavement or another?
“Seems that only the people in the ballroom were affected.” She reported, refocusing on the situation at hand. “We should check the other areas of the castle. Perhaps we can find someone else that remains unaffected.”
“Good idea.” He answered. “If not anyone inside the castle, then at least one of the guards should be awake.”
She sighed. She couldn’t believe his lack of suspicion. Anyone else probably would’ve arrested her of witchcraft by now. Though he was hardly the crown prince, she didn’t expect someone of the royal family to have such a weak sense of self-preservation and radar for threat-detection. Still, she couldn’t help but feel relieved that he was willing to work with her.
All the partygoers that they inspected had the same symptoms. None of them seemed conscious of their environment or capable of moving. Although, with the event going on, few were likely to retire early, she still insisted on searching the castle’s interiors for someone that wasn’t participating in the party. However, even with their best efforts, they were unable to locate a single maid, guard, or any other servant wandering the castle halls. Despite the castle’s size, it felt like the entire thing, with the exception of the ballroom, was empty. Not even the King could be found. In the end, they had no other option but to check the castle’s outer perimeters, for guards that might be awake.
Although, by order, all women of the kingdom were open to participate in the ball, it was still a private event of sorts. Assassination was still a worry, and not all royals were willing to expose themselves to the threat. As a result, in spite of the apparent openness of their kingdom, the event was remained limited to the select few that had invitations. Guards were, therefore, still required, and were situated in their normal stations, regardless of the message that the proclamation seemed to suggest.
She stopped in her tracks, staring at the sight before her. Though the guards should have been watching the inside of the castle, and should’ve been aware enough to open the gates when someone inside approached, the lack of activity on their arrival suggested that something was off.
“They might have fallen asleep.” The prince suggested. “After all, it can’t be interesting staring into the night for the entirety of their shift.”
“That’s true.” She responded, though she doubted that was the case. With the importance of the guarding profession, it was questionable enough to suspect that one of the guards fall asleep during the role. Getting caught doing so, was enough to be sentenced a death penalty for negligence. And even if one guard was bored enough by their job to be unconcerned of the penalties of failing to properly carry it out, it was unlikely that all the stationed guards fell asleep.
Stepping back, she did her best to look up at the wall. Eventually, she caught sight of a helmet. A few steps further, she stopped, stunned. It couldn’t be. So then, it really did have to be the fairy godmother’s magic.
“They’re frozen too.” The prince observed, joining her.
In face of magic, what could she possibly do? Turning, she gave the clock another glance. So it really was stuck a minute away from midnight. What could she possibly do?
“Come!” She shouted, pulling the prince by the hand. If time was stopped a minute away from midnight, perhaps changing the clock would be enough to solve the problem. That clock was the main clock used by everyone in the kingdom. Not only was it the most visible clock face in the kingdom, generations have come to know that the clock was always accurate, unlike all the others that were made later. “Let’s try fixing that clock!”
“Is something wrong with the time?” The prince asked.
“When you left me, it was already near midnight.” She answered, puffing for breath, as she ran. “How can it still be 11:59? The walk from the ballroom to the front gates takes ten minutes at the shortest. And that’s not even accounting for the ten minutes that it takes to get from the garden back into the ballroom.”
“You’ve got a point.” The prince responded. “If you hadn’t brought it up, it wouldn’t have occurred to me.”
“So, we have to try to move that hand!” She declared.
Though it took some time, they eventually reached the top of the tower. Moving the hand was harder than it looked. Unfortunately, to move it forward meant that simply pressing it down wouldn’t be enough. Pushing it forward required more strength than she had thought. The strength of two people wasn’t enough. Even though the prince found the cogs that controlled it, the things seemed stuck.
“We’ve got to get this thing moving.” She whispered. Even if she couldn’t simply rest on it, perhaps, she could hold onto it and using her weight…. She launched herself forward, and grabbing onto the hand, tilted her weight in the clockwise direction. She felt her hands beginning to slip. No. She hadn’t expected it to be so hard to hold on.
“Take my hand!” The prince shouted, reaching out to her. She had thought that the royals were only attracted to appearance. After all, that was what drew him to her, wasn’t it? If not for the dress… But in those eyes, she saw genuine worry. Genuine concern. A look that she couldn’t remember seeing since her mother’s passing.
Releasing one hand from the clock hand, she reached a hand forward. If her weight wasn’t enough to make progress on the arm, then hanging on it any longer wouldn’t solve the problem. Placing a hand in his, she felt an unfamiliar sense of comfort. Was this why her sisters wanted to marry him so much? But, before he could pull her back onto the platform, she felt her grip on the clock hand slip. And down, she plunged into the darkness, taking his glove with her, watching in horror as the prince’s face faded from view.
With only black above her and below, she felt her ballgown unravel as she fell, reverting to the maid’s uniform. So the time has finally passed huh? Perhaps, this was the contribution that she would be making toward her sisters’ happiness. At least they would all be able to live on. She closed her eyes.
To her surprise, she didn’t feel any pain. Opening her eyes, she found herself back on the wishing fountain. She looked at her hand. So she really was back in the maid’s uniform. She stood, something falling from her lap. The prince’s glove. So that wasn’t all her imagination just now. Then why?
Then it occurred to her. The spell, it suggested that everything would return to normal at midnight, could it be that it was impossible for anyone to witness the transition? If that included herself, then the darkness of the tower would’ve been enough to resolve that problem. But that didn’t explain why she was able to see the initial change. And then, why did the prince not get frozen? Did that mean that the prince never took his eyes off her, despite their separation? Perhaps that was it.
She sighed. She didn’t want him to see it anyways. Things were impossible between the two of them, regardless of what his feelings were. It was better this way. Picking up the glove, she took a coin out of her pocket and threw it into the well. Wishing that everyone was well and that she would eventually get the freedom she desired, she walked back to the castle.
There, she was greeted by music and festivities fit for a ball. She smiled, glad that everything had returned to normal. Still, she couldn’t help but feel a little regret, remembering that panic and sadness that decorated the prince’s face, as he watched her fall. Perhaps in another life, in a different setting, there would be a future for the two of them. Sighing, she pushed open the door to the guest room that was assigned to her family. After the events earlier, she felt too tired to help her sisters any further.
“I’m glad you’re safe.” A familiar voice suddenly said from behind her, causing her to jump as she clicked the door shut.
“Thank you.” She answered, accepting the ungloved hand held out to her. Perhaps, freedom was just something defined by perception. Perhaps, a brand of freedom existed in every station, and in every type of life. Perhaps, finding freedom only took seeing things from the right set of lenses. She smiled. Perhaps, her freedom was closer than she imagined. Thank you, my fairy godmother.
This story was inspired by the writing prompt from the “Promptly Written” Publication.
You are waiting for the clock to strike midnight. What are you waiting for? Write a story. Restriction — The clock is stuck at 11:59 pm