Belle was once lady-in-waiting to the Queen -- the only woman she ever loved. When their one night together ended in scandal, Belle was sent home in shame, knowing her chance at love was lost forever. Now she can only watch from afar as the woman she loves goes through life like a planet circling a different star.
Hope returns with a mysterious note in the Queen's own handwriting, inviting Belle to try once more to win her lady's heart. With enough luck, and enough courage, she may have the chance for a happily-ever-after most people could never dream of.
But the palace is full of enemies, and with the Queen's heart still unknown, is Belle heading for victory ... or disgrace?
"Is that a gift?" Ellery leans forward, peering at my hand. "You can give it to us, Belle. We'll be sure Her Majesty gets it."
All of them are looking at me now, eyes fixed on the little red parcel I am holding. If they get it, no doubt they'll open it, and pass it between them. They will quote the inscription I wrote in sniggering voices -- bring it up whenever my name is mentioned -- work bits of it into satirical poems for as long as any of us are alive. It will become a scandalous whisper across the city -- the Queen, in fact, may be the only one who never hears of it.
"No," I say, covering the parcel with my reticule. "I'm only here to look around. In fact, I'd better be going."
"But you've only just arrived!" Anna Aneida calls merrily from the next table. She and I always got along well, so I can't tell if she's being genuine or not. "Why don't you go and sit down, Belle, and someone can bring you a cup of lemonade."
Someone titters further down the row. Definitely not genuine, then.
"I really must go," I manage to say, curtseying quickly as I step back from the table. "I hope you all enjoy your day."
Jonas Gille, who has been watching the whole proceeding with a quiet smile, at last leans forward. "You really must come back and see us again, Mistress Neumann." His voice is perfectly modulated, as always, blending with the wind in the leaves -- and yet somehow is still pitched so that everyone nearby can hear it. "Everyone was terribly disappointed when you stayed away. It's been very dull here without you to keep us all diverted." A cruel glint flashes through his eyes. "And we know Her Majesty has missed you, as well."
Jonas Gille wore the same quiet smile, and the same glint of cruelty, on the morning when I was given my dismissal by the Master of Her Majesty's Chambers. I'm quite sure that he had something to do with my invitation to leave. I wonder if he's found the influence he sought in the months that I've been gone. Somehow I doubt that he would be minding the gifts table if he had.
I think about saying something to him -- to all of these hangers-on, all constantly scrabbling for influence. They look the same as they did when I left -- except perhaps a little older, a little more worn. I suppose they'll stay here until Her Majesty dies, or until they somehow manage to disgrace themselves more spectacularly than I have. As bitter as I was when I last saw them, I can't find it in me to envy them. I, at least, have spent the last year among loved ones. So I am smiling when I say, "Good day to you, Master Gille. Good day, everyone. May Summerweek be as pleasant for you as it has been for me."
Let them make of it what they will. I don't quite know what I mean by it myself.
I do not go out the same way I came in. The picnic is too crowded, the sun too bright. I imagine I am being watched, though logically I know that only my old associates have even noticed that I'm here. I decide to leave through a smaller gate, one hidden in the trees on the east side of the garden.
To get there, I must walk through a succession of tree-shaded paths, past stone follies and waterfalls, into a small labyrinth of lovers' lanes. I tell myself that choosing this route has nothing to do with how my lady and I once walked here, meandering down the shady walks, as the others of her court played at lawn tennis and croquet. It's only the fastest way out. It is not with any hope of seeing Her Majesty that I come this way ...
And perhaps I even convince myself that this is true -- for I am truly dumbstruck when, turning a corner, I find myself standing before the Queen.
She wears a gown of deep leaf green. Red roses nestle in the coils of her hair. There are others with her -- a trio of courtiers I know only vaguely -- but I barely see them.
Her gray eyes go wide when she sees me. She takes a sharp breath.
"Your Majesty." I make a deep curtsey, keeping my eyes low. If I look at her, my heart will stop.
"Mistress Neumann." There is a hint of faintness in my lady's voice, as if she, too, were breathless.