Prince Ferdinand opened the next folder on the pile with a sigh. Some of this paperwork was ancient. Had his father ever done any paperwork? Had his grandfather? Prince Ferdinand snorted. Knowing the state of the nation’s finances before he took charge of the accounts, it wasn’t likely.
He started skimming through the papers. Wait, this was a missing person report. Wasn’t it a job for the sheriff? He read further. The baron and his household vanished a decade ago, but the lights were still on in his manor every night. No one from town was allowed inside. He’d managed all business with his tenants and the village through letters.
This could be interesting. The prince looked back down at the paperwork. Right. It was probably time for a break. He left on his fastest horse in the morning.
It was evening when he arrived. The manor did have its lights on. He knocked on the doors, but no one answered. “Open, by order of your prince,” he said in his most official voice.
The door creaked open. No one was there. He stepped inside and the door closed behind him. He heard footsteps coming down the hall. A tall man entered. He was hairy and horribly disfigured, but dressed neatly.
The prince smiled. “Hello, I am Prince Ferdinand and I am hoping to meet with the baron. He hasn’t been seen in some time and the local villagers are worried.”
The tall man huffed. “I am he.”
“Are you all right? Has something happened?” Ferdinand asked.
“Do I look all right? Have you not seen my face?” The man’s large hands were tightened into fists and he was nearly roaring the last few words.
Not for the first time, Prince Ferdinand considered the merits of spending the money to hire a personal guard. If he made it home, he’d have to speak to his advisers. Hiding his fear, he spoke in a calm, cold tone. “You claim to be a baron, yet you are yelling at your prince.”
The man seemed to shrink into himself. “I apologize. Please, come to my study and I will tell you what happened.”
They sat in the study. The prince heard the strange story and nodded. “Cursed to look like this until you fall in love with someone and they with you?” The baron looked down at his hands. “Well that’s not going to happen if you continue to stay hidden in your manor. Come back to the castle and I’ll throw a ball. My mother will be delighted to spend the money.”
The baron looked up. “But my hideous appearance?”
“Fine, it can be a masquerade ball.” The prince smiled.
‘I don’t think this will work, but it would be nice to get out for a bit.” The Baron sighed. “Come, you must be hungry. Let’s have dinner.”
They left the next day. The baron wore a cloak with a large hood. Luckily, the weather was still chilly, so no one seemed alarmed. The trip home was uneventful. They held the ball a month later.
By then, the baron had grown a little more hopeful. He still refused to look in the mirror, but he’d regained some of his confidence. He enjoyed speaking with the palace scholars and spent a lot of time in debate with the advisers in charge of defense and finance.
The ball was lovely. The queen had been so happy to throw a party again that she’d spent every moment she could on the planning and preparation. “Perhaps you’ll find someone too, Ferdinand,” she said.
“Perhaps,” Ferdinand said. “Thank you for your hard work. It looks great.”
The baron spent most of his time with a girl that had arrived late. They only danced with each other. Ferdinand hoped that the midnight unmasking wouldn’t crush the baron’s hopes.
When midnight chimed, the girl ran away. Strangely, she ran before the unmasking. The baron ran after her, but came back alone.
“What happened?” Ferdinand asked.
“I don’t know. She just left. I guess it wasn’t meant to be.” The baron sighed and pulled off his mask. His face was no longer furry and disfigured.
“She loves you,” Ferdinand said.
“She couldn’t. She left,” the baron said.
“Come here and look.” Ferdinand led the baron to a mirror. “Look.” The baron looked at his feet. Ferdinand sighed. “As your prince I command it. Look at the mirror.”
The baron looked up and patted his face with much smaller hands. “She loves me.” His eyes were wide.
“Perhaps she left early because she’s ashamed of her own looks. Would you love her if she’s ugly?” Ferdinand asked.
“Yes. But how will I find her? I don’t know what she looks like.” He slumped into a chair and then stood again and pulled something out of his pocket. He smiled. “She left this slipper. We can try it on all the girls in the kingdom. I’ll marry the girl it fits!”
“That’s ridiculous. Lots of people have feet that are the same size or nearly so. Plus, do you know how long that would take?” The prince smiled.
The baron slumped again. “You won’t help me?”
Prince Ferdinand patted his shoulder. “Of course I will.”
A voice came from the mirror and a hazy face appeared. “You mean, you’ll ask me where to find her, of course.”
The baron looked behind them, then back at he mirror. “Is that a talking mirror?”
“I’ll tell you another time. It’s a long story. Just write down what he says,” the prince said.
The baron and one of the prince’s lawyers left the next afternoon. The lawyer returned alone. “I assume it went well then,” the prince said.
“The girl’s father died without a will. The stepmother was treating the girl like a servant. She ran because she didn’t want the stepmother to know she’d come to the ball against orders,” the lawyer said.
“That’s terrible. I assume the baron swooped in to help?”
The lawyer smiled. “He proposed on the spot. I’m certain you’ll be invited to the wedding.”
“Well, that’s good.” The prince frowned. “I suppose I need to send out another reminder about the importance of estate planning. And seeking immediate help in the event of being cursed.” He sighed. “I’ll make a note of it. Time to go back to the paperwork again.”