The Palace Ball by Stuart Hughes
SAM looked at his handsome face in the mirror and smiled. He was always forgetting to do things but this time he seemed to have remembered everything: he'd scrubbed and washed, brushed his teeth, neatly combed and parted his hair, trimmed his moustache.
The smile spread across his face and Sam thought he looked more than handsome – he looked beautiful. Not that he usually thought of himself as beautiful, but tonight he was going to the palace, and if he wanted to think of himself as beautiful, then he could.
Sam crouched down and stroked a small ball of black fur: "How do I look, Mitzi?"
The cat stopped drinking, licked his hand, and then lapped more milk from her saucer. Sam straightened up, smoothed the creases out of his Sunday-best suit.
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"How do I look, Ma?"
"Like a thousand gold coins, Sam."
Sam beamed and lightly kissed his mother's cheek.
"I've never seen you looking so smart, Sam. I'm proud of you." She pointed at the clock and added, "Don't forget now."
"I won't," he said, making sure he'd remembered his pocket watch. "I'll be home by midnight."
"Don't be late, Sam."
* * *
He had to go through the forest to reach the palace. Most people were afraid of the forest, especially at night, but not Sam. He knew every leaf on every branch of every tree.
Since his father had died, almost six years ago now, he'd been hunting or fishing in the forest every day. If Sam caught something, his mother would cook it and they'd eat it. If he didn't, they went hungry. At first they went hungry a lot; now they rarely did.
He'd found the ticket to the palace ball in the forest. Sam had gone home and told Ma. He had wanted to hand the ticket in. Someone would have reported it lost, he argued, and there might be a reward for finding it.
"No," his mother had said firmly. "Only rich folks could afford to buy a ticket and if they were foolhardy enough to lose one then they could jolly well afford to buy another. This was providence," she told him. Sam had found the ticket and Sam would go to the ball.
That reminded him... Sam fumbled in his pocket to make sure the ticket was still there. It was.
The only problem had been how to make sure Sam didn't look out of place at the ball. They'd had a whole week to think about that and Ma had made him beautiful. The finishing touch had been the alterations to his Sunday-best suit.
Whistling happily to himself, Sam clutched the ticket tightly in his hand and hurried towards the palace.
* * *
Sam had thought he looked beautiful earlier and he didn't appear to be the only one who thought so. At the ball, all the young ladies seemed to be looking at him and fluttering their eyelashes. All of them: the not-so-pretty ones, the pretty ones and, on one occasion, even the Princess herself.
Sam swigged down a couple of flagons of mead and then started to ask the young ladies to dance. He started with the not-so-pretty ones, before moving on to the pretty ones, as his confidence grew with the accumulation of admiring glances and mead.
Sam lost count of how many dances he danced and how many young ladies he danced with. He escorted his partners to the dance floor, held them close, waltzed or quick-stepped or foxtrotted with them, surprised them as the music stopped by kissing them full on the lips, said "Thank you," and then went and found a different partner for the next dance.
Sam was having a wonderful time.
He also lost count of how many flagons of mead he'd drunk. As the evening wore on, his dancing got better and better, while Sam got merrier and merrier.
As midnight approached, Sam was glancing around the ballroom, trying to find a pretty one he hadn't danced with, when he spotted the Princess. She looked beautiful in her flowing blue ball gown. Sam wanted to dance with her.
"Excuse me, Your Highness," Sam said as graciously as he could. "May I have the honour of this waltz?"
The Princess stopped fanning herself and stared at him with a surprised look.
Sam bowed slowly and then beamed his best smile.
At that moment, the ballroom clock struck twelve and the smile dropped from Sam's face as he remembered his mother's warning that he should be home by midnight.
The Princess stepped back, her hands covering her eyes, and screamed.
Sam turned and fled. He didn't need a mirror to tell him that his neatly parted hair was now long and bristly, sprouting all over his face. He could feel his jawbone elongating as he ran. Long, yellow-stained fangs pushed through his bottom lip and his own blood dribbled down his chin. Horns grew from his nose, twisting in front of his eyes, hindering his sight.
As he ran down the palace steps, his Sunday-best suit flapping around him in tattered rags, the large hump returned to his back, buckling him under its weight.
Sam hurried towards the sanctuary of the forest.
Ma had told him the spell would only last until midnight and now he was his ugly, hideous self again.