The day of the ball was as bright as Gloria's spirits. The party would start in the afternoon, with the sun still shining, so that the morning's warmth foreboded the possibility of walking around the gardens of the palace before dinner and showing off her spotless skin, which she was particularly proud of and envied by Regine —who was prone to reddening and irritation—, in the presence of all those gentlemen, in a better light.
Her elder sister, on the other hand, could not take her mind off the injustice of Herta being now in the court, near the prince and the luxury she believed herself to be infinitely more entitled to. The explanation of the girl having been borrowed by her aunt, as was usual practice with the servants, did not sound convincing to her at all. And, until she could see the actual state of things with her own eyes, she could not be at ease.
In Flora's room —now, provisionally, Herta's— the day had started just as sunny, but not as full of excitement. The ball, which at a different time, when her father was still alive, would have been a source of joy and enthusiasm, was now a reason to want to abandon the only home she had known —in a hurry and forever. She opened her eyes after a night of restless —not at all refreshing— sleep.
In fact, she was so tired that she thought that blurred first vision of a young girl with long dark hair was the product of her dizziness. Then, she realized where she was and she thought it had to be one of the Duchess's maids, or any other unknown person of the palace —everyone was unknown to her there.
The girl, whose face was vaguely familiar, was looking at herself in the mirror. She turned and smiled.
‘Good morning, Herta. I'm Flora.’
The other girl sat bolt upright in bed.
‘Flora? Really?’ She gaped at her in surprise. ‘This is wonderful!’ She rubbed her eyes, trying to become fully awake. ‘Oh, you've done it!’
‘Yes.’ Her smile was widening. She couldn't hide the happiness of having turned back to her true self. ‘I did it. At last I can talk to you without having to write it all down.’
Herta got up and gave her a hug. They were virtually strangers, and yet they were the closest persons each of them had.
‘You have to do me a favor,’ Flora said. ‘My mother will be here any minute now and there's no time to lose. There's a pair of scissors in that sewing basket over there. I want you to cut my hair.’
Flora's request made Herta look at her long dark hair with even more admiration than she had at first sight, despite the shock.
‘Cut your hair? But why?’
‘It's something I have been thinking about almost since my conversion. I promised myself that, if I was ever human again, I would wear it very short.’
‘Why?’ Hair like that... it would be sacrilege to cut it.
‘Do you think it's beautiful?’
‘Of course,’ Herta answered after a short pause that indicated that it was obvious.
‘Well, that's the reason. What happened to me was the result of my mother's envy. She is much more beautiful than I am. However, I had been noticing her jealousy for some time. She was jealous of my youth, I guess. I never thought those feelings could make her be cruel to me, but they did. She was very cruel. I don't want to have anything she can be envious of.’
Herta was scared that there might be something else she would want to get rid of. Nevertheless, she did not share her concern, nor did she try to dissuade her. She went to get the scissors and began to carry out her task without delay. She didn't warn her that it was the first time she was cutting someone's hair either. She suspected that if she lost any time, Flora would do it herself and the result would, probably, be worse.
While the long, shiny locks fell to the floor before Herta's sad eyes, the duchess's daughter gave her the details of how she had managed to break the spell thanks to the notebook found by her the day before.
‘The truth is I haven't actually broken it.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I modified it.’
Flora could see Herta's confusion reflected in the mirror.
‘It occurred to me that, given the circumstances, it would be the wisest thing to do. The idea of turning into a mouse again does not appeal to me at all. But, for the time being, it may be advantageous.’
‘Are you telling me that now you can turn into a mouse whenever you want?’
‘That's right. It will be useful until I get out of here and decide where I want to go.’
‘Will you be coming with me tonight, then?’
Flora bit her lower lip, unsure.