Home > Heartless(6)

Author: Marissa Meyer

Realization hit in quick succession.

Her mother had known. Staring at her mother’s billowing white dress and her father’s matching white tuxedo, Cath realized that her mother had known all along.

Another trumpet ditty muffled in her ears. Beside her, the White Rabbit cleared his throat. ‘So devastatingly sorry to rush you, Lady Pinkerton, but there are more guests waiting to be presented . . .’

She glanced at the line that had formed behind her, more members of the gentry peeking around one another and gawking at her.

Dread settling at the base of her stomach, Catherine picked up her skirt and started towards the masses of penguins and raccoons.

The ballroom of Heart Castle had long ago been carved from a gargantuan chunk of pink quartz, from the floor to the balusters to the enormous pillars that supported the domed roof. The ceiling was painted in murals depicting various landscapes from the kingdom: the Somewhere Hills and the Nowhere Forest, the Crossroads and the castle and rolling farmlands stretching to all horizons. Even Rock Turtle Cove was depicted above the doors that led out to the rose gardens.

Large windows marched along the southern edge of the room, heart-shaped and cut from faceted red glass. The feasting table, overflowing with fruits, cheeses, and sweets, stretched the length of the north wall, beside the partition that separated the dancers from the orchestra. Crystal chandeliers encircled the ceiling, warming the walls with the light of thousands of white tapered candles. Even from the steps Cath could hear a few of the hotheaded candles ranting about the ballroom’s draughtiness and would someone please shut the door down there.

Catherine set her sights on the feasting table – a place of comfort in the crowded ballroom, even if her dress was too tight for her to eat anything. Each step was a struggle with her body pin-straight, her corset constricted against her ribs, and the bustle dragging along the stairs. She was grateful to finally feel the hard click of the ballroom floor beneath her heels.

‘My dearest Lady Catherine, I did hope you would be in attendance tonight.’

Her gratitude vanished. It figured that Margaret would latch on to her first, before she’d hardly taken two steps towards the food.

Catherine schooled her expression into delight. ‘Why, Lady Margaret! How do you do?’

Margaret Mearle, daughter of the Count of Crossroads, had been Catherine’s closest bosom friend since they were toddlers. Unfortunately, they had never much liked each other.

Margaret had the great hardship of being unbearably unattractive. Not the homely-caterpillar-waiting-to-turn-into-a-beautiful-butterfly sort of unattractive, but the sort of unattractive that gave those around her a sense of hopelessness. She had a sharp chin, tiny eyes spaced too close together and overshadowed by an overhanging brow, and broad, inelegant shoulders that were made more prominent by her ill-fitting clothes. If it weren’t for the gowns she wore, Margaret would have been frequently mistaken for a boy.

An unattractive one.

Though Margaret’s physical shortcomings were a favourite conversation topic of Catherine’s mother (‘She would not be such a very dreadful case if only she would snug up her corsets a bit more’), Catherine herself found Margaret’s personality to be far more offensive, as Margaret had been convinced since childhood that she was very, very clever and very, very righteous. More clever and more righteous than anyone else. She excelled at pointing out how much more clever and righteous she was.

Given that they were such dear friends, Margaret had long seen it as her role to point out all of Catherine’s inadequacies. In hopes of bettering her. Like any true friend would.

‘I’m quite well,’ said Margaret as they shared a mutual curtsy, ‘but I feel wretched to inform you that your dress is unduly red.’

‘Thank you so much for that insight,’ Cath said through her crushing smile. ‘I have recently made the same observation.’

Margaret’s face puckered, squinching up her small eyes. ‘I must warn you, my dearest Catherine, that such an endeavour to capture attention could lead to lifelong arrogance and vanity. It is much wiser to let your inner beauty shine through a drab gown than to attempt to conceal it with physical accoutrements.’

‘Thank you for that advice. I will keep it under consideration.’ Cath refrained from casting an unimpressed glance at Margaret’s gown, which was drab and black and topped with a sobering fur cap.

‘I hope you will. And the moral of that is “Once a goldfish, forever a goldfish.”’

The corner of Cath’s mouth twitched. That was one more of Margaret’s delightful quirks – she was a living encyclopedia of morals that Cath could never make any sense of, and she could never tell if the morals were nonsense, or if she was just too dim to understand them. No doubt Margaret would assure her it was the latter.

Not that she was going to ask.

‘Hm. So true,’ Cath agreed, scanning the nearby guests in hopes for an excuse to abandon Margaret before she built up any momentum. She could be impossible to escape from when she got to carrying on.

Not far away, Sir Magpie and his wife were drinking cordials beside a heart-shaped ice sculpture, but Catherine dared not escape to them – it could have been her imagination, but her jewellery had an uncanny way of disappearing around the Magpies.

Cath’s father was entertaining the Four, Seven, and Eight of Diamonds. Even as Cath spotted them, her father reached the climax of some joke and the Four fell on to his flat back, laughing hysterically and kicking his legs in the air. After a moment it became clear that he couldn’t get back up on his own, and the Eight reached down to help, still chuckling.

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