#1






“A certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her,—the light which, showing the way, forbids it.”



I do not belong here, Hester thinks.

She is looking at herself in the mirror of a castle powder room, a small, poorly lit square of a room. The walls are decorated with not much else other than the slab of reflective silver in which she watches her own shadowy green eyes blink; a girl she almost doesn’t recognize looks back at her, in a wine-colored dress drawn tight around the waist, the rim of her glasses glimmering in the dim light. Her hair is twisted into its usual braids of alternating black and white. 

But in the half-darkness her freckles are lost, and the bow of her lips, and Hero, who sits on her shoulder and nibbles at a lock of pale hair impatiently. When Hester lets out her breath, it is a hard sigh that echoes against the cobblestone. Through the door, the sounds of the world still manage to filter in—the humming lilt of conversation, the sweet whine of the string quartet. The movement of the crowds as they dance through the halls stirs up another layer of gentle noise. 

But still she feels alone, removed. Hester is not even sure why, exactly she came, except for morbid curiosity, which now feels like a foolish reason to do anything at all; the longer she stands in here, the more regret she begins to feel. The crowd her is a little too highbrow, too refined, too rich, each noble wearing more jewelry at once than she owns in total. Even worse, they know. They look at her sideways, with shiftily narrowed eyes. They step much further than they need to let her pass. When she finally, meekly, pushes her way from the silent comfort of the powder room back into the bustling hallway, they even whisper a little, and two girls her age in frothy pink dresses laugh behind their hands.

Hester blows out a short breath. On her shoulder, Hero digs his little claws in deeper in an effort not to get knocked off as Hettie weaves through the dense crowd toward the buffet. The music is louder here, almost overwhelming. Everywhere she looks there is a new kind of sparkle—crystal chandeliers, gauzy swags of chiffon curtain, glittering vases filled with exotic flowers or the glint of gold rings. And the crowd is swirling like a whirlpool now as everyone splits into dancing pairs and the clicking of shoes on tile picks up speed and rhythm; Hester is nearly knocked off her feet as the heartrate of the whole room gets wilder and faster.

She presses back against the wall, out of the way of the people, and lays her hand on Hero.