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before Alice went to wonderland and met the red queen
before Alice went to wonderland and met the red queen
07 July 2020 (16:38)
The link is deleted?
30 November 2020 (13:02)
Margarida Ferreira de Lima
Cried like a child watching a series of bloody murders. Read at thy own heart's risk.
19 May 2021 (07:33)
I blame catherine's parents lol
28 May 2021 (04:27)
This book was sooo good. I got so sad in the end.
05 June 2021 (18:34)
Hmmm I'm getting bad vibes of this book from these reviews. I really hate sad endings. I'll come back once I've read it.
12 June 2021 (16:29)
I'm so dumb. This is about the queen of hearts, of course itd have a sad ending. Well it started off really well. Things were good, except Catherine had no spine which annoyed me greatly. She says so herself that shes a coward. Jest is such a wonder. He's a great guy.
Also, how hard is it to not go through a door?
Also, how hard is it to not go through a door?
13 June 2021 (10:01)
Begin Reading Table of Contents About the Author Copyright Page Thank you for buying this Feiwel and Friends ebook. To receive special offers, bonus content, and info on new releases and other great reads, sign up for our newsletters. Or visit us online at us.macmillan.com/newslettersignup For email updates on the author, click here. The author and publisher have provided this e-book to you for your personal use only. You may not make this e-book publicly available in any way. Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author’s copyright, please notify the publisher at: us.macmillanusa.com/piracy. For Mom I pictured to myself the Queen of Hearts as a sort of embodiment of ungovernable passion— a blind and aimless Fury. —LEWIS CARROLL CHAPTER 1 THREE LUSCIOUS LEMON TARTS glistened up at Catherine. She reached her towel-wrapped hands into the oven, ignoring the heat that enveloped her arms and pressed against her cheeks, and lifted the tray from the hearth. The tarts’ sunshine filling quivered, as if glad to be freed from the stone chamber. Cath held the tray with the same reverence one might reserve for the King’s crown. She refused to take her eyes from the tarts as she padded across the kitchen floor until the tray’s edge landed on the baker’s table with a satisfying thump. The tarts trembled for a moment more before falling still, flawless and gleaming. Setting the towels aside, she picked through the curled, sugared lemon peels laid out on parchment and arranged them like rose blossoms on the tarts, settling each strip into the still-warm center. The aromas of sweet citrus and buttery, flaky crust curled beneath her nose. She stepped back to admire her work. The tarts had taken her all morning. Five hours of weighing the butter and sugar and flour, of mixing and kneading and rolling the dough, of whisking and simmering and straining the egg yolks and lemon juice until they were thick a; nd creamy and the color of buttercups. She had glazed the crust and crimped the edges like a lace doily. She had boiled and candied the delicate strips of lemon peel and ground sugar crystals into a fine powder for garnish. Her fingers itched to dust the tart edges now, but she refrained. They had to cool first, or else the sugar would melt into unattractive puddles on the surface. These tarts encompassed everything she had learned from the tattered recipe books on the kitchen shelf. There was not a hurried moment nor a careless touch nor a lesser ingredient in those fluted pans. She had been meticulous at every step. She had baked her very heart into them. Her inspection lingered, her eyes scanning every inch, every roll of the crust, every shining surface. Finally, she allowed herself a smile. Before her sat three perfect lemon tarts, and everyone in Hearts—from the dodo birds to the King himself—would have to recognize that she was the best baker in the kingdom. Even her own mother would be forced to admit that it was so. Her anxiety released, she bounced on her toes and squealed into her clasped hands. “You are my crowning joy,” she proclaimed, spreading her arms wide over the tarts, as if bestowing a knighthood upon them. “Now I bid you to go into the world with your lemony scrumptiousness and bring forth smiles from every mouth you grace with your presence.” “Speaking to the food again, Lady Catherine?” “Ah-ah, not just any food, Cheshire.” She lifted a finger without glancing back. “Might I introduce to you the most wondrous lemon tarts ever to be baked within the great Kingdom of Hearts!” A striped tail curled around her right shoulder. A furry, whiskered head appeared on her left. Cheshire purred thoughtfully, the sound vibrating down her spine. “Astounding,” he said, in that tone he had that always left Cath unsure whether he was mocking her. “But where’s the fish?” Cath kissed the sugar crystals from her fingers and shook her head. “No fish.” “No fish? Whatever is the point?” “The point is perfection.” Her stomach tingled every time she thought of it. Cheshire vanished from her shoulders and reappeared on the baking table, one clawed paw hovering over the tarts. Cath jumped forward to shoo him back. “Don’t you dare! They’re for the King’s party, you goose.” Cheshire’s whiskers twitched. “The King? Again?” Stool legs screeched against the floor as Cath dragged a seat closer to the table and perched on top of it. “I thought I’d save one for him and the others can be served at the feasting table. It makes His Majesty so happy, you know, when I bake him things. And a happy king—” “Makes for a happy kingdom.” Cheshire yawned without bothering to cover his mouth and, grimacing, Cath held her hands in between him and the tarts to protect from any distasteful tuna breath. “A happy king also makes for a most excellent testimonial. Imagine if he were to declare me the official tart baker of the kingdom! People will line up for miles to taste them.” “They smell tart.” “They are tarts.” Cath turned one of the fluted pans so the blossom of the lemon-peel rose was aligned with the others. She was always mindful of how her treats were displayed. Mary Ann said her pastries were even more beautiful than those made by the royal pastry chefs. And after tonight, her desserts would not only be known as more beautiful, they would be known as superior in every way. Such praise was exactly what she and Mary Ann needed to launch their bakery. After so many years of planning, she could feel the dream morphing into a reality. “Are lemons in season this time of year?” asked Cheshire, watching Cath as she swept up the leftover lemon peels and tied them in cheesecloth. The gardeners could use them to keep pests away. “Not exactly,” she said, smiling to herself. Her thoughts stole back to that morning. Pale light filtering through her lace curtains. Waking up to the smell of citrus in the air. Part of her wanted to keep the memory tucked like a secret against her chest, but Cheshire would find out soon enough. A tree sprouting up in one’s bedroom overnight was a difficult secret to keep. Cath was surprised the rumors hadn’t yet spread, given Cheshire’s knack for gossip-gathering. Perhaps he’d been too busy snoozing all morning. Or, more likely, having his belly rubbed by the maids. “They’re from a dream,” she confessed, carrying the tarts to the pie safe where they could finish cooling. Cheshire sat back on his haunches. “A dream?” His mouth split open into a wide, toothy grin. “Do tell.” “And have half the kingdom knowing about it by nightfall? Absolutely not. I had a dream and then I woke up and there was a lemon tree growing in my bedroom. That is all you need to know.” She slammed the pie safe shut with finality, as much to silence herself as to prevent further questions. The truth was, the dream had been clinging to her skin from the moment she’d woken up, haunting and tantalizing her. She wanted to talk about it, almost as much as she wanted to keep it locked up and all to herself. It had been a hazy, beautiful dream, and in it there had been a hazy, beautiful boy. He was dressed all in black and standing in an orchard of lemon trees, and she had the distinct sensation that he had something that belonged to her. She didn’t know what it was, only that she wanted it back, but every time she took a step toward him he receded farther and farther away. A shiver slipped down the back of her dress. She could still feel the curiosity that tugged at her chest, the need to chase after him. But mostly it was his eyes that haunted her. Yellow and shining, sweet and tart. His eyes had been bright like lemons ready to fall from a tree. She shook away the wispy memories and turned back to Cheshire. “By the time I woke up, a branch from the tree had already pulled one of the bedposts full off. Of course, Mama made the gardeners take it down before it did any more damage, but I was able to sneak away some lemons first.” “I wondered what the hullabaloo was about this morning.” Cheshire’s tail flicked against the butcher block. “Are you sure the lemons are safe for consumption? If they sprouted from a dream, they could be, you know, that kind of food.” Cath’s attention drifted back to the closed pie safe, the tarts hidden behind its wire mesh. “You’re worried that the King might become shorter if he eats one?” Cheshire snorted. “On the contrary, I’m worried that I will turn into a house should I eat one. I’ve been minding my figure, you know.” Giggling, Cath leaned over the table and scratched him beneath his chin. “You’re perfect no matter your size, Cheshire. But the lemons are safe—I bit one before I started baking.” Her cheeks puckered at the sour memory. Cheshire had started to purr, already ignoring her. Cath cupped her chin with her free hand while Cheshire flopped deliriously onto one side and her strokes moved down to his belly. “Besides, if you ever did eat some bad food, I could still find a use for you. I’ve always wanted a cat-drawn carriage.” Cheshire opened one eye, his pupil slitted and unamused. “I would dangle balls of yarn and fish bones out in front to keep you moving.” He stopped purring long enough to say, “You are not as cute as you think you are, Lady Pinkerton.” Cath tapped Cheshire once on the nose and pulled away. “You could do your disappearing trick and then everyone would think, My, my, look at the glorious bulbous head pulling that carriage down the street!” Cheshire was fully glaring at her now. “I am a proud feline, not a beast of labor.” He disappeared with a huff. “Don’t be cross. I’m only teasing.” Catherine untied her apron and draped it on a hook on the wall, revealing a perfect apron-shaped silhouette on her dress, outlined in flour and bits of dried dough. “By-the-bye.” His voice drifted back to her. “Your mother is looking for you.” “What for? I’ve been down here all morning.” “Yes, and now you’re going to be late. Unless you’re going as a lemon tart yourself, you’d better get on with it.” “Late?” Catherine glanced at the cuckoo clock on the wall. It was still early afternoon, plenty of time to— Her pulse skipped as she heard a faint wheezing coming from inside the clock. “Oh! Cuckoo, did you doze off again?” She smacked her palm against the clock’s side and the door sprang open, revealing a tiny red bird, fast asleep. “Cuckoo!” The bird startled awake with a mad flap of his wings. “Oh my, oh heavens,” he squawked, rubbing his eyes with the tips of his wings. “What time is it?” “Whatever are you asking me for, you doltish bird?” With a harried groan, Catherine ran from the kitchen, crashing into Mary Ann on the stairwell. “Cath—Lady Catherine! I was coming to … the Marchioness is—” “I know, I know, the ball. I lost track of time.” Mary Ann gave her a fast head-to-toe glance and grabbed her wrist. “Best get you cleaned up before she sees you and calls for both of our heads.” CHAPTER 2 MARY ANN CHECKED that the Marchioness wasn’t around the corner before ushering Cath into the bedroom and shutting the door. The other maid, Abigail, was there already, dressed identical to Mary Ann in a demure black dress and white apron, attempting to swat a rocking-horsefly out the open window with a broom. Every time she missed, it would nicker and whip its mane to either side, before flying back up toward the ceiling. “These pests will be the death of me!” Abigail growled to Mary Ann, swiping the sweat from her brow. Then, realizing that Catherine was there too, she dropped into a lopsided curtsy. Catherine stiffened. “Abigail—!” Her warning was too late. A pair of tiny rockers clomped over the back of Abigail’s bonnet before the horse darted back up toward the ceiling. “Why, you obnoxious little pony!” Abigail screeched, swinging her broom. Cringing, Mary Ann dragged Catherine into the powder room and shut the door. Water had already been drawn in a pitcher on the washing stand. “There isn’t time for a bath, but let’s not tell your mother that,” she said, fiddling with the back of Catherine’s muslin dress while Cath dipped a washcloth into the pitcher. She furiously scrubbed the flour from her face. How had she managed to get it behind her ears? “I thought you were going into town today,” she said, letting Mary Ann peel off her dress and chemise. “I did, but it was fabulously dull. All anyone wanted to talk about was the ball, as if the King doesn’t have a party every other day.” Taking the washcloth, Mary Ann scrubbed Catherine’s arms until her flesh was pink, then spritzed her with rose water to cover up the lingering aroma of pastry dough and oven fires. “There was a lot of talk about a new court joker who will be making his debut tonight. Jack was bragging about how he’s going to steal his hat and smash the bells as a sort of initiation.” “That seems very childish.” “I agree. Jack is such a knave.” Mary Ann helped Catherine into a new chemise, before pushing her down onto a stool and running a brush through her dark hair. “I did hear one bit of interesting news though. The cobbler is retiring and will be leaving his storefront empty by the end of this month.” With a twist, a dish full of pins, and a touch of beeswax, a lovely chignon rested at the nape of Catherine’s neck and her face was haloed by a cluster of jovial curls. “The cobbler? On Main Street?” “The very one.” Mary Ann spun Cath around, her voice dropping to a whisper. “When I heard it, I immediately thought what a fine location it would be. For us.” Cath’s eyes widened. “Sweet hearts, you’re right. Right next to that toy shop—” “And just down the hill from that quaint white chapel. Think of all the wedding cakes you’d be making.” “Oh! We could do a series of different-flavored cobblers for our grand opening, in honor of the shoemaker. We’ll start with the classics—blueberry cobbler, peach cobbler—but then, imagine the possibilities. A lavender-nectarine cobbler one day, and the next, a banana-butterscotch cobbler, topped with graham cracker crumble and—” “Stop it!” Mary Ann laughed. “I haven’t had supper yet.” “We should go look at it, don’t you think? Before word gets out?” “I thought so too. Maybe tomorrow. But your mother…” “I’ll tell her we’re going shopping for new ribbons. She won’t mind.” Cath swayed on the balls of her feet. “By the time she finds out about the bakery, we’ll be able to show her what a tremendous business opportunity it is and even she won’t be able to deny it.” Mary Ann’s smile turned tight. “I don’t think it’s the business opportunity she’s bound to disapprove of.” Cath flitted away her concern, although she knew Mary Ann was right. Her mother would never approve of her only daughter, the heir to Rock Turtle Cove, going into the men’s world of business, especially with a humble servant like Mary Ann as her partner. Besides, baking was a job fit for servants, her mother would say. And she would loathe the idea that Cath planned on using her own marriage dowry in order to open the business herself. But she and Mary Ann had been dreaming of it for so long, she sometimes forgot that it wasn’t yet reality. Her pastries and desserts were already becoming renowned throughout the kingdom, and the King himself was her grandest fan, which might have been the only reason her mother tolerated her hobby at all. “Her approval won’t matter,” Cath said, trying to convince herself as much as Mary Ann. The idea of her mother being angry over this decision, or worse, disowning her, made her stomach curdle. But it wouldn’t come to that. She hoped. She lifted her chin. “We’re going forward with or without my parents’ approval. We are going to have the best bakery in all of Hearts. Why, even the White Queen will travel here when she hears word of our decadent chocolate tortes and blissfully flaky currant scones.” Mary Ann bunched her lips to one side, doubtful. “That reminds me,” Cath continued. “I have three tarts cooling in the pie safe right now. Could you bring them tonight? Oh, but they still need a dusting of powdered sugar. I left some on the table. Just a teeny, tiny bit.” She pinched her fingers in example. “Of course I can bring them. What kind of tarts?” “Lemon.” A teasing smile crept up Mary Ann’s face. “From your tree?” “You heard about it?” “I saw Mr. Gardiner planting it under your window this morning and had to ask where it came from. All that hacking they had to do to get it unwound from your bedposts, and yet it seemed no worse for wear.” Catherine wrung her hands, not sure why talking about her dream tree made her self-conscious. “Well, yes, that’s where I got my lemons, and I’m certain these tarts are my best yet. By tomorrow morning, all of Hearts will be talking about them and longing to know when they can buy our desserts for themselves.” “Don’t be silly, Cath.” Mary Ann pulled a corset over Cath’s head. “They’ve been asking that since you made those maple–brown sugar cookies last year.” Cath wrinkled her nose. “Don’t remind me. I overcooked them, remember? Too crisp on the edges.” “You’re too harsh a critic.” “I want to be the best.” Mary Ann settled her hands on Cath’s shoulders. “You are the best. And I’ve calculated the numbers again—with the expected costs attached to Mr. Caterpillar’s shop, monthly expenses, and the cost of ingredients, all measured against our planned daily output and pricing. Adjusted to allow some room for error, I still think we would be profitable in under a year.” Cath clapped her hands over her ears. “You take all the fun out of it with your numbers and mathematics. You know how they make my head spin.” Mary Ann sniffed and turned away, opening the wardrobe. “You have no trouble converting tablespoons into cups. It’s not all that different.” “It is different, which is why I need you on this venture. My brilliant, oh-so-logical business partner.” She could almost feel Mary Ann’s eyes roll. “I’d like to get that in writing, Lady Catherine. Now, I seem to recall we had chosen the white gown for tonight?” “Whichever you think.” Stifling the fantasy of their future bakery, Cath set to clipping a set of pearls to her earlobes. “So?” Mary Ann asked as she pulled a pair of drawers and a petticoat from the wardrobe, then urged Cath to turn around so she could adjust the corset laces. “Was it a good dream?” Cath was surprised to find that she still had pastry dough beneath her fingernails. Picking at it gave her a good excuse to keep her head lowered, hiding the blush that crept up her throat. “Nothing too special,” she said, thinking of lemon-yellow eyes. She gasped as the corset tightened unexpectedly, squeezing her rib cage. “I can tell when you’re lying,” said Mary Ann. “Oh, fine. Yes, it was a good dream. But they’re all magical, aren’t they?” “I wouldn’t know. I’ve never had one. Though Abigail told me that once she dreamed about a big glowing crescent shape hovering in the sky … and the next morning Cheshire showed up, all grinning teeth hovering in the air and begging for a saucer of milk. Years later and we still can’t seem to get rid of him.” Cath grunted. “I’m fond of Cheshire, yet I can’t help but hope that my dream might portend something a bit more magical than that.” “Even if it doesn’t, at least you got some good lemons out of it.” “True. I shall be satisfied.” Though she wasn’t. Not nearly. “Catherine!” The door swung open and the Marchioness floated in, her eyes saucer-wide and her face purple-red despite having been recently powdered. Catherine’s mother lived her life in a state of constant bewilderment. “There you are, my dear darling! What are you—not even dressed yet?” “Oh, Mama, Mary Ann was just helping me—” “Abigail, stop playing with that broom and get in here! We need your help! Mary Ann, what is she wearing?” “My lady, we thought the white gown that she—” “Absolutely not! Red! You will wear the red dress.” Her mother swung open the wardrobe doors and pulled out a full gown overflowing with heavy red velvet, an enormous bustle, and a neckline that was sure to leave little unexposed. “Yes, perfect.” “Oh, Mama. Not that dress. It’s too small!” Her mother picked a waxy green leaf off the bed and draped the dress across the covers. “No, no, no, not too small for my precious little sweetling. This is going to be a very special night, Catherine, and it’s imperative that you look your best.” Cath traded a glance with Mary Ann, who shrugged. “But it’s just another ball. Why don’t I—” “Tut-tut, child.” Her mother scurried across the room and framed Cath’s face in both hands. Though her mother was bony as a bird, there was no sense of delicacy as she pinched and squeezed Cath’s face. “You are in for such a delight this evening, my pretty girl.” Her eyes glimmered in a way that made Catherine suspicious, before she barked, “Now turn around!” Catherine jumped and spun to face the window. Her mother, who had become the Marchioness when she married, had that effect on everyone. She was often a warm, loving woman, and Cath’s father, the Marquis, doted on her incessantly, but Cath was all too familiar with her mood swings. All cooing and delighted one moment and screaming at the top of her lungs the next. Despite her tiny stature, she had a booming voice and a particular glare that could make even a lion’s heart shrivel beneath it. Cath thought by now she would have been used to her mother’s temperament, but the frequent changes still took her by surprise. “Mary Ann, tighten her corset.” “But, my lady, I just—” “Tighter, Mary Ann. This dress won’t fit without a twenty-two-inch waist, although just once I’d like to see you down to twenty. You have your father’s unfortunate bones, you know, and we must be vigilant if we’re to keep from having his figure too. Abigail, be a dear and bring me the ruby set from my jewelry cabinet.” “The ruby set?” Catherine whined as Mary Ann undid the corset laces. “But those earrings are so heavy.” “Don’t be such a jellyfish. It’s only for one night. Tighter!” Catherine pinched her face together as Mary Ann tugged on the corset strings. She exhaled as much air as she could and gripped the side of the vanity, willing away the sparkles dancing before her eyes. “Mother, I can’t breathe.” “Well then, next time, I hope you’ll think twice before taking a second helping of dessert like you did last night. You can’t eat like a piglet and dress like a lady. It will be a miracle if this dress fits.” “We could—wear—the white one?” Her mother crossed her arms. “My daughter will be wearing red tonight like a true … never you mind that. You’ll just have to go without dinner.” Cath groaned as Mary Ann cinched the corset one more time. Having to suffer through the bindings was bad enough, but going without dinner too? The food was what she looked forward to most during the King’s parties, and all she’d eaten that day was a single boiled egg—she’d been too caught up with her baking to think about eating more. Her stomach growled in its confinement. “Are you all right?” Mary Ann whispered. She bobbed her head, not wanting to waste any precious air to speak. “Dress!” Before Catherine could catch her breath she found herself being squashed and wrangled into the red velvet monstrosity. When the maids had finished and Catherine dared to peek into the mirror, she was relieved that, while she may have felt like an encased sausage, she didn’t look like one. The bold color brought out the red in her lips and made her fair skin appear fairer and her dark hair darker. When Abigail settled the enormous necklace onto her collarbone and replaced her pearls with dangling rubies, Catherine felt, momentarily, like a true lady of the court, all glamour and mystery. “Marvelous!” The Marchioness clasped Catherine’s hand in both of hers, that peculiar, misty-eyed look returning. “I’m so proud of you.” Catherine frowned. “You are?” “Oh, don’t start fishing now.” Her mother clucked her tongue, patting the back of Cath’s hand once before dropping it. Catherine eyed her reflection again. The mystique was quickly fading, leaving her feeling exposed. She would have preferred a nice, roomy day dress, covered in flour or not. “Mama, I’ll be overdressed. No one else will be so done up.” Her mother sniffed. “Precisely. You look exceptional!” She wiped away a tear. “I could scatter to pieces.” Despite all her discomfort, all her reservations, Cath couldn’t deny a hot spark behind her sternum. Her mother’s voice was a constant nag in her head, telling her to put down the fork, to stand up straight, to smile, but not that much! She knew her mother wanted the best for her, but it was oh so lovely to hear compliments for once. With one last dreamy sigh, the Marchioness mentioned checking on Cath’s father before she fluttered out of the room, dragging Abigail along with her. As the door to her chambers closed, Cath yearned to fall onto her bed with the exhaustion that came from being in her mother’s presence, but she was sure she would rip an important seam if she did. “Do I look as ridiculous as I feel?” Mary Ann shook her head. “You look ravishing.” “Is it absurd to look ravishing at this silly ball? Everyone will think I’m being presumptuous.” Mary Ann pressed her lips in apology. “It is a bit of butter upon bacon.” “Oh, please, I’m hungry enough as it is.” Cath twisted inside the corset, trying to pry up some of the boning that dug into her ribs, but it wouldn’t budge. “I need a chocolate.” “I’m sorry, Cath, but I don’t think that dress could fit a single bite. Come along. I’ll help you into your shoes.” CHAPTER 3 THE WHITE RABBIT, master of ceremonies, stood at the top of the stairs with a puffed-up chest, smiling twittishly as Catherine’s father handed him their announcement card. “Good eve, good eve, Your Lordship! What a stunning cravat you’re wearing tonight, so perfectly matches your hair. Like snowfall on a balding hill, is how I’d describe that.” “Do you think so, Mr. Rabbit?” asked Cath’s father, pleased with the compliment. He spent a moment patting his head, as if to confirm the flattery. The Rabbit’s gaze darted to the Marchioness. “My dear Lady Pinkerton, I’m sure my eyes have never seen such rare beauty, such outstanding elegance—” The Marchioness brushed him off. “Get on with it, herald.” “Er, of course, I am your humble servant, my lady.” Flustered, the Rabbit stuck his ears straight up and raised a trumpet to his mouth. As the ditty echoed throughout the ballroom, he proclaimed: “Presenting Whealagig T. Pinkerton, the most honorable Marquess of Rock Turtle Cove, accompanied by his wife, Lady Idonia Pinkerton, Marchioness of Rock Turtle Cove, and daughter, Lady Catherine Pinkerton!” As the Marquess and Marchioness descended the steps into the ballroom, the White Rabbit’s pinkish eyes skipped to Catherine, widening as they took in her voluminous red gown. His nose twitched with repugnance, but he was quick to mask it under another sycophantic grin. “Why, Lady Pinkerton, you look so … er. So very noticeable.” Cath attempted a faint smile and moved to follow her parents down the steps, but as soon as she looked down into the ballroom she gasped and reeled back. A sea of black and white stretched before her. Ivory-tailed dress coats and ebony elbow gloves. Pale starfish fascinators and crow-feather bow ties. Chessboard leggings. Zebra face masks. Black velvet skirts trimmed in rhinestones and icicles. Even some of the Diamond courtiers had pasted black spades onto their stomachs to disguise their identifying red marks. Noticeable, indeed. There was still the rare spot of red in the crowd—a rose tucked into a buttonhole or a ribbon lacing the back of a gown—but Cath alone wore red from head to toe. As if her dress weren’t enough, she felt sudden redness rushing up her neck and across her cheeks. She felt eyes snagging on her, heard the intake of breaths, sensed the glower of distaste. How could her mother not have known this was one of the King’s black-and-white balls? 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 toward 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 draftiness 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 toward 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 favorite 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 endeavor 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 jewelry 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 onto 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. Catherine sighed—she had never been skilled at slipping easily into a joke half told. And then there was the Most Noble Pygmalion Warthog, Duke of Tuskany. Cath had often found him to be awkward and distant and a terrible conversationalist. As their eyes met, she was surprised to find that he was watching her and Margaret. She wasn’t sure which of them turned away first. “Are you looking for someone, Lady Catherine?” Margaret inched closer—uncomfortably close, settling her chin on Cath’s shoulder—and followed her gaze. “No, no, I was only … observing.” “Observing whom?” “Well. That’s a fine waistcoat the Duke is wearing tonight, don’t you think?” she asked, aiming for civility as she inched out from beneath Margaret’s chin. Margaret curled her nose in disgust. “How could anyone notice his waistcoat? When I look at the Duke, all I see is the way he insists on turning up his nose at everyone else, as if being the Duke of Tuskany were any great achievement.” Cath cocked her head. “I think his nose does that naturally.” She pressed a finger to her own nose and pushed upward, testing it out. It didn’t make her feel elitist … Margaret blanched. “For shame, Catherine. You can’t go around mocking everyone else like that! At least, not in public.” “Oh! I didn’t mean to cause offense. It’s just sort of snout-like is all. He probably has an excellent sense of smell. I wonder whether he couldn’t track down truffles with a nose like that.” Cath was spared from her defense by a rough tap against her shoulder. She turned and found herself staring at a black tunic covering a puffed-up chest. Her gaze traveled upward to a scowling face half hidden by a single eye-patch and messy hair peeking out of a white beret. Jack, the Knave of Hearts, who had been knighted out of pity after losing his right eye in a game of charades. Her mood sank even further. This ball was off to the most horrible of starts. “Hello, Jack.” “Lady Pinkerton,” he drawled, his breath smelling of mulled wine. His eye darted toward Margaret. “Lady Mearle.” Margaret folded her arms over her chest. “It is of intolerable impoliteness to interrupt a conversation, Jack.” “I came to tell Lady Pinkerton that this is a black-and-white ball.” Cath lowered her eyes and tried to look sheepish, though with every reminder she was becoming less embarrassed and more annoyed. “There seems to have been some miscommunication.” “You look stupid,” said Jack. Catherine bristled. “There’s no cause for rudeness.” Jack huffed, scanning her dress again. And again. “You’re not half as lovely as you think you are, Lady Pinkerton. Not a quarter as lovely even, and I’ve only got one eye to see it.” “I assure you I don’t—” “Everyone thinks as much, just won’t say it to your face like I will. But I’m not afraid of you, not one little bit.” “I never said—” “I don’t even like you all that very much.” Catherine pressed her lips tight and inhaled a patient breath. “Yes, I do believe you told me that the last time I saw you, Jack. And the time before that. And the time before that. You’ve been reminding me how much you dislike me since we were six years old and dressing up the maypole, if I recall correctly.” “Yes. Right. Because it’s true.” Jack’s cheeks had reddened. “Also, you smell like a daisy. Except, one of those awful, stinky ones.” “Naturally, one of those,” said Catherine. “Heaven forbid I mistake that for a compliment.” Jack grunted, then reached up and pulled on one of her curls. “Ow!” The Knave had swiveled on his feet and marched away before Catherine could think of a response, though she would later wish she had taken the opportunity to give him a good kick in the shins. “What an oaf,” Margaret said after he had gone. “He most certainly is,” agreed Catherine, rubbing her scalp and wondering how long she’d been there and how much longer she would have to stay. “Of course,” Margaret continued, “it is most deplorable of you to encourage such oafish behavior.” Catherine spun toward her, aghast. “I do not encourage it.” “If that’s what you believe, I suppose we must agree to be disagreeable,” said Margaret. “And the moral of that is—” But before she could extrapolate some nonsensical proof of ill behavior, a blare of a trumpet echoed through the ballroom. At the top of the steps, the White Rabbit proclaimed in his nasally voice— “PRESENTING HIS ROYAL MAJESTY THE KING OF HEARTS.” The White Rabbit blew the horn again, then tucked the instrument against his side and bowed. Cath turned with the rest of the guests as the King emerged at the top of his own private staircase. The entire chessboard of aristocrats rippled with bows and curtsies. The King wore full regalia—a white fur cloak, black-and-white-striped pantaloons, glossy white shoes with diamond-studded buckles, and a heart-tipped scepter in one hand. This was all topped with the crown, trimmed with more rubies and diamonds and velvet and a central heart-shaped finial. It would have been a striking ensemble, except the fur had some syrupy substance near the collar, the pantaloons were bunching around one knee, and the crown—which Catherine had always thought looked too heavy for the King’s tiny head—had slipped to one side. Also, His Majesty was grinning like a loon when Catherine rose from her curtsy. And he was grinning at her. Catherine stiffened as the King jostled down the steps. The crowd fanned out to allow him through, creating a direct pathway, and before Catherine could think to move aside herself, the King was standing before her. “Fair evening, Lady Pinkerton!” He arched up onto his toes, which drew even more attention to his minuscule stature. He stood at least two hands shorter than Catherine, despite the rumor that he had special-crafted shoes with two-inch soles. “Fair evening, Your Majesty. How do you do?” She curtsied again. The White Rabbit, who had followed in the King’s wake, cleared his throat. “His Royal Majesty would like to request the hand of Lady Catherine Pinkerton for the first quadrille.” Her eyes widened. “Why, thank you, Your Majesty. I would be honored.” Catherine dipped into a third curtsy—her practiced reaction to anything that was said in the King’s presence. It was not at all that he was an intimidating man. Much the opposite. The King, perhaps fifteen years her senior, was round-bodied and rosy-cheeked and had a tendency to giggle at the most inopportune times. It was his very lack of intimidation that kept Catherine on her best behavior, otherwise it would be too easy to forget that he was her sovereign. Handing his scepter to the White Rabbit, the King of Hearts took Catherine’s hand and led her onto the dance floor. Cath told herself it was a mercy to be swept away from Margaret, but the King’s company wasn’t much of an improvement. No, that wasn’t fair. The King was a sweet man. A simple man. A happy man, which was important, as a happy king made for a happy kingdom. He simply wasn’t a clever man. As they took the position of top couple on the dance floor, Cath was struck with a surge of dread. She was dancing with the King. All eyes would be upon them, and everyone would think she had chosen this dress for no other reason than to catch his eye. “You look lovely, Lady Pinkerton,” said the King. He was speaking more to her bosom than her face—a result of his unfortunate height, not any sort of ungentlemanliness, and yet Catherine could not keep her cheeks from flushing. Why, oh why, couldn’t she have fought against her mother’s wishes, just this once? “Thank you, Your Majesty,” she said, her voice strained. “I am indeed fond of the color red!” “Why … who isn’t, Your Majesty?” He giggled his agreement and Cath was glad when the music began and they entered into the first figure. They turned away from each other to walk down the outside lines of couples, too far apart to speak. Catherine felt her corset pinching beneath her breasts and she pressed her palms against her skirt to keep from fidgeting with it. “This is a delightful ball,” she said, joining the King at the end of the line. They took hands. His were soft and damp. “Do you think so?” He beamed. “I always love the black-and-white balls. They’re so … so…” “Neutral?” Catherine supplied. “Yes!” He sighed dreamily, his eyes on Catherine’s face. “You always know just what I’m thinking, Lady Pinkerton.” She looked away. They ducked beneath the outstretched arms of the next couple and released hands to twirl around Mr. and Mrs. Badger. “I must ask,” the King started as they clasped hands again, “I don’t suppose you may have … by chance … brought any treats with you this evening?” He watched her with shining eyes, his curled mustache twitching hopefully. Cath beamed as they raised their hands so the next couple could duck beneath. She knew the King was stretching up on his tiptoes but she respectfully did not look down. “In fact, I baked three lemon tarts this morning, and my maid was going to ensure they made it to your feasting table during the festivities. They might be there now.” His face lit up and he twisted his head to eye the long, long table, but they were much too far away to pick out three little tarts. “Fantastic,” he swooned, missing a couple dance steps and forcing Catherine to stand awkwardly for a moment before he picked it up again. “I hope you’ll enjoy them.” He returned his attention to her, shaking his head as if dazed. “Lady Pinkerton, you are a treasure.” She stifled a grimace, embarrassed by the dreamy tone in his voice. “Though I must confess, I have a particular weakness for key lime tarts as much as lemon.” His cheeks wobbled. “You know what they say—key lime is the key to a king’s heart!” Cath had never heard that before, but she let her head bounce in agreement. “So they do!” The King’s grin was effervescent. By the end of the dance Catherine felt ready to collapse from the strain of appearing joyful and attentive, and she felt only relief as the King air-kissed the top of her hand and thanked her for the pleasure of the dance. “I must find these delectable tarts of yours, Lady Pinkerton, but I hope you’ll keep the final dance for me as well?” “With pleasure. You honor me so.” He giggled, mad as hops as he adjusted his crown, then took off waltzing toward the feasting table. Cath withered, grateful that the first quadrille was over. Perhaps she could persuade her parents to let her leave before that final dance of the evening. Her plotting made her feel guilty—how many girls would love to receive such attention from the King? He wasn’t an offensive dancing partner, only a tiresome one. Thinking a bit of air might help her cheeks recover from the stretched-out smile, she headed toward the balconies. But she hadn’t gone a dozen steps through the crowd of black crinolines and white top hats before the candlelit chandeliers flickered as one and went out. CHAPTER 4 THE MUSIC SCREECHED AND DIED. A cry arose from the guests as the ballroom was plunged into darkness. There was the sound of breathing, the crinkle of petticoats, an uncertain stillness. Then there was a spark and a flicker. A ring of candlelight spiraled around one of the center-most chandeliers and a haunting glow stretched across the domed ceiling, leaving the guests drenched in shadows below. Hanging from the lit chandelier was a vertical hoop that Catherine was sure hadn’t been there before. Lounging inside the hoop, apparently as comfortable as if it had been a chaise lounge, was a Joker. He wore close-fitting black pants tucked into worn leather boots, a black tunic belted at his hips, and gloves, also black—not the white dress gloves the gentry wore. His skin glowed like amber in the firelight and his eyes were rimmed in kohl so thick it became a mask. On first glance, Catherine thought he had long black hair too, until she realized that he was wearing a black hat that hung in three points, each tipped with a small silver bell—though he held so still, they didn’t ring, and Catherine could not recall the tinkle of bells when the candles had gone out. When—how—had he gotten up there? The stranger hung suspended for a long moment, dwelling in the stares of the guests below, as the hoop slowly spun. His gaze was piercing and Catherine held her breath as it found her and, at once, seemed to stall. His eyes narrowed, almost imperceptibly, as he took in her flamboyant red gown. Cath shivered and had the strangest urge to give him a nervous wave. An acknowledgment that, yes, she was aware that her dress was unduly red. But by the time her hand had lifted, the Joker’s attention had skipped on. She dropped her hand and exhaled. Once the hoop had made a full circle, a ghost smile lifted the corners of the stranger’s lips. He tilted his head. The bells jingled. There was an intake of breath from the watchful crowd. “Ladies. Gentlemen.” He spoke with precision. “Your Most Illustrious Majesty.” The King bounced on his toes like a child waiting for the Christmas feast. The Joker swung himself up in one fluid motion so he was standing inside the hoop. It spun another lazy half turn. They all listened, mesmerized by the hesitant creak of the rope that attached it to the chandelier. “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?” The hoop stopped spinning. The Joker’s words blanketed the ballroom. The silence became resolute. With the stranger facing toward her again, Catherine caught a flicker of firelight in his eyes. Then, upon realizing that a riddle had been posed, the crowd began to rustle with murmurs. Hushed voices repeated the riddle. Why is a raven like a writing desk? No one proposed an answer. When it became clear that no one would, the Joker stretched one hand out over the audience, closed tight in a fist. Those beneath him took a step back. “You see, they can each produce a few notes.” He opened his fist and, not a few notes, but an entire blizzard of black and white papers burst from his palm like confetti. The crowd gasped, reeling back as the pieces swarmed and fluttered through the air, so thick it seemed the entire ceiling had disintegrated into paper notes. The more that came, the more the crowd cooed. Some of the men upended their hats to catch as many of the notes as they could. Laughing, Catherine lifted her face to the ceiling. It felt like being caught in a warm blizzard. She held her hands out to the sides and gave a twirl, delighting in how her red skirt ballooned out, kicking up a papery snowdrift. When she had gone three full circles, she paused and tugged a slip out of her hair—thin white parchment, no longer than her thumb, printed with a single red heart. The last confetti pieces looped down to the floor. Some spots in the ballroom were ankle-deep. The Joker was still peering down from his hoop. In the tumult, he had removed his three-pointed hat, revealing that his hair was black after all, messy and curling around the tops of his ears. “Though admittedly,” he said when the crowd had quieted, “the notes tend to be very flat.” The bells on his hat tinkled and up from the base of those three tiny points an enormous black bird arose, cawing as it soared toward the ceiling. The audience cried out in surprise. The raven circled the room, wings so large their flapping stirred up the mounds of paper below. It took a second turn around the ballroom before settling itself in the chandelier above the Joker. The audience began to applaud. Catherine, dazzled, found her hands coming together almost without her knowing. The Joker tugged his hat back onto his head, then slipped down from the hoop so he was hanging from a single gloved hand. Catherine’s heart lurched. It was much too high to risk the fall. But as he let go, a red velvet scarf had become tied to the hoop. The Joker spun languidly toward the floor, revealing white and black scarves in turn, all knotted together and appearing seamlessly from his fingers, until they had lowered him all the way to the ground, kicking up a swirl of paper notes. The moment his boots touched the floor, the circle of light from the chandelier spread out through the ballroom, each taper catching flame in fast succession until the room was once again ablaze. The crowd clapped. The Joker dipped into a bow. When he straightened, he was holding a second hat in his hands—an ivory beret with a decorative silver band. The Joker sent it twirling on the tip of a finger. “I beg your pardon, but does anyone seem to be missing a hat?” he asked, his voice cutting through the applause. A moment of uncertainty ensued, followed by an offended roar. Jack, halfway across the room, was patting his tangled hair with both hands. Everyone laughed, and Catherine remembered Mary Ann saying that Jack had intended to steal the Joker’s hat as a means of initiation. “My sincerest apologies,” said the Joker, smiling in a very unapologetic way. “I haven’t the faintest idea how this hat came to be in my hands. Here, you may have it back.” Jack stormed through the crowd, his face reddening fast as people chortled around him. But as he reached for the still-spinning hat, the Joker pulled away and turned the hat upside down. “But wait—I think there might be something inside. A surprise? A present?” He shut one eye and peered into the hat. “Ah—a stowaway!” The Joker reached into the hat. His arm disappeared nearly to his shoulder—far deeper than the hat itself—and when he pulled back he had two tall, fuzzy white ears clasped in his fist. The crowd leaned in closer. “Oh my ears and whiskers,” the Joker muttered. “How cliché. If I’d have known it was a rabbit, I would have just left him in there. But as it can’t be helped now…” The ears, when he pulled them out, were attached to none other than the master of ceremonies, the White Rabbit himself. He emerged sputtering and peering round-eyed at the crowd, as if he couldn’t fathom how he had gotten into a beret in the middle of the ball. Catherine pressed her hands over her mouth, stifling an unladylike snort. “Why—I never!” the Rabbit stammered, flopping his big feet as the Joker settled him onto the floor. He swiped his ears out of the Joker’s grip, straightened his tunic, and sniffed. “The nerve! I will be speaking to His Majesty about this blatant show of disrespect!” The Joker bowed. “So very sorry, Mr. Rabbit. No disrespect was meant at all. Allow me to make amends with a heartfelt gift. Surely there must be something else in here…” As Jack made another swipe for his hat, the Joker nonchalantly pulled it out of his reach and jingled the hat beside his ear. “Oh yes. That will do.” Reaching in again, he emerged this time with a very fine pocket watch, chain and all. With a flourish, he presented the watch to Mr. Rabbit. “Here you are. And see there, it’s already set to the proper time.” Mr. Rabbit sniffed, but when the glitter of a diamond set into the watch’s face caught his eye, he snatched it out of the Joker’s hand. “Er—well. I’ll consider … we shall see … but this is a fine watch…” He gnawed on the watch’s hook with his large front teeth, and evidently determining that it was real gold, slipped it into his pocket. He cast another unhappy glare at the Joker before scrambling off into the crowd. “And for you, Sir Jack-Be-Nimble, Jack-Be-Quick.” The Joker offered the hat to Jack, who grabbed it away and slammed it onto his head. The Joker started and raised a finger. “You may wish to—” Jack’s eyes bugged and he whipped the hat off again. A lit tapered candle was sitting in a silver candlestick on top of his head. The flame had already burned a smoldering hole into the top of the beret. “Hey, I’m trying to get some sleep!” cried the candle. “I beg your pardon.” The Joker reached forward and pinched the flame with the fingertips of his leather gloves. A curl of smoke wrapped around Jack’s head as the corner of his good eye began to twitch. “That’s peculiar. I thought for sure you’d be jumping over the candlestick, but this is all upside downward indeed.” The guests were in fits, many laughing so hard they didn’t hear the echoing caw of the raven as it dropped off the chandelier and swooped toward them. Catherine took a startled step back as the raven brushed past her ear and settled onto the Joker’s shoulder. The Joker did not flinch, even as the raven’s talons dug into his tunic. “With one last bit of wisdom, we must bid you a good night.” Reaching up, the Joker tipped his own hat to the crowd. “Always check your hats before donning them. You never know what might be lurking inside.” The bells jingled as he pivoted on his heels, making sure to face everyone in the audience. Catherine straightened as he turned her way, and—winked at her? She couldn’t be sure if she’d imagined it. His mouth lifted quick to one side and then, before her very eyes, his entire body melted into inky blackness. In the space of a heartbeat, the Joker had transformed into a winged shadow—a second raven. The two birds fluttered toward a window and were gone. CHAPTER 5 THE NEW COURT JOKER was all anyone would talk about. Even the dancing went forgotten as the guests realized that the paper notes covering the floor contained more than just hearts—some had black diamonds, red spades, white clubs. Some, the shadow-profile of a raven. Others: a crown, a scepter, a three-pointed joker’s cap. Some guests made a game of collecting as many of the different designs as they could, hunting for shapes they might have missed. The giggle-mug King was jollier than Cath had ever seen him. Even halfway across the ballroom she could hear his pitched voice demanding that his guests confirm that, yes indeed, it was the most astounding entertainment they’d ever known. Catherine’s stomach growled, vibrating through the boning of her corset. She’d been so enchanted with the Joker’s performance she’d forgotten all about her gown’s constrictions and her deepening hunger. She tried to be inconspicuous as she squirmed inside the dress, adjusting herself in the tight bodice, and sneaked toward the feasting table. She spotted Mary Ann laying out a plate of truffles, standing out from the other maids with her beanstalk height and the straw-colored hair that had slipped from the edges of her bonnet. Perking when she spotted Catherine, Mary Ann lowered her head and tugged at one corner of the tablecloth as if to straighten it. “What did you think of the performance?” she whispered. Cath’s fingers fluttered yearningly over the platters of food. “I thought court jokers only told bawdy jokes and made wisecracks about the King.” “It makes me wonder what else he might have up that slee—er, hat of his.” Mary Ann swept a tray off the table and curtsied. “Truffle, milady?” “You know I can’t.” “Just pretend to be considering it so I can stand here a while longer. The royal servants keep trying to coerce us attendants to bring out more food, and if I have to go back down to that kitchen I’m sure to melt. Besides, there’s plenty food out already when taking into account the number of guests here tonight and the rate at which it’s being consumed, and they don’t need any more no matter what they say. Right awful waste it’d be.” Catherine steepled her fingers. “Are those caramels?” “I think so.” “How do you think chocolate caramels would be with a touch of sea salt on top?” Mary Ann stuck out her tongue in disgust. “Why not throw in a dash of pepper while you’re at it?” “Just a thought.” Catherine gnawed on her lower lip, eyeing the chocolates. Yes, sea salt, whatever Mary Ann might think. The pantry at Rock Turtle Cove was always well stocked with it, being so close to the shore, and once, being in an experimental mood, Cath had sprinkled a bit into her hot cocoa and found it surprisingly pleasant. It was just the thing for these truffles. A bit of saltiness to brighten the sweetness, a bit of crunch to reflect on the smooth caramel … why, she could make a salted caramel chocolate torte. It could be one of the bakery’s signature treats! Her stomach rumbled. “Cath?” “Hm?” “You look as though you’re about to start drooling, and I would hate for you to stain that dress.” She groaned. “I can’t help it. I’m so hungry.” She wrapped her arms around her stomach as another growl rumbled through the velvet. Mary Ann’s brows creased briefly with sympathy, but then her face brightened. “That dress must have been a smart choice all the same. You danced top couple with the King!” Cath bit back another, deeper groan. No doubt her complaints of having to dance with the King were nothing compared to carrying heavy food-laden trays through a sweltering kitchen. Her eye caught on a hulking shape at the other end of the feasting table and she jolted. “Who is that?” Mary Ann glanced over her shoulder, but just as quickly withdrew. She tipped her head closer. “His name is Peter Peter, and the tiny thing beside him is his wife. I haven’t caught her name yet.” “Tiny thi—oh.” The wife Mary Ann had mentioned was indeed a slip of a girl, almost invisible beside the massive bulk of her husband. She had a back that seemed permanently hunched—from work, not age, Cath could guess—parchment-white skin and stringy blonde hair. She looked ill, one hand pressed against her stomach and having no apparent interest in the food before her. Her face shimmered with a thin layer of perspiration. On the other hand, her husband was as intimidating as a troll. He stood well above the other guests and would have dwarfed even Cath’s barrel-chested father. He wore a black riding coat and breeches that barely fit, the material stretched taut across his oxen shoulders. Catherine suspected that if he moved too fast he would split any number of seams. He had frizzing red hair that was in need of both a washing and a comb, and a brow currently stuck in a scowl. Neither Peter Peter nor his wife looked at all pleased to be at the King’s ball. “But who are they?” she whispered. “Sir Peter owns the pumpkin patch outside of Nowhere Forest. One of the kitchen maids told me they were granted a knighthood after his wife won a pumpkin-eating contest a fortnight ago. I understand Jack came in second place and has been demanding a rematch ever since.” Mary Ann harrumphed. “I wish someone would think to give me a knighthood for all that I eat.” Catherine chuckled. One wouldn’t know it to look at Mary Ann, but she had an appetite to rival Cath’s own. They’d bonded over their love of food years ago, not long after Mary Ann had been hired on as a household maid. Her laughter was eclipsed by a shadow falling over them. Thick fingers descended on Mary Ann’s tray. “What’re those?” Mary Ann squeaked and Catherine flushed, but Sir Peter didn’t seem to notice either of them as he popped a truffle whole into his mouth. If he’d heard them talking about him and his wife, he showed no sign of it. “Er—caramel truffles, sir,” said Mary Ann. “Unsalted,” Cath added. “Unfortunately.” Up close, she could make out the start of whiskers on Sir Peter’s chin and dirt beneath his fingernails, as if he’d been too preoccupied with his pumpkin patch to bother cleaning up for his first royal ball. “Sir Peter, isn’t it?” she stammered. “I have not yet had the pleasure of making your acquaintance.” His eyes narrowed as he sucked the chocolate from his dirty thumb. Catherine winced. Beside her, eyes cast on the ground, Mary Ann ducked away from the table. “Ohm, mwait!” Mary Ann paused. Sir Peter swallowed, leaving bits of chocolate in his teeth. “I’ll be taking more of those. These are all—what’s it called? Compliments of the King, right?” Mary Ann half curtsied again. “Of course, sir. You’re welcome to enjoy as much as you like. Is there anything else I can bring you?” “No.” He claimed another truffle, and hardly seemed to chew before swallowing. Hiding in his shadow, Lady Peter watched the truffle travel down her husband’s throat and turned green before casting hesitant eyes up at Mary Ann. “Might you”—she stammered, her voice barely a whisper—“have any pumpkin pasties? We sold some pumpkins to the royal pastry chefs yestermorn and heard tell they would be making them for the ball, but I haven’t—” “You don’t be needing no more pumpkin!” her husband barked, spittle flying from his mouth and landing on the tray of truffles. Cath and Mary Ann both grimaced. “You’ve had plenty enough already.” Lady Peter shied away. Clearing her throat, Cath edged in between Peter Peter and the truffles. “Mary Ann, why don’t you go see if the Knave would like to sample the caramels? He’s so fond of sweets.” She felt Mary Ann’s sigh of relief before she retreated with the tray. Catherine curtsied. “I am Catherine Pinkerton, daughter of the Marquess of Rock Turtle Cove. I’m told you were recently granted a knighthood?” His eyes darkened beneath his prickly red eyebrows. “Suppose we were.” “And this must be your wife. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lady Peter.” The woman’s shoulders hunched against her ears. Rather than curtsy or smile, she shrank away from the introduction and took to scanning the contents of the feasting table again, though Cath thought she saw her gag at the sight of all the food. Catherine clung helplessly to her manners. “Are you well, Lady Peter? I’m afraid you’re looking a little pale, and it is so warm in here. Would you like to accompany me for a turn around the balcony?” “She’s well enough,” Peter snapped. Catherine took half a step back, startled at his vehemence. “Just been eatin’ some bad pumpkin of late, like she don’t know better.” “I see,” Catherine said, though she didn’t. “Congratulations on your win at the pumpkin eating contest, Lady Peter. You must have eaten quite a lot. I’ve been longing to make a pumpkin pie lately, myself.” Peter spent a moment picking at his teeth with his nail and Catherine backed away again, having the peculiar sensation that he was trying to figure out the best way to cook and eat her. “She eats ’em raw.” He sounded proud of this fact. “You ever eaten raw pumpkin, Lady … Pinkerton?” “I can’t say that I have.” She had made a few pumpkin pies and one pumpkin mousse in the past—the stringy pulp and slimy seeds that she’d had to scrape out before cooking the flesh had been less than appetizing. Glancing around Sir Peter, she asked his wife, “I can see how one might be feeling poorly after such a meal. It’s a shame you aren’t feeling well enough to partake in the King’s table.” Lady Peter’s gaze flickered up and she whimpered before letting her head hang again. She looked moments away from being sick all over the astounding feast. “Are you sure you don’t want to sit down?” Catherine asked. Lady Peter responded meekly, “Are you sure there aren’t any pumpkin pasties lying about? I think I might feel a bit better, if only…” “See? No bother talking to her,” said Peter. “Dumb as a Jack-O’-Lantern she is.” His wife tightened her arms around her waist. Catherine’s anger burbled. For a moment she imagined him choking on one of those chocolate caramels, and how she and his wife would stand over him laughing, but her fantasy was interrupted by the Nine and Ten of Diamonds squeezing sideways in between them. “Do pardon me,” the Nine said, reaching for a honey-drizzled fig. Cath gladly took a step back. “These shindies always like this?” Peter asked, snarling at the courtier’s back. The Ten turned to him with a jovial smile and held up a glass of wine as if in salute. “Not at all,” he said. “We used to keep standards.” Cath blanched. The courtier was gone in an instant, leaving Peter with a flaming face and searing eyes. Cath forced a smile. “The courtiers can be a tad … uppity, sometimes. With strangers. I’m sure he meant no offense.” “I’m sure he did,” said Peter, “and I’m sure he ain’t the only one.” He stared at her for a long moment, before raising his hand and tipping his tattered hat. “Been a pleasure, milady.” It was the first sign of manners he’d shown, and it was about as believable as the Duke of Tuskany claiming he could fly. Sir Peter grabbed his wife by the elbow and pulled her away. Cath wasn’t sad to see them go. CHAPTER 6 CATHERINE ALLOWED HERSELF A HUFF. Sir Peter’s presence, combined with the strangling corset, had nearly suffocated her. “A right pleasure indeed.” “He’s a sore thumb, isn’t he?” She turned and spotted a silver tray floating in the air above the table, overflowing with golden-crusted hand pies, neatly crimped on one edge. “Ah, hello again, Cheshire,” said Catherine, filled with relief that she might have one encounter this evening that didn’t leave her weary and vexed. Though with Cheshire, it could go either way. “Are you supposed to be here?” “Not likely.” The cat appeared with the tray resting on his tummy, his striped tail like a lounging chair beneath him. His head came last—ears, whiskers, nose, and finally his enormous toothy grin. “You look absurd,” Cheshire drawled, taking a pastry between two sharp claws and popping it into his gigantic mouth. A cloud of savory steam erupted from between his teeth, smelling of sweet squash. “The dress was my mother’s idea,” said Catherine. Placing a hand on her abdomen, she took in the largest breath she was capable of. She was beginning to feel light-headed. “Are those pumpkin pasties, by chance? Lady Peter was asking after them. They smell delicious.” “They are. I would offer you one, but I don’t want to.” “That’s not polite at all. And unless you have an invitation, you might want to put them down and disappear again before someone sees you.” Cheshire grunted, unconcerned. “I just thought you might like to know…” He yawned exaggeratedly. “… that the Knave is stealing your tarts.” “What?” Cath spun around, casting her glance around the feasting table, but Jack was nowhere in sight. She frowned. When she turned back, Cheshire’s humongous cheeks were bulging with the entire tray’s worth of pasties. Cath rolled her eyes and waited for him to chew and swallow, which he made quick work of with his enormous teeth. Cheshire burped, then dug a nail into the space beside his front molar. “Oh, please,” he said, inspecting the nail and finding a bit of pumpkin filling stuck to it. “You don’t think those tarts would have lasted this far into the evening, do you?” She spotted the familiar tray, then, near the edge of the feasting table. All that remained of her lemon tarts were a few crumbs, a drift of powdered sugar outlining three empty circles, and a smear of sunshine yellow. It was as bittersweet as dark chocolate, that empty tray. Catherine was always pleased when her desserts were enjoyed, but, in this case, after the dream and the lemon tree … she would have liked to try at least a tiny bite for herself. She sighed, disappointed. “Did you try them, Cheshire?” The cat tsked at her. “I had an entire tart, my dear. Irresistible as it was.” Cath shook her head. “You would have made a better pig.” “How vulgar.” He twisted in the air, rolling over like a log on the ocean, and vanished along with the now-empty dish. “And what do you have against pigs?” Cath said to the empty space. “Baby piglets are almost as cute as kittens, if you ask me.” “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.” She swiveled around again. The cat had reappeared on the other side of the table. Or, his head and one paw had, which he began to lick. “Though I’m sure Lord Warthog would appreciate the sentiment,” he added. “Do you know if His Majesty had a chance to try the tarts?” “Oh yes. I saw him sneaking a slice—and then a second, and then a third—while you and Mary Ann were chatting about the pumpkin eater.” The rest of his body materialized as he talked. “Shame on you, to gossip so.” She lifted an eyebrow. Cheshire was an expert gossip. It was part of the reason why she enjoyed talking to him, though it also made her nervous. Catherine did not want his gossip-milling to ever turn on her. “Does that make you the pot or the kettle?” “Still a cat, my dear, and not even an unlucky one.” “Actually…” Catherine cocked her head. “You may not be a black cat, and yet your pedigree is something changed. You’re looking rather orange of a sudden.” Cheshire curled his tail, newly oranged, in front of his crossed eyes. “So I am. Is orange my color?” “It looks fine, but doesn’t match the night’s color scheme. What a pair we must make.” “I imagine it was the pumpkin pasties. A shame they weren’t fish.” “You want to turn fish-colored?” “Rainbow trout, maybe. You should consider adding fish to your baking next time too. I’d love a tuna tart.” “Tuna tartare?” “Why, you’ll make a stuffed bird laugh if you go on like that.” “It wouldn’t be the first time.” “By-the-bye, have you heard the rumors?” “Rumors…” She searched her memory. “You mean, about Mr. Caterpillar moving to a smaller storefront?” Cheshire’s head spun upside down. “How slow you are tonight. I was speaking of the rumors surrounding the new court joker.” She perked up. “No. I haven’t heard anything about him.” “Neither have I.” She furrowed her brow. “Cheshire, that is the opposite of a rumor.” “Contrariwise. I haven’t the faintest idea who he is or where he came from. It’s all very odd.” Cheshire licked his paw and cleaned behind his ear, which struck Catherine as impolite, being so close to the table. “They say he walked right up to the palace gates three days past, already dressed in fool’s motley, and asked for an audience with the King. He performed a magic trick or two—something about shuffling the Diamond courtiers and asking His Majesty to pick one card out of the set … I couldn’t follow the details. In the end, he was given the job.” Catherine pictured the Joker lounging on that suspended silver hoop, almost as if he expected the King’s guests to entertain him, not the other way around. He had been so poised. Though she hadn’t questioned it before, Cheshire’s curiosity piqued hers. Hearts was a small kingdom. Where had he come from? “Have you heard the other rumors?” continued Cheshire. “I’m not sure. What other rumors?” Cheshire rolled onto his stomach and cupped his face in his furry paws. “His Congenial Kingness has chosen a bride.” Her eyes widened. “No! Who is it?” She glanced around the room. Certainly not Margaret. Perhaps Lady Adela from Lingerfoote or Lady Willow from Lister Hill or— Or … Her breath hiccupped. A wash of goose bumps spread down her limbs. Her mother’s enthusiasm. The first quadrille. The King’s flustered grin. She whipped her head back toward Cheshire. His enormous grin struck her as extra mocking. “You can’t mean it.” “Can’t I?” He peered up at the chandeliers. “I thought for sure I was capable of that, at the least.” “Cheshire, this isn’t amusing. The King can’t—he wouldn’t—” A trumpet blared, echoing off the pink quartz walls. Catherine’s head spun. “Oh no.” “Oh yes.” “Cheshire! Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” “Ladies and gentlemen,” cried the White Rabbit, his pitchy voice insignificant after the horn. “His Royal Majesty has prepared a special announcement for this evening.” “Shall I congratulate you now?” Cheshire asked. “Or do you suppose premature well-wishes could bring bad luck? I can never recall the proper etiquette in these situations.” A curtain of heat embraced her, from brow to toes. She could have sworn someone was pulling on the staylace of her corset as her breaths grew shorter. “I can’t. Oh, Cheshire, I can’t.” “You may want to practice a different response before you go up there.” The crowd applauded. The King stepped onto the stage at the far end of the ballroom. Catherine cast her eyes around, searching for her parents, and when she found her mother beaming and brushing a tear from her lashes, the reality settled around her. The King of Hearts was about to propose to her. But—but he couldn’t. He’d never done anything more than compliment her baking and ask her to dance. They hadn’t courted … but, did kings have to court? She didn’t know. She knew only that her stomach had tied itself into triple knots and the idea of marrying him was preposterous. She had never once considered that the silly man could want anything from her but sweets and pastries. Certainly not a bride, and … oh heavens, children. A bead of sweat dripped down the back of her neck. “Cheshire, what do I do?” “Say yes, I suppose. Or say no. It matters not to me. Are you sure orange is my color?” He was inspecting his tail again. Desperation clawed at Catherine’s throat. The King. The simpleminded, ridiculous, happy, happy King. Her husband? Her one and only? Her partner through life’s trials and joys? She would be queen, and queens … queens did not open bakeries with their best friends. Queens did not gossip with half-invisible cats. Queens did not have dreams of yellow-eyed boys and wake up with lemon trees over their beds. She tried to swallow, but her mouth had dried up like stale cake. The King cleared his throat. “Fair evening, loyal subjects! I hope you have all enjoyed tonight’s delights!” More applause, at which the King clasped his own hands together and bobbed up and down a few times. “I wish to make an announcement. A good announcement, nothing to be worried about.” He giggled at what might have been a joke. “It has come time for me to choose for myself a wife, and for my subjects … a most adored Queen of Hearts! And”—the King kept giggling—“with any luck, bring our kingdom an heir, as well.” Catherine stepped back from the feasting table. She couldn’t feel her toes. “Cheshire…?” “Lady Catherine?” “It is my honor,” continued the King, “to call up the lady I have chosen for my life’s companion.” “Please,” said Catherine, “cause a distraction. Anything!” Cheshire’s tail twitched, and he vanished. Only his voice lingered, murmuring, “With pleasure, Lady Catherine.” The King spread his arms. “Would the ever lovely, delightful, and stupendous Lady Cathe—” “Aaaagghh!” As one, the crowd turned. Margaret Mearle kept screaming, swatting at the orange-striped cat who had appeared on top of her head, curled up beneath her fur headdress. Catherine alone turned the other way. She fled out to the balcony, running as fast as her heeled boots and strangling corset would allow. The cool night air sent a chill racing across her enflamed skin, but every breath remained a struggle. She lifted her skirts and slipped down the steps into the rose gardens. She heard a splinter of glass and startled cries behind her and wondered what chaos Cheshire must be causing now, but she dared not look back, not even as she reached the gardens. The world tilted. She paused at a wrought-iron gate, gripping one of the decorative finials for support. Catching her breath, she stumbled on. Down the clover-filled path between rose arbors and trickling fountains, passing topiaries and statues and a pond of water lilies. She reached for the back of her dress, desperate to loosen the stays. To breathe. But she couldn’t reach. She was suffocating. She was going to be sick. She was going to faint. A shadow reared up in front of her, backlit from the blazing castle lights so that the silhouette stretched over the croquet lawns. Catherine cried out and stumbled to a halt, damp hair matted to her neck. The shadow of a hooded man engulfed her. As Catherine stared, the silhouette lifted an enormous ax, the curved blade arching across the grass. Trembling, Catherine spun around. A dark shape dropped toward her out of the sky. She screamed and threw her arms up in defense. The raven cawed, so close she could feel his wing beats as he flew past. “Are you all right?” She gasped and withdrew her arms. Her heart was thundering as she peered up into the boughs of a white rose tree. It took a moment to find him in the dark. The Joker was lounging on a low-hanging branch, a silver flute in his hands, though if he’d been playing it before, she’d been too distracted to notice. Her lashes fluttered. Half of her hair had fallen from its chignon and draped over her shoulder. Her skin was burning hot. The world was spinning wildly—swirling with lemon tarts and invisible cats and curved axes and … The Joker tensed, his brow creasing. “My lady?” The world tilted severely and turned black. CHAPTER 7 “LADY HATH STUMBLED on this midnight dreary, with a pallor frightfully pale and weary.” A somber, melodic voice floated through the encompassing darkness. “Duly noted, my feathered friend,” came a second voice, lighter and quick. “Are you sure we haven’t some sal-volatile in there?” “I know nothing of your hoped-for salt, though with your plan I find a fault. To keep her from awaking groggy, ’twould be most prudent to make her soggy.” Something hard thumped on the ground by Cath’s elbow, followed by a quiet slosh of water. “No, Raven, we are not throwing a bucket of water on her. Keep looking. Haven’t we a ham sandwich? Or some hay? That always worked on the King.” Rustling, fumbling, clanks and clatters. A sigh. “You know what? Never mind. We’ll use this.” The rustle of foliage followed by the snap of a branch. Something soft tickled the tip of Cath’s nose. She squirmed, turning her head away, and caught the faint perfume of roses. “Aha, it’s working.” She wrinkled her nose. Her eyelids squinted open. Darkness and shadows swirled in her vision. Her head felt heavy, her thoughts disoriented. “Hello,” spoke one of the bleary shadows, sharpening into the court joker. He lifted the soft-petaled rose away from her face. “Are you all right?” “Nevermore,” said his Raven, who was perched on the edge of a metal bucket. The Joker cut him a glare. “Don’t be rude.” “’Tisn’t rude to rebuke an arbitrary greeting, a nonsense question upon first meeting. To be all right implies an impossible phase. We hope for mostly right on the best of our days.” “Exactly,” said the Joker. “Rude.” The Raven made an unhappy noise. Spreading his massive wings, he leaped up into the air and settled on a high branch of the rose tree instead. The Joker returned his attention to Catherine. He had removed the three-pointed hat and his wavy black hair was matted to his head in places and sticking out in others. The light from a nearby garden torch flickered gold in his eyes, still thickly rimmed in kohl. He smiled at her, and it was the friendly sort of smile that reached to every corner of his face, drawing dimples into his cheeks, crinkling the corners of his eyes. Cath’s heart tumbled. During his performance, she had been hypnotized by his magic, amused by his tomfoolery—but she had not realized that he was also quite handsome. “I’m glad the rose worked,” he said, twirling it in his fingers. “I suspect this would be a different sort of meeting had we been forced to use the water bucket.” She blinked, unable to smile back as the shadows shifted across his face. It wasn’t just the firelight. His eyes really were the color of gold. The color of sunflowers and butterscotch and lemons hanging heavy on their boughs. Her own eyes widened. “You.” “Me,” he agreed. He cocked his head to the side, frowning again. “In all seriousness, my lady, are you…” A hesitation. “… mostly right?” She felt it again, that internal tug she’d had during the dream, telling her that he had something that belonged to her, and she had to catch him if she were ever to get it back. “My lady?” Setting the rose aside, he touched the back of his hand to her brow. “Can you hear me? You’re very warm.” The world spun again, but this time in a delicious, time-stopping way. “Perhaps I should call for a Sturgeon…” “No, I’m fine. I’m all right.” Her words were sticky and her fingers fumbling, but she managed to grasp his hand before he pulled away. He froze, dubious. “Though I can’t feel my legs,” she confessed. His lips twisted to one side. “Mostly right, after all. Let’s not tell Raven he was correct, or he’ll be insufferable the rest of the night.” He glanced down. “I can almost guarantee that your legs are still attached, though there is an awful lot of fabric disguising them. I’ll go searching for them now if you’d like me to.” His expression was innocent, his tone sincere. Catherine laughed. “That’s quite generous, but I’ll go searching for them myself, thank you. Can you help me sit?” Still holding her hand, the Joker scooped his free arm beneath her shoulders and lifted her upward. She spotted his hat lying upside down not far away, and scattered around it an odd assortment of junk. Glass marbles, a wind-up monkey, handkerchiefs, an empty inkwell, mismatched buttons, a two-wheeled velocipede, the silver flute. With a quick pat, Cath confirmed that her legs were indeed still present. Her toes began to tingle. “Your hands are like icicles.” The Joker draped her fingers across his palm and started to massage them—working from her knuckles, across the pad of her thumb, along her wrist. “You’ll feel better when your blood is flowing again.” Cath inspected the Joker, his messy curls, the point of his nose. He was sitting cross-legged on the grass, hunkered over her hand. His touch was shockingly intimate compared to the touches she was used to—those brief, civilized encounters during a waltz or quadrille. “Are you a doctor?” she asked. He looked up at her and smiled that disarming smile again. “I’m a joker, my lady, which is even better.” “How is that better than a doctor?” “Haven’t you ever heard that laughter is the best medicine?” She shook her head. “If that’s so, shouldn’t you be telling me a joke?” “As the lady pleases. How did the joker warm up some hands?” She shut one eye and considered, but was quick to give up. “I don’t know. How?” “By being a warm, handsome joker, indeed.” Her laugh was unexpected, punctuated by the unladylike snort that Mary Ann often teased her about. She tore her hand away from him to cover her nose, embarrassed. The Joker’s entire face lit up. “Can it be! A real-life lady with a laugh like that! I believed you were naught but mythological creatures. Please, do it again.” “I will not!” she squealed, her face reddening. “Stop it. The joke wasn’t even funny, and now I’m all poked up.” He schooled his face, though his eyes still danced. “I meant no offense. A laugh like that is richer than gold to a man of my position. I’ll make it my life’s work to hear the sound again. Every day, if it pleases you. No—twice a day, and at least once before breakfast. A royal joker must set the highest of expectations.” Her pulse skittered. Twice a day? Once before breakfast? A new sort of blush blossomed across her cheeks. Noticing the look, the Joker released her hand, almost sheepish. “That is … you are the one, aren’t you?” She stared at him, and in his eyes she saw the lemon tree that had grown in her bedroom overnight, its branches twisted around her bed’s canopy, heavy with sun-ripened fruit. “The one?” “The future Queen of Hearts?” The giddy euphoria left her in a single, painful breath. “I beg your pardon?” “Oh, you needn’t beg.” Doubt crept across his brow. “Shall I apologize? I didn’t mean to be forward. It’s just that the King intended to ask for a lady’s hand in marriage during tonight’s ball, and … with your gown, I suppose I’d assumed…” She looked down. Her skirt was a bright red nightmare engulfing her. “Did he say which girl he intended to ask?” “No, my lady. I only know it was to be a daughter of a lord, though that hardly narrows down the list.” He leaned back on his hands. “What were you running from before?” “Running from?” She forced a withering smile. “I was only wanting some fresh air. The ballroom can get so warm on nights like this.” His eyes pinned her to the grass, growing concerned. “The King hadn’t yet made his announcement when you left?” “I’ve heard nothing of it.” She shivered, not quite guilty at the lie. What was happening inside the ballroom? Had the King called her up? Were they looking for her? She glanced back toward the castle, surprised to see how far she’d run. The gardens seemed to stretch for miles and the ballroom windows glowed in the distance. She wondered about the crash she had heard and hoped Cheshire wasn’t in trouble. The Joker rubbed the back of his neck. “Maybe it is you, then. Perhaps I should escort you back…” “No! No. Um.” She laughed uncomfortably. “I’m sure he meant to ask someone else. His Majesty has never shown me any particular interest.” “I find that difficult to imagine.” “It’s the truth.” She cleared her throat. “This might be a peculiar question, Mr.… er, Joker…” “Jest. My name is Jest. My lady.” “Ah—I’m Catherine Pinkerton.” “It’s been a rightmost pleasure, Lady Pinkerton. What was your question?” Cath fluffed the voluminous red fabric around her legs to give her fingers something to do while they went on feeling tingly and wanton. “Have you and I met before?” “Before tonight?” He cupped his chin in his hand. “It seems unlikely.” “I thought so as well.” “Do I seem familiar?” His dimples made an appearance again. “In a way. Most peculiarly, I do believe I dreamed about you.” His eyebrows lifted. “About me?” “It is strange, isn’t it?” “Quite.” The word was subtle, surprised. He looked briefly unnerved, like when he had first spotted her and her red dress amid the sea of black and white. The self-assured visage slipped, just momentarily. “Perhaps we know each other in the future and you’re only remembering backward.” She pondered this. “So?” he prodded. She blinked. “So what?” “Was it a good dream?” “Oh.” Her lips puckered in thought, but then she realized he was teasing her. She scowled. “To be frank, I found it rather dull.” “Ah, but you can’t be Frank. You’ve already told me that your name is Catherine.” “I’ve changed it.” His laugh was unoffended. “At least the memory of this dream has brought some color back to your cheeks. You were white as a dove when you fainted. I’m sorry if Raven frightened you.” She remembered the shadow stretching across the castle lawn—the hooded, ax-wielding figure towering over her. She shuddered. “No, it wasn’t Raven. It was … I thought I saw … nothing.” “I see nothing all the time.” “As I said before, it was very warm inside, that’s all. And I’ve barely eaten all day.” “No doubt the corset of tortures didn’t help.” Her scowl deepened. “A lady’s undergarments are not a suitable topic of conversation.” He raised his hands in surrender. “Only a theory, my lady. I’m sure your lack of sustenance is much more the culprit. Here.” He reached for a pouch at his belt and retrieved a chocolate. “I was saving this for later, and so I must have been saving it for you.” “Oh no, I couldn’t. I’m still a little faint. It will probably make me sick.” “Some say it is better to have eaten and lost than never to have eaten at all.” She furrowed her brows, confused, but his sincerity never faltered. “In case you do get sick and the sweet makes its way up again.” “That’s horrible.” “I know. I should apologize.” Rather than apologizing, he held the sweet toward her. “I must insist that you eat, regardless of the risks. Should you happen to faint again while under my care, I’m afraid I won’t be able to stop Raven from using that bucket.” Catherine shook her head and placed a palm against her abdomen. She could feel the bone stays beneath the bodice. Although, the corset didn’t seem as confining as it had before. Now that the evening air was reviving her, there was even room to breathe. Not a lot of room, but perhaps enough to fit in one little chocolate … “Please, take it,” he pressed. “Is it from the feasting table?” she asked, knowing better than to sample untested foods. Once, when she was a child, she’d sampled some wild berries and spent two whole days the size of a thimble. It was an experience she didn’t care to have again. “The King’s own.” Catherine took it hesitantly, murmuring her thanks, and bit down. The truffle exploded with silky caramel and brittle chocolate on her tongue. She stifled a pleased moan. But if one added just a touch of sea salt—oh, euphoria. She devoured the rest, her tongue searching for any missed chocolate on her teeth. “Better?” Jest asked. “Much.” She tucked a strand of misplaced hair behind her ear. “Well enough to stand, I think. Could you help me?” He was on his feet before she had finished asking, his movements graceful as an antelope. “Shall I escort you back into the ball?” he asked, lifting her to her feet. “No, thank you.” She brushed off her gown. “I’m very tired. I think I’ll call for a carriage to take me home.” “This way, then.” He grabbed his hat off the ground and settled it on his head. The hat looked wrong on him now and she realized it was his fool’s motley that had disguised his handsomeness before. Now that she knew otherwise, it was impossible not to see it. Turning his head up, Jest whistled into the tree branches. “Raven, would you mind…?” The Raven cocked his head and peered down through the branches, watching them with a single shining black eye. “I thought perhaps you had forgotten your companion in the dark, downtrodden.” Jest squinted up at him. “Is that a yes?” The bird sighed. “Fine, I’m going.” He swooped off his perch and disappeared in the black sky. Jest offered Catherine his arm and she slipped her fingers into the crook of his elbow. She was baffled at how much easier it was to breathe now. Maybe she’d been overreacting. Well, not to the King’s near proposal, but to the way her dress seemed to be strangling her. They passed through the garden’s arches. The rosebushes fell behind, replaced with towering green hedges that thundered with the fiery bolts of lightning bugs. “I hope you’ll understand if I ask for your discretion,” she said, wishing her heart would stop pattering. “This has been a most unusual encounter for me.” “Far be it for me to intrude upon a lady’s untarnished reputation. But to be clear, which part of our encounter should remain undisclosed?” Jest watched her from the corner of his eye. “The part when you fainted in the grass and I heroically revived you? The part where we took an unchaperoned stroll through the gardens?” He clucked his tongue in mock disapproval. “Or perhaps the part where you confessed to having had a dream about me, and that I must be quite the rake to hope it wasn’t as boring as you’ve suggested?” She leaned against his arm. “All of the above?” He brought his free hand to her fingers, patting. “It will be my greatest pleasure to be secretive together, my lady.” They hopped over the guard gryphon’s tail—he was sleeping, as always, against the garden gate. His quiet snores followed them halfway across the lawn. “So long as we’re sharing secrets,” she said, “may I ask how you did it? The trick with Mr. Rabbit?” “What trick?” “You know. When you pulled him out of Jack’s hat.” Jest frowned, his expression mildly concerned. “Sweetest Lady Pinkerton, I fear you’ve gone mad in this short time we’ve known each other.” She peered up at him. “Have I?” “To imagine that I pulled a rabbit out of a hat?” He stooped closer, his forehead conspiratorially close to hers, and whispered, “That would be impossible.” She smothered a grin, trying to morph her expression into something equally devious. “As it so happens, Mr. Jest, I’ve sometimes come to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” His feet stalled all at once, his face turning to her, bewildered. Her grin fell. “What is it?” Jest’s eyes narrowed, studying her. Catherine cowed beneath the inspection. “What?” “Are you sure you aren’t the one the King is in love with?” It took a moment, but when the laugh came, it was honest and unforced. The idea that the King might wish to marry her was one thing, but the thought of him being in love with her was an entirely different realm of absurdity. “I assure you, he’s not,” she said, still smiling, though Jest looked unconvinced. “What does that have to do with believing impossible things?” “It just seems like a queenly sort of thing to say,” he said, offering his arm again. Cath took it, though with more hesitation. “And, well, impossible is my specialty.” She peered up at his profile, his angled features, the mask of kohl. “That,” she said, “seems entirely believable.” He looked pleased. “I’m flattered you think so, Lady Pinkerton.” They reached the cobblestone drive at the main entrance to the castle, where dozens of carriages were waiting for their lords and ladies. A cluster of liveried coachmen were smoking pipes beneath the torches on the other side of the courtyard. One of them yelled out when they saw Cath and Jest approaching—“Hoy there, what’s been all the commotion about?” “Commotion?” Jest asked. “Nothing but gasps and squeals coming from the castle for the last half hour,” said the coachman. “Been thinking one of them candles might’ve lit the place on fire, what with their short fuses and all.” Jest glance at Cath, but she just shrugged. “It must be all the hullabaloo over your performance.” A carriage pulled up to them, the enormous black raven perched beside the driver. He must have gone ahead to fetch the ride for her. One of the footmen, a tree frog dressed in a powdered wig and a royal red coat, double-breasted in gold buttons, came hopping across the courtyard to hold the door for her. Jest offered his hand to help her into the carriage and she was surprised, as her foot hit the second step into the carriage, to feel the press of lips against her knuckle. She glanced back. “Ah—I almost forgot!” Releasing her hand, Jest removed his hat, bells clinking, and reached inside. He produced a bundle of long white cording. “These belong to you.” Cath uncertainly took the ropes. “What are—” She gasped. Her hand flew to her back, feeling around the fabric of her dress, detecting the boning of the corset, yes, but … not its laces. The back of the corset was split open the full width of her hand. Heat rushed into her cheeks. “How?” Jest danced back from the carriage as if he feared she would hit him, and she was suddenly considering it. The nerve! He bowed again, as if he’d completed his final encore. “Fair evening, Lady Pinkerton. I hope you enjoy satisfyingly deep breaths during your ride home.” Part mortified, part despicably impressed, Catherine marched up the last step and slammed the carriage door shut. CHAPTER 8 CATHERINE AWOKE TO THE SOUND of her parents’ carriage returning home, the clomp of the horses’ hooves on the drive loud and distinct against the muffled backdrop of ocean waves. She didn’t know how many hours had passed, but it was still dark outside, and she dug herself deeper beneath her covers, yanking the quilt up past her nose. Her head was drowsy with fog and sleep. She had the sensation of sleepy tendrils clinging to her from some far-off dream. Arms lowering her onto a bed of rose petals. Fingers tracing the contours of her face. Kisses trailing down her throat. She sighed, curling her toes against the sheets. He appeared slowly from the mental haze. Messy black hair. Amber-gold eyes. A dimpled smile stretched across teasing lips … Her eyes snapped open, a blush climbing up her neck. She’d been dreaming about the Joker. Again! Downstairs, she heard the front door crash open, her mother’s voice splitting through the still night. She sounded upset, and Cath cringed. Was she angry that Cath had left the ball without telling them? Or that the King’s marriage proposal had been slighted? Maybe … maybe … he’d asked some other girl. Energized with hope, she pulled the quilt away and peered up at the shadowed canopy of her bed. She gasped. Not a lemon tree this time, but roses. They were white as swan feathers, their thorny stems strangling the bedposts. Cath inched one hand from beneath the covers and reached for the nearest blossom. A thorn dug into the pad of her thumb and she flinched, pulling back and popping the wound into her mouth before she got blood on her nightgown. Giving up on the rose, she whipped the blanket over her head again, letting her heartbeat slow. What did it mean? What were the dreams trying to tell her? She counted off the things she knew about Jest. He was the court joker, but no one knew where he had come from. He was friends with a Raven. Impossible was his specialty. The way he had touched her hand had awoken something inside her she had never felt before. Something giddy, but also nervous. Something curious, but also afraid. And if her dreams were to be believed, he was a very, very good kisser. The fluttering in her stomach returned and she squirmed farther into the covers, suddenly light-headed. Perhaps his presence in the castle gardens had been unexpected and disconcerting, but Cath was the master of her own whimsies. She began to wrap herself up in the dream of slow kisses and white roses, to find her way back to that small, harmless fantasy … Her bedroom door crashed open. “CATHERINE!” Startled, Catherine pushed back the bedcovers and sat up. A ring of lamplight shone on the walls. “What?” Her mother shrieked, but it was an overjoyed sound. “Oh, thanks to goodness. Whealagig, she’s here! She’s all right!” With a wail, she threw herself across the room, pausing to set the oil lamp on the bedside table before she collapsed onto Catherine’s bed and pulled her into a stifling embrace. Catherine realized with a start that her mother was crying. “We were so worried!” “What for?” Cath struggled to extricate herself. “I left the ball early and came right home. I didn’t think you’d be so upset. I wasn’t feeling well and…” “No, no, darling, it’s fine, it’s just—” She dissolved into sobs as Cath’s father appeared over them, pressing a hand to his heart. His face was slack with relief. “What’s going on?” said Cath, spotting Mary Ann, too, in the doorway. “What’s happened?” “We didn’t know where you were,” her mother cried, “and there was … there was…” “An attack,” her father answered, his voice somber. Cath stared at him, trying to read his expression in the unsteady lamplight. “An attack?” “Not just any attack!” Her mother pulled back and squeezed Cath’s shoulders. “A Jabberwock!” Her eyes widened. “It attacked the castle,” said her father, looking strained and exhausted. “Shattered one of the windows and took two of the courtiers right from the ballroom floor. Then it just flew off with them…” Cath pressed a hand to her chest. The Jabberwock was a creature of nightmares and myth, of tales told by firelight to frighten little children into good behavior. It was a monster said to live amid the twining and tangled Tulgey Wood, far away in the country of Chess. As far as Cath knew, no Jabberwock had been sighted in Hearts for countless generations. Stories told of them being hunted by great knights centuries ago, until the last of the Jabberwock was slain by a king who carried the mythical Vorpal Sword. “It was e-enormous,” her mother stammered, “and terrifying, and I didn’t know where you were!” Her sobs overtook her again. “It’s all right, Mama.” Cath squeezed her tight. “I’ve been home all night.” “And still dreaming, I see,” said her father. Her mother pulled back and gawked at the thorny rosebush. “Not another one. What is going on in that head of yours?” Cath gulped. “I’m sorry. I don’t know where they’re coming from.” Her mother slumped back and rubbed the tears still caught in her eyes. “Good heavens, Catherine. If you’re going to dream, try to dream up something useful.” Cath knotted her fingers in the blanket. “Well, we can have fresh rose water, at least, and maybe I’ll bake up some rose macarons—” “No, no, no. I don’t mean useful as in things you can bake with or cook with. I mean useful. Like a crown!” “A crown?” Her mother hid her face behind her thick fingers. “Oh, this night has shredded my poor old nerves. First that awful Cheshire Cat appears right when the King is getting ready to make his announcement, then you’re nowhere to be found, then the Jabberwock—” She shuddered. “And now a rose tree growing up in the middle of my house. Honestly, Catherine!” “I don’t mean to argue, Mama, but a crown doesn’t really do much of anything. Just sits on one’s head, quite useless. Oh, I suppose it sparkles.” “Focus, child. Don’t you see? T