Katherine strode right towards what seemed to be the lady's corner. For the time being, she had enough of idiotic males. When she neared the circle of women, she noticed with surprise a familiar face among them. "Lady Brandon!"
Lady Brandon, wearing a dark green dress and oversized blue hat, looked up when she heard her name. Her brown eyes lit up. "Katherine? Geez, didn't I tell you to call me Ella?"
"Sorry! I must be influenced by these bothersome customs too much", Katherine apologized with a grin. Then she complained: "Save me, Ella! My betrothed is so grumpy today, it's unbearable."
"At least he's a beauty to compensate." Ella smirked. "Come here, let me introduce you. I guess you don't know the jewels of this kingdom yet?"
"Not yet", Katherine affirmed, and thus got swept up in a row of introductions and small talk. With Lady Brandon's help and her own extroverted personality, starting off into society was way easier than she'd thought. Few asked about her background, they seemed to be way more interested into her mysterious betrothed that was invited to the palace for his contributions.
An hour later, Katherine had troubles to keep up with all the names she'd heard. Most of the attending Ladies were children or wives of military personnel, only a few connected to the General through different channels. Lady Hardy, the horse-faced woman she had seen in the Princess' winter garden, was also among them. The General's life-threatening wounds were once treated personally by Lady Hardy's father, a brilliant doctor besides owning a hospital himself. Compared to Lady Hardy and the big group of gaggling geese around her, however, Katherine liked some more wholesome ladies better.
For example, Lady Sherley. With hardly twenty years, the tall blond woman had her adorable three-year-old son sleeping in her lap. She had a gentle and silent presence, placating her surroundings. Contrarily, her husband that came looking for her every five minutes resembled a grizzly with a bad temper. In front of her though, he turned into a teddy bear.
Then there was Lady Icefeather, who, against her name, had a loud and booming voice and voluptuous body. Her father was one of the high-rank officers under the General.
Lady Trumpet and Lerche were women in their thirties with children they liked to command about, because they were already old enough to bring them plates full of snacks and wine glasses from the buffet. Only Lady Lerche's oldest son - barely thirteen - was excluded, for he had drunken the first few cups of wine himself and now rested with a dazed expression beside his mother, his ears bright red from the punishment she gave.
The most curious person in the room, however, was the old Lady Finley. When Katherine got introduced, she had only measured her with a steely gaze out of sharp blue eyes before saying: "I like your attitude, girl. Don't give in by a notch!"
Katherine had no clue what this eccentric woman with a commanding presence as absolute as a general's in a frail, tiny body was hinting at, but it sounded encouraging.
In the middle of a conversation, a Lady whose name Katherine had forgotten suddenly looked around with a frown. "Have you seen my little troublemaker? I seem to have lost sight of her."
Instantly, the other ladies looked about for the small girl in yellow dress the Lady had brought with her when attending. Katherine remembered how that girl already got a sauce spot on her rosy cheek before the buffet had officially opened.
"Roxie! Roxie, where are you?", the mother called rather prudently. Obviously, she didn't want to make too big a commotion. The musicians would only start with the louder dancing songs when most guests had their fill of food, so her voice still reached quite far.
However, there was no response after a few seconds and the other ladies also couldn't locate the little girl.
"Maybe she went upstairs", Lady Icefeather suggested and got up to help searching. Katherine knew that upstairs was another big room for quieter conversations, as well as some balconies and separate rooms.
"I'll help looking", she offered and followed Lady Icefeather. The worried mother as well as Lady Trumpet and Lady Lerche with their children started searching downstairs. Since Lady Sherley couldn't move without waking up her son, she remained where she was for the possibility that the girl would come back by herself.
Upstairs, there were less people, mostly men. They sat or stood in groups and seemed to seriously discuss business. Katherine wasn't surprised when she saw Nathaniel's white hair in a corner. She rolled her eyes and decisively turned her back to him.
"Let's split up", she told Lady Icefeather. "I'll inspect the balconies."
"Then I'll ask the gentlemen if they've seen her", Lady Icefeather nodded with wobbling double chin. "Hopefully, she didn't go into the separate rooms."
A light redness tinted Katherine's cheeks. She could imagine what some guests would use these for. "Yes, hopefully..."
Before the awkwardness could spread, Katherine hastily slipped through the next glass door onto the balcony. Even through the glass, she could hear Lady Icefeather's sonorous laugh.
The coldness of the night hit Katherine a bit unexpected. Shivering, she embraced herself and looked around. About seven steps long and three in width, the balcony was submerged in the dim light of the stars. To be sure that the girl didn't hide in the dark corners, she walked up and down once before entering the building again.
Three balconies went by in a rush. Because of the temperature, nobody liked to stay outside. But when Katherine entered the fourth, a low sound caught her attention. Someone was crying. It wasn't a loud wailing sound, but rather a quiet sniffle of someone who wanted to go unnoticed. She could only hear it clearly after the glass door was closed.
"Hello?", Katherine probed. "Is there somebody?"
The sniffling sound stopped, but Katherine had already discovered the source: in the left corner of the balcony, a figure squatted in the shadow of the railing. Because of the missing light, she couldn't see it clearly.
Slowly, she approached the crouching figure. It was too big to be the girl she was searching for, but the misery radiating from it made it impossible to ignore. She wanted to help. "What are you doing here alone in the cold?"
The figure didn't answer, but she could see it tremble slightly. When she was only a step away, she bend down. Crouching was impossible with her stiff dress.
The figure was big enough to be an a.d.u.l.t, though a quite thin one. Platinum blond hair looked out of the crossed arms in suit sleeves. It was tied with a bond in his neck. She couldn't see the person's face, but she was sure it was a man. Why would he be out here crying?
"Are you okay?" Obviously, he was not, but Katherine didn't know what else to ask. She could see his head move in a nod without him looking up. The man was now silent, but Katherine saw the way his fingers dug into his arms that were wrapped around his knees. He must be in deep pain, she thought. And he's uncomfortable that I've seen him like this.
"It's okay, you know. Everybody cries sometimes. Even men. To bottle it up isn't good, it will make the bottle explode eventually." Katherine leaned on the railing besides him and looked up at the stars. She didn't want to pressure him. Maybe he would open up by himself.
Gazing at the cold, white lights up in the firmament, Katherine thought that they were lucky to not feel the distance they had. Each of the stars stood alone, but none of them felt lonely. After a while, she continued: "In the first week after my parent's death, I cried every night. I despised myself for it, because I was so weak that crying was all I could do. But now I think that each time I gave in to the feeling, I could see a bit clearer afterwards. It's like the burden gets a bit lighter. Doesn't mean I like crying though."
With a short glance, she took in the man's reaction. He didn't raise his head, but the trembling had lessened. He was listening.
So, she continued telling her story, until finally she heard his voice. It was a bit muffled by his sleeves. "I don't know what to do anymore. She won't ever accept me."