“ Magnifique !” Tikki exclaimed as she pinned the last of Marinette’s dark curls back in an elaborate updo. “You have really outdone yourself this time, Marinette.”
Marinette smiled at her lady’s maid through the mirror. “Thank you, Tikki. I wanted to wear something special for Alya’s first ball as Viscountess of Carapace and I think I’m pleased with the result.” She looked down at the handmade gown she was wearing and ran a hand over the fabric. It really was one of her best designs yet. She had taken a red silk gown and altered it with large circles of black fabric that looked just like a ladybug’s spots. The sleeves and hem were embroidered in black thread with designs of little flowers and ladybugs and she had added a wide black ribbon at the empire waistline to match. Marinette had worked so hard and for so long that she wished that it wasn’t a costume and she could wear it more often.
“Are you ready for your mask? Madame Carapace will have your head if you are late to her party.” Tikki held out the black and red mask that Marinette had designed her dress around.
“Is it that late already? She really will kill me… And you can still call her Alya!”. She took the mask and tied it behind her head. “I suppose I better go then.”
“Marinette! You’re forgetting your shoes!”
The Marquis of Noir stared down his glass of port as he listened to his cousin prattle on and on about the latest style of bonnets. He thought of Chloe like a sister, but if she was his only company for the night he might as well throw himself from the highest window of Carapace House. It was the first ball he’d attended since he returned from his three-year stay in Paris and he’d come to congratulate his friend Nino on his marriage. But Nino was currently occupied with some of his guests and Chloe was the only other attendee who didn’t see him as his title or bachelordom.
“Adrien! Are you even listening to me? Do you prefer the white or blue bonnet with my eyes?” the blonde demanded, glaring.
“Er.. Blue? I don’t know Chloe. Why are we talking about hats again?”
Chloe scoffed. “This is why you don’t have a wife yet.”
“I don’t have a wife yet because I’m twenty-three, and I don’t want one.”
“Ridiculous. It is a truth something acknowledged, or whatever that droll Austen woman said. And it’s not like anyone here is interesting enough to make you want to get married anyway.” She rolled her eyes. “Besides me of course.”
He said nothing, so she continued. “Let me help you cousin. You certainly won’t find a wife here. The new viscountess’s sister, maybe, but she hasn’t even had a season. There is the Rossi heiress but- hey! Hello!”
Adrien drifted back to attention. “Are you done? Did my father ask you to set me up?’
“What? As if I would ever talk to him. He never liked me anyway.”
“Can we just change the subject? I don’t want to get married.” He was bored now, and his glass of port was almost empty.
“Fine,” she huffed. “But I’m still going to drag you to the season with me.”
Adrien just groaned.
Marinette descended the staircase in wonder, marveling at hundreds of guests all dressed in bright, opulent disguises. It was the first party of her first season and she was optimistic and filled with excitement. Alya had found a husband in only one season and now that the viscount had provided her with a larger dowry she was hopeful that she would be married by winter. She scanned the ballroom in search of her sister and found her next to her parents towards the back of the ballroom. The crowd was growing thicker as more people jammed inside to escape the summer storm that started to brew outside. Her level of vision was at least a head below the top of the surrounding people and she made it about halfway before realizing that she was completely lost in the crowd.
It was hot and she had to practically jump out of the way to avoid being trampled by a group of drunk men whose visions were further obscured by their large beaked masks. She misjudged her footing, however, and before she could catch herself she stumbled into the arms of a stranger. She looked up and realized with embarrassment that not only had she almost knocked him over, but he was also devastatingly handsome. His face was bare of any mask, but his head was adorned with two black triangles of leather placed to look just like cat ears. His clothing was black as well, from his necktie to his shoes. A black cat, she realized, in an exquisitely made tailcoat.
Even worse, when he realized what had just happened, he laughed. “Looks like you just fell for me, my lady.”
The woman next to him, dressed in a bee costume that Marinette knew was beyond expensive, huffed. “Don’t pay any attention to him. He’s a scoundrel and a flirt with an awful sense of humor.”
The stranger grinned. “ Je suis comme je suis , Chloe.”
Marinette retorted before she could think to hold her tongue. “ Si oui, es-tu un homme ou une chat noir ?”
The man blinked, staring at her with a newfound appreciation, and she felt satisfied that she had shocked him. Apparently, he hadn’t expected her to speak French. His companion, Chloe, laughed.
“I told you that the cat costume looked ridiculous. That’s what you get for underestimating a woman, cherie . I’m going to get some champagne” She nodded once to Marinette in goodbye and disappeared in the direction of the refreshments, leaving her with Adrien.
He cleared his throat, and his momentary look of shock was replaced by a cat-like grin. “You speak French?”
Marinette nodded. “My lady’s maid is French. She’s been teaching me ever since I was a little girl.”
“You speak it well. I lived there for three years.” The orchestra played the first few notes to signal the start of a dance. Adrien held out his hand. “A dance, my lady?”
This was her chance, she thought. She had a spark with this man, a connection that just in the seconds she had known him he made her heart pound. She had fallen into a handsome stranger's arms like she was the heroine in a fairy tale. She took his hand as the other pairings made their way to the center of the ballroom
He took one of her hands in his and placed his other hand on the small of her back.
“I’m afraid I don’t dance very well,” she said apologetically as she stepped on his foot. “I’m told I’m quite clumsy.”
“You’re perfect,” he whispered. “Er- I mean, just follow my lead.” His hand on her back gently guided her through each step. “See? Looks like you’re my purrrfect dance partner.”
She sighed. “I hope you weren’t expecting me to laugh at that.”
“That would be too easy.”
Marinette had never felt so much sensation in her life. He was leading her through all sorts of turns and spins, he was an excellent dancer. She could feel the heat of his hand through her gown and the smooth fabric of his coat underneath her hand. They were closer than decorum would allow -his face was only inches from hers- and maybe that’s why so many people were staring at them. She barely noticed anyone other than him anyway.
Before she even realized, the waltz was over. Before Marinette had the chance to pull away and with what little propriety she had left thank him, he tightened his grip on her hand.
“Dance the next one with me.”
“Tell me your name little ladybug.” He whispered in her ear as they finished their third dance together.
“I believe that defeats the purpose of a masquerade, silly cat.” His lip twitched upwards at the nickname.
“Please. I’ll beg if I must.” He took both of her hands in one of his and pressed them to his lips. Her stomach twisted in delight at the feeling of his breath through her gloves.
This was it, she thought. This was her fairytale romance. She had fallen into the arms of a heartbreakingly handsome gentleman.
He squeezed her hands in his. “Meet me in the garden at midnight. Please.” He kissed her hands once more, bowed, and they separated.
Her feet were sore from dancing and the ballroom was hot and crowded. Seeking respite, she escaped from the party and into an empty parlor. She had a feeling like she was standing on the edge of a cliff and about to dive in. It was both excitement and anxiety, knowing that her life could be changed forever tonight. She tapped her foot with nervous energy. Maybe she was about to be engaged. Maybe-
A woman stepped in front of her vision and Marinette blinked to bring her into focus. The woman was tall and slender, standing at least a head taller than Marinette despite being around the same age. She was beautiful too, every one of her features perfectly in fashion and her red hair thick and long. The woman stared down at her with her lips titled into a mischievous smirk.
“Good evening,” said Marinette.
The woman smiled a parlor smile that seemed so hollow Marinette felt like a snake was sliding across her skin. “I know most people, but I don’t seem to know you. I’m Lila Rossi, although you’ve probably already heard of me.”
Marinette shook her head. The name didn’t sound familiar. “I’m sorry, I’m unacquainted with the name. I’m Marinette.”
“Dupain-Cheng? Like the family of the Viscountess?”
Lila paused for a second, her eyes narrowing. “Well, I’m sorry to bother you on such a celebratory occasion, but I wanted to warn you about the man you danced with earlier.”
“Well, I just thought you’d like to know that he is Lord Adrien Noir, the future Duke of Agreste and that we are practically engaged.”
Marinette’s jaw dropped open. “W-what?”
Lila laughed. “Of course. It’s very secret, so I’m sure he didn’t say anything. But we are very much in love.”
Marinette had an odd feeling in her stomach- in her gut. Something wasn’t right.
“I don’t believe you. I think.. I think you’re lying.”
Her smile dropped, green eyes becoming ice cold. She grabbed Marinette’s wrist so tightly that she gasped softly. “Now you listen. I am heir to the Rossi fortune and you are nothing. I will be the Duchess of Agreste, and I will crush you.”
Marinette yanked her arm back, pondering how quickly she could get away from her and back to the ballroom. “I’m sure you believe yourself to be very important. But the future duchess’s identity is the Lord Noir’s decision. And if he has any judge of character, it will not be you.”
Lila snarled. “You have just made a very big mistake, Miss Dupain-Cheng.”
“I am not afraid of you.” Marinette tilted her chin up fearlessly at the taller woman.
Lila’s eyes flashed as she formed a new idea. With a smirk, she grabbed the neckline of Marinette’s dress and ripped downward, exposing the petticoat underneath. She raised the torn piece of fabric up to look at it.
“Honestly, you probably weren’t even worth my effort. But better to be cautious, no?” She dropped the ripped silk and walked back towards the ballroom, leaving Marinette alone and indecent in some random parlor room.
Marinette looked at the clock. It was almost midnight, and she had no chance of making it out to the garden in her current state. Her eyes began to sting and she dropped to the floor.
Somewhere in the distance, church bells rang twelve times. Midnight. Adrien looked around. There was no sign of her anywhere. Whatever was keeping her, he knew it must have been important. He would wait just a bit longer.
The bells rang again at one.
And again at two.
When he heard the chimes of three o’clock, he decided that she wasn’t coming.