Anla laughed. She used the back of her hand to stifle her outburst, but she was still loud. Raulin’s eyebrows furrowed as he stood before her, unmasked for the first time. “Is there a problem?” he asked testily.
“Oh, no! Raulin, I’m sorry! I’m not laughing at you. I’m just…relieved. You wear a mask all the time and I sort of assumed that you’d be horribly scared or ugly. You’re not, though. Actually, you look…really young! And after our recent discussion, it feels a bit funny to me.”
“Young?” he asked.
“Yes. Young. I know you’re twenty-six, but I’d actually say you look about twenty or twenty-one.”
Later, when Raulin had a moment to examine himself in the mirror, he tried to understand what she was saying. His features had been politely called “refined” before, since his nose was small, his brow light, and his blue eyes a little large for his face, but he’d never heard “young”. Perhaps it was his thick lashes or the beauty mark below his left eye that made him look disarming enough to be called youthful, but he had always seen himself for himself. It was a strange critique.
He cleared his throat. “Actually, twenty-seven. My birthday was two days ago.”
Anla’s eyes widened, then she started fumbling through her pack. “I saw this in Iascond and thought you might like it. I had hoped your birthday was soon.” She handed him a book with a wood-carved front and back, the pages holed and threaded in red silk thread.
The title was in Walpin and read The Apabar Brothers, and other tales. “Why did you get this for me?”
“Telbarisk said that he liked hearing fairy tales from his youth when he was assigned away. I thought that maybe buying you a book with Walpin stories might make you feel better. Happy birthday.”
She felt a little silly about it until he smiled, which was bright and crinkled his eyes. “Thank you. That’s really thoughtful of you.”
“You’re welcome. So, are we safe now?”
Raulin shoved the mask inside his pack, then placed the book along the side more carefully. He ducked his head out from behind the tree, surveying the park, counting heads. “I think we’re fine, though maybe I shouldn’t show my face in public?”
Anla snorted. “I wouldn’t worry about it. You’re quite comely and you know that.”
“I am?” he asked, giving her smile she wasn’t sure how to read. He led her along the edges for about a hundred feet before they stepped out into the middle path.
“Are we headed to the ball then?” she asked.
He laughed lightly. “Um, no. We’re going to see an ember man. Do you know what one of those is?” She shook her head. “Ember men are tailors with bills, overhead, and a reputation to uphold. When a man goes to a tailor for a nice suit, it’s only partially assembled. There are adjustments that will need to be made, since most men don’t have perfectly average measurements, but the assumption is the suit is fresh and waiting for that man to come in and buy it. If that man learned that another man had worn that suit already, they might not be interested in it. However, tailors sit on a lot of pre-made clothing pieces and sometimes sales are meager. Hence, so long as discretion is in play, the tailor won’t mind renting clothing.”
“Why are they called ’ember men’?”
“Not sure. I’d heard it was because they used to work at night by the embers of their fireplaces.”
“So, we’re going to one now and they’ll tailor clothing for us?”
“Not just that; they also shave beards, clean and file nails, style hair, and apply cosmetics. Wait here while I inquire about a female one,” he said as they stopped in front of a tailor’s shop. When he returned, he walked Anla a few blocks over and held the door for her.
Anla surveyed the room while he spoke to the man behind the counter. It was a clean store with dark wooden panels on the wallpapered walls. Oil lamps burned brightly, showing off several styles of dresses. Most seemed like the ones she’d seen wealthy women wear, large skirts with ruffled tops, but some were very different. One beautifully detailed outfit shined in the light, the bottom actually wide-legged trousers with a panel in the front and back.
“And who are we helping this evening?” the man asked as she moved next to Raulin.
“This is…my friend’s cousin,” he said.
The man frowned for a moment. “Very good, sir. I understand you’re attending a ball? What type of dress were you looking for?”
“The theme is ‘the wilderness’. I trust you’ll come up with appropriate soiree attire for her.”
The tailor’s eyebrows furrowed as his eyes darted back and forth. “Yes, sir. I’m sure I’ll have something for you.”
“Excellent. I would recommend letting her natural beauty shine.”
“Of course, sir.”
Raulin gave the name of where he’d be, more specific instructions, and plenty of gold, including a few pieces for a ‘light repast’. He turned to her. “I won’t be far and I’ll be back in a few hours.”
After he left, the tailor led her to the back and up some stairs to the apartment he and his family lived in. “My wife and daughters will be with you shortly,” he said, leaving her in a cramped room with piles of materials, accessories, and tools.
Anla sat for some time, her stomach roiling. She could coury messages through some of the roughest neighborhoods in Hanala, but when it came time to wait in the foyer for her pay, she would always feel closed in and nervous.
“Let’s take a look at you,” the woman said as a greeting. She was well-dressed, as one would expect, in a dress similar to the ones Anla had seen downstairs. As she stood appraising her, her nose wrinkled. “When was the last time you bathed?”
Anla had to think about this. “Two days ago,” she said.
“And had your hair styled?”
“Never?” she said, though she remembered once when she had. “Quite a few years.”
“I see. I hope you’ll be thanking that young man who left you…however you wish to do that. It’s not often that minnows get served at banquets.”
She said nothing in response to this, confused as to what she meant. The woman finally entered and her three skinny daughters piled in behind her. The eldest two whispered to each other and giggled, shooting a few looks Anla’s way, who in turn looked away and down.
“We’ll start with the outfit, since that will need some work. Put these on,” she said, handing her several items of clothes before leaving.
After looking at them for some time, she had only the vaguest idea of what to do. For a few minutes she worked on figuring out where each item went and if there were any potential other issues. Satisfied that she had it right, she put on a cincher with a hook and eye closure, then the soft shirt-like thing, then the satin short-pants. When the woman reentered, a sigh and eye roll told her she had done something wrong.
“I’ll be back in a few minutes. The bustier goes on top.”
Ah. Anla would have likely tried that if she had known that that thing was a bustier. She’d always overheard they were monstrous devices that caused women to faint from lack of breathing. This one, though it chaffed her when she moved, wasn’t that terribly tight.
The tailor’s wife and her daughters brought several dresses with them and draped them over the piles around the room. Most they held them up to her, made comments about her complexion or bone structure, then discarded them into a pile. A few they had her try on and moved those to two different piles. When they had gone through every outfit they thought would work, they narrowed it down to three and began to argue for their favorites.
It was during this time that they began to speak of options and the tailor’s wife brushed her hair up, to see how it would look styled high. She dropped her hands and stood back, the room shocked to silence. “You’re an elf,” she whispered.
“My mother was. My father was Arvonnese.” Though she said it with a smile, it did nothing to help the woman’s surprise.
“Does your…gentleman know you’re half-elven?”
“Yes, he’s quite aware.”
She frowned. “Do you think he would want others aware of that?”
After a few moments of consideration, she said, “Yes. I’m pretty sure he would.”
Still, the woman left with her daughters for about fifteen minutes. In the meantime, Anla looked closer at the three dresses they had chosen. One was a deep green velvet with a petticoat of cream with gold leaves. The second was an off-shoulder bustled monstrosity of browns that had made her look like a fancy dessert. The last was her favorite, a straight brown skirt with an off-shoulder silk brocade bodice that hung to the mid-thigh in the front and was gathered into a short bustle in the back. The silk was an abstract pattern of greens with black mother-of-pearl cone beads sewn into the pattern. The material shimmered in a way that made her think of insects and that tidal pool she had visited with Garlin in Analussia.
Anladet heard the group come back up the stairs. The door opened and she turned, still holding the brocade. “I want this one.”
The woman immediately scoffed. “The one that will take the most work. Of course.”
“I can go elsewhere.”
“You’ll be pushing your luck. Rich men like that will toss you out on the street again when they get bored.”
“So I shouldn’t wear something that will bore him. This won’t.”
The woman snorted, but helped her back into the dress. “All these buttons,” she complained, pulling the bodice tightly with her hands, then pinning the fabric to where the buttons would need to be moved.
The youngest daughter brought her cheese, fruit, and wine sometime later. She waited in the cramped room, careful not to drop anything. The eldest two daughters came into the room and, saying little to her, began pinning the front part of her hair on top of her head. They brushed out the rest of her hair, then began applying cosmetics. Their mother entered with the altered dress and made her remove the petticoat she’d been wearing. Anla was confused when she was given a semi-transparent white muslin one, but she said nothing.
The finished ensemble, the brown skirts, the green bodice, the hair, the makeup, black gloves that looked like trees, her jewelry, and a small, green, veiled, pointed hat with a peacock feather, was spellbinding. Anla would have loved nothing more than to gaze at this woman before her, a dazzling display of fashion and color and shimmer, but the other women were milling about and she felt uncomfortable around them. She nodded, sat on the chair shoved against the wall, and allowed the girls to finish by putting on hose stockings and leather ankle-high boots with laces.
“Your man is downstairs waiting,” the woman said. Before she left, she added, “Any stains or tears will cost extra.”
She entered the room and was delighted to find their costumes had some matching points. His outfit had a dark theme with small, twisted branches keeping his loose hair back and black feathers, perhaps starling, lining his shoulders. It reminded her of his arong-miil and she thought he had drawn that parallel, too, since he looked so much like the trirec he was standing there.
Except for his wide eyes. He blinked a few times after looking her over, then smiled and nodded. She would have loved to gush over his apparel, but there was the problem of the slightly rude tailor’s wife. Wishing to regain some integrity, she said, “Come. We have a busy evening ahead of us. Did you call a carriage?”
“Yes, mezzem,” he said softly.
“Excellent.” She turned, nodded towards the women, and thanked them before leaving.
“May I ask what that was about?”
She turned to him when they were outside the shop. “It’s nothing.”
“Did they treat you well?”
“For the most part.”
“What was the lesser part?”
He held her hand as she stepped up into the carriage. “They seemed to think that I was disposable to you. That’s why I made it seem the other way.”
“Ahh,” he said, sitting across from her. “That’s my fault. I didn’t really plan on this happening, so I didn’t have our relationship plotted out. When someone says, ‘This is my friend’s sister’ or ‘My cousin’s sister’, they’re euphemisms for ‘she’s a courtesan’.”
“Oh, they thought I was your whore?”
“Well, yes. And unfortunately, I can’t really think of another way of describing you to others at the party tonight. Marin Liasorn doesn’t have any family; I’ve insisted on adding his duty as the last count with his name to his narrative. He doesn’t really know anyone besides high society members in Gheny. Therefore, the person he’d be taking to a libertine ball would be someone else from the elite or a stranger. And why would he take a stranger if not because she was gifted in entertainment?”
“Perhaps she is an enthusiast for the return of the royalty in Arvonne? Someone who is gifted not in entertainment but in persuasion?”
“A possibility I thought of, but one that would need you to study a lot. We have twenty or thirty minutes before this carriage arrives at the party. I don’t think you’d be able to digest all the information I’d need to tell you in order for you to pass the character off.”
“Since I speak the language and know something of what my father told me, I might be able to fool people into believing me.”
“I’d give you that opportunity, if this wasn’t a libertine ball. People are going to be nervous as is, with what will be happening. Their sensitivities to things that seem off will be higher and they might try to press you for their own security.”
“So, I’ll play a harlot, then.”
“I’m sorry. I can’t think of any other way around it.”
“It’s fine. At least I’ll be a pretty harlot.”
“Beautiful,” he said under his breath.
“What else do I need to know or do?”
“Courtesans, not harlots, are refined. They are women who are used to having wealth around them. They gather the gazes of rich men, determine which ones are willing and able to take a mistress, and trade company for gifts. I do not expect you to do any of that, I just want you to know what your mindset is. Be flirtatious, inviting, but don’t worry about anything else.”
“Will it look strange if I don’t go home with someone?”
“No. You’re not a roulette parlor whore, looking to stake a claim for the night. Courtesans are very picky. They attend many gatherings each month and entertain only a few men, maybe even one rich noble every few weeks. Some are in long-term relationships already and are just making sure society remembers them for the time that they aren’t occupied.”
“Why don’t they have several relationships?”
“Prostitutes sleep with several men a night because what a man wants from them is quickly got. Courtesans can provide that, but their men often want much more. They want their women to engage them. They want to be dazzled and entertained. They want to feel wanted, better, desirable. Men won’t feel that way if they think another man has her affections. They’ll feel jealous and bitter.”
“So, I’ll walk around, speak with people, cast long glances their way. If anyone inquires, I’ll tell them in coy terms that I’m indisposed.”
“I think that covers it. Now, how did we meet? No one knows you, so you’ll have started either at a boring event held by someone less noteworthy or sponsored by someone. And I don’t know any names with the second, so we’ll just say some business owner or minor lord.”
“Lord Cavrige?” she offered.
“Yes, he’d do nicely. Wait, how do you know him?”
She gave him an enigmatic smile. “I know some people.”
“Hmm,” he wondered. “All right. He’s the type of guy that would have a very boring hobby and an enthusiast club around it. What do you think…?”
“Berothian poetry,” she said. “He has several books about it in his library.”
“Hmm. All right. If you’re certain. You and I both attended a meeting two weeks ago and met there. Now, what name will you choose?”
“Taivewa. You’re still Marin, I assume.”
“Yes, but, where did you get that name?”
“Actually, I gave it to one of the street girls I lived with in Hanala. She thought having something that sounded elvish, and therefore forbidden, would help. It really means ‘getting rich through deception’.”
“I like it, though I wouldn’t tell people what it means.”
“Of course not,” she said. “Should I know anything else?”
“Do you mind if I give you a few pointers?”
“Not at all.”
“Especially in that outfit, when you sit you need to cross your ankles and keep your knees together. Shoulders up and back. Hands folded in your lap, if you’re not doing anything with them.”
“Anything else?” she asked, uncomfortable from keeping the position.
“Well, one or two more things…”