The carriage entered through the gateway arch, and Sylvia looked about. Centuries ago, the palace had been a fortress. But now, what used to be the moat had been replaced by a high wall pierced by several openings. Like welcoming arms, two curved extensions stood on either side of the original keep. The carriage driver directed the coach toward one of the additions, away from what appeared to be a large stable on the far right. Small shops, scattered like playjacks, filled the courtyard on the left. As she helped Rangoth to dismount, Sylvia could not believe what she had heard Mason say moments before. Like her and the others, he had almost been murdered. How could anything else be more important than that? “This way.” Mason directed the party into one of the many doors arrayed in front of them. “My apartment is one of the better ones. On the third floor, away from the more offensive smells in the levels below...closer to the sewers.” After everyone had climbed the steep stairs, he motioned to the matron. “Take my sisters to the nursery.” The lord stopped. His brow furrowed. “The enchantment will begin soon. I must assess the competence of the substitute sorcerer before he acts. But with our delay in getting back here, I won’t have enough time to make a proper invitation to a lady of the court as well.” He eyed Sylvia, looking her up and down. “You will have to do.” “Matron, after my sisters are safe, return with one of the maids. She will assist with the proper dress.” “Assist with what?” Sylvia asked as the matron left. Mason sighed. “Ritual dictates so much of court life. Some rules make no sense, but, well, they must be followed, nevertheless.” He shrugged. “And one of them is that only couples can attend an entertainment. No unattached bachelors nor unescorted maidens are allowed.” “So, with you, I am to attend an actual enchantment?” Sylvia snapped her mouth shut for a moment. “No, never mind that. What about the attack? What are you going to do about that? Why is a mere entertainment so important to you?” Mason sighed again. “I can’t help it,” he said. “Being the impresario is my life. Without that, I am... nothing. I can’t let the queen start thinking about opening up the scheduling to others. One success might lead to another. Before one can repeat a simple charm thrice, my title, my authority, my reason for existing could be gone.” Sylvia cocked her head to the side. She still felt numb from what had happened. The images of knives and blood were too vivid. They felt like they would never go away. But the lord had defended her as well as his siblings. She could not remain silent. “Things can’t be as bad as all of that,” she scrambled to say. “I am sure your sisters do not consider you to be nothing.” Mason grunted, but did not speak. The silence did not help. There was too much to think about at once. The attack, Mason’s self-doubt... And on top of everything else, she was to watch an entertainment orchestrated for the queen! A childhood fantasy, to be sure. Every girl on the street must have dreamed of attending such an entertainment as they cleaned the cinders from a hearth. She felt giddy. It was all becoming too much. She grabbed the back of a chair and steadied herself. A few moments passed, and then she remembered. As her long-departed mother had told her when she was an upset child, she should breathe slowly and deeply...a series of unhurried calming breaths. She expanded her chest and inhaled. A semblance of peace began forming within her. She was safe here in the palace. With all the protection around the queen, she had to be. And until Mason gave her more information, all she would have to do was merely to play along. She looked down at her simple smock in need of a washing. “Are there rules about what one is...” “Yes, yes. The matron will return with someone who can help,” Mason said. “Follow her guidance. Many of the wives of outland lords need similar aid when they come. As for me, I am off to find out what I can about the substitute sorcerer.”
Sylvia eyed the maid warily when she appeared a little later, pulling a large two-wheeled cart behind her. The two women were about the same age, but by their demeanor alone, no one would mistake one for the other. “I am Jonice,” the maid said, “and, Milady, I can tell you have a prankish bent about you.” “Milady?” Sylvia said. “I am not...” She stopped for a moment and then smiled. Better to play along for a while, she thought. Until she could figure out the best thing to do. “Ah, what do you mean?” “Your clothing. A simple cotton smock. How droll. A statement about the over self-indulgence so common here at court, perhaps?” “I don’t...” “Here, sit down on the stool,” Jonice said as she eyed Sylvia critically. “I have brought everything we need. The dress might be a little problem because you are so tall, but that we will tackle last. The gown buttons from the back. For now, keep your smock on. It will catch any of the drips. And the coif will not be disturbed when you take it off. Sit. Sit. Hands in your lap. I will apply the ointment. It is first grade. From the best alchemist in all Ambrosia.” Sylvia sat down, slightly bewildered by the rapid rush of words. “Ointment?” Jonice nodded as she pulled a small, short glass bottle with a wide mouth from her pocket and removed its cork. She dipped her finger into the jar and extracted a smidgen of beige-colored salve. With deft strokes, she applied the cream to Sylvia’s cheeks and rubbed it in. Sylvia gasped. There was a warm tingling on her face. “Yes, that seems to happen no matter how many times you use it.” Jonice prattled on. “But, no more multiple layers: a cleanser; next the foundation; then all the rest. One application of the ointment, and the blemishes are removed, wrinkles eliminated, and no need for a blusher. Skin as new as a baby’s in one easy step. The latest discovery from the alchemy factories.” She laughed. “You should see the outland women when they leave to go home. Their purses bulge with philtres and phials from the royal stores. The queen has to restock after every large entertainment such as the one tonight.” “No formula is perfect, of course,” Jonice continued. “Be sure and wash thoroughly when the night is done. Otherwise, the skin on your face will stiffen and grow tight, and then there is no going back. Your last expression frozen forever in place.” Sylvia blinked. It was like so much other magic. There were great benefits but also great risks. The maid stepped back and reviewed her work. “Perfect,” she said. “Next, the coif.” She grabbed a brush and began stroking Sylvia’s hair. The bristles almost instantly caught a snarl and yanked Sylvia’s head to the side. “A hazard of the job.” Sylvia squelched a cry of pain. “Too many hair-jumblers always about.” “Sorry. I will go more slowly. How many fancy updos do you get in a year?” Sylvia remained silent. She did not know what to say. “No matter,” Jonice resumed speaking. “Focus on tonight. That is what is important at the moment.” She untangled the snarl and then coiled a thick strand of Sylvia’s hair around a small tube made of goat horn. It had tiny holes poked into it and a plunger sticking out of one end. “Another recent invention of the alchemist,” Jonice said. “Used to be that only with heat could one get a curl, and it usually lasted for maybe a single evening. These tonight will remain until they grow out and you cut them off.” Jonice pushed the plunger, and a fine mist spurted from the tiny holes into Sylvia’s hair. When she was finished, Sylvia had a curl frozen in place. The maid created several more, and after she finished, piled them high on Sylvia’s head. Finally, she secured the structure with satin ribbons. “Look. This will work, right?” Sylvia held up the small mirror offered to her. Her eyes widened in surprise at what she saw. Certainly, she was the same on the inside, but others, what would they now think? “Now for the dress.” Jonice reached into her basket. “This is the longest I was able to find, and you are rather, ah, slim. Try it on, and we can see how it might look.” Sylvia reached for the dress, a fine brocade with intricate lace trim. She stopped when she noticed what was draped over Jonice’s arm. “The white dress goes over the first?” Sylvia asked. “Over?” Jonice said and then laughed. “You are indeed a riot, Milady. No, no, of course not. The silk garment is the slip for underneath.” Sylvia took the lingerie extended to her and felt another burst of surprise. It was white and clean, of course, but oh, so soft to the touch. She hurried to pull her own simple dress off over her head so she could experience how it would feel next to her skin. As she did, an envelope fluttered to the ground. With everything that had happened...was happening...she had forgotten about it. It was the letter from Phoebe, the wizard from Brythia. Sylvia stooped and caught the missive as it hit the ground. Eagerly, she ripped the envelope open. Inside was written a single word. “Come.”
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