“I cannot believe you allowed him to get away with that!”
Leona hesitated. Should she even turn around? Respond? Or should she just pretend she hadn’t heard and scoot up the stairs and into the sanctuary of her bedroom?
“I — ooh!” Garnet growled. “I wanted to hex him! I swear, Leona, if he continues to flirt with other girls like that in front of you — or even just in front of me! — I shall turn him into a toad myself and hang the consequences!”
Leona did turn around at that. “Can you actually do that? I mean, is it possible?”
“To turn someone into a toad? Aye, of course it is. I’ve never done it before, but — is that what you want? I swear I’ll find out how to do it and the next time I see that little rat –”
“No, no.” Leona sighed and surveyed her nails. “I don’t like Elyan much, but even I don’t want to see him croak.” Ha, ha.
Garnet did not even groan at the terrible attempt at a pun. “I can’t imagine why. A few days hopping about a pond and eating flies would be a good lesson to him.”
“Or he’d come out worse. This is Elyan. It could go either way.”
Garnet stared at her, aghast. “But why?” she groaned. “Why do you even put up with him — with any of the things he does? I would have …”
But I’m not you, Garnet, Leona thought as Garnet listed the litany of things she would do to Elyan if she were unfortunate enough to be his betrothed. I don’t operate that way.
She had tried all through her adolescence to beat — quite literally beat — some sense into Elyan. It hadn’t worked. Even that time she had pushed him into the pond had only made him more stubbornly insist that he was right and she was willful and wrong. Perhaps pushing him into the pond had been stupid and immature, but you would think the boy would get the hint that maybe he was no Don of Lothario. It hadn’t. However, shortly after Leona had made a mistake: she had gone away to Camford for three years, leaving Elyan to patrol unchecked a pool of young women who thought he was wonderful simply because he was noble. No wonder his head had swollen to twice the size it had been when she left.
“And I think you really ought to … Leona, are you even listening?”
“Not really,” Leona admitted. “Sorry. Got lost in thought there.”
She expected a sniff, a snort, a muttered remark about how it was shocking that Leona had enough thoughts to get lost in. That was what Garnet would have done a year or two years ago. But now, Garnet only clucked her tongue and shook her head, leaving Leona to be amazed at the dividends she could reap from a couple stray acts of kindness.
Then again, who — other than her cousins — had ever truly been kind to Garnet? Morgause had certainly warped and twisted Garnet to a degree that made Sir Bors’s efforts at daughter-rearing look amateurish. Garnet could be acerbic, so most of the other noble girls kept their distance. Other than Lamorak, the boys seemed to be afraid of her, or else related to her. No wonder she tended to respond to an outstretched hand with a bite rather than a welcoming yip. How often had she been petted and not swatted? But like a dog that would defend to the death the first Sim hand that had scratched it behind the ears and gave it a treat, Garnet had apparently decided that Leona was her friend and anyone who wanted to hurt Leona would have to go through her.
“I was saying,” Garnet continued, “that that idiot boy has no idea what he could be potentially throwing away. I mean, look at yourself, Leona!”
“I know,” Leona sighed. “Imagine if he actually got his way with one of those girls. I mean, let’s assume for the moment that he’d know what to do with her if he did — but I bet you my whole next semester’s allowance that if he did, he’d get her pregnant, have to marry her, and then watch my dowry go … well, out of his grasp, that’s for certain.”
Garnet obliged her with a snicker, then scowled. “That wasn’t what I meant! You’re a beautiful, desirable woman in your own right, Leona!”
Leona frowned. “Sorry?”
“Or at least …” Garnet took a step back and surveyed Leona up and down with that critical, appraising look that Leona knew so well. It was generally followed by giggles, snickers, rolls of the eyes, and a certain smug satisfaction.
As she often did, Leona surveyed her own body up and down, but the view must have been different from the top, for she saw nothing to inspire snickers and giggles. Oh, sure, what she had was nothing special, but it was a decent-enough body wrapped in a simple but well-constructed dress of good material. Nothing to write home about, but nothing to laugh over, either.
“Clarice!” Garnet called, and Leona looked up.
“Clarice?” she hissed.
“Shush for just a moment. Clarice!”
“I’m coming, I’m coming!” came the fluting laugh from the other room. Leona had to smile to herself. Clarice was sounding so much better these days, now that her parents knew about her studies (and couldn’t do anything about them) and her betrothal to Freddy was as set as it could be prior to the contracts being signed. At least one of them was doing well. “What do you need?” Clarice asked, emerging from the parlor.
“Your assistance,” Garnet replied.
“I gathered that,” Clarice chuckled. “With what?”
“Getting Leona out the door, down the lane, and into Madam Juliet’s dress shop.”
“Wait, what?” Leona interrupted.
Garnet, however, continued to look Leona up and down with a smirk that bordered on smugness — only it wasn’t quite the type of smugness Leona was used to seeing when other women looked her up and down. “We,” Garnet announced, “are going to take this young lady shopping, and we are going to show your brother just what he’s missing.”
“What? What? No way! Forget it, Garnet! You’re not taking me anywhere, least of all shopping! And I dare you to try!”
I can’t believe they dragged me shopping!
Leona lifted a bit of cloth from the rack and surveyed it with … well, the eye of a thoroughly bored and disinterested young lady. There was probably something deeply wrong with that sentence, but whatever it was, Leona couldn’t be bothered to find it. How the hell did they talk me into this?
It must have been Clarice. Garnet, her decision that Leona was her friend and that Leona needed help notwithstanding, could never have gotten Leona into Madam Juliet’s shop on her own. She would have had to turn Leona into a toad and carry her in her pocket, and even so, Leona was fairly certain she would have hopped away the first chance she got. But Clarice? Clarice’s eyes had lit up at the thought of going out and buying clothes — something Clarice rarely got to do — and Leona just couldn’t resist that look. However, she fully planned on writing to Lynn the moment she got home and begging her to take Clarice shopping for her trousseau the moment Clarice came home for a visit. Maybe it would sate Clarice’s desire for shopping until graduation or so, and then Leona would only have to resist Garnet.
But look at the two of them — just look at them! Going over fabrics and styles and cuts! It was like they truly, honestly enjoyed going to a dress shop and staring at the different wares!
“Clarice,” Garnet called, fingering a brocade that Leona probably could afford but had no desire to buy, let alone wear, “would you come have a look at this?”
“Oh, aye!” Clarice hurried over, and the two girls bent their heads in a whispered consultation.
Leona didn’t get it. Oh, she understood why Clarice and Garnet and girls like them would enjoy shopping for themselves. Clarice had a figure that could look good in a burlap sack, and as for Garnet, Leona got the sense that it didn’t matter what her figure looked like, she’d still find a way to dress it that set the heads of half the boys on campus turning. But Leona was fairly certain that she did not have that type of figure. She had spent too much time honing her body into a tool that would do what she told it to do to be able to mold it into the type of body that looked good in a clinging or not-clinging dress.
Leona looked glumly at the cloth in front of her and sighed. What was worst, she thought, and was possibly her biggest failure as a female, was that she did not understand how to make the two-dimensional cloth mold and wrap around her body in a way that would be pleasing as a three-dimensional dress. One glance at a map and she could turn the squiggles and triangles and dragons in etched into the parchment into rushing rivers and soaring mountains and fire-breathing dragons in her mind, but cloth … if cloth was a map, it didn’t have a key.
“Oh, you think that?” Clarice asked, and Leona looked up. The two heads bent again and the two voices dropped into a whisper before Leona could determine anything else.
They were going to dress her up like a doll, weren’t they? Leona had had dolls as a little girl, just like all the rest of the little girls. They had all dressed their own dolls, too. Leona hadn’t minded her dolls’ simple and functional dresses until she had seen Lynn’s and Clarice’s dolls with their reversible kirtles, undergowns in cloth of silver or gold “borrowed” by Jessie from the Queen’s scrap basket, jewelry of tiny beads painstakingly strung and tied around the dolls’ necks and arms. She remembered the time that Clarice had embroidered a whole square of silk in a tiny but lovely pattern so that her doll could have a dress just like her mother’s.
When the girls — Clarice, Lynn, Jessie, and Leona — had tea parties with their dolls, there was a pattern. Jessie’s doll was always dressed in the richest fabrics, sometimes brocaded, sometimes cloth of silver or gold. Leona realized later that when your mother was the Queen, you got access to much better scraps, and when your mother was Queen Alison, you got plenty of advice on how to dress your doll if you were willing to ask for it. Lynn’s doll always had the most delicate, frilly, girly gown. Clarice’s doll always had the gown of the most meticulous workmanship and exquisite details. And Leona’s dolls? Leona’s dolls looked like poor relations invited only out of pity. It was no wonder that she was done with tea parties by age seven and preferred to play in the mud with the boys.
But being the owner of the worst-dressed doll at the tea party was practically gratifying compared to the humiliation of being the doll.
Leona began to paw through the racks of cloth with a speed she used to reserve for running away after she had tackled Elyan to the ground. She had to find something, anything — ah! There were the racks of sample gowns! Plenty of seamstresses had them — gowns of loose and indeterminate fit that could be laced up to fit a client and give them an idea of how the style or colors would look on them; then the client could order the gown created to their exact size specifications. Leona flipped through the dresses with worried brows.
Too busy, too fussy, too — ugh! That one is too masculine even for me, that one … hey … Leona pulled the one that had caught her eye out and examined it more closely. It was shapely (she hoped), simple, had some pretty trim and she liked the color. It would hopefully do.
“Hey!” she called, emerging with her prize. “I found something!”
“Oh!” Clarice squealed, grabbed Garnet’s elbow and practically dragged her to the little couch placed just in front of the changing screens. Too late did Leona realize what it was for: friends of young ladies, commenting on and critiquing their choices. Maybe some other girls saw this as a bonding experience … but not Leona.
Well, hopefully this gown would meet with their — Garnet’s approval and they could end this farce.
There was a benefit, Leona realized as she wiggled out of one dress and into the other, to her style: she didn’t need the help of a lady’s maid to get her dressed and undressed. Sure, the laces in the back were not pleasant, but by this point she was good as wiggling in and out and unlacing only as much as she needed to extricate herself from the gown. So all in all, it scarcely took her five minutes before she had made her way out from behind the curtain.
However, her reception was not what she had hoped for. “Leona!” Garnet gasped.
“What?” Leona asked.
“Aye, what’s wrong?” Clarice added. “I think it looks very nice. The color looks good on Leona, and I love the trim.”
Leona watched Garnet’s reflection and saw her wave her hand. “It looks good, I’ll give you that, and I think it’s a bit more flattering than her old gown. But … Leona, this is a slightly more flattering version of your old gown with a different color and a higher neckline. It’s not what we’re going for!”
Leona calculated her odds of winning this debate, found them too unfavorable even for her, sighed and trudged back behind the screen.
“What are we going for?” Clarice murmured.
“Something that will knock your brother’s hosen off. Oh, don’t worry, Leona,” Garnet added as she must have noticed Leona freezing. “He’ll keep his braises on. It’s just the hosen we want off.”
“How comforting!” Leona called back.
“As if you wouldn’t pound him into the ground if he tried anything,” Clarice chuckled.
“She’s welcome do to all the pounding she likes,” Garnet announced primly, “as long as she doesn’t get any blood on the gown we pick out.”
Leona rolled her eyes. “Blood’s not that hard to get out of clothing. Jessie used to cover for me all the time.”
“That’s not getting it out, Leona,” Garnet answered. “That’s using magic to make you think the blood isn’t there.”
“… Oh.” Leona tried not to shudder, imagining how many still-bloodstained gowns she had worn, and for how long. But they didn’t even feel stiff and stained!
She emerged from behind the screen and headed back to the racks. “Now, Leona,” Garnet called after her. “Let’s review what we’re after.”
“It can’t be plain.”
“It has to be …” Garnet waved her hand through the air. “Memorable. It has to make the men’s heads turn when you walk past, Leona.”
“And I think,” Garnet mused, tapping a hand on her chin, “that it would not be at all a bad idea to keep going for teals and blues. Teal especially is a very good color on you, Leona.”
“Leona, are you even listening?”
Leona started. “Um …”
“Never mind, I can guess. All right! Just … pick something teal or blue, if possible, but with some nice detailing to make it stand out.”
Teal or blue … nice detailing … make the boy’s heads turn … Leona scratched her head, then something caught her eye. “I think I have it!”
“That fast?” Clarice gasped.
Leona let that go, darted behind the screen, changed, and came back out. “Well? What do you think?”
“Oh! That’s very pretty!” Clarice gasped. “I love the shrug.”
Garnet said nothing, only cocking her head from one side to the other as she surveyed the dress.
Leona decided she wasn’t going to let that bother her as she smoothed the shawl over her hips. Amazing — she actually had hips in this gown. And here she always thought she must have been off doing something more interesting when that particular part had been handed out. “It laces up the front,” she said proudly. “Well, the shawl does. I like the contrast of the color against the gown, don’t you?”
“I do!” Clarice agreed.
Garnet still said nothing.
Leona moved to the mirror, the better to admire the effect. Yes, this would make Elyan sit up and pay attention, whether he wanted to or not. The style wasn’t at all far off from what that other girl in St. Pascal’s Hall had been wearing the other day.
Garnet turned to Clarice. “It’s not it.”
“What?” asked Clarice.
“What?” hissed Leona, spinning to face Garnet.
Garnet shook her head. “That’s not your gown. No. It might make Elyan turn his head, but it won’t keep his eyes on you.” Garnet stood, once again surveying Leona from head to foot. “Get changed and come with me.”
“Leona, we will find the right gown for you here, and we won’t be leaving until we do.”
Leona shot a panicked glance at Clarice. Clarice only shrugged. Grumbling, Leona trudged back behind the screen.
When she emerged again, Garnet was already at one of the racks, and imperiously beckoned her over. Leona went.
“Hold this,” Garnet said as Leona got within handing-to distance.
“I –” She surveyed the striped fabric in her arms. “Garnet, I’m not sure …”
“You will be. Hold on a moment … ah! Hold this, too.” Leona had to dive to catch the shift before it hit the floor. Garnet had many good points, but her aim wasn’t one of them.
“And let’s see …” Garnet hissed and muttered to herself as she flipped through the gown pieces. “Ah! Here it is!”
“Here what is?” Leona asked as another bunch of fabric was added to the burgeoning pile.
“Your –” Garnet narrowed her eyes at the fabric in Leona’s arms again. “… No. No, that’s not it at all.” She grabbed the top layer, shoved it back in the rack, and kept looking.
“Er …” Leona murmured.
“Hold on.” Garnet kept turning over sample after sample. “Ah! Here it is!” She shoved another bit of fabric on top. “Now, you go try all this on.”
“What, all at once?”
Garnet shot Leona a look. “This goes on the bottom,” she grabbed the middle layer of fabric, “this goes in the middle, this goes on top. And it will look fabulous. Trust me.”
Leona looked at the pile of fabric in her arms, weighed her options, and went behind the screen without another word.
It took her longer this time, since she needed to put the new shift on — though why her other shift wouldn’t work just as well was beyond her. And the overdress, with all of its ornamentation, was a bit confusing. She might just have to invest in a lady’s maid after all. But still, in probably fewer minutes than she thought had passed, Leona emerged from behind the screen.
Clarice’s jaw fell and she turned to Garnet. “You are a genius!”
“I know,” Garnet replied.
“Well, look at yourself, Leona!” Clarice replied.
“I …” Leona looked down. Genius? It all looked a bit fussy … a bit complicated from her perspective …
“In the mirror, silly!” Clarice laughed.
“All …” Leona started as she turned toward the mirror.
In the reflection, she could see Garnet’s eyebrows lifting, waiting for the praise that was to come. The worst was that she deserved every bit of the praise that Leona did not know how to voice at that moment. Instead of praise, all that came out was, “I … wow.”
“You look fantastic,” Garnet replied.
“I think I do.”
“I know you do. You like it?”
Leona could only nod at the mirror.
“Good.” Garnet rose and sauntered to Leona. Leona turned to face her.
“And now, my dear,” Garnet continued, reaching out to Leona, “we just need to figure out what to do with your hair …”