The Slipper Fit


3. Feathers

"That went well, didn't it?" Phoebe said suggestively, clinging to my elbow as we headed back towards the carriage that would take us home.

"I suppose," I answered, brushing off the question. I was still far too concerned about the masquerade tomorrow to worry about anything else, though I wasn't about to tell Phoebe about my predicament. It was embarrassing, but since she'd neglected to tell me about it in the first place I had to admit I was quite annoyed with her. Still, considering I was staying with her family I had no desire to start an argument, so I thought it best I let it go for the time being.

"I should have thought you would be more excited. Prince Sebastian asked to dance with you after all," she pressed. I calmed myself down and smiled at her, patting her arm.

"I am excited, though I'm certain he'll want to dance with a thousand other ladies as well. There is not much special about the promise of one dance. I'd rather he offered me all of them, though I suppose that's a little greedy of me isn't it? I ought to give other girls a chance to enjoy him before he's mine forever," I laughed, hoping I would be able to lighten the mood a little. Thankfully, Phoebe seemed to take the bait, and chuckled along with me. I was relieved to know that she didn't suspect me of being annoyed with her, despite the fact that my problem wasn't solved either way.

The carriage ride back to Phoebe's home was uneventful, and so was the rest of our afternoon. After we finished a fine meal of honeyed duck, more succulent than anything I'd tasted in ages, Phoebe beckoned me excitedly to her room.

She dashed through the corridors of the home like she was a child with a secret, until we came to her room. With a view of the ocean, Phoebe's room far outshone my own, but what was perhaps even more spectacular than her ocean views and elaborate furnishings was the dress she'd laid out on her bed. It was more golden than even the sun, and glittered every time I took a step towards it. Phoebe would hardly go unnoticed in such a gown, and I felt myself burn with envy and disappointment that I would not look nearly so stunning. Frankly, I'd be unable to go at all if I didn't find a costume and gown in time, and considering the hour I was growing more and more anxious. If I didn't find an answer soon I knew I'd have to abandon my pride and ask Phoebe and her mother for help or risk not going to be with Sebastian at all. Dressing appropriately to an event may not seem to be the most grievous of social sins, but among the elite of High City, it meant everything. Without a costume I knew the prince would never dare dance with me, and I'd be the laughing stalk of all well to do society. My chances at a royal match would be null and I'd be sent home in shame.

"What do you think of the dress Honor?" Phoebe asked, though she already knew what my answer would be. There was only one I could give.

"It's simply spectacular Phoebe. What are you going as?" I wondered, for without seeing the mask I couldn't be certain.

"I'll leave that as a surprise for tomorrow. Won't you show me your gown? I'd love to see what they made for you in the country. I'm certain you've different material up there in the middle of no-where," she laughed, and I pretended not to hear the slight. If by different fabric she meant chicken feathers and burlap she would have been correct. Silk and satin were hardly in demand there, and all the dresses I'd brought had been commissioned slowly, and most made with good scraps of fabric I was able to find. I'd learned nothing if not how to be economical, and I wanted to use it to my advantage.

"Oh I promise it won't be as lovely as yours," I said, completely honestly. "But I'd like for it to be a surprise as well." It would surely be a surprise when I admitted I had nothing to wear, but that was a bridge to be crossed at a later time.

Phoebe looked at me with skeptical amusement, agreeing that she'd wait, and I breathed a sigh of relief before pleading exhaustion and heading to my chambers to see if I could come up with a plan.

When I entered, the same chambermaid from yesterday was inside, dusting off the furnishings. As soon as she heard me she dropped the feather duster on the floor with a loud clunk and curtsied deeply.

"Good heavens, do be more careful," I chastised gently.

"Sorry m'lady. Is there anything I can do for you m'lady?" she asked, keeping her face to the ground. She was shaking worse than a leaf in a summer storm, and I had to admit I was concerned for her well being. I'd never seen a person so uncomfortable before.

"Unless you can make a gown suitable enough for a masquerade appear in my closet, than I'm afraid not," I muttered self-deprecatingly.

"I- I can't do that I'm sorry m'lady," the maid said, like she was truly apologetic that she couldn't preform the miracle I needed. I laughed a little at her expense. Truly she was a wonder.

"I didn't expect you to, never fear," I said. The tiny girl curtsied again and moved to continue dusting, but I beckoned for her to stop what she was doing.

"Please, sit," I said, ushering her to the chaise closest to the one I was sitting in.

"Oh no m'lady, it's not allowed," she said.

"Nonsense, it's allowed if I say it is. If you didn't sit then you wouldn't be following my instructions then would you? Don't you think that's even worse than sitting on a couch?"

The chambermaid looked apprehensively at me, before sitting slowly.

"The Mistress don't like our dirty clothes on her nice things m'lady."

"Well I won't say a word, I promise. Tell me your name."

"Clara m'lady."

"Very good. Now Clara, what about me is so frightening that has you shaking like a mouse?" I asked her.

"I'm not shaking," the girl replied, causing me to stand and take her trembling hands in my own as if to prove it to her. She flinched at my touch, and resigned to reply to my question, as if defeated.

"I just don't want to disappoint m'lady, is all," she answered. Her situation was quite curious, and while I hadn't really examined the other staff in the manor carefully, I wondered if it was a trait they all possessed.

When I moved to the country, I had been forced to learn quite quickly that there was no shame in working for a living. Most people needed to do so to stay alive, without the luxury of family estates and wealth to their name, but that didn't entitle them to any less respect. It didn't mean I felt that the working class shouldn't be expected to do the job they were paid for, but it wasn't unheard of for certain families to mistreat those in their employment. I didn't wish to think ill of Phoebe and her family, but I was starting to get that impression from Clara.

"You won't disappoint. I'm sorry for questioning you about the dresses before. I can be a bit blunt sometimes, I admit, but you needn't take it seriously," I said, and the girl seemed to calm down a bit.

"Now perhaps you can help me. I brought a dress for the ball tomorrow, but I don't think it will be very suitable for a masquerade, and I only just found out that's what tomorrow is to be."

Clara nodded, taking in all my words as seriously as she could. I hoped that by thinking she could truly be of assistance to me, she would feel a little more confident.

"Lady Phoebe's been planning her dress for ages," the girl said. "She bought out the gold thread from the entire city, and the seamstresses had to send out for more from Idara."

"Given the sheen of her dress, that's not surprising," I answered, going to my closet and pulling out the gown I'd prepared for the event already. Unlike the white I usually wore, this gown was designed to stand out. It was a brilliant shade of blue-green that the seamstress back home said complemented my eyes beautifully.

"This is the one I brought," I said to the girl, unsure as to why I was explaining my situation to her but happy to at least have someone to talk my problem through with. I always found things were far easier to solve if you had someone to discuss them with.

"I want to hear you're opinion. Honestly," I insisted, hoping the order would ensure she did as I asked.

"It's a very lovely dress," Clara began. I sensed a however coming.

"But it's not a costume is it? Not real fancy like," she finished.

"Precisely my problem. As I haven't time to get a new one made, I'll need to work with what I've got."

"It's a pretty color. If we made it more sparkly it would surely stand out more," Clara said, quite astutely, I thought.

"Yes but how? I'm hardly wealthy like Phoebe, I can't afford to trim it with jewels."

The two of us looked pensive for a while, until Clara shouted out with excitement- a feat I didn't quite expect from her.

"My da's a forger!"

"That's excellent, but I don't see how that helps," I answered gently.

"Sometimes, when he breaks a mirror, or he's got too much to fit in the frame, he makes the bits into little beads. They aren't jewels by any means, but they sparkle something fierce," she finished. It was actually brilliant. With little mirrors sewn on, my dress could reflect the ballroom around it, and subtly pick up the colors in the room. As an idea it definitely had merit.

"Would your father sell them to me, right away?" I asked quickly.

"He makes them for me and my ma mostly, but I'm sure we could use the coin m'lady. What of the mask then?" she wondered. "What will you be? There's not much around that shade of color."

Then, the idea hit me as clearly as if I'd been physically struck with it.

"But there is Clara! The bird I saw today. Its feathers were nearly this color. If I could only manage to fetch some I could easily embellish my hair enough to make me look in costume. I may not have a mask, but at least it's something."

The chambermaid obviously had no idea what I was referring to, but I was far too lost in thought to indulge her curiosity. I quickly rushed to the chest where I kept my funds, and I handed Clara 5 silver coins. It was more than I had to spend, but far less than were I to buy fancy jewels. Besides, it would be far more than Clara's father would otherwise make. I instructed her to go home as quickly as she could to fetch them, while I returned to the menagerie to see about borrowing some feathers.

Surely the large birds shed their feathers, and if they didn't then I'd have to find a way to be creative. As an idea it wasn't much- in fact it was downright foolish. Still, it was all I had.

I put on one of the simpler dresses I'd packed, and a hood that would serve enough to cover my hair and add to my anonymity, before following Clara out of the manor until we had to part ways.

"Good luck m'lady," she whispered with a sweet smile. I nodded in response and began the walk to the menagerie. It didn't take that long to arrive, though I wasn't sure how I would manage to get inside at the late hour. Even the lights of the palace were dim, and the only sound I could hear was the rushing of the ocean waves against the cliffs in the distance.

Still, I wouldn't let something as silly as a gate dissuade me from my mission. At first, I hoped a simple jarring would do to unlock it, but I should have known better. So, seeing as there were no guards around, I thought it best to try and pull myself over the fence. It wasn't terribly high, and grooved enough that I was certain my feet could slip in if I wasn't wearing my slippers. I tossed them over the fence before me and prepared myself.

I wasn't very efficient at climbing, and overall the effort was a bit overwhelming for me, so once I reached the top of the gate I was already frustrated. Climbing down, which I'd hoped would be easier, was in fact far more difficult than I'd anticipated- and I fell down only to land on my behind, dust rising in the night air around me. I coughed it up, and brushed myself off, thankful that no one had seen me behaving so gracelessly.

In the dark, the menagerie looked completely different, as if a whole other world had been revealed, one just as beautiful as during the daylight, but with an entirely unique character. I tried to remember the way I'd taken with Phoebe to the bird cages, and as quietly as I could muster, I crept towards them.

For a moment, I thought I'd heard a sound, and I spun around quickly to look behind me, but seeing only blackness I discarded my anxiety as nothing more than my imagination, and continued until I heard the sound again. Soft, like a purr, it grew closer and closer to me until my heart was pounding so loudly inside my chest I could barely hear it any longer.

Instead of remaining quiet, I began to run, and the sound followed me, growing louder until I could hear footsteps as well. When I reached the bird cages I was out of breath, for I was hardly used to running. With my back up against the grate I couldn't even celebrate the fact that I had arrived when two, golden eyes stared at me in the darkness. I had no idea what manner of creature it might be, perhaps another one in the Crown Prince's collection- I only knew it was big, and had white teeth that shone under the moon's light.

It made a sound then, a sharp roar as it padded closer to me and bared its fangs, and I couldn't help but cry out in fear. Drool hung from the creature's mouth while it stared at me viciously, and I knew I'd never been so afraid in my life.

"Go away!" I shouted, keeping my legs in front of me as if I could hope to push the beast back with them. For a moment, I thought it would eat me, and I shut my eyes and looked away until a voice echoed in the darkness.

"Shah, enough." At the command, the creature backed away and walked towards the voice, while I sat as still as could against the bird cages, my heart was nearly ready to fall from my chest.

A man came towards me then, dressed very strangely. He wore loose fitting breeches and a long white tunic, tied at the waist with a colored sash. His hair was covered in a cloth hat of sorts, and I could tell his skin was tanned by the sun, even in the darkness. His face however, was mostly a mystery, though his eyes shone almost like his creature's had.

"I thought you'd caught a thief Shah, but you've found something even better. Still, one must wonder what a lady is doing out of bed at this time of night. Some clandestine affair perhaps? I find it all very intriguing."

I had caught my breath enough to be insulted by then, and gathering my composure to get to my feet, I stood as tall as I could muster, never turning my gaze away from the beast.

"I am not sure what you are playing at, leaving that monster loose in here to terrify people!" I exclaimed. The man laughed, clearing ignoring my outrage.

"I think you'll find he's the one who belongs here. You, on the other hand, are the one quite out of place. I would like an answer for that, if you don't mind," he said confidently as he stroked the beast on its head.

I had to concede that he was right, but I hadn't anticipated on dying for the sake of a few feathers. Still, there was no getting out of my predicament now, so I knew I'd need to answer him honestly. He didn't seem the gullible type, and definitely not one to be put to rest by the bat of my eyelashes.

"I came for the feathers of that bird," I admitted.

"So you are a thief then," the man said with a smirk.

"No, it's not like that. I needed them for the ball tomorrow night. I didn't know it was a masquerade and I didn't come to High City prepared."

"So you were going to steal them. And you thought you could just waltz right in here and take them. Tell me, how were you going to get into the cage? Or were you going to just wait until the peacocks came to you? A feat that would be highly unlikely, I assure you."

"I admit I didn't exactly think it through, but they're called peacocks?" I wondered, and the stranger only sighed.

"Of course they are. Here you are, ready to pluck out their feathers, and you don't even know their proper names. That's quite discourteous of you. They are male after all, and very proud."

"They're all males?"

"You're surprised? It's true, the females are quite a bit less impressive than their mates. So you see, here you are trying to pluck out the feathers of a male bird to don for a masquerade meant to satisfy your own vanity. Imagine the shame they must feel at the notion."

I could tell by his tone that he was laughing at me. Not that I blamed him, for I must truly look like a dimwit in his eyes, risking my life for a few feathers. I couldn't help but burn with embarrassment.

"I didn't want to hurt them, but thought they must shed their plumage as other birds do."

"You are correct in that, but not until the end of summer. So my lady, I fear you are out of luck, and must retreat empty-handed."

"It might seem silly to you sir, but once I set my mind on something I aim to see it through. Perhaps you are not aware, since clearly you are not from here, but in High City, to go to a royal event inappropriately attired is one of the most socially suicidal things a person can do. Seeing as I've only just arrived here, you can imagine I'm not eager to leave so soon."

The man nodded, all in mock seriousness, which only served to frustrate me even more.

"Imagine the power you might wield if you put that determination into something other than a dress. As it stands, you are trying to accomplish what? Do you think dressing flamboyantly will make the crown prince fall in love with you? I suppose being the queen would be worth the risk of sneaking in here."

"Not that I think I need to justify myself to you, but I am not interested in the crown prince, and I could care less about being the queen. I love someone else, and that is far more important than titles or riches. Who are you anyway? Another one of the eccentricities Prince Theron brought back with him from Idara?"

The man laughed again, a loud, deep sound that would have probably been pleasant if he didn't annoy me so much.

"I suppose you could say that. To say I am eccentric is hardly an exaggeration. But come now, you won't find any feathers here, so the least I can do is take you back to the gate and open it for you." I knew that there was nothing to be done for it, so I followed the man back to the exit. After my adventure with the beast earlier I felt far safer that way, if not disappointed with my lack of success. Honestly, I didn't even know what other result I could have hope for.

When we arrived at the gate, the stranger spoke again.

"How did you get inside?"

"I climbed over the gate," I admitted, still thinking of how I was going to be more than a little embarrassed when I admitted my lack of a costume to Phoebe and her family in the morning.

"Of course you did."

"You won't tell anyone will you? About meeting me here?"

"And lose the opportunity to tell such a tale? What's in it for me?" he asked slyly.

"I don't have any money."

"I didn't ask for money."

"Then what do you want?" I demanded.

"I'll think about it," he answered, and shut the gate behind me with another laugh, the black beast at his heels as he walked back towards the palace.

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