Today's Reading

Caroline had news about the ball, gleaned from the revered Mrs. Cubison, the modiste from whom she'd commissioned masks for the three of them. "Mrs. Cubison offered that she'd been retained a month ago to provide masks for the Alucians, and that she and her ladies had worked for days to fulfill their wishes." She'd spoken quickly, with much excitement, even as she lazed on Eliza's bed.

Hollis had gasped and reached for paper. "Not another word until I have my pencil—"

"You won't believe what I tell you," Caroline had said.

"I will."

"The truth will be known soon enough, I suppose—"

"Caro, by all that is holy, if you don't tell us, I will squeeze it from you with my bare hands,"

Hollis had warned.

Caroline had laughed gaily. She enjoyed provoking Hollis, which Eliza had pointed out to her sister more than once. Hollis stubbornly refused to accept it.

"All right, here it is. Every single mask is black and identical."

Hollis and Eliza had stared at their best friend, who very calmly pillowed her hands behind her head and crossed her feet at the ankles.

"Why?" Eliza had asked, only slightly curious about this mask detail.

"So you can't tell the crown prince from the others!" Caroline had cried triumphantly.

Looking around her now, Eliza thought that was very forward thinking by the Alucians because it had worked—she could hardly tell one Alucian from the other. There were scores of tall men dressed in black and identical plain black masks—just like the one she'd encountered in that narrow passageway a quarter of an hour ago.

What a strange encounter that had been. Gentlemen were such odd creatures to her, now that she was at a remove from them by a spinster's arm length. They could be so presumptuous. She realized now she wouldn't be able to pick out that man in this crowd of identically dressed men even if she wanted to encounter him again.

Which she did not. And while the Alucian women were distinguishable by their beautiful gowns, even they wore the same black mask. It appeared as if she would have time to inspect them all, sandwiched as she was between ladies adorned in silk and muslin embroidered with perfect stitching, and topped with elaborately constructed masks for this masquerade ball. Eliza knew her gown was not as beautiful as any of the other garments here. It was rather plain in comparison, really. She and Poppy had created it from two dresses. Poppy was quite talented with a needle, as it happened.

Eliza was talented, curiously enough, with the repair of clocks.

Her gown, made of white silk and blue tarlatan with sprays of blue flowers, floated over three tiers of skirt. Her waist and sleeves were adorned with ribbons bought for a dear sum from Mr. Key's shop. The décolletage was scandalously low, but Hollis said that was the current fashion. It dipped into a little bouquet of gold and blue silk rosettes that bloomed between her breasts. "The gold matches your hair," Poppy had observed as she'd curled and roped tresses of Eliza's hair this evening, twining it with strands of gold leaf.

"Doesn't it seem as if a clump of sod was dropped here and flowers sprang?" Eliza asked, trying to adjust the low bodice.

Poppy had cocked her dark head to one side and considered it. "Not...especially." Her tone lacked conviction, and Eliza gave her a pointed look as she took in their reflections in the mirror, to let her know she didn't believe her.

Hollis had proclaimed Eliza's mask the best of the three that Caroline had bought from Mrs. Cubison, who was, according to Hollis, the premier modiste in all of London. It covered Eliza's forehead and nose, and gold scrolls had been painted around the eyes. The mask rose from the right side of her face, sweeping up and arcing over her head. "It's the Venetian style," Hollis informed her.

Eliza didn't know what style it was and would have no occasion to know, and neither did she care. She was grateful to Caroline for the invitation and for the very generous gift of the mask, but it seemed an extravagant waste of money to Eliza's practical nature. Of the three of them, she was the one who seldom made social calls, who rarely received invitations that were not to do with her father. Who never had occasion to set foot in a masquerade ball. That was what happened to spinster caretakers—they fell from the view of society. Were it not for her dearest sister and wildly popular dearest friend, she'd never go anywhere at all. And even then, on the occasions she was included, she generally had her father to consider.

But tonight, she'd been utterly transformed into someone very different. She wore perfume where she generally smelled like old books and court papers. Her hair was artfully arranged instead of being bound haphazardly at her nape. And her borrowed shoes were embroidered, not scuffed like the ones she wore about the house every day. Thanks to Caroline's magic, she was standing in Kensington Palace in an evening gown and wearing an exotic mask. To say this ball was a luxury for her was a terrible understatement. She intended to breathe in every moment and carry the memory of it around with her for the rest of her days. She didn't fancy herself a Cinderella.

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