Sorry sorry sorry for the very late update! School sort of happened, but the next chapter is up at last!

Disclaimer: Remalna and its inhabitants belong to Sherwood Smith. I merely dabble in her universe.

The Dress

My dress wasn't right. No matter how I tugged at it to fluff out the skirts, they quickly drooped back to hang limply around my legs. No matter how bad was the lighting in the Three Rings, where Papa had hired a room for me (and extracted a promise from Mistress Kepruid that she'd keep an eye on me), even I couldn't pretend that the fabric of my gown was anything but plain old muslin. No fine silks for the daughter of an ordinary farmer!

"It's not right for court, Mama," I'd protested when the two of us had gone to Owen's General Store to select the fabric and purchase a pattern. "Emis says the ladies wear silk or velvet or brocade. I'll look ridiculous!"

Mama didn't even bother looking at me – we'd been having this same argument ever since she and Papa agreed to let me attend Lady Meliara's wedding. Instead, she browsed through the bolts of linen, muslin, and calico – fabrics and prints that I'd worn all my life. Couldn't she see that I needed something special for an occasion like this?

I redoubled my efforts to convince her. "Please, Mama? When will I ever go to Court again? Just this once?"

Still ignoring my anguish, Mama paused in front of a bolt of ivory muslin. "I think we can make a nice dress from this, don't you think, Ara?"

"Muslin?!" I was beyond appalled. "Mama, they'll laugh me out of Remalna-city."

At last she sighed. "Ara, silk is expensive. To buy enough for a ballgown – Ara, when would you ever wear it again? Silk isn't something you can wear around the house or even to the village dances."

I hated it when the question of money intruded on my fine dreams. "Linen, then?"

"Ara. You're lucky you're getting a new dress for this trip. Now stop sulking!"

Master Owens had wisely stayed on the other side of the store during our spat. Now, sensing the end of the fight and a profit to be made, he hurried over, smiling ingratiatingly. The toady, I thought resentfully, even though I usually liked him. When I was little and came in with Mama, he'd sit me up at the counter so I could greet all the customers and pretend I owned the store. He'd give me a piece of rock candy to suck too.

If only he could give me a bolt of silk.

"I see you've found my newest fabric!" he greeted us cheerfully. "Muslin imported from Sartor! Beautiful, isn't it?" As he spoke, he swiftly slid the bolt off the shelf and unwrapped the end. "See how fine the weaving is? Feel how soft the cloth is? It'll make a beautiful dress for our little Ara to wear to Court, and no doubt about it!" He winked at me. "It'll make me proud, knowing that you'll be wearing this to the royal wedding."

I essayed a weak smile.

"It is beautiful material," Mama agreed as I hid my dismay. "Master Owens, how much is it per yard?"

"Three copper coins."

"Three coppers! That's so expensive!"

I turned and wandered off. I hated listening to Mama haggling with Master Owens, as if we were poor folk. I'd wager Lady Tamara Chamadis never had to bargain for anything. I'd wager Lady Tamara has coin enough to buy bolts and bolts of silk without even thinking about it. Sometimes life was really unfair.

By the time I ambled back, Master Owens was saying, "Fine! And I'll throw in a pattern at half price, but that's the lowest I can go!"

"Done." Mama looked smug as we walked home with a package of muslin and a pattern for a ball gown.

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So now I was stuck wearing a plain muslin dress that wasn't even fashionable. It had a simple bodice and full skirts that might have puffed out if Mama and I had been better seamstresses. Aunt Tanta had made my last nice dress – the one that we'd given to Lady Meliara to wear when she was on the run – but my aunt had died two years ago. The only redeeming feature of this dress was the embroidery Mama had done along the hem of the skirt and the edges of the sleeves. She'd found time to painstakingly stitch a pattern of pale pink roses and dusty blue swirls the color of my moonflowers.

And this was to be my ballgown! It was all very well for a village dance – but for a ball? No one would bother to dance with me! They'd be too busy laughing at me. And the Duke! What would he think? Oh, why had I even bothered coming? Sighing, I took off the dress and changed into a walking gown, pink cotton embroidered with moonflowers (once Mama found an embroidery pattern she liked, she tended to use it repeatedly – most of my clothing had moonflower decorations). Lady Tamara had sent a note requesting my company on a walk in the palace gardens.

She looked spectacular, of course, when I met her on the path near the fishpond. No one could ever outshine her.

"My dear!" she said. "Why the sad face?"

I hastily smiled. "Oh, 'tis nothing, my lady." I couldn't confide my fashion woes in the queen of fashion herself!

"Oh, but it can't be nothing, for my little Ara to look so sad."

It would be rude not to answer, wouldn't it? Feeling slightly disloyal to Mama, I explained about the dress and my fears of sticking out like a thornweed in a moonflower patch. "It's just not the thing for court, but I don't have anything that is." I couldn't bring myself to glance at her, in case she thought me a country bumpkin. I couldn't bear the thought of seeing a sneer on that lovely face.

Lady Tamara was silent for a long moment. Then she laughed lightly. I cringed a little, wishing I could just run away back home. Would the courtiers notice if I slipped out by the servants' gate?

"Is that all?" Lady Tamara chided me gently. "Silly Ara! Don't let a dress of all things bother you so much! Bring it to Chamadis House this afternoon, and we'll see what we can do to spruce it up."

"Really?!" Truly she must be the kindest lady ever – after Lady Meliara, of course. "I'd love that!"

As soon as we'd finished our walk – sadly without running into the Duke – I rushed up to my room at the Three Rings to pull out my diary.

Dear Diary,

Lady Tamara is the kindest most wonderful person ever! She's going to make me look fashionable for the big ball!

I could already see it – the grand ballroom would be lighted with crystal chandeliers and adorned with garlands of fragrant flowers and amongst all the women there I, Ara Vestuk, would shine brightest. Lords would stare as I danced by and ask one another, "Who is that beauty?" and the Duke of Savona would walk up to me and ask, "Will you dance with me?"

I can't wait!

Then I shoved my diary back into my trunk, grabbed the garment bag containing my dress, and dashed down the stairs, narrowly missing poor Elun.

"Hullo!" he exclaimed. "What's this? Are you leaving us for another inn?" he teased, nodding at the garment bag. "The Three Rings not fine enough for you now that you've met all the lords and ladies?" His face had a slightly worried look, but I barely took note of it as I grabbed his hand and danced us around the narrow hallway.

"Oh, Elun, 'tis wonderful! Lady Tamara says she'll fix up this old thing for me so I'll look nice for the ball! She's just the nicest person ever!"

My braids whipping around my face and my garment bag spinning around us, I twirled the two of us to the entryway of the inn, Elun laughing as giddily as I.

"And now, my lord Elun," I said in a mock-solemn voice, dropping him an unsteady curtsey, "I must take my leave of you."

Elun had put a hand on the wall to regain his balance. Now he bowed awkwardly to me. "I am desolate, my lady Ara. I will see you at dinner."

Then the two of us tried to sweep off in our separate directions with all the grandeur and arrogance of great nobles – but it was just too funny. I glanced back over my shoulder at him, he looked back at me, and we dissolved into helpless laughter again.

Afraid that dust from the streets would invade my garment bag and dirty my dress – one of the disadvantages of a pale gown – I took the quieter back streets for as much of the way to Athanarel as I could. All around me the little shops had been preparing for the wedding, streamers and bows of Remalnan green and gold adorning their window displays. I passed by one shopkeeper tying a jaunty golden bow on the streetlight post outside his store. The residential streets were also festooned with green and gold decorations – little Remalnan flags stuck in window flower boxes, wreaths of green leaves and yellow flowers hung on doors, and even ribbons tied to tree branches. Looking around me at all the preparations, I felt a surge of joy that I was a part of all this, that I was here representing a family that had enabled Lady Meliara to ascend the throne. Truly I was lucky!

Lady Tamara's maid Kerael was expecting me at Chamadis House. She led me into the sitting room, where Lady Tamara waited with an older woman. Hela, her name was, Lady Tamara's own seamstress. She'd be looking at my gown!

Feeling a little self-conscious, I relinquished my garment bag to her and looked on anxiously as she examined Mama's and my handiwork. Some of my stitches hadn't been very even. Lady Tamara didn't join the examination. Instead, she called for a tray of desserts and a pot of tea and sat on a sofa, languidly munching a cookie.

Finally, Hela looked up from my dress. "The colors are very fine," she said, addressing herself to Lady Tamara. "If my lady wishes, I could enhance the dress by adding a sash and some lace – " she gestured quickly, demonstrating with her hands the changes she intended to make.

Lady Tamara nodded. "I trust your judgment." She sounded uninterested.

Shouldn't you ask me? I thought in dismay. I had no doubt that Hela would do a beautiful job, but still. It was my dress! No, I told myself firmly. Don't be ungrateful. You're a guest here and Lady Tamara is doing you a huge favor.

Hela nodded. "Yes, my lady."

"Have it ready by tonight. You may leave it with Kerael," Lady Tamara commanded.

The seamstress curtseyed, took my dress, and left. I felt odd. Wouldn't I even get a chance to supervise her work? It was my dress, after all. But one didn't argue with Lady Tamara Chamadis. Emis had made that quite clear, in all the stories she'd told me.

The lady in question looked up at me from her cup of tea. "There now! You see?" she asked me gaily. "Wasn't that easy?"

Knowing what was expected of me, I thanked her politely. Would she ever ask me to sit down? My feet were beginning to hurt from the fine – but tight – slippers I had on. But no. Rising with one graceful motion, she led the way back to the foyer.

"Come by after dinner, and we can get you prepared for the ball." With that, she bid me farewell and her footman shut the door behind me.

Well, that was different from how she'd treated me in the gardens! There she'd been most attentive to me. This time she'd been distant – remote – as if fulfilling a necessary but less-than-exciting task. Feeling a little hurt, I wandered off on a stroll about Remalna-city. If I were lucky, Elun might be free to join me.

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When I returned to Chamadis House that evening, a maid I hadn't seen before showed me into a small room in the servants' wing and showed me the dress. It was – I gaped at it – it was utterly transformed! Hela's skillful hands had added cascading lace with rose patterns at the sleeves and dusty blue silk sashes that crisscrossed across the bodice. The sleeves were accented with pink silk roses and blue ribbon bows. Best of all, the skirts puffed out now! A quick peek under the muslin skirts showed layers and layers of fine tulle.

Gone were all my misgivings over how Lady Tamara had acted. Truly she was one of the nicest people I'd ever met!

The maid – who wouldn't talk much despite all my efforts to strike up a conversation with her – helped me change into my wonderful ballgown. She fixed my hair too, pinning a headdress of pink roses and blue ribbons securely in place. My head felt like it was going to tip backwards from the weight! No wonder so many court ladies looked down their noses at people. Their headdresses were just too heavy!

Once I was all ready for the ball, the maid led me into the sitting room to wait for Lady Tamara. Afraid of wrinkling the back of my gown, I stayed standing for ages, shifting my weight from foot to foot. When she appeared at last though, I gave a gasp of amazement. No wonder she'd taken so long to dress! She looked like one of those princesses in folksongs– her black, black tresses tumbling down her back in artfully-styled cascades, her dark blue silk gown embroidered with lilies of the valley and pearls and twinkling with tiny sequins sewn on the lace trim. And – oh! Wonder of wonders – ivory sashes, the same color as the lace at elbows, crisscrossed across the bodice of her gown to! Just like mine!

"My lady!" I cried, sinking into my best curtsey. "You look beautiful!"

She smiled, face all alight with pleasure. "And so do you, Ara. Let me have a better look at you." She studied me and nodded in satisfaction. "Just what I hoped for. How do you like the sashes?"

"I love them, my lady?" I answered with all my heart.

"Good." Her voice regained its courtierly drawl, but I could sense her excitement. "Then let us go set a new fashion."