“Enough of that, you’d better get up. There’s something I need you to do.”
Belviana glanced at her watch and spoke quickly.
“We don’t have much time left before the luncheon starts, and I need to be fully made up in two hours. Can you help me?”
Lena nodded eagerly. Her tear-filled brown eyes brightened with faint relief.
“I’ll have a bath ready for you right now, and a change of clothes.”
Lena hurried out of the room, eager to prove her competence. Belviana stood motionless until the maid’s footsteps were completely out of earshot, then hurried to the bookcase, which was deep enough that she could slide the books forward and leave a small space behind. She’d kept Liam’s letters there all along.
Belviana tossed down several thick Bibles that filled the fourth shelf. She squeezed through the narrow cracks, not caring if she hurt her hands, and pulled out the papers as she could. With trembling hands, she counted. One, two, three. She barely swallowed the relief that pushed to the edge of her jaw. Thankfully, all of Liam’s letters were still there. Then a miserable feeling crawled up her spine, slowly eating away at her fingertips. She slumped back into her seat like a broken record.
She had never hidden anything from her parents, and she had lived a life far from lying or scheming. She knew very well that any scheme she came up with would look crude to the seasoned eye. Every day was precarious, like standing on the edge of a knife, but it was the only way to keep Liam and herself together, to keep them from being unhappy. To give him enough time to prepare, and for her to hold out, fooling everyone until the last day of the plan. They were halfway to the promised deadline. She couldn’t fall apart here.
Whether the mess in the room was Liliette’s doing or part of Aiden’s plan was hard to determine, but what was clear was that the incident needed to be kept very quiet. It would be more scandalous to make a bigger fuss about catching the culprit than it would be to discover that she hadn’t been in the room last night. Belviana bit down hard on her pale lips.
She picked up her Bible, which had crumpled to the floor. Folded and open, a passage suddenly caught her eye. Belviana couldn’t take her eyes off it for a moment, as if mesmerized.
It is only when you are tempted that you are enticed by your own lust,
and when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin, and sin, when it is full grown, bringeth forth death. James 1:14
In a moment, the hot water was ready, and lavender balm, herb stems, and flower petals floated throughout the tub. Belviana stripped off her clothes and hurried to the tub. While she soaked away her stiffness, Lena searched through Belviana’s closet and brought back almost everything she needed to grow. All sorts of dresses, jewelry, fans, hats, perfumes, and ribbons for the current season……. There were dozens and dozens of colorful dresses, like an entire summer wardrobe. Hanging from the tub with only one arm out, Belviana let out a long sigh. It felt like she was already running out of energy.
“It’s been thirty minutes, my lady. You should come out and get ready.”
Lena clicked her pocket watch shut and urged Belviana on. Belviana dried off, slipped on a light chemise, and stood in front of the mirror. For the first time since last night, her reflection was blushingly obscene. Purplish redness dotted her sternum and neckline.
Belviana stared back and forth at her reflection in disbelief. How could a human being do this, knowing full well that there was a luncheon the day after the banquet? He was shameless, to say the least. Forgetting her irony, Belviana soon began to pick out a dress in earnest. Something light enough for a luncheon, but not too formal or flashy. This one shouldn’t be too plunging, this one shouldn’t show off the nape of her neck, this one shouldn’t be too colorful……. Of the dozens of dresses she tried on, there were only three that she could wear in her current body.
“The best one is this white dress, would you like to try it on?”
The dress Lena held up completely covered the nape of her neck, and while it was somewhat out of step with recent fashion, it had a classic modesty that made it appropriate for a bride-to-be to wear. What’s more, it left her shoulders and arms bare, a stylish twist on the traditional form that was often considered somewhat stuffy. After some thought, Belviana nodded.
“I see. But I think the sash around your waist should be a little more colorful.”
“What would you like it to be?”
“Lavender. Tie it with a small ribbon. Too much ribbon looks silly.”
“Now hold your breath and I’ll tighten the corset.”
Belviana held on to the post and sucked in a breath. It was the day after the banquet, so she wouldn’t need to look as flawless as she had the night before, but these simple dresses could look overly plain if they didn’t show every curve of her body. Holding her breath until she was about to pass out, Belviana tucked in a couple layers of petticoats under her dress. Rich and colorful, but still elegant.
Lena carefully ruffled the dress and cinched it around Belviana’s waist with a sash. Belviana rang the silver bell to summon two more maids. Now the clock was ticking. She was painted white, her lips painted with soft petals, and her braided hair tied in the middle with the same light ribbon as the sash around her waist. The maids’ hands grew busier and busier.
“How far along are you?”
“Don’t worry, it’s still early in the morning, so you have about ten minutes to spare.”
One of the maids replied cheerfully as she pinned up her hair. In the aftermath of the ball, which had lasted until dawn, the guests would not cough up until after eleven o’clock, followed by a leisurely luncheon. The hostess and the first lady of the house were obliged to see to the comfort of the ladies and close relatives who were honored guests in their respective boudoirs. It was one of the traditional and important rituals that followed a banquet in Southern social circles.
“Is everything ready for luncheon? What about Mother?”
“The Countess has already finished decorating the boudoir herself, and she’s probably down in the kitchen right now, inspecting the food for the luncheon.”
“I should have been there too……. Why didn’t my mother come for me, when she called for me every time.”
Belviana asked timidly, for it was the Countess of Lester’s favorite pastime these days to keep an eye on the young lady, who was soon to be in charge of all aspects of the Duke’s household. It was odd that she hadn’t asked for her, as she usually hated her getting up late, even the day after a banquet. The maid was nonchalant.
“The Madame said she thought you overexerted yourself last night and asked me to let you get some more rest.”
“She didn’t seem upset?”
“No. All she said was that if the young lady is still uncomfortable, I could add a few drops of eranium to the honey water and have you drink it.”
“That’s a relief…….”
Belviana, still wincing, bent a little at the waist to make it easier for the maid to touch her. The blonde-haired maid added sweetly.
“I saw it before you came, my lady, and your boudoir is almost ready; it is decorated with white seymour flowers and light blue ribbons, just as you picked out the day before the banquet; the tablecloths are ivory silk and embroidered with fine gold thread, and everything is as you said, from the curtains to the table decorations to the carpet.”
“Good. Did you send all the notes to the ladies?”
“Almost all of them. The Lady of Benzley, the Lady of Cardigger, Lady Adela……. I haven’t left out any of the powerful families, and I haven’t even mentioned Lady Abrams yet.”
“Lady, could you please bow your head one more time……. That’s it!”
The maid finished smoothing out the last of the clothes and released her hand. As the maids stepped back from the mirror in unison, Belviana could finally see herself. Her skin was flawlessly smooth from lack of sleep, and her cheeks were flushed with a fresh rosy color. The maids’ little faces lit up with pride.
“You look so beautiful!”
“In all of Battenberg, there is no one with a waist as thin as yours.”
As the maids chattered on, she looked at her reflection in the mirror and realized that her waist had grown even thinner these days. Of course, her corset was fastened, but her overall figure was more beautiful and voluptuous than before. Like a blossoming bud on the verge of blooming, the girl’s form had vanished, leaving only the shell of a woman’s perfection. The woman in the mirror was perfect, as if made of all the fine and beautiful light in the world. It bothered her terribly. Belviana touched the mirror with her fingertips, then turned away.