The sound of her sobbing was clear even through the closed door. I didn't want to embarrass her by butting in, but I also knew it was important to get her out of the room to eat. Breathing in deeply, I rapped lightly on the door and waited. Her sobbing abruptly quieted and I heard her shuffle around the room.
"Who is it?" she asked weakly.
"It's Melody, I want to invite you to dinner with us."
She padded up to the door and opened it a crack. Though she was trying to hide her face, it looked horribly puffy and red with tear-stains running down her cheeks.
"I don't think I feel like eating right now, but thank you for the offer."
"You'll feel better if you do," I pressed, "if you need help getting yourself together I wouldn't mind helping. I even brought you an outfit if you need. We look about the same size."
The door opened just enough to let me in after a moment's pause and she quickly closed it behind me as if she was terrified of anyone seeing her in her current state. The bed in the room was obviously wet from her crying face down on it, I averted my eyes, hoping that she would think I hadn't noticed.
"Here, it's not near as grand as your current outfit, but it might make you feel a little better to have a change a clothes." I extended the blue blouse and tan pants to her.
"I... I've never worn pants before," she said, picking them up like they might bite her. "I've made them plenty of times when father was backed up on men's orders, but he always said that a lady tailor would never be caught dead in a pair."
"I think you'll like them, they're very comfortable," I encouraged. "They're not quite as free feeling for your legs, but it's nice to not have to worry about whether your hemline is climbing up or if the breeze is too strong."
Clarice turned the pants over in her hands, unfolding them to give them a good look. Still seeming slightly uncertain, but willing to give them a try she began to peel off the layers of her garments.
Giving her some privacy to change, I prepared a wet rag from the pitcher of water and lathered it with the provided bar of soap so that she could go to dinner with a fresh face.
"These feel strange, but not bad," she commented.
I turned and held out the rag to her. "They look good on you."
"Thank you," she said quietly and began to scrub her face. "I am sorry again, you did not deserve the way I treated you before. Are... are the scratches very bad?"
"No, they will be a distant thought in another couple of days. Don't worry about it, just focus on your future now."
"That's what scares me right now," she said with a pitiful, airy laugh, "I have no idea what the future holds for me. Father always told me that Winter fae pay well, but they are not to be trusted. Now I have agreed to be employed by one." Her eyes widened and she gasp slightly. "I didn't mean it like that, I know you're to marry him... oh... no, please don't be upset with that."
I gave her a gentle smile and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. "It's okay, he's not like the others. I have heard the same things about them, but I assure you that he is different. I don't think you will end up regretting your decision."
After giving her face a good scrub, we headed down to the tavern where Rhine was already waiting. He had taken the liberty of ordering wine for the table along with bread with butter to wet our appetites. He pulled out each of our chairs and settled in next to me, wrapping his arm around my shoulders.
"Well ladies, tonight we're in for a treat," Rhine said with a smile. "Since every noble in town seems to be gone now, I talked the kitchen into surprising us with their best dishes and desserts. Tonight is a celebration."
Clarice gave a weak smile, eyeing the wine glass with uncertainty. "I've never drank."
Rhine nearly dropped the bottle of wine he was trying to uncork. His face looked like he couldn't comprehend the order of the words in her sentence.
"Father said that ladies never demean themselves by drinking alcohol." She blushed and looked away from the two of us. "He said that people would think I was a woman of ill-repute."
"What is it with with this kingdom and being obsessed with the image and reputation of women?" Rhine asked to no one in particular. Making a point, he finished uncorking the bottle and poured Clarice's glass first, motioning for her to drink.
Hesitating for a moment, she brought the glass to her lips, giving it a deep sniff. Seeming satisfied she took a small sip and set the glass back down. Her face screwing up into an expression of disgust.
Rhine let out a twinkling laugh and poured the other two glasses. "I have yet to meet anyone who doesn't have that reaction the first time they drink alcohol. Don't worry, the flavor grows on you."
"Are you sure?" she sniffed, nose still crinkled up.
"The more you drink of it, the better it is," I added, tipping my glass to her.
"She speaks the truth. Plus, if you're going to be living within the walls of my kingdom, you're going to have to acquire a taste for it. Winter fae drink wine like water, we practically come out of the womb as seasoned drinkers."
A couple glasses in and Clarice no longer seemed to make a face or comment on the flavor. Her adjustment was likely aided by the strong cheeses and greasy fowl the kitchen had put together for us. By the time we were finished, we all looked just a little bit sick and disgusted at ourselves with how much we managed to consume. The food sat heavy in our stomachs, making all of our eyelids droop.
"I think we should get some rest, it has been an interesting day," Rhine said, downing the rest of his wine and stretching widely. "We will need to finish any last errands in the morning, then we will leave for my kingdom at noon."
"I thought we were still a day out from leaving?" I inquired, confused. Though parts of yesterday were hazy enough to make me question the passage of time.
"We were. However, my cousin came to speak with me while you two ladies were getting ready and we should get moving on early." Rhine caught my eye with a look that told me we'd talk about it once we were alone.
"All the better," Clarice sighed, swaying a little from the wine. "I want to be far away from here and my family."
"We will get up early and get you clothing, could be fun. Don't think I've ever shopped with a woman of my same age before."
"If you don't mind, I think I'd like to get some fabric instead for most of my clothing. I really enjoy creating and designing."
"I think that is a fantastic idea," Rhine interjected. "Melody, I'll make sure you have ample coin with you to make certain that you can purchase anything for clothing that catches your eye. I will pay you well to make the clothing for her, Clarice."
For the first time, she cracked a smile. "That sounds fun, should I also purchase sewing supplies?"
He waved his hand to dismiss the idea. "Everything you will need I will provide, I will make sure to gather everything while I run my own errands in the morning."
Excited for the morning, we parted ways to our rooms. I was delighted at the idea that I was a commoner with my own personal tailor. I don't think I would ever be able to find another of my social standing with such a luxury. The excitement of being able to pick out a whole new style for myself temporarily overwhelmed any fear I had of actually making it to the court.
With the door closed behind us, Rhine's face turned slightly somber, lips pressed together as he gathered his thoughts.
"I had to move up the day, because I now know that I am right that that summer fae, Jacine, is up to something."
I hadn't thought about her all day, but now that I was imagining her face, I felt uneasy.
"Herot came by in a hurry, telling me that she asked him when we were planning to leave for Court. Apparently she wouldn't take his deflection and he ended up telling her. I don't trust that she wanted to know so badly, so he's opening the portal earlier and will not tell her until after we're already gone. He'll make up some story about an emergency I need to attend to."
"What do you think she's up to?" I wasn't sure I actually wanted to know the answer with what little I knew about fae Court politics.
"I can't be sure, she's not exactly displaying her hand. I think it might have something to do with us, though."
I blinked in confusion, I certainly had not expected his response. We had only met her once and she had seemed on some level concerned what my fate would be, but certainly there had not been enough time for her to plan any sort of elaborate scheme.
"What would she want out of meddling in our affairs?" I questioned.
"That's the heart of the question and I don't know the answer. She is disgraced from her own Court, I can't imagine that she would be foolish enough to try to meddle with Winter to get back in Summer's graces. I suppose if she did manage to pull some kind of power move off that it could work, but it'd be very risky for her to do so alone," he mused.
We threw guesses back and forth as we prepared for bed about what her motives could be. It was pretty difficult when neither of us had any in-depth interactions with her outside of one night and all Rhine knew of her was the gossip. It seemed very unlikely that she knew we would be in this particular town during this time, though since she was already established, she could have just been playing a waiting game.
By the time we snuffed the candles and were curled up together in bed, we were considering if maybe we were both just paranoid. Perhaps our fear of what the Queen would do when I arrived had been eating enough at the back of our minds to be jumpy. Though that wouldn't necessarily explain Herot's concern, he seemed to be quite the opposite, he was looking forward to watching the fireworks of our arrival. Regardless of if we were right or wrong in any of our theories, there was nothing we could do but continue as planned, watch, prepare, and wait.
In the morning I felt much more clear-headed, though that only served to intensify the feeling of unease about the inquiries of the Summer fae. It was much too timely and targeted to be just a passing fancy or curiosity. In my mind, it seemed certain that she was planning something, even if it was just minor mischief. Any kind of mischief was unwelcome when I already had the daunting task of acclimating to an entire new kingdom full of people who would not want me there.
Rhine was gentle and soft with me as usual, but instead of light teasing and jokes that I had come to expect with his morning routine, he was much quieter. It was obvious that he was thinking similar thoughts to my own. I could only begin to imagine how many chess pieces and scenarios he was trying to account for knowing that he had so much more information about potential political and social implications.
"Do you remember how to get to Herot's cottage?" he asked, finishing the process of buttoning up his shirt.
"I do, it would be hard to miss."
"Good, try to get the both of you there just before noon," he instructed. "There will be no need to knock, just walk around to the back garden of the cottage."
"When we do enter into your Kingdom, will we have time before we end up at court?" I asked, trying my best to keep my voice steady. I knew that he understood by this point how daunting the trip was, but a small part of my pride still wanted to come off as brave.
"Not exactly," he said slowly, glancing at me out of the corner of his eye like he thought I might make a run for it, "that's why I'm going my own way this morning to make preparations. We are going to end up there a day early which complicates the plans. Don't worry yourself about it though, you will enter into the kingdom with no one the wiser until we are ready to unveil you."
I sincerely wanted to know what he was planning, but I had a sinking feeling that if I pried it would only serve to add to my anxiety. It was probably better to not know what the plan was until it was too late to back out of it. Besides, I had seen the way that Rhine could manipulate situations to work out in his favor, I just had to trust that he had the same effect on other fae.
Clarice looked much more fresh-faced and excited to go shopping, though her under eyes were still a bit sunken and dark. She had opted to dress again in the pants I had given her, which I was glad for. It would be nice to walk around town without seeming like I was the one out of place. While her fair skin and golden hair gave her away as a child of a higher class, wearing similar clothing buffered the effect.
"I would like to go to the vegetable farmer first, if you don't mind," Clarice said as we finished up our porridge breakfast.
"I don't mind, but what could you possibly want there? I sincerely doubt that we'll need to worry about having food for our journey," I asked.
"Cucumbers," she stated, "though not to eat. I'm sure it hasn't escaped your notice that my eyes are not quite looking as I'd like them to."
"I see..." I replied, utterly confused about what a tasteless vine vegetable had to do with her skin issues.
"You cut them into slices and place them over your eyes to restore their moisture and reduce their puffiness," she explained. "Surely you've seen it done before."
"I can't say that I have, I've only seen people eat vegetables, not wear them."
She let out a soft, high-pitched laugh, making sure to cover her mouth politely with her napkin. The sound seemed practiced, like she had been training how to emit sounds of amusement like a lady.
"I wouldn't really call it 'wearing' them, but I assure you that it is quite popular among many women. My mother treats her eyes every morning, especially when cucumbers are in season and her eyes have not wrinkled nor discolored despite her advancing age."
"What does she use when cucumbers are not in season?" I inquired, trying to wrap my brain around what seemed like nonsensical waste of food.
"Potatoes of course," she said like she couldn't believe that I didn't already know. "They're not as good for the skin of course, but they do a decent enough job of moisturizing when nothing else is available."
I sat back and looked over her face, scanning for any hint of mirth or jest. Surely people did not buy food only to waste it on vanity. Had I ever brought up such an idea to either of my parents, they would have gone mad at the idea of wasting food, even those with barely more taste than spring water.
"I will show you," she said, beckoning me to stand with her. "I promise you will see its value and I assure you it has more value as a beauty product than a food. When have you ever felt full or satisfied on a meal of cucumber anyway?"
She had a point. I could not bring to mind the last time I had any inclination to spend any coin on one. The poorest of people knew that starchy vegetables, even if they took a long time to cook, were a better use of your money and would feed more mouths for longer. Still, knowing that it could be used to feed someone who was desperate made the idea of using it for my skin feel deviant.
Exiting the front door of the inn, she made a beeline across the street, knowing exactly where to go. There was a sun-weathered old man hunched over a cart filled with various fruits and vegetables that smelled like they were all perfectly ripe as of sun-up that morning. While his produce was a sight to behold, he was the exact opposite of his wares, skin leathery and back deformed with a large lump that caused him to perpetually stand in a bowing position.
"Miss Clarice," the old man greeted, widening his mouth into a smile that revealed that he was on the last few of his teeth, "I have two perfect ones for you this morning, they're nice, ripe, and juicy."
"You're the best, Morris," she giggled, pulling her coin pouch from her pocket. "I'm afraid that this might be the last you see of me for a while, I have an opportunity to be a tailor to a royal family."
His grin widened and he let out a wheezy laugh. "I knew you'd be snatched up one day. I also told your parents that they were holding back your potential. You make sure to come back by one day again, I'll keep holding back the good produce for you just in case."
While they talked, I was much too busy scouring over the citrus options to interject myself into the conversation. Citrus fruits of all varieties were fairly hard to come by in most villages, great care and luck was necessary to keep the trees from freezing in the winter. Much like tea, they tended to be something you heard about and sometimes saw, but it was not easily attainable by commoners. I had never had the opportunity to taste any and their smell was astringent, but inviting. I picked up two different varieties, one very small and vividly yellow and the other a speckled yellowish-orange. They both had similar skin, leathery but almost still moist feeling and smelled similar as well, though the predominantly yellow citrus had stronger hints of sourness.
"We'll take those too," Clarice said, motioning to the fruit in my hands. "Good eye, lemon is fantastic for the skin as well and oranges are simply delicious." She counted out a few more silver and placed them into the old man's hands.
Before I could protest, specifically about how she could even dare to think of buying one of the fruits to not eat, she was hurrying back across the street to the inn.
"Come on," she called over her shoulder, "we still have a lot of shopping to do before noon and I need to be presentable."
Clarice procured a knife from one of the barmaids along with two freshly laundered clothes. She insisted that we could not use the same ones we had used to pat our faces dry that morning, efficient skin care required cleanliness and dedication. This whole process just seemed more and more frivolous as it progressed. Surely this was just something high-class women had developed out of boredom, much like how young, impoverished children tell themselves that kicking a rock is great fun when there is nothing else to do.
In her room, she instructed me to sit on her bed while she prepared the fruits and vegetables. With great care, she sliced four equal pieces of cucumber, then sliced the yellow citrus in half. The room instantly filled with the strong scent, tickling my nose with the acidity.
"I suppose I can understand the cucumber, but the citrus... it is so rare, this seems like a shame," I said, taking my half of the offered produce.
She blinked in confusion, turning her head slightly to the side. "Is it? I have always seen it for sale here. Besides, it will help you a great deal with the darker spots on your face."
"Darker spots?" I asked, bringing a hand to my face as if I could feel the color difference. I had never considered that my skin was of any importance or I needed to do anything with it.
"Oh they're not bad at all," she said, face flushed like she was embarrassed to have said anything, "I can just tell that you have spent a good deal of time outside."
"Well, that's true, but is it so bad to look like I have?"
"Not bad, no no, don't get me wrong," she stammered, "it's just, that... well, you're going to a part of a royal family and you will be expected to take care of your beauty."
I rose and leaned to look closely into her mirror, studying each line and spot on my face. "There are just a few freckles along my cheeks, I don't think they are too obvious."
"They aren't, but nobles and other elites will judge you based on how well you take care of your skin." The embarrassment in her voice for bringing up this subject was palpable "Not to say they're going to judge you harshly, just..." she trailed off.
"No, it's okay," I sighed, "I know this whole thing is so grossly out of my league that it's terrifying. What can I do to maybe lessen the blow I'm going to have on his family?" I plopped down next to her, willing to do whatever I had to in order to make myself more presentable.
She sighed deeply and gently laid her hand on my shoulder. "I am not saying that they will not find you attractive," she began slowly, choosing her words carefully, "but higher social circles value a very smooth, unblemished complexion. If your face was all the color of your freckles, that would be considered exotic, but acceptable. However, for your skin tone, it would be ideal for it to be all a consistent color."
"Why does that even matter?" I grumbled. It really seemed unfair that I already had another strike against me for something I didn't even know I should have been worrying about.
"Because..." She paused, struggling for a coherent explanation. "Because it just does?" She let out a small laugh. "When you question it like that, it does seem like an incredibly silly thing to value. Though I don't think we'll be able to convince royalty about that, so we should just play along in the meantime."
I shrugged and gave a short nod. I definitely didn't really understand it, but it wouldn't hurt to try.
"Alright, now lean your head back," Clarice instructed, "I'm going to place your two cucumber slices onto your eyes. Keep as still as you can so they don't fall off." She placed the vegetables over my eyes, they felt surprisingly cool and soothing. "Now I'm going to take your lemon half for you and help you rub it over your face. It might sting a little if you have any little cuts or sore spots, but it should help with your freckles."
It was the strangest feeling I had felt to date to be sitting in a very pricey inn with food covering my eyes and fruit too rare to have ever tasted smeared all over my face. There was a moment of surreal dizziness where I couldn't comprehend how I had gotten to this particular time in my life. I certainly did discover that my face had irritated spots that I did not know existed before that moment.
"There, now we sit for a little while and let the magic happen."
I heard her prepare her own face, then settle in next to me. Eventually the stinging subsided into an odd tingling sensation, then my skin began to feel a bit numb. I hoped that it was all to be expected and that I wouldn't end up with a red and puffy face for my grand entrance.
Just after the cucumber slices had become disconcertingly warm and mushy, Clarice declared that we were complete. The world seemed just a little too bright with the slices removed, though I had to admit, my eyes felt pleasantly refreshed. Dampening the cloths with fresh water, she turned and carefully wiped the now sticky film from my skin, smiling at the results.
"Take a look in the mirror, I think you'll see that even after just one treatment your freckles already look more faded."
Looking in the mirror, they did seem just a bit more faded, though to be fair, before she had pointed them out I hadn't really noticed that they existed at all.
"And look, my under eyes look much more like I'm actually alive," she giggled.
Indeed, the skin beneath her eyes did look less sullen and gray Perhaps this wasn't just a desperate attempt at entertainment.
"We should get shopping then," I said, glancing out the window at the position of the sun, "we have to be on exactly on time today."
"Oh yes, of course, let's get going. Should we bring your bag with us?"
"Rhine took it with him this morning. He wanted to make sure that it didn't get left behind."
"What a gentlemen," she said with a smile. "Well I don't even have a bag, so let's go remedy that. I know of a place where we can get one and has fantastic cloth selection. I sure do hope it gets back to father that I shopped at the competitor."