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Isra was finding the city to be both wonderful and bizarre. The strangeness of the place might have been a bit more unsettling if not for Mizuki, who seemed equally confused by the place, but delighted all the same. She seemed besotted by the house in particular and the bevy of entads it contained. For her part, Verity also seemed to be a bit overwhelmed, though she’d said very little about it, leaving Isra to pick up on what Verity was feeling from the subtle changes to how she spoke and behaved.

“I will take care of you,” said Ria, Alfric’s mother. “If you’d like to dress on your own, the vault is open to you, and I can let you look, but I know what I have and what looks good, and I think I have everything ready for all of you.”

Isra nodded. She had very few ideas about fashion. They were standing in what seemed to be a closet of enormous size, one that was connected to the master bedroom, which they’d passed through only briefly. The bedroom had been immense, with various nooks for reading and writing, a small couch with a fireplace, and enough things that it seemed like it was a small house in its own right. The closet was something else though, an eleven-sided room with shelves that pulled out and enough space in the center that Ria and Isra could stand there together without being in each other’s personal space. The others were in a nook of the master bedroom, waiting for them to be done.

Isra took her headscarf off. “I just want to look pretty,” she said.

“Well, you are pretty,” said Ria. “Dressing for this kind of thing, it’s about calling forward your natural beauty. I’m guessing your mother didn’t help you with this sort of thing all that much?”

“She died in childbirth,” said Isra.

“Oh,” said Ria, pausing for a moment. “Well. I’m so sorry.”

“I never knew her,” Isra shrugged.

“She didn’t have the strength to warp?” asked Ria.

“I don’t know,” said Isra. “My father died five years ago. He never explained the details to me.”

“You poor dear,” said Ria. She had a pronounced frown. “Alfric never mentioned any of this, and here I’ve put my foot in my mouth.”

“It’s fine,” said Isra. She looked at Alfric’s mother. “He’s been good to me.”

She shook her head. “We can talk about it all later, if you’d like, but I’m sure he didn’t feel it was his place to say.” She took a breath to recenter, and a moment to gauge Isra, seeing whether or not she should press the matter. “Now, what sort of pretty would you like to be? From what Alfric said, I think I have the others figured out, but you’re going first because you’re a mystery, and I wanted plenty of time to figure you out, if my first guesses weren’t right.”

“I don’t know,” said Isra. “I don’t know what my prettiness would be.”

“Can you understand the others?” asked Ria, raising an eyebrow. “Tell me the ways in which they’re pretty?’

“Mizuki is energetic,” said Isra. “Hannah is solid. Not — solid isn’t a pretty word, but she’s like granite. Strong. Not just physically.” She frowned. “Verity is serene. Not like a stone, but like the wind in your hair. Or like water flowing around your toes.”

“Mmm,” said Ria. “Yes, good, so my plans for them aren’t for nothing, and my son does have some understanding of them.”

“But he doesn’t understand me?” asked Isra.

“I don’t know,” said Ria. “I wouldn’t want to speak for him. His dungeon reports are very dry reading, with hardly any personal details, but I can see what he likes about all of you.” She pursed her lips. “As it stands, I think I have two options for you. The first is traditional Tarbin, the second is something more like what I would wear.” Isra looked at the blue dress. “Not this, this is just normal wear. My skin is a bit darker than your own, but I think I know what works best with it, to avoid clashing with your skin tone.”

What Isra wanted was something that would make Verity completely forget about Xy, but she didn’t know how to say that, or how to explain who Xy was, or what her own feelings on the matter were.

“Will the traditional Tarbin outfit make people want to touch me?” asked Isra. Ria’s eyebrows went up, and Isra could see that was the wrong question.

“It depends upon the person,” said Ria. She was suddenly choosing her words carefully, and Isra didn’t particularly like that. “The outfit would be concealing, and … there are some people who find that alluring, and some people who don’t, but in general, I think more that don’t. If you don’t want to be touched, if that’s your cause for wearing the concealing Tarbin fashion —”

“Oh,” said Isra. “I meant … the opposite.”

“The opposite?” asked Ria.

“When I was asking whether people would want to touch me, I meant that I wanted them to,” said Isra. “Or, not to touch me, necessarily, but … I thought it might be nice to be wanted, in that way.”

“I … see,” said Ria, blinking. “And is this for a particular person?”

Isra stayed silent and thought about that. She had been struggling to put into words the way she felt about Verity for quite some time now. It was a nameless yearning for their skin to touch, and when it did touch it was warm and close, a moment that Isra wanted not to end. She liked when their heads were close to each other, when they were in each other’s spaces. They sought each other out in the house, just to see what the other was doing. They talked together, alone, sometimes while they were in the garden together, other times in the room that they shared in Mizuki’s house.

“I sometimes look over, late at night, when I can’t sleep,” Verity had said. “I like seeing you asleep. You look so peaceful. It’s nice.”

“I do the same in the morning,” said Isra. “You sleep in so late.”

The conversations sometimes happened when Isra was drifting off to sleep, and it was nice to have Verity’s sweet voice in her ear, sometimes with a song, only half-remembered in the morning.

Isra wanted them to be closer, to have them share more, to share a bed. There were moments she thought that they were about to kiss, times when it seemed that their faces were near enough that it would be simple and natural for that to happen. She wanted to wear a dress that would, somehow, communicate all of this to Verity, and to do it in a way that wouldn’t change things between them. Their friendship was precious to Isra, but she had the sense that it was fragile too, capable of being torn apart in an instant by unknown words or actions.

“Not my place, obviously,” said Ria, because Isra had gone too long without speaking. “We’ll go with the other outfit then, the more regal one.”

She went to the closet and pulled out a plum-colored dress, then from a cabinet, took a measuring tape.

“This is an entad, it will take your measurements,” said Ria.

“You’re … tailoring it to me?” asked Isra.

“Magically, yes,” said Ria. “Stand with your arms out, please, legs shoulder-width apart.”

Isra did as she was told, and the measuring tape slithered through the air like a snake, wrapping itself around various parts of her body, squeezing just a bit.

“If it weren’t bound to me, it would have been worth quite a bit,” said Alfric’s mother. “It can resize any dress to fit whomever was just measured, so if that dress doesn’t work out, there are others. When it bound to me I was torn between wishing that it could have gone somewhere it would be in near-constant use, and being quite happy that I would have an excuse to have it sitting in a drawer somewhere when I needed it.”

When the tape measure had finished, it went back to Ria’s hand, and she pressed one end of it against the dress. “There, you should be good to go, I’ll leave you with this.” One of the walls had a few drawers, and she frowned, pulling one open. “Accessories are also quite important, but if you don’t like the dress, we’d have to change them. If you do like the dress,” she paused, looking at what she had, “This, this, these, this, this, and this.” She set a handful of jewelry on an empty shelf. “You’ve already got gold, so this will go with those. The dress will draw attention, the accessories will keep it.”

“This is a lot of gold,” said Isra, looking at the assorted bracelets, rings, necklaces, and earrings.

“Yes,” said Ria. “Half of them are entads, though nothing you’d need to worry about. They’ll be a bit heavy, hand them off to Alfric if they get to be too much. You’ll need a storage entad too, to hold whatever you need, but I’ll have to get something from the vault, something that won’t interfere with the general look. I’ll leave you to it.”

She left without another word, and Isra was left staring at the dress and — she had never understood the term ‘embarrassment of riches’ before, but looking at the pile of gold, pulled casually from one of many drawers, Isra did feel embarrassed. Her own gold, the meager bits she wore in her face, were there because she’d learned that was a good way to make sure they would never be stolen without her knowing about it, a way to carry wealth.

Isra put on the dress and frowned at herself in the mirror. It fit her perfectly, but it didn’t match the rest of her very well. When she looked at her face, it was still her face, and the dress suited her, but it also pulled her in a different direction. It was difficult to put into words, as many things were. Isra was a huntress, a druid, and the dress was for some alternate version of herself, someone who had a sense of the city rather than a sense of the woods.

There was a brief rap at the door, and when Isra opened it, Alfric’s mother slipped in. She made some brief adjustments to the dress and frowned a bit.

“Alright, I’m sorry to say, we’re going to need different underthings for you,” said Ria. “Is that okay?”

“Yes,” said Isra. “Why?”

“The silhouette is important,” said Ria. “The dress is fitted close, it’s just a matter of keeping the lines. I’ll get you a bodice that will work well with the dress. You’re using wraps now?”

Isra nodded.

“Well, all a matter of getting things handled, I should have thought of it before I left you here.” Ria went rummaging in the drawers and pulled out more things for Isra, touching each of them to feel their texture. “I’m glad that makeup will take hardly any time at all, because otherwise we’d be horribly behind schedule rather than just mostly behind schedule.”

“Sorry I’m taking so much time,” said Isra.

Ria waved a hand. “I had an entad that slowed down time, and my husband used to joke that I should have kept it for this room. Doing things properly takes time.”

Isra asked for help with the undergarments, and Ria stayed this time, making sure that everything fit and was put on properly, laced up and in place. Isra had never been fussed over, and quite liked it. Verity had said that when she was younger, her mother had treated her like a doll, dressing her up, and now Isra, having it done to her, found that she still didn’t understand the objection.

The jewelry was hung on her, heavy but beautiful, makeup was applied in a handful of seconds by an entad, shoes were picked out, and Isra suddenly found herself done. She looked at herself in the mirror. Any reservations she’d had about the dress not suiting her had evaporated. She looked quite good, she thought. Her hair was tied back, held in place by a large golden clip, and there was light purple shadow around her eyes, to complement the dress. There were a thousand details that she was sure she would only notice if she had been willing to spend an hour staring in the mirror.

“Now is the fun part,” said Ria. She grinned at Isra through the mirror. “We get to present you.”

Isra stepped out into the bedroom, where the others were waiting.

The only shame was that Verity was in her disguise, but everything else was exactly as good as Isra had hoped. Verity’s eyes went wide and her mouth slightly opened, and she let out a sound that seemed like it might have been an attempt to start a sentence. She regained her composure quickly, but that was to be expected from her.

“Wow,” said Mizuki. “It’s a good thing we have a private box, because you would get a lot of unwanted attention. Also, you’re positively draped in magic. Are we all going to get that much?”

“Likely, yes,” said Ria. “Now I’m hoping that I can do the others a bit faster, because my husband would kill me if you missed the start of the opera for some clothes that no one was actually all that interested in.”

“Well I didn’t know they’d be magical,” said Mizuki.

“You next, let’s go,” said Ria. “And please don’t be picky.”

“You look stunning,” said Verity as Mizuki went in for her turn.

“Ay,” said Hannah. “It gives me some confidence that somethin’ will be done with me.” She gestured at herself. “With this.” She was wearing her usual outfit of a buttoned-down shirt and trousers, both in somewhat dull colors.

“I like how you look,” said Verity. “It’s very practical. It suits you.” Her eyes kept going back to Isra, and Isra smiled. “Your smile,” said Verity. “I wish we had some way to preserve this.”

“Surely they’ve some entad or another,” said Hannah. “I can’t imagine that they don’t have a brush that can make a paintin’, or some such.”

“We can ask Alfric, I suppose,” said Verity, whose eyes continued to roam Isra’s outfit.

Isra took a seat next to Verity on the small couch in the sitting area. The place was clearly meant for two, a retreat for the parents, but Hannah had brought over a chair from a small desk that was tucked away in a different part of the master bedroom.

“Are you dreading this?” Isra asked Verity. “You said you didn’t like it.”

“Not dreading, no,” said Verity. “But not particularly looking forward to either. Mostly I remember my hair being pulled back too tightly, or being scolded for moving, or for not applying my makeup correctly, or for a dozen other things. I somewhat doubt that will be a problem here, if only because they have so much magic on hand. We’ll see. Maybe it will be different.”

Isra slipped her hand into Verity’s and gave it a squeeze, and Verity smiled. But when she turned from Hannah to look over at Isra, her eyes went wide again, as though she’d forgotten that the transformation had taken place.

“Done!” declared Ria, opening the door.

Mizuki was in a red dress, one that almost seemed to be made of a single large sheet of fabric, gathered together at her front so that it formed a V at her chest and a second, upside down one by her legs. It ended up with something like a cape in the back, the fabric draping low, almost touching the floor. At the shoulders there was a fluffy fabric, like non-functional pauldrons. Her hair was down, and when Isra looked at it, she thought that it was quite a bit longer than usual, wavy and black, trailing down to the small of her back. Her makeup was somewhat understated compared to Isra’s. She gave a little spin to show them, then with a snap of her fingers, the dress caught on fire, the red fabric momentarily turning to flames that hugged her body.

“None of that while you’re sitting down,” said Ria with a frown. “I’m not going to regret giving you the flame dress, am I? You can’t touch anything when it’s on fire.”

“I’ll be careful,” said Mizuki, snapping her fingers again and extinguishing the dress.

“Hannah?” asked Ria. “Ready?”

“Oh, ay,” said Hannah.

Mizuki sat down in the chair that Hannah had vacated and touched her earrings, which were copper and ruby, then her necklace, which was so close to her neck that it was nearly a choker.

“Do you like it?” asked Verity.

“I love it,” said Mizuki. “The long hair was a last minute choice, we had to double-check that it wouldn’t burn when the dress was on fire.”

“A flaming dress doesn’t seem very practical,” Verity frowned. “Though it is very striking, when it’s on.”

“I wanted heavy magic,” said Mizuki. She shrugged. “I am a sorceress.”

“Not a pyro though, right?” asked Verity. “A fire dress would seem more appropriate to them.”

“Well, yes,” frowned Mizuki. “And if there’s a pyro around, I’m better with water, cold, and ice.”

“All of them?” asked Isra, who knew virtually nothing about what Mizuki could actually do. She just accepted that Mizuki could do magic some times and couldn’t do magic other times, and that this had something to do with the aether.

“Okay,” said Mizuki. “There are like a hundred ‘moods’ of magic in the aether, and they’re in opposition to each other, but one particular mood can be in opposition to more than one other mood, so there are different possibilities for evening out the aether. Usually one is easiest. For pyros, at least what I noticed when Marsh was around, it’s not just ‘fire’, it’s fire, heat, and consumption, and those have six oppositional moods between them. It’s actually super interesting, I’ve been reading a book that Alfric got for me before the third dungeon.”

“A book … about how to be a sorcerer?” asked Verity.

“Well,” said Mizuki. “Some guy’s understanding of the fundamentals, I guess. Putting into words some things that I always knew, just … I don’t know. I usually called them ‘flavors’, not ‘moods’? But the book is a good one, I’ve talked to other sorcs before and they don’t do as good of a job explaining what it’s like for them. And there’s some interesting stuff in there about rare moods, the kind that you see once or twice and then have to figure out what to do with them really quickly before they’re gone.”

Verity and Mizuki spoke some more about magic, and Isra wasn’t really able to contribute all that much, because it hadn’t been all that long since she’d learned she could do any sort of magic. Bardic magic had some rigor to the approach, but it was (according to Mizuki) quite different for sorcs, in part because they were rare, and in part because there was enough individual variation that talking to other sorcs wasn’t all that helpful.

Ria came out of the closet. “Alright, this is three down, Verity, we’ll have to move quickly, sorry.”

“That’s fine,” said Verity.

Hannah stepped out, looking a bit skeptical. Her dress was green, matching her eyes, and her curly hair had somehow been managed, curling like waves on the ocean, all the curls moving in the same direction and tied off with a bit of emerald and gold. The dress was symmetrical, perfectly so, sleeveless to show off Hannah’s muscular arms. There was a belt around her waist, fashioned for symmetry, and a shaping to the built-in corset that gave it more structure and support than either Isra or Mizuki had. The hemline was quite low, almost down below her ankles, and beneath it, Isra saw that she was wearing some kind of shoe with an extremely high heel, which made her look taller.

“Some women aren’t suited to this sort of thing, I s’pose,” said Hannah, grinning sheepishly.

“Are you kidding?” asked Mizuki. “You look great.”

“Come on, in you go,” said Ria, beckoning Verity. “I’m very seriously worried about running late.”

“Wish me luck,” said Verity, smiling at Isra. It seemed that their eyes took some time to leave each other.

“I’m serious, you look great,” said Mizuki. “I feel a little embarrassed, sure, but I also think that we all look good. I wonder how long it took his mom to get good at this kind of thing?”

“If you have all these things, I would think that it wouldn’t be too difficult,” said Hannah. “The tape measure, in particular, means that it all fits, which as I understand is the hardest part.”

“I think if you set me loose in that closet, I would come up with something far less good than this,” said Mizuki, gesturing at her red dress and ruby accessories. “Also, it would take me several hours.”

“Longer, for me,” said Isra. “I didn’t really understand what was being done to me.”

The door to the bedroom opened and Alfric stepped in. “We’re still waiting on Verity?” he asked.

“Aren’t you going to tell us how great we look?” asked Mizuki.

“Sorry,” said Alfric. He took a moment to look at her, and that was one of the good things about Alfric, that if he was asked about his opinion, he would take his time to think through an answer. “You look lovely.”

“Not so bad yourself,” said Mizuki, eyeing his black suit. “A bit simple though?”

“It’s the style of the time,” said Alfric. “There’s quite a bit of disparity between what men and women wear. But right now, I’m worried about getting there on time.”

“Shouldn’t be long now,” said Mizuki. “It’s just Verity left to go.”

“This would have been a lot faster if my mom had just set out clothes for you,” said Alfric. He frowned.

“Relax,” said Mizuki. “We’re in a private box, right? And you said we can just go right there, teleport or whatever, so if we’re a little late, it’s not a huge deal. Right?”

“It’s the principle of the thing,” said Alfric. “There’s very rarely an excuse to be late.”

They waited, and it was the first time that Isra could recall seeing Alfric visibly impatient.

Even if Verity had taken longer than the others — she had been the fastest — it would have been worth the wait.

The dress had no back, and very little front. A strap hung around her neck, supporting it, but there was clearly no corset, stay, or any other form of support. The dress was also slit along the legs, and when Verity walked, it showed their full length. Around her neck was a pearl necklace, with pearl earrings to match it, and a tie for her hair that seemed to also be made of pearls. She was stunning, radiant, and that feeling of wanting to be close surged through Isra. Verity’s legs were very nice, long with smooth skin, and her back being so exposed made it seem as though she was naked.

“You’re out of your disguise?” asked Alfric.

Isra hadn’t even noticed, but he was right, Verity was back to being Verity.

“Just for the time being,” said Verity. “I wanted to be more myself, not my own sister. I’ll put it back on when we’re out on the town. I spoke with your mother about it.”

“Alright,” said Alfric. “But we need to go, very soon.”

“That dress is a bit scandalous,” said Hannah, frowning — frowning! — at what Verity was wearing. “I can see a bit of your tit from the side.”

Verity turned, presenting her profile, and Isra could see that this was true. The cloth of the dress went down her front, but it didn’t hug her skin, and from the side, her breast was exposed.

“She asked for something provocative,” said Ria. “Something that was on the edge of being indecorous. Well, we’re not changing it, so if she wants to change into something that shows a bit less skin, it’ll have to be at intermission.”

“Hmm,” Verity frowned. She looked up at Isra, who was still staring at her, and hadn’t really stopped. “I’ll stick with this.”

“We might already be late,” said Alfric. “Mom, if you could do the honors?”

Ria nodded. “Any last business before you go?” she asked. “Anything you need to grab?”

They all shook their heads, and Ria pulled a dagger from nowhere. She pointed it at each of them in turn, flicking it around as fast as possible, and they popped away as quickly as could be. When the dagger was pointed at Isra, the world around her warped and changed, and she was somewhere with dim light and quite a bit of noise. The room they were in, if it could be called a room, hung over a large place filled with people, with a very nice view of the stage. There were two rows of seats, more than necessary for all of them, and a small table between the rows where a platter of food and glasses of wine were already set out.

“Seems we’re early,” said Hannah, stepping forward to peer down at the audience. “Not everyone is seated.”

“Five minutes early is about twenty times better than five minutes late,” said Alfric. “It looks like the service has been through. Before we start, a bit of etiquette: no talking except through the party channel since even a whisper can carry, food and drink should be taken as quietly as possible, though preferably not at all, bathroom should wait for either the act break or the intermission, applause lightly and briefly at the end of a song — they’ll pause for it — and louder at the end of an act, standing ovation once the opera is finished. Intermission is at roughly an hour and a half, but there’s a brief musical interlude for a set change between the first and second acts. Once it’s done, we’ll go backstage to speak to the performers and musicians, if you’d like.”

He found a seat, and Mizuki sat next to him. Isra picked a spot in the second row, slightly back, next to Verity and Hannah. Alfric handed them all little sheets of paper, which he called programs, which listed the performers and musicians, the division of acts, some background on the opera, and on the opera company that was performing it. Isra was the only person to pay it any mind; the others glanced at it, but didn’t actually read it, their eyes too busy looking around the opera hall.

“Dwodo,” said Mizuki, pointing across the way, to another of the rooms that hung off the walls of the hall.

“Sorry,” said Alfric, who took Mizuki’s hand and gently lowered it. “I should have explained that part of etiquette is not pointing at other members of the audience and gawking at them.”

“Okay, yes,” said Mizuki. “But still, dwodo, you see them, right?”

“Yes,” said Alfric. “But they’re here to enjoy the opera, same as we are.”

Isra looked where Mizuki had pointed, and in the box across from them, on the other side, there were, apparently, dwodo, hunched figures with grey skin and wide mouths, bald heads and clothes with many layers. Isra had never seen anything like them before, and the term ‘dwodo’ was unfamiliar.

She was about to ask about them, hoping that her ignorance wouldn’t be annoying, when the lights all around them got dimmer — accomplished by mechanical slats lowering into place, at least for those lights in their box.

Then, the show started, and Isra gave it her full attention.

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Alexander Wales

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