“Prepare.” Vinroth dropped three piles on Taslin’s bed. “Lanesh and Sellen are coming by in a few minutes, but you should be in the proper mindset before then.”
“Mindset?” Taslin sorted through the pile. “These are all tunics – they’re not all from Jervennon, are they? And shoes, sandals? And then – paint? Vinroth, this is a dinner engagement, not some sort of play.”
“It’s both. It’s a dinner engagement, it’s a show in which you are both the star and the audience, and it requires every bit as much preparation as a bout in the ring. Which you are doing very well at, by the way. You’ve had two offers to buy out your Patronage this week.”
“And you’re only telling me now?”
“Neither of them could come close to what Jervennon is giving you. And it’s better for you to stay with one Patron for a bit longer. Get people used to wanting you and not being able to have you.”
“Has nothing at all to do with your position as my valet, does it?” She picked up a small jar of something red and slick. “This looks like the stuff I put on under the helmet, over my cheekbones.”
“It’s got a similar base, but it’s used to color your lips. Have you really never worn make-up?”
“Eighth Circle,” she reminded him. “I’ve worn kohl, or sometimes a bit of ash or cinder. I’ve done the Pit paints, but those aren’t usually ‘make-up.’ And I know a couple small spells for clearing up or hiding blemishes.”
“Every teenager knows those.”
“I had to learn them specially. They’re not very common, where I am – most people don’t care that much.”
“Altreka, right?” Vinroth shook his head. “Well, you cared enough to learn them?”
“My mother wants us to do something better for ourselves. You can’t get anyone’s attention to climb the Ladder or jump the rings if you look like a filthy outer-ring urchin.”
Vinroth raised his eyebrows. “A smart woman, your mother. How did she end up staying in the Eighth Circle?”
“A long story. The short version is: family.” Taslin swallowed around a lump in her throat. “You want me to show you what I know for make-up?”
“No. Well, yes, but not today.” Vinroth pointed at the chair. “Sit down, back straight, and I will work my magic. I’ll show you the tricks as we go, and we can work from that.”
“Aren’t I supposed to be in charge of you?” Taslin sat down, back straight. It felt uncomfortably like preparing for the Pit, and she had no armor.
“Only in theory and in name. The truth is, I know what I’m doing here, which makes me the expert and you the student.”
“…this is why you wanted to be my valet, isn’t it? So you could bully me around?”
“You are always so quick to ascribe ulterior motives to me. I’m a Ladder-climber, Taslin Gladiator, the same as you. I serve the Pit by serving you, and I serve you by making sure you are ready for every engagement.”
“You really do have an answer for everything.”
“That, too, is my job. Now, let me work? Here we go.” He wiped her face with a clean cloth, softer than anything Taslin had ever felt. “You have done well by your skin, whatever your reasons. And no facial scars yet. It’s good.”
“I thought they were supposed to add gravity and seriousness. Show we’re working hard.” She watched him pick up a strange-looking brush and apply some sort of powder to it.
“Ganlenrel says that because Gan got nicked in the face, early in her career. What it shows is that you took a blade to the face. And it puts off some of the Inner Circle types.” He touched her nose with the brush, and then both of her cheeks.
Taslin swallowed, more at his words than at the dust in her nose. “Because they want a pretty face to look at.”
“Over the table, even if they’re looking at your ass in bed.” The crudity sounded strange in his mouth. Taslin glanced at his face. His expression was what she thought of as his Valet Face – perfectly calm, perfectly blank. He wore it when would-be Patrons visited.
“It’s what we sign up for.” She didn’t like the hesitance in her own voice. “Gladiators, I mean. Danger in the pit and, ah, adventure in a Patron’s bed. Better adventures, less danger, at least in theory.”
“The theory is nice. And-”
“You can’t put powder on her, not with her complexion.” Sellen burst into the room. “Hi, Tas.”
“It’s not chalk powder.” Vinroth’s voice never changed from its calm professional-Valet cadence, but Taslin saw the way his hand hesitated. If he’d been a gladiator in the Pit, they’d have called it choking up.
“I don’t know anything about powder,” Taslin cued. “What is it, and why would chalk be bad?”
“Chalk powder comes in three shades – white, off-white, and light beige. They would, at best, make you look ashen.” He ran a thumb over her cheek. “This is actually something I made myself. There’s no Flow-taint in it, please don’t worry.” He touched the puff to Taslin’s cheeks. “But it does very nicely with the umber in your skin tone.” He turned to look directly at Sellen. “I do know what I’m doing. But I was hoping you could help with the hair and picking out shoes.”
“I’m all about the shoes.” Sellen plopped down on Taslin’s bed. “But you wouldn’t believe how many valets have just one kind of powder, or just one kind of kohl, and they use that on everyone. Black kohl on me looks ridiculous, but it looks lovely on Lanesh, all deep and earthy.”
“Why thank you. I stole your kohl pencil again.” Lanesh sashayed in. “Tas, I brought you a couple things. They’re loaners, not big enough that your patron will notice you’re wearing things he didn’t give you, but nice enough that you’ll make him look a bit better. Which is the point, right?”
“If you say so?” Taslin looked between the three of them. “I thought I did that in the Pit.”
“That, too. Are you going to be okay with this dinner, Taslin?”
“I’m going to have to be, aren’t I?” Taslin shrugged one shoulder. “I won’t eat with my fingers or stab any other guests or anything. We have table manners in the Eighth Circle.”
“And nobody expects you to be that sort of First-Circle hoity-toity.” Lanesh ran her fingers through Taslin’s short-cropped curls. “This is totally reasonable hair for a Gladiator. I like it. But what can we do with it for dinner?”
“Comb it and call it good?” Sellen was digging through Vinroth’s makeup box. “You’ve got a lot of nice stuff here.”
“I aim to please. I was thinking of smoky eyes and natural-looking cheeks. Make her look a bit mysterious.” Vinroth’s poise had returned as quickly as it had vanished.
“She is a bit mysterious. I like it. Lips?”
“Not too dark. Keep the focus on her eyes.” Vinroth’s hands were already moving.
Meanwhile, Lanesh was doing something to the back of Taslin’s head. “If I have twenty, thirty minutes, I can do something with braids and twists. I think it will look super elegant.”
Taslin sat still, while three people did things to her face and hair, her neck and chest. Vinroth and Sellen wielded brushes and pens like artists, painting someone different onto Taslin. Behind her, the sensations of Lanesh tugging and twisting her hair were the closest thing to home Taslin had felt since she got here.
“There.” Lanesh stepped back at the same time as Sellen.
Vinroth stayed where he was, a very small smile on his face. “You look beautiful.”
“With all the paint you put on me…”
“We just made you look more like you. Come on, Tas, you’ve got to get into the carriage.” Lanesh and Sellen grabbed one elbow each, steering Taslin out of her room before she had a chance to find a mirror.
“Wait. Wait. What are you… SELLEN!” Taslin squirmed, but she couldn’t break their grasp. “I want a mirror. What did you two do to me? What did you do!?”
“Relax, new fish.” Sellen’s laugh did nothing to reassure Taslin. “We didn’t do anything bad. But you’re not used to being dressed up, and trust me – I speak from experience – if you’re not used to it, you’ll spend an hour freaking out about this girl in the mirror who looks nothing at all like you.”
“And the thing is,” Lanesh put in, “she does look like you – that is, you do look like yourself. But you look like a you refined, that spent your whole life in the Inner Circle in a spa. You don’t look so much like…”
“Like an Outer Circle urchin?” Taslin tried not to taste the bitterness in her mouth.
“Like a Gladiator who spends her whole life in the Pit or in training, same as the rest of us. Don’t think you’re the only one with dirt under their nails, Tas.”
“I don’t. I don’t, it’s just.”
“No justs. Tonight, you look like a lovely flower. And if they recognize you – and they will, the three of us took pains to make sure of that – then what they’ll recognize is that you’re a lovely flower who succeeds like nobody else in the Pit.”
“Taslin, if you’re about to tell me that you’d not that good in the pit, I’m going to break your nose and then I’m going to throw things at you until you’re forced to fight back and show me exactly how good you are in the Pit. Understand?”
“Understand. Ma’am yes ma’am. But I can walk, you know.” Taslin squirmed in their grip. “I’m not helpless, even if I look like a flower or something.”
“Indulge us. You’re the first one in our group to get a Patron, so you’re the first one in our group to go on ‘dates’ like this. She might be used to fancy stuff.” Sellen pointed her free thumb at Lanesh. “But I’m not, and it’s a lot of fun, even if only by proxy.”
“All right, all right. But I don’t know how I’m going to be able to do the same, when your turn comes – either of you.”
“You’ll manage. If nothing else, I bet that valet of yours will give lessons.” Lanesh didn’t quite make it sound like a leer.
Sellen, on the other hand, did. “I bet he’ll give lessons in all sorts of… here’s your carriage.” They abruptly set Taslin down. “Off with you, and remember the rules.”
“There’s rules?” Taslin found herself propelled ahead by their shoves. “Wait, there’s rules?”
“The same rules as anywhere.” Lanesh waved cheerfully. “Don’t get stabbed, don’t trip, and don’t hit yourself in the face.”
I am so sorry, guys. I fell into a (metaphorical) hole for a couple weeks and I’m just now digging out.
I do have to ask, considering my current workload: Are you still enjoying Jumping Rings? Should I keep posting? If there’s not much interest right now, I can always put it on hiatus and return to it later.