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Glamour in Glass (Excerpt) by Mary Robinette Kowal
There are few things in this world that can at once delight and dismay to the same extent as a formal dinner party. Finding oneself a guest of honour only increases the presentiment of anxiety, should one be disposed to such feelings. Jane Vincent could not help but feel some measure of alarm upon hearing her name called by the Prince Regent, for though she fully expected to be escorted into dinner by someone other than her husband, she had not expected to accompany his royal highness and to be seated at his right hand. Though this was but an intimate dinner party of eighteen, by the order of precedence her place should be at the rear of the line. Yet one could hardly express such doubts to his Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, Regent of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Faerie, and Ireland.
The only title Jane could claim on her own was that of Mrs. David Vincent, and her entire claim for being invited at all lay in her marriage to the Prince Regent’s favourite glamourist. As the Prince Regent led her out of the Red Room, Jane felt all the eyes of those assembled fall upon her, and under their gaze the unequal nature of her station magnified. The dove silk which had seemed so fine when she had commissioned it last summer now seemed dingy by comparison to gowns such as Lady Hertford’s rich claret velvet, which had long sleeves slashed to allow glimpses of a cloth of silver. Her mother had wanted to buy her a new gown, but Jane had resisted. She was an artisan now, and had no intention of pretending to be part of the fashionable set . . . and yet, being escorted by the Prince Regent made that choice seem less easy now.
But all that worry dropped away as she entered the dining hall, which glittered and dripped with diaphanous folds of glamour hung to create the illusion of a water folly filled with mermaids and sea-horses. She and Vincent had laboured for the past three months on the spectacle and they could justly be proud of the effect, though she would have to retouch the anemones when she had a chance. The colour was off when compared to the palette of this winter’s fashions.
The Prince Regent stopped with her on the threshold and inhaled with pleasure.
They had taken the octagonal ballroom designed by Mr. John Nash for the fête honouring the defeat of Napoleon, and transformed it for the coming New Year’s Eve celebration by refashioning it into the home of a sea king. Elaborate swathes of glamour masked the walls so that they appeared to be in the midst of a coral palace with views onto an under-sea world. Past the casements of the illusory walls, brilliant tropical fish schooled in waves of shimmering colour. Light seemed to filter down through clear blue water to lay dappled on the smooth white tablecloths.
The Prince Regent smiled and patted her hand where it lay on the dark blue cloth of his sleeve. “My dear Mrs. Vincent. I have long been an admirer of your husband’s work, but you have led him to new heights of glory.”
“You honour me, your highness, far more than I think I deserve.”
“I honour you as much as I think you deserve, and you must grant that my wishes are the law in this land.”
Jane let him lead her swiftly across the vast ballroom to the head of the table and place her by the chair on his right hand. Only then did Jane understand the true gift the Prince Regent offered her. They had far outpaced the guests immediately behind them, who paused on the threshold, apparently overcome by the room. As the line forced them forward, they proceeded toward the table, but slowly, with eyes fixed in wonder on the illusion. Stationed as she was, Jane stood in a perfect place to witness the guests’ approbation over and over again as even the most jaded halted to gasp upon the threshold.
Their faces shone with wonder at the work she and Vincent had created.
As the last couple approached, his royal highness leaned over and whispered in her ear. “Now watch.”
Her husband stood on the threshold, escorting Lady Hertford. The Prince Regent began to applaud, and, as one, his guests joined him in honouring Mr. Vincent. Jane did not know whether to applaud with them out of her own deep admiration for her husband, or if she should remain silent, since she had borne half the burden of the work about them. She settled for folding her hands at her breast and letting forth an unfettered smile.
Vincent paused, clearly taken unawares by this open show of approbation. He inclined his head gravely, then, straightening, led Lady Hertford to the foot of the table and her place at his right hand. Never comfortable in company, the sternness of his face hid what Jane knew to be very real feeling.
The Prince Regent reached for his glass and raised it. “To Mr. Vincent and to his bride, who shows us that he is no...