Sheen sat down next to Joris and groaned theatrically, leaning forward until her forehead rested on the table. “I am SO out of shape,” she announced.
Talan leaned over and poked the rock-solid muscle under her sleeve. “Really,” he said skeptically.
“For smithing,” Sheen clarified, rubbing her arm and glaring at him. “I’m out of condition. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“So is that where you’ve been all day the past couple days?” Joris asked. “We were beginning to think you’d pulled a Haden.”
“I got a job in that shop we saw near the Black Sail,” she explained.
Talan scowled and folded his arms. “So you’re just going to go off and leave us, then, is that it?”
“No, of course not. It’s just a temporary thing. I’m a smith, Talan, I don’t think it’s fair for you to expect me to give up my life’s work entirely just because we’re not in Faerûn any more.” Sheen sighed and leaned back in her chair, stretching until her spine popped. “Besides, we can’t expect windfalls like this last job to come along all the time.”
Talan nodded. “Maybe we should all find work. It’s not good to be sitting around idle, and I’m sure we all have our passions that have nothing to do with hunting down missing barmies.”
“I’d like to find a temple of Mystra, personally,” Joris said a bit shyly. “Temples always need hands and feet, if not swords and shields.”
Sheen nodded. “What about you, Talan?”
The half-elf thought for a while. “I’m curious to know where all the food comes from around here, actually. Do you see any farms? Animal herds? I’m betting when I find out, I’ll find someone that’s also in need of some assistance,” he said. “And I like animals. Dogs especially. I’d get one, but Chirper’s doesn’t allow pets.”
“You actually asked?” Joris said, startled.
“Well, that brings me to another point,” Sheen said. “Dr. Rhas has a room above the shop that he rents out. He had to toss out the last tenant because the man was a deadbeat. He wants me to take the room. It’s a lot cheaper than living here. And, well, it’s nice to have your own place, so you don’t have to carry all your belongings on your back everywhere you go.”
“There’s something to be said for the free and unencumbered lifestyle, though,” Talan said, smiling.
“I’ll bet you say something different the next time Chirper’s is crowded and they shove us all in one room together. You know how Joris snores,” Sheen said.
“I do not!”
“Sounds like a bull moose being strangled,” Talan said agreeably.
“It does not!”
Talan laughed at Joris’s indignant expression. “So now all we have to do is convince Haden to find gainful employment, and we’re all set.”
“Ah, but I already have a profession that occupies all of my time,” Haden said, sitting down. He was still a bit paler than usual, but when Sheen gave him a concerned look he smiled wanly.
“What’s that?” Talan asked.
“I lounge, my dear friend, I lounge. Someone has to do it so that all you busy bees get to experience the self-righteous pleasure of looking down your noses at me.” He feigned a long-suffering sigh and adopted a martyred expression. “It’s a terrible sacrifice, but one I will endure for the sake of my friends.”
“Don’t hurt yourself,” Talan said, chuckling.
“Are you feeling better today, though?” Sheen asked.
“If you’re asking whether I still feel that it would be a relief to remove my own head with a pickaxe, then yes. Besides, we have an important chore to take care of before we go get the invitation from my . . . before we get the invitation.”
“What’s that?” Sheen asked.
Haden grinned. “Shopping.” Talan and Sheen looked baffled, but Joris groaned.
“What?” Talan said quizzically.
“We have to get fitted for dress clothing,” Joris explained.
“What’s wrong with the clothing we have now?” Talan asked.
“Nothing, if you don’t mind being mistaken for a stable boy,” Haden said. “The elite of Sigil tend to be a little particular about who they admit to their parties. If we want to attend, we have to dress the part. We’ll need masks as well, of course.”
“Masks?” Sheen blinked.
“Yes, masks,” Haden said, rolling his eyes while he pulled out the invitation and pointed to the word ‘Masque’. “It’s a costume party. Oh, there are always a few people that forget, so they have masks at the door, but it would be well for us not to stand out in any way if we’re going to pull this off.”
“We’ll bow to your expertise, then,” Talan said.
“Come along,” Haden said, standing. “There’s a lot to be done. First stop, the spa.”
“A spa?” Sheen said. “I think I’m capable of grooming myself, thank you.”
Haden sighed. “To be honest, no you are not, at least not up to the standards of the wealthy and powerful in this city. I’m not trying to insult you, I’d just be more comfortable knowing everything was being done by professionals.”
“You wouldn’t appreciate it much if we joggled your elbow while you were working at the forge, Sheen,” Joris said.
“All right, all right. Let’s get this over with.”
Sheen gasped as an urn full of water was dumped over her head to rinse the perfumed soap out of her hair. The coiffeur gripped her under the chin and tilted her face to the side as though she were a mannequin. He grabbed most of her hair, twisted it into a knot and clipped it to the top of her skull, then set to work with scissors and comb.
“Madame must tell me who colors her hair,” he announced, lisping effeminately. A young woman attacked Sheen’s hands while a second girl, indistinguishable from the first, critically examined her feet. “This is an excellent shade, very hard to reproduce.”
“N-no one colors it,” Sheen sputtered. Her neck was beginning to ache from the uncomfortable position, and she stretched to relieve the pain. The man seized her chin instantly and forced her back into place.
“Madame must hold still,” the coiffeur said stiffly. Haden wandered in to the room in a bathrobe, showing signs of his own scrubbing. He sat down in an empty chair, stretching his legs out to the stool in front of him and leaning back.
“How are we doing?” he asked.
“Better than you would expect,” the coiffeur said. “Madame’s skin and hair are superb, they simply need conditioning.”
“Calluses,” the girl working on Sheen’s hands reported, displaying the offending palm to the coiffeur. He tsked irritably.
“Use the pumice scrub,” the coiffeur ordered. “Madame should take greater care with her hands. Soft hands are the true mark of a lady.”
“Madame is not a lady,” Sheen said, snatching her hand away. “I need those calluses, thank you! I’m not going to spend months with blisters and burns!” The coiffeur’s spine stiffened, his nostrils flared, and his lips narrowed.
“Don’t worry about it, Severan, we’ll make her wear gloves,” Haden said soothingly.
“One does not like to present less than perfect work,” Severan said stiffly.
“I know,” Haden said, “but you also have to put up with less than perfect subjects sometimes.”
“It is the never-ending trial of the true artiste,” Severan announced and returned to marshaling Sheen’s hair into order. He pulled a ruler out of his apron, and after surveying Sheen’s head with it several times, whipped the smock from around her shoulders with a flourish. “Voila, we are finished. Madame must wear a hair net to sleep, and of course she will need to return on the day of the event to have her hair dressed and set. And, of course, the makeup.”
“You mean we’re not done?!” Sheen screeched.
“Of course not!” Severan sniffed. “These are just the preliminaries!”
Haden grinned impudently. “I’m sorry, Sheen, I don’t set fashion. You’re getting off lightly, really, you wouldn’t believe some of the things women will do to themselves in this city.”
“It’s not fair,” she said petulantly.
“No, but it’s not fair that a woman can stop a man in his tracks with a single glance, either. It balances out, trust me.” Haden frowned, his gaze growing as though he wasn’t seeing his immediate surroundings any more.
“What?” Sheen asked.
He jumped slightly. “Nothing. Now we go to the clothier and get you a dress,” he said, offering Sheen a hand to help her extricate herself from the chair. She started to reach for her clothes but Haden shook his head. “Leave them, Severan’s people will have them cleaned and ready for you when we leave.”
Sheen look shocked and tightened her bathrobe. Haden rolled his eyes.
“Will you please try to relax? All these people are professionals,” he gestured down at his own robe. “They don’t care.”
She sighed. “I’m trying, I’m trying,” she let Haden pull her down the hall towards the door to the clothier’s. “I’m just glad Severan said they didn’t need to do whatever it was with the hot wax and strips of cotton. Being an elan has its advantages, I suppose. So, why does it have to be a dress, anyway? Can’t I get by with satin trousers or something?”
“No,” Haden said flatly. “Will it really kill you to look like a woman for one evening?”
“It might, if I trip and break my neck.” He just gave her a disgruntled look and shoved her through the door.
Talan smoothed the front of the dark green tunic with his palms and glanced in the mirror. “It looks good,” Joris said, struggling with the cuffs of his own blue and purple outfit. “I think this is a little too tight,” he added, and the tailor nodded.
“I will have the sleeves let out,” he said, and bustled away, taking the jacket with him.
“So, you think I’ll make a good date, then?” Talan said. “I won’t embarrass you or anything?” Joris made a face and Talan laughed.
“Will you stop with that,” Joris grumbled uncomfortably.
“I don’t know why it bothers you so much. It’s not like we have a reputation to lose. Who cares if people take it the wrong way? Do you think your mistress will dump you or something?” Talan was expecting a laugh, but Joris turned bright red and stared at the floor.
“Oops,” Talan said. “Sorry, none of my business.”
“It’s not what you think,” Joris started to say.
“If it makes you that uncomfortable, then I don’t want to know,” Talan said. “I know you wouldn’t go hiding anything that was actually important. Let’s go see how Sheen is getting on now that the screaming has stopped.”
“Yes, let’s do that,” Joris said, relieved. He followed Talan down the hall towards the ladies’ dressing rooms. Haden was already there, his outfit stacked beside him in tidy boxes. The aasling had gotten a glass of red wine somewhere and was lounging on a couch.
“Come to enjoy the show?” he asked, smiling.
Sheen emerged from one of the cubicles with a red-faced maid. The tailor stood nearby with his hands on his hips. His vest and the top three buttons of his shirt were undone, his hair stuck up wildly, and he was wringing his measuring tape in his hands. Clearly, the man was not enjoying himself. He exchanged scowls with Sheen.
“No, no, no,” Haden said, waving his glass in the air. “She looks like a circus performer, Erturo. I can’t go to the ball with that.”
The tailor’s shoulders slumped. “I am sorry, sir, madame’s coloration is problematic. We cannot use the black because her skin tone . . .”
“Yes, yes, I know,” Haden said. “Her skin is too dark for black, her hair is too orange for red. I don’t know where you got that color green, though, did you murder a parrot?”
“I thought perhaps the dark blue . . .”
“Do you want her to look like an old lady?” Haden frowned, thinking. “What about white?”
The tailor looked shocked. “White, sir? That’s really not in . . .”
“I know, I know, but try it. You have to have something.”
Sheen glared. “You said you didn’t want me to stand out,” she said accusingly as the maids hauled her bodily back into the dressing room.
“I said I didn’t want you to stand out because you looked terrible,” Haden corrected. After several minutes of rustling, thumping noises, and occasional cries of “Ouch! Be careful!” the doors were flung open. The tailor frowned.
“Hmm.” He glanced at Haden.
“Hmm,” Haden replied. He glanced over at Talan and Joris. “What do you think?” Talan just chuckled.
“It looks . . .good?” Joris offered weakly. The maids had stuffed Sheen in a long white satin sheath with a choker collar around her neck. Her shoulders were bare.
“Turn her around,” Haden ordered and the maids complied, exposing the low-cut back of the dress. One of the girls tugged at the fabric.
“It still needs to be fitted, of course, but it suits her fairly well. The other dresses were tight around her shoulders, she’s so muscular.”
“What do you think, Sheen?” Haden asked.
“What, I’m allowed to have an opinion?”
“You have to wear it, after all.”
“It’s fine. I’m not sure about these shoes, though,” she said, pulling up the hem of the dress and displaying a pair of high-heeled sandals.
“Right,” Haden said. “We’ll take it.”
“Haden, I can’t wear heels like this!”
The tailor winced. “Madame cannot wear flat shoes with that dress, it will make her look six inches tall.”
“Don’t try to pretend that you’re awkward, you know I’m not going to believe you. I’ve seen you fight.” Haden climbed out of his chair and examined Sheen from close range. “Stand up straight, for crying out loud. Let’s see you walk.” Sheen took a few clumsy steps, her shoes clumping loudly on the wooden floor, then she stumbled and staggered sideways. Haden grabbed her arm.
“Stop that,” he whispered into her ear.
“I look ridiculous!” Sheen hissed back.
“No, you don’t. You’re sabotaging this on purpose and I won’t have it. I can’t believe,” he said, sneering, “that you’re afraid of a dress.”
Sheen’s face went white and she inhaled like an opera singer, her nostrils flaring. Her spine straightened as she drew herself up to her full height. “Good girl,” Haden said before she could get anything out. “Now walk.”
Sheen twitched the hem of the gown out of her way sharply and circled the room. Talan and Joris applauded politely. “There, are you happy?”
“You’ll do,” Haden said, and waved at the tailor.