Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
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Court Dresser

by Roderick D. Turner




"He says he has a particular skill with silks, my lady."

Lady Evelyn scowled at her maidservant, twisting her long unruly curls as was her habit when irritated. "He has a skill with persistence, that I'll allow," she said. "Where is this annoying pest?"

"I've left him in the arbors, my lady." Her maidservant curtseyed low, shrinking from her mistress's displeasure. "He insisted on viewing the formal gardens."

Evelyn snorted, pulled her bulky body upright, and strode from the room. "I expect my luncheon on the table when I return," she called over her shoulder.

The gardens of Hosmith Hall were vast and varied. It took her a full ten minutes to find him, squatting beside the winter roses, nose buried in a bud.

"What is the meaning of this audacity?" she bellowed. Evelyn swept down the cobbled path, her day gown trailing like a poorly tined rake. Dust and small leaves scattered in her wake. She stopped only feet from him, hands firmly on ample hips, her glare fiery enough to set the bush alight.

The object of her attention, already low to the ground, dropped still further and hid his face in her hems. "Your pardon, my lady." The words were muffled, almost lost in the thick material. "How may I make it up to you?"

"Get off your knees, you irritating little man." Evelyn shook him free of her skirts and stepped back to where he couldn't reach her without first rising to his feet. "My maidservant has badgered me all morning with your whinings. Have your say and be done with it!"

The man rose to one knee, but kept his gaze down at her feet. He was indeed small, perhaps only five feet three, with close-cropped black hair and a slight build. His hands, clasped in front of him as he knelt, were long-fingered and delicate. "I am honored that you took the time to see me, Lady Evelyn," he said. "I am your humble servant."

"Humble is hardly the word," Evelyn replied. She waved a chubby hand at him. "Rise, you fool. Let me see your face." She watched as he straightened to stand before her. He was garbed as a peasant and had a distinctly mousey appearance, a nervous tick in his face causing his mouth to pucker and twitch. She could almost see the whiskers. "Now, what is it you want?" she asked.

"Begging my lady's pardon, but has she seen the blue roses?" The man pointed to the bed he had been busy with. "They mirror my lady's beauty and grace. A poor imitation, but nature brings forth their flower for such a short time, it is a pity to miss it. Would you not say so, my lady?"

Evelyn snorted, not quite sure of the compliment. There was an insult buried in the words somewhere, she was sure. She glanced at the roses, a pale blue with darker fringing, delicate and pure.

"Has my lady smelled the roses?" He beckoned, holding a hand to her in invitation. She took it, bent with effort to inhale the fragrance. "Enchanting, is it not? Yet, were one able to capture the living essence of the rose, it would be but a pale shadow of your own wondrous charms."

Evelyn stood and looked at him, the scowl she had intended replaced by a shy smile. Almost against her will, she nodded in gracious appreciation. "What might your name be?" she asked.

The man bowed low. "Fessington. John. At my lady's service."

She seized him by the arm and pulled him upright, drawing him down the path in the direction of the summer garden. "Walk with me," she said. "Tell me of your skills."

John Fessington fell into step beside her, his short legs moving rapidly to keep pace with her longer stride. "I have already explored your summer garden, my lady," he said. "The waterfall shimmers and shines blue in the sun, yet I have seen none lovelier than the sparkle of your own eyes."

"You have a good command of your wits, Fessington," Evelyn replied. "But I know you are after something." She glanced down at her bulging body under its flowing gowns, then turned raised eyebrows towards him. "I hardly think it is my body." She steered him along the path towards the waterfalls and the pond. The path wound around the lawns, through beds of colorful annuals and a copse of rhododendrons in full flower. The sound of the waterfall filled the air, warm in the bright sunshine. "Still, it is a magnificent garden."

"Indeed," Fessington replied. "Yet, like yourself, it requires delicate care to keep it radiant." His smile was disarming, despite the twitching at his mouth. "That is my gift, Lady Evelyn. I am skilled at the craft of maintaining womanly beauty." He gave a tiny shrug. "In your case, my work would be of little consequence. One can hardly improve on perfection."

Evelyn found herself smiling again, captivated by the man's unexpected charm. "Have you examples of your work?" she asked. "You must know, a woman does not trust her appearance to just anyone."

Fessington smiled again. "Your maidservant Sally has graciously agreed to act as a model, my lady. Of course, I would be pleased to demonstrate my skill with any other subject you should select."

Sally was a plain young woman given a little to fat, with plump fingers and dry, wispy brown hair. "You have my leave to exercise your charms on Sally. She can provide you with whatever cosmetic items you require, and you may tell her I have assented to the treatment." She shot him a sly look. "Use anything from my wardrobe that you wish. If you can make that girl any less homely, I will hire you on the spot."

Three hours later there was a timid knock at the door of Evelyn's sun room. She was sprawled across a day bed, gazing out at the gardens and dreaming of how she would stun the court with her new look. "Yes, what is it?" she called.

"If it please you, my lady. Fessington would have you see how I look."

Sally's voice was soft to begin with, but this was as frightened a whisper as Evelyn had ever heard. Lord only knew what the girl must look like. She pulled herself upright, grumbling at the way her body heaved and rolled. If only this little man could actually do something, and wasn't just full of bluster like all the rest. "Come in," she said.

The door swung open slowly, and Evelyn gasped. Sally stood in the doorway, cowering as though she expected to be struck. Yet the girl looked…

"God's above," Evelyn breathed.

Fessington appeared from behind Sally, tugging her forward by one satin-draped arm. "My lady likes what she sees?"

The girl was the very embodiment of loveliness. Every curve, every color, every scent awoke desperate feelings of awe, envy, enchantment. Her hair was a cascade of gentle brown curls, flowing down across her bare right shoulder. Pale yellow silks swirled about her, draping her body just so, emphasizing here and smoothing out there. Why, the man had transformed her from a rumpled lump to a radiant princess.

"It's--a miracle," Evelyn said at last.

Sally was suddenly all smiles and airs, curtseying and twirling, floating across the room as though her feet did not touch the floor. "Isn't it wonderful, my lady?" she said. "I've never felt so beautiful. John--I mean, Fessington has the touch, Lady Evelyn. If he can do this for me, just imagine--" she paused, a stricken expression on her face, "I mean, I'm sure he could--"

Evelyn smiled, a dreamy smile full of hopes and visions. "I know what you mean, Sally." She got to her feet, walked over and touched her gently on the shoulder. "You look fit for a prince." The girl looked up at her with huge, fearful eyes. "Take the rest of the day off, for yourself. Show everyone." Evelyn traced the shape of her arm, running her hand down across the silk to rest on her hand. "You may keep the clothes."

Sally's eyes filled with tears and she curtseyed so low Evelyn thought she would collapse on the floor. Then she backed out of the room, her gaze ever downwards, while Evelyn shook her head and smiled. When the door had closed behind her, Evelyn turned to Fessington.

"How did you do it?" She could not keep the wonder from her words.

"It is a gift, my lady," he said. "I have practiced and honed my skills in a dozen different lands, so that I may draw upon the techniques of the masters in the performance of my art." He bowed. "I would be pleased to assist you in discovering your own hidden charms."

"You can start by getting me ready for tonight. My husband is away on a hunt, and I am expected at court. There is to be a royal feast." She paused, a quizzical expression on her jowly face. "Why me, Fessington? Of all the ladies in the land, why did you choose me?"

Fessington straightened. "My lady?"

"Your skill, your art as you call it, must work equally well on all women. Yet you came here, to my estate."

"I follow my feet, my lady. They lead me where they will. It was fate, nothing more, that led me to your door this day. I pray that you will be satisfied with the service I can provide for you."

"Then serve away, Fessington. Perform on me anything like the miracle you achieved with Sally, and you can name your price at court. Of that, you can be sure."

It took John Fessington the remainder of the afternoon to transform Lady Evelyn. When he had finished, her eyes truly did sparkle like the sun off the waterfall, and the pale blue silk enfolded her as the petals of the rose, delicate and smooth, wrapping her unshapely body in a cascade of blissful deceit. Evelyn stared into the glass, no longer fighting the unbidden smile that illuminated her features and shone back from her own tear-filled eyes. Her golden curls lay draped across her shoulders, towered in an inspirational crown atop her head, fell in delicate wisps over her forehead and down her cheeks. "Gods, you are a magician," she said, the words catching in her throat.

"I do what I can, my lady," Fessington replied. "There was so little to improve upon."

"You are modest beyond words. I will take the Queen's breath away."

Fessington smiled. "You are indeed a breathtaking sight, my lady. I am sure you will draw the attention of all at court, as never before."

"Quickly, Fessington. Before I melt or something, help me out to my carriage. I must not keep them waiting. My grand entrance cannot be clouded by a small thing like tardiness."

Five minutes later Fessington assisted her into her carriage and stood aside while she settled herself in place. Lady Evelyn patted the leather beside her. "With me, Fessington. You're coming with me. I must show you off as well, or the coup will not be complete."

Fessington bowed, but made no move to climb on board. "My lady, I am flattered, but--I am no lord, Lady Evelyn. I should ride with the groom."

"Very well, just as long as you come. You shall serve me at the feast."

The court was crowded and noisy, everyone talking about the King's newest enemies, about the most recently cowed lords, and the latest court fragrance. As Lady Evelyn entered, stepping gracefully through from the foyer, the room went silent. All heads turned to see her, and the smile she wore was more radiant than any the court had ever seen. She swept through the hall, nodding greeting to the other lords and ladies, reveling in the awe-stricken gaze of the latter, and in the admiring grins of the former. The Queen herself, draped in a gown of ruffled gold brocade, stood agape as she approached.

"Good evening, Your Grace," Evelyn said. Silence reigned. The room waited on her words. "Might I introduce my newest servant, John Fessington."

Fessington bowed low, a deep sweeping gesture that took in the entire room. He kissed the Royal hand, and dropped to his knees.

"Is he--my Lady Evelyn, is he responsible for your--" the Queen smiled, "for your transformation?"

"Indeed, your Grace. He is a master of the splendid. A magician of beauty." Evelyn smiled down at him where he knelt at the Queen's feet. "My new dresser, Your Grace."

The Queen reached down and pulled Fessington to his feet. "An amazing art you must have, Fessington." She beckoned to a servant. "You will make a place at my right hand for this man. He shall entertain me with his stories while we feast."

Evelyn dared not contradict. "Your Grace. He is a common servant. Should he not serve you, rather than sit with you?"

"A servant, perhaps," the Queen replied. "But hardly common. He will sit with me."

The guests were asked to take their places, and the feast began. Fessington suffered the glares of the Lords with what humility he could. The Queen treated him like a noble.

"Tell me how you came to learn your--art, Fessington," she said.

"I have a gift, Your Grace. I know what a woman needs." He raised his long fingers, flexed them. "It is in the hands. They sense, feel."

"Perhaps, then, you can tell me what I am in need of?"

Fessington took her hand in his, smiled knowingly into her eyes, his nose twitching bewitchingly. "I know you and the King are at odds over a kitchen wench he has been dabbling with. I know you have need of advice on how to deal with the taxation issues in the south. I know you are lonely in spite of all the courtiers and servants that attend you. I--"

"Enough!" The Queen's eyes were wide with shock. Her mouth worked as she searched for words, but none came. Silence stole across the hall once again, as the Queen's stricken look was noticed. Slowly, she composed herself, smiled round at the assemblage. "Please, my Lords and Ladies. Continue with your feast. Fessington has been testing me with some harmless jests. All is well."

The feasting underway once more, she turned to him again. This time, however, her expression was softer, her eyes filled with wonder. "How do you know all this?" she whispered.

Fessington gave her a reassuring smile, patted her hand. "I know. And there is one other thing I know."

The Queen gazed into his eyes. "Yes?"

"I know you have need of a new dresser, Your Grace."


THE END


2013 Roderick D. Turner

Bio: In the author's words, "I like writing stories, and am particularly pleased when I find I enjoy what I have written. That is the best part of writing - you are after all most often your only audience. Second best is when you start writing about a character and they take over, almost literally writing the story themselves. Then you read it through and the characters surprise even you. Several of my stories have appeared in Aphelion, most recently Causal Effect in May 2013. For more of my material, both prose and other media, visit www.rodentraft.com."

E-mail: Roderick D. Turner

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