There are few things in this world that can simultaneously delight and dismay in the same manner 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 they exited Carlton House through a tented hall, 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 fell away upon entering the Polygon Ballroom, 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 of the temporary structure and inhaled with pleasure.
They had taken the Polygon 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, sir, 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 longer a glamourist without peer.”
Jane blushed at the attention as every head turned to her. She could see them recalculating her worth and now understanding why the Prince Regent had led such an unhandsome woman into dinner. Under the weight of their stares, her gaze fell to the table, taking refuge among the plate and crystal assembled there. Her relief when the Prince pulled her chair out and seated her could scarcely be imagined.
Accustomed as she was to the more retiring life on her father’s country estate, Jane had not looked for any honours when she married Mr. Vincent. The few months of their marriage had been filled with work and the joy of learning to shape their lives together. This commission had seemed honour enough when it had come, almost as if it were a wedding gift from the Prince Regent.
Around them, the footmen began bringing out the first course, a turtle soup. Jane was glad to have the activity distract attention from her. She took advantage of the respite to gather herself so that when the Prince Regent next addressed her, she was better prepared for conversation.
The initial topics were of such amicable and unforced weight as the weather, and if she thought it might snow on the morrow. She did not and said so.
This relieved his royal highness, as the press of carriages expected for the New Year’s Eve festivities would be immense. By the time the soup was cleared, Jane felt somewhat more at ease and was able to engage the Prince Regent in a conversation about music, a topic on which they shared some common ground.
“You must allow that Rossini is far superior to the froth that Spohr is passing off as composition. It confounds me that the Italian fellow is not better known.” The Prince Regent selected an oyster from the array of dishes the footman laid upon the table with the next course.
“I have not had the privilege of hearing his music performed in earnest, so I am not a good judge, I am afraid.”
He huffed. “You only have to examine the page to see the difference between them. One’s music flows with the inevitability of a stream, the other staggers from theme to theme like a drunken beggar.” He lifted his glass and nodded over it to the gentleman on her left. “Am I not right, Skiffy?”
On her left, Sir Lumley St. George Skeffington abandoned the conversation with his dinner partner to answer. “Of course you are right. When are you ever not? But what is it that you are right about this time?”
“I suggest that Rossini is superior to Spohr.”
“Oh.” Sir Lumley waved his hand in dismissal. “I do not follow such things. Ask me about a tailor, and I might honour you with an opinion.”
The Prince Regent smiled, and glanced sidelong at Jane. “Then pray, tell me what you think of Monsieur Lecomte?”
“Oh! Horrid. Horrid, I tell you. I have never seen a man with less understanding of the nature of cloth than he displays. Why, did you know that I went in on the recommendation of a friend, whose advice I shall not favour henceforth, and M. Lecomte had the temerity to suggest superfine cloth? To me?” He took out a perfumed handkerchief and patted his forehead. “I turned on my heel and left without another sign. It was clear he was not current.”
Smiling, the Prince Regent adjusted the sleeve of his coat, which was, Jane was startled to note, cut from superfine cloth. “So, you see, Mrs. Vincent, he does not always agree with me.”
Sir Lumley leaned back in his chair in a show of mock horror. “Now, Prinny, you do not mean to tell me that you have honoured M. Lecomte with your business?”
“I was, I confess, curious to see how a man who claimed to have worked for Napoleon might measure against our good English tailors.”
Jane smiled in polite interest. When the silence seemed to indicate that it was her turn to speak, she ventured to ask, “How did you find him, sir?”
The Prince considered for a moment and then offered a single word. “Foppish.”
“And yet you wear the coat he made for you?” Jane studied the coat. It was cut along French lines, but she had begun to grow used to that as the fashionable set raced to catch up with the other side of the Channel. “Might I inquire as to why?”
“It amuses me.”
Jane was uncertain if that amusement stemmed from the tailor or from the near apoplexy he had brought on in Sir Lumley. Her attention was distracted from this question, for, in examining the Prince’s coat, she happened to spy the glamural beyond him. She could barely stifle an “Oh!” at what she beheld and kept her countenance placid only with some difficulty.
Behind a window in the coral, they had placed a school of iridescent fish, swimming past at intervals. The effect had been achieved by measuring out a long spool of thin glamour, which contained no illusion save for occasional bubbles, and then looping it around to tie to the fish. Though Jane had used such threads of empty space before, she had worked with none so long as this. It had required her to stand in one place to control the thread for exactly as long as she had wanted the interval to be. Her husband had but recently showed her his technique of braiding seemingly similar threads together at somewhat different lengths to create the appearance of random intervals. Jane had created the fish thrice, one that came at three minutes, one at five, and one at eight. It created the illusion of but one school of fish, swimming past at random moments.
And yet, as she watched, two schools of fish went by hard on the tails of one another.
“Do you not think so, Mrs. Vincent?” His Royal Highness leaned close to her, smiling.
Jane straightened in her seat, alarmed that she had lost track of the conversation. “I could hardly dare to venture an opinion.”
“You do your husband wrong, if you should not vouch for him.”
She would do her husband more wrong if her fears about the fish were correct, and yet to admit that she had been ignoring the Prince would not do. Jane sought for some answer that would serve. “But you see, sir, as his wife I am over-partial to him and cannot be trusted to give an unbiased opinion. I must bow to yours.”
“Then I will make it so, and trust that it give you some pleasure as well.” The Prince Regent lifted the asparagus tongs and offered her a few delicate spears.
Jane nodded her assent, without having the least idea of what he would make so, while darting glances at the window where the fish appeared. If she unfocused her attention on the tangible world and let her vision slip into that realm of ether where the folds of glamour lay, she could study the thread as it flowed past. From watching others, she knew that such distraction gave her countenance a somewhat insipid expression which might be appealing on certain beauties, but not on her own unassuming plainness. It was too at odds with the sharpness of her features to be pleasing.
The knot went past. It had, as Jane suspected, slipped. What alarmed her more was that it showed every sign that it was on the verge of coming untied altogether. She tried to remember what she had fixed that thread of glamour around.
“And have you been to the Continent before, Mrs. Vincent?”
The question brought Jane’s attention back to the table. “I have not, sir.”
“Then I suggest avoiding the north of France when you go, though I cannot remember where Mr. Vincent said his colleague lived. Still, I counsel against it, as well as parts of Spain and Italy. While Napoleon has abdicated, there are still factions that would seek to put his son on the throne. I think it shall be calmed by the time you travel, but you must let me make some arrangements for your tour.”
Jane was all astonishment. To the best of her knowledge, neither she nor Vincent had spoken of going abroad, and yet the Prince Regent spoke as if it were a certainty that they would go. “Sir—”
He held up his hand. “Mrs. Vincent, you must do me the favour of not using my honourific with every sentence. It does wear on one. In an intimate setting such as this, I would rather be reminded that I dine with friends than that I am Prince. I shall have enough of that tomorrow, and while it does have its merits, one enjoys it only for a time.”
He referred, of course, to the grand opening of the ballroom to the public, in which he would dine in great state. Once the ballroom was open, there would be no opportunity for repairs. Jane would have to attend to the fish as soon as dinner had completed, lest they unravel farther.
“Of course … and yet, one must call you something.”
“Oh, as to that”— Sir Lumley again disregarded his duties to his dinner partner to drawl—“we all call him ‘Prinny.’ I dare say he would like you to do the same.”
“Oh yes, would you do me that kindness?”
“And you shall call me Skiffy.” Sir Lumley leaned in close. “We are all terribly fond of you, for your husband’s sake.”
Not for her own, but this could hardly surprise Jane. She attempted a smile while trying to recall where the thread of glamour went. “Thank you for the honour. And have you known each other long?” In this manner, she hoped to distract the gentlemen to talk between themselves. No matter how rude that might make Sir Lum—Skiffy to his dinner partner, it would grant her some brief span in which to puzzle out the fish. While Vincent had created glamurals this elaborate before, if perhaps on a smaller scale, it was the most intricate work which Jane had yet attempted, and the sheer number of threads, folds, weaves, and braids of glamour overwhelmed her memory.
“Prinny had come down to Eton for a fête back when your husband was still a Hamil—” Skiffy cleared his throat, just avoiding pronouncing the name that Vincent had renounced. “Even in those days Vincent had the reputation of being a curmudgeon. Though we were all terribly fond of him.”
Jane’s attention was now split in two. On the one hand, she worried about the fish, for, if on their first commission together, she introduced a flaw into their work, it would not bode well for their future projects. And yet, Vincent so rarely talked about his life before giving up his family name to pursue his art that her curiosity was piqued beyond all else.
“Your husband had glamoured the clock tower so it showed the time backwards!” The Prince—Prinny—threw his head back and laughed.
Skiffy resumed the tale. “Oh, the deans were furious at that one, because he had managed to tie the glamour off so it did not show in the least. In any case, they could not conceive of how someone might have climbed the clock tower to weave one. Which showed your husband’s cleverness, for he did not ascend the tower at all.”
“No? How did he do it then?” Jane’s interest in her question faltered almost at once as she finally traced the thread of glamour to its source. The fish’s trailing line was wrapped around the support for the coral reef comprising the wall opposite her. She had thought herself exceedingly clever for finding a way to contain it thus without having to loop the thread into the earth for stability, but the trouble she now faced was that if the knot came undone all at once, it might snag and cause an unravelling in the wall as well.
Prinny chuckled again. “Your husband created it from the base of the tower.”
Jane choked on her turbot at this and had to hold her serviette to her lips to stifle her coughing. The Prince patted her on the back, and passed her a glass of water.
“Thank you.” She cleared her throat, conscious of once again attracting more attention from the table than she might have wished.
At the foot of the table, Vincent studied her, his brows raised in concern. She gave him the smallest shake of her head to let him know that she did not require his aid, though she desperately wished that she were seated near him. One of the distinct disadvantages of being married was that one never sat with one’s spouse when dining in company.
Giving the Prince Regent her attention, Jane kept her composure smooth. “Though I above all should be partial to my husband’s talents, still I find my credulity stretched by this.”
Even with her deep admiration for her husband’s skills, Jane could scarcely imagine the sheer strength it would take to work glamour from such a distance. As with a small stone, in the hand it might seem to weigh nothing, but if one held it at the end of a pole, it became increasingly difficult to manage. Though glamour borrowed the language of textiles to describe it, there were ways in which the manipulation of glamour also resembled water. One might direct a jet across a fountain, but it always wanted to return to the ground, widening into a mist as it curved downward. So too, with glamour: a glamourist could hold a strand of light pulled from the ether and direct it across a room, only to see it bend and lose its resolution. A skilled glamourist learned to adjust the ways in which the strand left his hands to compensate for its propensity to return to the ether, but it took much greater effort than producing a glamour at close range. To create a glamour from the base of a clock tower would have required great strength and steadiness of hand.
“Oh, it is quite true.” Skiffy leaned in again, so that she could see the powder on his cheeks. “They all thought that something had gone wrong with the mechanism, and were after the clock-keeper’s head. The poor fellow was up to his arms in the gears when Hami—when Vincent relented and withdrew the glamour. It happened right as the fellow pulled out a gear that truly broke the clock. Do you know what your husband did then? The great curmudgeon proved that it was all an act, for he stood beneath the clock tower and retied his glamour so that it showed the clock running the correct direction. He saved the clock-keeper’s job by that, and I think it very handsome of him.”
Jane could not be surprised by the generosity her husband had shown, but her attention was drawn again to that detail of distance in Skiffy’s telling. If Vincent were able to create a clock illusion from so great a distance, perhaps he could retie the knot in the fish without drawing unwelcome attention to himself. Jane would have to stand and walk over to the section of the wall, which, besides the attention it would draw to her, would be rude to his royal highness … Prinny, that is.
At the foot of the table, Vincent was now engaged in conversation with Lady Hertford. He did not spare a glance in her direction. Her attempt to reassure him had, it seemed, been too successful.
Perhaps her fears were amplified by the company she kept, and yet Jane could not help thinking of the courses yet to come and estimating the time which remained for the dinner. Would the knot continue to slip, or might it hold through the meal? She pushed the asparagus on her plate, unable to think of anything else. While the question of a few fish might seem but a trifle, to Jane, placed as she was in a position above her rank merely on the merits of the work around them, the thought of having the glamour fail at this moment was a thing of horror. To be sure, knots did sometimes come undone, but the Prince Regent, for all that he styled himself Prinny, had not paid them for inferior work. Left to its own, it would come undone before the end of dinner, and it would likely damage the coral with it. The work they would have before them to have it repaired in time for the official opening of the ballroom tomorrow would be immense.
Jane bit the inside of her mouth. No. No matter how honoured they were by this small dinner, the simple fact was that her role in life had shifted from guest to artisan, and, as such, her duties were clear. She set her knife and fork on the table and lifted the serviette out of her lap.
The Prince stopped in mid-sentence, and Jane realized that she had again lost track of his conversation. “Are you unwell, Mrs. Vincent?”
“I am quite well, thank you.” She could not bring herself to call him Prinny. “Only I have noticed a spot in the glamour to which I must attend.”
“Now? During dinner? Surely you have worked hard enough to have some rest.” The Prince shook his head in wonder. “I see why Mr. Vincent finds you so appealing. You have the same focus on work that he does.”
“And yet, not his skills. I am afraid that if the knot I have noticed comes undone it will require more effort to fix later. It will be but a moment, and then I shall be better able to focus on enjoying the evening.”
Pushing his chair back, the Prince Regent said, “I know the artist’s temperament too well to attempt to dissuade you again.”
For that, at least, Jane was grateful. But when he arose to pull out her chair, conversation in the room stopped and all the guests attempted to rise themselves, unable to remain seated while their prince stood. Vincent rose as well, his face filled with alarm. The Prince Regent waved them back to their seats before resuming his own seat.
Jane smiled with as little concern as she could muster, though her heart raced as if she had already begun to work the glamour. “Please ignore me. I do not wish to disturb.”
Keeping her head down, Jane walked across the ballroom floor as quickly as she could.
In moments, Vincent was by her side. “Jane, are you well?” His low voice grumbled in his chest, but the hand he pressed against her elbow spoke of deep concern.
“Embarrassed, rather. This school of fish is coming untied.” She stopped in front of the window in the coral and reached out to grasp the line of glamour that the fish twined around. “Please sit down. There is no sense in both of us standing here. It will be some moments before it comes round again, and as this is one of my illusions, the error is entirely my fault.” Letting the thread trail loosely in her fingers, she waited for the knot to reappear.
Vincent did not move from her side, and she could feel the warmth of him even through the heavy material of his coat. It was Bath coating, not the superfine which “Skiffy” so abhorred. Jane took a strange and momentary pleasure in that before she chided herself. They were not fashionable members of society who had to worry about these things, and being in such people’s company would seduce her into wanting pretty clothes which she did not need. Still, she thought that her husband cut a fine picture, and that there was no harm in thinking so.
“Will you not sit?” She turned to find him staring at her with an endearing smile.
“Because you ask, I shall. Muse.” He leaned forward as if to kiss her, and then gave a side-glance at the company, who had all turned in their seats to watch them. Straightening, he offered her the most correct of courtesies from husband to wife, and returned to his seat.
Jane set her back to the rest of the ballroom, grateful for that pretence of privacy. When the knot came under her fingers, she tightened her grasp to stop the fish. Carefully, she inched the two schools toward the proper relation to one another and then tied the knot with a triple hitch. It was less elegant than the nœud marin she had used before, but was unlikely to come undone.
Letting her attention return to the room, she stepped back from her work and was pleased to note that the diners had stopped paying her any heed. In truth, even the most astute observer would have noted only a woman standing with her back to the room, because the adjustments she had to make to the glamour were too subtle to be noticed. Only Vincent watched her, and offered her one of his rare and radiant smiles. Flushed more than the small amount of glamour merited, Jane returned to her seat, managing to slip into it with the aid of a footman before the Prince Regent noticed that she had rejoined the table.
She was thus prepared to enjoy the rest of the meal … until the table turned, and “Skiffy” claimed her attention.
Copyright © 2012 by Mary Robinette Kowal