Feb 19, 2020 11:13 AM
Emma meets a friendly neighborhood architect
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"No, not that one. Too, hmmm, too summery. Try the green."

"Yes, mother," Emara murmurs, and obediently changes dresses. Again. Keeping her mouth shut has become more of an effort for every dress she tries. This one too long, that one too short, and what even does 'too summery' mean? It's just a dress. It's just a party. The world will not end if-

"-too sheer," her mother decides. "What about the red?"

Emma silently starts changing again, then ducks awkwardly behind the screen when the door opens unexpectedly to reveal her father. "Dad! Changing!"

"What, still?" he says. "We're going to be late for the party, Emara, how long does it take to put on a dress?"

How many dresses? Emara thinks, mildly hysterically, as she tugs the red dress over her head and re-emerges. "All right?"

Her mother inspects her critically. "Well, it'll have to do. I wish it covered your shoulders, your skin just isn't doing well-"

"Party!" her father interjects impatiently. "That we are late for!"

My skin was fine before we moved, Emara doesn't say. She misses traveling. She doesn't really care about her father's business, much less understand it, but she liked the variety and, whenever possible, the languages. (There's something intrinsically appealing about the idea of saying things her parents can't understand.) But the business needs them here now, in the center of things, so here they are. Her parents adore it- the culture! the people! the parties!- but Emara's rather soured on the idea, lately.

She swipes her brush through her hair one last time before her mother can comment, wraps her shawl around her shoulders, and smiles at her parents. "All ready. Sorry to, um, keep you waiting."

"You look very nice," her mother says, and mostly sounds sincere, so Emara takes it as a compliment. "You'll make a lovely bride someday."

Emara scrambles, as politely as possible, for the door. Better to head that train of thought off before it begins.



As soon as they arrive, one thing becomes very clear immediately: Emara is wildly overdressed. (And if even Emara is noticing? It's egregious.)

"You said this was a fancy party!" her mother hisses to her father, her smile frozen in place. "Dress nicely, you said!"

"That's what they told me!" her father whispers back, before moving to thank their hosts for inviting them. Their hosts at least are far too polite to mention their outfits, but Emara spots a couple women behind them staring and whispering with grins. She sighs internally.

"This is not the impression we should be giving," her mother frets. "You don't want to be remembered as the girl who's trying too hard, not after that whole... incident."

"That wasn't my fault!" Emara can't stop herself from objecting.

"Really, Emara, you were just overreacting. Don't be so crazy about this," her mother scolds.

Emara- does not respond to that. This is definitely not the time. She pastes a smile on her face, and introduces herself politely when her father brings them over to their hosts for introductions, and curtsies when she should curtsy and fades back to let the adults chat when she should fade back. She makes it through exactly two artificially friendly conversations with women cooing over "what a bold fashion choice she's making, that dress!" before she heads for the buffet, because if she has to suffer through this party, in this dress, she's taking advantage of the food. And she's definitely taking advantage of the alcohol.



One glass of wine and two surprisingly delicious cheese tarts later, her mother catches up to her. "Stop snacking, you'll ruin your dinner," she says as Emara goes for a third tart. Emara blinks at her slowly, then takes the tart anyway. "Emara!"

"They're tasty," Emara says, and takes a bite.

"And full of who knows what. Your dresses are already getting too tight, sweetheart, it's very unattractive. You really should be more careful what you eat. Boys will notice these kinds of things."

Emara has... no response to that she can make in a room full of people. How has she reached the point where she has to care about what dress she wore to a party? She doesn't actually want to know the answer to that, so she takes a sip of wine instead. "Um, boys? What boys? You said this wasn't a matchmaking party?" she reminds her mother. It's why she'd agreed to come in the first place.

"It's not intended as one," her mother corrects her, "but surely there'll be nice young men here. And you really should be more friendly, Emara, you're never going to meet anyone standing by the tables."

"Fine," Emara says. "I'll move."

"Watch your tone," her mother warns, but leaves her be.

Emara watches her go, takes another cheese tart, and promptly walks outside into the garden.



The grounds are lovely. It may not be summer, but it's a warm evening with the slightest breeze, and the gardens are clearly a feature of the estate. Small paths wind past bushes and under trees, and they're clever about disguising where the property borders up against the neighboring park, which makes the whole thing feel much larger than she's sure it really is. Her shoes aren't the most practical for cobblestone, so she finds a chair that looks reasonably private and settles into it. It's some kind of smooth white stone, prettily carved and more comfortable than she'd expected from stone, and she relaxes to enjoy the quiet and the view of the party through the arched glass doorways.

She's halfway through her tart and just regretting not bringing a napkin when her mother appears and offers one, looking clearly disappointed. Emara takes it and wipes her hands and is about to offer it back when she sees her mother's expression, reconsiders, and puts it down on the arm of the chair. "Um, thank you."

"What are you doing out here, Emara," her mother sighs. "We just talked! I told you, you need to be mingling."

"I mingled," she says defensively. "They were, um. Nasty about my dress."

"I told you, we should have gotten you a new one," her mother says. "You've had this one forever, it's getting tight around the hips, you should at least get it tailored-"

"I've had it one year," Emara says shortly. "And it still fits, and it looks fine."

"It's bunching around the arms," her mother corrects.

"Which doesn't matter!" Emara says. "It looks fine!"

"Emara," her mother says sternly. "You've already had one relationship fall apart, you can't afford to let yourself slide-"

Emara doesn't quite lose it on the spot. She looks around for other people, at least. And when she has confirmed that everyone else at the party is still inside, then she starts in. "I. Look. Fine. No one could possibly care less if the dress fits right when I'm this overdressed, which is not my fault, and we didn't break up because of the size of my hips!"

Her mother looks actually shocked for a moment, then settles somewhere between angry and upset. "Emara! Just because you lost your chance with Kileran-"

"Uh. I did not 'lose my chance,' because, uh, I did not do anything. He was apparently just interested in the business connection, and he found himself someone with better wine industry connections, and that's kinda not something I control! At all!"

"Emara!"

"And I am allowed to find someone who likes me, right, not my business connections, gods, at least if he'd just wanted me for my body that would still have been about me-"

"Emara!"

"I will find someone! Eventually! And it does not need to be tonight, and they will not be limited by a certain number of cheese tarts, if they care they're not worth it and until then I will just eat the cheese tarts because they're delicious, it's not the end of the world!"

"If you're going to be this much of a pill, then perhaps you should stay out here," her mother says stiffly. "Your father and I can come find you when we're ready to go." She turns around and heads towards the party. "Try not to make more a scene," she adds before she vanishes inside.

Emara looks around, realizes she's stood at some point in all that yelling, and flops back down. She looks at her remaining half a cheese tart. "I hope you're worth it," she tells it dolefully, and finishes it off.

Then she downs the rest of her wine. Ugh. This party.

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Someone comes wandering in from the direction of the park. He's also a little overdressed for this party, if he were going to it, which he might very well not be; but he carries himself like all that silk is just what he wears on a casual evening stroll.

When he spots Emara with her dress and her wine and her tart, he pauses and smiles wryly. "Another grand social success on Stargazer's Hill, I see. Don't feel too bad, these things always turn out to be an enormous disaster for somebody. I'm not sure whether your hosts are cruel geniuses, persistent idiots, or just really, really unlucky."

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Emara has officially used up all of her emotional energy on her mother. Stressing he could have heard her yelling? Nope. Worrying about her ridiculous dress? Nope. Caring who hears her complain? Nope.

"All of the above?" she suggests tiredly. "This will all be my fault somehow, though. Never mind that the dress I first picked would have been fine, no, let's change dresses six more times, but- um." He was being friendly, and supportive, and she is about to vent. (Vent more.) She smiles at him, embarrassed. "Sorry. Thanks for the encouragement."

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He laughs. "It's fine!" he assures her. "If I didn't want to encounter tired grumpy people I could've stayed in the park. Anyway, who's blaming you for their own bad advice?"

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"Flatterer," she snorts. "My parents are. Uh, more my mother, but still probably both of them. My mother and self awareness are... not exactly on speaking terms?"

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"Evidently not. What are they even trying to accomplish here? Make a lot of rich friends in Skygarden? Take it from a rich person who lives in Skygarden, making rich friends in Skygarden is a huge waste of time."

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"Sounds about right. On both counts," Emara says dryly. "I was looking forwards to moving here, but." She shrugs. "Um, there's upsides? More things to do, more people to talk to," she nods at him, "and a lot of it is just gorgeous. But, uh..." she flails her hands for a second, fails to settle on an adequate phrasing, and settles on, "parties."

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"Parties!" he agrees, sympathetically. "Have you considered just walking out and going off to do something fun?"

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"I'm in a red satin ball gown and heels!"

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"So?"

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"So what does one do for fun in Skygarden in a ball gown and heels? Since parties have failed me."

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"Hmm. What's your opinion of libraries?"

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"Uh, yes."

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"I know a good one near here!"

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Hmm. Is she annoyed enough at her parents to leave the party with a stranger?

Not quite. Even on a couple glasses of wine. But she can compromise.

"Only if I can get another cheese tart first," she says. "Want one, mysterious stranger?"

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"I would be delighted."

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Well, that didn't work. Unsubtle it is. "I'm Emara."

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"Sekar. Pleased to meet you."

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"You too. Um, one minute, cheese tarts coming up."

She ducks inside. She can't quite manage to 'sneak', in this dress, but 'act embarrassed about her outfit' serves just as well to keep people from approaching her. She wraps up two cheese tarts in a napkin and then stops one of the waiters arriving to refill the plates.

"Would you tell my parents I'm stepping out, please? I'll be stopping by the library with a guest named Sekar." She points out her parents across the room, deep in conversation with a couple she recognizes as a business interest of her father's, and barely waits for him to nod acquiescence before she's on our way back outside. She wasn't quite up to explaining to her parents herself (or her mother's inevitable palpitations about "wandering the city at night", despite the safety of the area and the fact it's not even really night yet), but at least they know where she's going and with who... and hopefully at enough of a delay to let her sneak away. It'll do.

She heads back to where she last saw Sekar. Thankfully, it's not a terribly large garden.

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And Sekar is indeed waiting there. He smiles and waves when he sees her.

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She smiles back and offers the napkin. "Cheese tart?"

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"Thank you!" He takes a bite. "Oh, very nice."

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"Th're d'l'cious" she agrees around a bite of her own. Then swallows and adds, "and extra tasty when you've just been told not to eat them."

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He laughs.

"I like your style."

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Emara laughs. "Which makes you literally the only one here, but I'll take it." She finishes off her cheese tart and leaves the napkin on her erstwhile chair with its companion. "So, uh, something something library?"

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"This way! Are your shoes going to bother you? It's not that long of a walk but I admit I've never tried it in heels."

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