"You're going to the ball."
Clara looked up from her stitching at Araminta's words. "Of course I'm going," she replied, confused. "I'm always there to serve you, whatever you need."
"That's not what I meant." Araminta appeared from behind her changing screen, still dressed in her day clothes. "You're going as me."
Now Clara was really worried. She always suspected that living in the thin air of an airship manor made funny things happen to upper class minds, but now Araminta was proving that theory. "But you're the guest of honor," Clara explained slowly. "You have to go."
"No, I don't," Araminta said pointedly. "Everyone just has to think that I'm there. It doesn't actually matter who's behind the mask. Besides, we're the same size and have approximately the same eye and hair color, and you'll be in so much makeup no one will be able to tell the difference."
Clara couldn't believe what she was hearing. It was impossible. "Except of course we sound completely different, move completely different, and have a completely different set of social skills."
Araminta gave her maid a sharp look that immediately quieted Clara. Lady Araminta Llewellyn had a well-deserved reputation for dismissing her maids for the slightest of things, and Clara desperately needed to keep this job.
Unlike Araminta, Clara didn't live in a fancy airship manor.
"You're going in my place," Araminta said coldly, "or you'll no longer be employed with me. And as to the matter of our social differences, I know for a fact that you are quite capable of imitating the behaviors and mannerisms of my class."
Clara's cheeks tinged pink. It was a common game amongst household staff who lived on land to have fun impersonating the various lords and ladies they served. Clara didn't know how Araminta knew about their games, and she dared not ask.
"So sit," Araminta ordered. She pointed at the chair behind the vanity. "I would never do my own hair for a ball this important, so neither can you."
"You're doing my hair?" Clara repeated doubtfully as she sank into the cushion.
Araminta rolled her eyes, exasperated. "Well, I can't exactly call someone else in, now can I?"
Clara didn't respond and instead tried to sit as still as possible as Araminta tugged at her long, dark hair, curling, braiding, and pinning it up into a magnificent updo that seemed to defy gravity.
"You can do your own makeup," Araminta finally said, throwing down the brush and sauntering back behind her changing screen. "It's easier to do on yourself than hair is."
Clara didn't have enough experience to agree or disagree, but nevertheless she tentatively picked up a tube of foundation off of the vanity. "What are you going to be doing while I'm at the ball?" she asked cautiously. It hadn't escaped Clara's suspicion that Araminta might be playing a cruel prank and would burst in halfway through the event, exposing Clara as an imposter.
"None of your business," came the unsatisfying reply. "But as far as I'm concerned, Harrison and I are already arranged to be married, there's no point in going through the pomp and circumstance tonight. It won't change anything."
Harrison Norrington. The other guest of honor, the man whose family was hosting the ball, and a challenge that Clara had somehow not even thought of.
"How am I supposed to convince your soon to be fiancé that I'm you?" she questioned, grasping at anything that might get her out of this.
"Clara, you know as well as I that I've never met the man," Araminta said, "which means you barely have to pretend to be me. You just have to be a more refined version of you."
Clara ignored the dig at her background. "And when he meets the real you and you're completely different from what he remembers?"
"It won't matter," came the nonchalant answer. "He won't have any proof. And besides, it's only one night, and people act strangely at balls. He'll brush off the difference to that."
Clara wished she shared Araminta's confidence. But maybe she was right about the behavior altering properties of balls. It's not like Clara would know.
"Hurry up," Araminta snapped, coming back into view wearing a pair of pants and a loose shirt. "You don't have much time."
After Clara applied her makeup to Araminta's approval, the Lady laced Clara up into a ridiculously tight corset. Clara was only thankful she was a bit slimmer than Araminta. Skirts, jackets, and hair pieces followed until Clara felt like this one outfit consisted of more fabric, metal, and stitching than every piece of clothing she had ever owned. It probably did.
"Just in time," Araminta said, glancing at the clock on her mantle. "They should be here in about five minutes to escort you to the airship."
"Your parents?" Clara confirmed nervously.
"Yes, yes, but I never talk to them anyway," Araminta brushed off her concerns. "Just greet them and then ignore them."
Clara thought that was easier said than done.
"And for the final touch," Araminta said, bringing a box over to the vanity. A mask of silver, gold, jewels, and feathers lay within.
There were only one or two balls of this caliber a year, and the upper class went all in on the masks they wore. They cost tens of thousands of dollars and took months to make. Clara picked it up with trembling hands.
"Hurry up," Araminta urged her.
Clara held the mask to her face and Araminta set to work tying the ribbons and placing more pins in Clara's hair. By the time she was done, nothing short of a small bomb would have been able to force the mask off of Clara's face.
"Perfect!" Araminta explained, facing Clara.
Clara turned toward the mirror to examine herself. She was unrecognizable.
"Now remember," Araminta rambled, "you and Harrison are the guests of honor, so you'll have some attention thrust on you, especially at the beginning, but you're the noble, and he's the businessman, so he'll be expected to do all the talking. Just greet people and nod as he talks, understand?"
A knock on the door cut Clara off.
"Go," Araminta hissed. "And don't screw this up." She dashed back around her changing screen, out of sight of the door.
With little choice, Clara moved to open the door, walking cautiously in her heeled boots.
Araminta's parents stood on the other side, both also already dressed and masked.
"Good, you're ready," Lady Llewellyn said. "And your maid?"
Clara cursed to herself. She didn't even think about coming up with an excuse for why she wouldn't have a maid with her. "Good evening, mother." Clara attempted her best impression of Araminta, and at the lack of reaction from Lady Llewellyn, figured she was doing an adequate job. "Clara is under the weather tonight," she continued. "I think I can take care of myself."
"Are you sure about that?" Lady Llewellyn asked, cold laughter seeping into her voice.
"Quite sure." Clara herself turned cold, but didn't bother to elaborate.
"Alright, alright," Lady Llewellyn conceded.
"Now, I think we should go." Clara maintained her disdain. "It wouldn't do to be late." She swept past Araminta's parents into the hallway.
Servants escorted them out to the loading dock. With the wind whipping around and the land just visible in the distance, Clara began to feel a familiar dizziness creeping up on her. Despite working in the air, she hated heights.
Clara boarded the small transport airship and took a seat, turning her attention to the window. To her relief, Lord and Lady Llewellyn did as Araminta predicted and ignored her.
The Norrington airship manor was bigger than the Llewellyn, but more modern, lacking charm. Still, Clara couldn't help being impressed by its grandeur. It felt like no time at all that Clara and her supposed parents were in the entrance hall, waiting to be announced.
Clara turned her attention to the deep voice who had just approached her. The splendidness of the suit combined with the incredibly detailed mask told her that this could be no one other than Harrison Norrington.
"Sir," Clara greeted. As he was not of noble birth, she had no obligation to refer to a title.
"I'm very pleased to meet you at last."
"As am I," Clara replied truthfully. She had heard of him before, but had never actually seen him. As he brought her hand up to his lips, she studied what little she could see of his face. His dark eyes bore into her green ones intently; Clara only hoped he would not take so much notice as to detect any differences once he met the real Araminta.
They stood in silence as couples were announced. Harrison's parents entered the ballroom, then Araminta's, and finally the two of them stood in an empty entrance hall.
"Shall we?" he asked, holding out his arm.
Clara accepted the support gratefully, placing her hand on his elbow, and nodded.
"Lady Araminta Llewellyn and Mr. Harrison Norrington."
The pair stepped forward into the light and a wave of applause. Clara could barely take any of it in; she was too focused on not tripping and falling down the stairs.
"It all seems a bit ridiculous, don't you agree?"
Clara barely registered what Harrison had said. "What is?" she asked.
"All of it." He gestured around the room. "A ball that's meant for the two of us to get to know each other, to decide if we want to marry, and yet that decision already been made for us. And everyone knows it, but everyone just pretends."
Clara glanced nervously around them, but no one else was listening. A long line was forming by the Llewellyns, waiting to greet her and Harrison.
Tearing her gaze away from the line, Clara found Harrison staring at her intently, apparently waiting for an answer. "I suppose it is," Clara agreed. She figured Araminta wouldn't have a problem with that statement; after all, if Araminta didn't find the whole process ridiculous, why was Clara standing here in a 25-pound costume?
"But it's the way things are," Clara added on. She had to play her part of nobility. "No use complaining about it."
"I wasn't complaining." Harrison's gaze hadn't left Clara's face, and a small flurry of butterflies in her stomach surprised her.
Clara didn't have time to address those butterflies, however, as the long line of greeters began their congratulations. Once again, Araminta's prediction was correct, and all she had to do was say hello and thank you to each person. Harrison had to converse a bit more.
"Thank goodness that's over," he murmured to her after they waved off the final person.
Clara doubted he could read the surprise on her face.
"Now, just the first dance and the most difficult parts of the night are over."
Dancing. This was one thing that Clara felt no fear of. Sure, she had never danced in front of a crowd of 200 people wearing heeled boots and a corset that was making her slightly light-headed, but she had also been dancing since infancy. If she could get through a hundred greetings, she could do this with ease.
Harrison led her to the center of the empty dance floor, and then looped his arm around her waist, pulling her close. Clara placed a hand delicately on his shoulder and clasped her other one with his.
They stood pressed against each other, breathing slightly heavier than usual in anticipation, in silence as they waited for the music to start.
Once it did, and Harrison began to steer her around the room, Clara relaxed. She focused on a spot just to the left of Harrison's head as they danced alone, determined not to think about how many people were watching her. They weren't alone for long, however. Soon they were joined by Lord and Lady Llewellyn, then Mr. and Mrs. Norrington, and then the rest of the crowd joined.
"You know, it's okay to look at me," Harrison said in a low whisper in Clara's ear. "We are to be married, you know."
Clara's heart skipped a beat as she locked eyes with her dance partner. "I apologize, I'm just not used to the attention," she said, not thinking.
As Harrison's eyes narrowed slightly, she realized her own mistake.
"Lady Araminta, not used to attention?" he questioned.
"What I mean is, I'm not a fan of it. Just because I receive it doesn't mean I want it." That statement wasn't much better; Araminta loved attention. But it would have to do for now.
"I see." Harrison pushed her away, spinning her once, and then pulled her back. "I never would have guessed."
Clara didn't reply, figuring she had done enough damage.
"I don't like it either." Harrison continued the conversation, taking her silence as an invitation.
"Then I'm afraid you're marrying the wrong person."
Harrison's mouth formed a wry smile. "Maybe," he said. "But then again, maybe not."
What little of his expression Clara could see was warm, kind even, and Clara grew thankful for the thick layer of makeup she had on that hid the pink tinge appearing on her cheeks.
After a few dances, Harrison led Clara off of the dance floor, much to her relief. She didn't even want to think about how much sweat was pooling under all of her layers.
"Lady Araminta, would you care to take a walk with me?"
Clara looked up at Harrison as she sipped a glass of water. She weighed the request. On one hand, it would get her out of the eyesight of the many nosey observers of the room, but on the other, personal conversation was much more likely with just the two of them.
Clara didn't have time to respond before a couple came up to them. "Mr. Norrington," the man said joyfully, "I was hoping to get a moment to speak with you. And Lady Araminta," he bowed his head respectfully, "so wonderful to see you again. Tell me, how are your parents? I haven't had a chance to speak with them."
"Actually, Harrison and I were just about to get some air." Clara brought back the earlier coldness she used with Araminta's parents. "I'm sure you'll be able to speak with Harrison some time else." She grabbed Harrison's hand and pulled him through the crowd.
"Well, thank you for that." Harrison had taken the lead and led Clara deeper into the manor. They now walked through a long, cool, and most importantly, quiet, hallway. "I had no desire to speak with him."
"Who is he?"
"You don't know?"
Clara once again cursed her own stupidity. "Honestly, it's hard to keep track of everyone I meet," she amended. "I probably have only seen him once or twice."
"He's a business developer, like my father," Harrison supplied. They were still walking further through the ship. "He wants to do business with us, but even my father thinks he's heinous."
"That's a strong word."
"There are few words for developers that aren't strong."
They walked together in silence for a bit. Clara didn't know what to say. Developers often exploited the resources of the land to make the sky nicer, always at the expense of the people living below. Clara had a stake in what they did; she felt those consequences personally. But Harrison did not. And neither did Araminta.
"I'm sorry," Harrison finally said. "I assumed at your eagerness to get away back there you shared my distaste for such matters."
"I do," Clara said quickly. "I'm just shocked at your attitude, given your family's work and everything."
"Do you agree with everything your family does?"
Clara couldn't remember much about her own family. "I suppose not," she said.
Clara and Harrison reached the opposite end of the manner. "Here," Harrison said, gesturing toward a small door.
Clara followed him out, and immediately her legs started to tremble beneath her. The door led out to a small, outside platform looking out onto the horizon. Wind whipped around them, blowing out Clara's skirts and dragging hairs out of her elaborate hairdo.
"It's wonderful, isn't it?" Harrison went up right to the edge of the platform, grasping the handrail and leaning forward slightly, looking out across the earth. "I'm really not supposed to come out here, but no one monitors it."
When Clara didn't respond, he turned around to see her with her back pressed against the side of the ship. "Are you alright?" he asked, concerned.
She nodded mutely.
"Don't tell me you're afraid of heights?"
Her silence confirmed his suspicion.
"You live on an airship and you don't like heights?"
"I don't mind them when I'm inside." Clara found her voice and inched her way across the platform. "I just don't enjoy being out in the open."
"Here." Harrison held out his hand, and she grasped it, steadying herself as she kept moving forward, eventually gripping the railing with her other hand.
"I like seeing so much," Harrison tried to explain. "The land, the sky, the airships, combined it all seems so vast, almost impossible to grasp the magnitude. It's just not the same as looking through a window."
He was right; it was incredible. Clara, however, kept her gaze firmly on a spot on the horizon to keep from looking down.
She did a double take at Harrison as he moved to pull off his mask. His uncovered face was quite handsome, with strong features and pronounced cheekbones.
"I know, I know," Harrison said once he realized she was staring, "we're not supposed to take our masks off. But do you really believe it'll cause me bad luck?"
"No," Clara said, not willing to admit why she actually had been staring, "I just didn't expect it."
"I like the fresh air on my face."
Clara certainly didn't move to take her mask off and was thankful that Harrison didn't press her to.
"Have you ever been down there?" Clara didn't know what made her ask, maybe it was her nerves or the unsteadiness she felt when she finally looked down, but if Harrison was surprised at her question, he didn't show it.
"A few times," he replied. He didn't look at her, instead followed her gaze to the ground. "You?"
This question Clara could answer truthfully to Araminta. "No." Her voice caught slightly on the lie.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable," Harrison said, bringing his attention back to her. "We can go back in."
Clara nodded gratefully and led the way back inside. Harrison wound his way through the manor until they reach a small office with a couch to sink down into.
"Why did you ask?" Harrison asked curiously. "About visiting the land?"
Clara had no way to answer that, truthful or not. "I don't know," she admitted. She gave it a moment of thought. "I guess just how you were talking about the exploitation that goes on down there. Not many people talk that way."
"I've been down a few times with my father," Harrison explained shortly. "He's unbothered by what we see, but I can't just ignore it."
"There's nothing you can do."
"Isn't there?" The intensity in Harrison's eyes startled Clara. "Or is that what we keep telling ourselves in order to keep things the way they are?"
His words shocked Clara into silence. In all her years of serving on airships, she had never heard anyone of the upper class talk in the way that Harrison did just now.
"I don't want to make you uncomfortable." His voice was softer now. "And I know we're to be married, but I won't give up my ideals because of that, even if you disagree. I hope you can understand that."
"I don't disagree," Clara said a little too quickly. "I suppose it just seems hopeless at times."
"It really does."
He had no idea.
"You're not what I expected."
Clara's insides froze at his words and was thankful for the mask that hid the panic on her face. "Oh?"
"I guess," he paused. "I don't want to offend," he continued, "but I guess I didn't expect you to have opinions on exploitation and class issues."
Clara couldn't be offended. Araminta would have been bored to tears by their conversation.
"And I'm surprised you've allowed me to keep you from the ball for so long."
Another accurate assumption. Araminta never would have left. "I suppose sometimes balls make people act in ways they usually would not." Clara repeated Araminta's earlier words. "And I like talking to you," she said truthfully, the butterflies reappearing in her stomach. "You'll be a good person to be married to." Her words were true; Harrison just didn't have the full context for her statement.
The corners of his mouth quirked up. "Why, thank you," he said, laughter entering his voice. "You'll be a good person to be married to, too."
Clara couldn't bring herself to smile. "We'll see," was all she could say.
Harrison stood up and held out his hand. "Come on," he said, "we should be getting back."
Clara accepted the hand, and he helped her stand. Instead of leaving the room, however, they remained facing each other, only a few inches away from each other.
"You danced beautifully," he complimented her after a moment of silence, his voice barely above a whisper.
"Thank you, as did you," Clara replied, her own voice only just holding back a tremble.
And before she could stop him, his soft lips were on hers, hands holding her waist. Clara seemed to lose control of herself and immediately kissed him back, resting her hands on his arms and feeling the warmth from his body.
The moment didn't last long.
"I'm sorry," Harrison breathed, his face barely an inch away from hers, "I had to."
"It's alright," Clara breathed back. And for her, in this moment, it was. She could only hope that, by some miracle, Araminta would never find out.
Harrison put his mask back on and Clara retook his arm. When they arrived back in the ballroom, Lord Llewelyn was giving a closing speech.
Harrison raised one of Clara's hands to his lips. "Lady Araminta," he said cordially.
In spite of herself, Clara hated the way he said the word Araminta, and for a brief moment wished desperately that she could hear her own name coming from his lips.
She nodded her head, regaining her composure. "Sir," she replied.
And just like that, the ball was over. Clara rejoined Araminta's parents to return to their own manor, and was thankful that they chattered to themselves about the splendidness of the ball, allowing Clara time to lean her head against the airship's window and think.
In a lot of ways, she felt bad for both Harrison and Araminta. From what Clara could tell, it would be a miserable marriage. She wasn't sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing that Harrison most likely had hope right now of marrying someone who he could have a happy life with.
However, a small, selfish smile crept on to Clara's face. Harrison's marriage to Araminta meant that Clara would get to see the man again, even if just in a professional setting. She would get to see his dark eyes and soft lips again. She could keep the memories of tonight fresh in her mind.
Clara could only pray that Araminta never found out that Clara kissed her soon to be fiancé. Or else Clara would probably find herself literally thrown off of the airship.