“What took you so long?” Benedicta stepped back from the full-length mirror in her dressing room and spun around. “We started without you.” She looked like a fairy tale princess in a light blue ball gown.
Three maids stood off to the side, each holding another dress, while Margarett sat on a settee and watched as Wynefrede walked in.
“Are those hickeys on your neck?” Margarett asked.
“Winnie!” Benedicta threw up her arms. “You promised you’d behave. You’re going to get kicked out.”
“These aren’t hickeys,” said Wynefrede.
“If you tell us it’s leprosy, I’m not buying it,” said Benedicta.
“Would you believe… smallpox?”
“You can’t come to the ball tonight with hickeys,” said Benedicta. “You’ll have to get rid of them. Ask one of your maids to find you some makeup.”
“Why are you even here if you’re not going to take it seriously?” asked Margarett. “The Royal Season costs a fortune.”
Wynefrede shrugged. “My folks are paying for it. I’m broke and I’ve got nothing better to do. At least I’m having fun, so it’s all good.”
Benedicta frowned and turned back to the mirror. “Well, I guess that leaves more men for the rest of us. So what do you think of this dress? I want to make a good impression on the queen.”
“Why?” asked Wynefrede. “Is she single?”
Margarett looked up. “Oh my god, she totally is. I wonder if she’s sponsoring the Royal Season because she wouldn’t mind meeting someone herself. She’s incredibly wealthy. Her family controls so many companies.”
“I heard her true love died in the Civinos explosion,” said Benedicta.
“That was five years ago,” said Margarett. “She’s probably ready to move on.” She stood up and looked at Benedicta with a critical eye. “The dress looks perfect. You just need to tighten it a little more. And maybe some jewelry for your hair.”
“What are you going to wear?” asked Benedicta.
“I’ve already picked out a dress,” said Margarett. “It’s yellow and has little ribbons all over it. That’s the color that Elea… I mean, the queen… wore last week. I asked around.”
“You’re serious? You’re going to try to hook up with the queen?” asked Wynefrede.
“I know it’s a long shot,” said Margarett. “I’m not going to be too heartbroken if nothing happens. There are lots of other options.”
“How about me?” Wynefrede batted her eyelashes seductively. “Am I an option?”
“I’m sorry, but you’re not really my type,” said Margarett.
“Whew,” said Wynefrede. “I was worried the sexual tension would get in the way of our friendship.”
“No, we’re good,” said Margarett.
“Why are you here, Benedicta?” Wynefrede asked. “You’re rich, you’re an actress…”
“Neither of those things make dating any easier,” said Benedicta. “But here…” She swept her arm around the room. “It really does feel like a fairy tale. It’s so exotic, and there’s danger around every corner. A friend of mine went on one of these a few years ago, and it changed her life.”
“So have you seen anyone you like yet?” Margarett asked.
“I haven’t really gotten to know anyone yet,” said Benedicta. “I thought I might get a chance to mingle a bit at the hospital, but it was horrid.”
“Well, I’ll have you know that while Winnie was chatting up the leper, I talked to George Bedgbery. He was really nice.”
“Which one was he?” asked Wynefrede.
“The one with the fur-trimmed beret,” said Margarette.
“I don’t remember him,” said Wynefrede.
“You were too busy looking at the leeches and the skulls and catching leprosy,” said Margarett.
“I think I remember seeing him at the start of the tour,” said Benedicta.
“Well, he had to leave,” said Margarett. “He must have eaten something that didn’t agree with him. I think he went to throw up.”
“Maybe he caught some horrible disease,” said Benedicta.
“You’re right,” said Margarett. “I’m going to go bring him something to help. Maybe a nice hot broth. I’m going to head home and see if my cook can make something.”
“I’m going to head home, too,” said Wynefrede. “I still haven’t picked out my dress for tonight. Who knows? Maybe I’ll meet someone fantastic and my life will change, too.”
One of the maids put away the dress she’d been holding and escorted Wynefrede and Margarett to their coaches.
After the maid went back into the house, Margarette pulled Wynefrede to the side, out of earshot of their guards. “Do you think that one of the maids is the Nightingale?” She whispered.
Wynefrede looked back at the maid, who was then entering the Benedicta’s house. “No, I think the maids are too busy with their regular jobs. They probably don’t have time to write a newspaper column on top of it.”
“Oh, good, I’d hate to watch what I saw around everybody.”
“I’m not saying you shouldn’t. Even if the maid isn’t the Nightingae herself, she probably gets paid by the newspaper to listen for gossip.”
“That’s horrible,” said Margarett. “And such a privacy violation. I just wish there was something I could do. That column is ruining my life.”
“It’s not doing me any favors either,” said Wynefrede. “If there’s more gossip like today’s, I’ll be kicked out of the program.”
“I thought you didn’t care one way or the other,” said Margarett.
“Well, I don’t want my parents’ money to go to waste,” said Wynefrede. “Plus, if I get kicked out early, I think my parents might be a little miffed. They’ll start hinting that I get a job. I’d rather stick it out here, thank you very much. If I make it through, I’ll able to string them along for the next couple of years. And I’ll have material for guilt trips for years.”
“We should team up,” said Margarett. “We should keep an eye on the maids, see if we can catch them taking money for gossip. I bet Pleasance will be happy if we put an end to the Nightingale.”
“I’ve got a better idea,” said Wynefrede. “We can start some rumors.”
“I thought we were trying to stop rumors, not start them.”
“No, we start a separate rumor for each maid. Whichever rumor shows up in the newspaper will tell us where the leak is.”