Talia painted her lips blue and went down, down, down to the Market Level ball.
She gyrated her way past elegant ladies in three-piece suits and gentlemen in tattered kilts, their chests as bare as the ancients’. They laughed when she caught their eye — the sweet laughter of acceptance and delight, not the derision one received in supposedly polite society.
Tonight, they were her tribe. Tonight, they understood.
The code of propriety to which Mama had long shackled her did not exist in this frantic world. There were no guarded nods, no “how do you dos,” no quiet desperation seething below polite exteriors. No polite exteriors, full stop. These people were who they were; or, perhaps, who they wanted to be.
A blue-lipped girl could thrive in this swirling, whirling collection of misfits, if only for a single, stolen night.
Talia spun in a wide circle, thrilling at the flare of her silk skirt and the sharp swish as it twisted around her on the backswing. Mama would die if she knew Talia had left the house in something so loose, so free. One could carve a moment of happiness in a frock like this. One could dance one’s way into a new kind of life.
Her attention settled on a flash of red across the room; the sheen of silk as fine as her own, as loose and soft and sharp. The young woman encased in that delectable dress glided toward Talia. Her lips were the purple of a winter sunset, her hair dyed to match. She clashed with her vivid red gown, sliding so far past good taste that she came right back around and grew tantalizing, elegant, entirely herself.
Talia had waited for this girl all her life.
Words were of little use between them; the dance itself sufficed. They pressed close, stepping circles each around the other. Their feet scrawled poetry on the ballroom floor; their bodies wove tapestries of color and light.
At dance’s end, the purple-and-red girl drew the girl with the blue lips out onto the balcony for a moment’s quiet. They stood in silence, surveying the ceiling that hung so low above their heads. Its star-lamps were almost close enough to touch.
Talia knew she must say something, but she could think of nothing to say.
Purple-and-red took her hand. Talia squeezed, and was squeezed in return.
Perhaps this was all they needed.
“I…” Talia began.
“I know.” Purple-and-red smiled. “Glorious, isn’t it?”
Her voice was the rich sweetness of honey, the dark depth of night. Talia closed her eyes.
She’d come to the Market Level for a little magic, a little escape; an unreal night to carry with her through the years so she would not forget who she could not be. She had never expected the trip to yield something so quietly real, so full of promise.
Grief swelled within her. She could not remain the girl with the blue lips; the girl in the loose, swirling silk; the girl who shared a moment of understanding with a lower-level lass she met at a questionable ball.
“I have to go,” Talia choked out. “I have a curfew.”
“Can I walk you to the lift?”
“I’ll be fine.”
“Of course you will. It’s just nice to have company.”
Talia relented. She would have this slow stroll through the wild Market streets. It would be her rock when she gave in to Mama’s insistence that she marry someone of her own class; someone with prospects and money and priestly connections.
Mere steps from the vast public lift, she said, “Mama would die if she knew I came here tonight.”
Purple-and-red giggled. “She’s one of those types who wants you to marry a church official and spend forever thinking about how best to serve the Twins?”
“Exactly. I think we serve them best when we’re ourselves.”
“Agreed.” She drew Talia to a halt. “That was a wonderful dance.”
“For me, too.”
Her shy smile made Talia bold. Surely she could share a single kiss with this vision. One brief, soft, almost chaste meeting of the lips, to last her down through the years.
Fine silk rots; lipstick rubs off; purple-dyed hair grows out to its natural brown or black. Good girls and boys make alliances that help their families climb the social ladder. They go to business school and learn the ins and outs of import and export. They make their Mamas proud.
Talia stole her kiss and entered the lift that would take her where she could best serve the Twins. Her purple-and-red paramour remained behind.