Early in the predawn a beautifully hand addressed envelope was dropped into the mail slot at Terrence and Julia’s home. The inscription read “Julia, Countess Strefagi.”
Rodolfo, three of his half sisters and Astanthe, who had been Septima, had taken over part of the wedding dress salon. Rodolfo, dressed in a slightly archaic style that made the blond queue hanging down his back look like the perfect finishing touch, was seated erect in a leather armchair, both feet firmly planted on the ground and his rod of office grounded between them with his hands folded on top of it. From his position he could see the door to the change room his little Starflower was using, the entrance to the store and the promenade in front of the mirrors. His sisters, all of them tall blondes with excellent taste, were married and experienced in the travails of wedding dress shopping.
“Not the dress Silvana had,” Gloriana was saying in a practical tone, “Astanthe’s a good foot shorter – anything like that will look like the attack of the snow beast.”
“We should avoid that,” Astanthe gravely agreed, “My cousin Mariucca on my mother’s side...” She shuddered. “The photos could be posted as a public warning.”
Stephana patted her shoulder reassuringly. “Your wedding won’t be like that, we promise. Despite my brother’s heavy handed methods of courtship.” She sent Rodolfo a cutting glance. “Style isn’t the only issue though, there’s colour too. After all, there’s white and there’s white.”
When the shop door opened to admit a nervous looking middle-aged woman Astanthe was standing in front of the mirrors being critically examined in off-white taffeta.
“It’s too – apricot,” was Stephana’s comment.
“It makes your bust look like a liability, not an asset,” said Gloriana firmly.
“Stand on your toes like you were wearing heels, please,” asked Oriana from behind her. “Thank you, relax. No, this style of train just doesn’t work on you.”
“I do not care for the overall effect,” said Rodolfo, “She looks like she’s playing dress ups in someone else’s clothes. We need to look at something else.” He rose to his feet and walked to the newly arrived woman near the front of the shop. “Countess Strefagi,” he gave a bow that would have been old fashioned in her father’s youth but went well with his clothes, “You got my note. Thank you for coming. Won’t you please join us?” He offered her his arm and, when she tentatively took it, he led her up the few steps in the middle of the store to where the others were consulting with the assistant over the next dress to try on. “Would you care to sit?” He offered her the chair he had just vacated.
“Thank you, but no,” Julia was distracted. “Septima?”
The dark haired figure in the wrong dress turned suddenly. “Mum?!” Relief and shame warred on her face.
“Astanthe,” Rodolfo said firmly in Julia’s ear, “Her name is Astanthe now. Think of it as a wedding present from my brother or simply part of the whole getting married thing if that makes it easier.”
“Astanthe.” Julia tried it on for size. “How are you?” Then sharply, “You are not seriously considering that dress, are you? Not on you?”
Two dresses later, Rodolfo pointed at a Carnivale dress towards the front of the shop with his rod and said, “I would like to see that shape on her, please.”
“Rodolpho,” said Gloriana firmly, “That is not a wedding dress. That’s fancy dress. Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Why shouldn’t a wedding dress be made like that?” Rodolfo put his question in an ‘I’m being entirely reasonable’ tone. “I would like to see that dress on Astanthe please.” When the assistant hesitated he smiled and added, “Now.”
Less than five minutes later Astanthe was back in front of the mirrors wearing someone’s interpretation of a five century old fashion: near transparent pleated linen underdress visible above the bodice and through slashings in the sleeves; a boned and back-laced wide-shouldered bodice that, unlike the original version, proclaimed that the wearer had a bosom and invited the world to look; a heavily pleated skirt; and sleeves that weren’t joined to the dress all the way around the armhole and were slashed longitudinally in the tight upper arm section to allow the underdress to puff through them then finished in a loose lower section that finished above her wrist but trailed to her knee and was lined with a plain silk that toned with the brocade of the rest of the garment. Rodolfo regarded the effect with satisfaction. “Turn around, please,” he requested.
Astanthe complied, but paused half way round and looked back over her shoulder, “Like this?”
“Yes, you little flirt, exactly like that,” it was a warm smile between the two of them, “But this is a very autumnal colouring,” he indicated the pattern of vines and leaves in shades of brown and gold. “Does this fabric,” he’d turned to the shop assistant, “Come in any other colours?”
It wasn’t quite the same pattern, but a brocade in dark green and blue with touches of silver won his approval.
“It’s not anything like white,” said Stephana thoughtfully. “Is that going to be a problem?”
“It makes her look,” Rodolfo said calmly, “Like a great lady in an old portrait.”
“A very beautiful one,” Julia added then said, “And if you’re going to say ‘stuff the conventions’ then there’s no point in being coy about it, you might as well go for broke. At the very least dear,” she smiled at her daughter, “None of the others would be able to say that you’ve copied their dress.”
“The blue and green should make up the same as the sample dress,” offered Oriana with the agreement of the assistant, “And your bum really does look good in this,” she added to Astanthe.
“Just a veil and we’re done then,” stated Gloriana with some satisfaction.
“You’ll be done, dear sister,” corrected Rodolfo, “I get to pay for everything.”
Astanthe suddenly looked worried, “This isn’t going to cost too much, is it?”
“No,” he smiled reassuringly at her, “And you’re worth every scuto.”
Julia and Stephana had wandered down the front of the salon and were looking in a locked cabinet. Another assistant spoke to them, then unlocked the cabinet. They and that good lady came back to the group with a cobweb of lace. “This caught my eye while I was wondering what to do when I first came in. I think,” the assistant handed one end to the taller Stephana and together they dropped it carefully over Astanthe’s head, “It will be just the thing.” The first assistant, experienced in this, lifted the fall of fabric back up to cover the sample dress.
Six women breathed variations on, “Oh, yes...” Astanthe was the only one who couldn’t see what she looked like.
“They’re right,” Rodolfo told her fondly. “Now,” suddenly all business, “Astanthe needs to have measurements taken and get back in her own clothes, you ladies need to decide footwear and I have to deal with the business end of things. She and I have an appointment to view a house in,” he looked at his watch, “Forty five minutes.”