It's always hard to find the balance between giving readers the descriptive details they want, and not going overboard. Reader feedback on the Alpennia books has taken contrary positions: some praising me in relief at not being subjected to endless details of ballgowns and parties, some wistfully longing for more details of ballgowns and parties. The tight third-person point of view that I use can make it awkward to describe things that the characters would take for granted or consider unremarkable. But sometimes there are opportunities for such descriptions to be critical for character development, as when Serafina is unexpectedly invited to the Ambassadors' Ball in recognition of her work with Margerit on the All Saints' Castellum mystery. This enflames Serafina's social anxiety. In her academic work, she may move among people who are comfortable in high society, but she is quite certain that she doesn't belong there herself. Unfortunately, the protestation that she has nothing suitable to wear fails when she is put in Jeanne's capable hands...
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Chapter 7 - Serafina
The shop had a tidy little face with a bow window on which neat gilded letters proclaimed “Madame Dominique, Modiste.” The simplicity of the display was an obvious testament to the quality of the custom she expected.
Once more Serafina hung back. “Jeanne, I don’t think…”
“You needn’t worry too much about the price. I won’t insult you by making a present of it—Antuniet scolded me on that point! But I’ve brought her a great deal of business and she will return me the favor by charging only what you can afford.”
“No, but Jeanne…a society dressmaker! She won’t want—” How tiresome to need to explain.
But Jeanne had already opened the door, setting the bell above it jangling.
The girl who came out of the back room to greet them wore the sort of neatly elegant dress that advertised the proprietor’s skills in even the simplest fashion. But Serafina scarcely glanced at her clothing, instead matching gazes with the bold eyes looking out from a brown face, framed by a lace-edged linen cap.
The girl dipped a curtsey, saying, “Good day, Mesnera de Cherdillac.”
“Celeste, I do hope your mother has time to do something for Maisetra Talarico,” Jeanne said. “I sent a note this morning but there was no time to wait for a reply.”
She disappeared with a nod.
“Her mother?” Serafina began, a different question on the tip of her tongue.
“Dominique studied dressmaking in Paris as a girl—she came here with a group of French émigrés back during the war—but I think she was born somewhere in the Antilles. I think you’ll like her. She has a knack for choosing exactly the right style. God knows she’s done wonders for Antuniet!”
Serafina was barely listening. A knot eased inside her when the girl returned, followed by a tall woman dressed with equally quiet elegance. She was darker than her daughter—well, that was hardly surprising if Celeste’s father were Alpennian. If Paolo had given her a child, she might have looked much the same. The thought pricked like a tiny hidden thorn. Serafina found her voice at last, “Madame Dominique, I would be very grateful if you could dress me for a dinner with the Royal Mystery Guild.”
It was the girl, Celeste, who took her measurements, jotting down numbers on a slate while Dominique brought forth samples of fabric and discussed the details of tucks and ruffles. Jeanne participated with a few pointed suggestions.
“Nothing too fussy, I think. There isn’t time.”
Tactful of her not to mention the cost.
“Perhaps something like that wine color you chose for Mesnera Chazillen’s New Year’s gown?”
Dominique deftly turned Jeanne’s suggestions into her own, bringing out a soft red wool with a border of flower vases woven in golds and blues. “This, I think. It was meant to be cut into shawls but if we set the border design at the hem—” She held it up to fall from just under the bosom. “—and a bit more of the motif on the sleeves. No ruffles at all, just a few tucks along the edge of the corsage.” She pinched the fabric between her fingers to show the effect along the collarbone and looked up at Jeanne for approval.
“Yes, you’re right as always!” Jeanne laughed.
“Will you have jewelry?” Dominique asked.
Serafina started to shake her head but Jeanne suggested, “A string of pearls?”
“Perfect! Now how do you plan to wear your hair?”
By this time Serafina had abandoned the thought of having her own opinions, but they all stared at her in expectation. “I usually…” She unpinned a lock and wound it into a tight curl around her finger to hang along her cheek. “Like that.”
Celeste paused over her slate to say matter-of-factly, “I wish mine would do that.”
“Then I think just a small band,” Dominique concluded. “To tie around in back. No feathers, no ribbons.” She kissed her fingers to set the seal of approval on her own vision.