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Ressa took Taleffi's lecture to heart. She was paying good imperials for the unused carnal guild license in her pouch, and at the least, she ought to get her money's worth. Besides, she had been feeling like her life could use a little change. So, the morning of her unexpected appointment with the cablecar operator, she went to the carnal guild annex, and presented herself to a thin, mousy man who looked her up and down and looked disapproving.
"You haven't been here in a while," he said, checking her license against his records.
Ressa, who didn't consider herself vain, was still a little stung by the obvious disdain in his voice. "No," she admitted mildly. "I'd like a nice dress for an evening out."
"Mmm..." the man said with pursed lips. "And make-up, I hope? Come on, then."
Ressa blinked, and followed him into the well-lit, mirrored room with trepidation. The room was subdivided with thick curtains that kept the cheerful chatter of conversations to a comfortable hum and afforded selective privacy as joy girls and hot men chose outfits and had their hair and make-up done. The room was busy; it took several moments to traverse the crowded walkway and she had to wait several moments for a free attendant.
"Do something with her," the mousy man said to the attendant dismissively, when the appropriate paperwork had been inspected for a second time.
"Don't take him too seriously," her attendant said with a rich laugh. The girl's pin said she was a apprentice with the guild, and she took Ressa by the hand and had her turn around, measuring her circumference in a few places with a flexible measuring tape. "He probably thinks you spend too much time at the Fitness Guild, that's all; he likes his ladies with a little more padding over the bones. Don't worry, this athletic look is still popular with plenty of them. I'm Thleri!"
Ressa refrained from explaining that she didn't use the Fitness Guild more than a few times in a month; her job in the licensing office gave her plenty of exercise climbing stairs and hefting files.
"So tell me about your client," Thleri invited. "What kind of look are we going for?"
"I'm not sure," Ressa confessed, and it was a little exciting, not knowing. "I don't know anything about him except that he drives cablecars."
"Oh, a new one!" Thleri practically crowed at the idea. "Did you meet him wearing something like this?" She plucked at the conservative pleated skirt Ressa was wearing. "Where are you going with him? Is he cute?"
Her questions were dizzying, but Ressa laughed and fielded them as best she could. "Yes, something similar, we're going to Lassati's and yes, quite adorable."
"Lassati's... that's over by the Licensing Offices?" Thleri didn't wait for confirmation. "We should go for stunning, then; that's a fancy enough place that we can dress you up for the evening. Something classy and form-fitting at the top; maybe a little flare at the bottom. Just enough cleavage to drive him wild, and an up-do for the hair. I know just the dress."
She filled out a card for a runner, who darted away into the stores, and pulled the curtains shut around them. "Come, lay down!" Thleri ushered Ressa to a padded slab and helped her remove her clothing. Ressa relaxed as she lay down; being groomed was an unexpected comfort, and reminded her of being a student again. Thleri proved to have very gentle, clever fingers, and kept up a cheerful string of non-stop chatter as she did all the intimate shaving and lotioning and powdering. Ressa's hair was still in curlers when the dress was delivered, and Thleri was buffing the last of her toenails.
"Oh, it's perfect!" Ressa said in delight when it was unwrapped.
Thleri made an approving noise, and helped her into it. The dress was low in front, with short cap sleeves and a fitted bodice that needed only a few stitches to fit perfectly. It tapered smoothly over her hips and then flared, swirling into a generous swish of skirts. It was not the latest fashion, which favored padded hips and puffed shoulders, but Ressa agreed with Thleri that it was a more flattering look for her long figure. The assistant pinned Ressa's guild brooch at her collarbone, and gave the curls left loose a last fluff.
"Now you won't embarrass the Guild," Thleri said with pride, and the mousy doorman even nodded a little at Ressa as she left.
Ressa recognized Bai through the window of the cablecar as it pulled into the elevated stop. He wasn't wearing the white hat, but his was an unmistakable figure, even in the evening crush of people waiting to commute home for the tenend.
Ressa resettled the neckline of the unfamiliar dress and the fur collar of her coat as she stepped down the cablecar steps to the sidewalk. She waited for a nod, or some comment, and slowed to step out of the stream of disembarking passengers to speak with the license master. He looked blandly back. Ressa realized with some amusement that he had not recognized her and continued on without coming to a complete stop.
Abruptly, when she was too far past to make a graceful save, he startled, and Ressa resisted the urge to look around and figure out his expression, letting her momentum carry her away in the small crowd of people down the steps to street level.
She wasn't terribly surprised, not to be recognized; this was hardly the kind of clothing and make-up she wore to work, and she and Bai rarely saw each other in purely social circumstances; she was a clerk and he was the highest ranked license manager in the city, as well as the son of some of the wealthiest merchants in the region. Ressa had a moment of petty regret; she wished she could have gotten a good look at his expression when he realized that she had access to clothing as fine as he did, and could be dressed up just as fancy.
She arrived at Lassati's a tentick before the seventeenth bells, and they ushered her to one of the prime tables near the window and took her coat. Ressa realized with some surprise that they were using her to their own advantage, displaying her in the window to be seen from outside in her finery. She hoped it wouldn't get too cool, so far from the cheerful fire; poultry skin was never flattering.
Her server did a gratifying doubletake when he recognized her - though Ressa was not a regular, she took business lunches here often enough that they remembered her name and didn't always check her license anymore. "Ressa," he said in awe. "You look like an actress."
Ressa blushed and waved the compliment aside. She wouldn't need to worry about a chill if they kept this up!
Yeff, arriving just ticks after she heard the rumble of seventeenth bells, looked like he'd walked into a play, and no one had told him his lines. When Ressa stood to greet him, he stared for a long moment before blushing and touching fingertips with her. Only the servers's polite comment about the menu choices for the night got him moving, groping for his chair and nearly unsettling his water.
"We'll have a Yasiluu white wine to start," Ressa told the server with a warm smile, and she settled into her chair across from him.
"Th-thank you for coming out with me," Yeff said haltingly. He stared at the brooch at her collar, and down at his napkin, and at her wine glass, and back at her guild brooch.
"I'm glad you asked me," Ressa said with a light laugh, and she was surprised to find that it was true.
"I am, too," Yeff said quickly. "I mean, I'm glad I - er - you suggested - this is lovely." He took a drink of his water and nearly splashed it putting the glass back down.
Every trained instinct in Ressa prodded her to put Yeff at his ease; her highest marks in the Carnal Guild had been in comfort and empathy, and she had often chosen her clients based on who she could be most helpful to. She let little signs of her own nervousness escape, casting her eyes shyly down and toying with her glass. Men, in particular, didn't like to think they were the only ones feeling uncertain. "I-I come here for lunch sometimes," she offered shyly. "I've been wanting to come for dinner for a while; I've heard that Lassati's suppers are to die for."
Yeff responded well, settling into easy conversation about the excellent food and the mild autumn weather. Ressa's anxiousness was not entirely feigned - it has been a long time since she had been anything but a licensing office worker, and the weight of the carnal guild brooch on her shoulder was alien and distracting. It did, at least, simplify matters. If the dinner went well, Yeff could offer to hire her, and if she wanted, she could accept him as a client, paying for the meal out of the fees she would be earning. If it went poorly, he wouldn't ask, or she would turn him down, and he would pay for it, in respect to her time.
Unexpectedly, Ressa found herself wanting it to go well. Yeff was well-spoken, once he had stumbled past his shyness, and eager to please, with a wry sense of humor. The stories she coaxed out of him about driving the cablecar made her suspect keen observational skills and he laughed at all the right places in her own stories, without sounding forced. It had been a very, very long time since she had been out with anyone, and Ressa caught herself wondering nervously if she still remembered the skills of a joy girl at all, or if she would still be considered pretty, she was so much older than the last time she had been intimate with anyone. Whenever she caught herself thinking about it, she mentally chided herself and returned to the conversation.
By the end of the evening, after a delicious meal and most of a mild bottle of wine, they had upended their license pouches for each other. It was always good practice to check a potential partner's medical license - it got all kinds of potential awkwardness out of the way - and the other licenses were fodder for conversation. Yeff's license for the carnal guild's art museum led to a discussion of artwork, and they argued, good-natured, about the worth of abstract paintings: Ressa loved them and Yeff found anything non-representational a waste of time. They agreed on appreciating Roluma sculpture and modern Mojeveterk landscapes.
"I'll show you my sculpture collection sometime," Yeff promised. "I have a metal skycat the size of this table that takes up most of my kitchen."
There was a pause in the conversation - a significant pause - and neither of them looked directly at the bill laying on the table between them.
Yeff mangled the napkin lying in his lap. Ressa bit her lip and ran a finger along the base of her wineglass, wondering if she looked too hopeful, or if the coy techniques that had worked when she was in the window of consent were not so effective now that she was no longer so young. He certainly seemed to appreciate the efforts that Thleri had gone to, and a good deep breath or chuckle drew his gaze to her cleavage with gratifying ease and obvious appreciation.
Yeff swallowed, drew in a deep breath and blurted, "I'd like to hire you, if you'll have me."
Ressa smiled brightly at him, unfeigned nervousness sending a hot blush to her cheeks. "I'd like that," she admitted quietly, and she reached for the bill with the slightest tremble in her hand. It was time for a change, she reminded herself.