Almost swooning, Faustina curtsied before, kissed the ring of, and gushed her admiration upon the old woman. "Oh, I'm such a big fan of yours," she said. "I bought the towels, and the plates, and all the little ceramic castles. I named my Corgis after your children."
The old bat merely nodded. Anyone else would have been flattered. But to her, this sort of behavior was commonplace.
Then Faustina brought out her present. "I saved for months to buy this hat, I know how much you adore hats, it's from Etienne Sainte-Fromage."
"Oh?" The Empress's eyes lit up. She had a passion for haute couture, hats in particular, and most especially the hats of Etienne Sainte-Fromage. Her tastes had been formed in her youth, when she was renowned as a great beauty, and in all the intervening decades, nobody had dared suggest that she shift over to designers more flattering to the mature woman.
Complacently, she settled the frilly trifle on her head.
"Oh, my!" Faustina gasped. It would be unfair to say that at that instant an imp of the perverse entered her #151;# she was an imp of the perverse. So she was merely being true to her own nature when she said, " You're so elegant! So regal! You've got to, got to, got to model clothing professionally."
"Do you really think so?" the daft old thing cooed.
"Oh, really! Absolutely! Any Parisian house would kill to have you! They'd build their show around you! They'd fashion an entire line just for you!" She turned to the Empress's courtiers, all young, all male. "Isn't that so?"
"The nation of men will fall in love with you and despair," said Gustav with a roll of his eyes. Hiding a snicker Anton cried, "Madame, it is your destiny!" They hated the old harridan intensely, as only lackeys and toadies can.
For a long, still moment, the Empress considered the proposition. But in the end, she was saved by her enormous vanity. "No," she decided with a sigh of regret. "It would be Work, and only commoners do that."
So close! Lying in bed that night, Faustina touched herself as she imagined what might have been. Clarions would have sounded. Down the runway the Empress would have come, walking in a stiff and angular manner. How ungainly she would have looked! How the crowd would have hooted and laughed! The things they would have thrown!
Reality and fantasy melted into one warm glow. Oh! Faustina thought, the regal grace with which the Empress would have ignored it all! How effortlessly she would have risen above the indignity! It would have been her greatest moment.
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This is the 56th of 80 stories by Michael Swanwick written to accompany
Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos. For a listing of the most recently available
stories, go to The Sleep of Reason.