Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless.
- John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, I
Getting dressed was always the hardest part of the afternoon.
The invitation to Valentino Mansion said semiformal, but it was the semi part that was tricky.
Like a night without a party, "semi" opened up too many possibilities. Bad enough for boys, for whom it could mean jacket and tie (skipping the tie with certain kinds of collars), or all white and shirtsleeves (but only on summer afternoons), or any number of longcoats, waistcoats, tailcoats, kilts, or really nice sweaters. For girls, though, the definition simply exploded, as definitions usually did here in New Pretty Town.
Tally almost preferred formal white-tie or black-tie parties. The clothes were less comfortable and the parties no fun until everyone got drunk, but at least you didn't have to think so hard about getting dressed.
"Semiformal, semiformal," she said, her eyes drifting over the expanse of her open closet, the carousel stuttering back and forth as it tried to keep up with Tally's random eyemouse clicks, setting clothes swaying on their hangers. Yes, "semi" was definitely a bogus word.
"Is it even a word?" Tally asked aloud. '"Semi?" It felt strange in her mouth, which was dry as cotton because of last night.
"Only half of one," the room said, probably thinking it was clever.
"Figures," Tally muttered.
She collapsed back onto her bed and stared up at the ceiling, feeling the room threaten to spin a little. It didn't seem fair, having to get worked up over half a word. "Make it go away," she said.
The room misunderstood, and slid shut the wall over her closet. Tally didn't have the strength to explain that she'd really meant her hangover, which was sprawled in her head like an overweight cat, sullen and squishy and disinclined to budge.
Last night, she and Peris had gone skating with a bunch of other Crims, trying out the new rink hovering over Nefertiti Stadium. The sheet of ice, held aloft by a grid of lifters, was thin enough to see through, and was kept transparent by a horde of little Zambonies darting among the skaters like nervous water bugs. The fireworks exploding in the stadium below made it glow like some kind of schizoid stained glass that changed colors every few seconds.
They all had to wear bungee jackets in case anyone broke through. No one ever did, of course, but the thought that at any moment the world could fall away with a sudden crack kept Tally drinking plenty of champagne.
Zane, who was pretty much the leader of the Crims, got bored and tipped a whole bottle onto the ice. He said that alcohol had a lower freezing point than water, so it might send someone tumbling down into the fireworks. But he hadn't poured out enough to save Tally's head this morning.
The room made the special sound that meant another Crim was calling.
"Shay-la!" Tally struggled up onto one elbow. "I need help!"
"The party? I know."
"What's the deal with semiformal, anyway?"
Shay laughed. "Tally-wa, you are so missing. Didn't you get the ping?"
"It went out hours ago."
Tally glanced at her interface ring, still on her bedside table. She never wore it at night, an old habit from when she'd been an ugly, sneaking out all the time. It sat there softly pulsing, still muted for sleeptime. "Oh. Just woke up."
"Well forget semi anything. They changed the bash to fancy dress. We have to come up with costumes!"
Tally checked the time: just before five in the afternoon. "What, in three hours?"
"Yeah, I know. I'm all over the place with mine. It's so shaming. Can I come down?"
"Sure. Bring breakfast. Bye."
Tally let her head fall back onto the pillow. The bed was spinning like a hoverboard now, the day just starting and already wiping out.
She slipped on her interface ring and listened angrily as the ping played, saying that no one would be admitted tonight without a really bubbly costume. Three hours to come up with something decent, and everyone else had a huge head start.
Sometimes, it felt like being a real criminal had been much, much simpler.
Shay had breakfast in tow: lobster omelettes, toast, hash browns, corn fritters, grapes, chocolate muffins, and Bloodies - more food than a whole packet of calorie purgers could erase. The overburdened tray shivered in the air, its lifters trembling like a littlie arriving at school, first day ever.
"Um, Shay? Are we going as blimps or something?" Shay giggled. "No, but you sounded bad. And you have to be bubbly tonight. All the Crims are coming to vote you in."
"Great, bubbly" Tally sighed, relieving the tray of a Bloody Mary. She frowned at the first sip.
"Not salty enough."
"No problem," Shay said, scraping off the caviar decorating an omelette and stirring it in.
"Caviar is good with anything." Shay took another spoonful and put it straight into her mouth, closing her eyes to chew the little fish eggs. She twisted her ring to start some music.
Tally swallowed and drank more Bloody, which at least stopped the room from spinning. The chocolate muffins were starting to smell good. Then she'd move on to the hash browns. Then the omelette; she might even try the caviar. Breakfast was the meal when Tally most felt like she had to make up for the time she'd lost out in the wild. A good breakfast binge made her feel in control, as if a storm of city-made tastes could erase the months of stews and SpagBol.
The music was new and made her heart beat faster. "Thanks, Shay-la. You are totally life-saving."
"No problem, Tally-wa."
"So where were you last night, anyway?"
Shay just smiled, like she'd done something bad.
"What? New boy?"
Shay shook her head. Batted her eyes.
"You didn't surge again, did you?" Tally asked, and Shay giggled. "You did. You're not supposed to more than once a week. Could you be any more missing?"
"It's okay, Tally-wa. Just local."
"Where?" Shay's face didn't look any different. Was the surgery hidden under her pajamas?
"Look closer." Shay's long lashes fluttered again.
Tally leaned forward, staring into the perfect copper eyes, wide and speckled with jewel dust, and her heart beat still faster. A month after coming to New Pretty Town, Tally was still awestruck by other pretties' eyes. They were so huge and welcoming, bright with interest. Shay's lush pupils seemed to murmur, I'm listening to you. You fascinate me. They narrowed down the world to only Tally, all alone in the radiance of Shay's attention.
It was even weirder with Shay, because Tally had known her back in ugly days, before the operation had made her this way.
Tally took a steadying breath, the room spinning again, but in a good way. She gestured for the windows to transpare a little more, and in the sunlight she saw the new additions. "Ooh, pretty-making."
Bolder than all the other implanted glitter, twelve tiny rubies ringed each of Shay's pupils, glowing softly red against emerald irises.
"Yeah. But hang on ... are the bottom-left ones different?" Tally squinted harder. One jewel in each eye seemed to be flickering, a tiny white candle in the coppery depths.
"It's five o'clock!" Shay said. "Get it?"
It took Tally a second to remember how to read the big clock tower in the center of town. "Um, but that's seven. Wouldn't bottom-right be five o'clock?"
Shay snorted. "They run counterclockwise, silly. I mean, so boring otherwise."
A laugh bubbled up in Tally. "So wait. You have jewels in your eyes? And they tell time? And they go backward! Isn't that maybe one thing too many, Shay?"
Tally immediately regretted what she'd said. The expression that clouded Shay's face was tragic, sucking away the radiance of a moment before. She looked about to cry, except without puffy eyes or a red nose. New surge was always a delicate topic, like a new hairstyle, almost.
"You hate them," Shay softly accused.
"Of course I don't. Like I said: totally pretty-making."
"Very. And it's good they go backward."
Shay's smile returned, and Tally breathed a sigh of relief, still not believing herself. It was the kind of mistake only brand-new pretties made, and she'd had the operation over a month ago. Why was she still saying bogus things? If she made a comment like that tonight, one of the Crims might vote against her.
It only took one veto to shut you out.
And then she'd be alone, almost like running away again.
Shay said, "Maybe we should go as clock towers tonight, in honor of my new eyeballs."
Tally laughed, knowing the lame joke meant she was forgiven. She and Shay had been through a lot together, after all. "Have you talked to Peris and Fausto?"
Shay nodded. "They said we're all supposed to dress criminal. They've got an idea already, but it's secret."
"That's so bogus. Like they were such bad boys. All they ever did in the ugly days was sneak out and maybe cross the river a few times. They never even made it to the Smoke."
The song ended just then, and Tally's last word fell into sudden silence. She tried to think of what to say, but the conversation just faded out, like fireworks in a dark sky. The next song seemed to take a long time to start.
When it did, she was relieved and said, "Crim costumes should be easy, Shay-la. We're the two biggest criminals in town."
Shay and Tally tried for two hours, making the hole in the wall spit out costumes and trying them on. They thought of bandits, but didn't really know what one looked like - in all the old bandit movies in the wallscreen, the bad guys didn't look Crim, just retarded. Pirates were much better dressing, but Shay didn't want to wear a patch over one of her new eyeballs. Going as hunters was another idea, but the hole in the wall had this thing about guns, even fake ones. Tally thought of famous dictators from history, but most of them turned out to be men and fashion-missing.
"Maybe we should be Rusties!" Shay said. "In school, they were always the bad guys."
"But they mostly looked like us, I thought. Except ugly."
"I don't know, we could cut down trees or burn oil or something."
Tally laughed. "This is a costume, Shay-la, not a lifestyle."
Shay spread her arms and said more things, trying to be bubbly. "We could smoke tobacco? Or drive cars?"
But the hole in the wall wouldn't give them cigarettes or cars.
It was fun, though, hanging out with Shay and trying things on, then snorting and giggling and tossing the costumes back into the recycler. Tally loved seeing how she looked in new clothes, even silly ones. Part of her could still remember back before, when looking in the mirror had been painful, her eyes too close together and nose too small, hair frizzy all the time. Now it was like someone gorgeous stood across from Tally, following her every move - someone whose face was in perfect balance, whose skin glowed even with a total hangover, whose body was beautifully proportioned and muscled. Someone whose silvery eyes matched anything she wore.
But someone with bogus taste in costumes.
After two hours they were lying on the bed, which was spinning again.
"Everything sucks, Shay-la. Why does everything suck? They'll never vote me in if I can't even come up with a non-bogus costume."
Shay took her hand. "Don't worry, Tally-wa. You're already famous. There's no reason to be nervous."
"That's easy for you to say." Even though they'd been born on the same day, Shay had become pretty weeks and weeks before Tally. She'd been a full-fledged Crim for almost a month now.