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The great hall of the museum had been dimmed slightly, but that did nothing to make the scene less impressive. Long strands of lights hung from the second-floor balconies in glittering loops, the statues of the muses near the ceiling had been draped in tinsel in honor of the season, and flickering lamps in blue-and-gold shades lit up the dozen or so round tables that were arranged in front of the central dais. A pack of skeletal Struthiomimus sedens glinted, their black fiberglass bones showing yellow highlights in the lamplight. Behind them loomed the massive figure of Little John, a partially complete Tyrannosaurus unfazed by the party going on under his huge feet. There was a murmur of conversation and laughter, muted somewhat by the hugeness of the hall itself.
Theodora Speer glanced down, checking her hands and dress one last time for any flecks of paint. Despite being required—like all the resident museum staff attending the event—to dress to the nines, she hadn’t been able to resist putting a few more touches to her paintings before coming down to the main hall, and every career artist knew that accidents will always happen exactly when you don’t want them to. Fortunately, the plastic apron and smock seemed to have protected her from anything embarrassing, and despite being slightly late to the party she looked fairly put-together. Neither the chair of the museum’s publicity department nor her own immediate superiors would likely find anything in her that could embarrass the museum.
White-coated waiters circulated among the crowd, carrying trays of champagne and, in a nod to the festive season, hot cider. Theo took a glass of the latter, carefully cupping it in her hands as she sipped, and looked around.
The Publicity department had done a good job, she had to admit. In addition to the lights, sea-blue banners were draped from the balconies, lined out with heiroglyphics in burnished golden letters. The lamps on each table were in the shape of a kneeling Egyptian figure who held the shade up in one hand and cradled the alcohol wick in the other, all in polished black ceramic. There was a pine tree on the dais, but it had been decorated in more blue and gold, with tiny recreations of the mask of King Tut and the pyramids. Publicity had decided that the annual and exclusive holiday party for the trustees of the museum would be an Egyptian Holiday, and Theo was impressed despite herself. It looked opulent but not gaudy: tough to pull off when you’re designing a party for the rich and basing it on ancient treasure.
The guests were no less interesting than the décor, and Theo recognized a few of them right away. Sicily Margrave, matriarch of the Margrave group; Robert Howell, the famous architect, now in his seventies but still more than healthy enough to oversee the distribution of his intimidating wealth; half the history faculty of Culver University; and bankers, bankers, bankers. In their formal clothes, her coworkers were harder to place than the guests.
“Penny for your thoughts?”
Theo jumped a little, reflexively clutching the glass to prevent spilling cider all over her dark green dress. That voice, at least, she recognized: Aki Lee, one workbench over from her in the high attic workshops where the paintings were prepared. Normally an esoteric mess of sardonic t-shirts and colorful plastic ponchos, Aki had cleaned up well, and between the tuxedo and the neatly combed dark ponytail it took Theo a moment to connect the voice to the face.
“I wasn’t thinking much of anything,” Theo said truthfully. “Just letting my mind wander. You look good, Aki.”
“Only under protest,” Aki responded, tugging at his bowtie with a momentary grimace. “I thought humanity was past the point where society requires that we kill ourselves to meet a standard of beauty.”
“’Society’ doesn’t require it, the publicity department does,” Theo pointed out.
Aki yanked on the bowtie again. “Poh-tay-to, poh-tah-to.”
“Except in this case, the line ends ‘Let’s cut your salary off.’ For God’s sake, if it’s bothering you that much, get rid of it and go for the free-spirited artist look. You know half the trustees don’t want to be dressed up either.”