Our Debut: An Excerpt from ‘The Belles’

Fiction by Dhonielle Clayton


W e all turned sixteen today, and for any normal girl that would mean raspberry and lemon macarons and tiny pastel blimps and pink champagne and card games. Maybe even a teacup elephant.

But not for us. Today is our debut. There are only six of us this year.

My fingertips leave fog teardrops on the paper-thin glass walls. The carriage is beautiful and clear and fashioned into a ball. I am a delicate doll poised inside a snow globe. An adoring audience surrounds my carriage, eager to see what I look like, and what I can do.

Image: Freeform. (Purchase)

A net made of my signature pink flowers stretches along the glass curves in order to tell everyone my name — Camellia — and to hide me until I’m revealed to the royal court.

I am the last in line.

My heart races with excited nervousness as we snake through the crowds in the Royal Square for the Beauté Carnaval. The festival happens once every three years. I peer through the tiny spaces between the petals with a pair of eyescopes, and try to soak in my first glances of the world, wanting to fold up each bit and tuck it into the cerise layers of my dress.

It’s a wonderland of palace buildings with golden turrets and glittering arches, fountains full of crimson and ivory fish, topiary mazes of clipped trees, shrubs, and bushes in every possible geometric shape. Imperial canals circle the square, holding jeweled boats bright as gemstones and shaped like smiling moons on midnight-blue water. They spill over with passengers eager to watch us. The royal hourglass that measures the length of day and night, churns with sand the color of white diamonds.

The sky and its clouds are made of melting cherries and flaming oranges and burnt grapefruit as the sun sinks into the sea. The dying sunlight flashes my own reflection on the glass. My powdered skin makes me look like an overly frosted piece of caramel cake.

I’ve never seen anything like it before. This is the first time I’ve visited the imperial island, the first time I’ve ever left home.

The Orléans archipelago is a string of islands stretching like a rose with a crooked stem out into the warm sea. Most of them are connected by golden bridges or can be reached by lavish river coaches. We came from the very top—the bloom—and we’ve made a long journey to the heart of the stem to display our talents.

A breeze pushes its way through tiny breathing holes in the glass carriage, carrying with it the scent of the sky. Salty rain, spiced clouds, and a hint of sweetness from the stars. It all feels like a dream that’s held on and lingered past the dawn. I never want it to end. I never want to return home. One minute here is richer than a thousand moments there.

The end of the warm months brings change, Maman always said. And my life is bound to transform tonight.

The horses tug us forward, their hooves clip-clopping against the cobblestoned square. Vendors are selling sweets in our honor: small mountains of shaved ice topped with strawberries the color of our lips; intricate little teacakes shaped like our signature flowers; sweet puffs molded like our Belle-buns; colorful strings of sugar pinwheeled around sticks to mirror our traditional waist-sashes and dresses.

A hand thumps my carriage and I catch a sliver of a face. The square is overflowing with bodies. There are so many of them. Hundreds, thousands, maybe millions. Imperial guards push the crowd back to give our procession space to pass. All the people seem beautiful, with skin in various colors, from fresh cream to a drizzle of honey to a square of chocolate; their hair is in blond waves or brunette curls or raven coils; body shapes are petite, round, or somewhere in between. They’ve all paid to look this way.

The men wear jackets and top hats and cravats in a prism of colors. Some have hair growing on their faces in neat patterns. They stand beside women adorned with jewels and draped in luxurious, pastel-colored dresses made full with crinoline and tulle. Intricate hats cover the ladies’ hair; some clutch dainty parasols and oilpaper umbrellas, or cool themselves with patterned fans. From the blimps above, I bet they resemble candies in a box.

I recognize the more popular looks from the stacks of gossip tattlers left in the mail chest a day too long, or from the weekly beauty-scopes Du Barry’s daughter, Elisabeth, sometimes dropped between the velvet cushions of the parlor-room couch. The Orléans Press said strawberry blonde hair and jade eyes are the new windy-season trend. All the newspaper headlines read:

awaken love . . . look irresistible with strawberry and jade
fill your toilette box with belle-approved rhubarb hair powder
a complexion of lilies and belle-rose lips —
this season’s colors of beauty

The newsies say that’s what everyone will want in the coming months.

Coins jingle. Hands wave velvet pouches in the air. The spintria inside creates a tinkling melody. How much does each pouch hold? How many treatments can they afford to purchase? How much are they willing to pay?

I adjust the eyescope lens, zooming in on excited onlookers, noticing how some of their skin tones have faded, like paintings that have faced the sun too long; how their hair is graying at the roots, and age-lines are creasing several brows.

It’s a reminder of why I’m here. I am a Belle.

I control beauty.

DHONIELLE CLAYTON is the co-author of the Tiny Pretty Things series. She grew up in the Washington, DC suburbs and spent most of her time under her grandmother’s table with a stack of books. A former teacher and middle school librarian, Dhonielle is co-founder of CAKE Literary and COO of the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books. She makes her home in New York City. dhonielleclayton.com @brownbookworm