Avon Van Hassel

Building Worlds and Filling Them With Magic

Underdressed

by Avon Van Hassel

Johanne rose early, as she always did, and sat at her dressing table. Her lady’s maid, Zeferra, backed into the bedroom with a breakfast tray of sweet rolls, steaming silver chocolate pot, porcelain cup, and a stack of letters.

‘Good morning, my lady,’ she said cheerily, setting the tray down and folding her dark tan hands in front of her. ‘Good morning, my lord.’

‘Good morning, Zeferra,’ Johanne answered. Alois waved from the bed, rubbing his eyes.

While Zeferra poured the chocolate, Johanne sorted through the letters.

‘Constanza, Uncle George,’ she murmured, then quirked an eyebrow at the light blue envelope addressed to Alois in curling, elegant script. ‘Oh, this one’s for you. It’s from the princess.’

‘You open it, I give you permission.’ Alois yawned widely as Zeferra saw herself out, and Johanne slid open the envelope with the slim knife on her dressing table.

‘Ooh, it’s scented,’ she giggled, as a note of something sweet and powdery wafted from the paper. ‘Perhaps I shouldn’t read it.’

Alois snorted. ‘I haven’t heard from her since our wedding. If she wants to seduce me, she needs to work harder.’

Johanne read the letter and put a shaking hand to her mouth.

‘What is it?’ Alois climbed out of the bed and read over her shoulder.

‘She’s inviting us to court.’ She looked up at him. She could hardly believe it. ‘Both of us.’

‘For what?’ Alois took the letter out of her hands and sat on the bench next to her.

‘For the season, Alois.’ Johanne sniffed and wiped her eyes with the ruffled cuff of her dressing gown. ‘We’d live in the capital for the summer and go to all the parties and meet everyone who’s…everyone.’ A memory floated through her mind of her mother packing up a grand crimson gown, and bringing back stories of glamorous parties and the glittering court. King Bertold was new to the throne then, and nobles clamoured to gain his favour.

‘Oh,’ Alois chuckled. ‘I thought I was being sued. Well, that sounds like fun. If you want to go, we’ll go.’

‘“We’ll go”,’ Johanne laughed with a shrug. ‘“If you want”, just like that. You don’t understand how momentous this is, do you?’

‘No, why?’ Alois laughed, shrugging on his own dressing gown. Convention dictated that he have breakfast and dress for the day in his own separate bedroom. ‘Don’t you swan off to court every so often?’

‘I’ve never been. Anyone can go to the Capital for the season, but you don’t just go to court, you have to be invited. Pol went a few times; of course he didn’t take me. Uncle George went in his youth, but he didn’t like it, so he never went when I lived with him. I’ve always wanted to go, since I was a little girl.’ She looked back down at the letter, held gently in her hands like any rough treatment might ruin the opportunity.

‘We’ll go.’ Alois kissed her forehead and swung the bedroom door open as his valet, Boswell, passed with the breakfast tray. ‘Just like that.’

~~~~

‘I’ve made a list,’ Johanne said, placing a sheet of paper on Alois’ desk, to the side of the ledgers he was working on.

‘Good, I love your lists.’ He pulled her into a side hug and leaned over her paper.

‘It’s all of the features you need to look for in a house, and the things for Boswell to pack before you go. I know of a couple of people who are looking to sell their properties in the city, perhaps one of them might be suitable. Or, you might ingratiate yourself at some fashionable salons or coffeehouses and hear of different properties. But, you mustn’t be too forward, these things must be done subtly.’

Alois’ face blanked. ‘You’re not going with me?’

‘Oh, I couldn’t possibly. I have too much to prepare and oversee here. You did exemplary work in choosing this house,’ she said.

‘Renir said I could have any house I wanted, and I said, “which one’s got a library?”’

‘Well, here you have a list of things to ask for.’

‘And how will I ingratiate myself? Or have you forgotten the mess I’ve made of every social engagement we’ve had since I became a lord?’

‘Take Uncle George’s lawyer with you, he’ll help you navigate the particulars.’

Alois raised his eyebrows. ‘Your uncle’s lawyer. So my faults can be tracked back to him, as well.’

Sir George Dubonier, Johanne’s doting uncle and the embodiment of ancestral nobility, had never made any secret of his dislike of Alois.

‘He’s a good lawyer, Alois, and very discreet. He’ll help you – us.’ She squeezed him. ‘You can do this, I believe in you. And, if you do well, my uncle will be forced to concede that you successfully negotiated the transfer of property in the Capital, during the season.’

Alois never could resist his competitive urges.

‘Sir George doesn’t have a house in the city,’ he said.

‘No, he doesn’t.’

~~~~

Early the next morning, Johanne saw Alois off with his manservant. He was to meet the lawyer at the Blue Stag Inn, and they would continue the rest of the way together. She watched him go with a mixture of pride and worry. Would the properties still be available? Would a townhouse be sufficient for their lifestyle? Would he listen to advice and make a wise investment, or would he become overwhelmed and frustrated, and make a hasty decision? Would he return empty-handed, forcing them to take rooms at an inn or with friends, or forgo the invitation altogether?

She had to trust him and occupy her energy elsewhere.

‘Zeferra,’ Johanne addressed her maid, who was polishing a pair of earrings. ‘When you’ve finished with that, can you call Mrs Towley?’

‘Yes, my lady.’ Zeferra bobbed her head, and Johanne pulled out another sheet of paper to begin another list.

~~~~

Mrs Towley, the dressmaker, arrived two hours later with her basket.

‘Court, my lady,’ she breathed, sweeping into the room and greeting Johanne like an old friend, with a kiss to the cheek. ‘What a happy piece of luck.’

‘Yes,’ Johanne said. ‘I’m quite giddy with nerves. I’ve never made a mantua, it never seemed practical to waste fabric by practising, and now I can’t risk doing it improperly.’

‘No, it was right of you to call me. I know everything there is to know, and I will consider it a matter of professional pride to make sure you and His Lordship look your best before His Majesty.’

‘Oh, thank you, Mrs Towley,’ Johanne sighed.

The dressmaker’s strong hands and square jaw comforted her. Mrs Towley had the air of competence and well-earned confidence that Johanne admired. They’d worked together on a number of occasions, when a fashion was needed beyond Johanne’s considerable- but strictly domestic- skill, and she’d never had cause to complain.

Mrs Towley had been born to wealth and class, but as a youngest daughter, married and widowed too soon, and orphaned not long after, she had fallen on her talent with needle and thread to provide her survival. Johanne saw a nightmarish alternate version of herself in Mrs Towley, had it not been for Uncle George’s generosity.

‘Your measurements are unchanged?’ the dressmaker asked, opening her basket and pulling out a measuring tape.

‘Yes.’ Johanne stood and held her arms up.

‘That’s a pity,’ Mrs Towley clucked, looping the tape around Johanne’s waist. ‘Still, plenty of time. These things can’t be rushed.’

Johanne nodded silently, forcing herself not to give in to that anxiety while she was trying to finish processing the anxiety of visiting court.

They discussed colour and pattern, embroidery and decorative elements, chatting long into the afternoon over tea and cakes.

Mrs Towley insisted that Johanne remember every detail of the summer and recount it faithfully upon her return. Johanne agreed and the two women embraced before the dressmaker made her way home.

~~~~

Johanne waited a week for Alois to return, and when he finally did, it was with humming excitement as he burst through the front doors. Rosabel rushed to greet him and he dropped to a knee in front of her.

‘What do you imagine our new house looks like?’ he asked her.

Oh, don’t tease! Johanne ground her teeth, but allowed him his little game.

‘I think it’s big,’ Rosabel enthused, putting a dainty finger to her round rosy cheek. ‘It’s all painted white and it’s got a shiny black door.’

‘Correct, so far,’ Alois nodded. ‘What else?’

‘The Capital is a grand city, so all of the houses are in neat rows. And it’s an island, so we’ll have a view of the sea!’ Rosabel clapped her hands together.

All of of the prospective houses are in central neighbourhoods. If he doesn’t just tell us soon, he’ll get her hopes too high.

‘Now, darling, remember that any house we have will be one to be grateful for, and the city is on an island, so even if we can’t see the sea from our house, we won’t have far to walk to get a good look.’

‘Oh no, I was guaranteed.’ Alois said over Rosabel’s head. ‘Every house on the Overlook has an uninterrupted view.’

Johanne’s jaw dropped and her breath caught in her throat. The Overlook was the most fashionable neighbourhood on Ildecoke Island.

‘They let me in to view the property, and I must agree that it is spectacular.’ Alois laughed as Johanne rushed into his arms. ‘I thought you’d say that.’

Johanne watched Rosabel press the side of her face against the glass window, her soft brown curls bouncing with the motion of the carriage.

‘Oh, Mother,’ she breathed, as the island capital came into view. The carriage rolled up onto the stone bridge that connected it to the mainland.

Johanne squeezed Rosabel’s shoulder. This would be Rosabel’s first visit to the Capital and she looked as happy as Johanne felt.

The carriage rattled up the steep, winding roads, passing wide pedestrian streets lined with paned glass storefronts and indoor shopping arcades, with bustling crowds of well-dressed men and women enjoying the delights of the Capital. Rosabel squealed at the enormous doll shop stuffed with figures of every size and quality.

The crowds thinned as they made their way up and up, eventually pulling off the ascent into a neighbourhood perched on a ledge jutting out of the cone of the island. The tall narrow houses of the Overlook crammed together in an arc, hugging the edge of the cliff.

The carriage pulled up outside of Number 7 and it rocked as the footman hopped down from his perch beside the driver. He opened the door with a deep bow and offered a hand to Johanne. They all climbed out and took in the white-painted facade and black front door.

Johanne’s head swam, taking in the sculpted shade trees, immaculate sidewalks, and elegant plaster scrollwork on the houses.

‘It’s beautiful!’ Rosabel squealed. ‘And it’s ours forever?’

‘Well, for about a hundred years,’ Alois said. ‘Technically, all property is owned by the King, and the best we can do is lease it for a very long time. Though his temper can still get the better of us and he can take everything away-‘

Alois!’ Johanne hissed, looking both ways over her shoulder. You fool. ‘In the Capital, really? On the Overlook?’

Alois snapped his mouth shut, but kept smiling. It wasn’t technically dissent to mention the king’s well-known mercurial nature, but they stood on the street of the loyalest neighbourhood in the kingdom.

‘Shall we go in?’ Alois gestured to the footman, who was turning the key in the brass lock. Johanne passed him with a huff and climbed the shallow steps.

Any annoyance evaporated the moment she crossed the threshold. Light from the stairs landing spilled into the hall, joined by light coming in through two doors to the right. The first, closest to the entrance was the dining room, furnished in dark wood and pale silk, with two windows facing out onto the street.

Acceptable, adequate, Johanne thought, bracing herself. The next room, the morning room, was the most important area of the house, both as a casual gathering place for the family, and a formal meeting place for visitors during the day. Houses on the Overlook, however, had a famous additional feature.

She gasped as she stepped into the room and her eyes fell on the vast window looking out over the ocean. Not a rooftop, tree, or rocky outcropping interrupted the view at this angle. It was just blue sky and sparkling water for miles.

A piece of glass that size had to cost a fortune. Rumour had it that a full quarter of the price of an Overlook house was spent on that single pane alone.

‘Oh, Alois.’ Her breath caught in her throat as she reached behind her. Alois threaded his fingers through hers and wrapped an arm around her waist.

‘Do you like it?’

‘I can hardly breathe.’ She put her other hand to her chest. ‘It’s more than I ever dreamed to even be inside one of these houses, let alone…’

‘It’s yours,’ Alois whispered into her ear. ‘For a hundred years. Come on, let’s go upstairs.’

With great difficulty, Johanne pulled her eyes away from the window and allowed her husband to drag her through the rest of the house. The carpeted wood barely creaked at all under their feet as they climbed to the first floor. Four doors opened onto the landing: Alois’ study facing the street; a small ballroom, complete with pianoforte and a stand for Johanne’s beloved guitar; the drawing room for quieter gatherings in the evening, and a small round room overlooking the sea, furnished with a lounging couch, an elegant desk, and a modest fireplace.

‘I chose this for your study,’ Alois said, waving at the windows. ‘A miniature version of the morning room, all to yourself.’

This is a dream. It can’t be real life.

They moved on to the second floor with its more spacious landing and fewer doors.

‘This is our room.’ Alois pushed open the door farthest from the stairs. ‘I wasn’t sure about it, but I’d heard that the fashion is to put the master bedroom on the street, rather than the back. Something to do with seeing and being seen, but I also thought that the guest room will be the least used room in the house, so for security, you’d want the more often used rooms at the front.’

Johanne nodded. ‘A valid point.’

The bedroom was simply furnished, with just a fireplace, bed, two tables, and a dresser. Alois waved an arm at the door on the far side of the room and Johanne walked into a spacious dressing room with a dresser, screen, table, and three chairs.

‘You can only have two friends over at a time, so don’t get too popular.’ Alois leaned against the doorframe. ‘We must learn to be economical in this neighbourhood. What we have in luxury we pay for in space.’

‘I understand.’ Johanne put on her most affected pout, as though she had taken his scolding seriously.

‘Look at these windows.’ He unlatched the frame of the one nearest and swung it wide, ‘you can lean right out and heckle the people on the street.’

‘Alois!’ She scolded in earnest, flapping her hands at him as he filled his lungs with air.

‘Only joking. There’s another room like your study directly above it and I haven’t decided what to do with it yet. Perhaps a sewing room, if you fill up your study with books.’

The uppermost story was given over to servants’ quarters and Rosabel’s day and night nurseries.

‘I was thinking we might move Pol’s portrait here so I don’t have to look at him all the time,’ Alois said.

Sir Pol Blodden was Johanne’s first husband. Though Alois was Rosabel’s real father, the official story remained that Pol hadn’t known that he had a baby coming when he died in the war. Thus, his portrait hung in Rosabel’s night nursery at Parry House, both to keep him out of the heavily trafficked living areas, and to encourage an affinity between him and her. Pol and Alois looked enough alike that few people questioned which man she resembled more.

Johanne ignored the joke and hugged Alois around his waist. ‘It’s all so beautiful, I can hardly believe it.’

‘Want to go back downstairs and have tea in the morning room while the staff get to work with the boxes?’

Johanne’s heart fluttered and she nodded.

Rosabel was already sitting quietly on the long low sofa in front of the Overlook window, kicking her legs and looking around at the furnishings.

‘Molle took me straight up to my nursery,’ she said cheerily. ‘It’s much smaller than the one at home, but I can see all the way to the palace! You’ve been there, haven’t you, Uncle Alois?’

‘I have,’ he answered, sitting in a chair by the wall. A flicker of a grimace passed over his face. It still stung him that after nearly half a year of being married to Johanne, Rosabel still called him uncle, but Alois didn’t want to rush her to accept him as her stepfather. Johanne wished that she could encourage Rosabel to call him ‘father,’ but they had to be so careful about the secret, as it affected how and who she could marry, and her position in society.

Alois described the palace for what felt like the hundredth time to Rosabel’s rapt and delighted attention while they waited for tea. It was served alongside a light supper of cold cuts, since the kitchen staff hadn’t had enough time to prepare a proper meal.

Dusk drifted across the panorama as the family ate and their servants bustled up and down the stairs above them, and soon it was time to turn in. Ordinarily, they would have deemed it far too early for bed, but they’d had a long drive, and the excitement of moving in had quite exhausted them.

Zeferra appeared at the bedroom door and Johanne took her into the dressing room to change and decide on clothes for the next day. It would be a day in the city, mostly shopping and strolling, so something casual but elegant that showed Johanne’s skill with a needle.

Better than that awful mantua, she thought, catching sight of the hideous thing folded in the wardrobe.

Johanne bid Zeferra and Alois’ valet, Boswell, a good night, and paused by the open window, gazing out over the lights of the city.

It looked like a painting she’d seen once, of darkening streets, flickering lamplight reflected on the damp cobblestones, and couples indistinct in the creeping fog. The lights of the palace twinkled above it all, at the peak of the island. Johanne mused on what was going on in there- a sumptuous feast, the Royal Family dressed lavishly for dinner, discussing culture and policy.

‘Criva for your thoughts?’ Alois asked.

Johanne pulled back the sheets and climbing into bed beside him.

‘I couldn’t possibly put them into words,’ she whispered, laying her head on his chest. ‘But I will have words when we go to court.’ She chuckled through a deep sigh. ‘The gown I have to wear!’ She groaned and put a hand to her forehead. ‘It’s thirty years out of fashion, my mother wore something like it when she was married. It’s like a costume for the stage, I should wear greasepaint with it.’

‘That bad?’ Alois laughed.

‘Worse. Three rows of ruffles at the elbows.’ Johanne counted on her fingers. ‘Panniers at least half the length of my arm- I don’t know how I’ll get through doorways-‘

‘Sideways?’ Alois offered.

‘-a stomacher one hand’s-length below the waist, so I won’t be able bend my legs. And my hair must be at least one hands-length high. I can feel Zeferra scrubbing out the pomade and powder now.’

Alois chuckled. ‘I think I’ve got an ornamental hat and an edgeless sword.’

Johanne nodded, recalling Boswell measuring his head for the hat specifically designed to be held under the arm, as it was disrespectful for hats to be worn in the presence of the king; and the steel sabre that lacked a cutting edge, because weapons weren’t permitted at court. The potential for fighting bloody duels right there was too high.

‘Court fashion is spectacle.’ Johanne sighed. ‘It’s meant to be significant, not comfortable or practical.’

‘I wish we could all just go in our nightclothes.’ Alois said. ‘That’d give them a spectacle.’

‘Don’t be silly,’ Johanne scolded through a laugh. ‘Go to sleep.’

Johanne and Alois spent the morning with Rosabel exploring the famous Kittiwake Garden, which boasted an open-air teahouse beside a large duck pond. Rosabel tossed bread at the ducks while the adults planned what other wonders they would see during the summer.

After they finished tea and harassing the wildlife, they meandered through the magnificent botanical garden greenhouse, the butterfly garden, the romantic rose garden, and the wisteria tunnel before heading home to begin the laborious process of dressing for the evening at Court.

Johanne pouted at Alois as Zeferra followed her into the tiny dressing room.

Zeferra laid the formal panniers, an oblong contraption of folding cane, on the floor and draped the skirt over the top. She helped Johanne change into a finer linen chemise and her best court stays, lacing them tight in the back.

Johanne sat at her dressing table and applied her makeup while Zeferra arranged the elaborately styled powdered wig with wax flowers, stiff wired bows, and tiny feathery birds. She pulled Johanne’s hair back with pomade like putty, pulling on a tight cotton coif and lifted the wig, securing it to the coif and the hair underneath with pins. Johanne applied the sticky black beauty patch to the right side of her forehead and stood with a deep sigh to tie her pocket, a slitted pouch on a long string, around her waist.

She stepped in the middle of the skirts and Zeferra pulled both pieces up, tying skirt and panniers tight over the waist. Johanne grimaced at her reflection in the tall mirror.

‘I look like a hedge with a bird sitting on top.’

Zeferra snorted. ‘A very fashionable hedge, my lady.’ Her dark fingers tightened the ribbons and she pushed down on the panniers to test the knots, nearly pulling Johanne over.

Next came the jacket-like overdress in silvery blue silk heavily embroidered, ruffled, and foaming with lace at every hem. Zeferra left it open at the front while she pinned the long wooden stomacher to the front of Johanne’s stays, and pinned the front of the gown to the stomacher, folding the lace to hide the pins.

She slipped Johanne’s nicest blue shoes on over her gartered silk stockings and retrieved the pearl set from the jewellery box as Johanne replaced her chatelaine so that it hung over her petticoat, tucked just inside the overskirt.

The chatelaine was the symbol of a married woman, a collection of tools that the lady of the house needed on a daily basis, and was presented to a woman by her husband on her wedding day. The one she had worn when she was married to Pol had felt like a shackle binding her to the snobbish Blodden family and the living tomb that was Greystone Manor. The chatelaine Alois had designed for her felt like freedom, like belonging. She was matriarch of the newly minted Greenstalk family, and proudly displayed the symbol of her husband’s love.

It was decorated with silver filigree shaped like carnations, and included a bright green triangular stone with a hole in the centre. He called it a snakebite stone, and it was supposed to reveal magical enchantments. She ran her thumb around the hole, and her temples throbbed.

Just nerves, she told herself, pushing down the sensation. She was still a little amused that Alois thought magic would be such a big part of their lives. Still, the stone held a message for her going into the royal court- don’t be deceived by appearances.

Zeferra tied the pearl and silver choker around Johanne’s neck, while Johanne put in the drop earrings and fastened on the bracelet.

‘I think you’re ready, my lady,’ Zeferra said in her warmest, most comforting voice. Johanne took a last look in the mirror, smoothing the sleek fabric, and stepped out into the bedroom.

Alois and Boswell stood by the door, watching awkwardly. Alois looked nearly as uncomfortable as she felt in his tight blue breeches and too-small hat pinched under his arm. Boswell had done a grand job at taming Alois’ brown curls into a tidy queue, but there was only so much he or Mrs Towley could do to hide his robust physique, which would quite set him apart from other gentlemen of leisure at court.

But there was nothing to be done about that, so there was no sense in fussing, not with everything else they had to worry about getting right.

‘How are you going to get downstairs?’ Alois asked as Johanne inched across the floor.

‘Gingerly, Alois,’ she snapped, flapping her hands at him. Boswell and Zeferra dipped into bows and stepped quickly out of her path.

‘Can I help you?’ Alois asked, hovering.

‘You go down first. I can’t have you treading on my train, and I may need you to break my fall.’

Alois helped her out of the house and into the waiting carriage, where she climbed in and folded her skirt up around her torso like butterfly wings.

They both slid forward in the seats to keep their legs as straight as possible in her long stomacher and his tight breeches. They winced and groaned at every bump in the road as the fabric and wood bit into the tops of their thighs.

‘Makes you wonder if it’s worth it,’ Alois grumbled.

‘It’s worth it,’ Johanne said through gritted teeth. It will be worth it.

The palace perched at the highest point on the island, right in the centre on a steep hill. The yellow sandstone towers and turrets were clearly visible from the mainland and they towered over the tiled roofs of the city. Johanne kept her eyes on it as the carriage bounced and rattled through the narrow city streets.

Finally, they reached the huge ornate gates where a man with a long list was checking names. Alois drew back the sash and leaned out of the window.

‘Lord and Lady Brynglass,’ he said to the man, who made a very dramatic check and waved them on.

Johanne‘s stomach was in her throat, the giddiness and nerves vying for dominance. Alois held her hand and she squeezed his fingers in thanks.

The carriage stopped outside the palace doors and a footman opened the door and bowed to Alois as he climbed out, offering a gloved hand to Johanne.

She unfolded and put a hand to her middle, steadying herself as all of her body parts went back to where they belonged. She looked up at the carved stone wall, took a deep breath, and mustered her composure. She rolled her shoulders back, lifted her neck, and relaxed her face. Whatever she was feeling inside, she knew how to hide it.

Alois gaped at her, as he always did when she got a hold of herself. He never could control his body language. Or even his verbal language, try as he might.

Another man in livery appeared at the door with a formal click of the heels, and bowed deeply.

‘Lord and Lady Brynglass. If you would please follow me, I will announce you to His Majesty.’

Alois squeezed Johanne’s hand once more before entering in front of her. They followed the usher through halls and corridors, anxiety writhing like a caged animal inside Johanne.

Steady, girl, she reminded herself. This is what you’ve always dreamt of. This is a dream come true. Do try to enjoy it.

The man slowed to a halt and stopped Alois with an authoritative hand. He stepped inside and bellowed to the room, ‘Lord and Lady Brynglass!’ He beckoned, and Alois led Johanne into the drawing room.

The room was full of people, and in her required heeled shoes, Johanne easily towered over all the other women.

‘I’m glad you’re tall,’ she whispered to her husband. ‘I look almost normal beside you.’

‘You look beautiful,’ he whispered back and her cheeks flushed hot under her powder.

The room was long and ornate, the papered walls covered in portraits and paintings, and statues and gilt glittered in the candlelight.

King Bertold stood at the centre of the room, surrounded by eager, well-dressed people. He was a rotund man with the red face, jowls, and small eyes that were so frequently satirised in the newspapers. He wore an excessively large powdered wig and a bright red double breasted coat crossed by a deep purple sash over snow white breeches. With him stood his stately and dignified wife, Queen Valtra, who wore much simpler clothes and jewellery, and was speaking to a young man who looked like a foreign dignitary.

Alois doffed his hat when he reached the king, and bent as far forward as he could.

‘Ah, Alois—no! Lord Brynglass!’ the king corrected himself, loudly. ‘Good to see you again, you rogue. How are you enjoying your little gift?’

Johanne blushed again, knowing that she was the gift to which the king referred. Or at least, that the gift was the land and title that allowed Alois to pursue her.

‘Very well, Your Grace,’ Alois answered, keeping his head down.

‘Stand up, man. Dear me, stand up,’ the king insisted, impatiently. Alois stood and adjusted his hat under his arm. ‘Now who have you brought with you, hmm?’

Alois gestured to Johanne, taking a step back toward her. Her breath hitched and she thought her knees would buckle.

This is it.

‘Your Grace, I present Johanne, Lady Brynglass.’

She curtsied deeply, clinging desperately to her training and hoping it wouldn’t fail her.

‘Ha! So, she married you after all, you rascal, you scoundrel,’ the king boomed, giggling in delight. ‘Your uncle speaks very highly of you, my lady.’

Johanne curtsied demurely again. ‘Thank you, Your Grace.’ Her voice trembled, and she coughed delicately to cover it.

The king nodded. ‘Alois, come stand by me. I wish to gossip with you.’ He pulled Alois away by the arm, letting Johanne get swallowed by the crowd.

Panic cooled as she realised that the hard part was over. I’ve met the king! King Bertold of Viehland and Cavendy acknowledged me and I didn’t embarrass myself!

Alois tried to protest but the King’s grip was too strong. Johanne pulled on her calm affect again and nodded encouragingly at him before turning to engage a lady at her side.

I can handle nobles and he can handle the king. We might actually succeed, after all.

‘Good evening, my lady,’ she said to the elderly courtier, even more made up than she was. ‘I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Johanne, Lady Brynglass.’

~~~~

‘Damn fine girl, man. Damn fine,’ the king muttered. ‘Bit tall, but well worth handing over an empty house to have her around to brighten up the old place. These ladies—they all look like at least one of their parents was a horse.’

‘I agree that she is worth any price, Your Grace.’ Alois nodded.

‘And I daresay, too, that Lady Brynglass still has plenty of life in her. Good chance you’ll have a family before long. Damn fine girl.’

‘I daresay, Your Grace.’

More people were introduced and the king had quick conversations and sent them to stand with other people while muttering unflatteringly to Alois in between.

‘Damn it, she’s ugly.’ – ‘That Lord Wakil is a duke in his country. Oily foreigner, I don’t trust him one bit.’ – ‘That one’s brother was hanged for treason. I bet he’s here to ingratiate himself to me. Ha!’ – ‘By the souls, she’s gotten fat since the last time I saw her.’

‘Hello, stranger,’ a husky feminine voice said from behind. Alois turned to Princess Dahna beaming at him in a pink gown even wider than Johanne’s, which complimented her dark skin and eyes. Square-built and with heavy features, the Inchiajuan princess wasn’t a classic beauty, by Viehlish standards, but her effervescent personality demanded attention, and she liked to have it. He took the delicate glass bowl of wine she held out to him. ‘Almost half a year and not a word from you.’

He had saved her life by rescuing her from her accidental prison in the treasure chamber of a giant’s house on top of a cloud; and in turn, she had persuaded the king to award generous gifts to him and his partner, Sulat. In a way, they were both to thank for each other’s positions, but their friendship was deeper than that, built on genuine affection and personalities too similar for Sulat’s patience.

The king caught sight of someone he wanted to talk to and stomped away, quite forgetting about gossipping with Alois.

‘Is there something wrong with your hands, Princess?’ Alois asked. ‘Or did your letters get lost on the road?’

She smacked his arm playfully. ‘It’s good to see you again. How’s wedded bliss?’ She sipped from her wine bowl.

‘Would you be surprised if I said it was blissful?’

‘Not surprised. Maybe a little disappointed.’

‘You had your chance,’ he said. ‘Speaking of which, how is life as a real princess?’

Prince Bertold, the king’s eldest son and Heir Apparent, stood behind the princess, speaking to another courtier, wearing his natural blond curls tied back in a queue and his clothes mimicking his father’s, except that his jacket was blue and the sash red. Prince Meinard also stood nearby, in military dress, chatting to a pretty young lady in a yellow gown.

‘I was always a real princess, even when I was stuck to that wretched harp.’ Dahna ground her teeth impatiently. ‘What an awful thing to say. But I’ll forgive you. You didn’t think my invite was just for my father-in-law’s parties, did you? I have my own, you know. You should come.’

‘I will, thank you.’

‘Oh don’t be so formal. You can come right up to my bedchamber, if you want. I’ll send for you when Bertold is away.’

Alois barked a laugh, casting an eye at the prince. ‘And risk being hanged for treason? It’s a generous offer, but I wouldn’t waste the ink.’

He kissed her cheek and she moved away, replaced by Johanne.

~~~~

‘Did she say something outrageous?’ Johanne asked. She’d heard all about Princess Dahna’s scandalous antics, and Alois had told her about their adventure on the road. Well, part of it. She suspected that there were pieces missing from the story, but she could never tell if they were to do with the princess or the full agreement made with the king.

‘She offered herself to me if I ever get bored of you.’ Alois said into his wine.

‘Oh dear, I had better not get complacent, then,’ Johanne laughed.

‘You’ve heard about her love of creating a scene, have you?’

‘Oh yes. Funny she should go straight to that upon seeing you again. What aren’t you telling me about that adventure?’ She was playing, but a kernel of the secret still bothered her.

‘Nothing happened.’

‘Why not? What stopped you?’ Is that the secret? He had an affair, but is afraid to admit it? Well, why not? We weren’t married then, and indeed, at that point, I was still pushing him away.

‘Believe it or not, she did.’

‘Really? It was my understanding that not many women turned you down in those days.’ She tried to coax more information out of him.

‘She’s not the first.’ He glanced sideways at Johanne over the rim of his glass and she gave a small cough. ‘But she’s a princess. She had her future line to protect.’

‘Ugh, this skirt!’ Queen Valtra grumbled, nearby, yanking the hem from under her shoe. ‘Sometimes I wonder if fashion is worth the inconvenience.’

‘That’s funny.’ Alois laughed. ‘Johanne has been complaining for days about how hideous the things are and how they look like something her mother wore thirty years ago.’

Silence spread like ripples throughout the room. It began with just the queen and Johanne, then spread to those within earshot, and out and out until even the clinking of glass died away.

Johanne’s insides went cold as she turned to face him.

The king looked from Alois to Johanne, his jowls shaking, the red in his face deepening.

‘What?’ the king barked. ‘What’s wrong with the fashions of my court? Well?’ he bellowed and Johanne flinched.

‘Your Grace…’she hesitated, her voice shaking.

What do I say, what do I say? Do I defend Alois and openly criticise the king’s fashion? Or should I sacrifice him, one of the king’s favourites, and save myself? Can he redeem himself? Should I flee? Think, Johanne!

‘Your Grace,’ she began, shrinking under the glare of the king and stares of circling nobles, ‘I was so nervous about meeting you that I chose my words poorly. I spoke them in haste to myself. My beloved mother died when I was very young, and this gown brought back… conflicting memories.’

Mother, forgive me.

‘Your Grace,’ the queen interjected, ‘Lady Brynglass is new to court. Surely we can forgive her for being unused to so elaborate a costume.’

‘Yes, well,’ the king grumbled, deflating, ‘this is the royal court. It should be more formal than a tavern in Marketon.’

Snickers followed as he turned away. Johanne couldn’t look at Alois, but seized handfuls of her skirts and rushed, sliding sideways this way and that, until she got to the door and out into the long hall outside.

She collapsed against the wall, her knees trembling like violin strings, and covered her face with her hands.

She sobbed so hard that she didn’t hear the footsteps approaching.

‘Don’t fret, Lady Brynglass,’ a soft, accented voice said. Johanne jumped and looked up into the placid, powdered face of Queen Valtra.

‘Yo-Your Grace,’ Johanne gulped, trying to curtsy. The queen pulled her into a hug.

‘Don’t trouble yourself,’ she said, motherly demeanour slowing Johanne’s breaths. ‘Mantuas are hideous and uncomfortable and heavy. His Highness knows this, you are not the first to think so, and His Lordship is not the first to say so. Here, dry your eyes.’ Queen Valtra pulled a lace handkerchief out of her sleeve and dabbed Johanne’s powdered cheeks.

‘Oh no, Your Grace,’ Johanne protested, but the queen shushed her, pressing the handkerchief into her shaking hands.

Alois skidded into the hall, out of breath and squashing his hat under his elbow.

‘Johanne, I’m sorry,’ he panted.

She dropped her hand to her side and glared at him. ‘I want to go home.’

‘Of course.’

Johanne handed the handkerchief to Queen Valtra, who didn’t protest. She picked a black spot out of the fabric and stuck it to Johanne’s face.

‘Is that where it was?’

‘Oh, who cares?’ Johanne grumbled despondently. ‘It hardly matters when we’re leaving. Thank you for being so kind, Your Majesty.’ Johanne dipped as deep as she could with her stomacher and Alois made a hasty bow.

‘I shall have a word with His Majesty,’ the queen said with a sympathetic air as Johanne set off down the hall with Alois close behind.

The carriage ride back to the house was tense and silent, punctuated by Johanne’s occasional shuddering sighs.

‘I really am sorry. I don’t know what came over me,’ Alois tried again.

‘I want to go home,’ Johanne said softly.

‘We are going home.’

‘I want to go home.’ Her voice was stronger when she raised her eyes to meet his. He hesitated.

‘Tomorrow,’ he agreed. She nodded and turned her gaze to the window.

Johanne didn’t eat anything for supper but went straight up to their room with Zeferra to take off the offending garment.

I should cast it into the sea, she thought gloomily, as Zeferra unpinned and untied in silence. I’ll never be invited back to court, I hardly need it any longer.

She could hear Alois and Boswell talking in hushed voices, even as Zeferra scrubbed her hair and fussed with the wooden panniers and stomacher. The maid had tactfully not asked any questions about what happened, but dutifully helped with changing Johanne into her night clothes and cleaning off her makeup.

‘Would you like some cold supper?’ she asked at last, folding her hands neatly in front of her.

‘No, thank you, Zeferra. You may go to bed.’

Zeferra nodded and Johanne followed her into the bedchamber.

Alois was already in bed, but wisely stayed silent the rest of the night.

~~~~

The next morning, Johanne stayed in bed longer than usual. The kitchen staff knew what to do without her and Zeferra wouldn’t come until called.

Alois must have gotten chased out by the awkwardness because he left at his usual time, but didn’t call Boswell to come dress him. Instead, he went downstairs and Johanne heard voices and the clink of porcelain from the morning room. A little while later, his heavy footsteps climbed the stairs again and he came back into the room.

‘I brought you a plate.’

‘I’m not hungry.’

‘I know, but you haven’t eaten since the tea garden. You should try to get something down.’

She lay there for a while until she couldn’t help but acknowledge the rumbling in her stomach. She pushed the blankets back and sat up, thrusting a hand at him. He handed the plate over and she rose to sit down at her dressing table, still not looking at him.

‘I really am sorry,’ he said again, quietly, from the door of her dressing room. She could hear the remorse tightening his throat.

She glared at him for a moment, but she was too tired to fight. ‘I know.’

He brightened and sat in one of the other chairs next to her. Oh, don’t start…

‘I promise I will fix this.’

Enough. She set down the buttered roll.

‘No, Alois. You didn’t break a cup. There is no fixing this, you know how temperamental the king is. I know how temperamental he is, and I never met him before yesterday. He will not forget this, and he’ll never forgive me. He may forgive you one day because you have the most unbelievable luck. But I don’t. And don’t forget,’ she jabbed a finger at him, ‘just because he likes you doesn’t make him your friend. It doesn’t mean he’s not still the king.’

Alois nodded and Johanne fell silent. She felt guilty for yelling at him, but he really needed to stop living like his actions only affected himself, like his luck and charm would cover everyone.

When she finished eating, she stood and he stood too and wrapped his arms around her. She stiffened at first, but after a moment she relaxed and laid her head on his shoulder. She a balled fist on his chest.

‘I’m so angry with you,’ she whispered, a calm statement of fact. She was humiliated and hurt and deeply, deeply disappointed. She’d dreamt of this all her life- the season at court, a house on the Overlook- all soured by one foolish comment.

‘I know. I know, and I truly am very sorry. I will find a way to make it better. I can explain to him about my sense of humour, and that I misunderstood what you said.’

Johanne suddenly remembered another comment she’d made that could make things even worse for her.

‘For the love of all things sane and rational, do not tell him that I once referred to his favourite son as the Spare Apparent.’

Johanne began packing as early as she could for the journey back to Parry House. Everyone was moping around, disappointed to be leaving so soon after arriving.

The household staff was put out because of all the work that went into setting up a second house and how much work would be required to pack it up. Rosabel was disappointed to be missing all the exciting things that the Capital had to offer. Alois kept his head down and tried to stay out of the way

Johanne sympathised with everyone’s frustration and disappointment, but she couldn’t deny that she was looking forward to going home and getting away from the whispers and stares in town. But there was still a great deal to do before they could leave. The house had to be double checked and triple checked for anything Rosabel may have left in unusual places, furniture had to be disassembled and packed carefully, food had to be readied for transport. A lot of work went into moving even a small family between houses.

She was snapped out of her conversation with the cook by a curt knock on the door. Alois answered it and met a red-liveried messenger in a tight white wig standing at attention on the steps.

‘Lord Brynglass,’ he began in crisp speech, ‘your presence is urgently requested in the apartments of King Bertold. I am to take you there presently.’ He gestured a gloved hand to a stately black carriage behind him.

Johanne put a hand to the tie at the side of her bedgown.

‘I’m-I’m not dressed for court,’ she stammered.

‘I beg your pardon, Lady Brynglass,’ the messenger said, ‘the summons is only for Lord Brynglass.’

Johanne swallowed hard and nodded. Alois tried to reassure her with his eyes, but she felt suddenly sick and hurried upstairs before he could say anything.

~~~~

All the way to the palace, Alois stewed over what the king could want- and why he didn’t want to see Johanne, as well. Was he still angry? He couldn’t be seeking satisfaction over an off-hand comment. And anyway, Queen Valtra said she would talk him down. Surely, his wife knew what she was doing.

Finally, with Alois’ stomach in a knot, they arrived at the palace. The messenger opened the door and an usher led Alois through the halls to an area of the palace he had never seen: the king’s private chambers. He could hear the king’s voice before he reached the room.

‘And murder!’

‘Murder? Who is dead, your grace?’ a different voice asked.

‘There are hundreds of dead people in this city. I’m sure I can pin at least one of them to her,’ the king bellowed. ‘Ahh, Brynglass, good man.’ He had spotted Alois in the doorway.

The king was in a distinct state of undress, wearing only a striped velvet dressing gown open over a long white shift, a sleeping cap stretched over his round head. His face was bloated and red, and the other men in the room clumped together as though expecting something to go flying at any minute.

‘Your Grace.’ Alois bowed. He had never seen the king out of his regalia and he couldn’t imagine why he had summoned Alois here.

‘Alois.’ The king stomped up to him. ‘I need you to hunt someone down for me. And if you have to shoot her, so be it.’

Alois stared back in alarm. ‘Who, Your Grace?’

‘That bitch. That whore. That depraved, wanton slattern who beguiled me and took advantage of my good and trusting nature-‘ he worked himself into a crescendo and his voice cracked, ‘my wife!’

Alois gaped at him.

‘The queen, Your Grace?’

‘How many wives do you imagine I have?’ King Bertold snapped, spittle flying from his twisted mouth. He dropped onto a footstool, his legs splayed, and pulled his night cap off his balding head. The king dissolved into spluttering sobs, laying a hand dramatically over his distorted face.

‘Infidelity, my lord.’ Lord Renir, the Minister of Shadows and Alois’ secret direct employer, nodded gravely.

‘Yeah, I got that,’ Alois whispered back. ‘What does he want me to do?’

‘Oh, find her,’ Renir said, mild surprise on his bluff face as though that was the most obvious solution.

‘And then what?’

‘Bring her back, of course.’

Alois pulled the spymaster aside to shield the conversation from the king. This whole thing made him very uneasy. Not to mention that the queen’s good standing could be the only thing saving Johanne.

‘I’m not exactly a part of that life anymore,’ he whispered.

‘Are you not?’ Renir raised a haughty eyebrow. The terms of Alois’ lordhood were very clear, but Alois had hoped they’d be more or less symbolic.

‘The queen was gracious with my wife yesterday. And she’s very popular in the kingdom.’

Renir’s face hardened. ‘She is an adulteress, which is not only grounds for divorce, but in this case,’ he looked back at the king and dropped his voice dramatically, ‘is a crime against the body of the king- which is treason.’

‘Perhaps there was a misunderstanding,’ Alois pressed. ‘Did anyone ask her side before she fled?’

Renir dug into an inside pocket of his ornate coat and produced a stack of letters tied with a light blue ribbon. He handed them over and Alois opened the first one.

The wording between her and a Lord Wakil, certainly was suggestive, but the queen had been wise enough not to mention specifics. But then, she was quick on her feet and chose her words carefully. Alois had seen that the day before. It didn’t look good for her.

‘Right,’ Alois sighed and returned the letters. ‘I’ll do what I can.’

‘What are you two whispering about?’ the king whined, sniffing heartily. Alois and Renir spun around. The king’s tear-stained face pinched in suspicion. ‘Gossipping right in front of me! How dare you? Damn it!’ He got laboriously to his feet.

‘Not at all, Your Grace, not at all,’ Renir said soothingly. ‘We were simply discussing the specifics of your order.’

‘You’ll find her, Alois? You’ll find the witch?’

Alois nodded solemnly. What could he do? The queen might have been able to save Johanne’s position at court, but Alois needed the king’s favour to preserve his position in society. His family depended on it. ‘I will find the queen, Your Grace.’

Alois was ushered from the chamber and returned to his house. No one was going to respond well to his news.

~~~~

‘Change of plans,’ Alois announced to the household staff. Johanne paused at the top of the stairs to listen. ‘We will not be returning to Parry House today.’ He paused as everyone stiffened. ‘An emergency has come up and I am needed to help, and I don’t know how long it will take to complete. I am very sorry for the inconvenience.’

‘What?’ Johanne asked. Alois leapt up the stairs and gestured her into the empty drawing room.

‘The queen had an affair and has fled,’ he told her. She gasped and put a hand to her mouth. ‘Allegedly. But I’ve seen the letters and they don’t look good. The king wants me to find her and bring her back.’

Johanne shook her head. It was as though he were speaking a foreign language. The queen- an adulteress, that was absurd.

‘What’s it got to do with you?’ she asked, sitting.

Alois paced, pulling the ribbon out of his hair and running his hands through over and over.

Tingles climbed Johanne’s spine, watching his anguish.

I knew there was something he was keeping from me.

‘Is it you?’ she asked, finally. ‘Are you her lover?’

Alois laughed so hard he had to stop pacing.

‘No, no, it’s not me. But there is something I’ve been struggling with how to tell you.’ The smile slid off his face and he seemed to green at the edges. ‘I uhh… my lordship wasn’t the reward for bringing Dahna back.’

‘Princess Dahna. And what do you mean?’

‘The reward for returning the princess was my life.’ He chuckled bitterly. ‘Not being executed for all of my crimes, which the Crown now knows about. And because he knows, he sort of own me now.’

Johanne blinked, struggling to take it in. Alois pressed the advantage of her silence.

‘Two deals were done that day. We rescued the princess, so our previous crimes were forgiven. Dahna bargained for us to be allowed to ask favours- my title and Sulat’s ship- but the payment for that was that we occasionally resume our previous jobs, whenever the king needs us to. I’ve enjoyed my title and my land for nearly half a year, and now the king is calling in his privilege.’

She understood now what he was saying.

‘How long until your debt is paid?’ she asked, her voice surprisingly steady for the mix of emotions she felt.

He didn’t answer, and that was answer enough: never. The king would call in favours for as long as Alois held his title, and perhaps even longer, if Alois ever fell from grace.

They would never have peace because they would never know when he would be called away on a dangerous mission.

Tears crept to Johanne’s eyes. She knew why he hadn’t told her, he didn’t like to deal with bad news, especially when they’d been so happy; but she couldn’t help the resentment that she could have at least been prepared.

She stood and put a hand to his cheek. ‘Be careful.’

The pain in his face deepened as he wrapped his big hands around her wrists.

‘That means that you can’t leave.’

She pulled back from him. ‘Why not?’

‘Because I can’t go with you.’

‘Why should that stop me?’

‘Word will get out soon that the queen has fled, and men like me will be snatching up every noble lady in the land trying to be the first to catch her. And the ladies who aren’t the queen can still be held for ransom. You’re safer here.’

Johanne pulled her hands away. ‘I can’t stay here.’

‘You have to. I won’t be there to protect you.’

‘I’ll have Grimsby.’

‘Grimsby can’t fight off a group of attackers.’ Alois held his arms to his side, palms out.

‘Oh, and you can protect me against a pack of armed men?’

‘Yes, I can. Perhaps one day you can ask Dahna about it.’ Princess Dahna.Princess Dahna, damn it. Look, you don’t have to go to court. There’s plenty to do here in the capital. Go see the sights with Rosabel. Go shopping. I don’t care if you spend all of our money. Just stay here.’

Johanne glared at him for a minute, fear, anger, grief, humiliation, and desperation clawing like beasts up her throat. A wave of resignation washed them down. The answer was no. Her shoulders fell and she said, ‘Fine.’

Alois held her shoulders and kissed her. ‘You can’t blame me for this one.’

This time, this specific time, it wasn’t his fault.

~~~~

It turned out that Alois had to return to Parry House anyway, but he wouldn’t tell Johanne that. He had to move quickly and couldn’t afford to wait for the whole house to be packed up.

He needed his old clothes, supplies, and a horse. To his relief and the dressmaker’s chagrin, he still fit comfortably into his weathered breeches, shirt, and jacket, and it was like shrugging back on the man he used to be. He hadn’t really changed that much since he married Johanne and entered society, but he found himself almost immediately falling back into old mannerisms and was more aware than usual that his beard was gone.

That might be an issue.

Fashionable men did not wear facial hair, and brigands rarely had occasion to shave. Oh well, he’d come up with a good lie on the way. After all, there were a fair few dandy highwaymen. That would do. He slid his guns into the pockets of his jacket, mounted his horse, and set off down the road toward the forest.

It would have helped to know where Lord Wakil was from, but if Alois were on the run from the Crown, he would get as far from the king’s reach as possible. The kingdom ended at the ridge, but there was a lot of ground to cover, and surely news would travel faster than they could. Not to mention that on the other side of the ridge was the kingdom of Cavendy, where Bertold was also king. Queen Valtra struck him as too smart for that.

So where, then? Vurdia? The distant shores of Jongsin? That seemed more likely. For that, she would need a ship. So he set off as fast as he could push his horse, back to the Capital and its dockyard.

The whole area was abuzz. The queen and her lover were on the run — where would they go? It seemed half of the city had come to the same conclusion that Alois had and had crammed into the seedy port to try to catch a glimpse.

Alois shoved and wove his way between townsfolk and dandies, but it was no use. There were too many bodies to see around, and even if he could see her, he’d have to get to her. So he dipped into a tavern to see if he could hear anything helpful.

Almost as soon as his foot crossed the threshold, a slim hand threaded through his arm. He leapt away from the slight, dark-complected figure and laughed in shock.

‘Sulat! Souls, it’s been an age!’ He threw his arms around her and she let him, only sighing quietly in exasperation. He hadn’t seen her hardly at all since his wedding, though they did keep in touch through irregular letters. ‘How have you been? What are you doing here?’

‘Focus, Alois,’ she said, the familiar bite in her voice. ‘Aren’t you here to find the queen?’

Alois gaped at her and looked around. ‘How did you know? Is it common knowledge?’

‘Relax.’ She pinched her lips together. ‘The word is that she’s on the run, obviously she’d come here, and the palace guards are out in force. If I were the king, I’d send you after her. And here you are. Well, most of you.’ She gestured at her own chin.

Alois laughed, but was touched, all the same. That was almost a compliment.

‘Have you heard where she might be?’

Sulat shook her head. ‘I’ve been listening, but so far nothing sounds right.’

‘Do you fancy going out and doing a bit of scouting? After all, we probably know better than anyone down here what she actually looks like.’

‘Yeah.’ Sulat beat her tricorner hat against her tight tan breeches and pushed out into the throng. In seconds, she was gone, leaving Alois pressing against a wall of humanity. He scanned the heads, looking for the peak of her hat or its burgundy plume among the other heads, but she was too short to see. He’d have to be patient.

~~~~

Sulat slid between people like oil, dipping a hand into a few pockets as she went. She couldn’t resist the urge, and so what if they felt it? She’d be gone and replaced with another person almost immediately. She loved crowds. Hated people, but loved crowds.

She twisted out of the crush into the first inn she came across. If she were the queen, running from execution, she’d want a private room to lie low and not be seen.

‘Have you seen a middle aged woman and a young man in here?’ she asked the innkeeper.

‘Looking for the queen, are you?’ He scowled. ‘Well, I wouldn’t tell you, even if I had seen her. I don’t believe what they’re saying about her. Never did a thing wrong in her life, that woman.’

‘I’m not looking for the queen, I’m looking for my aunty.’

He looked her up and down. ‘Only white women in this inn.’

‘Is that a coincidence or a rule?’ Sulat muttered as she rejoined the crowd.

~~~~

Alois spotted Sulat coming out of an inn, looking annoyed. No luck there, then. He followed her through the crowd, his old skills coming back to him through the fog of nobility training. Another inn with no result, and another. There had to be a way, a clue somewhere as to where she’d be hiding. She wouldn’t have chosen a hiding place at random.

The inns all had names like Dockside or Makeberth, then he spotted it: The King’s Arms. He chuckled to himself. Surely, she wouldn’t stay there. Which meant, there was a good chance that she had.

Another idea struck him as he slipped in and up to the landlord. They’d need to travel under assumed names, names that clearly belonged to peasants, names without a patronym. How many peasants did Her Majesty know?

‘Is there an Alois staying here?’ He asked the landlord. ‘He told me he had taken rooms by the docks but didn’t say which inn. This is my third try.’ He sighed in an exasperated sort of way.

The chubby man in muttonchops nodded and flipped open the ledger. ‘Yes, he and his mother are in room number 4.’

‘Thank you.’ Alois pressed his hands together in relief and bounded up the stairs.

Sloppy, Your Grace. I haven’t spoken to my mother in nearly a decade. Still, I suppose it would arouse suspicion if she tried to pass as his wife.

He found number 4 and knocked. Muffled voices inside hushed and a male voice called, ‘Who is it?’

Alois hesitated. ‘A friend?’ My name? Some reference to something we both know?

He cleared his throat. ‘Harper.’

A moment passed before the door swung open. A well-disguised young man stood in the doorway. It was no great feat for Alois to recognise him as the foreign duke who had been chatting with the queen at court. He didn’t know where the man was from, but his swarthy skin, shiny black hair, dark brown eyes, and lyrical accent were not found in any kingdom nearby. They had quite a journey ahead of them if they were going back to his homeland.

The duke was dressed in simple clothes: plain black breeches, a clean white shirt, and an unadorned brown waistcoat under a black jacket.

The woman at the table behind him, in a matronly gown, was unmistakably Queen Valtra, though looked completely different out of courtly attire. Gone was the tall powdered wig, the stark white face and bright pink cheeks, and the stiff rich fabric of a formal mantua. Her wiry grey hair was streaked with mousy brown poking out under a simple mop cap, her face all one colour, and she wore a simple green wool frock. He had never noticed before that she didn’t have eyebrows.

Well, it is what it is. That was probably as inconspicuous as they could get.

She looked at him with sad eyes, but a straight spine. He admired the steel in her belly, accepting her fate with dignity.

‘May I come in?’ he asked. She nodded and the young man allowed Alois to pass.

‘Your Grace.’ He bowed deeply.

‘Surely, I’m not still queen,’ she said, her voice tight.

‘Pending formal divorce, Your Grace.’

She nodded. ‘I suppose you’re here to arrest me.’ She lifted her chin, her gaze steady. He shook his head.

‘No, Your Grace. Well, I am, technically, but I won’t. I don’t expect you’ll get a fair trial.’

‘There is no greater shame than adultery.’

Alois hesitated. He himself was not free of the stain of infidelity, though it was not he who had committed the betrayal. Still, he knew the strain of it.

‘We don’t choose who we love.’

A crease appeared in the middle of the queen’s smooth brow and she considered him frankly.

‘Then why are you here?’

Alois ran a hand through his hair. ‘I was hoping I’d have a plan by the time I found you. That by the time I arrived, you would be in open water and I’d have to tell your husband that there was nothing I could do.’

‘How unfortunate,’ she said evenly.

‘Not at all. Perhaps, I can help you plan the next phase of your journey.’

A knock came at the door and everyone fell silent.

‘You were followed,’ the queen whispered.

‘Let me handle this.’ He stood and leaned his weight against the door.

‘Who is it?’

‘Alois, let me in, I know you’re in there,’ Sulat’s voice said. His shoulders relaxed and he opened the door just enough to let Sulat slip through the crack. ‘I saw you,’ she said in answer to his unasked question. ‘It wasn’t hard to get past the landlord. Good afternoon, Your Grace, my lord.’ She bowed.

Queen Valtra and her friend inclined their heads. ‘Captain,’ the queen answered.

‘What’s the plan?’ Sulat asked.

‘We’re just now getting to that,’ Alois said.

‘Obviously, you’re considering booking passage,’ Sulat said. ‘Where?’

‘Anywhere,’ the queen answered. ‘Anywhere but Cavendy.’

‘What about Vurdia?’ Sulat asked. Alois scoffed.

The queen and her lover exchanged uneasy looks. Valtra was a proud Cavender, and they were no friends of the Vurdence, either.

‘As you know, Your Grace, I own a small ship,’ Sulat continued. ‘We sometimes trade in Dunothe, which is more than big enough to get lost in, and international relations will keep you safe long enough to book passage to the next place.’

‘No one will ask questions?’ Lord Wakil asked.

‘My crew is loyal to me, they will accept whatever I tell them. You will have modest lodgings, and if you keep to yourselves, no one will suspect. My ship is small, but she’s fast.’

‘I am at your mercy,’ the queen said heavily. Her face clearly illustrated the conflict between trusting criminals employed by her husband and staying in hiding in a dockyard inn indefinitely while agents of the crown closed in. This was her only chance of escape, and she knew it.

Alois and Sulat stayed the night with Queen Valtra and Lord Wakil, but none of them slept. In the morning, Sulat led the queen and her lover to the docks, bidding Alois farewell outside the inn.

Queen Valtra puffed her cheeks out in relief and stumbled forward to wrap her arms around Alois’ shoulders.

‘I can’t thank you enough,’ she said, her voice hoarse. ‘I suppose the best thing I can do for you is to never tell anyone how we got out.’

‘I would appreciate that, Your Grace,’ Alois laughed. ‘Ahh, Eleri,’ he said with a wink. The queen cocked her head to one side. ‘That’s my mother’s name. If you two are trying to be inconspicuous, you can’t be going by Valtra.’

The queen put her hand on his cheek. ‘You’ve saved our lives today.’

‘It is my honour. I serve the Crown, and as long as you’re queen-‘ He looked up at the weak spot of brightness against grey clouds. ‘-So, for the next twelve hours or so, I am at your service.’ He bowed deeply to her and the duke. ‘And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to deliver news of my failure to our king.’

He gave Sulat a one-armed hug and set off for the stables to get his horse.

~~~~

Alois let his horse go at his own pace back to Parry House, where he had a bath, changed his clothes, and took his carriage back to the Capital. He wanted to check in on Johanne first, but thought it wiser to go straight to the king and let Johanne have the rest of the day to scowl at him. Then, they would begin packing again and hopefully get back to Parry House only a few days later than he’d promised.

The palace was abuzz with activity when he arrived. Tensions were high and the staff scuttled about looking like they would very much like to be anywhere else.

When Alois got to the door, it seemed that the king had finally gotten around to the most predictable satisfaction of his embarrassment. He slammed his fist onto a huge round table covered in maps.

‘We shall go to war!’

‘We cannot go to war, Your Grace,’ Lord Renir said, bowing sycophantically behind the king, but with a note of exhaustion in his voice.

‘I am the king, damn it! I alone have the power to declare war! How dare you tell me what I can and cannot do? How very dare you, sir?’ The king blustered and the spymaster bowed.

‘Lord Wakil is from a distant kingdom. Think of the troops, Sire. Think of the time and expense of marching them all that way, and through hostile kingdoms. Not to mention, we’d be outnumbered. We’d be exhausted and we’d be routed in one battle. Insult to injury, Your Grace.’

The king seemed to inflate almost to the point of explosion. Then he spotted Alois and shrank to his normal size.

‘Brynglass! Did you find her, man, is she in irons? Did you drag that filthy harpy back here by her hair?’ His face brightened. ‘Did you have to shoot her?’

‘Uh, no, Your Grace. I’m sorry,’ Alois answered, putting on an apologetic face. ‘She was already in international waters when I caught her trail. I’m afraid I don’t know where she has gone.’

The king pushed his bloated face into Alois’.

‘I can’t go to war. I can’t hang the snake. Her son,’ he hissed the word with disgust, ‘is pleading with me to pardon her. What do you suggest I do?’

‘I’m sure I don’t know, Your Grace. I am no statesman.’

‘Too right.’

‘Your Grace, it is no fault of Lord Brynglass’,’ Lord Renir said, his eyes searching Alois’ face. He knows. This is going to haunt me, I know it. ‘She had several hours’ head start on him.’

‘Oh, no one is to blame!’ the king burst out, ripping his crown off his head and dropkicking it across the room. ‘Of course the prince wants to pardon his hellbeast mother! Of course Lord Alois couldn’t find her before she left the same city he was in! Of course the damn wretch would betray her husband and king for a honey-tongued filthy foreigner thirty years her junior! Who wouldn’t? I am the king! Will no one get me the justice I demand?’

The advisers in the room cowered and their expressions suggested they were thinking of ways to turn themselves invisible or else escape the room without running past the irate king.

‘Perhaps exile, Your Grace?’ Alois supplied.

‘Damn right,’ the king hissed, turning back to him, squinting. ‘Exile the harlot, and if she ever returns, I’ll have her beheaded on the spot.’

‘I hear the queen has fled the Capital,’ Johanne said when Alois returned home. She set down the orange stomacher she’d been embroidering as he sat beside her on the sofa in front of the Overlook window. ‘Some say she crossed the mountains into Cavendy. But you’re home awfully soon to have chased her all the way there and back. I agree with the rumours that she’s halfway to Vurdia by now. It’s where I’d go.’

‘That’s the one.’ Alois tapped the side of his nose. ‘She’s with Sulat.’

‘Oh.’ Johanne’s eyebrows rose. ‘You saw Sulat, did you?’

‘Briefly. She was in port to unload or whatever it is they do.’

‘Well, Her Majesty is in good hands, then.’ Johanne stretched, disappointed to have missed saying hello to Alois’ one-time partner. ‘How did the king take the news?’

‘Exactly as you’re imagining.’ Alois said.

Pity gripped at Johanne. ‘He must be in so much pain.’

‘I imagine that’s part of it. It’s a complicated situation, to be sure. But I just couldn’t bring her back to a man who would have made a spectacle of her. Not for that crime. Better to let her slip through my grasp than be complicit in whatever happened to her.’

‘Your big heart is going to get you into trouble one day.’ Johanne smiled. She was still angry and hurt, but it would fade with time. ‘She knew the risks.’

‘So did you.’ Alois reminded her gently. Johanne huffed. For something they swore they’d never mention again, they certainly discussed her infidelity more than she cared for.

‘I’m not a queen.’

‘It must be terrible to be queen,’ Alois said. ‘Bound to a man you don’t love. You have a luxurious life, but no real control over any of it.’

‘Well, she has her lover, now. Let’s hope it’s what she wanted.’

~~~~

Newsboys pounded up and down the streets through the morning fog, waving broadsides and proclaiming the royal divorce. The Capital buzzed all day with the news, and speculation swirled on the breeze, following the little family everywhere they went.

They had decided to lay low by doing the normal sorts of things people did when they visited the Capital, and tried generally to keep a low profile without arousing suspicion by going completely underground. They ventured into town for a cup of warm water from the hot spring and then up the high street for a bit of shopping, where they spotted a group of court ladies going into a milliner’s, Princess Dahna in the lead.

Johanne pulled Alois and Rosabel quickly into a tea shop and sat at a table by the window.

‘Do you think they saw us?’ she asked, staring at the hat shop.

‘May I have a sticky bun?’ Rosabel asked, peering at the menu painted on the wall.

‘Yes, love,’ Alois said to her, then turned back to Johanne. ‘If they had, she’d have nabbed me.’

Johanne shot him a look. His expression was far too fond. ‘You ought to be careful who sees you talking to her, given the climate.’

‘I’m always a gentleman.’ He smirked.

‘I can’t bear any more scandal.’ Johanne rubbed her neck as the aproned waitress appeared at the table to take their order.

They finished their tea and buns and ventured out into the sunny shopping street- and straight into the princess and her friends. Johanne tensed, but maintained her friendliness as the princess approached, hands out, and kissed her, Alois, and Rosabel, in turn.

‘What an adorable daughter you have, Lady Brynglass!’ The Princess cooed, brushing one of Rosabel’s unruly curls away from her face. ‘She’ll be a famous beauty.’

‘Thank you, Your Highness,’ Rosabel curtsied. Johanne beamed, pride outweighing embarrassment.

‘Oh, Tegan’s coming,’ Princess Dahna whispered to Alois, nodding at another group of women, led by a lady with shiny dark hair and light eyes, who had spotted Princess Dahna’s group. ‘Isn’t it odd how many people at court have grey eyes? It must be all that Cavender blood. Anyway, I must dash. Call on me soon!’

She led her ladies away as the second group approached. Johanne curtsied and Alois touched the brim of his hat as they passed, and he and his ladies continued on to their next destination.

~~~~

Predictably, a messenger arrived not long after with an invitation from the princess, requesting their presence for tea that afternoon.

The trouble was that she lived at the palace, and despite her assurances, Johanne was far too embarrassed and frightened to show her face there again.

‘Can you refuse an invitation?’ Alois asked, leaning against the doorframe of the morning room.

‘Not too many times before it’s a snub.’ Johanne sighed. ‘Fewer for a princess. But what can I do? I can’t risk crossing paths with the king.’

‘The palace is a big place, and he has many duties. Maybe he’ll be out or in some other room.’

But Johanne simply couldn’t go, and Alois had no good excuse to refuse his friend’s invitation. He dressed, kissed his wife, promised to behave, and took the carriage to the palace.

‘Alois!’ Dahna squealed as the footman bowed Alois in, and threw her arms around his neck. She wore an elaborate gold brocade turban studded with dazzling jewels that made the dormant thief in him salivate. ‘Come sit.’ She dragged him by the hand to a splendid tea table laden with porcelain dishes and a tower of dainty fingerfoods.

‘Johanne sends her apologies,’ Alois said, sitting carefully in the spindly chair. ‘She’s not feeling well.’

‘That’s a pity,’ Dahna pouted. ‘I was hoping I’d be able to serve as some sort of intermediary. I haven’t heard of you two being at any other parties, so it’s good she’s been about town and not fully in hiding.’

‘She does want to go home.’

‘Oh no, you mustn’t allow that, not during the season. And this is such an exciting year!’ She dropped her gaze and a deep sadness passed across her face. ‘I loved Queen Valtra, she was so kind to me and helped me understand what was expected of me in this country and this family. However, I have more backbone than she had.’

‘She seemed pretty brave to me,’ Alois said. Could he trust Dahna enough to let her know that he was involved in the queen’s escape?

Dahna fixed her dark eyes on him for a long time. Did she understand? ‘It’s complicated,’ she said at last. ‘Valtra was trapped, so she took comfort where she could. I moulded my cage to suit me.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I told Bertold- Prince Bertold- early on that if he wanted my loyalty and if he wanted me to behave a certain way, I had demands, too. I ordered him to give up his mistresses.’

Alois’ eyebrows rose. Royal men were notorious for dozens of official and unofficial mistresses and droves of illegitimate children by them. King Bertold had several of his own, in addition to the two princes.

‘And he did it?’

‘Unless he’s cleverer than I am.’ Dahna sipped her tea slyly. ‘So, you see, I know how to negotiate. I could have sorted things between your wife and His Highness.’

‘Well, you work on the king, and I’ll work on Johanne. How did the mistresses take it?’

Dahna shrugged. ‘They’re clever, too. Royal mistresses get a lot of perks- land, money, gifts. Some of them use their position to make very smart matches after they leave the palace.’

‘You don’t think any of them truly loved him?’

‘One or two, perhaps. But it’s the way of things. I didn’t get a choice in who I married. A mistress is not a wife, their position is inherently temporary. And a commoner cannot marry a prince.’

Alois passed a very amiable afternoon with the princess, and took his leave when the sky outside darkened. Royal Street would come alive soon and the crowds would be nightmarish to navigate.

He stepped into the hall and straight into Prince Meinard, the younger of the two princes.

‘Ahh, Lord Brynglass, good day to you,’ the prince said, inclining his head.

‘Good day, Your Royal Highness,’ Alois said, casting an eye out the nearest window. Regardless of his plans, etiquette required that he entertain a royal until they dismissed him. ‘How are you enjoying the season?’

It was small talk, but poorly timed. A sour expression twisted the prince’s chubby face. ‘Terrible business.’

Alois dipped his head. ‘Yes, I’m truly sorry that I wasn’t able to find your mother.’

Meinard nodded and cleared his throat. ‘Probably for the best, ultimately. Treasonous, she was, of course, but…’ he coughed again. ‘Probably for the best. But we take all in stride, don’t we? We move on as best we can.’ A strange look passed across his face.

Disdain? Grief? Dread? Yet with amusement- bitterness?

‘Indeed, Your Highness. Well, Lady Brynglass and I are at the Crown’s disposal, however we can be of use.’

Prince Meinard scuffed his buckled shoe on the tiled floor. ‘Poor Lady Brynglass, too. How is she? Has she devised a plan for a triumphant return to court yet?’

Alois shook his head. ‘She’s afraid that the king will hate her forever.’

‘Ah, he’s in better spirits lately.’ The strange expression returned. ‘She may have an opportunity to redeem herself soon.’

‘She’ll be delighted to hear it. She’s extremely loyal.’

The prince nodded. ‘Well, keep it a secret for now, will you? Who knows what will happen. It’s getting dark, you should get home.’

Alois bowed deeply and took his leave.

~~~~

What did all of that mean? The king was in a better mood and may be willing to let Johanne redeem herself. What was the meaning of the prince’s strange expression?

The carriage ride home was long and frustratingly slow, pausing too often to allow clumps of people to cross the road, but he finally made it and told Johanne everything he had learned from Princess Dahna and Prince Meinard. Johanne listened raptly to everything Alois told her, especially the hint that she might earn her return to court.

‘But he didn’t say how?’ She pressed.

‘No, I tried to get it out of him, but he was very vague and distracted. I got the feeling that he didn’t really want to talk about it and that the whole thing upset him.’

‘She was his mother. She was so beloved, I image her sons thought highly of her, too. What a sad business.’

‘Prince Bertold wanted to pardon her.’

‘Oh dear, it’s far too soon for that, it’s all still so fresh. So, I wonder what could turn His Highness’ mood around.’

‘Perhaps he’s getting remarried,’ Alois suggested and Johanne scowled.

‘Don’t be crass.’

~~~~

‘Royal wedding set to dwarf the last!’ A man shouted outside.

Johanne leapt up from her dressing table, where Zeferra was helping with her hair and dashed to the window. She twisted the iron crank and shoved the heavy glass to lean out of the window to listen.

‘In light of the royal divorce and Queen Valtra’s flight from the Capital, King Bertold announced last night that he will wed a week from today!’

‘Alois!’ Johanne hissed, flapping a hand at him, still in bed, reading a letter from the steward at Parry House. He rolled out of bed and joined her at the window.

‘I told you,’ he whispered.

‘Hush!’

‘Lady Tegan, darling of the Court, will be about, choosing her furnishings for the wedding. Sources inside the palace predict that she will be a fair and progressive queen, bringing a youthful and lively air to Court.

‘Prince Bertold and Princess Dahna quit the Palace after the announcement and retired to a private residence on the Overlook. It is unclear whether they will return to Court, or even attend the wedding.’

‘Oh, how horrible,’ Johanne sighed, closing the window as the crier moved away. ‘It’s too soon. And the heir and the princess have quit court? What does that do to the line of succession? Can Prince Bertold remove from Court?’

‘I got the impression that the king has been looking for a reason to remove his eldest.’

‘How horrible. Alois,’ Johanne became very serious. ‘Your loyalty must be to the king.’

‘What are you talking about?’ He laughed. ‘This has nothing to do with me.’

‘It will. There will come a time when you have to choose between the king and the princess. You may remain friends with her in private, but your public loyalty must be to him.’

‘The king doesn’t get a say in who my friends are.’

Enough! Enough now. This is getting childish.

‘Alois! When will you listen to me? This is not like knowing who to serve first at a party- this is our life! Princess Dahna knows how this works and she loves you. King Bertold is haughty and proud and volatile. You saw how he reacted to a casual opinion about fashion. He gave you your title. If he feels he’s lost your loyalty, he can take everything away from you. The house, your title. Me…Rosabel.’ Johanne’s voice caught in her throat. ‘You’re a member of society now, you need to start taking it seriously.’

Alois dropped his head and nodded. His shoulders slumped and Johanne knew she had won the advantage. She didn’t want to yell at him, especially when she had almost forgiven him, but he was so rock-headed and stubborn sometimes. He needed to understand that charm only allowed him so much freedom, especially when he was playing with their lives, too.

‘You’re right. About everything. Should I write to Dahna?’

‘That’s not a terrible idea. If your letter is intercepted, it’ll prove where your heart is.’ She cast her eyes back to where the crier had stood. ‘Prince Meinard knew this was coming and he hinted that I’d have a chance soon. I bet we’ll receive a wedding invitation today.’

Sure enough, only a few minutes later, a letter arrived addressed to Alois from the palace, inviting him and Lady Brynglass to the palace the following week to attend the royal wedding. Court dress would be required.

Johanne sighed heavily, resigning herself to spend the time sewing new details onto their court outfits, while Alois settled in his study to pen a letter to Dahna.

~~~~

Johanne agonised over the design of her dress for hours, adding embellishments everywhere she could. She couldn’t make a new mantua herself, so she added an additional row of ruffled lace at the elbows, rows of paste pearls between rows of bows on her stomacher, embroidered snapdragons along the trim on her wide parted skirt, a symbol of loyalty to the crown. She even ordered some snapdragons preserved in wax from a florist to wear in her hair for the big event.

Alois and Rosabel left her to it, knowing well enough by now that the best help they could give her was to be far away and let her concentrate fully on her task. They visited the enormous doll shop that they had passed coming into the city for the first time, and Rosabel’s round brown eyes widened with delight.

Alois held the door open for her, the little bell tinkling overhead. A middle aged woman behind the counter welcomed them brightly as they came in and returned to stitching what looked like a wedding gown.

They circled the shop three times, with Rosabel pointing out the different dolls she liked, until they finally stopped beside one with very dark skin, curly hair, and a steel blue gown.

‘What do you think Queen Tegan will be like?’ Rosabel asked, picking up the doll and squinting at the detailing on her dress.

‘I don’t know,’ Alois answered. ‘Princess Dahna wanted to get away pretty quickly a few days ago, so perhaps they don’t get along.’

‘You get along quite well with the princess, don’t you?’ Rosabel waggled the doll at Alois.

‘I do, she’s a good friend.’ She’s the reason I can be a part of your life. ‘She helped me get my land and title so that I could marry your mother and be a father to you.’

‘Then I like her, too. She was nice to me.’ Rosabel cheerfully displayed a missing tooth, and turned the doll over to inspect her many layers of underthings.

Alois laughed. ‘You would like her, if you met her properly. She’s very friendly and kind, and she wears the most beautiful clothes. I daresay she’s the most fashionable lady in the Capital.’ He tugged at the lace at the doll’s neckline.

Rosabel stood up very straight and held the doll in front of her face, affecting a goofily snooty accent. ‘Look at me, I’m Princess Dahna and I won’t be outdressed by a royal bride.’

Alois coughed into his elbow to hide his laugh. Had she mimicked anyone else, it might have bordered on sedition, but Dahna was probably the one person in the whole court who would have laughed along with her.

~~~~

The day of the Royal Wedding, the second Alois had attended in less than a year, he and Johanne dressed in solemn silence. Tension yawned between them as the spectre of the exiled Queen Valtra, the rebellious Princess Dahna, the mysterious Lady Tegan, and the red-faced volatile King Bertold hovered overhead. Choosing to attend the wedding was a cut against Dahna and put them in a position to insult the king again; the wedding itself ended any chance of redemption for Queen Valtra, and elevated Lady Tegan, a social and political unknown.

What kind of queen would she be? Would she be kind and benevolent, a patroness of the arts, a voice for the unheard? Would she be ruthless, cutthroat, and cruel? Or would she perhaps be meek and invisible, afraid to draw too much attention to herself?

Johanne had heard whispers about her, about her charm and beauty, her good connections, her common but ambitious family. Like Alois, her family rose from nothing through charisma, loyalty, and favours. Perhaps that would be a way to get back into royal good graces, by befriending the new queen.

‘Flatter her, Alois,’ Johanne said. ‘It’s her wedding day. Even if she’s a social climber, some part of her will be frightened and nervous. Make her feel like you’re her ally, but don’t simper. Be your usual warm and approachable self. Make her feel safe.’

‘Isn’t it her husband’s job to make to make her feel safe?’ He quirked an eyebrow. ‘We wouldn’t want her falling for me on her wedding day.’ He grinned, but Johanne scowled back.

‘You know what I mean. We need to make friends with her. She’s our way back in, my way back in.’

‘You make friends with her, then.’

‘I don’t have what you have. You’re charming and I’m too nervous. You have standing and I’m disgraced. You grew up common, she’ll be suspicious of me from the start. We don’t want her to think that we’re using her to ingratiate ourselves.’

‘Are we not?’

‘No, it’s completely different.’

The front door opened and closed, and a moment later, Boswell knocked on the doorframe.

‘A letter for you, my lord,’ he said, bowing. Alois took the letter, recognising the familiar scented blue paper.

‘It’s from Dahna.’ He slid a knife from Johanne’s vanity under the flap and slit it open.

Johanne hovered, watching his face anxiously. His brow furrowed and he appeared to age in front of her.

‘It’s another invitation.’ He handed the letter over and rubbed his eyes. ‘A party tonight.’

Her insides went cold. I knew it.

‘Alois…’

‘I know. We’re going to the wedding.’ He took the letter back. ‘But the party will be more fun.’

‘Oh, I don’t know.’ Johanne slid her arms around his waist. ‘Weddings can be nice.’

~~~~

That evening, the crowds in the city centre were more raucous than Alois had ever seen them, even on the day of Prince Bertold’s wedding. That day, the heir was to marry a foreign princess, an exciting prospect, to be sure; but this evening, the king would wed a fashionable lady of court, a commoner who would be queen. The occasion was grander, the scandal more salacious, and the consequences more immediate.

Moreover, there was rumour that the lady in question had been one of the prince’s mistresses, and that was one of the many reasons why the prince and princess would not be in attendance.

‘This just gets more and more complicated,’ Johanne whispered, peering out the carriage window at the hordes heading back toward the Overlook. ‘It’s splitting the city between those who support the king, and those who loved Queen Valtra. People will have to decide if they want favour from the king now, or the prince in the future. And poor Lady Tegan, she’s caught in the middle. I wonder what this has done for her, personally.’

Alois related what Dahna had told him about making the prince give up his mistresses, and their resourcefulness.

‘Oh, what a mess,’ Johanne said in response.

The palace was the grandest Alois had ever seen, and he marvelled at how the decorators could have done it all in a week, when the previous royal wedding had taken nearly a month to organise.

The Great Hall was strewn with fresh flower garlands dripping in ribbons and glass baubles. There was hardly any room to stand anywhere, between the huge flower arrangements and the wide skirts. Everyone vied for the best place to stand to get a good view of the ceremony.

‘Quite the whirlwind romance, wouldn’t you say?’ an elderly lady whispered to Johanne. ‘Why, only last month, Lady Tegan was Prince Bertold’s chief mistress, and now she’s to marry his father! Quite a step up!’ She wheezed into a handkerchief. ‘I bet Princess Dahna is regretting banishing all the mistresses, now. One could say that little stunt made all of this possible. She made her chief rival her mother-in-law and put her on the throne before herself.’

The lady cackled and moved away.

‘Kind of puts our little scandal into perspective, though, doesn’t it?’ Alois whispered to Johanne.

‘Stop talking about it.’ Johanne ground her teeth.

A bugler appeared in the doorway and blasted the royal march of Viehland. All conversations stopped and everyone turned to watch King Bertold in a suit of rich burgundy silk stomp down the centre of the room to the raised platform at the end.

Prince Meinard stepped into the doorway and took the hand of a petite woman in a butter yellow gown. She was a stunning woman, somehow even more beautiful here than Johanne remembered when they had passed in the streets, just weeks before. Her shiny chestnut hair was pulled back from a high forehead, her eyebrows over clear grey eyes sharp and haughty, and the corners of her mouth turned up as though a joke was never far away. She looked shrewd, witty, and likable- a winning combination to turn the heads of royal men.

Johanne glanced at Alois. He was watching the procession with interest, but turned when he felt her gaze, and winked.

Prince Meinard guided Lady Tegan up to the platform, bowing as he left her beside his father. Whispers followed as she passed and hushed when the aged officiator took his place.

Johanne inched a little closer to Alois, the grandest show of affection she was allowed in public, as the official read the vows. Heat radiated from her chest at the memory of her own wedding just a few months ago, and she resisted the urge to step even closer. Something rough brushed against her hand and she squeezed Alois’ fingers with her own, the gesture hidden behind her hideous skirt.

When the ceremony was over and the king had presented Lady Tegan with a dazzling jewel encrusted chatelaine, a cheer rose from the crowd and the newly married couple led the witnesses into the next room for food, drinks, and more mingling.

‘I see you’ve deigned to wear my court dress, Lady Brynglass,’ the king said, coming over to them with Lady Tegan. His smile was stiff and almost threatening.

‘Your Grace, I fear my words were taken out of context,’ Johanne said, curtsying to hide her nerves.

‘Oh?’ The king barked and his round belly bounced.

‘I am… a fashion enthusiast.’ Johanne chose her words carefully. ‘I merely meant to comment that fashion had not changed much; that it was, in a sense, timeless and classic in its fidelity to the past. Court dress should have a more formal elegance than the everyday fashions for calling at tea or shopping on the high street. I did not mean to insult Your Royal Highness, simply to observe the trend.’

The king sniffed and squinted at her. ‘You may notice, my lady, that my son, my eldest, my heir, did not see fit to honour me on this happy day. He and his fashionable wife took half of my court with them to show disdain for me and my old-fashioned views on things like loyalty. But we’ll show them. I have a mind to display my vitality here at the true royal court.’

He squeezed Lady Tegan’s fingers. ‘As a wedding gift to my bride, and to redeem yourself, I order you to design a new fashion. Something more fitting of the modern age, something that reflects the youthful vigour that she will bring to this stuffy old building, but with, as you yourself say, a fidelity to the past.

‘This is your chance to rid the world of panniers, Lady Brynglass.’ He chortled nastily.

A bunch of courtiers laughed.

‘Use it wisely. You have until the coronation to come up with something worthy of our new queen.’

Johanne curtsied and Alois bowed as the king raised his chin and led his new wife away.

~~~~

The carriage ride back to Number 7 was quiet. Johanne was exhausted, drained, like she’d climbed a tall mountain, only to be faced with an even steeper one. Alois kept looking at her, but she didn’t know how to talk.

What would she say? Lovely wedding? She barely remembered it. Stress over her assignment? She felt sick thinking about it. She just wanted to go to sleep and forget the whole time they’d been in the capital.

In the bedroom, she wrote a hasty letter and sent it off with a messenger, then took Zeferra into the dressing room.

‘I want to go home tomorrow,’ she said after her maid left the bedroom for the evening. Johanne climbed into bed beside Alois and folded her hands over the blanket. ‘And if you won’t go with me, I’ll go without you.’

He hesitated. ‘I don’t think we can pack everything up that quickly.’

‘Not all of us, just me. And you, if you’ll go.’

‘How long are we staying? Are you quitting the capital for the season?’

‘You are staying overnight and then coming straight back. I still need you to make friends with Lady Tegan, and you can combine that with finding out what her tastes are, and send me letters.’ She rolled to the side and put her palms on either side of his face. ‘I need you to do this for me. I need you to use all of your charm to secure this for us. I trust you to solidify our place at court, while also maintaining your friendship with the princess. I know you can do it, and I need you to. This family needs you to.’

Think of Rosabel’s future. She didn’t need to say it out loud.

‘Are you taking Rosabel with you?’

Johanne sighed. ‘I want to. I want her with me and I want you to focus on your priorities here, but-‘ she sighed. ‘She’s barely gotten to do anything while she’s been here. You won’t be at parties during the day, and she might be a topic of interest for some.’

‘You want me to use our daughter as a bargaining piece?’

‘I want you to use every tool at your disposal. One day, she will enter society, it would help if people already care about her.’

‘Shall I ask around if anyone has seven-year-old sons?’

Johanne pursed her lips. ‘Just be a father. That’s what you want, isn’t it? Spend time with her during the day, but don’t hold back from talking about her, if the opportunity arises. You’ll know what to do.’

When Johanne arrived at Parry House, a letter was waiting for her from the dressmaker- she would be ready any moment Johanne needed her.

Johanne sent a letter back, asking for her presence as early as possible the next day. Alois would leave at dawn, and it wouldn’t take long for the loneliness to set in.

‘What is fashion?’ she asked, leaning against her husband in the sitting room, after dinner. ‘What makes something fashionable?’

Her skin prickled. She was skilled at art, she could paint and play guitar and embroider, but that was all technical. She was never much good at creativity, pulling something out of nothing, making something totally new.

‘It has to be different,’ Alois mused. ‘Something you don’t see every day.’

‘Like what?’

‘Like… butterfly wings.’

‘What, like as an accent, like jewellery?’ That’s hardly new.

‘No, I mean like wings sewn to the back of a dress, turning the woman into a sort of human insect.’

‘Oh, be serious!’ Johanne playfully smacked his chest.

‘I am!’ He laughed. ‘It’s something outlandish, on the face of it, but if you made it beautiful, people would give it a chance. Wings are wide at the ends and narrow in the middle, like a woman’s curves, so there are lots of areas to be creative with it. It would be something broad on top to balance the panniers. You could make them as elaborate or simple as you like. Perhaps incorporate some secret language, like your flowers. Only the royals can use monarchs, for example, and old women can have moths.’

Johanne considered. Butterfly wings were absurd, but there was something to the broader idea- it didn’t need to be something never seen before, just something seen differently.

‘Hmm.’

‘It’s just an idea.’ Alois waved a hand. ‘It might look too much like what the old royals used to wear, with the ruffs and whisks and farthingales and all that. But you get what I’m saying.’

‘I do.’ Johanne kissed him and retired to her sewing room to jot down some ideas.

~~~~

Alois left at dawn as planned, but Johanne was so lost in thought that she didn’t hear the knock at the front door or the footsteps coming up the stairs.

‘Oh, Mrs Towley, you startled me!’ She jumped and put a hand to her chest, nearly splashing herself with ink from her pen.

‘You asked me to come early.’ Mrs Towley chuckled. ‘But I’m glad to see you’re engrossed in your ideas. What have you got so far?’ She set down her basket and pulled Johanne’s list toward her. ‘His lordship suggested butterfly wings? He’s got quite a whimsical imagination, hasn’t he?’

‘You have no idea,’ Johanne said fondly. ‘But what do you think of the others?’

‘Hmm.’ Mrs Towley’s eyes scanned the list. ‘I see you’ve broken this down mathematically- ascribing meaning to each area of the body, and imagining how to incorporate design to emphasise or mask certain traits. It’s an interesting concept, but I wonder…’ Her brow creased. She wasn’t convinced.

Johanne’s cheeks warmed and she pulled the sheet back. ‘Well, I only just started last night. These were my first ideas.’

‘And they’re good. But I wonder if we mightn’t see what other angles to try. For instance, what is most comfortable to wear for long periods in whatever conditions His Majesty might please, or what message you want to convey, or what inspires you.’

Johanne wrote down Mrs Towley’s suggestions.

‘Comfort isn’t the highest consideration at court,’ Johanne said. ‘In fact, I sometimes wonder if the point isn’t discomfort, to show the king how loyal one is, to stand for hours in heavy brocade, wooden struts, and girders.

‘Messages can be conveyed through individualisation, like with patterns in the fabric or accessories.’ Johanne put the dry end of her pen to her lip. ‘What inspires me?’

‘Your garden?’ Mrs Towley swept a hand at the window, out of which a lay a magnificent view of Johanne’s carefully manicured garden. ‘Your library? Chocolate?’

Johanne giggled. ‘All of those things. But how do I incorporate them into a dress? Heavy trim like hedgerows with floral embroidery? Square like books, with text printed on the fabric? No, that’s too costume-y.’

‘Court dress is quite costume-y.’

‘Yes, but those things are just…embellishing the current fashion. Ugh!’ Johanne thrust her fingers into her hair. It’s not new!

‘Let’s go for a walk, my lady.’ Mrs Towley stood. ‘Perhaps the fresh air will do you good.’

Johanne ordered tea to be served to them in the garden, and while they waited, she and her dressmaker strolled among the flowers.

‘Consider the iris.’ Mrs Towley stopped beside a bed of purple blooms. ‘She has the right shape, with a tall torso and wide hips. Perhaps ruffles, or a peplum worked into the skirt?

‘Or the rose, how her bloom is circular. Imagine her upside down, with the head as the skirt and the stalk as her slim torso.’

Johanne tilted her head at the rose bush. The wide mantua panniers were difficult enough to manage in one direction. A circular skirt would leave no way to turn to fit through doorways.

‘My, she’s lovely. Is she ancient?’ Mrs Towley pointed to a statue on a plinth, surrounded by white carnations, Johanne’s signature flower.

The statue was a woman carved from alabaster, carrying a large pot on her hip. She wore her curly hair in elaborate braids, and her long shapeless dress clung to her natural curves with deep folds resembling the fluting on temple pillars. Uncle George had brought her back from his travels abroad in his youth and had left her in somewhat ignominious abandonment in the potting shed at Ellenly. Johanne had discovered her when she was restoring the decaying garden, and gave her pride of place amongst the roses. Uncle George made a gift of the statue when Johanne completed her design at Parry House.

‘I believe so, yes.’ Johanne looked up into the blank-eyed stare. The statue’s only colour clung to the underside of her hem, the rest long faded by the hot sun of her homeland. Still, the elegant simplicity of her overall design had always enchanted Johanne.

‘Perhaps something related to travel, something to celebrate our growing global presence,’ Mrs Towley mused. ‘Have you much understanding of the fashions in Jongsin, for example? I hear the women there wear trousers, and everyone wears silk, regardless of station.’

‘Tiger stripes, perhaps.’ Johanne giggled. ‘Or a plume of crane feathers.’

The two women walked a little longer, considering the leaves of strawberries and branches of willows. Johanne was starting to notice that some things stirred in her mind more than others, but what did they have in common? Was it the way they moved, or their silhouette?

Tea was served at the base of the statue, where there was space, and the carnations gave the little rest a sweet peppery aroma.

‘You blend your own tea, do you not?’ Mrs Towley sipped the strawberry flavoured drink. Johanne nodded. ‘Perhaps something to do with tea…’

‘Oh surely not!’ Johanne laughed out loud. ‘The stuff grows on a bush, and teapots and cups are so short and round. Have a care for us tall, rectangular women, we struggle so much to be fashionable as it is!’

Mrs Towley chuckled and set down her cup. ‘You are right, of course. This is your chance to make fashion according to you, rather than the other way round. Now chocolate,’ she said slowly, lifting her cup, ‘comes from a tree.’

‘That’s more like it.’ Johanne tapped her cup against her friend’s.

~~~

How to make a chocolate tree into a dress.

-Cocoa pods as fashion.

-BROWN

Johanne sighed and scratched her scalp with the blunt end of her pen and picked at the ham and buttered bread on her plate. Alone in the house, she couldn’t bear to ask the kitchen staff to cook full meals for her, so she subsisted almost entirely on cold plates and hot drinks. As a result, she maintained a constant almost-satisfaction that was nearly as distracting as the empty hum inside her head.

Nothing.

No ideas, no burst of creativity. Just blank silence.

She groaned and scribbled out everything she’d written. She couldn’t keep taking breaks to clear her mind- it was a clear blue sky, without even a whisp of an idea to cloud it. Her days were mostly breaks with brief periods of scribbling down the foundations for ideas, furiously planning for the moment when her brain might sprout something she could nurture into an idea. Just one.

The coronation was less than a month away. Mrs Towley would need plenty of time to sew, and if it were built around a mantua, she would be doing all of the heavy work alone, with Johanne only helping with details. There was no time to waste, she was already running late.

Her eyes found the statue in the garden again. A slender white glow amid the green-tinted blackness.

Perhaps the Classical World can help me.

She’d always loved history, always enjoyed diving into antiquity to discover what they’d thought about back then. She’d made her uncle tell her stories about his travels over and over, as a girl. Her sisters hadn’t been much interested, so he would regale her for hours until her parents pulled her away.

She reminisced about her childhood trips to Ellenly. Her home life was mostly loneliness and neglect, with visits to her uncle’s house the few bright spots.

She settled herself in the library with a book of ancient poetry and lost herself in the violets and acanthus.

~~~~

Her eyes popped open and her neck twinged. She’d fallen asleep in the armchair and dropped her book to the floor. It was open to a page describing a woman’s shape as an unopened flower bud in the morning, wide at the hips, her skirts bunching around her ankles.

Johanne put a hand to her throbbing head. What was that dream? Had she been talking to the statue? Had the statue answered?

The memory faded like smoke, and the scent of chocolate filled her nose. A steaming silver pot and ceramic cup stood on the table nearby with a plate of pastries and jam.

‘Dear Zeferra,’ she said fondly, unfolding herself from the chair. Everything ached, all of her joints popped and crackled as she stretched her long frame. ‘I must give her permission to wake me, next time. Look at me, falling asleep in my day clothes. Pull yourself together, Johanne.’

She sat on the sofa and had her breakfast, feeling life return to her heavy limbs and brain.

She turned and looked at the statue from the library window.

‘I think… I think that’s the answer,’ she whispered, and something twisted her insides as she observed the slender silhouette, the bare arms, the fabric loose as gauze. The feeling in the pit of her stomach was something like horror, but also a little excitement. It felt right, but could she do it? Was she brave enough to try?

She wanted Alois, to run the idea past him. He was bold, creative. Would he see her idea as technical elegance, a nod to the sophistication of the classics, an inspiration to go forward into the wider world with the dignity and steadiness of the ancient empires; or would he see it as gaudy exhibitionism, a wild lunge at scandal and salaciousness? Or worse- mockery of the king’s formal taste.

Johanne’s mouth went dry.

‘I’m not brave enough,’ she whispered around the tongue sticking to the roof of her mouth. But I have to be. Better to be bold and take the gamble than to forfeit the assignment. She swallowed hard. If nothing else, it was a simple design, one she could easily do and complete on time. Perhaps, if she explained her thought process, he might recognise the effort she made.

She felt somehow lighter as she stood to ring the bell for Zeferra.

‘Thank you for breakfast. I’m going to write to Mrs Towley and I’ll need you to send the letter, then please fill me a bath and help me change out of these day-old clothes.’

~~~~

‘I need your help, Boswell,’ Alois said, sipping brandy while the valet unpacked the trunk.

‘I am at your disposal, my lord.’

‘I need to get Lady Tegan’s attention, and I need to do it without Johanne’s help.’

Boswell paused, quickly covering the apprehension on his face.

‘Luckily, the good lady is not yet queen, and as I understand it, she comes from simple stock, so she will likely still behave according to the etiquette of any other society lady. All you need is manners and charm.’ He snapped the wardrobe shut and folded his hands behind him, bowing slightly. ‘I shall help you, my lord.’

The next morning began as soon as Alois was dressed. He enlisted Molle, the governess, to stand in for Lady Tegan, as she had dark hair and grey eyes, and knew how to behave like a lady. Boswell led the conversation and Rosabel watched with glee as though her father and governess were actors on a stage.

Alois bowed deeply to Molle, who curtsied and held out a hand, holding her head high.

‘Good day to you, Lord Brynglass,’ she said in a very high class accent.

‘Oh, well done,’ Alois said, impressed.

‘Focus, my lord,’ Boswell scolded and Alois cleared his throat.

‘Yes. I mean, thank you, my lady. I hope your day is passing pleasantly. The wedding was a beautiful ceremony.’

‘Thank you for your kind words. And how is your lady wife?’

Alois practised with the ladies and Boswell all day, managing to work meals and strolling through the Overlook into the roleplay, practising his table manners and even how to walk beside royalty. Rosabel kept jumping in with her new doll to reprise her role as Princess Dahna, trying to inject some conflict to test Alois’ ability to deflect tension, but mostly because she wanted to be a part of things.

‘How’d I do?’ Alois asked Boswell as he changed for bed.

‘You have the basics, my lord. With any luck, your personality will see you the rest of the way through.’

Alois liked that Boswell was stuffy and stiff, and not the simpering type who had qualms about being honest.

He got up early, took extra care to dress in his best, and set off for the palace. He had heard that Lady Tegan would be in the gardens today, so that was where he would go.

He gave his name to the palace guards and the footman at the door, who escorted him to the smaller of the palace courtyards.

The walled-in garden would have made Johanne’s jaw drop. The ring of native trees gave the impression of a secret glen in the forest, with bushes and tall flowers, a winding gravel path, and even a small meandering stream.

A group of well-dressed ladies and gentlemen travelled in a herd along the path, and Alois was led toward them.

‘Lord Brynglass,’ the footman announced with a bow, then turned and left. Lady Tegan held out a hand, beaming broadly.

‘How charming to meet you, at last, my lord. I’ve heard so much about you.’

‘Only the good things, I hope.’ Alois bent over her hand. Everyone in the group smiled, but they were the leers of predators, all sharp fangs and saliva, more a threat than a greeting.

Steady on, boys and girls, I won’t be here long.

‘Only interesting things.’ Lady Tegan’s smile widened. She was completely unreadable, something Alois had rarely encountered before. Was she truly that friendly and warm, or was she just a good liar? ‘I’m glad you came to call. I’ve been eager to meet you properly, since your story is so similar to mine, but there just never seemed to be the right moment. Please, walk with me.’

Lady Tegan laid the tips of her fingers on his arm, held far apart from her by her wide skirt, and they began to walk along the path, the other courtiers pressing in around them.

‘I hear that your rise to prominence was driven by love. Is that true?’ She gave a throaty, husky giggle and her grey eyes sparkled like silver.

Alois nodded. ‘To put it simply, my lady.’

‘What a gesture! I know how difficult it is to rise this high from the commons. However did you manage it?’ Her eyes bored into his, and he caught a glimpse of something behind her dazzling teeth, a chink in her armour. She doesn’t know. No one told her the truth about Dahna, the truth about magic. But she’s a commoner, deep down- does she still believe?

Magic was common in Viehland and found in many creatures, but human magic was so diluted by history that it had all but disappeared, except among the lower classes. The elites put their faith in science and logic, and only a few, including Johanne and the Royal Family, knew that it still existed at all. That was why the story of Dahna’s rescue was so secret- letting word out that a witch had infiltrated the Royal Family last year would set off all kinds of upheaval that the Crown would simply rather not deal with.

‘Ahh, my lady, I regret that I cannot speak of it. Your Royal husband swore me to secrecy, lest I risk all that I have gained from it.’

‘Oh, secrets.’ She chuckled again. The vulnerability closed up, and Alois felt a little spark pass between them.

She’s more like me than I thought. That’s going to pick at her until she gets the secret out of one of us. It will keep us on her mind for a long time, and that’s how we stay in favour.

‘Perhaps, one day, if the danger has passed, I’ll be able to tell you.’ He was gambling, now, adding a little more intrigue, and anchoring the secret tighter in his power. The danger would never truly pass, not so long as the wealthy refused to believe in magic, so there was no risk for him. But Lady Tegan didn’t know what danger he was referring to, so he hoped that it would pique her interest even more. He would have to be careful, though. Too much gravy ruins a roast.

Lady Tegan’s sharp eyebrow twitched as she fought to control her composure, and Alois celebrated his victory internally.

‘I also hear that your lady wife left the Capital some days ago,’ Lady Tegan said, moving away from the secret. ‘I do hope she is in good health.’

‘She is quite healthy, my lady,’ Alois said, shifting his eyes to a young woman walking a little too close. ‘She is at Parry House because she wanted the aid of her dressmaker and a distraction-free setting to concentrate fully on your new fashion.’

‘That’s wonderful news,’ Lady Tegan said. ‘I was worried his majesty had frightened her off. Well, can you give us any hints as to what we might expect?’ She leaned into him. Her perfume was musky and floral, with just the slightest hint of exotic fruit.

‘What would you like to see, my lady?’ Keep your head, man.

Lady Tegan squeezed his arm. She’s playing with me, now, to get back at me for the secret. ‘Clever boy. I’ll not give you any hints, I want to see what the good lady comes up with. But between you and me, if she were to do away with panniers, I know one or two ladies who wouldn’t be sorry to see them go.’

A few ladies tittered at her words.

They pulled up beside the stream and Lady Tegan bent low over a flowering bush covered in white blossoms.

‘I find white such an enchanting colour, don’t you, my lord?’

Alois couldn’t honestly say that he’d given it any thought, but he had to say something. This was part of the game, a little test. He had to recognise her move and play his accordingly. Her hard stare prompted him to agree.

‘I imagine it’s difficult to keep clean.’

The gentlemen scoffed and fingered the snow white lace at their cuffs, but Lady Tegan twinkled.

‘One can’t be too rowdy, and keep an excellent laundress.’

~~~~

Mrs Towley listened while Johanne outlined her ideas. The dressmaker’s eyes kept darting to the statue and back, the crease between her eyebrows deepening.

‘It’s…certainly eyecatching,’ she said at last. Johanne deflated a little.

‘Honestly, when you saw her, you said, “My, she’s lovely.” You didn’t say, “Why on earth have you raised a naked woman above your hedges?”’ Johanne argued, trying to salvage her plan. ‘You saw beauty first, and only in the context of modern fashion is her image scandalous. Why is that?’

‘I suppose I would be embarrassed to wear it,’ Mrs Towley said.

‘Have you ever worn a mantua?’

‘I never had occasion,’ Mrs Towley admitted.

‘Well, let me tell you, it’s embarrassing. It’s uncomfortable, you’re always bumping into things, other people. It’s expensive, it’s heavy, it’s ugly. You’re an exceptional seamstress, Mrs Towley, but there’s only so much you can do when the form is terrible.’

‘But it’s so unstructured,’ Mrs Towley pressed. ‘My lady, if I may…it looks like she’s wearing her underthings.’

‘If we’re speaking of extremes, is an unstructured, natural form really more scandalous than an entirely artificial one? No one is shaped like this.’ Johanne drew an inverted triangle over a wide rectangle. ‘And then all the frippery on top with the enormous wigs and the makeup that makes one look as though they sneezed into a sack of flour.’

‘What fabric would you use?’ Mrs Towley asked, unease etched all over her face, as though she dreaded the answer.

She seized her window curtains and gave them a shake, watching the difference in their movements. The inside layer, the deep blue brocade folded like wooden boards as she pushed them back toward the hooks and ties; while the sheer white linen on the outside, used more to soften harsh light than keep the chill out, fluttered at her touch and flowed through her hands like water.

‘Well, I don’t think a stiff fabric will do the design any dignity. I’m more inclined toward something light and breathable, like silk or linen. I’m sure there’s even a way to work a fine wool for cold weather.’

So, just like underthings, Mrs Towley’s face said.

‘Wouldn’t it be easier, more comfortable for everyone if we just did away with all of the heaviness and fuss?’ Johanne burst out, exasperated. There was nothing about this exercise that suited her, and with every new idea, she felt a noose tightening around her throat. She had to pick something and follow it through with confidence, even if it failed- it was the only way to maintain her sanity. ‘There is still room to discern the wealthy from the common, but now those details will shine against a simpler base, and not get lost amid the brocade and ruffles.’

Mrs Towley pressed her lips together and glanced at the statue again. ‘Let’s…work on some designs.’

~~~

News travelled quickly among the gentry and it wasn’t long before Johanne received a letter that her eldest sister, Constanza, had heard of her disgrace, and was on her way to help.

Don’t bother responding to this letter, she said. By the time you read it, I will already be halfway to Parry House. I don’t know what use I can be with His Royal Highness, but I can be an extra pair of discerning eyes and willing hands. Expect me within two days.

Sure enough, two days later, Denny announced that Lady Constanza had arrived with her lady’s maid and her driver, with enough luggage to last the whole season, if necessary.

She kissed Johanne on each cheek and introduced herself to the dressmaker.

‘Oh, Johanne, surely not,’ she said, looking over the designs. ‘Did you base this off that old statue Uncle George brought home from his Grand Tour?’

‘In part,’ Johanne admitted. ‘I thought, since there’s so much scientific discovery going on right now, we might be heading toward a new age of enlightenment, and we might hearken back to the ancient greats as a way of keeping ourselves focused on our collective spiritual growth.’

Constanza pursed her lips and her dark eyes narrowed.

‘Why is it elegant on an ancient statue, but scandalous on a living woman?’ Mrs Towley asked Constanza, gesturing at Johanne. ‘What is it that makes it beautiful or grotesque, based on context?’

‘Isn’t context key to everything?’ Constanza muttered. ‘That was so long ago, they were freer then. We’re much more civilised now.’

‘But we can modernise it,’ Johanne said. ‘Add elements that you wouldn’t put on underthings. Peplums, like the lily; tiers like rosebuds. Beading, colour.’

‘We can bring in elements from other countries, too.’ Mrs Towley said. Johanne fancied she heard a little excitement there. Had she won over her dressmaker? ‘Perhaps turbans might become fashionable, here.’

‘Why not try trousers?’ Constanza snorted.

Heat rushed into Johanne’s face and she melted. Constanza hated it. She and her eldest sister had always been so similar, so close. Her disapproval stung.

It’s too bold.

‘Well, I’m still thinking. It was just one idea.’ Johanne stacked all of her designs and set them aside, pulling out a clean sheet. ‘We can try again.’

Mrs Towley shifted uncomfortably, pity in her eyes.

‘Hmm. Let me unpack and settle in,’ Constanza said. ‘And then, we’ll attack it tomorrow.’

~~~~

A letter arrived from Alois in the afternoon.

Dear Johanne,

The Capital is dull without you. Rosabel and I are keeping well physically, but your presence is dearly missed.

I managed to secure an informal meeting with Lady Tegan (if you ever get a chance, you must try to see the Palace Garden!). She was very cagey, perhaps because she was followed by a pack of drooling lapdogs, so she wouldn’t give me much to work with. However, she did mention a fondness for the colour white and that everyone hates panniers, but you knew that. I don’t know how much that can help you, but it’s all I’ve managed to find out.

I will write again when I’ve got more. Until then, try not to worry about us, and know that we support you, no matter what.

Your ever adoring husband who is trying his very best not to make things worse,

Alois.

Johanne sighed and suppressed a laugh. He couldn’t help himself. But she was glad of at least a little hint, especially since it was already something she was working with. It galvanised her that her idea could work.

She wrapped her arms around her own shoulders and squeezed, imagining for a moment that Alois was there with her. What would he say?

You are skilled and diligent. Whatever you make will be lovely.

It helped a little to pretend, but when she opened her eyes and found herself alone in an empty room, it felt somehow colder than it had before.

~~~~

The next morning, Johanne rose and went straight to her sewing room to start again, when something outside caught her eye. Constanza was in the garden, her blue bedgown wrapped tight around her, nibbling on a sweet roll and gazing up at the statue. Johanne pulled on a shawl and crossed the dewy lawn to join her.

‘You know, when I heard about your mission, I expected you to add an extra level of ruffles, or a different shaped skirt, or even adapt an unusual fabric. Something modest, something building on the current fashion. I didn’t expect you to throw off the whole thing entirely.’ Constanza took a bite of her roll.

‘Did you hear how the whole thing came about?’

Constanza’s eyes slid sideways. She, like Johanne’s whole family, had always disapproved of Alois. Constanza also had the distinction of being one of only four who knew that Alois was Rosabel’s real father.

‘Yes.’

Johanne cringed. So, that was why she was here and so judgemental. She’d come to set it straight and restore Johanne’s reputation. She intended to guide Johanne in a conservative direction, to directly counter Alois’ impetuosity.

‘It wasn’t entirely his fault. I shouldn’t have said anything. Everything he knows about society he’s learning from me. I need to be more careful.’

‘Have you thought what he will think? His wife displaying her underthings at court?’

‘Alois will support me. He is much more adventurous than I am.’

Constanza smirked. ‘This is quite adventurous. Are you decided, then?’

Johanne took a deep breath. Perhaps she’d like Alois’ butterfly wings better, if I didn’t mention it was his. ‘Yes, I think so. It feels right.’

‘I hope it is.’ Constanza threaded an arm around her taller sister’s waist and they walked back to the house together.

~~~~

The three women flew around the sewing room for two weeks, sketching, measuring, cutting, sewing, and embellishing under the constant pressure of uncertainty, simultaneously urging them on and pulling them back.

‘Are you sure you want the waist so high?’- ‘Would you not prefer a longer sleeve?’- ‘What will we do about the chatelaine?’

Johanne’s concentration shattered.

Stars, the chatelaine. I hadn’t thought of that. She looked at her own, hanging near her hands from the bottom hem of her jacket. The new fashion was one piece, not the typical jacket and skirt of the current style, leaving no place to hang the chatelaine.

Would they hang it from a belt like they did in centuries past, or from the new waistline, high up under the bust?

Johanne sat and put a hand to her head. Marriage was status for women, something had to be done about this most important of items.

Constanza and Mrs Towley watched her quietly, Constanza fiddling with her own chatelaine and Mrs Towley putting a delicate finger to her mourning brooch, worn over her heart.

Johanne also had a mourning brooch to commemorate Pol. Could that be the answer- turning the chatelaine into a brooch?

‘What about a brooch?’ She suggested?

The two women looked at her quizzically.

‘What about stylising the chatelaine down to the size of a brooch, with charms to represent the tools we use, and wearing it over our hearts?’

‘But I use mine every day,’ Constanza said. ‘I need all of these tools close at hand.’

‘But this is court dress,’ Johanne said. ‘You won’t be mending at court. And even if it catches on in casual dress, Mrs Towley gets on somehow without a chatelaine pinned to her.’

Mrs Towley reached into a slit in her skirt and pulled out a key. ‘I keep my things in my pocket.’

‘You see?’

Constanza picked up a sketch. ‘You did away with pockets, as they’d ruin the line.’

‘Well, here.’ Johanne reached out for the paper and sketched a pouch with a buckled clasp. ‘We’ll have bags for the necessities. Perhaps different ones for different outfits or occasions. They’ll be easy to make, perhaps even in one evening, from scraps, so it will reduce waste of expensive materials.’

‘I feel like this new fashion is going to be driven by accessories,’ Constanza said.

‘I see an issue with that, though,’ Mrs Towley said slowly. ‘Having the bag be a separate item makes it vulnerable to other people.’

That’s a problem. A pocket was a woman’s most protected and secret place, which was why it was held against the body, separated from the skin by only the chemise. For someone to reach into a woman’s pocket without permission amounted to assault.

‘Perhaps, if I add a wrist loop, it can be carried at all times.’

‘What about theft?’ Constanza asked.

‘What about pickpockets now? Someone inclined to steal isn’t much deterred by a few layers of fabric.’

Mrs Towley and Constanza conceded that, and the ladies spent the rest of the day making bags and sketching ideas to take to a jeweller.

~~~~

Too soon, the gowns were done, the chatelaines were back from the pewtersmith, and the lady’s maids had completed their experimentations of the new hairstyles.

Johanne oversaw the packing up of clothes and accessories with a heaviness unrelated to her soon-to-be old-fashioned clothes.

This is it. I’ve done all I can do. It’s bold, it’s new, it’s well-made. All that’s missing is approval. I’m either riding toward redemption or destruction.

She searched her heart, but found no ill will toward Alois remaining. He’d said something foolish, as he had done a hundred times before. It was such a monumental mistake that he was sure to learn from it. She remembered the anguish and regret on his face. More than anything, she missed him. She wanted to curl up in his arms and have him reassure her that everything would be fine and that this gamble would succeed.

She straightened her spine as the porters hoisted a trunk of gowns on top of Constanza’s carriage.

‘Are you ready?’ Constanza asked, tying a hat over the shiny brown curls Johanne had always envied.

‘I’m as ready as I’ll ever be,’ Johanne sighed. ‘I haven’t much choice. I believe in this idea, I just need to sell it.’

‘I have faith in you.’ Constanza kissed her sister. ‘It will certainly get people talking, and word of mouth is the best way to make something popular.’

‘But what if it’s ridiculed?’ Johanne’s stomach twisted.

‘From what I hear, the future queen is kind and the princess likes to be outrageous. I say, if you can get one of them to approve, you’re halfway there.’

Johanne took a deep breath. Constanza apparently didn’t know that Alois was good friends with the princess. That made her feel better. Lady Tegan might approve, just to appear gracious, and Princess Dahna might as a favour to Alois. The tension in her shoulders eased a little as she climbed into the carriage with her sister and dressmaker.

Johanne arrived with Constanza and Mrs Towley as the lamplighters appeared with their long torches. Alois greeted the ladies at the door, relief and trepidation on his face.

‘You’re back sooner than I expected,’ he said.

‘We sew quickly,’ Constanza said, accepting a hug.

They all went upstairs to change for supper, and Alois cornered Johanne in her dressing room before Zeferra came up from the servants’ quarters.

‘How did it go?’ he asked quietly.

Johanne’s twisted her fingers together, looking into his concerned green eyes. ‘Oh, I… I think I came up with something.’

‘Do you want to show me?’ His voice was husky, heavy with regret and the eagerness to help in any way he could. She hugged him. She truly wasn’t angry anymore, and his guilt added to the weight on her shoulders.

‘No. I took a big chance, and if you don’t like it, I’ll lose my nerve. I don’t have time to start over. His majesty will know by now that I’ve returned.’

Alois tightened his thick arms around her. ‘I have no doubt that it will be a success.’

Zeferra knocked on the dressing room door and called, ‘My lady, are you ready for me?’

‘Yes,’ Johanne called back. She kissed her husband and flapped her hands at him. ‘Get out, I have to dress.’

~~~~

Johanne rose before the sun, nerves preventing her from sleeping even to her usual early hour, and penned a letter to the palace, formally announcing her return and readiness to display her new designs.

She could barely touch her dry roll and strong black tea.

‘You’re going to do great,’ Alois said. ‘You’re skilled and meticulous, all that remains to be seen is a matter of taste.’

‘It was always about taste.’ Johanne cast an eye over her court mantua, visible through the open door of her dressing room.

‘Is it outrageous?’ Alois asked. Johanne hesitated, then nodded. He laughed. ‘Then I guarantee that at least one fashionable lady will love it, and that’s all you need to make a trend.’

It’s not enough for someone to like it, the king has to like it.

~~~~

The summons arrived quickly. She was expected at the palace on the day of the coronation to submit her efforts to Queen Tegan for her approval.

‘There, you see?’ Alois crowed. ‘The queen will judge. So, now it’s actually her burden to bear. They say she will bring a fresh and youthful tone to the monarchy, essentially everything Dahna is supposed to do, but before she gets a chance. There’s a lot of rivalry between them, she’ll probably love a bold new fashion to prove that she’s more fashionable than the princess.’

‘And how do you feel about that?’ Johanne asked.

‘The princess is my friend, and I support her. But I’m not going to get in the middle of a royal war, especially when my wife is the battlefield.’ He kissed the top of her head. ‘I like them both, but I like you more.’

~~~~

In the day nursery, Johanne and Mrs Towley fitted Rosabel for the dress she would wear. She giggled raucously at the cut, and gushed over the patterns on the fabric.

‘Mother, what fine underthings these are!’ she squealed, rubbing the fabric between her dainty fingers. ‘But what will everyone say to see us wearing them like gowns?’

‘Hopefully, they will like it, and they will say, “Lady Brynglass, you are most welcome back at court, and the young Lady Rosabel will not be disgraced and will make a good marriage and she’ll have a wonderful future.” There.’ Johanne stood and surveyed the drape of the fabric. ‘I think that will do, don’t you, Mrs Towley?’

‘Very fine,’ Mrs Towley said, smiling. ‘The lady Rosabel looks like an elegant lady twice her age. You look almost ready to be presented.’ Mrs Towley pinched Rosabel’s cheek. ‘Now, get it off so that we can make the alterations. Mind you don’t snag it.’

Molle helped Rosabel back into her other clothes while Johanne and the dressmaker fixed the changes and folded up the finished dress.

‘Now, you mustn’t say a word, not a word, Rosabel,’ Johanne said sternly. ‘Not to your stepfather, not to the staff, not to anyone not in this room. For good measure, don’t even speak of this to your aunt, Constanza. Only the three of us, do you understand?’

Rosabel nodded and giggled. ‘Ooh, how exciting to hold such a secret. When will we tell?’

‘The showing is in a week’s time, so it’s not too long to wait.’

~~~~

The morning of the coronation, the three ladies and the dressmaker bundled into Constanza’s carriage and made their way to the palace. Gossip on the street was so loud that it filtered through the curtains and followed Johanne all the way up the spiralling streets, making her grateful that Constanza didn’t come to the city often enough for her carriage to be recognisable.

Part of her was disappointed that she would miss the ceremony, but she knew that she’d be too nervous and distracted to really enjoy the moment. It was better that Alois be there to show support for the new queen, and for Johanne to be preparing the fashion show. He would tell her all about it later, after everything was over.

The group of women were greeted at the huge doors of the palace by a couple of guards and a bewigged footman.

‘Right this way, my ladies,’ the footman said, with a bow, inviting them in. He led them through the opulent rooms, followed by a troupe of porters carrying their trunks into a small room lined with royal portraits. ‘You will set up in here, my ladies, and when you are summoned, you will present through this room.’ He opened the door opposite, which led into a circular room with a huge statue of a leaping lion situated on a raised dais in the centre. ‘Select courtiers will take their places along the wall. You will take your turns around the statue, then address Their Majesties the king and queen in their thrones at the opposite end of the room. Queen Tegan will give her pronouncement, then King Bertold will give his. Then you may return to this privy chamber.’

Johanne’s stomach climbed up her throat as he gave the instructions, and she nodded, willing her brain to retain everything he said. She thanked him, and he left, bowing out of the door.

‘All right, then.’ Constanza lifted the lid off one trunk. ‘Shall we begin?’

~~~~

Alois took his carriage later, as midday was approaching, and joined the queue of wealthy people streaming from the Overlook to the palace.

He’d dressed as well as he could, only now starting to feel a little anxious. Johanne had been so nervous. If this failed, it would be his fault. If he’d just kept his mouth shut for once, they might have avoided all of this. They might have been at all of the parties, uncomfortable, but in good standing. One joke from him might have ruined one of her fondest dreams.

Will you learn this time? he scolded himself, scowling at the crowds of people lining the streets, gawking at the wealthy and fabulous.

Johanne, for all of her skill at gardening and sewing and music, wasn’t hugely creative. She was skilled, yes; meticulous, definitely. But creative? He couldn’t remember a time when she’d invented a new flower for an embroidery or played a song not written by someone else, or painted without a reference. She elaborated and perfected, she didn’t really create.

His stomach squirmed, trying to imagine what she’d bring out at the show. Narrower panniers, certainly. Perhaps brighter fabrics, more exotic designs? Perhaps even a butterfly or two, as they had discussed his idea.

It’s all my fault. This couldn’t be worse. She wasn’t made for this, how could she not fail?

The coronation was a grand affair, even moreso than the wedding. There were specially composed symphonies in Lady Tegan’s honour, there were processions, there were gifts bestowed upon the lady from foreign governments. She even had a new crown made for her, rather than an ancient heirloom handed down, which would be housed with the rest of the Crown Jewels for eternity. King Bertold certainly was doing all he could to legitimise her presence on the throne.

The ceremony concluded with an elaborate series of vows that Lady Tegan had to swear to. Alois noted particularly that loyalty to the king above all was distinctly mentioned, and a titter filtered through the crowd. Despite her new crown and her vows and the glittering chatelaine at her side, no one had forgotten that just a few short months ago, she had been the prince’s mistress, and even more recently, another queen had been exiled for her disloyalty. Queen Tegan, to her credit, did not make any movement to suggest that she heard the whispers, but kept her spine and her eyes straight, and her everpresent hint of mirth in place.

She’s a tricky one. We’ll definitely need to be friends. Despite his trepidation, Alois had to admit that he liked her.

The vows concluded and accepted, the hall erupted in cheers as the orchestra swelled and King Bertold led Queen Tegan and the assembled witnesses through the halls to the royal apartments and the circular statue room.

‘Ahh, Lord Brynglass!’ he boomed, beckoning Alois close to him. Alois swallowed the bile climbing his throat. ‘You stand with me, sir, and we’ll see what your lady would prefer in my court.’

‘Come now, you must give me a hint. I’m all aflutter.’ Queen Tegan flashed a dazzling grin and her grey eyes glowed silver in the afternoon light flooding in from the windows.

‘I regret, Your Majesties, that I can’t tell you anything. My wife kept it a secret from me, as well.’

‘That confident, eh?’ the king grumbled.

‘I’m sure she’s proud and wants it to be a surprise. Did she not give you anything, my lord? Not even a colour?’

Careful, Alois.

‘I asked to see it and she said if I didn’t like it, she’d lose her nerve. So I asked if it was outrageous, and she nodded.’

The king harrumphed as a footman stepped out from a door at the opposite end of the room and cleared his throat.

‘Your Royal Highnesses, esteemed lords and ladies- Lady Brynglass.’ He bowed deeply, and the door behind him opened.

~~~~

Alois himself was surprised. Her gown looked like a fancy chemise, fitted tighter to her bosom than her usual undergarments. Her hair was different too, pulled tightly back and circled with a tiny braid. At the back was a cascade of tight, bouncing golden curls.

The room seemed to gasp collectively and the king said, ‘My word!’

Her face was white as the dress she wore and she kept pressing her lips together like she was fighting back tears. Alois stared at her until her eyes found his. He smiled and mouthed the word. ‘beautiful’. Colour rushed back into her face as she pulled on an air of confidence. She took a deep breath, lifted her head, and stepped out into the room.

‘Your Royal Highnesses.’ Johanne’s voice quavered slightly and she curtsied deeply, her skirts fluttering wide to accommodate the movement. ‘Allow me first to offer congratulations on your coronation, Queen Tegan.’

The queen inclined her head, quickly covering the look of shock on her face.

‘Your Grace charged me with designing and modelling a new fashion for court, and I present it to you now. I call it Revivalism, as it recalls the great ancient empires of legend, which are remembered even now for their splendour and magnificence.’

The chamber was silent, every ear hanging on her words as she stepped slowly and deliberately around the statue toward the king and queen.

‘The backbone of this fashion will be the white linen gown: simple, elegant and clean, and may be embellished in infinite variety. Or it may be made of dyed muslin or silks, and thereupon embroidered or embellished further, as far as taste and expense allow.’

A second figure appeared between the velvet curtains. Constanza was dressed in emerald green silk, lavishly embroidered in a diamond pattern, her dark brown hair twisted up like Johanne’s. The ladies of the court ‘oohed’ and ‘ahhed’ at this new apparition with her fashionably dark hair and the fabric, which must have cost a fortune to dye.

Alois choked at the expensive fabric, but recovered, trusting frugal Johanne to have had her reasons or tricks.

Rosabel followed Constanza, dressed in sunny yellow muslin printed with pink flowers. The ladies of the court cooed as she glided around the statue in pink slippers to join her mother and aunt.

‘It is comfortable, yet elegant,’ Johanne said. ‘Simple enough for daily living, yet easily accessorised for a cosy dinner party, holiday ball, or even a day at court.’

‘And for the men?’ the king wheezed, patting the sweat beading on his forehead.

Johanne laughed easily, but with a quiver of nervousness. ‘Your Grace, I can find no fault with your taste. Let the women bear the standards of this court.’

A laugh swept the room and Johanne’s breathing eased.

‘So what did you think?’ Johanne asked Alois as he took her around the courtyard. It was indeed as grand as he’d described it, a marvellous thing to behold. But she was too distracted by reading his face to fully take it in.

‘I think you look beautiful,’ he said simply.

He never said anything simply.

‘Do you like it?’ she pressed.

‘Yes,’ he said, after a pause. ‘Yes, I think I do.’

Johanne slowed and examined Alois’ face. Without the panniers, they could walk much closer together, and it was easier to turn him to face her.

‘No, you don’t. Why?’ Her shoulders fell. ‘What’s wrong with it?’

He chewed his cheek. ‘You and Constanza and Rosabel looked beautiful. However, it does look a bit like you’re…not wearing any clothes.’

‘I was covered!’ Johanne said, exasperated. Perhaps it was a bit unconventional, but she’d explained so many times! ‘All that was exposed more than usual were our arms.’

‘Yes, but your normal clothes are structured and layered and they hide your true shape. In this, with one good breeze, I won’t know any more about you than anyone else.’

He blushed and turned his face away.

Johanne nearly laughed despite her irritation. Here I am, wearing a gown that looks like an elaborate nightgown, and he’s too embarrassed! Not of standing beside me, but of criticising my work.

This was why I couldn’t show you before, she thought gently. I was afraid you’d be honest.

‘I doubt there’s anyone alive who doesn’t know what the female body looks like,’ she said. She couldn’t explain why, but despite the reactions from nearly everyone, including Alois, she actually felt bolder and more confident now.

‘They don’t know what yours looks like,’ he muttered, then shook his head and squeezed her hand. ‘Look, I’m not the man to discuss fashion. It was a surprise, is all. The king was impressed, the queen accepted it, and I am so proud of you. We’ll have to get you a proper new chatelaine, though. We can’t have you wearing that pewter thing around town. People will think I’m neglecting you.’

‘Mm,’ Johanne considered. ‘And having a proper one made looks like you support my efforts.’ She smiled and was glad to see him return it.

‘Shall we go to a jeweller next week and design a real one?’

‘You’re not offended that I stopped wearing the one you gave me?’

‘Fashions change, I understand. But if you’re worried about it not being official, I’d be happy to marry you again.’

~~~~

‘Scandalous new fashion shown at the Royal Palace yesterday!’ A boy cried outside the window, pelting down the street. ‘Lords and ladies aghast at natural lines and looseness. Sources within the palace report that Queen Tegan has accepted the design as a coronation gift and has set her seamstresses to work.’

‘Is that a good or a bad thing, I wonder?’ Johanne mused.

Alois sputtered a laugh behind her. ‘How is “the queen’s accepted and has her seamstresses on the job” a bad thing?’

‘The overall tone was scandal and horror.’ Johanne fiddled with the neckline of her nightgown.

‘They just need to get used to it,’ Alois said, reassuringly.

Constanza decided to stay on for the remainder of the season. She’d already packed enough clothes to stay for months, and her husband would expect her to enjoy herself on a very rare holiday.

After Mrs Towley said her good-byes and set off for home to get back to her business, Alois, Johanne, Constanza, and Rosabel made their way into town. The mood was excited, as though a festival had arrived. News of the fashion circulated, but no mention who the designer was. It was a surreal feeling to be surrounded by people talking about one’s work in total anonymity.

Some people scoffed at the attention-seeking of nobles, others lauded the practicality of more comfortable cuts, while some marvelled at what it would mean for the future of fashion, and others wondered why there needed to be a change in the first place.

‘They never wore court dress,’ Johanne grumbled into a teacup, while the family were taking a break from their shopping. They’d already submitted their design to the silversmith, and would be visiting a fabric merchant after tea. ‘They never had to walk sideways down two flights of stairs or fold into a carriage.’

Alois bit into a berry cake. ‘They don’t understand art, my love.’

‘They’re uncultured and narrow-minded,’ Constanza agreed.

‘They’ve never been glared down by the king,’ Johanne grumbled.

‘Now that,’ Alois said with a sip of tea, ‘is something you get used to.’

~~~~

Days went by, and still, Queen Tegan had yet to appear in public in her new gowns.

‘It doesn’t take this long.’ Johanne wrung her hands together, pacing, after the newsboy passed with a lungful of uneventful updates. ‘I ought to know, I made six! And I didn’t have a team of seamstresses – only myself, my sister, and my dressmaker.’

‘Well, you three are very good,’ Alois said, shuffling through letters in bed. ‘Perhaps you should sew one for her to get things moving.’

‘Would that be presumptuous?’

When Alois didn’t respond, Johanne turned to find him reading a letter written on light blue paper, a crease between his eyes.

‘Another seduction from the Princess?’ Johanne chuckled and pulled the cord to call for Zeferra.

Alois nodded and handed the letter to her. ‘It’s an invitation to a party tonight to celebrate the new fashion. No mantuas allowed.’

Johanne took the perfumed paper and read aloud. ‘You are cordially invited to a party tonight at sundown to usher in a new age of freedom and openness. Ladies, please arrive wearing Her Royal Highness’ new fashions. No mantuas will be allowed past the door.’

‘What do we do?’ Alois asked. ‘We’re supposed to be loyal to the king, but this is a celebration of your work. The queen has accepted the style, but she hasn’t officially endorsed it yet.’

Johanne bit her lip. They would have to tread very carefully.

‘Well, this is just a party. It’s not as though we’re going there instead of the royal wedding or coronation. We don’t have any conflicts that could get us into trouble. Officially. I… think we can risk it.’

Her heart leapt. She’d always liked the idea of Princess Dahna, never having spent much time getting to know her. Even if not the queen, this would technically count as a royal endorsement of her efforts.

~~~~

Royal House, Prince Bertold’s house-in-exile within the city, was brightly lit and raucous when the Greenstalk carriage stopped in front. Johanne kept fluffing the folds of her long mint gown and prodded the crystal hair piece on her head to keep her hands busy.

‘It’s straight, leave it alone.’ Alois held a hand out to her. She gripped his fingers a little too tightly as she climbed out.

A liveried footman helped Johanne and Constanza out of the carriage, just as a man wearing a donkey’s head over an unbuttoned shirt leapt out into the wide crescent-shaped green that this lot of houses shared, darting past them and disappearing into the bushes.

‘Goodness,’ Johanne whispered, clutching the pearls at her throat. What is going on, here?

Alois watched the man disappear, a mixture of confusion and excitement on his face. When he turned back to Johanne, he laughed. ‘Now, this is going to be a party.’

Constanza scoffed and grabbed handfuls of her burgundy skirts as they proceeded to the house.

If it was loud from outside, the party going on indoors roared. The crowd in the packed foyer swelled as a young woman in her underwear climbed onto the upraised hands of a small pack of men, also in their underwear.

Suddenly they all understood—this wasn’t a celebration of the new style—it was a mockery. Johanne turned to leave as another footman approached.

Alois and Constanza tugged her toward the door. ‘Let’s go before anyone sees—’

‘Alois!’ a familiar voice squealed above the crowd.

Princess Dahna skipped toward them, her scarlet chemise and deep blue corset accented by the heavily embroidered pocket tied around her waist and the sparkling tiara in her curly hair.

‘My friends, why you’re completely overdressed!’ She giggled. ‘Well, except my ladies, you’re about right.’

~~~~

For the third time that season, Johanne removed herself from the family, and holed up in her bedroom. Alois couldn’t coax her into food or chocolate and neither Zeferra, Rosabel, nor Constanza could distract her from her gloom.

Alois had a notion of what to do, but Johanne’s disposition prevented him from asking her advice, so he would have to tread as gently as he could, and gamble on himself.

He went to his study and penned the letter. A mere hour passed before a response arrived, and he set out immediately.

Paper streamers and scraps of fabric littered the lawn of Royal House when Alois arrived in the afternoon, servants doing their best to tidy up what they could.

‘Alois!’ Princess Dahna greeted him at the door in a blue dress, fitted at the waist, modest panniers widening her hips. She kissed him on each cheek and ushered him inside.

The foyer was an even bigger mess than the lawn, with overturned furniture and spills of every description on the floor, a positive battalion of maids with mops and brooms going about their work.

‘There’s tea in the morning room.’

Dahna led him to a bright side chamber with an Overlook window at least twice as wide and tall as his own. It was like a whole wall of the room was solid glass.

He was impressed, but he had work to do.

‘I’ve a mind not to forgive you,’ Dahna said, sinking into her chair by the window and pouring from her ornate porcelain teapot. ‘You insulted me quite seriously, last night.’

‘Well, that’s what I came about. Thank you,’ Alois said as the princess poured him a cup, as well. He straightened his spine and took a sip to cover how hard he was thinking. If he got this right, he could patch the wound between Dahna and Johanne, pave the way for the fashion to be accepted, and do it without damaging his own relationship with the princess. ‘We were surprised by the tone of the party last night.’

Dahna giggled. ‘Oh, you should have seen the one the day of the coronation! I made a joke about her getting wed in her underthings, but I never expected it to be true!’

‘But surely, a woman as educated and cultured as you would recognise the reference.’ Alois laid emphasis on the compliments as he spoke. ‘It was inspired by ancient fashion, from a time where the simplicity of the clothing complemented the complexity of the philosophies, while at the same time providing an elegant foundation for ladies to express themselves. Not to mention that by removing literal weight from women and granting them greater freedom of movement, it would liberate them in a way to pursue more lively endeavours. Free the body, free the mind. You know the ancient world had a great many female philosophers and poets.’

Dahna rolled her eyes. ‘I suppose you were at the show, of course you were. It’s a lovely idea, but the thing still looks like a shift. And I must say, these skirts never stopped me from thinking.’

Here we go. ‘Well, Johanne’s idea was that people would see the parallels between the classical world and the advancements in science and philosophy we are making today, and take inspiration from that.’

The smug expression faded from Dahna’s face. ‘Johanne’s idea.’

Alois nodded slowly. Dahna slumped against the back of her chair and put her fingertips to her mouth.

‘I never heard who designed the style, only what it looked like.’

You’ve got her shield down, take the shot.

‘Wouldn’t you be more comfortable without all the wood and whalebone and layers?’ Alois asked and she scoffed.

‘Yes, but-‘

‘The only thing stopping that being acceptable again is public perception. And all it takes to shift public perception is fashionable people saying it’s acceptable. Tell me, Princess- wouldn’t you like to run around in your shift all day?’

Dahna barked a laugh and shoved a whole cream puff into her mouth. ‘You should be in politics.’

Alois laughed, too. ‘Selling dresses to women is a specific skill.’

Dahna lowered her voice. ‘I bet it’s just as easy for you to get them out of them.’

‘Well, I’d better get going,’ Alois said, standing. ‘Johanne will be crawling out of her shame den soon, if only to forage.’

Dahna rose as well, and kissed him again on each cheek, the regret still hiding in her brown eyes.

‘Do come to at least one of my parties this summer, won’t you? I’d love to introduce you to my friends. My husband will be king soon enough, you know, and it would help you to be one of his friends.’

‘I’m doing my best,’ Alois said, picking a path to the front door. ‘It’s not easy juggling two courts and a fashion revolution.’

Prince Bertold’s birthday fell on the last day of the summer, when the winds off the ocean began to bite and ship captains squinted up at the grey clouds and debated how many voyages they could risk before the storms grew too dangerous. The lavish party at the palace, and smaller parties in honour, traditionally marked the end of the season.

The household servants had nearly finished packing the house for the final time when a scented letter on blue paper arrived for Johanne.

‘What does she say?’ Alois asked, as she read the letter over her morning hot chocolate. She tossed it at him.

‘I’m not going.’

‘Her Royal Highness, Princess Dahna of Viehland and Inchiajua cordially requests the presence of Lord and Lady Brynglass for the birthday celebration of His Royal Highness Prince Bertold of Viehland, at their residence- Johanne, we have to go. It’s the last official event of the season.’

‘I’m not going,’ Johanne said again, a hard finality to her voice. ‘We’re almost done packing and I’ve had enough of being mocked. You may go, if you like, but I’d rather not end my first season as I began it.’

Guilt twisted Alois’ face as he gazed back down at the letter.

‘I have to go. It’s Dahna’s party, the last day to do it, and the prince will be king, eventually.’

Johanne pulled out another letter and slit it open. She didn’t look up when he stood to answer the princess’ letter.

~~~~

That afternoon, another invitation arrived from Royal House. This time, it was addressed only to Alois, and bore only a simple designation without the official flourish of a royal summons.

Alois,

I was pleased to receive your answer, but I noticed that you didn’t include your charming wife. Was that an accidental omission, or is she still hurt about what happened last time? Either way, it would mean so much to me if she would come, at least to give me a chance to apologise.

Your royal friend,

Princess Dahna

‘Shit,’ Alois whispered. She noticed. Of course she did.

Johanne didn’t ask about the princess’ letter, she knew better by now than to suspect something more between them, but what would he say if she did ask casually? Should he tell her that Dahna wanted to see her specifically, or should he go to the party alone and deal with the princess himself?

Hadn’t she asked him to stop helping? But hadn’t she also made it clear that she didn’t want to go?

He crossed the hall, set the letter on the edge of her dressing table and tapped it, before leaving and heading down to the morning room.

~~~~

Johanne’s eyes slid to the new letter, written in educated handwriting on blue paper. The fragrance was unmistakable.

She rolled her eyes. She didn’t need to read every private letter to soothe her jealousy.

But still, he’d left it there, on the end of the table pointedly, not just out in the open somewhere at random.

‘I believe you, you fool,’ she huffed, picking it up.

-it would mean so much to me if she would come…chance to apologise.

Johanne sighed heavily. How could she refuse? She felt heavy, like her legs wouldn’t support her if she tried to stand. She really didn’t want to go to that party, really didn’t want to face a room full of people in their underthings, mocking the most difficult thing she’d ever had to do.

Queen Tegan still hadn’t officially adopted the fashion, whatever she said, and Dahna had openly mocked it once before.

But this was an order, politely and beautiful written. She had no choice but to go, and he had no choice but to put this in her hands, that’s why he left it. He couldn’t face telling her.

She found him in the morning room and sat in one of the upholstered chairs facing the Overlook window.

‘You know her better than I do,’ she said. ‘Is it like her to carry a joke this far?’

Alois’ green eyes were troubled. ‘She can be childish, immature, dramatic. But I don’t think she’s cruel. I think she didn’t think it through last time, and didn’t realise how much it would hurt. I want to believe that she truly wants to apologise.’

Johanne took a deep breath and looked down at the letter that hadn’t been written for her eyes.

‘Then I’ll go.’

~~~~

‘What will I wear?’ Johanne moaned to Zeferra in her dressing room. ‘If I wear the old style, it’ll seem like I don’t have confidence in my design, but if I’m the only one in my style, I’ll look a fool.’

‘I would suggest you lead with confidence, my lady,’ Zeferra said, brushing Johanne’s hair. ‘You designed the style for the king, and the queen has at least verbally accepted it. Why should you be embarrassed? If others have not adopted it, behave as though they are the ones clinging to outdated fashions.’

‘Oh, I envy your bravery, Zeferra,’ Johanne said. ‘To walk into a room of people laughing at you and act as though they are the ones who stand out. What a marvellous talent.’

‘It’s true, though. It is the current court fashion, the king said so himself.’

‘I suppose that’s true. Well, then, let’s go with the light blue. No one has seen that one yet, it will give them something to talk about.’

The blue gown was fitted like the others of her new design, with flowers all over it, picked out in tiny clear glass beads and delicate lace along the neckline, sleeves, and waistband. She pinned her new chatelaine brooch to her bodice as she slipped flat shoes on over her silk stockings.

‘You look beautiful,’ Alois said, nodding at the addition.

Johanne took a deep breath and grabbed her tasselled bag.

‘All right, I’m ready.’

Royal House was so near to Number Seven that they spent more time in the queue of waiting carriages than actually travelling there, but it wasn’t acceptable to walk in evening clothes, so they waited patiently until they arrived at the door.

Constanza hadn’t been formally invited, but Johanne wanted her there for moral support.

Loud music already poured from inside, carried by the warm candle light and smells of tobacco smoke and sweet food.

Johanne reached for Alois’ hand and he squeezed her fingers. Her spine straightened a little as the footman opened the carriage door.

Another footman admitted them up to the first floor ballroom, at least twice the size of their own at Number Seven.

‘Lord and Lady Brynglass, and Lady Constanza Troi,’ he shouted to the room, and a dozen heads turned. A few ladies had made an attempt at Johanne’s fashion, though they’d only gone so far as to embellish what had clearly previously been their underthings. Most were still wearing panniers and stiff corsets. Some snickered, some curtsied, and Johanne’s face burned.

‘Don’t look away,’ Constanza muttered, holding her head high and curtsying deeply, pulling her white skirt wide.

‘A glass of punch?’ Alois whispered, nodding at the table laden with refreshments.

‘Please.’ Johanne nodded with as much dignity as she could muster, struggling to keep her head high.

They’re behind the fashion, she reminded herself in Zeferra’s voice. I’m the tastemaker here.

Alois flagged a passing servant and took two glass goblets of spiced wine. Johanne sipped hers, feeling the alcohol settle into her shoulders and soften the sharp sting of humiliation.

‘This wasn’t a mistake,’ Alois whispered as the gawkers turned back to their previous business. ‘We haven’t seen Dahna yet. And you’re the best dressed here. Some of these women just dressed up their nightgowns.’

‘It’s satire, Alois,’ Johanne hissed. ‘I actually made an effort, that’s the joke.’

‘Not yet. Not until we’ve seen the princess. The joke may be on them.’

Johanne tried not to gulp her punch, but the temptation was strong.

Constanza spotted someone she knew by the grand window and glided away, whispering a promise to set the lady straight.

‘Captain Sulat!’ The footman shouted, and Johanne and Alois both whirled around. Sulat strode into the room and swiped a bowl of punch from a passing server, brazenly dressed in her customary trousers and fitted shirt.

Whispers exploded like a bundle of fireworks as Sulat made her way toward the Greenstalk couple.

‘And I thought I caused a stir,’ Johanne said, giving Sulat a shallow shoulder hug.

‘You get used to being gawked at.’ Sulat shrugged. ‘I didn’t want to come at all, but she threatened me.’

‘She knows her audience,’ Alois muttered and turned so that only the two women could hear him. ‘You got back quickly. I assume your voyage was a success.’

‘Quite uneventful.’ Sulat sipped her drink, her brown eyes rolling toward Johanne.

‘She knows,’ Alois whispered. ‘But she’s the only one. The prince may know some day, if it’s good for us.’

Sulat nodded.

The doorman cleared his throat loudly and the music stopped. Everyone turned to face the door. Constanza reappeared beside Johanne and slipped a soft hand into hers.

‘His Royal Highness, Prince Bertold, and Her Royal Highness, Princess Dahna.’

Prince Bertold and Princess Dahna stood arm-in-arm in the doorway. He was dressed as fashionably and any man in the room, but she wore a dress impeccably constructed from Johanne’s design, and not a repurposed shift. It hung in three long tiers in a bright purple silk gauze, edged in gold silk embroidery and pearls, and floated around her when she moved. Her braided hair coiled around feathers and hairpieces and ended in a puff of curls at the back of her head.

A gasp circled the room again as Princess Dahna parted the crowd. She held out her bangled arms to Johanne and pulled her in.

‘Please accept my sincerest apologies, Lady Brynglass. I was rash, and it was unkind.’ She twirled in the middle of the room. ‘Do you approve of my efforts?’

Johanne sputtered a laugh around the tears fighting to get out of her. ‘I am honoured, Your Royal Highness.’

‘The honour is mine.’ Dahna said, a wicked grin spreading across her face. ‘After all, I hear that Queen Tegan hasn’t worn it yet, which makes me the first.’

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