Authors: Tansy Rayner Roberts
‘Don’t you start,’ Macready growled. ‘He’s not worth the mourning.’
‘Didn’t say he was,’ Crane shot back, defensive.
‘I need to see Ashiol,’ said Kelpie. ‘Is he…will he be all right?’
Crane shrugged. ‘He started raving when the animor hit him. Tore the Duchessa’s dress half off in the middle of the Floralia parade, accused her of being in league with the Creature Court.’
Macready grinned at the odd picture this conjured up. ‘I’d have liked to see that.’
‘The whole city thinks he’s a madman.’ Crane yawned, exhausted. ‘Saints, he is a madman. Worse than ever. I’ve had nearly two hours of his ranting. I came out here to give my ears some peace.’
‘Let me through to him,’ said Kelpie. ‘Now, Crane.’
‘Fine.’ The young man moved away from the door. ‘Just prepare yourself, that’s all. He’s not at his best. He was tearing up the room, scratching the bedding to bits and flinging furniture around. We may have to pay the innkeeper extra.’
‘All’s quiet now,’ said Macready. ‘Mayhap he’s knocked himself unconscious.’
‘We can only hope,’ muttered Crane.
Kelpie flung open the door. Macready and Crane peered around her, preparing to duck back out if anything large was flung their way.
The place was a wreck, not least because the window was open and four dozen cats of various breeds had let themselves into the room that had once housed their Lord and master. The ripped mattress now served as a nest, while other cats crouched upon the flat spaces on and around the upturned chairs and table.
‘Which ones are him then?’ Macready asked, counting the black cats among the mass of many.
‘None of them,’ Kelpie said in disgust. ‘Crane, you
‘You didn’t hear him,’ Crane complained. ‘It was like being trapped in a room with three Islandsers who all want you to marry their ugly sister.’
‘Charming cultural stereotype, but I take your point,’ said Macready.
‘Five years of animor all in one hit and you let him escape,’ groaned Kelpie.
‘What was I supposed to do—tie him to the bed?’ asked Crane. ‘If all three of us were in here sitting on top of him, he could still leave any time he wanted to.’
‘You didn’t have to make it so easy for him.’
Macready ignored their bickering. He spotted a fallen pink rose among a pile of leggy kittens and grabbed it. ‘I wouldn’t have picked our Ashiol for wearing a Floralia garland.’
‘Are you kidding?’ said Crane. ‘You should have seen him primped up as the Spring Consort—all white satin and ribbons. That one’s from the Duchessa’s dress.’
‘The one he ripped down the middle?’
‘Aye. He was fixated on that gown of hers, kept saying that the dressmaker was a King, or in league with the
Creature Court.’ Crane looked at the rose. ‘You don’t think he was right?’
Macready pressed his lips together. ‘I cannot see any of our Lords and Court going to the trouble to make up a frock for the daylight Duchessa, can you?’
‘Did I mention that he was paranoid and raving?’
‘We have to find him,’ said Kelpie. ‘The Arches isn’t home to him any more. If he’s been staying at the Palazzo, maybe he’d go back there.’
‘Cousin or no cousin,’ said Crane, ‘the lictors are after him for assaulting the Duchessa. They’ll have alerted the militia by now, and if they see him they’ll arrest him or lock him up as a lunatic. He’s not so far gone that he wouldn’t know that.’
Macready held up the limp pink rose. ‘I don’t suppose he had more of these on his person?’
‘He had a whole panel from the dress,’ said Crane. ‘Wouldn’t let go of it—I’m surprised he let this one fall.’
‘Our man Ashiol had a keen nose for tracking, did he not? With a handful of that dress in his paw, is it not likely he could track down the person who made it?’
‘Kings,’ Kelpie said in disgust. ‘They always have to do things the hard way. It’ll take him most of the day to track the source across the city.’
‘So,’ said Macready, ‘that gives us most of the day to locate our man before he terrifies some poor dressmaker half to death. It’s a while since we’ve had such a noble mission, is it not?’
t was late. Velody had been out of sorts all day, snappish and tired. Rhian was quiet and distant. Delphine was hells knew where in her best dancing dress, living the high life as hard as she could.
‘I’m glad I wasn’t there,’ said Rhian, staring into the fireplace. ‘At the parade,’ she added, as if Velody might not know exactly what she was referring to.
‘I’m glad of that too,’ said Velody, setting aside a panel of embroidery. She had been trying very hard not to think about the events of that morning. ‘Have you sent your order in for tomorrow’s hawthorn blossom?’ she asked, for something innocuous to say.
Rhian nodded. ‘Sheelagh’s a good worker, she’s getting better at picking the good blooms from the bad.’
‘It must be hard, making do with what she brings you.’ Velody knew she was in dangerous territory, but couldn’t help continuing. ‘You used to be such a perfectionist, waiting for the boats to come up the river every day an hour before dawn. Choosing your flowers one by one, harassing the boatmen until they learned to keep their best stuff aside for you just so they wouldn’t have to surrender to your nagging and nitpicking.’
Rhian shrugged, trying to pretend she didn’t care. ‘I save time by sending one of the demmes instead. One flower’s as good as another when they’re falling off someone’s bedraggled festival garland.’
‘You don’t mean that,’ Velody blurted out. ‘Sorry. I’ll shut up.’
‘You must be impatient with me.’
‘No,’ said Velody, furious with herself. She slid from her own armchair to kneel at Rhian’s feet and took her hand, remembering how many months had passed before even such a simple gesture of affection had been possible.
Whatever had happened to Rhian that Lupercalia—and she had still never told them, not in words spoken aloud—it had left its mark. She had tried at first to act as if all was well, but it grew harder and harder for her to step outside the house…and soon Delphine and Velody had got into the habit of making it easy for her to stay here, where she felt safe. They had closed the shop. They did not allow men over their threshold. It seemed to help. Eventually Rhian no longer shied to their touch, though it still cost her effort to allow that closeness.
‘Don’t listen to me,’ said Velody now. ‘I’m irritable. You know we’d do anything to protect you. We just…wish you could be well again. Yourself.’
‘I am well,’ Rhian said. ‘I’m content. I’m doing fine.’
Velody rocked back on her heels. ‘I hate that they’re still winning. Every time you want to go out of the house and can’t, it means they’re still hurting you. They shouldn’t be allowed to do that. You’re not getting better, and it’s not fair.’
Rhian shrugged. ‘Nothing’s fair, not really. I don’t have a bad life.’
You don’t have a life at all
, Velody thought, but she was restrained enough (finally, finally!) to drop the subject.
After Rhian had gone to bed, barring her door and window with heavy bolts for the nox, Velody sat up for a while, straining her eyes under a candle lamp on the
kitchen table as she read the latest newspaper serial,
The Crimson Castellano
. The tale was a swashbuckler about a masked highwayman—a nobleman in disguise, of course—and his doomed love for a lesbian patrol sergeant named Harriet, who was determined to bring him down at all costs. It was a stupid story—Delphine adored this kind of trash—but Velody was trying to fill her brain with something, anything, other than the recurring image of the mad Ducomte screaming as his scars peeled off his face.
Now she came to think of it, that was a gruesome enough scene to be worthy of
The Crimson Castellano
. Perhaps she should pen a few lurid tales about the double life of a scarred, mad Ducomte and make her fortune. It would have to be under a pseudonym, of course, so that the Duchessa never discovered that her new dressmaker was slandering her cousin in print.
How many days before the customary note of courtesy from the Duchessa arrived, remarking on how the dress had been received and—hope of all hopes!—ordering another? How diplomatically might it be phrased?
The rose gown was a great success until a hysterical family member ripped pieces off it before the crowd. Please consider making me another for the Lemuria.
Velody’s eyes were tired. She blew out the lamp and checked that the kitchen door—unbarred against Delphine’s return—was at least latched securely. Then she stepped into the workshop to quench the coals. With so many scraps of satin ribbon and other flammable fabrics around, they never let the contents of the workroom grate burn through the nox.
A man sat in Delphine’s armchair, illuminated only by the gleaming coals in the hearth. Velody stared at the male shape, her heart speeding up. Her first thought was of Rhian.
‘We don’t receive men in this house. The shop is no longer open to the public,’ she found herself saying in a stiff little voice.
He turned his head towards her, and her mouth went dry. It was the Ducomte, that insane Ashiol Xandelian who had ripped his cousin’s dress open at a public parade, then escaped over the rooftops.
‘So,’ he said in a low, rich voice, ‘are you the dressmaker, or do I need to wait for your friends?’
Oh, Rhian, don’t wake up
. Velody’s eyes flicked to the shop door, which was triple bolted and chained as always. They only ever used the kitchen door now, and Velody herself had been sitting beside that for an hour or more.
‘How did you get in?’ she rasped through her closed throat. Her voice didn’t sound like it belonged to her.
There were shapes moving outside the wide shop windows—cats, rubbing up against the glass, purring and mewing and catting to get in. A lone ginger moggy—a neighbourhood tom that Velody vaguely remembered Delphine leaving scraps out for—was inside and rubbing at the intruder’s ankles, purring like a steam engine.
The Ducomte uncurled from the chair, an imposing figure as he stood against the soft light of the dying fire. He held out something that Velody barely recognised at first, a scrap of silk and mesh and embroidered ribbon with a few glum petals and stalks still clinging to it. In the pale bronze light, it was hard to tell that it was supposed to be pink.
She stared at him, suddenly furious. ‘Why did you have to ruin that dress?’
He laughed, and the sound of it hummed under her skin. ‘Sit down,’ he said, almost like the polite gentleman he was trained to be. ‘We need to talk.’
It occurred to Velody—a strange, sourceless thought—that he had not stood to intimidate her, but because a lady had entered the room. He would sit again if she did. The thought of sinking into the other chair by the fire terrified her. She reached out to the shelves where she kept her tools in careful order and located a pair of sharp shears by touch alone.
The Ducomte lifted his brow a little at the weapon, but gestured to the seat opposite him. Velody climbed into the chair like a tense animal, her feet coiled under her to spring and flee at any moment, the shears tightly gripped in one hand. ‘What do you want?’
‘I want to know whose hands made the dress,’ he said in a low, almost charming growl. ‘I think it was you, but perhaps not only you?’
Velody was tempted to lie, to say that only her hands had touched the gown, but she had an awful feeling that perhaps he could smell a lie.
‘There were three of us,’ she said. ‘I designed it and made the basic garment, the others stitched on the ribbons and wound in the roses.’
‘Three of you,’ he said with something like a smile. ‘Only one of you is a King though. Which is male—the ribboner or the florister?’
Velody almost laughed in surprise, but the intensity of his gaze told her he was serious. ‘None of us. We’re all demoiselles. I don’t think any male hands have touched the dress except for the courier’s. And yours.’
He tilted his head to one side. ‘You saw my little show today.’
He held out the sad little scrap of pink fabric. ‘Did it hurt you when I ripped this from her body?’
‘Yes,’ said Velody. She gripped the shears so hard that the little curved handles bit into the softest part of her palm.
‘Where is the King you are hiding?’
‘I don’t know any Kings.’
The term made no sense to her—Aufleur had always been a city of Ducs and Duchessas. There were Kings and Queens in fairytales—particularly those of Islandser lore—and some of the festival rituals, but she had never heard the word used of actual people.
‘He may not know he is a King. There have been sleepers before, who rose through the ranks without
tasting the power they held, who quenched the dead without knowing what they did. It bleeds into everything he makes, everything he touches.’ The Ducomte’s eyes flicked around the room. ‘Where are you hiding him, this King of yours?’
‘There are no men here,’ she said again. What if he tried to search the place? If he didn’t believe her now, what could she possibly say to convince him that she told the truth? ‘I told you, we don’t allow men in the house. Rhian—my friend is afraid of them. You have to go.’
‘A pretty story,’ he said, dismissing it as irrelevant. ‘Is your friend home? Perhaps I should ask her.’
‘No!’ Velody sat up angrily, glaring at him. ‘You won’t speak to her, you won’t touch her. I won’t allow it.’
The Ducomte moved like a cat in a long, sleek leap that had him on top of her, his body covering hers in the armchair. Velody jabbed the shears upwards, but he grabbed her hand and twisted it hard, removing the weapon and tossing it to the floor in a clatter. His face was close to hers, his body pressing her forcefully into the chair.
‘You won’t allow? I am a Creature King. I do what I like.’ He was so close that he purred the words into her skin.
He smelled of cat fur and wood oil and tavern smoke. Velody willed herself not to panic, not to move, not to give him any reason to hurt her.
This is how Rhian felt
, she thought desperately.
This is how she feels all the time
‘If you are a King,’ Velody whispered, ‘why do you need another?’
The Ducomte smiled down at her as if she had said something clever. ‘Garnet’s dead. If I can’t find another King, they’ll make me be the monster. I can’t do it. I don’t want to do it. I’ll make a worse monster than he ever did. But the dress—the dress was made by a King, and I don’t make dresses, so someone is lying to me.’ He arched his back, leaning away from her even as his deep, dark eyes roamed her face. ‘Do you
me to be the monster?’
Did he realise he was speaking gibberish, that his words meant nothing to her? ‘I don’t want anyone to be a monster,’ said Velody. ‘Why does anyone have to be the monster?’
The Ducomte crowed like a rooster, bouncing back and away from her. On his feet, he paced the room smartly, round and round, his boots slapping the floor. He spoke rapidly, as if the ideas were coming too fast for his mouth to keep up with.
‘There’s always a monster—lots of monsters, in truth, but the Power and Majesty has the sharpest teeth and the sharpest bite. Ortheus was the great bear, thunder and fur and pain, and others came close—came close, but none of them were monster enough. Tasha wanted one of her boys to be King, but she over-reached herself there, and then—and then, and then—and then there was Garnet, the bright-eyed boy, the hardest, fastest monster of them all.’ He whirled on Velody, a strange intensity in his face. ‘I hope your King is a better monster than Garnet. For all of our sakes.’
It was making no sense, and his speech was such a tumble that Velody wasn’t even sure she was getting all the words.
Garnets, he talked about garnets in the parade, and that does sound familiar, like something I dreamed once…is Garnet a person?
‘Where did your scars go?’ she asked.
‘Saw them, did you?’ replied the Ducomte. ‘What a spectacle—a whole parade to witness Garnet’s last little joke. He carved them into me, and then he took them away when he gave me my soul back. Damned fool never could make up his mind.’ He snapped his fingers so quickly that Velody jumped. ‘Did he make anything else?’
‘Your tailor King, the dressmaker boy you’re hiding under your skirts.’ The Ducomte flung open a cupboard and started rummaging inside. ‘What else did he make?’
Velody said nothing, afraid of angering him further.
Truth wasn’t helping—but what was the right kind of lie to make him leave?
‘Aha!’ The Ducomte found the chest in the corner and threw it open. It was full of clothing that she had never sold, a few half-made patterns jumbled up with fully finished garments. He leaned over and buried his arms in the chest, embracing the fabrics. ‘Marvellous. I can feel him here in every stitch. A rare gift, something made by a King. You have such a wealth of it.’ He turned and stared over his shoulder at Velody. ‘He must love you, or trust you, very much.’
‘I made them,’ she said quietly. ‘Those are mine.’
The Ducomte looked intently at her. ‘You lie very well. I like you anyway. Can I have this?’ He was holding a half-finished shirt of black cotton, the collar and cuffs not yet attached, the hem trailing threads.
‘If you like,’ said Velody. She hadn’t finished that piece because Delphine had dripped candlewax on it and left a mark.
Take anything in this house that you want as long as you do not set foot on those stairs.
The Ducomte grinned at her with all his teeth and unpeeled his limp white festival tunic, buttoning on the black garment instead. It suited him, although the white trousers now looked even more hopelessly out of place.
‘There are breeches in all sizes in that trunk,’ she volunteered, pointing to her samples chest in the far corner of the workshop. She hadn’t taken on a male client in the last year, preferring to work with female customers for Rhian’s sake.
The mad Ducomte was quite delighted with this treasure trove, examining and dismissing a dozen pairs before he found the breeches he liked, black like the shirt and close enough to his size. Velody winced when she saw they were the one pair made of leather—expensive stuff from a failed experiment in theatrical costuming. She had planned to re-use the material. Still, if it kept him calm…