Nearly six months before Catharine Haggerty's mysterious disappearance, on an afternoon where Mr. Bartleby had gone and she was the only one left to run the shop, a woman with silver eyes and a gust of wind at her back threw open the door and proclaimed, loudly, that she wanted a dress.
Catharine didn't notice the woman's eyes; she was too busy flinching as the wind blew leaves around the shop, some fluttering in her face. The hanging sign outside, the one that said in gold-painted letters, Bartleby's Befpoke Tayloring And Fashion, clanged against the wall from the wind. Despite this, Catharine still said, almost automatically, "Of course, ma'am. Would you like to look at the ones set out already, or would you prefer a custom order?"
"What is that?" the woman snapped, as though offended Catharine should say something she didn't understand. "Explain it to me."
Catharine didn't miss a beat. Country folk often didn't know how proper city tailoring worked. "As you can see, we have several choices of dress that have already been made. You can choose one of those, and I can have it fitted for you, or you can look through this book here," Catharine gestured to the thick book at the counter, "and select styles from there to be combined into your desired dress. If you have ideas for alterations, or would like our master tailor to design something new, that is also available, possibly at extra cost."
"I want something made for me," the woman said, sneering at the displayed dresses as though she were speaking to them. "Me and only me. Can you do that?"
"Of course," said Catharine. She opened the book to the ladies' section and gestured for the woman to move closer.
"Here is our selection of casual wear. If you'd like something more formal, it begins on page. . . "
Catharine rattled off the usual instructions and explanations, managing to answer the woman's questions without needing to listen too closely. Instead, she took in the woman herself.
At first glance, there was nothing remarkable about her, and Catharine's eyes were drawn immediately to her clothing. The woman's dress was simple, and it looked homespun and worn from use, torn and dirty and stained-- which wasn't as common as it used to be in the city, but wasn't uncommon enough to be odd; many rural families moved to the city and found their hand-me-down farm wear suddenly lacking.
What was odd was that the woman was barefoot.
"Would you like boots as well?" Catharine said.
The woman made a face. "I'll not go that far, yet," she said. "Can you put moonlight in my dress?"
Catharine blinked. "Moonlight?"
"Yes," the woman said. She began pointing at different images in the book. "This neck, with these sleeves, and this length, but also with material made of light."
"We offer silk," Catharine said.
The woman made a dissatisfied noise, but nodded. "And what about dew drops? I want my dress to glisten with dew drops."
"Spangles," said Catharine. "Something like these?" She went and showed the woman examples from the display dresses.
After a moment's consideration, the woman nodded.
The next length of time found the conversation nearly repeating itself. The woman would ask for some impossible or ludicrous alteration, and Catharine would find a reasonable replacement. The dress must glow like cave mushrooms, or fireflies. It should sparkle like broken glass. It should make all who see it tremble in envy and awe.
"Ma'am," Catharine said at one point. "It's a dress."
Eventually they settled on this: a silvery, silk dress fit for formal events-- but not a gown-- with a black bodice embroidered with white stars, and all littered with mother of pearl spangles to catch the light. The amount of work that would go into the embroidery alone, much less the spangles, told Catharine that this would be an intensive and expensive order, but never once did the thought that the woman couldn't pay, or that this was all an elaborate joke ever cross her mind.
Even if the thought had crossed her mind, Catharine might've ignored it. Despite a lifetime of needlework, she was only a working tailor, new to the shop and relegated mostly to simple seaming while learning the finer details of the trade. She was not yet permitted to finish orders, nor cut without the watchful eye of either Mr. Collins, the foreman tailor, or Mr. Bartleby himself monitoring her, but recently allowed to take measurements and recommend designs. As such, she jumped at the opportunity to aid the woman; finally, a chance to do real tailoring!
Once the design was done, Catharine went to find a stool to stand on, and the measuring began. In contrast to the designing of the dress, which seemed to Catharine to take ages, it didn't take long to get the woman's measurements. Catherine half-expected someone to interrupt, for her employer to return, or other customers to arrive, but nobody entered the shop while the woman was there.
Finally, the fitting was complete. Catharine noted down the information in the orders booklet and said,
"What name should I put down for the order? What address for delivery?"
The woman looked at her coldly. "You will not have my name. You may write that Lady Callista of the Silver Glades expects this dress delivered to the crossroads north of here, where the bridge meets the river under the shadow of the oak."
Catharine wrote the instruction, then frowned at her own writing.
"That's a bit unusual," she began. But it was only then, as she looked up and saw the woman looking down at her imperiously, that Catharine noticed the way her eyes shone, reflective like silvered glass. And, as though that revelation had been the lock holding back others, suddenly Catharine saw the woman. She saw how tall she was-- head and shoulders taller than any man Catharine had met. She saw the woman's unnatural thinness, and the point of her ears, and the sharpness of her teeth. The air around her shimmered, flickering with flecks of green and gold that rapidly disappeared when Catherine looked at them directly.
"What?" Lady Callista said.
Catharine blinked, then shakily held out the booklet. "Sign here, please," she said. Despite the tremor in her hands, her voice remained level.
Lady Callista signed the paper by drawing an image of a leaf.
"How long will it take to make the dress?" she said. "The next Gathering is at the full moon."
"With the amount of embroidery, it will take at least three months, and then we'd still need to do another fitting--"
Lady Callista waved her hand, and Catharine's skin suddenly felt hot, as though she'd caught an immediate and powerful fever.
"I expect it in a fortnight," Callista said, turning to go. "You will make it happen."
The door flew open without anyone touching it, and the lady Callista was gone in a gust of wind and a flutter of leaves. Outside, the afternoon sun shone on, as though no time at all had passed, and a moment later, Mr. Bartleby and Mr. Collins came in, returned from the draper's shop and carrying boxes of materials. Catharine moved to help them unload the cart, her hands still shaking, her mind whirring.
By the time all the boxes had been brought in, and all the materials put away, Catharine had managed to gather the courage to tell Mr. Bartleby about the unusual woman and her dress order. But when she opened her mouth, no words would come out. Each time she tried to start-- a strange woman came today or there's a dress order for-- or while you were gone-- And each time, the words died in her throat, and she could not speak. When Mr. Collins checked the orders booklet, he did not comment on the leaf signature, nor did he seem to see the order at all.
"Slow day?" he said instead.
Catharine could only nod.
* * * * *
Catharine couldn't sleep that night.
She tossed and turned in the cot in the Bartleby family spare room and found herself filled with a fierce energy, a need to do. Quietly as she could, she crept out of bed and snuck downstairs to the shop proper. Like many owners of small businesses, the Bartleby family lived in quarters above their store, and as an apprentice Catharine was entitled to a room there as well as per her contract. She went down the stairs into the shopfront, and then from there went to the workshop in the back.
There, but the soft light of candles and bright moonlight, Catharine began to work on Lady Callista's dress.
* * * * *
For the next seven days, Catharine did not sleep. This, she knew, ought to have had some adverse effect on her health. She ought to have been exhausted, perhaps even collapsed or, at the very least, have fallen asleep during daylight hours. But instead, she found herself completing her work with renewed vigor. She hemmed and cut button holes and assisted Mr. Collins in the usual way, but all the while, her mind burned with the image of Lady Callista's dress.
Every spare moment found her retreating to the corner of the workshop where the silver dress was to continue her work. Neither Mr. Bartleby nor Mr. Collins seemed to notice the dress, nor notice her working on it. As soon as she stopped, they would call upon her at once to see to her duties, but when she was actively making the dress, it was as though they had forgotten about her existence entirely.
At the end of the day, when the shop was locked up and the two men retreated to their homes, Catharine was left with full reign over the workshop without comment from either of the men. There, she stayed well into the early hours of the morning, stitching by candlelight.
Catharine was no fool; Even with the long hours she put in, there was no way the dress could be completed within the two weeks the woman had asked. And yet, every night, when Catharine stood back from her work to see how much had been done, she found that she had made remarkable progress, as through there had been a whole team of tailors working rather than just herself.
On the seventh evening of the seventh day, when the dress was near completion, the frantic energy abruptly left her. Catharine managed to drag herself to her room before collapsing in bed, and she slept a deep and dreamless sleep.
When she woke, Mr. Collins informed her that two days had passed.
"Why didn't you wake me?" Catharine said.
Mr. Collins blinked, then frowned. "I don't know," he said. "It didn't occur to us. Well, no matter. Don't stand there staring," He passed her a bundle of cloth. "You've work to do. Those all need button holes cut in along the markings."
Catharine took the cloth and headed for an empty space at the workbench.
In the corner of the workshop, Lady Callista's dress rested on the dummy, done enough now that Catharine could easily finish the last touching up before the delivery date and still do her normal duties without the aid of the strange magic that had overcome her.
Just a few more days, Catharine thought. A few more days, and this will all be over.
* * * * *
Finally, the dress was done, and time was up.
That evening, Catharine took the completed dress from the dummy, wrapped it as she would any normal delivery, and set out to find the oak by the crossroads.
Despite never having gone there before, Catharine's feet seemed to know the way on their own. She allowed them to lead her off the main road onto a small path, down to the river, and to a small footbridge.
Callista waited for her, leaning up against the old oak.
"There you are," Callista snapped. "You're barely early. I was worried you'd only be on time. Give it here."
Catharine held out the package, and Callista tore into it with the ferocity of a wild dog. She unfolded the dress and let it sparkle in the waning light. Then, without shame or hesitation, Lady Callista discarded her clothes and began putting on the dress.
"Don't just gawk," she said, struggling into it. "Help me."
Catharine did, pulling down the dress and lacing up the back where Callista couldn't reach.
"It's marvelous!" Lady Callista crowed the moment it was on. She turned this way and that, making the cloth fly up and the spangles glitter in the moonlight. To Catharine's relief, the dress really did fit. She'd been half afraid it wouldn't, what with the lack of regular fittings. Lady Callista, already beautiful in an alien, unearthly way looked stunning. She hopped and kicked her bare feet, reminding Catharine strongly of both small children and frolicking goats.
"Here," Lady Callista said. She shoved a bag of money into Catharine's hands-- Catharine had not even seen where she'd gotten it from. Then Callista stepped back, nearly against the tree.
"You have done well," she said, suddenly imperious. "Your reward is well earned. Go now, while you still hold my favor."
And with that, Lady Callista sank backwards into the tree, leaving Catharine alone and staring, holding a bag of money.
* * * * *
The next morning, when the rising sun filled her room with light, the bag of money suddenly swelled and spilled its contents to the floor. Catharine woke with a start and saw what had happened. Heart sinking, she went to investigate.
At first, she thought the money had turned into rocks. But when she examined the rocks, she saw that beneath the dark and rough surface, there were glints here and there of bright yellow.
Catharine looked at them forlornly. It was one thing to have a stash of money at hand, it was quite another to have a bag full of what appeared to be freshly mined gold.
I'll have to find a goldsmith, she thought, shoving the raw gold back into the sack. She knew of a jewelry shop down the way, and while she doubted they'd be interested in the raw chunks, perhaps they knew of someone who would refine it. . .
Plans swirled through her mind as she readied herself, then went downstairs to the shop. So consumed was she in her thoughts that she almost didn't notice that, despite the early hour, there was already a customer in the shop.
The man was short-- a few inches shorter even than Catharine herself-- and his blond hair was intricately tied back in an elegant braid. The clothes he wore were nothing so sophisticated; muddy up to the knees, sleeves frayed and loose, the cuffs buttonless and open, no waistcoat to speak of. Despite the state of his clothes, he stood in the center of the shop with the confidence of a prince, arms crossed and eyes scanning the room.
Mr. Bartleby did not notice him. Even as the man, upon seeing Catharine, rushed directly in front of him and nearly caused Mr. Bartleby to fall, Mr. Bartleby paid the man no mind.
"You! Human girl!" the stranger said. "You're the one who made Salixia's clothes, yes?"
Catharine's stomach sank, but she answered, "Who?"
"Lady Salixia. Tall woman, silver eyes-- temperament like a wasp and twice the sting?"
"She introduced herself as Callista."
The man made a gesture as if waving the comment away. "Yes, yes, we always pick quaint little names when dealing with the lesser folk-- no offense meant. Her true name is her own, but her peers know her as Salixia. Point is, you're the one who made that dress for her, yes?"
The man beamed. The corner of his mouth twisted upward, far higher than a smile ought to have gone, until they were just beneath his eyes.
"Excellent! I would also like some clothes."
"Ah." Catharine said. Her eyes darted to where Mr. Bartleby was now sitting, writing something. "Well, our master tailor, Mr. Bartleby, will certainly be able to--"
"No no no," said the man. "Out of the question. After Salixia's showing off last night, everyone who's anyone will want a shirt or gown as fine as hers, and I want one directly from the source. Oh, and before you ask, you can call me Ranunculus. Sir Ranunculus, actually. Just because we've been booted from the proper Courts doesn't mean we've lost all sense of dignity. Only most of it." He winked, as though inviting her in on the joke.
"I- well, Sir Ranunculus, I assure you, my employer is the finest master tailor, most suitable for a gentleman--"
"No use trying to foist me off, human girl, I've made up my mind, and I am very stubborn. And," his voice took on a dramatic tone, "I would like a vest."
Catharine opened her mouth to protest, saw his look, and quietly gave up. "Would you like to see our selection of styles?"
"No need, I know what I want. It's got to be black as you can make it, with gold and silver shiny bits sewn in, looking like stars. You can't put actual stars into it, can you?" he added hopefully.
"Afraid not," said Catharine."
"Ah well. Then use whatever materials work best, so long as it sparkles."
"Very well, sir," she said. "This way to the fitting area. . . "
* * * * *
During her measurements, Lady Callistra had stood with the stillness of a statue and had only ever spoken when necessary, and even then in short, clipped speech. The entire process had seemed like an ordeal with which she hadn't been at all comfortable. Sir Ranunculus, on the other hand, was nearly vibrating with enthusiasm, constantly turning and gesturing while he spoke, usually at the most inconvenient times. Catharine found herself desperately wishing the man would shut up.
"So you see" he went on, twisting around to look at her. "Because the royalty's on the outs with one another and it doesn't look like either Titania or Oberon are going to be apologizing to one another soon, and because the Erlkönig and Mab are also having their territory spat, the entire system's been thrown up into the air, and the Autumn Court decided that, what with all the chaos in the air, this is the time to start raising a ruckus for the first time in a thousand years, and on top of it all--"
"Sir Ranunculus, please," Catharine said. "If you keep moving, I won't get the measurements right."
"Right, right," he said, standing straight again. "But anyway, now we've been sent to this New World-- an entirely inaccurate moniker, as it were, seeing as how the place was full to the brim when we got here-- and it is almost entirely not our own faults. I mean, it can't really be considered treason when nobody knows who's in charge, can it?"
"Uh-huh," said Catharine, not understanding anything, but taking the chance to get the measurements.
"Now nearly everyone this side of the Atlantic is scrambling to scrape together some kind of dignity from the whole ordeal-- barring the locals, of course. They've been giving us wide berth; have their own issues to sort out, I assume. And I suppose those like Acanthus, who got here long before the rest of us were booted out of the Old Courts."
"I see," said Catharine, who didn't. Still, she was paid to make clothes, not ask questions. The fitting progressed slowly, hindered only by Ranunculus complete incapability to hold still. But eventually, the ordeal came to an end. At Catharine's urging, Ranunculus was eventually convinced to look over the samples of available cloth, and chose the darkest one they had, and told her that he'd be picking up the order; there was no need for her to deliver it anywhere.
Catharine had just managed to get Ranunculus' signature-- a hasty drawing of something vaguely flower-shaped-- when the shop door opened.
The man coming in filled the doorway. So large was he that he had to turn himself sideways and duck his head to get into the building.
Man may have been too kind a word. The creature standing in her shop was something out of story book; enormous, hulking, with skin textured like tree bark and mane like a lion's sprouting from his head and shoulders. Except rather than hair or fur, the creature's mane and beard were made from countless tangled vines.
"Sir Dammara!" Ranunculus cried, theatrically throwing his arms open. "To what do we owe the honor?"
"Figures you'd get here first, Ranni," Sir Dammara said, chuckling. His voice was deep and oddly hollow sounding. He gestured to Ranunculus and said to Catharine, he said, "This one here's always the first one on any new fad. Chases 'em the way dogs chase cats."
"Technically I am merely the second one onto this fad," Ranunculus said. "If you count Salixia starting it. Tailor Girl, this is Sir Dammara. Dammara, this is Tailor Girl."
"Good to meet you," Dammara said. He peered down at her. "I would like a shirt."
"Ah," said Catharine.
"We have a catalogue of available styles," Catharine said, gesturing to the book on the counter.
Dammara nodded and went to the counter, slouched over so as not to bump the ceiling with his head.
"You'll need a lot of fabric for that one," Ranunculus said brightly. "I'm glad I got my order in early; I expect there'll be a rush soon."
"Is that so?" Catharine said hopelessly.
"Oh yes. Salixa made quite the impression. Good luck!"
And then, before she could do or say anything, Ranunculus was gone. Vanished, right out of the air. Catharine stared at the spot where he'd been.
"Ignore him," Dammara called. "He's just showing off. Here, look. I like this one." He pointed to a simple workman's shirt.
"Excellent choice," said Catharine, falling back on salesmanship. "Any alterations or adjustments?"
"It should have buttons, like the one in the drawing."
Catharine waited for more information. When it became clear none was forthcoming, she said, "And?"
"Any other specifications?"
"No. Just make sure it has buttons. Shiny ones, if available."
"Of course, sir," she said. "We use only the highest quality materials. Follow me; we need to take your measurements."
"Right, right," Dammara said.
Catharine was wondering if they had any measuring tape large enough to accommodate Sir Dammara when another individual entered the shop, quickly followed by three more.
Each were the size of children, and at first she thought that's what they were, but then she saw their violet eyes and pointed ears, and how at their backs, each had a set of glossy, dragonfly wings.
Some part of Catharine, the part she had been keeping squashed down ever since she'd seen the silver of Lady Callista's eyes, wanted to scream. She wanted to tear her hair out, set the shop on fire, and then perhaps visit the priest for an exorcism. But that part of her was kept firmly in check by the rest of her, and so instead of screaming, she said,
"I'm currently busy helping another customer. If you three are in a hurry, my employers are in the other room, and I'm sure they'd be able to help you."
"No worries," said the first of the three, a boy with haphazard, fox-red hair. "We've got time, we can wait."
"But what if she dies before it's our turn?" whispered one behind him loudly. "Humans die of old, and she's already got gray in her hair."
"Pipe down," said fox-hair.
Catharine left them to bicker and set about the task of getting Dammara's measurements.
* * * * *
By the end of the afternoon, Catharine had a nearly a dozen orders of varying difficulty. Thankfully, none were as elaborate as the dress of Lady Callista-- or Lady Salixia, as it were. The three winged boys had wanted coats with bug shells sewn in. When Catharine had said they had none on offer, the boys had produces several bags of shiny, gold-green insect carapaces. After that, an entire group of strange folk came in-- a woman with moss skin who wanted a shawls with embroidered flowers, a man with goat legs who wanted a gentleman's shirt, another dress order for a woman with the head of a bat-- on and on.
Through the entire ordeal of taking measurements and orders, Mr. Bartleby and Mr. Collins never emerged from the office. When Catharine stole a moment to check on them, she found them both asleep; Mr. Bartleby at his desk, and Mr. Collins on the cushioned chair in the corner.
"I didn't want them getting in the way," said the fox-haired boy. "Figured that was the safest place to keep 'em."
"When will they wake up?" Catharine said.
The boy shrugged. "Whenever's convenient. Likely after we've all left."
If things carried on the way they were, Catharine thought, that would not be for a long while. Every time someone left the shop, it seemed another three entered, and not a single human among them.
Hours passed. Order came after order. By the time the sun set, several pages in the orders book had been filled, scrawled in by dozens of creatures whose signatures ranged from elaborate and arcane-looking symbols, to doodles of leaves and flowers. Eventually it came time for closing, and Catharine politely, but firmly, informed those remaining that they'd have to come back the next day.
"And based on the number of orders," she said, "There will be a wait. I can take your information down, but your clothing won't be finished for a long while. Perhaps months."
She expected at least some of them to be irritated by the news; many of the folk gathered reminded her of Lady Callista with their impatience. Hopefully, that would turn some of them off the idea, and they'd go find other tailors. But to her surprise, those gathered seemed to take the news in good humor.
"So long as you don't die of old age," said a man with the spiraled horns of a ram. "We have the time to wait. It's your kind who don't."
"Are you all certain you wouldn't like to find another tailor?" she said.
There were general demurs around the room. No, they said. She'd do.
Catharine sighed and ushered everyone to the door. The moment they were gone, Mr. Bartleby and Mr. Collins emerged from the office, yawning and stretching.
"I have some orders," Catharine said, showing them the booklet.
Mr. Bartleby frowned at the page. He squinted at the words and said, "I. . . I suppose you do."
"I'll be in the workshop," Catharine said. She thought of Ranunculus' vest and found the burning energy that had sustained her through Lady Calista's dress returning, and her hands itched to start her work.
"Alright then," Ms. Bartleby said. His voice was uncertain and a little dreamy. "You do what you must."
"And there's a pile of gold behind the counter," Catharine said suddenly. "Payment from another order. It's raw, as though fresh out of a mine."
Mr. Collins, who had also been staring around dazedly suddenly snapped to attention. "I know a goldsmith on Fleet Street who'd buy it off us."
"Excellent," Catharine said. "Buy some more gold spangles while you're at it. And the shiniest buttons you can find. I'll be needing a lot of them."
And then, before either of them could wake up any further and question the gold, she went into the workshop and gave herself over to the overbearing urge to create.
* * * * *
This was how the next month went:
As with Calista's dress, the energy kept Catharine going through the nights and on to the next days. Early on in the month, after some initial argument, she managed to convince the daily audience of supernatural beings at the shop door that her employers were perfectly capable of taking their measurements, and that she did not need to personally see to every single customer who walked into the place. The newcomers eventually agreed, but insisted that she be the only one to handle the actual making of clothes.
When Bartleby and Collins took measurements, they did not mention the uniqueness of the clientele. They deftly measured past wings and horns and scales as though they did not see them-- but Catharine knew that on some level they must have, because they would mark off appropriate places where holes were needed in shirts to accommodate wings and tails and such. When asked after, both men would only look at her, confused, as though she were the one behaving oddly.
Part of Catharine wanted to see how far she could push the strange magic clouding their minds-- confront them with their own measurement notes, or point out the horns and pointed ears of clients they worked on-- but she abstained from doing so. It was bad enough she had to deal with the insanity, and Mr. Bartleby and Collins has always been kind to her. No, she would spare them from having to directly acknowledge it all and let them have their illusions.
To her complete mystification, Catharine continued to find herself completing orders at speeds unimaginable. She would sit down at the workshop table one moment, only just beginning to cut the cloth to size, and then it seemed that she would blink, and she'd be standing there, aching and sore but supremely satisfied and looking down at a completed vest or shirt or coat. She knew the work was getting done; the clothing didn't magically appear from nothing, but as she worked, a fog would overtake her, and she would marvel at how quickly it was over.
The new customers did not always pay in gold. By the end of the month, many of them dispensed with the pretense of paying in money altogether. They stopped bothering trying to pass illusioned lumps of silver as money and instead pluncked the metals down on the counter without shame. Some paid in gems, uncut and looking freshly dug. others paid in items that had been worked -- properly smelted gold and silver and cut gems-- and still others paid in strange things that wouldn't be sold, but were still worthwhile; a candle that burned ten times brighter than a normal one and was enchanted to never use up the wax. A bottle of wine that never emptied, no matter how much was poured out. A blanket that kept her at just the correct level of warmth to be comfortable, no matter how chilly the night.
These items, each customer had told her, were from the "old lands" and the "old days," before whatever political unpleasantness had caused them to come to the States. Catharine tried to listen to the shreds of gossip she heard, but found the information nearly incomprehensible, moreso than even Ranunculus's explanations had been.
Ranunculus himself returned after three days to pick up his vest, and then insisted on sticking around after that, usually coming by for a few hours each day. When Catharine was out of the workshop, writing down the specifics for more elaborate designs and trying to convince new customers that no, she couldn't actually make a gown out of sorrow, would wool dyed grey suffice?-- Ranunculus would hover near by, distracting those waiting with small talk and flattery, and taking a perverse joy in playing the role of manager, telling others to wait their turn, to not interrupt the Tailor Girl, to behave themselves or they'd get thrown out. He seemed to know everyone, and when Catharine wasn't busy trying to placate irritable visitors, he would casually inform her who was who-- something that did nothing to ease her fraying nerves.
"That's Lady Alcea. Don't let the title fool you, she's a Knight of the Rose and has a necklace of tongues, I'm told."
"Sir Amaranth! Wanted the blood-red coat, did he? Don't know why he came to you when he usually stains his clothes red with blood anyway."
"The short one is Sir Caligo. I've heard he can transform into an owl, but I've never seen it myself."
And so on.
Time blurred. Days were spent dealing with what she had come to think of as the New Clientele and the chaos they brought as they filled the shop, treating the place like some form of social club, and nights were spent busily stitching.
The first big break in what had become the routine occurred on the third week of the first month.
She was just in the middle of passing back an order to a lovely woman with the legs of a hen, listening to Ranunculus prattling on about something called Seelie and how they were different from Unseelie when a man entered the shop.
He wasn't as supernaturally huge as Dammara had been, but all the same, he seemed to fill the doorway, blocking off the afternoon sunlight. His presence silenced all conversation, and as he stepped towards the counter, the other customers shrank away. Shadows seemed to gather around him, keeping to his feet like obedient dogs.
"L-Lord Acanthus!" Ranunculus stammered. Catharine looked at him sharply; it was the first time his cheerful, socialite demeanor had slipped.
"Your Grace," he continued. "What an- an unexpected honor it is to see you here."
Ranunculus bowed low, and as he did, he discreetly stepped away, bringing more distance between himself and the newcomer.
Acanthus barely spared him a glance. Instead his steady gaze was directed towards Catharine. His face was expressionless as he said, "You the tailor?"
"Yes," Catharine said, perhaps a little too sternly. She hadn't liked he way the stranger had frightened the others.
Slowly, he unclasped the cloak he wore and held it out to her. It was a drab, depressing thing, so splotchy with different shades of grays and browns that it was impossible for her to tell if it was a dark cloak that had faded, or a lighter cloak that had dirtied.
"It's torn," he said.
She took the cloak gingerly, and resisted drawing back in disgust. It was wet. When she looked at her hand, she saw it colored red, as though with dye.
"What are these stains?" Catherine said, pointing to fresh, dark spots.
He looked at her blankly.
"Knowing will help me," she said.
"What kind?" said her mouth before her brain could catch up.
With that, he turned and made for the door, leaving silence and stares in his wake.
It wasn't until the door had swung entirely shut, and all traces of the man had gone before the folk in the store began speaking to one another again, cautious whispers growing louder with excitement.
Catharine held out the cloak and assessed the damage. There was indeed a large tear through the middle, as though ripped open by some enormous claw.
"Ranunculus, who was that?" she said.
"That, my dear girl, was Lord Danaeus Acanthus." Ranunculus' voice wavered slightly as he straightened up, adjusting his precious vest.
"What are you all afraid of him for?" Catharine said. She'd seen dozens of the New Clientele who were larger and more frightening than that Acanthus character was. She'd made shirts for people more frightening.
"He's a monster," said a sprite by the counter. "A traitor. A real one, not like us."
"He's a regicide," Ranunculus said. "And a fratricide. Patricide. If he's not a sororicide, it's only because he has no sisters."
"All that?" Catharine said. "He must be very busy."
Ranunculus shot her a look; pale and shaken, but clearly unamused. "There used to be another king of Faerie," he said. " A brother to Mab and Titania. Acanthus killed him so thoroughly, the memory of him has left the earth. Even we don't remember his name, only that he was there, and isn't now."
Catharine stared at the dismal bundle of cloth in her hands. "And he wants me to mend his cloak?"
"I suggest you do a good job," Ranunculus said.
* * * * *
The shop cleared out quickly after that; news that the Lord Acanthus had taken notice of the place apparently had chilled the desire to socialize, and Catharine found herself grateful for the silence.
After the endless barrage of embroidered coats and spangled gowns, the cloak repair seemed laughable in its simplicity. Without much considering it, she set it to soak overnight in cold water and went to attend her other orders.
The next day, between putting the finishing touches on an elfman's vest and cutting material for another's coat, she took time out to scrub the cloak with soap made from ash and lye. It didn't get all the stains out; there was no hope of that. But the recent blood was mostly out, and judging by the water in the basin, this was the first time in a long while the cloak had seen any washing at all. She let it soak some more, just to be certain, and the next day, after the elfman came by for the vest, Catharine gave the cloak a last, good scrub and took it outside to dry.
When dry, it became clear that, while the cloak would never be like new again, the cleaning had done it some serious good. Lighter threads that might've once been white were suddenly visible along the hem in some until-then hidden embroidered flourishes. The darker shades of gray deepened and became more brilliant, revealing the traces of what was once a dark, midnight blue. Once she was satisfied it was as clean as it would get, Catharine began mending the tear itself.
By that time, the New Clientele had gotten over whatever trepidation Acanthus had left them with; the shop front was back into full swing as Mr. Bartleby and Collins obliviously helped customers, and others hung around socializing. Plenty of new faces arrived specifically to ask her how the cloak was faring, and what kind of funeral service Catharine would like if she failed.
"Ranunculus, aren't you supposed to be keeping out the riff-raff?" Catharine said sourly. "What happened to keeping people from distracting me?"
He shrugged. "These are valid questions-- provided he leaves enough of you to bury."
She glowered at him and headed for the workshop.
* * * * *
One week after Catharine had received the cloak, several days after it had been repaired to the best of her ability, the Lord Acanthus returned to the shop to retrieve it.
As with the first time, his shadow proceeded him, filling the shop with an oppressive weight. The others in the shop grew still and silent as the lord approached the counter. Again, Catharine found herself facing him alone, though at least this time she had the counter between them.
"My cloak," was all Acanthus said. His face, as before, was impassive.
"Here you are!" Catharine said. She passed the neatly folded cloak over.
Acanthus took the bundle gingerly. Long seconds ticked by as he stared at the cloak.
"You've cleaned it," he said eventually.
"Yes?" Catharine said.
He spread open the cloak, flipping it around, then over again, taking it in.
"The stains of a hundred battles and more are now faded near to nothing."
"It . . . certainly took some scrubbing," Catharine said, trying to sound cheerful.
"This was my father's cloak," Acanthus said. "His blood stained the cloth when my blade pierced his heart."
"Ah," said Catharine.
Suddenly, the lord donned the cloak in one, sweeping motion.
"I greatly prefer it this way," he said, fastening the clasp at the front. Then, he handed Catharine a handful of money. Real money-- an amount on the generous side of suitable for the service rendered.
"I will be sure to come to you again, should the need arise," he said.
"It would be a pleasure to have your business," Catharine said, partly out of habit.
He nodded once, then swept out of the shop, taking all the shadows with him.
* * * * *
To Catharine, it seemed that the shop was never empty. For every article of clothing she finished, there were a dozen more waiting. The orders pamphlet was filled by the end of the first month, and Mr. Collins had to acquire a new one. The New Clientele who placed orders now would have to wait months for their clothes, even with the strange magic that helped her work. None of them seemed to mind. What they did mind was any suggestion Catharine made of them allowing someone else to aid in the making of their clothes. The singular time she had Mr. Collins help her with some small bit of seaming, the fairy man had known, and wouldn't be satisfied until he saw Catharine undo the seams and redo them herself.
"Why?" she asked Ranunculus once. "Why does it matter?"
He had shrugged in an exceptionally unhelpful way. "It's a fashion thing," he said. And that was the only explanation she could get out of him.
One day, during the second month of the New Clientele, Catharine was just preparing to head into the workshop when Lord Acanthus came in again, cloak in his hands. As before, shadows swam at his feet, but when he entered the shop, he moved quickly towards her counter. As he approached, he spread the cloak open, showing off a series of long, thin tears.
Catharine hissed in sympathy; it wasn't exactly tattered, but it would definitely require some effort to save.
"What happened?" she said, coming around to see better.
"Chupacabra," he said.
"What?" she said, already examining the tears.
"A creature. From the far south. It eats goats. And . . . other. . . things."
There was an awkward hesitance on other things, but Catharine left it alone.
"And based on the damage, I suppose you decided to wrestle one?" She gently folded the cloak up. "No worries, I'll have it ready by Thursday."
He nodded and then, after a moment's pause, gave the slightest of bows before turning for the door.
The room was silent when he left, though Catharine barely noticed, already thinking of how to repair the rips. The other orders suddenly felt less significant; the tears would be simple, and suddenly she welcomed a reprieve from the usual, more extravagant work.
Slowly, chatter resumed in the shop, albeit more quietly than usual.
"I think," said Ranunculus, "that was the most I've ever heard Acanthus say in one go."
"Oh?" said Catharine, half-listening. "That so? I suppose I'd best start."
And before anyone could tell her otherwise, she went to the workshop.
* * * * *
Unlike the other items she worked on, the frantic magic didn't aid her with Acanthus' cloak. Catharine wondered if it was because the task was so simple as to not need the magic (or if perhaps the magic was too snobbish to be triggered for such a task), or if the fact that it belonged to Acanthus was enough to frighten the magic away. In any case, it didn't take long, and by Thursday not only had the cloak been repaired, but she had another order completed as well.
This one was a fine coat with embroidered oak leaves all over intended for a lesser lord called Quercus. When he came in to retrieve it, he was so impressed that he insisted on talking to her personally, as opposed to simply paying and leaving, or paying and then ignoring her to wander around to others in the room to show off as many others did.
"This work is so fine, I almost find it hard to believe that a human could make it," he told her.
"Er. Yes, well, I'm glad you like it," said Catharine.
Quercus's eyes glinted yellow for a moment, before settling back to brown. "It is good that you value my approval," he said, sliding his hand forward across the counter towards hers. When he spoke next, his voice had taken on a strange, honeyed quality that filled Catharine's head with fog. "Tell me, you don't really want to spend all your life in this shop, do you?"
"Nnno. . . " she said slowly. "I suppose not."
"You'd much rather devote your skills somewhere a little more sophisticated, wouldn't you? And why make clothing for everyone who comes through the door when you could focus on a single client? Wouldn't that be more sensible?"
"I suppose," Catharine said. She's heard of wealthy folks having personal tailors before, though she had never thought about the position herself. "Mr. Bartleby could have his shop back," she said faintly.
"Perfect," Quercus said with a smile. "Then you'll come with me. I--"
Suddenly, a gloved hand grabbed Quercus by the shoulders and turned him around.
"How dare--" he began.
Acanthus looked down on him with a remote expression. Catharine blinked, the fog in her head beginning to clear. She hadn't even noticed him come in.
"I broke no vow!" Quercus said hastily. "I was merely asking--"
"Quercus, if I see you within ten miles of this shop after the sun sets this evening, I will tear your heart out through your throat and feed it to my dogs."
Despite the softness of his voice, Acanthus' words filled the room. All noise and movement in the shop ceased.
"Am I understood?" Acanthus said.
"Y-yes, your grace," Quercus stammered.
Quercus scrambled to his feet and fled from the shop.
To Catharine, Acanthus nodded and said, "Miss Haggertey."
"Acanthus," she said, head still swimming. "Er, sorry, lord Acanthus. Pardon. My head is--"
She swayed a little, but caught herself.
"Do not worry yourself about the formalities," he said. Then, he added urgently, "Regarding my title, I mean. In other dealings with our kind, you should remain diligent." There was an awkward pause. "My cloak. . . ?"
"Oh, yes. Right here." She took it from its place on the shelf and passed it over.
Acanthus opened it and examined it, front and back. Then, with the first smile she'd seen from him, he put it on.
"You've once again restored it beyond my wildest imagining," he said. "I can't even see where the rips once were."
She smiled at him weakly. "I'm happy you're happy with it," she said.
"Very." He passed her a small bag of money, real money once again, and gave her a small bow. "Good evening to you, Miss. Haggerty," he said. Then, he left.
Catharine waited until he was gone before she sank down into the nearest chair. Ranunculus crept up to the counter, peering down at her.
"You all could do that at any time, couldn't you?" said Catharine. "Just talk funny and convince me to leave like that. The way you've muddied Mr. Collins' and Mr. Bartleby's minds."
"Nobody with any sense would," Ranunculus said. "Even without Acanthus there threatening them."
"How's that?" Catherine said, trying to keep her hands from shaking.
"Because you're working on my blouse now," said a bird-headed woman nearby.
"And my vest after," piped up a boy with rabbit ears.
"And my second dress," said another woman.
"So long as you're working on another member of the Court's order, none of us will kidnap or kill you," Ranunculus said. "It was agreed at the last Gathering. That Quercus idiot would've brought down the wrath of everyone who's placed an order with you if he'd succeeded in carrying you off. Acanthus did him a favor."
"Ah," said Catherine. The news did nothing to relieve her, and instead she saw a future of endless faerie garment requests coming down the line. Until this point, the future had been abstract; surely someday the new Clientele would get bored and head off somewhere else. But now, for the first time, she envisioned herself an old woman and still working on their clothes. No family, no husband or children or home of her own, just endless stitching and trimming.
"I think I need to lie down," she said.
But she couldn't. The thought of the outfits left to make had stirred the energy once again, and no matter how much her mind wanted to crawl into her bed and lie there, the rest of her itched to work.
Her heart beat faster, as though it were trying to break free from her chest. Of course, she thought with dawning horror. It wasn't a matter of if they would muddy her mind. It had already happened. She was as enchanted as Bartleby and Collins-- why hadn't she put it together sooner? She'd noticed the energy, she'd noticed the way she worked nonstop at unnatural speed. Why hadn't she realized they were controlling her, too? Why hadn't--
"Tailor Girl?" said Ranunculus. There was concern in his voice.
And suddenly the panic stopped. An unnatural calmness overtook her, and all thoughts of enchantments were pushed aside, even as a small part of her mind screamed. Seconds later, she had completely forgotten what had worried her.
"Sorry," she said, getting to her feet. "I don't know what came over me."
Ranunculus smiled. "Well, so long as you're better. I think Lady Alophia's dress is next?"
"Right, right," said Catharine, heading for the workshop. There was a great deal to do.
* * * * *
At the end of the second month, Mr. Bartleby came into the workshop after hours.
"Catharine, a lord just came by. Big, shady looking man. He asked to see you, and I told him you were busy, and that we were closed, but he's not leaving until he talks to you."
Gratefully, Catharine left the blouse she was embroidering and went to the front of the shop. Acanthus stood there, a familiar cloth bundle in his hands.
"Let me guess," she said, already reaching out for the cloak. "You've fought some horrible dragon, and now your cloak needs washing."
He snorted. "Only a fool fights a dragon without good reason. I'm afraid this is a mundane stain. Grape wine."
"You know, there are washer women who do this professionally," Catharine said.
"But I trust you," Acanthus said. The hastily added, "With my cloak, I mean. I trust you with my cloak."
She smiled. "Well, that's very kind of you to say."
"Yes, well." he cleared his throat and, to Catharine's amusement, appeared to be fidgety.
"Have a good evening, Mr. Acanthus," she said, taking pity.
"Yes, you as well," he said. He left her and Mr. Bartleby watching him go.
"How did you know he was a lord?" Catharine said, examining the new stain.
Mr. Bartleby frowned. "Who was a lord?" he said.
"The only Lord we have is in Heaven," chimed in Mr. Collins entering the room. He was, Catharine remembered, a devout Baptist. "What's going on in here?"
"Nevermind," Catharine murmured. She opened the cloak and found the stain; something red and wet to the touch.
"You'd think if he valued this cloak so much," she said, mostly to herself, "that he'd store it away someplace safe when he went out drinking and monster hunting." All the same, she felt relieved; the frantic energy once again fled when faced with Acanthus' cloak, and she started filling a basin with water to soak it.
She left the basin and cloak by the pump in the kitchen, but the moment she passed the threshold, the magic flooded her again, moving her to work.
Quickly, Catharine stepped back through the doorway. The magic fled.
She looked at the cloak thoughtfully.
"Interesting," she said.
* * * * *
The next evening, when the cloak was scrubbed clean and had finished drying, Catharine did not fold it up neatly as she had before, but instead put it on. Immediately, she felt every ache in her body, every sore muscle and every ounce of exhaustion that had built up over the past few weeks. She collapsed to the floor, almost weeping with the pain, and slipped out of the cloak. The pain immediately stopped.
So, she thought, wiping her face. The magic wasn't truly making her immune to the discomfort of the long hours of endless work. It was hiding it from her.
Gingerly, Catharine took the cloak and went to her room. She did not wear it again, but that night, she slept with it atop her bedcovers, and for the first night in weeks, had a deep, restful sleep.
* * * * *
Acanthus came back for the cloak the next day.
"Catharine," Mr. Collins called. He didn't notice how the dryad whose skirt he was fitting had become suddenly still in fright. "Catharine, the lord is here."
Catharine set her work down immediately and didn't quite rush to the front, but it was a near thing.
"So here's a question, if the cloak negates magic," she said, "then wouldn't you want to leave it at home? Unless you don't use much magic yourself."
He paused, then leaned in close. "Why do you think it negates magic?" he said.
"I. . . may have noticed it during repairs," she said, blushing a little.
When Acanthus spoke next, he spoke slowly, his voice quiet. "Miss Haggerty," he said, "I suggest that you do not mention what my cloak does again. There are many here who would prefer that what enchantments placed on you remain unaltered." He cast a sideways glance as the different patrons in the shop, who were all whispering among themselves.
"Oh," she said, voice small. "They . . . they wouldn't appreciate me sleeping when I could be making them clothes, would they?"
"Nor, I suspect, would they appreciate you being aware of the enchantment at all. It becomes much harder to control someone once they know they are being controlled."
"I see," she said.
He straightened up, then flashed her a smile. "Until next time, Miss. Haggerty," he said. The once again, he was off, leaving her to think.
* * * * *
From then on, it seemed as though Acanthus' cloak needed mending or washing at least twice a week. Often, the repairs were minor-- small tears that in some cases didn't look like an animal or creature had done them, but rather a blade. Sometimes, the dirt that needed washing out was only mud. On the days of these quick repairs, Catharine took the opportunity to take the cloak with her and sleep through the night, rather than work under the enchantments placed upon her.
Each time, Acanthus paid in human money, except for a single time where, after a three week absence, he returned with his cloak bloodied and torn, and had paid for the repairs not just with money, but also a tiny bouquet made from carved gemstones, each bloom smaller than her thumbnail.
"It's beautiful," she'd said.
"It reminded me of--" and then he had stopped himself, smiled, and said, "I am glad you like it."
And she set it on her bedside table, so that on nights when she had the cloak, she could look at the flowers when falling asleep.
The wave of New Clientele never seemed to ebb. Those who had already bought clothes from her insisted on buying more. Those new customers always returned. Any day she did not have the cloak was spent tirelessly working, filling orders and forcing herself not to think too hard about the future.
"I don't know how I'm going to manage, Danaeus," she said one day. Acanthus was there after closing again, as had become something of a habit. This time, he was there under the pretense of retrieving his cloak again after a cleaning.
"What was it again this time?" Catharine said absently, handing the cloak to him. "The stain, I mean."
"Ogre," he said. "Several, actually. We had a disagreement regarding certain dietary restrictions I'd imposed upon them." He briefly examined the cloak, smiled, then put it on.
"Oh," said Catharine, mentally calculating what an ogre would normally eat, what they would be forbidden to eat, and then what they would eat anyways despite being forbidden.
"What were you saying?"
"Just-- all this! Come, look at what I have to deal with."
She took his hand and led him to the workshop. Everywhere, half-finished articles of clothing were spread out on tables or draped on dummies. The one magic candle lit a portion of the room well, but the rest of the room was cast in deep shadows. "look at all this!" she said. "There must be a hundred different orders in here."
"You are a very busy person," he said.
"Am I going to be this busy forever?" she said. "Am I going to be an eighty year old woman, stooped over a workbench? I want a life, I want a garden, I want a family!" She raised her hand, as though to knock over one of the dummies, but stopped at the last second and sank into a chair.
After a long moment, Acanthus brought over another chair and sat down beside her. "My people. . . . tend not to let go of things they sink their hooks into," he said. "Things or people."
"So this will be my whole life, if what you're saying." She smiled, though there wasn't anything happy in it. "Humans die of old, remember?"
"I do," he said softly.
And the two of them sat together in silence, because there was nothing else to say.
* * * * *
Five months after lady Salixia had stepped into the shop asking for a dress, Lord Danaeus Acanthus threw open the shop door with a gust of wind at his back that knocked over displays and sent loose items flying around the room. There were shouts from the folk gathered inside that were silenced almost instantly. In his hands was his cloak burned to tatters, with barely any of it left.
"Danaeus, what happened?" Catharine cried.
"Dragon," he said.
"You fought a dragon?" she said. "Why did you fight a dragon? Are you alright?" She went to him, searching for any sign of injury.
"I'm fine," he said.
"Why did you fight a dragon?" she repeated. "You said only idiots fight dragons without a reason."
"I had a reason," he said. "A good reason. And now my cloak needs repairing."
He held the remains up for her to see.
"I'm sorry," Catharine said, staring at the remains of the cloak as though it were a fallen friend. "I can't fix it."
"You must," he said. He tried to pass it to her, and she stepped back.
"I can't. I'm sorry. It's beyond my ability."
"Try," he said. The edge of desperation in his voice made her flinch. She took what was left of the cloak.
"I will return tomorrow evening," he said. He turned to go.
"Wait! Tomorrow? Danaeus, I can't have this done by tomorrow!"
He stopped.Shadows seemed to rise around him, darkening his face and the air around him, and when he spoke there was a hardness in his voice she had never heard before.
"You will repair it, or there will be consequences."
And then he was gone. No door this time; the shadows swallowed him whole, and when they had receded, he had vanished, leaving Catharine staring forlornly at the rags in her hands.
* * * * *
There was no way to repair the cloak. There was nothing to repair. So instead, with a heavy heart, Catharine began work on a new cloak.
She had been so intimately familiar with the old one, it was no problem cutting new cloth to size. This time, she thought, the cloak would be the darkest black they had, so as to better hide the stains monster blood left behind. She layered the fabric thick, with hardy material to help prevent tearing in the future. Then, with a pain in her chest, she pulled apart what fabric remained of the old cloak and tried to salvage the scraps. Even without Acanthus' strange behavior, it would have been miserable work; it felt like tearing apart an old friend. In the end, she used pieces of the old one as embellishments, cut and stitched and maneuvered around the collar so as to be seen from the front. She used lighter threads to keep them on, making the patterns made with pieces of the original more clearly defined.
As she worked, she felt the enchantment kicking in, the same energy that let her do days of work in a single night, and for the first time in a long time, she embraced it.
Please, she thought, let this work.
* * * * *
The next day, the shop was so full, there was not enough room for everyone who wanted to be there, and people had to stand outside.
"We all want to see what happens," Ranunculus said brightly.
"I hope he doesn't kill you too much," said a sprite. "You still need to finish my dress."
"I hope he kills you a lot," chirped a small bird perched on the counter. "Something very bloody and interesting to look at."
"You're all terrible, and I hate you," Catharine said.
"That's fair," Ranunculus said with a shrug. "It was nice knowing you, Tailor Girl."
Catharine wanted to snap something at him, something clever and scathing, but nothing came to mind and before she could think of anything, the door flew open.
Acanthus' shadows filled the room, snuffing out the sunlight and plunging the room into darkness. It lasted only a moment, but the chill they brought with them lasted for several minutes, and when Catharine breathed, she saw the air come out in plumes of mist.
He didn't greet her. His face was completely devoid of emotion, the way it had been when they met.
When she held the new cloak out to him, he took it without a word.
Silence stretched between them as he inspected the new cloak, turning it this way and that, investigating it with a critical eye. To Catharine, it felt as though the entire room was holding its breath.
Finally, he broke the silence.
"This is not my cloak."
Catharine felt her heart stop. But still, she said, "It is."
"I asked you to repair my cloak."
"I told you, I couldn't. Your old one is in this one, the embellishments around the--"
"This is not the cloak I asked you to repair!" he shouted. His voice thundered through the shop. "Even with the enchantments they have placed on you, you have failed."
Swiftly, he tore off one of his gloves and he grabbed her wrist. A flash of black energy left his hand and traveled down her arm. For one brief second, she saw black veins that wriggled like snakes sinking into her skin. Then she was on the ground with tears teaming from her eyes, struggling to breathe with no recollection of falling.
Acanthus was gone.
Ranunculus strode over and bent down beside her. Carefully, he took her wrist and made some thoughtful noises.
Then, he dropped it.
"Cursed," he proclaimed to the room. "A withering curse. If you've placed an order recently and are on the late end of her orders list, I would not count on receiving your clothing; like as not it won't get done."
"Just magic her into working condition," said a gnome by the wall.
Ranunculus glowered at him. "Do you have power greater than a proper Lord's? Because I don't."
There were grumbles around the room, and slowly the crowd dispersed. None of them offered Catharine any help, and she struggled to her feet alone.
"What will happen now?" she said, sniffing.
Ranunculus shrugged, unmoved. "You'll hurt," he said. "It looks like it's set to attack your joints. It'll start mild and get worse as time passes. Eventually, you won't be able to move your hands at all without pain." He tilted his head. "It's tough luck, Tailor Girl. Now I guess I'll just have to call you Girl."
And then he headed for the door. "It's been fun," he said over his shoulder. "Good luck."
And then he, too, was gone.
"Catharine?" said Mr. Bartleby. He held his head, as though pained. "What's going on?"
"I don't know about you," said Mr. Collins, rubbing his eyes. "But I've had the strangest dreams."
Catharine stared at them for a moment, then started to laugh. Then the laugh became a sob, and the sobbing became weeping. The two men rushed to her, helping her to her room.
It wasn't until later that night, after she had cried herself empty, that she realized Acanthus had taken the cloak with him.
* * * * *
Over the next few weeks, the pain in her joints worsened.
There were dozens of incomplete pieces of clothing in the workshop, and none of the New Clientele returned for any of them. Mr. Bartleby and Mr. Collins finished many of them or salvaged them for parts, all without question. But now, Catharine sensed, this wasn't due to some enchantment, but their own fear of what the answer might be. Catharine helped as best as she could, but the flare ups of pain became more and more frequent.
"It's rheumatism," Mr. Collins told her one day. He regarded the swelling of her wrist and finger joints sadly. "Absolutely tragic in one so young."
"I know of a doctor on Staten Island," said Mr. Bartleby. "He charges high, but is worth it, from what I've heard. And it isn't as though we're in want for money."
It was true. The months of fairy payments adding up had left the business in a fine state of affairs, and more than a few bits of payment over the entire ordeal had gone into Catharine's room directly. Money for both her and her employers was no longer an issue, at least not for the foreseeable future. She could afford a doctor.
"I suppose it can't hurt," she said, though she didn't hold much hope.
"I'll get the address," Mr. Bartleby said. "Mr. Collins can help you with the travel arrangements."
"Thank you," Catharine said, with feeling.
* * * * *
The middle of March found Catherine on her way south, traveling on a borrowed horse towards the ferry landing. Packed with her belongings was the magic candle, and the endless bottle, and the other unique objects of payment she had received. This included, though it hurt her heart to bring it, the tiny bouquet Acanthus had given her.
Maybe I'll sell it in New York, she told herself. Yes. I will sell it for good, human money, and I will never have to think of him again.
And, as though thinking of him had caught his attention, Catharine blinked and found that Acanthus himself was in the middle of the road, on a horse as black as the cloak he was wearing.
She scowled and brought her mount to the side, intending on giving him wide berth, but he dismounted and walked towards her.
"Catharine, wait," he said. "Please."
"Why?" she said, continuing on. "To thank me for the cloak you're wearing? Not good enough for you then, but you can wear it now, ehy?"
"I knew you couldn't repair the cloak."
"And yet you brought it to me anyway," she said, turning in the saddle.
"I needed a reason," he said.
"A reason for what? To curse me?"
He looked at her levelly, and Catherine felt her stomach drop.
"You did. You wanted to put a curse on me. Why?"
"You were never going to be finished with your work," Acanthus said. "They weren't going to let you go. There would always be another order, another garment to make or mend. It is the curse of all skilled craftsmen to be eternally busy."
He cracked a small smile at that, as though inviting her in on the joke. Catherine only stared, and the smile faltered and died. He took a step closer, and she urged her horse back, keeping the distance.
"Get away from me." She urged the horse on. "I want nothing more to do with you."
"No, Catherine--! Please, let me explain--"
She heard him hurrying behind her and kicked up the speed, not caring about the pain in her joints the rough ride was causing.
"Catherine Haggerty!" Danaeus hollered, his voice carrying unnaturally over the road. "Will you marry me?"
Catherine slowed the horse to a stop, patting her in apology for all the confusion.
"What did you say?" she called.
She allowed him to approach her, but didn't move towards him.
"Will you marry me?" Acanthus said again.
"Explain yourself," she said.
He drew in a deep breath. "The agreement was that none could kill or take you until you were no longer in the service of the Folk. And you would never be freed of their service. But now you're free. Their eyes have wandered elsewhere; everyone has heard of how I cruelly cursed their Tailor Girl and they've all lost interest in you. No one could stop you from joining my House. As my wife," he added. "If you were interested. You haven't given me an answer."
"I'm thinking," Catherine said. "You didn't ask me-- I mean now you have, but you didn't ask me before. You didn't tell me what your plan was--"
"It needed to be convincing," Acanthus said. He looked, Catherine was pleased to note, as though he were starting to realize what a poor plan it had been. "If anyone suspected it was a ruse to divert their interest, they would've never let you leave their service. If anything, that would have attracted more attention."
Catherine rubbed her wrist. "You cursed me."
"It was for the--" Acanthus suddenly stopped, unable to finish whatever sentence he'd intended. He tried again, "It was--" Again, the words died in his throat, and his eyes widened as he stared at her. After a moment, he hung his head. "I did."
"You yelled at me. You frightened me."
"I did. I am sorry."
"I'm on my way to see a doctor," she said. "Your magic hurt me. I doubt it will do any good, but he's going to see if there's anything human to help with the pain."
Acanthus flinched as if struck. "I can remove the curse," he said.
"Will you?" Catherine said. These sort of distinctions had become important in the last few months.
He held out his gloved hand to her.
"Give me your hand, and I will remove the curse."
He didn't look at her when he said it.
"You promise?" she said. "You'll take off the curse and won't-- I don't know. You won't replace it with another?"
"So I swear."
"Alright," she said, still suspicious. She placed her hand gently in his and slid off the horse.
The relief was immediate. For a moment, she closed her eyes and just allowed herself to enjoy the moment. Then, her eyes shot open.
"Wait a minute! My hand. . . Did you do what I think you just did?"
"Perhaps," he said. His face reddened and he seemed to shrink a little, even as he smiled at her.
"That was a dirty trick," she said.
"The only kind I know," he said.
"I was still thinking. I didn't say no, I said I was thinking!" She began to pace.
Acanthus said nothing, but watched with concern.
"You didn't even do it proper. You didn't go on one knee, you didn't ask my father, you don't have a ring--"
"If those are what is required, I will do them," he said quickly.
She stopped pacing.
"It's fine," she said, frustrated. "It's fine. I just-- what if I don't like it? What if you don't like me? What if I move into your castle, and we find out we hate each other?"
He stepped forward and took her hands in his.
"Then I make you a deal and a promise, Catherine Haggerty-Acanthus. If you find yourself at any time unhappy with me or the life you have with me, I will return you to your human home, or whatever alternative you choose. You need only ask, and I will bring you back, and you'll never need think of me again."
Catharine was silent for a moment.
"Yes," she said eventually. "That sounds fair."
He smiled, the brightest smile she'd seen from him yet. "Then come, let's be off."
He guided her to his horse and helped her up first. With a silent command, the black horse tore down the road, and to any onlookers, it would have seemed as though man, woman, and mount had disappeared in a gust of wind and flash of shadow.