The second book of The Unraveled Kingdom, an enchanting fantasy series featuring a seamstress who stitches magic into clothing, as she attempts to balance the impoverished community of her birth and the aristocratic circles into which she has risen.
Haven’t read book one, TORN? Read an excerpt from TORN here.
The Silk Fair had descended on Fountain Square in the middle of Galitha City, flooding the gray flagstones with color. I inhaled, catching the scent of silk fibers, block-print dyes, and some pungent damp wool on the faint summer breeze.
“All right, Alice.” My assistant caught up to me, already red-faced in the summer sun. She carried a list of necessary purchases and a ledger to keep track of our expenses, just as I usually did at the fair. This time, Alice was tabulating our purchases and watching our budget, practice for managing a shop herself someday. “Where should we start? Brocades? Wools?”
“We need more cotton,” Alice answered. “Those chemise gowns have been our most frequent commission in the past two months. I’ve already cut into our last bolt of voile.”
Though painfully pragmatic even when faced with row upon row of brilliantly hued silk, Alice was right—ever since I had designed and created a frothy, floating gown for Lady Viola Snowmont, crafted of finest voile and deftly gathered into a full bust and sleeves, our shop had been swamped with orders for similar pieces. The daring design had turned the tide for our shop; for one, only about a third of these fashion-forward women even requested my signature charms stitched into the hems and tucks of their chemise gowns.
“Fair enough—cottons first. Then silks.” My conspiratorial grin coaxed a smile from practical Alice. The promise of silk was hard to resist, even for Alice.
“Poor Emmi,” Alice said. Our newest hire was relegated to minding the shop and finishing some hems.
“Should I have brought Emmi instead?” I teased.
“No, of course not,” Alice replied. “After all, I’ll be managing the inventory, so I should learn the purchasing process. And, well, silk.” She finally cracked a grin, and I laughed. “Have you considered hiring another assistant?”
I sighed, sobered even as we passed a stall crammed with beautiful brocades. “I have. I’m just not sure—this could be a temporary uptick, and I would hate to fire someone a couple months after hiring her.”
“If I may, most out-of-work seamstresses would prefer a couple of months to nothing,” Alice said. “And there are plenty of out-of-work seamstresses.”
Alice wasn’t wrong—caution had followed the failed revolt at Midwinter, with some nobles leaving the city early for their summer estates, stalling building projects and limiting spending even from the city’s most confident consumers. Another side effect, I thought ruefully, that my brother and his coconspirators would never have guessed. My shop was unusually busy compared to my neighbors, and I had only the connections with Lady Snowmont’s set to thank for that.
“Wise counsel. And this is why you’ll make an excellent shop owner someday.” Once the Reform Bill that Theodor had been drafting since the Midwinter Revolt passed, starting a business would be simpler, unimpeded by the archaic legal thorns that currently snagged every step of the process. I was sure Alice would leave me someday for an atelier of her own.
“Cottons—here we are.” I passed several booths of less finely woven goods before finding the one I was looking for. I fingered the crisp edges of muslins and the soft drape of voiles. The merchant, a slight man from the Allied Equatorial States, hovered just inside a comfortable radius. Alice followed me like a puppy, waiting to note which selections I made.
“Do you like the voiles?” The merchant edged closer. “I have another five bolts just like that one—and this one is particularly fine,” he said, producing a lighter weight cotton.
“No, this weight is better—don’t you think, Alice?”
She nodded. “Too light and you’d see their underthings,” she said. The merchant cocked his head, confused.
“Alice, that’s brilliant! Imagine one of those gowns—with a bright pink sash—or deep blue—and an underpetticoat, matching. It would show through, just faintly.”
“But—you’d see their underthings,” she protested even as she yielded and handed me the lightest weight bolt to test the drape.
I bought two bolts of the lightest weight and three of the more substantial voile. Alice was right—the concept was daring. But I was sure some of Lady Snowmont’s set would be delighted with the idea. The merchant promised delivery within the hour. I knew it was more likely to be three, as his helper—probably one of his sons—attempted to navigate the side streets and alleys of sprawling Galitha City.
We stopped at one of my favorite silk merchants next. Over the years, I had made the West Serafan woman several health charms and she had always saved the best of her wares for me. As usual, Aioma was effluent in her enthusiasm when I entered her stall.
“Miss Sophie!” She bowed, which made me blush, even though I knew that deference to a guest was proper courtesy to Serafans. “I feel more alive, more full of health than when I made your acquaintance three years ago. I will dance at my daughter’s sheen-ata night this year!”
“Oh—I—very good,” I said, unsure what she meant.
“It is a tradition for wedding celebrations.” She laughed. “The women dance all night long before the bride and groom are joined. I will dance, thanks to your charms!”
I smiled awkwardly, and her gangly teenage son brought several bolts of fabric from under a table.
They were exquisite. I traced the lines of an intricate brocade, gold and pink and yellow on pale ivory, imagining the court gown it could make. A brilliant green was almost too bright to look at, but I thought of the silk-covered hat or pert caraco jacket it would make and grinned. And a pale, almost foamy blue organza seemed to float off its bolt.
“All of it,” I whispered.
Aioma insisted that we join her family for the midday meal. Alice gratefully accepted a mug of cold tea, and though I wasn’t familiar with the lettuce-wrapped meatballs and milky sauce Aioma served me, I enjoyed my lunch thoroughly.
We were halfway to the wool merchants before I remembered that I had wanted some fine book muslin for kerchiefs. The sun was hot, stronger than usual for early summer, and Alice was already wilting a bit, perspiration glistening at her hairline. “Why don’t you take a rest in the shade, and I’ll go find the muslin.” She agreed happily.
The square was growing more crowded. A pair of jugglers tossed slim orange rings to one another near the fountain, and strawberry sellers jockeyed for the best corners to hawk their wares. The Silk Fair pulled plenty of people, not only shop owners and seamstresses, from their everyday work into the center of Galitha City. The rich excess of fabrics, the brightly colored Serafan tents, the Kvys wool merchants who traveled with painted sheep—all a spectacle that any Galatine could enjoy.
I stopped between stalls of near-gaudy printed cottons and sturdy woven checked linen. One bolt caught my eye, a blue-and-white windowpane check that looked just like one of my brother’s shirts. I took an edge between thumb and forefinger; it was good-quality linen, but nothing special, nothing I couldn’t buy anytime. The indigo-blue crosshatches were common on working men’s shirts and women’s kitchen aprons, garments I didn’t make. Still, I smoothed the folded edge of the linen back onto the bolt with a gentle hand.
“Not really your specialty, is it?” The voice, too close to me and unsettling in its familiarity, made me jump.
Niko Otni leaned against a crate of osnaburg, flipping the frayed edge of the undyed, coarse linen between two fingers. My eyes widened, but I recovered my composure quickly. Despite his vocal disdain for me and his willingness to torch Galitha City to further the Red Cap goals, Niko couldn’t hurt me here. Especially given that he was, technically, still wanted for his participation in the violent insurrection and regicide.
“No, it isn’t,” I replied, forcing a level tone and sounding more prim than I intended. “Though fabric, on the whole, isn’t really your specialty, either.”
He cracked a smile. “I’m not exactly sharp with a needle,” he conceded. I could see why my brother had liked Niko; they shared a quick wit and I could sense bright good humor buried underneath Niko’s sharp tongue. Yet there was something unsafe about him, even now, under a blanching summer sun, a lack of compassion and an unrestrained motivation. If my brother was the pen of the revolution, Niko had been the blade. “But I’m not here for silk.”
I considered him as he fell into step beside me, his unbleached linen trousers and a short linen jacket left open over what had to have been his best shirt, with a finer-than-average ruffle at the opening. “If you wanted to have a chat, Mr. Otni, you could have dropped by my atelier.”
His smile faltered, slightly. “You know I couldn’t. I can’t exactly run around the commercial district making social calls. Still a wanted man, aren’t I?”
“I suppose the pardon did exclude the leadership of the revolt, yes.”
“It certainly did. They’ve been rather half-hearted about actually hunting us down, but the likes of me, trotting into your pretty shop?” He shook his head with a scolding cluck. “Noticeable. Reportable. Here? Half of Galitha City is here.” He shrugged as we passed a clutch of dockworkers buying strawberries from a round-cheeked country girl with bare feet. “And here I blend in. These blokes aren’t likely to turn me in even if they do recognize me,” he added, nodding toward a trio of men in patched trousers who laughed at a trained monkey fleecing the pockets of a fourth unfortunate man. The monkey’s keeper, in bright harlequin costume, met Niko’s eyes and bowed subtly.
“Fine.” I was losing my patience. The last person I wanted to see was Niko Otni, and the last thing I wanted to do was engage in a prolonged conversation with him. “You wanted something?”
“I think we both want something,” he answered. The smile faded, replaced with urgent gravity. “We want those reforms passed.”
“Of course we do.” I sighed, annoyed. “We all do. If you hunted me down just for that, you’ve wasted your time.”
“I wouldn’t say we all do.” Niko caught my arm and drew me into the shade of a sprawling flaxwood poplar, its seeds in their tow-colored tufts drifting past us on the faint breeze. “Plenty of voting members of the Council of Nobles don’t want reform, do they? Things are too nice for them just the way they are. And sure as shit they’ll vote against the reforms your prince is pushing.”
“Yes,” I replied carefully. I didn’t know every vote on the council, but many were vocally opposed to the reforms that had already been months in the drafting. “But I don’t vote, remember?”
“You talk to plenty of people who do,” Niko said. I assessed him, his best shirt starched at the collar, his hair clubbed carefully under a weather-beaten cocked hat that he pulled off in an awkward, earnest gesture. “This vote has to pass, or there will be another uprising.”
“You don’t have to threaten—”
“I’m not making threats.” He slapped the hat against his leg. “I’m just—I’m telling you. Drop the prissy act, will you?” He sighed. “At this point, you’re the closest thing to an ally in high places those of us still slogging through day wages have.”
“Believe me, Theo—Prince Theodor is taking all of this into consideration, and his small council will bring the Reform Bill to the Council of Nobles within the fortnight.”
“And if it doesn’t pass, what happens?”
I hesitated. The revolt had failed at Midwinter, but another uprising would be better thought out, less incumbent upon a single man’s plan, and fueled by what could only be seen as an utter failure by their own government. The people had risen up once, and their anger still simmered, ready and willing to boil over again. “I know,” I replied softly. “More blood.”
“Not just another revolt. A real revolution, fully organized and unwilling to yield. If they allow you to try this your way, with politics, and you fail them?” He shook his head with a low whistle.
“The price of failing will be unimaginable.”
“But the future doesn’t have to cost blood,” Niko said, earnest belief in the words.
A lump formed in my throat, awkward to talk around as I tried to ignore it. “That sounds like one of Kristos’s catchphrases.”
“It is. It’s new,” Niko said.
“You—is he here?” Panic pressed against the lump and made my voice catch. “He can’t—they might not catch you, Niko, but he’s not—”
“Calm down, and maybe don’t use my name.” Niko’s dark eyes narrowed.
I met them, stony and unflinching. “You don’t get to tell me to be calm, not about this. Tell me. My brother.”
“I’ve been keeping him informed of the situation here, and he’s been writing. I found a new printer and of course we still have our old distribution channels. No, I won’t tell you how or where or what his address is.”
“I wouldn’t ask,” I retorted.
“But it brings me to the point, Sophie. We’re working, on our end, to make promises that we can’t keep alone. Your brother’s writing is encouraging the people to hold fast and wait for the Reform Bill. That it’s enough. That they don’t need to riot or burn anything down.” He smirked. “I’m guessing you have no idea how many times I’ve told Red Caps down at the Rose and Fir to put the pitchforks away and wait. But they need to get something worth waiting for.”
“I agree completely,” I said. A tuft of flaxwood seeds settled on Niko’s shoulder. I resisted the impulse to pluck it off.
“Then do something. When you talk to those nobles, be a voice for us. I don’t think they’ll believe it when your prince claims the people are ready to take up arms again the way they’ll believe it when you tell them. You’re close enough to the ground to speak for the dirt.”
I didn’t like that analogy, but he was right. In the limited time I had spent with the nobles as Theodor’s guest, I felt both their disdain and their curiosity. “So you hunted me down just to ask me to talk more?”
“Be our voice.” He clutched the well-worn hat. Its top was bleached gray. “Help us. I—I know I wasn’t exactly kind to you this winter, and your brother never understood you or your insistence on spending your talents on nobles. You certainly didn’t make any friends spurning poor Jack in favor of being a noble’s doxy.” I bit my lip. “But I have to admit that you’re in a position we never could have dreamed of. It might lead to nothing, in the end. But damn it all, Sophie, use it.”
The lump in my throat grew again. I had managed to ignore, most days, that I returned alone to the row house I had shared with my brother every evening, to bury any sorrow over his absence in anger at how he had used me at Midwinter. But I did miss him, and deep in the pit of my stomach, a bitter kernel of worry often swelled into full-blown fear for him. I wanted, desperately, to ask if Kristos had any hand in seeking me out, if he had said anything about me. But I couldn’t. I didn’t want to know any more about my brother in exile, not really. Knowing meant being responsible for keeping that information safe. I needed the distance.
I straightened. I needed the distance from Niko, too. I couldn’t be tied up with a fugitive, and I didn’t want to risk Kristos’s life by knowing any more about his whereabouts. “You have my word, Niko. I will advocate for what I can, when I can.” Even, I knew, if it meant driving a deeper wedge between me and the nobles that made up Theodor’s world. “But don’t contact me again.
“I will have little trouble,” Niko replied with a grin like cracked porcelain, “keeping that promise.”