These young girls, they come in from the cornfields of Kansas, or arrive covered in ash from sleeping on their stepmother’s hearth, or appear all tattered from their hundred years in a vine-covered tower, and they always need new clothes. You can’t be married in blue gingham or patched flannel or silk gone cobweb-thin with age. So they take what we make, and they never question where it comes from. Every garment, from garters to gloves, will fit perfectly.
As though it’s magic.
And it is. Of course it is. But magic doesn’t work the way you think. Magic didn’t harpoon the whales whose bones your maid draws tight around your ribs. Magic didn’t shear the sheep or dye the wool or weave the thread or felt the cloth so you could have a winter cloak, red as blood, warm as blood, the cloak that lets you travel through the wolf-woods without fear. Magic didn’t force mulberry leaves into the endless grinding maws of silkworms so you could wear their death shrouds on your wedding day.
That’s not how magic works at all.
When a new maiden comes to the crystalline city or the high castle with turrets like a bundle of spears or the kingdom by the sea, we will hail her as our new queen, young, lithe, lovely.
A silent servant will lead her over floors of white marble that reflect back their smudged shapes: ghostly figures moving ever-into the heart of the palace. They will pose her in front of a wardrobe and fling wide the doors. Out will shine gowns of ruby, gowns of flame, gowns as glowing-green as grass and lilac-leaves, green as the deepest parts of the sea the sun can never touch. No one has ever looped a measure around the maiden’s neck, her waist, her back, but each gown will fit perfectly. Even heroines have slightly crooked shoulders, one hip-bone that juts out further, small quirks of figure that no one has ever judged worth noticing– no one except us.
Perhaps she will take a moment to look at the tiny stitches laid into the hem. Perhaps she will lift up the lining and see the basting, the catch stitching, the hours of careful, back-aching work that went into every seam. One time out of a hundred, she might notice the sturdy cotton tape that reinforces the seams, or the hand-worked buttonholes, or the interlining behind the heavy beaded silk, and she will recognize that it was human hands, not magic, that put it all together. She knows how long it took, in her old life, to sew a single patch onto her one cinder-stained frock. She left her ash-choked hearthside just yesterday, but this wardrobe, full of rich good things fit for a princess, is the work of years.
Few of the girls dared question the finery. Some took double handfuls of fabric and clenched them tight, afraid it would vanish like sea-foam. Some turned their heads up as they wept in joy so their tears would not spot the fine silks. One grasped my twisted old hand hard and murmured her thanks in a prayer. It was thanks to the entirely wrong people, of course, but I still smiled.
Only one of them ever went further. Only one of them ever asked what happened to the old queen.
That particular pauper-princess was trouble from the start. I met her when I went to help her dress, that first night after her victory. She was standing in front of her wardrobe, still wearing drab wool and looking so deep into the mirror that her brow touched the silvered glass. They’re always soft of hair and bright of eye, always lovely, but this one had a twist in her mouth and a glance that took in too much.
“She can’t have always been the old queen,” she said to her reflection. “She can’t have always been ugly and jealous.”
She pulled back, but she wasn’t looking at the vibrant row of silks and satins glowing in the wardrobe. Her eyes flicked down. I tensed as she dropped to her knees and picked a single black feather off the floor. It dangled, limp and broken, from her fingers.
“Where have I seen these before?” she asked herself, and her eyes went distant for a moment as she questioned her memories. I didn’t have to try. Like magic, like memory, the old queen’s cloak was under my hands, and I was stitching down those black feathers. We picked them because we saw, years before it came to pass, that she would fight her last battle on the crags in the wind and the rain.
We saw her fall.
Perhaps my sisters merely appreciated how the black feathers would set off the striking scene, their fronds boiling and curling in the wind as she fell into the mist. Some secret, rebellious part of me that wanted them for a different reason. I wanted one of our girls-turned-crones, just one, to win. As I stitched each feather down, I begged that one would find a way, like the dark birds, to fly.
Perhaps that one feather worked its way free from the old queen’s cloak because I had been careless, wishing and hoping for impossible things when I should have been attending to my work. Perhaps it fell for another reason.
“My lady,” I whispered. My shadow fell over the young girl’s form as I stepped closer. I reached down with both hands, wanting to clap my hands over the loose feather the way you might stamp out a spark before it sets the dead grass on fire. “It’s nothing. It’s a mistake. Let me take it.”
She rose and curled her hands in towards her breast, hiding the feather from me. Her eyes were cold and hard as winter sky.
“These rooms,” she demanded. “How many have lived here before me?”
I was silent.
“Well?” Her voice was smooth as ice, hard as marble.
“I was trying,” I replied, “to count them all. There have been–”
“There have been too many!” she exclaimed. “There has always been a young girl coming to this castle as the new queen. There has always been an old queen, always a coup. And then what happens: one becomes the other?” Her laugh was jagged. “Oh, she was here just hours ago. She was sleeping in that bed last night.”
“It’s the way things go round,” I said. “It’s the only way we make things work.”
She turned her back to me to face the wardrobe. She stood with one hand on either door, breathing hard for a moment. The tempo calmed as she opened the door and stroked her wedding gown. Her roughened fingers caught on the fine rows of gathered stitches that had taken three full weeks to lay down. She breathed deep, exhaled.
Then she went mad.
She tore down a ballgown of sea-green dupioni. It ripped free of its hanger, and tiny turquoise beads pattered free onto the marble floor. She tossed it behind her, but the stiff silk stayed half-standing for a moment before the fabric crumpled and collapsed. She wrenched out linen nightgowns, white as snow, light as meringue, and they fluttered through the air behind her like ghosts. She crushed the little pointed dancing slippers she found nestled in cedar boxes, and she knit her fingers into embroidered shawls and tore until the fine yarn popped like sinews under wildcat fangs.
“Stop!” I screeched, rushing forward. “Stop, stop!”
She whirled to scratch at me, too. Her sharp nails traced lines across my neck. She screamed and struggled, but I caught her hands and held them there.
I drew a breath and screamed back.
“You stupid, stupid girl! That was years of work! That was worth more than the entire coal-scuttle you call a hometown, you ungrateful, wretched creature!”
Her braid had come loose, and her hair writhed between us like willow-boughs thrashing in the wind. She watched me from behind it with bright wet eyes. She looked wilder than she had after she threw the sorceress down from the crags. She had watched a woman fall to her death with calm, with relief, but she could not face the clothing we had set out for her.
“What would you rather do?” I hissed. She fought against the grip I had on her wrists, but I could see that she was listening. “You can go home and sweep the hearth and eat burnt crusts until you die, or you can stay and rule. Those are your choices. There is no other.”
With a wild effort, she tore free of me and lunged across the room to the bed. She flung herself onto its surface, crying and choking, clutching at the tufted quilt.
I have heard tell of soothsayers who can read the future in the entrails of chickens. I felt, as I looked at the wreckage of the dresses on the floor, that I ought to be able to do the same, but I could read no answer there.
“Don’t worry,” I told her, though I knew she couldn’t hear me over her sobs. “You have nothing to worry about. You’ll never have to worry about anything again.”
And it wasn’t a lie. We had arranged it all. We had finished her wedding dress the year she turned eight. We had seen her, grown and lovely, when she was still a tiny child. Before her father died, before she had a wicked stepmother, we knew that she would come to us someday. We had the lace dressing gown she would wear to birth her son wrapped up in tissue-paper upstairs, waiting his conception. And on that night before her wedding, after she ruined what, for any other seamstress, would have been a lifetime’s labor, I went back to the workroom and laid the final stitches into the last gown she would ever wear. It was a harsh cut, an old-woman cut, fit for a creature thin of shoulder and sharp of bone. She wouldn’t need it for decades yet, but someday, she would pull it on gladly. It had a high collar, a clinging skirt, and a cloak as black as shadow, lined with silk the color of bruised flesh. And, because I am cruel, because I am kind, I opened a tiny drawer in a dusty chest and drew out the last handful of feathers, dark as soot. I dressed the mannequin in that final gown and with tiny, careful stitches, I again tacked feathers from a raven onto the cloak’s shoulders: just a few, just enough to remind her.
She would not always be young and beautiful. The knowing would build in her heart, turning her bitter and cold, as it had all the others. One day a new girl would appear, fresh-faced and lovely, and she would take the old queen’s place. This is how the kingdoms turn. This is the cycle, sure as summer turns to fall.
We know when they’re coming. The prince always swears he would have rescued her sooner if he had known to seek her, that he would have moved mountains to spare his one true love a single hour of misery. I cannot answer for the princes. I can’t say who sews their doublets or tacks down their futures. The princes, for all that they profess love for those bright-as-sunlight girls, never ask us when she’ll appear. Perhaps they don’t know how to find us. Perhaps they’d rather not know. But we are here.
In a sunny, seldom-visited loft in every castle, every crystal city, every kingdom-by-the-sea, there are three women working with needle and thread. We cut the cloth and drape the folds and stitch layers together, and as we work, we spare the occasional glance for the mirrors that brighten the room, or the fog swirling outside the windows, or the reflections off the tea kettle. We scry the future out of the corners of our eyes.
We take our time. We do good work. There’s never any rush.
That princess wore her wedding dress the next day. It was hastily mended, though only we knew about the long, hurried stitches holding together its seams, and the hollows under her eyes were dark with shadows, but she was still so beautiful that songbirds followed her down the aisle. She birthed babies, all pink cheeks and golden hair as fine as silk floss, and she did not weep when, one by one, they grew up and went off to seek their own kingdoms.
She was young and beautiful, until, one day, she wasn’t.
The day her husband died, she called me into her chambers with the white marble floors. I have never been a beauty, but my hands were strong and sure as I held up the last gown that she would wear. She did not move to take it from me.
“Have you seen the next girl?” she asked.
I hesitated, but it was no use.
“Six years ago.”
She took the dress out of my hands. She wore her dressing gown, the one she had worn at the birth of each her children. It was old. It had been blue when we made it, but now it was just the color of the sky on a hazy-hot day.
Outside, the wind keened over the crags. Far off, a girl trekked to the site of her first battle.
“You three always did such lovely work,” the old queen said. “And it was a better life than sweeping the hearth.”
I saw it in the set of her shoulders. I saw it in the twist of her mouth. She grabbed the neckline of the final dress and tore.
The fabric gave way under her hands. Stitches popped, and threads burst. The fabric purred as she ripped it all the way to the hem. The black feathers burst loose and swirled about her feet. She let the two halves dropped to the floor and stepped over them.
“I’ll go to meet her,” she said. She threw her shoulders back and looked down at me. “But I’m not going to meet her in black.”
Because she was the cleverest of all her kind, I practically saw her thinking as she walked out of the castle and down to the crags. The clouds were already gathering. I saw her fingers twitch, and I was ready when she turned back to me.
“I’m old,” she called. The wind yanked at the lace on her dressing-gown. “I’m weak. And you always did such good, strong stitching.”
I bowed my head and said nothing. Under her long gaze, I said nothing of how silk must be washed carefully, without caustic soap, lest its threads weaken. I said nothing of how fine fabric must be kept wrapped away so it cannot be eaten by the harsh light of the sun. I said nothing about thread spun too loosely, or stitches placed too far apart. I spoke only once she had turned her back and walked away. Spoke only to myself.
“I do perfect work. You know that. You knew.”
The next princess was fair of face and bright of eye, and she never asked who the old queen had been. I’m not sure if I’m sorry about that, either. Understanding how the magic works just means that you can know, and dread, what is to come. That clever one, the one with the wry smile and the leftover raven feathers, went to her death smiling. She knew that her fate had been stitched down long before we met. Sometimes we try to be kind, sometimes we try to twist it, but the threads snare and knot and twine together again, no matter what we will.
I went back into the castle, into all of the castles, and readied myself for the next girl to become the old queen.