"That Sophie Hatter! What a drab little mouse she is." Tasia skipped backwards tossing her beribboned curls, leading the way as usual. In her own inimitable, irrepressible way.
Keren pattered after her, her shiny and impractical shoes wanting to slip on the cobbles. "She never says a word, does she? It's such a shame, since her sisters are so lively."
"She has a pretty face but her clothes! Did you see the dress she wore the other day? Such a quaint pattern!" Leryce held out her own skirts admiringly, the flounces double-tucked, showing both colors of the weave, and contrasting beautifully with the main fabric. “I would never wear such a plain and outmoded thing. You’ll not catch me in grey!”
“We will never be mice,” Tasia declared as they turned the corner, “and our sisters shan’t ever put us in the shade, either.” The three girl’s bright dresses disappeared from view as their voices faded.
Perhaps the Wizard Howl would take all three of them at once, Sophie thought as she turned her back to the shop. The weather was too nice not to have the windows open, and ordinarily she was glad of the breeze in her little alcove. Today it seemed to be full of rude voices. Sophie gritted her teeth and poked her needle rather savagely into the ribbon she was stitching onto a bonnet. "Never you mind what people say," she told the hat, "you'll outlast any trend or fashion."
“Oh,” said the tall young woman with her nose not quite pressed to the glass of the hat-shop display window. “It’s perfect. That one, over in the corner — the blue-grey bonnet with the ribbons.” She turned to her companion, a figure difficult to focus on, though she seemed to have no doubt of his (for all the indistinctness, he was still somehow male) attention and presence. “Don’t you think so?
Her companion conveyed agreement. The woman’s smile quite illuminated her strong-boned face. That hat would be such an improvement over the cumbersome and unfortunate thing she currently made do with.
Of course, it helped that the hat was a simple one, with classic, clean lines and not much in the way of frou-frou to get dated, or even stand out in any spectacular way. Though, given that it was Sophie who’d made the declaration of the bonnet’s timeless appeal, even though she had no idea at the time that her words had any such power, even if it had been more along the lines of something Royal Wedding-ish or operatic, it would still have become something iconic. It just would have been differently iconic. As it was, the straightforward practicality and understated elegance made it an ideal choice for the new uniform of her school, the oldest and most sought-after establishment of higher education for the benefit of nobly and gently reared young women.
And, because the ways of magic are strange, especially in the world of which Ingary was but a small part, and the world itself but one of a strand of Highly Improbable Outcomes, the dress acquired a not inconsiderable element of the same enduring quality.
“Mrs Hatter, I would like to purchase that bonnet in the corner of the window, the one with the ribbons in that neat fold at the side. And if I may, I would like to buy the pattern as well, though of course the original shall always stay with me.”
“Oh, Sophie will be flattered. Certainly.” Fanny could see at a glance that the bonnet would look very well on the woman. (She was hardly more than a girl, but there was a classic element to her face, and considerable assurance and grace to her carriage. Fanny almost wondered who she was, but the thought fled before she could pursue it further.) “Sophie! Come out here a minute, please.”
When Sophie appeared, she was wearing the blue version of her grey shop-dress. The customer was nearly as taken with the dress as with the hat. “My dear, did you make the dress as well? Might I — and you may say no, certes — take the pattern? It will go so well with the bonnet.”
Sophie nodded, almost dazzled by the woman’s happiness. “Shall I draw it for you?”
“No need, my companion has an excellent eye. You do very good work, you know.” But Sophie wasn’t looking at her, and the comment slid away. Venetia sighed to herself. It would take another’s magic, and Sophie’s own, for Sophie to find her own esteem. But it would happen.
“Welcome, Ladies. I am sure your families must be very proud of all of you. St. Venetia is also proud to have you as students.” The headmistress was a striking figure, tall and surprisingly young-looking. “You will all be pleased to know that as of this year, we have a new uniform, a considerable improvement over the previous, I’m sure you will all agree.”
The almost unnervingly silent servants were presenting each of the new students with garment and hat boxes, silvery grey tied with blue. The headmistress continued, “These are your day-dresses, made to the measures you provided with your acceptance letters. You will find more of the same, as well as your athletic and formal ensembles, in your rooms.”
Tasia and Keren and Leryce all looked at each other in dawning horror. The deceptively simple garment in the box was uncomfortably familiar. Here they were, at the very most exclusive school not just in Ingary, but in all the surrounding kingdoms — Strangia, High Norland and even Dorimund and Alberia — and what were they to wear but the plain, quaint frock they had so despised on that Sophie Hatter. Not to mention the hat. Bonnet. Cap. Thing that would sit on their heads for the next three years.
Except, really, when you looked more closely, both bonnet and dress were kind of flattering, even on Leryce’s curves and Tasia’s angles, not to mention Keren’s more conventional prettiness, and both had a certain elegance to them. Not that the girls would any of them ever, ever admit that. Not even to Lady V herself.
Valeria (named for her many-times great-grandmother, the Princess of Ingary) elbowed her best friend Keren-Sophia as they looked at the mannequin cycling through the sequence of dresses, returning time and again to the simple blue one. “See? I told you it was all true.”
“But how can it be? That was hundreds of years ago.” Keren made a face along with her token protest.
“That’s because it’s magic. Even Lady Venetia says so.” But then, Lady V was at least as old as the outfit, if not the school itself, if one believed all the stories.
Keren tugged at Valeria’s sleeve. “We’d better get back with the others, we’ll be missed.”
Valeria allowed Keren to pull her away, back to the small crowd of young women, all of them dressed neatly and attractively in simple blue dresses and blue-grey bonnets with a twist of ribbon over one ear.