The narrow, two-storey house was small but well-built, with rust-coloured tiles on the roof and a thick, sturdy wooden door on the front, just on the outskirts of the town’s fabric district. Stiles had lived there all his life. His first memories were of getting underfoot upstairs as his mother baked and cooked in the evenings, tangling young limbs in the bright threads of cotton as she spun downstairs and being lulled into hypnotised silence as her nimble fingers wove fantastical beasts and delicate flowers from seemingly nothing. During the day, she would have him sit on the scrubbed wooden counter and suck on a sugar sweet as customers complimented her on her fine weaving and pretty designs, or watch, enraptured, as she fashioned masks from cardstock and cloth, and rosettes from fabric. His father, a peace officer of the town, was always gone in the mornings before he roused, but by the time the little shop had shut and the stew was almost finished bubbling on the hearth, he was home. His ruddy, worn face eased into smile lines as his large hand cupped the back of his head fondly, letting Stiles help disrobe him of his blue gendarme’s coat, wrapping both of them into his bear-like arms.
Being a bluecoat didn’t pay well, and his mother’s creations, beautiful as they were, often gathered more dust on the walls of the shop than coins in her hand. Regardless of their shortcomings, what little they had was good, and, despite not having as many toys as the other children in town, Stiles was happy. His father was the absolute embodiment of heroism in his eyes, and his mother, with her soft, brown hair, tender smile and soft singing voice as she spun, the personification of gentleness. Once he was old enough to stay (mostly) out of trouble, he helped his mother dust the shelves and wax down the wooden counter downstairs, and, between absorbing his numbers and letters, learnt how his mother spoke with customers, took commissions and jobs, and exchanged coin. Under her watchful eye, he breezed through his studies much faster than anyone would have expected, and soon enough he was manning the counter, helping fill in the little booklet of orders with pencil, his handwriting choppy and nowhere near as elegant as his mother’s looped script.
Some evenings, they’d sit by the hearth and his mother would attempt to teach him to spin. His fingers were quick and clever enough to handle the basics, but somehow he never quite seemed to master the delicate grace of the woven craft. One evening, his father’s work trousers came apart at the pocket seam, and Stiles found himself sitting at his mother’s knee with a needle in his hand, her patient instructions slowly guiding him through the mend. His stitches were a little wobbly and uneven at first, but soon enough the tear was mended, good as new. His father clapped him on the shoulder proudly, beaming at his work, and Stiles felt a swell of joy so great he thought his heart might just burst.
He decided to apply for an apprenticeship at a local tailor when he turned seven. His mother could only teach him so much when it came to sewing, and he’d taken over the household chores of mending and darning when the need arose. His nimble fingers and thirst for knowledge delighted both his parents, even if sometimes his boredom led him to mischief, exasperating them and his neighbours with his silly antics. He’d begged and pleaded for days until she’d relented with a fond sigh, the upward curve of her lips belying the exasperated expression on her face.
“A tailor is a fine profession,” his father crowed proudly as they ate supper one night, after he and his mother recounted their trip further into town to Deaton’s, an old friend of his father. It had been, by far, the most nerve-racking experience of his life, and even with being almost grown (he was seven!), Stiles had held his mother’s hand the entire walk there, barely speaking a word and quivering with nerves as if he were being led to the gallows. Deaton had been a good sort, a soft-spoken man with an enigmatic smile, pleased to see that, in the face of Stiles’ young age, he’d found a career path worth pursuing. He’d kindly shut his door to the outside and showed Stiles and his mother around his workshop, explaining the different cottons he used, the length and width of the needles he used, the strangely-shaped rulers with gentle curves.
“Seven is a little young to be an apprentice,” he’d said, “But learning waits for no man – or youth, in this case. If you’re truly interested in taking up a vocation as a tailor, I would be more than glad to take you under my tutelage.”
Thus, Stiles found himself at Deaton’s for two days a week, grasping a lunch in a folded kerchief as his mother walked him to the other man’s store early in the mornings.
“I’ll miss my little man on the days when you aren’t here,” she laughed a little wistfully, patting him on the back as Stiles darted through Deaton’s doors, the chime above the entrance tinkling sweetly. He was still far too young to work on anything, or be paid, but Deaton was a patient man, and kept his childish, flighty attention focused at all times. When Stiles wasn’t running errands for him like buying buttons in the market or fetching him tools, he stood behind the man and watched with rapt attention as the older man talked while he worked, showing him how he drew the lines of the suit on fabric with tailor’s chalk, how long and spaced apart a basting stitch should be and why. He taught Stiles different types of stitches, and assigned him a square foot of calico to practice his tacks on as a sampler, which Stiles worked on diligently. His mother labelled the different stitches in pencil, and Deaton nodded approvingly when presented with the sampler. In four months, Stiles had learnt enough to be allowed to sew buttons onto cuffs and suit fronts with careful, neat stitches. Deaton wouldn’t let him do any more for the time being, but Stiles was glad enough to be of use, and for every dozen buttons he tacked on, Deaton would pay him with a copper penny.
“Your work saves me a lot of time, Stiles,” Deaton would often smile at him, “And I’m confident that, within a few years, you’ll be doing far more work for me than sewing buttons. You might as well enjoy the peace while you can – I feel that you’ll soon be a very busy young man.”
His mother became sick in the winter. The rosiness ever-present in her cheeks dulled to a white pallor that, despite her insistences of merely being struck with the winter chills, never seemed to get any better. Her weaving took longer and longer, until her graceful hands shook too much to do anything at all, and eventually she stopped spinning altogether. Her smiles turned into weak, watered-down imitations of what they’d once been, and her voice became watery and frail, too frail to sing and fill their house with music. Deaton was understanding beyond measure, giving Stiles as much time as he needed away from the store to help tend to her, but regardless of his ever-present care, Stiles’ mother grew wan and fragile, her hands paper-thin and almost insubstantial upon the sheets of her bed. She slept long hours with Stiles sitting at her bedside, reading book after book, sometimes aloud to her, sometimes quietly to himself, his throat too constricted to utter a single sound.
While she slept, he made vegetable soups and hearty, warm stews from her recipe books to put flesh back into her bones, but her appetite was light, and often she struggled keeping food down. The lines on his father’s face deepened with worry as they ate their supper together in the evenings, the silence of the house interspersed with the occasional coughing from his parents’ room.
“The medicine – it isn’t working,” Stiles murmured, pushing a carrot through his soup listlessly with his spoon.
His father didn’t say anything. Stiles could read his face like an open book, though, and the sentiments you’re a good son, I’m glad you’re here with her, I couldn’t do any of this without you, were written plain as day on his honest countenance. They made him feel as though his efforts weren’t nearly all worthless, that perhaps things would get better.
For a little while, they’d been convinced that she was beginning to recover, because she’d been eating a little more, staying awake for longer periods of time. She spoke to Stiles for hours on end about their family, how she’d met his father, how they’d gotten married under the large beech tree in the forest nearby, close to a rundown chapel. His father had taken some time off his patrols, and stayed with her night and day. It was funny, how the saying went, that a candle burned its brightest before it extinguishes.
He was eight when his mother died. She slipped away during the night, his father holding her hand, a small, sincere smile on her lips. Stiles was asleep – he woke up to the sound of his father’s sobs in the next room over, and his own, little heart shattering into a thousand fragments. Stiles’ mother had burned so brightly that she’d only burned half as long.
They buried her beneath the beech where his parents had married, then a small funeral plot with a half-dozen graves scattered around it, their headstones still polished and smooth. Only a handful of people came to the service, Deaton included, and his hand was a comforting weight on Stiles’ narrow shoulder.
“Claudia was a gift to this world,” he murmured afterwards in his reassuring voice, while his father stood beside them, face wrecked with grief. “I’ll understand if you wish to take some time to yourself. My door is always open to you, Stiles – you’ve been by far the most enthusiastic apprentice I’ve had.”
It was almost four months after his mother died before Stiles could bring himself to leave the house again. His father had returned to work after only a couple of weeks, money a necessity in their lives, and Stiles spent just about every day at Deaton’s, learning the art of tailoring under his watchful eye. He cooked and cleaned and kept the house in order, and dined with his father in the evenings. Sometimes his father had to work the occasional night shift, to cover the coin that his mother used to make with her weavings. They didn’t need to buy as much food anymore, since it was only the two of them, so they got by on his father’s income and Stiles’ infinitesimal pay.
They worked, and they got on with their lives. Stiles slowly began to suture up the hole in his heart, and though neither of them were quite the same, time brought them closer together. The scar of their missing piece is always there, always present in the woven tapestries on the wall that neither of them have the heart to pack away.
He was young still when his father passed, seventeen, still honing his skills at stretching fabric so the warp and weft of it are even, finding the grain and bias of cloth with his eye rather than aligning the square ruler against the selvage. He had three embroidered waistcoats, five sashes, a cassock, and more jabots than he could count under his belt, Deaton pleased enough with his skills to give him actual commissions and pay, well on his way to being a fully-qualified tailor. Tara, one of his father’s workmates, burst into Deaton’s store that fateful day, chest heaving with exertion, and told Stiles that his father had collapsed while on patrol. Deaton didn’t say a word as he ushered them both out of his shop, locking the door quickly behind them as they rushed back to Stiles’ house.
According to the physician, it was his weak heart that caused him to collapse, despite Stiles’ conscientious care and fastidious conviction with eating healthy meals. He stayed at home for a week, looking after his ailing parent, and his father managed to stay awake long enough for each of them to say goodbye, to reaffirm how much they love each other.
“I was always proud,” he wheezed, face ashen as he gripped Stiles’ hand in his own, hard enough for their bones to creak. Stiles only then realized how much smaller his father appeared than he remembered – always the hulking, bear-like figure with the ruddy, proud face. “You and your mother, you are the two greatest things that have happened to me in this life.”
They buried his father under the beech tree, beside his mother. His father had never felt complete when she’d gone, but at least they were together again, even in death. Deaton stood beside him at the service, and Stiles, almost a man, didn’t feel ashamed at all when the tears ran freely down his face. Deaton had been named as his guardian until he finished his apprenticeship, and, even being his ward, Stiles was given the freedom to choose whether or not he wanted to continue living in his family’s home. Stiles couldn’t imagine anywhere else he’d rather be, so he stayed.
He was given a month off work with pay, and Deaton practically forced him to stay away from the shop, despite Stiles feeling as though he’s taking advantage of Deaton’s abundant kindness. So Stiles mourned, broke apart, and took the time to slowly put himself and his life back together again. He cleaned the house, but didn’t throw anything of his parents’ away. He prepared to move on with his life, as usual. And when he returned to Deaton’s after a month, it was with full pay and more responsibilities than ever, seeing as Deaton was relying on him as his head-cutter and drafter now.
Stiles worked, and life went on.
. o O o .
“These gloves are amazing, Stiles,” Scott gushed, tracing the embroidered vine leaves along the wrists, and, although he’d been making things for the young Lord for years, Stiles still can’t get used to the compliments directed at his work. His tailoring business is located at his house now, five years since completing his tailoring apprenticeship. He’s twenty-three, and while his business isn’t exactly booming, he’s made enough of a name for himself in town as a fine tailor with a good eye for detail, and he’s gotten a few return customers, and some exclusively requesting his skills. Lord McCall was, by far, one of his best and most loyal customers, and closest friend. Even without requesting an order, it would not be uncommon for him to visit Stiles at his shop, or for them to have meals together.
“I do believe you’re sorely mistaken, Scott,” he smiled in return, sheathing his snips into his tool roll on the bench, smoothing down the fabric edges with his nimble fingertips. Despite Scott’s high status as a Lord in town, they were close friends, and at ease with each other enough to forego formalities and call each other by their given names. Scott’s mother, Melissa, was a famous physician at court, one of the few female practicing the arts of healing, and had made quite a name for their family. He was, what they called, ‘New Money’, and some looked upon that with scorn. Stiles, however, found the young Lord easier to speak to, since Scott’s attitude was more down to earth than most he knew.
“Pish posh, you know you’re the only tailor I’ll pay coin to,” the other youth smiled, taking a small satchel of coin from his pocket and settling it onto the table. “I don’t care what people may think, I believe you’ve the finest stitchwork in all the country. You’re the only one I’ll trust to make my clothes now, especially when it’s so fun to stay and chat. The other tailors are so dreadfully boring compared to you,” his smile was warm and lopsided as he spoke, sincerity radiating from his honest, sweet face.
“Flattery gets you everywhere,” Stiles returned, hefting the little bag of coins. His eyebrows rose higher as the coins clinked inside, and, pulling the drawstrings open, he was surprised to see a couple of gold coins settled among the silver. “Scott, this is far more than the gloves are worth. I can’t accept this payment, it’s too much.”
“It’s what you should charge, Stiles. These gloves, the waistcoat you embroidered for me last month, everything you make is so wonderful, and it’s almost a crime at how low your prices are. Now, I won’t hear any arguments,” his hand rose between them, effectively cutting off Stiles’ retort, “Consider it a gratuity for the constant excellence of your work.”
“Whatever,” Stiles scoffed back, pocketing the coins. “It’s your loss, Lord McCall. Just don’t be surprised if the prices I begin charging you are higher than usual.”
“Serves me right, then,” he replied with a smile, tucking the new gloves into his belt. A few minutes of idle chatter, and then Scott was gone, off to see to some business or other, or accept another fancy invite from his busy social schedule. Tired from the hard day’s work, Stiles flipped the sign on his shop and closed the door, done for the day.
It still felt strange, sometimes, working from the same downstairs studio where his mother spun and sold her works. Now the building belonged to Stiles alone, and spoke of nothing but a busy tailor. Isaac, an old friend of his, had helped him to build shelves and a cutting table for the workshop, but aside from that, all the furniture was the same from his mother’s day, including the scrubbed wooden counter at the front, and the comfortably worn, oak chair that she spent hours sitting on, weaving her fantastical designs. Scrubbing a hand over his face, Stiles spent a few minutes tidying his things away, sliding his shears back into their rightful place, righting his pincushions, needle tray and measuring tapes.
Some days he felt fine, living in this house, running his own business. Deaton had taught him so much, before his retirement, that he felt confident enough in his craft to know could survive on his income. But that was also part of the problem – he could survive, yes, but he wasn’t particularly living. And while he was doing something he loved, it wasn’t how he’d imagined spending the rest of his days – living in his childhood home with the ghost of his parents upstairs. Stiles shrugged his shoulders offhandedly as he swept the stray threads off his worktable into the wastebasket, not wanting to waste any more thought on the subject. He supposed it could be worse – he could be stuck in a career he despised, or be out on the streets without a roof over his head. He shouldn’t really wish for anything so far out of his reach, like thrills or excitement. It wasn’t living, but it was what he had, and it would do just fine.
His workspace clean, Stiles trudged upstairs to change into more comfortable clothes, perhaps bathe later, and see what he could dredge up from the pantry for supper. His mind was too weary to even think about working more on his own suit, tucked away in the work cupboard below.
. o O o .
“Come on, tell me what the matter is,” Scott urged, leaning over the counter as Stiles sketched away on paper. “You’ve been in a mood for days, ever since I commissioned that new suit off you for next month.”
“It’s nothing,” Stiles waved carelessly, putting the final touches on the design with pencil before turning it around on the desk to face Scott. “How does this look?”
“Perfect!” the young Lord enthused, his face lit up with a grin as he virtually gushed over the design. “This is absolutely brilliant – you’re sure that you’ll have this done by then?”
“It’ll be a bit of a stretch, especially if I have any other orders coming in, but I’m sure I could do it.” To be perfectly honest with himself, Stiles hadn't received any new orders yet, but he knew the end of the month was a special occasion – the Hale family’s annual ball, and he’d soon be swamped with orders for embroidered kerchiefs, sashes, almost anything, really. His embroidery was fine and in demand at this time, but even he knew that he’d be piling on too much work on his plate. Still, it’d be a welcome distraction from the event itself.
“Stiles – this is an incredibly important suit – I’ll – I’ll pay your wages for the entire month until it’s finished!” Scott leaned forward and grabbed his hands between his own, his face intent. “If you take nobody else’s orders but my own, it’ll definitely get done, right?”
“You can’t ask that of me, Scott!” he replied, his face slack with shock. “You – you’re suggesting I literally close my door to everybody else until after the ball? Do you know how much that’ll cost you in earnings? You’re mad.”
“I don’t care,” Scott argued back, the grip on his hands tightening. “I’m prepared to pay you whatever you want, as long as this gets done. It’s vital.”
“What’s so significant about this suit in particular?” Stiles probed with an inquisitorial raise of his eyebrow. “You seem awfully fixated on it.”
“It’s – argh!” The other youth stepped back, running a hand nervously through his close-cropped curls. He cast his gaze around suspiciously, as if to seek out eavesdroppers. “Alright – look, you know Allison, right?”
“You mean Lady Argent? The same Lady Argent that you’ve been hopelessly smitten for since she moved to the capital a few years ago? The same Lady whom you wax poetic over every single time you come in for a fitting?” Stiles grinned conspiratorially, leaning his elbows down on the wooden counter. “I’m fairly sure I’ve heard every poetic synonym describing the flowing texture of her hair, rosy hue of her cheeks, and the most charming, coquettish dimples known to man.” He scratched a blunt nail against the wood, loosening a spot of grit. “If I recall correctly, she’d been accepting an awful lot of invitations from you for outings and suppers and rides. Is there anything wrong? Are you in the metaphorical doghouse and need to dig yourself out, my friend?”
“Quite the opposite,” Scott sighed, his face turning dreamy and wistful. “I recently visited her father and asked for her hand in marriage – I plan to propose at the ball, when we have a few moments to ourselves.”
“That’s wonderful! It’s no wonder you want everything perfect. I promise you the suit will get done, and to the best of my abilities.”
“Thank you – oh, thank you, Stiles! You have no idea how much this means to me.” Scott came around the bench and grasped his shoulder firmly, pulling him into an embrace which Stiles warmly returned, if somewhat awkwardly before Scott pulled back, looking him hard in the eye. “I want no expense spared for this – use whatever you need, I’ll be more than happy to spare the coin. And I meant what I said, I’ll pay your income until the ball.”
“It’s really not necess-” he began, but was once again hushed. Well – it seemed that Lord McCall was not one to argue against.
. o O o .
“Mother, please,” Derek grumbled with exasperation, stirring sugar into his tea over breakfast. “Is the ball really necessary this year? We have one hosted every single Spring, surely skipping one year wouldn’t do any harm.”
“Of course it’d do harm, Der,” Cora rolled her eyes at him from across the table, “People expect it of the family. It’s kind of a big deal in the town now – I know for a fact that people look forward to it almost immediately after it ends, and spend the entire year in preparation for it. Anybody would give their eye teeth for an invite.”
“It’s just a stupid party,” Derek insisted, leaning back in his chair and pushing up the sleeves on his riding coat, snug against his forearms, powerful and strong from years of outdoor activities. “There are more pressing things to focus on than a mere night of frivolity. Like the-”
“-The stable roof being re-shingled, yes, like we haven’t heard that a thousand times before,” Cora snipped back with irritation. “All you ever care about is those stupid horses of yours, and going out on your silly hunting adventures and gallivanting around the fields like a peasant, with muddied clothes and unpolished boots.”
“Derek, my darling, the roof is going to be fixed later in the week,” his mother smiled from the other end of the breakfast counter, smiling as she sliced a fried tomato. “And Cora, my dove, please don’t belittle your brother’s pastimes.”
“Just because I don’t lather myself in perfume and swan around in frills like a ninny,” Derek whispered back hotly, feeling his ears burn.
“Both of you calm down, you’re behaving like absolute children” Laura, the eldest, chided, eyes never straying from the book she was reading avidly, perched between her plate and a glass of sweet juice. “Derek, you’re not missing this year’s party, and that’s final. Cora is still a little tender from discovering this morning that Lord Everett won’t be attending,” and Derek smirked meanly over his plate at his younger sister, who speared her eggs with enough vindictive force to practically bend the tines of her fork, “But I think an evening amongst other members of the court will do the both of you some good. Perhaps the two of you might even learn to relax a little.”
“Well put, dear,” Talia nodded her head, pleased. Derek took a bite from his buttered bread and used his entire reserve of willpower not to roll his eyes at the matriarchal disposition of his family.
. o O o .
It was a fortnight before the ball, and Stiles had worked tirelessly to make his best customer (and friend) the finest suit he could. And, true to his word, Scott visited every second or third day to check on the process, and paid him far more than he would earn, even if he were inundated with other orders. This unexpected freedom gave him plenty of time to focus on the details of Scott’s waistcoat, to get the braiding trim sewn perfectly and get each and every detail perfect. And, working his own hours, he even managed to work on his own project in the evenings. It was at the two-week-prior mark when Scott came in for another fitting that he noticed something was amiss.
“Whatever could be the matter, my friend?” the young Lord inquired as Stiles tugged a panel of the coat snug, pinning it down to follow the smooth curve of Scott’s back, now that he was wearing the waistcoat underneath.
“Don’t know what you could mean,” Stiles lied through his teeth, wincing as he missed the pincushion strapped to his wrist completely and dug the sharp pin into his own skin. He quickly stepped back and peeled the pinned jacket off, not meeting Scott’s eyes, but the other youth followed him to the worktable without hesitation, leaning a hip against the counter and crossing his arms.
“I’ve known you long enough now to see when something’s troubling you. It started the instant I mentioned the new suit, and the closer we get to it, the more miserable you’ve become. Out with it.”
“I’ve always wanted to go to the damn ball,” Stiles spoke out all at once, his words virtually jumbling in their haste to fall from his mouth. He looked up and stared, horror-struck, at Scott, who only looked back with mild amusement.
“Well, I don’t see why you can’t go. Surely you’ve a suit, right?”
“It’s not that simple, Scott,” he returned, his voice exasperated. “It’s not just about having a suit.”
“But you do have one, yes?”
“Yes! I mean – almost.”
“Almost? How can you almost have a suit?”
Sighing, Stiles crossed the room and opened the cupboard, wheeling out one of his dress forms, the one he’d adjusted to his size. His suit was still half-finished, hanging off the mannequin.
“Stiles -” Scott breathed, stepping closer to examine it. Stiles couldn’t help but feel the warm swell of pride – even half-finished, it was his best work yet.
“I’ve – I’ve always wanted to attend the Hale annual ball,” he spoke quietly, touching fingertips to the russet fabric of the sleeve. “Ever since I was a child. I’d see the bright lights of the party on the hilltop through my window, and once I even saw the fireworks. It was – it was pretty spectacular. I’d always dreamed of what the parties would be like – the music, the dancing. Everything just sounded so grand, so ostentatious.” He ducked his head down, smiling self-consciously, slightly self-deprecating. “Every once in a while, I had a few extra coins – I’d save my earnings and buy a little extra fabric, an extra yard or two of lace or braiding. And I’d work on this suit in the hopes that one day, maybe, I’d be able to attend.”
“So why don’t you, then?” the other asked, eyebrows furrowed.
“Because, Scott,” Stiles sighed with vexation, “Not everybody with a nice set of clothes can attend. The Hales are one of the city’s oldest, wealthiest families, and their parties are legendary. Only the crème de la crème are invited.” He crossed his arms and scowled at the floor. “I doubt they’d be thrilled to find a lowly tailor in their midst.”
“This is perfect, though!” Scott said excitedly, clapping a hand on his shoulder. “This year it’s a masquerade ball – everyone will be masked. If you attend and wear a mask, nobody will know who you are.”
“But you still need an invite to go,” Stiles countered, still feeling dejected.
“I have an invite, Stiles.”
“Don’t remind me, please.”
“No, you’re missing the point. I have an invite. And Allison will be there already. I happen to have a faraway member of my family who’s just come down for a few days to visit. It’d be a shame to leave him home alone on such a wondrous night.”
“And what does this have to do with me?” he replied, a little sharply – it was bad enough to know he couldn’t attend, but to have to hear another man uncaringly go alongside his friend? He couldn’t bear to think of it.
“More thank you know, Stiles,” Scott winked, grinning wide. “You see, he’s from very, very far away. Nobody really knows him. And he’s returning home right after the ball, I’m afraid. But he’s an ever so wonderful friend of mine. All he needs to worry about is having his suit finished in time.” And he turned slightly, nodding to the half-finished garment hanging on the mannequin. Stiles balked, mouth opening and closing wordlessly for long moments, before he felt well enough to speak again.
“Surely you – Scott! I couldn’t ask you for such a thing!”
“Because – because! You’ve already done so much for me – not just in the past month, by paying me more coin than necessary to work on your clothes, but ever since I first opened my shop. You’ve been my best customer, and I couldn’t ask this of you, I just couldn’t.”
“Stiles, you’re my friend.” Scott spoke earnestly, laying both hands on Stiles’ shoulders, meeting his eyes square-on. “Since mother earned her title, since we’ve moved into the estate – you’ve been the only true friend I’ve had in a long time. Let me finish,” he interrupted Stiles before he could get a word out of his mouth, already wanting to argue back, “This is important to you. And it’s nothing at all for me to make room in the carriage for you, too. And besides – I’d be a terrible mess of nerves before asking Allison to marry me. I could really use the moral support.”
“So – technically, you’re just taking advantage of my dream to bring me along as encouragement, right?” Stiles quipped, his smile lopsided and a little hopeful.
“Right in one, my friend. Now – I suggest we finish up here quickly, and then figure out something to eat. I’m starved.”
. o O o .
“You’re not looking very happy,” Laura observed, sitting in one of the delicate chintz chairs of the sitting room as Derek tramped through the hallway, “Our esteemed head butler would pitch a right fit if he caught you traipsing mud through his spotless floors.”
“Harris be damned!” Derek hissed back, tugging the scarf from around his neck with force, balling it up between his hands and creasing the delicate silk. “To hell with all of them!”
“Alright. Enough is enough, Derek, there’s no need for such language.” Laura retorted, her tone stern enough to startle the fight out of him. He deflated immediately, crossing the room and collapsing into the chair beside hers. To her credit, Laura placed her bookmark delicately between the dog-eared pages and set the leather-bound hardback aside, before leaning over and folding her delicate hand over his calloused one. “Now,” she said in a much gentler, coaxing tone, “Will you tell me what’s upset you so? You only ever ride that hard when something’s truly bothering you.” She indicated with a nod of her head at Derek’s mud-splattered riding boots, threadbare breeches and shirt and plain homespun tunic, what Cora kept dubbing his ‘peasant garb’.
“It’s this accursed ball,” Derek groused, glad that his eldest sister was completely uncaring of the state of his dress, or the dirt caking his skin – she’d always been more level-headed and practical than Cora, who, in the last few years had developed virtually an obsession with parties, dresses and invites. “Everywhere I turn, I keep seeing reminders of it coming. You know how much I dread going to the blasted thing. Every year, it’s always the same – making boring conversations about hairstyles, dances, court life. It’s just so – ugh.”
“I take it you received Lady Argent’s invite for the picnic, then?” Laura pried, and Derek flinched because she always knew just what bothered him, and never shied away from cutting to the quick of the issue.
“How do you know about that?”
“Oh, please, little brother,” she scoffed, waving a hand dismissively. “Like you don’t know who sorts through the mail in the mornings. I can recognise that stationery anywhere, not to mention the Argent’s wax seal on the invite. And you have been getting more of them as of late.”
“Only from her,” Derek’s lip curled in distaste, “And I’m almost certain that the only reason I’ve stopped receiving any invites from anybody else is because she frightens the living daylights out of them.”
“Most people would consider such a – confident woman attractive. You know – self-assured and assertive enough to go after something she wants.”
“She’s frightful, that’s what she is.” Derek shook his head. “I’ve never encountered a woman like her in my life, and that’s not a compliment, Laur. She honest to goodness frightens me. Every time I see her, she’s staring at me as if I’m a trophy to be won – and not in a good way, though, I say trophy as in ‘mount me on a wooden plaque and hang me above her family’s fireplace’ type of trophy. It’s getting more and more difficult not to shudder in her presence.”
“Cheer up, Der,” Laura pushed on, “You know mother hosts these balls in the hopes of either you or Cora finding someone. That’s how she found father, after all, and fell in blissful, divine love. And it is how I met Steven.”
“But unlike me, Cora likes the parties,” Derek insisted doggedly. “Heaven knows why, but she does. She revels in getting dresses made, and powdering herself up like a doll, and swanning around the floor with her suitors. In all honesty, I think she’s hoping to find herself a husband at the dance, though I’m certain he’ll be as foppish and materialistic as she.”
“You can’t say that,” his sister chided, though a playful grin tugged at her lips as she silently agreed on the materialistic vanity of their youngest sibling. “Steven and I met two years ago, and we seem to be doing alright – even our engagement hasn’t seemed to dampen our enjoyment of one another’s company.”
“That’s because you two are practically soulmates.” He huffed out a breath, trying not to feel the stab of jealousy. “You’re not like the other women in the court – you don’t powder your hair or wear wigs, you don’t care about dresses or jewellery or makeup. You don’t believe water is unhygienic and drown yourself in perfume instead to block out the rancid smell of body odour.”
“I’d love to know who spread that rumour and throttle them,” Laura giggled helplessly behind her hand.
“And you read and hold conversations about interesting things,” Derek pressed on, trying not to think of how his voice was taking on a distinctive whine. “And Steven is an author and cares more about what’s in your head than what’s draped over your shoulders. I’ve seen you two prattle on for hours about everything. I’m just – alright, alright, I’m envious of you and your fiancé. I want to find someone like that too, not just be pushed into a sham of a marriage just because we’re second-cousins to the King, and the connection looks good on the family tree.”
“I’m sure you’ll find someone who’s right for you, Derek. Mother and father wouldn’t expect you to settle for anyone less,” Laura patted his arm consolingly. Derek nodded back without enthusiasm, quick to rise from his chair and make a hasty retreat to his rooms when Harris’ outraged screech at the state of the floors rang through the corridors.
. o O o .
Stiles sewed like a man possessed. Scott’s suit was done in record time, and he spent hours in the evenings working on his own suit. The base outfit was finished, but his fastidious nature wouldn’t let it be. The day before the ball, Scott was over, whistling through his teeth in appreciation of his suit.
“This is, by far, the most exquisite thing I’ve ever seen you make, Stiles.” He ran his hands reverently over his new outfit, tracing along the navy blue silk and gold braiding.
“Glad you think so. It’s cost you enough.”
“I would gladly pay twice the amount for something like this. I could honestly see myself being married in such a suit – even buried. But let me see your ensemble, now! It is finished, right?”
With a flourish, Stiles brought out the dress form, with his suit hanging completed from its shape. It had been an effort and a half, that was for sure, long evenings after the store had closed spent carefully working by lamplight to get the details just right. As it was, Stiles couldn’t have been any prouder. It was truly a marvellous creation – the silk had been costly, and it had been so hard to justify buying something like that for himself. But, honestly, Stiles was a man with few needs, and aside from the occasional treat, he’s never really indulged in anything that wasn’t essential. It was almost a God-given blessing that Scott had requested to ignore all other customers’ orders, because there was no conceivable way he would have been able to finish both their suits and whatever other orders might have come his way.
“Alright – I take the sentiment back,” Scott whistled, impressed. “This is the most exquisite thing I’ve ever seen. Look at this – Stiles. This is superb.” His eyes roved over the embroidery with admiration, taking in the delicate needlework of autumn-coloured foliage. “The amount of detail in this – Stiles, this is something the Royal Family itself would have in their wardrobes.”
“Flattery gets you everywhere, Scott,” the tailor reproached playfully, clapping a hand on his shoulder. “Though I’m not going to lie, this is my pride and joy. What do you think – is it worthy of the Hale ball?”
“More than!” his friend responded with keenness. “I cannot wait for tomorrow evening – Mother is letting me use the good carriage for the night, you know the one, with black panelling and brass fixtures. It’ll be quite a sight. I’ve even picked up a mask for it downtown, look-” He tore open the wrapped parcel on the counter to reveal the handsome visage of a hunting hound, made to the same midnight-blue colour as his suit. “I’m sure Allison will go as a bird – she’s graceful and light as one. I thought it’d be perfect, considering how I plan to ask to capture her hand.”
“Clever,” Stiles remarked, smirking.
“Do you have a mask too? It is a masquerade, after all – we could always go down to the same store I bought mine at and get you one.”
“I – yes. I do have one.” He went back to the cupboard and pulled out a mask of his own – it had been kept in one of the cupboards upstairs for years, a relic from his mother’s crafting days that hadn't sold, and something he now treasured. It was a fox mask, made of papier-mâché and glue, one of the few that she’d made that were animals rather than the handsome, androgynous faces that were so popular in Europe. The playful reddish tint picked up on the subtle hints of the same colour in the embroidery, ending in a pointed snout and clever, perked ears, decorated with gilded swirls. His mother had always called him a clever little fox, and the rich, autumnal colours were his favourite. It seemed only right to carry a little piece of her to his dreams, even if it was only for one evening.
“Fantastic – we’re all set!” Scott packed his own mask away excitedly, hastily re-wrapping the parcel. “I’ll come by tomorrow afternoon, and we can dress together and eat something quick before we go – I hate going to events on an empty stomach, you never know what they’ll serve there. I’ll tell the coachman to pick us up at sundown, just as the party’s started, so we can get there on time but not be too early, you know what I mean? Allison said she’d be there at that time too – oh, but we need to return the carriage to my mother’s just before one in the morning.”
“Midnight? Isn’t that a little early?” Stiles inquired, brows rising. “I’ve seen the lights on at the mansion well into the early hours of the morning.”
“What can I say, mother wants the carriage back in one piece.” The young Lord gave a noncommittal shrug. “Still, it’ll give us a solid few good hours there, and if we leave by midnight, I can get you dropped off back here, and have the carriage back at our place on time.”
“Sounds perfect,” he grinned in reply, the excitement already causing his chest to flutter.
. o O o .
“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” Derek muttered, standing awkwardly in front of the mirrors in the dressing room as the head tailor tugged the edge of his suit down, muttering approvingly as he smoothed the lines over his broad shoulders. Their mother had hired him and a squad of assistants from the capital, on loan from their royal cousins (and hadn't Cora practically shrieked with glee) to make their outfits for their party. And here he was, the day before the big event, making sure the final fitting for his clothes was done. Granted, it was far nicer than anything else he had in his wardrobe, but it still felt oppressive and excessive, compared to what he usually wore.
“Cheer up, Derek,” Laura sighed, breath hitching as a seamstress gave another hard tug onto her corset, almost causing her to fall over. “A-at least you’re not getting your organs compressed into pâté over there. Goodness – this dress is so heavy, I feel like I’m toting an ox-cart around on my hips.” She winced as the plump dresser wedged her knee into the small of her back, how was that even safe, and yanked on the corset strings hard enough to elicit another wheezy yelp.
Derek had to agree that at least he got off lucky on the dress department, watching Laura scrabble uselessly at the back of one of the room’s chairs as the older seamstress tugged her dress on. She always preferred the comfortable, simple cotton day dresses without corsetry or stomachers (every female in their family was naturally slight of frame)- however, it seemed that this year’s fashion dictated an even more rigid silhouette. Derek was glad that at least he could move comfortably enough, without fear of knocking a table over with the edge of an enormous hooped skirt. He refrained from mentioning how absurd the wide skirts were, at least to Laura – she was his favourite sister, after all.
“You’re just unused to the higher fashions of the capital,” Cora sniffed primly on his other side, turning this way and that to admire herself in the mirror. While Laura’s new dress, though much larger in size to her regular ones, seemed to match her easy-going personality, Cora’s was entirely on the other end of the spectrum. Unlike Laura’s cream-coloured floral gown, his younger sister’s was bedecked in ribbons and lace, rosettes and flounces gathering up multitudes of ruched panelling. Her hoop was much wider than Laura’s (he guessed the fashion implied that bigger was, supposedly, better), and the searing combination of salmon-pink, ice-blue and silver of the layers, covered in embroidered flowers, made his eyes hurt. Cora seemed to adore it, though, cooing with glee as she smoothed down the ruffled lace of her sleeves.
“You look like an oversized meringue cake,” he commented snidely, watching her preen. At least Laura still retained a vaguely humanoid shape.
“It’s called fashion, Derek, something you wouldn’t know if it bit you on the backside,” Cora returned just as nastily, trying to decide between two seemingly identical hairpieces bedecked with lace, silk flowers and miniature birds. “At least I’m not stuck looking like a pompous idiot all my life, unlike some.”
Their sniping argument was abruptly cut short by a loud crash, and they both leaned over to see Laura crumpled to the ground, her billowing skirts up around her ears as she scowled, seeming decidedly put-out.
“Didn’t realize fashion didn’t make room for breathing or moving,” she muttered darkly, trying to pick herself up off the floor and failing, coming across less regal and more like an upturned turtle. Derek chuckled, raised his eyes heavenwards and prayed with every ounce of faith he’d been brought up to have that his sister’s fiancé would never, ever let someone like her go. And, while he was at it, he also threw in a prayer or two for the accursed evening to pass without incident.
. o O o .
It felt as though Stiles had hardly a wink of sleep before he was up the next morning, setting the shop in order. He was closed for the day, a gift to himself for stretching his work hours so far out to get his suit done. Nevertheless, time seemed to both crawl and fly by. One moment he was breaking his fast, foot tapping nervously against the skirting board as he surveyed the chaos that had turned his usually tidy workshop into a sty, and the next he was tidying with a mad fervour, shoving scraps of useless silk in the trash bin and sweeping loose threads into the dustpan. And suddenly the morning was gone, and though the workshop was a sight cleaner than before, Stiles needed to get clean and ready because heaven’s above, he was going to the Hale ball.
The very first thing Stiles did was draw a bath from the pump behind the house, because his parents had always been sticklers for cleanliness, and he couldn’t imagine putting on his brand new suit while smelling of exertion and sweat. He scrubbed his skin almost raw, used more soap than he ever had at one time in his life, and by the time dusk was falling, his suit was laid out, ready to put on, his shoes were polished to a shine bordering on absurd, his hair was dry, combed, and as styled as it was ever going to be (and it was behaving itself quite admirably, considering he didn’t have a powdered periwig). His hair was, indeed, cropped too short for the fashion, but he supposed that it’d have to do, and regardless, Lord Scott’s hair was only slightly longer than his, so he doubted that he’d be the only one wearing his natural hair.
Scott came over soon after, bringing with him a large plate of sliced meat and a crusty loaf of bread (“The cooks wouldn’t let me leave without food, it’s like they don’t seem to realize I eat all the time,”), and they spent the better part of an hour raiding the cupboards for condiments and putting together increasingly large towers of food. It was a fantastic way to begin an evening, and the mood was light-hearted and jovial as they helped each other to dress. Scott was incredibly low-maintenance and actually knew how to dress on his own, something Stiles had hardly ever witnessed a noble do, and even helped him tie the sash across his own suit. All too soon, they piled into Scott’s awaiting carriage, on their way to the Hale manor for the ball.
Stiles felt – well, the entire lead up to this day felt exciting, but he found himself an erratic, jumbling bundle of nerves. He could feel his palms sweating beneath the fine linen of his embroidered gloves, and was glad for the mask perched upon his face, because while it was easy to return the excitable grin of his noble friend beside him, he was starting to regret eating that third sandwich. Everything felt a little bizarre, from the velvet of the cushions underneath him, to the echoing clop of the horses’ hooves as they trotted merrily down the cobbled streets. Stiles mentally gave up a prayer of thanks that the evening was still a little cool, because had it been any warmer he would have sweated his body weight through with nerves.
All too soon, they arrived at the manor, and it took all of his willpower not to peek through the curtained windows to ogle the lush grounds like a commoner. There’d be plenty of time to take in the sights afterwards, he simply had to make sure he didn’t frighten himself before arriving at the courtyard, and lose his wits altogether. Scott, who had spent the ride animatedly rehearsing the speech with which he planned to woo his bride-to-be, seemed to be no less enthused as the coachman opened the door of the carriage, despite looking slightly green around the gills. It comforted Stiles a little to know that even nobles sometimes felt a rush of anxiety before an event, and, reassured that he wasn’t the only one that felt as though he were walking into the mouth of Hell itself, gave his friend a solid squeeze on the shoulder.
“After you, my Lord,” he smirked, rewarded with a playful shove back as Scott pushed him towards the door first. It was a feat of agility in itself that he managed to climb out of the carriage with his long legs in a fashion graceful enough to not snap his neck in twain.
. o O o .
“It feels even more oppressive than usual,” Derek murmured to his eldest sister as the party, now in full swing, went on around them. Beside him, tucked away in the corner of the ballroom, Laura looked almost equally as miserable as he. She was clutching a crystal champagne flute and appearing pale behind her half mask, a simple façade of silk and cream ribbon. It contrasted beautifully with her dark hair and crimson lips, the only cosmetic she’d deigned to wear for the night.
“I’m glad for the masks, though,” she replied, “If I had to hear one more time about the Hale daughters and their ‘natural handsomeness free from powders’, I would have screamed.” She took a mouthful of the sparkling wine and sighed. “Cora seems to be enjoying herself, though.” She gestured with a gloved hand at their sister, laughing and merrily spinning on the dance floor with a handsome youth, glittering and dazzling like a butterfly.
“I suppose I can’t judge her for it,” Derek observed, looking put out. “She was right about what she said this morning over breakfast. I don’t know how to have any fun.”
“Oh, she’s just being petty. I think you’re plenty of fun, Der. Who else am I supposed to talk to about my views on women in society? Who else is going to indulge me when I decide to wax poetic about the latest paperback that father brought back from his travels? You’re plenty of fun, it’s just – society right now seems interested in a – a different sort of fun from ours. One that’s a little less intellectual and a little more-”
“I was going to say flighty,” she admonished, hiding a smile behind her hand, “But perhaps you’re right in more ways that others would care to admit. Still – you’re a lovely young man, little brother. You simply have to find someone who will look past your-” She gestured at his brooding face, covered by the sullen countenance of a half-face wolf mask, “-your ruminating mien.”
“My ‘ruminating mien’? You mean to say my perpetually affixed scowl, if you wish to borrow Cora’s words.”
“I wish to do no such thing. Now, I think I see Chancellor Barry over there, he and I were supposed to talk about father’s donation to support one of the new colleges in town.” She set her empty flute down on a passing waiter’s tray and straightened her gloves. “I’m giving you fair warning that Lady Argent is here with her young niece, and last I heard they had split up. Apparently, Lady Allison is searching for one of her suitors in particular. If you’re attempting to avoid the other, she’s wearing a ghastly violet gown with black trim, and has a black mask with red stones on the front.”
“You’re a real gem, Laura,” he sighed gratefully, picking up a glass of wine for his own from a passing tray and cradling it between his fingers.
“I know, I know. Now, attempt to make at least two conversations before I return, and if we’ve both had enough by then, we can call it a night and tell mother we tried.”