Actions

Work Header

A Scrap of Velvet

Work Text:

“It won’t be a perfect fit,” Violet said.  She was smoking restlessly and had been doing so ever since the telephone call had come; she'd gotten in a foul mood as the contents of her cigarette case had thinned.  Now her mouth was a hard line.  “Triss will be able to give you a loan when you get there, so then you’ll have the crest at least, but her clothes might be—”

Trista knew how that sentence would end, and her face in the mirror must have shown that to Violet, because she cut herself off with a brisk nod.

“Well, all that aside, you do mostly look the part.”

The part, then, was ridiculous, or so Trista felt: she could barely respect herself in the matronly, slate-blue gymslip with its heavy Peter Pan collar and wrist-thick pleats, and all good opinion whastsoever was totally extinguished by the heavy blazer and contemptible straw boater.  It was all bog-standard school stuff, Violet had told her, done up to look as close to Triss’s St. Julian’s uniform as possible, but Trista felt blotchy and ungainly in it.

“You aren’t conspicuous, whatever you’re thinking,” Violet said.

“No one here wears anything that looks like this.”

“They do, they just wear it better.  Triss’s school has enough money that they can afford to dress the girls to look dull.  The parents might even think it’s part of the charm.”  She stubbed out her cigarette.  Lacking anything then to do with her hands, she rubbed her fingers together, like she was trying to scuff away some last bit of engine grease.

Trista liked Violet’s hands, with their calluses and short fingernails with occasional crescent moons of dirt and machine oil, with their pale burn scars and their considerable strength.  They were also part of her life and not part of Triss’s and, looking at herself in the mirror and seeing milky indoors-only skin and neat braids and Triss, Trista was keen on any distinction.  She watched Violet’s hands, then, as Violet talked.

“No more than the week-end,” Violet said.  “They’ll be bound to notice Pen’s gone off when Monday comes, anyhow.”

It wasn’t much time for a clandestine inquiry—that was how Trista was trying to think of it, since her stomach turned into knots whenever she thought about Pen actually being gone—but she couldn’t argue with it.  St. Julian’s would call the Crescents if their youngest stayed absent; Triss was a good and capable liar, but even her stories about where her sister had gotten herself to would look threadbare by then.

Triss had phoned them up in a carefully-controlled panic, her voice thin and tinny over the wires but still recognizably terrified: “You need to come as quick as you can.  Pen’s vanished.”

Trista had covered her other ear with her hand as if she could burrow further into the telephone and better hear.  “What?  Vanished where?”

“I don’t know—there, I think.”

“For God’s sake, Triss, it’s only her first term.  You said you would look out for her.”

“I’m trying.  I’ve already had to tell about a dozen tales about where she might be, depending on who’s asking, like she’s gone to infirmary or she’s in the WC, but that was only enough for this morning.  I don’t know that it’ll last through the night—what’ll they do when it’s time to check beds for lights out?  We have to find her.  You have to come.”

The thought of Pen being back with the Besiders made Trista feel cold and speechless, like her throat was packed with snow.  And while it was true that Pen could and would take off like a shot if she wanted to, her letters from St. Julian’s had been pocked full of pride at being grown-up and away from the slow suffocation of the Crescent house.  Each word a piece of honeycomb for Trista to suck the sweetness out of, and she had eaten each letter once she had replied to it, tearing the paper into strips like it was a delicacy to be savored in single slivery bites.

She was not always hungry anymore, but her cravings would come back to her sometimes with a loose-kneed shakiness, and it was not always Triss’s things she wanted now.  Pen’s would do, or Violet’s.  As if she were made up of bits and pieces of all her people.

And now, it meant that Pen’s utterly unhomesick exultation about her first few weeks at school might as well have been written on Trista’s bones.  Under those circumstances, she was worried Triss might be right, that Pen might not have scuttled off and might rather have been snatched.  Who was to say the Besiders near St. Julian’s cared about the pact they had made with the Shrike?

With all that in mind, Violet had quickly gotten her kitted up and given her some marching orders—try to pass as Triss wherever she could, sneak back off the school grounds at night, remember that anything non-magical wasn’t her business—and just two hours after Trista had been staring at herself in a mirror and seeing Triss stare back, she was outside St. Julian’s School for Girls.

Violet, whose worry over Pen was shown most clearly by the fact that she had not stopped anywhere along the way for another pack of cigarettes, tapped her fingers restlessly against the handlebars of her motorbike.  “I was here once, you know.”

“Were you really?”

“Once upon a time.  I wasn’t so proud of it as Pen is, though, or so happy to get away as Triss—I was very lonely for a very long time.”

Trista wanted to tell her that she didn’t have to be lonely anymore, but it sounded silly to say it aloud—it was a sentiment that came greeting-card cheap, and sounded in any case like something Sebastian would have once said to her, something it was not Trista’s place to echo.  But another moment did her reservations in, because Violet’s skin was her skin as well, especially when it came to pain.  They were both hung up on grief and memory and blurred boundaries, names caught between metal gear-teeth ticking at lives loved and gone.  They did not share headaches, but they shared this—Violet’s briar-twist of loss over what had become of all her family ties.

“You don’t have to be lonely anymore,” she said.

Violet hugged her too briskly to be warm and too warmly to be brisk.  “Be careful, Trista.  Pen isn’t the only one the Besiders might have a taste for.”

“I know.”  She shifted her weight uncomfortably.  “Could I—?”

“Oh.  Right.”  They were both familiar with this by now.  Violet surveyed herself rather clinically and finally tore out the lining of her jacket pocket, muttering that she could stitch in a new one.  “Will that work, or do you need something more?”

It was a little bit of slightly yellowed crepe de chine, and though it was small, Trista thought it would do the trick: it had the smell of Violet’s skin and had had her hands shoved into it, had her gloves nestled into it.  But best of all was that it had a scrap of velvet, black and with most of the nap gone out of it, right at the top, where Violet’s tug had been too ruthless and some of the jacket itself had come too.  The accident of having more than she would have asked for was the best kind of accident.  Trista’s appetite was always satisfied with more.

She nodded with enthusiasm and Violet smiled and tossed it to her.  Trista balled it up and tucked it into her cheek like a gobstopper, but was too impatient to keep it there.  Soon enough, she had swallowed it whole.

It was good and grounding to have that bit of Violet.  And something around had responded to her hunger and this unusual exercise of it—there was a thin, dangerous feeling to the air, a prickling against Trista’s scalp.  Violet must have felt it too—she looked up, by unforgotten habit, for snowfall—and she squeezed Trista’s hand without saying another word.  All the warnings to be careful were things they had said ages ago, back before Trista was even Trista.  There was no sense in repeating it.

Trista was not exactly thin enough to squeeze through the iron bars of St. Julian’s several-acres-long fence, but she could make herself thin enough.  She concentrated on her true body beneath the glamor of Triss-skin and Triss-hair and Triss-bones; made herself feel the cloth doll she was, so eminently compressible, made to be shoved into drawers and chests.

I am as slender as a thread on the Shrike’s needle, she thought as her head began to slide through the gap and the pressure started to get to her.  I am going through the eye, I am made to pass smoothly.  Cuckoos can fly anywhere.

Then she was on the other side and she was gasping.  She could almost hear the Shrike laugh at her.  She had snagged herself a little and a few leaf-stems were poking out of her dress.  With a word she had learned from Violet, she shoved them back in as well as she could, back through the burlap that was her body at its most primitive, at its most Beside.  She teased her tongue around her mouth, into the little cracks between her teeth, looking for a stray bit of that scrap of velvet, but found nothing.  She had been on her own for only a minute and already she had used up Violet’s pocket.  It made her very cross with herself.

She supposed she ought to find Triss first, but it was already half-past noon and the school would be swarming with St. Julian’s girls, at least one of whom would be bound to either notice that she wasn’t Triss or notice that Triss was in one place and Trista was in another.  Maybe now, while everyone else was at luncheon, would be the safest time to explore.

Or maybe you just don’t want to see her.

Maybe.  But that didn’t matter, not really, because she wasn’t there to see Triss, she was there to find Pen, whom Triss had lost.

Trista hadn’t decided yet how she expected Triss to have kept an eye on Pen while they were both asleep and was vaguely aware that this meant she was being somewhat unreasonable, but she did not feel like being reasonable.

“Trista!”

She turned and saw Triss coming toward her with her strange, not-quite-right running gait, the jog of a girl who had spent years not being allowed to run and so still did it as if she didn’t entirely know how.

“Triss!” she said back.  It was a name made for hissing.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” Triss said once she’d caught up to her.  She wore the school uniform in a less silly manner than Trista did: on her, it looked almost natural, but then, she had grown.  There was more of her in very particular places.  “I could feel you coming in, I knew it was you.  Thank you so much.”  She hugged Trista then and there was something disarming about it.  Triss smelled like eucalyptus, the ghost of old illness, and almond, which was new.

Trista hugged her back, the last of her unfairness melting away.  It was difficult to continue to resent her when she was right there, demonstrably a real person.

Triss frowned.  “Am I taller than you now?”

“Yes,” Trista said, trying to scrub the bitterness out of her voice.  “I don’t—I’m not growing.  Here.”

They stood briefly side to side, which made it obvious: not only her comparative smallness but also her flatness, also her delicate-limbed I-am-just-out-of-sickbed fragility that Triss herself had gradually put away.  She never felt so slight as she was, but she was asked frequently despite that if she were well, if she wanted another bun or another cup of tea, poor dear.

“Because of the watch?”

Trista nodded.

“And Violet?”

“We can’t tell yet with her,” Trista said.  “People don’t change as much as quickly once they’re older.”

“I’m sorry,” Triss said quietly. 

Trista felt an awful froggy about-to-cry feeling coming up inside her and she did her best to swallow it down, nodding several times in as no-nonsense a manner as she could.  “Pen.”

“Yes, of course, Pen.  She was gone straight out of her bed, I think, because she always flips the coverlet back in a triangle when she gets up in the morning and her bed didn’t look like that, it was still all sleep-messy and rumpled.  And she’d been poking around in the woods whenever anyone would let her get away.”

“They don’t like the woods, though.  They told me so.  Everything is too well-mapped now, too certain.”

“I know, she said that, but she was wondering if maybe all the girls being so scared of the woods opened them up to things, made them livable.”

“She didn’t tell me any of this,” Trista said, trying hard not to feel hurt.  She had letters all the time from Pen, though, she had to admit, a little less often since Pen had started at St. Julian’s: she had thought it was just because Pen had been busier and happier.  She hadn’t thought that Pen might have simply chosen Triss as a confidante over her.

But Triss was shaking her head.  “It’s not like you’re thinking.”  Now she was the one who sounded bitter, like each word was a bit of sour rhubarb she wanted to spit out.  Triss hated rhubarb, though Trista tried to eat it sometimes, to overrule her own tongue.  “She was doing it to surprise you.  She thought she could bring you something, like a gift.  Did she know you weren’t growing up?”

“I don’t think so.  I didn’t say.”  But, though she hadn’t thought this before, Pen had made the necklace that was jamming the watch, Trista’s name off Pen’s fingers stuck down in Violet’s gears.  Maybe they were all inseparable, at least a little.  “Has she grown?”

“Like a weed,” Triss said, with the slight artificiality of someone quoting a parent.

That at least was some relief.  Pen would hate being a child forever.  But it didn’t mean that she hadn’t somehow read the truth between the lines of Trista’s letters; they could be tied together some other way.  Then, with a wash of relief and sad exasperation, she realized that most likely, Pen didn’t know.  Pen was looking to get her a present because it was almost the day that Pen had decided was Trista’s birthday.

In another fortnight, it would be two years since Pen had given her her name.

“How do you even know the date of it?” Trista had said, amused.

Pen had flushed an indelicate brick-red and mumbled something about counting the days after Triss had “fallen into the Grimmer,” which had destroyed any comedy: of course she would not forget the day she had sold away her sister and of course she would want to seize on a day a little past it, one that was something good rather than something bad, something to do with the new sister rather than the old.

And what better way to move past it than to go into Besider territory again, this time to buy rather than sell?  It was a complete rewriting of their history, something that it would ever-after be safe to remember without flinching.

Trista was strongly possessed of the desire both to hug Pen as hard as she could and to shake her as hard as she could, and she settled for balling her hands into fists.  “I think she wanted to get me a birthday present.”

“But my birthday’s not until—”

“Not yours.  Mine.  Pen picked it.”

“You shouldn’t let her run all over you like that,” Triss said.  “Choosing your name and your birthday both.”

I like Pen,” Trista said fiercely, ignoring the certainty that was part of her rolled-up paper insides that Triss, too, at least loved Pen, even if she had never liked her.

“Of course you like Pen,” Triss said.  “Pen adores you.”  She sounded sad.

One of her thoughts wriggled free of her and made its way into Trista’s head: I’m not even the favorite sister of my only sister.

There were things Trista could have said—that Pen had spoken fondly of Triss in her last few letters, that all they needed to grow closer was time—but she did not say them.  Not just because she wanted to hold onto Pen’s preference for her, though in her unloveliest and most ungenerous moments she did, however unfairly it had been gotten, but because nothing she could say would change what they both knew.  This was true.  Pen had tried to get rid of Triss and tried to save Trista.

It was useless, too, to say that at least Triss’s parents had unilaterally preferred her to Triss.  They both knew Trista’s opinion of Mr. and Mrs. Crescent.

She cleared her throat.  “Violet said you might be able to loan me a jacket that has the real crest on it?”

Triss swallowed.  “Yes, of course, I’ve got loads.  You’ll have to come back to the dormitory with me, though.  I can show you Pen’s bed and you can see if you can—tell anything.”

“All right.”

“If anyone asks, you’re my cousin from a lower form,” Triss said.  “Or you’re visiting from Glenmeadow.  Nobody cares about Glenmeadow so they won’t ask you any questions.”

“Glenmeadow?”

“It’s another school.  We play them sometimes, but they’re so rubbish it doesn’t even mean anything if we win.”

Trista smiled a little at the calm, proprietary pride in Triss’s voice, at her easy “we” rather than the lonely, sickly “I,” especially since she doubted Triss, with her strange lope of a run, played anyone at anything.  She was glad Triss was happy here.

And extra-glad because she felt she wouldn’t have liked it at all herself: all those people, all that enforced chumminess, all that decorum, all that sportsmanship.  She only needed Violet and Pen and possibly Triss for society; she needed margins and nooks and crannies, needed drunken brawls in nearby pubs and uncertainty about how they would pay the rent if their money from the Crescents came late.  And certainly she did not need sportsmanship.  There was nothing less sporting than a Besider.

And Triss was right—when they ran into a tall ginger-haired girl in the halls, Triss just offhandedly said, “This is my cousin, she’s at Glenmeadow,” and the girl just curled her lip at Trista and went on.

The dormitories were horrid, composed of endless rows of utilitarian beds with a heavy locked trunk at the foot of each.  Occasionally there would be a splash of color with a jumper thrown across the bed or the corner of a diary peeking out from underneath a pillow, but otherwise it was grim.  She could tell that Triss did not think so.  If you had grown up smothered by pretty dresses and loneliness, St. Julian’s would be nothing but the freshest breath of air.

“Here,” Triss said, after a moment of rummaging around in her trunk.  “It’ll be a little big on you.”

“I know,” Trista said crossly, before shedding her blazer and putting on Triss’s.  The crest hung heavily against her heart.  “Is this Pen’s bed here?”

Triss nodded.  “I made it for her.”

Trista looked around and, seeing no one, risked strangeness: kneeling down beside Pen’s bed, she burrowed her face into the covers and surreptitiously gnawed a hole through the blankets.  A scrap of wool, a scrap of velvet.  She felt like a moth.  But it helped her feel rooted to Pen, like she was a dog on Pen’s scent, so she trailed that feeling out of the dormitory with Triss at her heels.

Triss had been right: Pen had gone straight to the woods.  Unerringly straight, as if she’d been pulled there along some railway track.  Had she walked in her sleep?  Even thinking it brought back memories of eating rotten apples off the ground, her mouth full of dirt and soft-sacked sweetness, her hands desperate claws digging into the grass.  She was chewing on her blazer sleeve and Triss knocked her wrist away from her mouth.

“I need that,” she said.  “I’ll give you something later.  I thought you ate food now.”

“I do.  I just—need things.  Sometimes.”

“Other people’s things,” Triss said.

Trista lifted her chin.  “No man is an island.  John Donne said that.”  Violet’s intense but haphazard education of her, though always managing to pass scrutiny, consisted largely of giving Trista mountains of old books.

“Good for John Donne,” Triss said sourly.  “Come on, nobody’s looking.”

They slipped into the woods.

She could tell why Pen had suspected the Besiders might have still held some place there.  Even aside from whatever legends about them might have been whispered from bed to bed and form to form, the place felt swollen with magic, almost waterlogged with it.  Pen had probably only felt a tenth of it but Trista was feeling it all and thought she could get swooningly drunk off it.  By the way Triss suddenly grabbed her hand and locked their fingers together, she must have noticed it too.

“Was it like this before?” Trista whispered.

“No, nothing like this.  A little, maybe, but—I think you’re like a magnifying glass.”

The shadows of the trees refused to stay still.  At first they only swayed back and forth, so that you could almost trick yourself into believing it was nothing more than the wind blowing the branches around—if you could ignore that the shadows of the trunks twitched too—but the deeper in Trista and Triss walked, the more the shadows spun and danced, until they were twirling all around their trees, sunrise-noon-sunset, and Trista couldn’t look at them without getting dizzy.  Triss stopped for a moment, her eyes screwed shut, her lips pressed tightly together, but at last she nodded and they went on.

And it wasn’t just the shadows.  The grass grew so hot Trista could feel it through the soles of her shoes and then grew so frosty it crunched beneath their feet.  The birdsong changed to discordant jazz, which at least gave Trista an idea.

Forcing herself to stop even as the shadows of the trees looped around her wildly, she raised her face up to an unearthly kind of sparrow.  When she did not look directly at it, she could see through the false pattern of feathers to the tiger-striped thing underneath with its bright yellow eyes and pipe-organ throat.

She wished they had a cockerel.  Or a knife, even.  Why hadn’t she at least thought to bring a knife?

“Hello,” she said to the not-sparrow, because it might not hurt to be polite.  “We’re looking for our sister.”

“Sister one, sister two,” the not-sparrow said.  “Sister old, sister new.”

“That’s us.  Have you seen her?”

“Why say?”

“Because—because I’ll give you this.”  That was Triss.  She reached into her pocket and came up with a bit of bread and cheese wrapped in a handkerchief, clearly a snack smuggled away from some breakfast table.  “It’s food.”

“Sister brought bowl of milk.”  The not-sparrow hopped down onto a lower branch.  “Bowl of milk for pixies.  Not pixies.”

“She knows that.  But there isn’t a lot written about you, besides the things that have got it wrong.”

“Do you not eat food?” Triss said.  It was her most innocent voice, the voice that had gotten Pen barred from the cinema, a pretty candy-box voice made for lying.  Trista could have kissed her.  “It’s delicious.  They have a country woman come in from her cottage every morning to make the bread, so she comes from outside the school, she has foreign thoughts in her head.  She’s Swedish.  And the cheese—”

“Thought bread.  Dream bread?”

“Of course it’s dream bread,” Trista said.  She took it from Triss’s hand and held it up.  “See, it’s not a trap, I can touch it without anything happening to me, and I’m like you.  It’s good.  I want it for myself, but I want to find my sister even more.  Will you trade whatever you saw for this?”

“Bargain,” the not-sparrow agreed, and it swooped down and snatched the bread and cheese from Trista’s hand.  It did not tuck in immediately and she was almost impressed with its restraint.  Instead, it flew back to its perch and evaluated them with it cold lamplight eyes.  “Little sister bargain.  Make school confused.”

“And that would be good for you.”

“Territory,” the not-sparrow said simply.  “Space.”

“You don’t have enough already?  You have the woods.”

“Not enough.”  It was looking at Triss with slight disdain.  “Sensible.  Rigid logic order.  Sister offer trick.”

“To do what?  To do something at school to cause some kind of upheaval?  That’s just like her.”  Triss pursed her lips.  “I wonder what she was thinking of.  She likes St. Julian’s, she wouldn’t do anything too terrible, she wouldn’t start a fire or anything.”

“Gone.”

“We know she’s gone,” Trista said impatiently.  “That’s why we’re here.”

“Gone trick.”

It took Trista a moment to understand and then she groaned.  Oh, Pen.  “She said she’d let you disappear her and get everyone all confused and worried, because she thought Triss would tell them she’d been messing about in the woods?  For how long?”

“Day one, day two.”

“I ought to snip the lot of you up with scissors for taking her up on that,” Triss sad, and the anger in her voice surprised Trista a little, as did the specificity of the threat, designed to make the not-sparrow blanch as much as it could and flutter about a little nervously.  But of course she had had her tenure with the Architect.  She knew what Besiders were afraid of.  “It’s indecent to stir up that kind of fuss just to do what, gain another half an acre of woods?  It seems to me you’ve already got your claim here as much as the school has.”

“Losing,” the not-sparrow said, in the same tone it had said “territory.”  It was inarguable.

Trista really could feel the legacy of the Besiders over the years, how they had dwindled to just the desperate, hungry crowds streaming into Ellsworth, eager to believe the Architects’ promise about the church bells and the new railway station that would be their home.  But Ellsworth wasn’t big enough for all of them, and the Architect was dead.  Maybe someone, sometime, would work out enough of his tricks that they too could build, maybe there would be some other Piers Crescent in London who would make a bargain and put his name on all the plans.  But that hadn't happened yet.

In the meantime, they were losing.  No wonder they were so willing to bargain with schoolgirls.

She sighed.  “Can we find her?  Has she been gone long enough that you’ll allow it?”

“Not me.”

“Then who?”

“Seamstress.”  The not-sparrow took a bite of bread and seemed to taste whatever dreams Triss had promised it, because it then said, “Take, follow,” and flew off.

“Can we trust it?” Triss said in a low voice as they scampered after it.

“No.  But it can’t trust us either, unless you really have got a Swedish peasant cook who comes in every morning.”

“I think she’s been to Sweden,” Triss said.

Trista did not want to like her—it was so hard to look at her when she couldn't look at Triss's new height and strengthening calves and healthy flush and not see that she was having the future Trista herself could not—but she did.  And this close to her, it was impossible to deny that when she moved, Triss’s old and papery memories, her hair and jewelry and dolls, still shifted around inside her.  Triss had gone into the making of her even as she had gone into the making of this new and happier Triss.  They owed each other.

The not-sparrow led them to a dip in the ground that was not, Trista was sure, there in any way any St. Julian’s girl would ordinarily have recognized, and as they walked down into it, it seemed to turn itself inside out, like Violet’s pocket, and become a mountain.  Triss was nearly sick again.

The not-sparrow was not flying now but swimming through the air, and that even Trista could not look at.

At last they came to a small house.  It was made all of glass, glazed and stained different colors, and it glittered like a jewel.  The not-sparrow lit upon its eaves for a moment and then squawked a goodbye and flew off again, stuffing the rest of the bread and cheese into its mouth.  Trista wondered if Triss’s lie really had somehow made it delicious or if the bird were just hungry or if, for that matter, human food was just a novelty to them.

Triss and Trista looked at each other and then Trista knocked on the door.

“Go on and come in,” said a lovely and melodic voice.  “It’s unlocked.”

Don’t trust her, Trista thought, hoping Triss could somehow hear her.  They want what they want and there’s no reason they shouldn’t, but all the same, don’t trust her just because she might not look like the Architect.

And she didn’t.  She was much younger than Trista would have guessed, maybe sixteen or seventeen, and she sat doing ordinary cross-stitch according to some pattern she was studying worriedly with her tongue stuck out in the corner of her mouth.  If her hair had not been made of coarse yellow polar bear fur and her arms had not seemed to have extra joints, Trista almost would have thought she was human.

“Don’t be frightened,” the Seamstress said.  “I know your deals in the past have been iffy, but that’s city-folk for you.  We’re not like that at all out here.  We all have to look out for each other, and, well, you’re practically one of us, aren’t you?”

“Almost,” Trista said.

“Then there you go!  And you—you at least are a guest,” she added to Triss, who was clearly an afterthought.  “You’re looking for little Penelope, I’m sure.  That’s a lucky name for me, did you know that?  Penelope, weaving and unweaving.”

“But you’re only stitching,” Triss said.

The Seamstress’s mouth flattened out of its smile.  “I make a plan and then I stitch, accomplishment by accomplishment, X after X, little Triss Crescent.  And you are not the subject of my dealing, so kindly shut up and let the grown-ups talk.”

Trista found it nice to be called a grown-up.  “Will you give us back Pen?”

“Certainly!  When her time is up.”

Of course it could not be easy.  “And when is that?”

“Little Pen didn’t fix a proper date, can you imagine?  All she said was that it had to be before your birthday, so that still leaves us loads of time.  Imagine all the hubbub, all the running around!  I know none of it’s started yet, but it will, it will.”

“But she’s alive?  She’s well?”

“Alive and well and nowhere,” the Seamstress said brightly.  “It’s a bit like being asleep inside honey.  Sticky, but not unenjoyable.  And very, very quiet.”

“At least that’s something,” Trista said to Triss.  “If the most she can even be gone is a fortnight—”

“But our parents will find out,” Triss said.  “And they’ll assume the worst, you know they will.  I know they can be cold, and I know they weren’t the nicest to you, or even to Pen, or even to me, but they’re the only parents we have and I can’t just let them worry their hair all white.”

“Now that’s sense,” the Seamstress said.  “Kewpie doll for you, Triss!  Trista, listen to your sister-mother.”

What a revolting way of putting it.  Trista suddenly felt so tired she could barely stand up straight: being asleep inside honey felt like a most luxuriously relaxing way to pass the time.  Never mind Pen and the way she rushed headlong into fixes that only caused trouble, never mind Triss and her prim and proper stiffness, never mind even Violet and her loneliness that Trista could not seem to cure or even touch.  She was exhausted from being put into this position, exhausted with Besiders and people both wanting things from her.  No one had ever cared what she wanted herself.

“What is it?  What do you want me to do to get Pen back before there’s too much of a fuss?”

“A missing girl is a lovely fuss,” the Seamstress said.  “It’s a classic for a reason.  Makes everybody worry and check their little tykes’ beds at night, makes the woods feel more haunted than ever.  Just gorgeous.  But I think we can do even better, don’t you, little cuckoo?  I think we can give them a real scare.”

It took them another half an hour, but they gradually hammered out a new bargain.  Triss, who had a surprisingly logical mind, was keen to spot any potential loopholes, and the Seamstress seemed to have quite a thorough dislike of her by the time the deal was done.  Trista was impressed, just a little.  At least it was over with.

“Why don’t you do it yourself?”

“Most of us don’t do well among the humans,” the Seamstress said.  “We don’t pass enough to get in, we don’t pass enough to get away, and, in any case, we don’t go into any damn boarding school.  All sums and chalk dust and beds in straight lines!  No thank you.  We’d wither on the doorstep.  Not you, though.”

No, not her.  She could be just as right-wrong in St. Julian’s as she could be anywhere else.

“Pen, please,” she said.  “I’ll hold up my end, but I want her back now.”

The Seamstress studied her, her pupils contracting in into snakelike lines, and then she nodded: just like that, there was Pen, wearing a rumpled nightgown and a flummoxed expression that would have been endearing if Trista hadn’t wanted to throttle her.

“Trista!” Pen said the moment the confusion washed out of her.  She darted forward and threw her arms around her: being hugged by Pen was always an event, and never one Trista could find it within herself to dislike.  Even under these circumstances and even with Triss next to her, still and just a little miserable, just a little resentful.  “You’re here!  Why are you here?”

“Because you scared us out of our wits,” Triss said sharply.  “Disappearing like that!  Why didn’t you at least tell me?”

“You would have tried to stop me,” Pen said, utterly matter-of-fact.  “This way you’d be so obviously in the dark about it that everybody would be even more scared.  How many days has it been?”

“A little over half of one,” Trista said.

Pen’s face fell.  “But that’s no time at all!”

“Don’t make deals with fairies if you want to predict how things are going to turn out,” Triss said.  “I called Trista right away once I saw you were missing, and she and Violet came out here to find you.  And you were just playing.  Pen, you could have gotten yourself killed, or made us all sick with worry, and for what?  Just because you didn’t want to spend your allowance buying a present for Trista’s stupid made-up birthday?”

“It’s not stupid and it’s not made-up!”

“I don’t like your plan either, Pen,” Trista said.  She tried to reach Pen the only way she knew how.  “I don’t know what I’d do if anything happened to you—none of us do.”

Pen accepted this with a slight wrinkle of shame on her brow and a cat-into-the-cream smile on her face at the implicit praise of it, but then said that none of them would feel that way when they knew what all her hard work—“What hard work?” Triss said—had gotten her.  She slipped her fingers under the neckline of her nightgown and brought up a leather thong with a little velvet bag at the end of it.  She ordered Trista to close her eyes, and when Trista did, Pen put something warm and surprisingly heavy in the palm of her hand.

“Open,” Pen said.

Trista looked.  She was holding a small, flat leather journal, the kind that might have come from any stationary shop in the country.  Even to avoid hurting Pen’s feelings, she wasn’t inclined to lie and say it was what she had always wanted.

The Seamstress spoke before she could, though.  “You see, I did just as Pen asked, so you don’t have any grounds for complaint.”  She sounded sulky.  “One journal just for Trista.”

“Because you’re made up of all those diary pages,” Pen said hesitantly, “but I know you lost a lot of them.  I thought if you had something of your own to write in, something that was bewitched, maybe you could use those pages and, you know, they’d be yours, not Triss’s.  And then you wouldn’t have to worry about the watch, maybe, because you’d get stronger even without it.”

“Oh, Pen.”  She had no idea whether it would work or not, but she wrapped her arms around Pen all the same and kissed her head, her slightly oily hair that did, as a matter of fact, smell just a little like honey from wherever Nowhere she had just been.  Spider-silk was hot in her eyes.

“Because you do look, you know, younger,” Pen said in a small voice.  “I noticed it the last time I came to London, because Triss had just had to buy new shoes, bigger ones, and yours still fit me.”

“It might not help,” Trista said, half-hoping the Seamstress would insert herself again and assure her that of course it would, but the girl said nothing.  She had gone back to her cross-stitching and Trista suddenly noticed that her pattern was one of an immense sea serpent.  “Soon enough you might pass me, and then you’ll be the big sister.”

“Never,” Pen said.  “Never-ever.”

“I’m your sister too, you know,” Triss said.  She was rubbing at her eyes.  “I’m happy you got something for Trista, but—”

“Well, I’d get something for you if you needed it,” Pen said.  “Don’t be silly.”

Triss let out a long, shuddering breath and smiled a smile Trista herself did not believe at all.  It was not as good of a lie as her story about the bread, and it made Trista hurt for her.  What was growing up if you had to do it without the love of the one person you truly wanted to love you back?  Pen did love Triss, Trista was sure of it, but it was hard to blame Triss for wondering.  The history between them was full of too many thorns.


Trista paid for her sister’s reappearance once they were all back at St. Julian’s.  It was the dinner hour and the dining hall was full of girls chattering and gulping down mashed potatoes and gray with overdone roast beef.  It all had a sweaty, talcum-powdery smell that was the antithesis of everything the Besiders could tolerate, the animal problem and the chemical solution all bottled up into one scent.  All the blood cooked out of the meat.

She had said her goodbyes to Triss and Pen out in the corridor, Pen squashing herself up against her again in flurry of Pen-ness, even impulsively kissing her and then looking embarrassed as though she thought it babyish.  Triss had only shaken her hand.  They had parted on better terms before and Trista hoped they would again.  Stranger things, after all, had happened.  That they were all here, and all alive, was strange enough.

Trista waited until the dinner conversation was at a consistent rumble and then she stepped inside, giving the heavy mahogany door a tug so it would close behind her with a resounding bang.

Everyone looked at her.

She knew what they were seeing: a small, pale-faced girl in an ill-fitting St. Julian’s uniform, her hair in slightly fuzzy braids, her socks and shoes a little dirtied with mud and grass.  Very ordinary.  A milksop little thing.

Then Trista opened her mouth.  Her thorn teeth filled in in endless briars.

She tore apart the glamour of her doll’s body and let them glimpse her as she was: not a two years past Triss Crescent but the cuckoo who had slain the Architect and stopped time.  The girl who had eaten her dolls as they had screamed for her to stop.  The girl who ate wool and velvet and dead leaves and rotten apples and letters.  Her skin of cloth stitched up so many times that she had seams all over her.  Her head a china skull with painted spots of squashed-berry rouge.  Her legs twisted bundles of sticks.

She howled and howled, letting her rage and love and fear flow through her with a sound like a blizzard coming in.  Soon the screams drowned out even that.


They were all in so much shock that it was easy for Trista to slip away, and her grasp on how she wanted to look was so unstable that it was no trouble at all to get through the fence.  Violet swore when she saw her, though.

“You’re coming apart, Trista, dammit.”  She took out the sewing kit she carried everywhere now and fixed Trista up as best she could, and the unruffled way she went about it seemed to suggest that Trista’s skin was really skin, that the muddy water she was leaking was really blood, until at last Trista blinked and she could see that too.  She wondered why she could not change how she looked as a person, but only go back and forth between her doll-self and her Trista-self.  She wondered if the Shrike would ever tell her if there were another way.

She was shaking.  “I had to scare them.  I had to make it so nobody there would know what was going on, so they’d remember for years that they didn’t know what was was going on, what was possible or not.”

“Wait, wait, slow down.  What happened?  Where’s Pen?”

Trista wiped cobwebs from her eyes.  “Please, let’s just go.  I’ll tell you everything when we get home.  I just want to go home.  Pen’s fine, everything’s fine.”

“Are you fine?”

She made herself nod.  It was true, wasn’t it?  She had the knowledge that Pen and Triss were both safe, she had the hope of the new Besider journal, she had the unselfish gratification of knowing Pen might have been startled enough by her dinner appearance to cling a little more closely to Triss, at least in that moment.  She just didn’t like having to be a monster.  She didn’t like remembering that she was of the same breed as the things that counted on people's terror of monsters to keep themselves alive.

But, the long ride home, her arms tight around Violet’s waist, she thought that maybe that was unfair.  What else were the Besiders supposed to do?  Only monsters had ever taken care of them, after all.  The Architect, the Shrike.  Now her.

She put her hand into Violet’s other jacket pocket and ripped it out, taking with it an even bigger swath of velvet trim this time.  She balled it up and put it in her mouth, this time determined to make it last.  She knew Violet felt her doing it, but Violet never even flinched.

Maybe, Trista thought, she should ask Violet to get her some books on architecture.  On physics.  If she could design some new parts of London—

That could be the first thing she wrote in her new diary, she thought, trying to be optimistic.  Maybe she would write it and feel her shoes start to pinch.

She said as much to Violet that night after they had been over it all and Violet had roundly and in absentia remonstrated Pen for her “damn impulsiveness that’s going to get us all killed, her included.”

Trista said, “Maybe the diary will work.”

“Maybe,” Violet said.  It was her mechanic’s voice, the voice of a woman who knew that some problems were fixable and others were not.  “But even so, I think your idea of learning about building is a good one.”

“To give the Besiders the Architect didn’t already find a place to go.”

“From an altruistic point of view.  But I meant it in a just-for-Trista kind of way.”  She had at last been able to buy new cigarettes, and she lit one up right then, looking with satisfaction at the warm, glowing ember of it.  “Sometimes when you’re frozen, the best way to stay warm is to learn something new.  You can feel yourself getting better at it.  At least that’s some kind of change, some way to mark where you’ve been and where you’re going.”  She smoked for a while and then said, out of the blue, “Do you need anything else to eat, anything special, or did the pocket tide you over for a bit?”

It had.  All the hunger she had was somewhere else, somewhere less easily satisfied.  She said, “Can I just hold your hands for a while?”

Violet didn’t hesitate at all.  “Sure.  Just the one until I finish this, but then you can have both.”

Trista ran her thumb along the calluses of Violet’s palm.  This was another way of marking time: the injuries and strains you picked up over the years, the damage you forced onto yourself whether it was coming there naturally or not.  She let the warmth and distinctiveness of all that sink into her and tried to believe that she was just as much Trista as Violet was Violet.  She knew the feeling of herself would come back if she waited.  It always did.  All she had to do until then was hold on.