I was not born flawed.
My parents say I was a pretty infant, if a trifle fractious. As I grew older, my red-gold curls, wide gray eyes, and merry countenance marked me for the Night Court; my skill with needle and pen marked me for Eglantine House, whose patrons are also patrons of the arts. My marque, which was designed and begun by the same master who created Phèdre’s famous briar roses, was also of a brilliant simplicity: a length of thread, the dark green of oak leaves in summer, which wound up and down and around my back in complex, hypnotic patterns.
But, of course, none of this mattered in the end. The scar which twists my upper lip into a permanent sneer ruined me for the Night Court. Even after Phèdre’s condescending generosity granted me my greatest wish— to pay off my unfinished marque and go into business for myself— I was still flawed.
I could clothe the beauties of the court for their masques and dances and feasts, and make them lovelier still. But I did not attend such affairs myself. I would be the object of pity, even if— especially if— I were to go masked. And nothing is so repulsive as pity. The occasional invitations I received, I tore to shreds and fed into the fire. Eventually, people stopped sending them. I was glad, for the most part, though I did sometimes regret not seeing how my designs looked in motion, on the dance floor. Not to mention that hearing reports of how crude and tasteless other clothiers' garments looked in comparison to mine is never so sweet as seeing that for oneself.
I was hard at work on costumes for the Midwinter Masque when I met the man who was to change my life. Phèdre had given me a commission, naturally. I had designed her a particularly daring gown which harkened back to the first dress I had ever made for her, when she had attended as Mara, Kushiel’s handmaiden, the first anguisette.
As Mara, she had worn a backless gown of burning scarlet, with a black veil and scarlet ribbons wound around her pale arms. This time, I had studied the black thorns and crimson petals of her marque, and it came to my mind to echo it in her costume. The skirt of her dress was unadorned black silk, dropping to the floor like a fall of ink. The blouse was skin-tight, transparent gauze, covering her from throat to wrists, allowing her creamy skin to appear as if uncovered. Upon that blouse I had sewn a thorny briar of black silk, with a few choice petals and droplets of scarlet, as if her marque had continued and wound itself around her breasts and arms. As if by chance, the briar covered her nipples, but most of her exquisite torso was bare.
I had met her consort Joscelin in passing, and knew that he never attended the court parties. I also knew that he saw Phèdre dressed for them before she left without him. I wondered if it tortured him to know how others must desire her, as she danced and ate and spied without him, or if he too had a touch of masochism, and the thought inflamed him. Either way, I could not help but be amused by the thought of his discomfiture at seeing his consort go off to the masque, nearly naked from the waist up.
My apprentice, Marie, interrupted this pleasant reverie. “Julien de Somerville to see you,” she announced.
“Julien de Somerville,” she repeated. “The second cousin of Percy de Somerville— the Comte de Somerville.”
“I know who Percy de Somerville is,” I snapped. “And I know who this cousin is, too: a person without an appointment. Send him away.”
But before she could turn to do so, the door opened. There was a pause and a scuffling noise, and then Julien de Somerville walked in. Rather, I should say, he limped in, leaning on a crutch.
I had a vague recollection of hearing, last winter, that some relative of the Comte de Somerville had suffered a terrible accident. But I had not paid attention to the details, and, now that I thought of it, had been under the impression that he had died.
I looked him over curiously. He had clearly once been beautiful. As are all d’Angelines, to be sure, unless we meet with some disfiguring accident or illness. Even age touches us lightly, bringing only distinction to our features. But this man had been more striking than most, to judge by the side of his face that was undamaged. His right eye was gray, like mine, but a gray that evoked misty mornings rather than storm clouds. His features were strong, his lips were full and sensual, and while some of the faint lines on the right side of his face suggested pain, more were lines of laughter.
He wore his black hair loose, parted to fall over the left side of his face and hide the damage. But I could see that his nose had been broken and probably his jaw as well, and where his hair drifted aside, as fine hair does, I saw brutal slashing scars across his ivory skin. His clothes had been altered in an attempt to conceal his body, and the padding made him look plump in odd places. The colors were all wrong for him, browns and duns that made his skin look sickly. And no amount of tailoring could conceal that he wore some sort of brace over his left leg. He wore black silk gloves, a poor choice of fabric: too clingy to conceal the broken fingers on his left hand.
I knew at once why he had come to me. But I am of House Eglantine, not House Balm: an artist, not a healer. Besides, pity is revolting to anyone with pride. And I could see by the set of his lips that he was proud.
“I have no time to take on a new client,” I said brusquely. “See me after the Midwinter Masque.” I added, with a frown, “Make an appointment first.”
He smiled at me. “That will not serve my purposes. I have come to hire you to make me a costume for the Midwinter Masque.”
I frowned at him. “Well, you’re too late. I told you, I’m busy.”
I jerked my head to dismiss him and Marie at once. Marie scuttled out, but Julien remained standing.
“Aren’t you going to offer me a seat?” he inquired.
I could not discern whether he was shaming me or teasing me. Either way, I refused to take the bait. If it pained or tired him to stand, that was his own fault for arriving unannounced and then refusing to leave. There were seats aplenty in my antechamber.
“I am not,” I retorted. “Seats are for clients.”
“Excellent.” To my annoyance, Julien gingerly lowered himself into the nearest chair. He leaned his crutch against the wall. “Now, as to my request…”
I slammed down my scissors. “I have no interest in your request. I have no time, and while you do present an intriguing challenge—“
His interruption was soft-spoken, but it stopped me nonetheless. “What challenge do you think I present?”
I was surprised that he would speak so plainly. But I have never been accustomed to pretending that my own flaw does not exist, so perhaps it was not surprising that he felt similarly. “To conceal your injuries as best I can.”
He shook his head and, without ceremony, drew off his gloves. His right hand easily grasped the smooth silk, but his left was clumsy. As I had thought, his left hand had been badly broken. The knuckles were thickened, the fingers were set at odd angles, and all of his hand and arm that I could see was covered in jagged scars.
Then he pushed back his hair and tucked it behind his ears, giving me a full view of his face. There, too, the bones had been shattered. His cheekbone was flattened, and though his eye had been spared, scar tissue pulled the brow askew. Like me, his lips had been cut and had not healed straight. He was not ugly, exactly, but it was painful to look at him. I could not help imagining how much it all must have hurt. Some of it probably still did.
“It was a hunting accident last year.” His voice contained no emotion, so I could only guess at how much self-control that might require. “I don’t know if you know the details…”
I shook my head. “I don’t know anything at all. In fact, until now, I thought you had died.”
“I nearly did.” He gazed out, past me, as if he saw something other than my plain wall and draped mannequins. “My horse was charged by a boar. It bolted and threw me off a cliff. I landed on a lot of sharp rocks, and broke half the bones in my body. A Yeshuite surgeon saved me. I know it doesn’t look as if he did a very good job, but just imagine what he had to work with. I spent the last year recovering, but now I have to get back to work.”
“What is your work?” I asked.
“Diplomacy. So you see, making an appearance at the Midwinter Masque isn’t only so I can go dancing.” He gave me wry look, and then grew serious again. “I offer you four hundred ducats to make me a costume. I know that’s a hundred more than you usually get, which I believe makes up for the short notice.”
I hesitated. I could give Marie most of the work on Lady Denise Grosmaine’s gown… “Four hundred and fifty.”
“Three hundred and fifty.”
“What!” I exclaimed. “You just offered me four hundred. You can’t bargain down from an offer you already made.”
“I’m accounting for the nuisance of having to argue with you. Three hundred and twenty-five.”
“Four hundred, and that’s my last offer,” I said firmly.
“Done!” There was a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.
“You should be at Bryony House,” I said. “Or in diplomacy.”
I carefully set aside Phèdre’s gown, and took out a sheet of foolscap and a quill. “Is there anything particular that you want?”
His face grew grave. “None of the nobles of the D’Angeline court or any foreign courts have seen me in a year. They may be wondering if I am still capable. When they see me, they’ll wonder more. I don’t want to hide what I am. I want to show them that it doesn’t matter.”
“Interesting…” My mind was already racing. But I needed to see more. “Strip.”
He frowned, and didn’t move.
“Strip,” I said impatiently. “If I’m going to design for you, I need to see your body. That get-up you’re wearing now was designed to disguise it.”
“Yes, I know. The Comte persuaded me that was the best way… but I no longer believe that.” He clenched his jaw, then released it with a sigh of resignation. “Perhaps you should summon back your maid. I will require some assistance.”
“Marie is my apprentice, not a mere maid,” I said, indignant on her behalf. “She’s prone to over-embellishing, but she’s quite talented.” Then I remembered how we had come to the subject. “She’s not needed. I’ll undress you.”
He briefly indicated the fastenings he could not undo, either because of where they were placed or because he couldn’t manage them with his clumsy left hand, and I made a mental note not to include such things in his costume. Julien had to shift from sitting in the chair to standing and leaning on his crutch a few times, but I soon had everything removed but the bulky cage of polished wood and leather straps around his left leg. His terrible clothier had made his trousers and even his undergarments so large that they slid over it easily
“I’ll leave the brace on, I think,” I murmured, mostly to myself. My mind was already leaping to designs in which it might be incorporated. “Stand up.”
Julien stood, leaning on his crutch. I circled him, examining his body. He was more muscular than I expected, though more so on the right side. My design would need to embrace asymmetry. His phallus, which to my amusement was beginning to harden, was undamaged. He had fallen directly on to his left side, and the few scars anywhere else were clearly from years earlier. His buttocks were firm and round, and his back musculature was a work of art. When I stepped in close to examine his shoulders, the right exquisitely sculpted, the left flattened and scarred, I could feel the heat rising up from his body.
“We think of beauty as perfection,” I mused. “But to make my clients beautiful, I must see the beauty I mean to showcase. I could see you as a broken god…”
I started. I had not realized that I was speaking aloud. “Yes. I have it. The fallen god.”
I measured him, then helped him back into his clothes, my mind intent on my design. I clapped to summon Marie, and sent her to fetch the book of Hellene myths. While we waited, I made a quick sketch.
I took the book and dismissed Marie, then opened it to show Julien. He peered over my shoulder, his arm brushing up against mine. I remembered what that arm had looked like bare, and I was eager to showcase it.
“You will be the Hellene god, Hephaestus. The god of the forge.” I showed him the woodcut of the lame god. “Do you know the story?”
Julien shook his head, studying the picture intently.
“Ignorant!” I exclaimed. “Everyone is ignorant except Eglantine House. And maybe the Yeshuites. Well, listen and be enlightened.”
Julien solemnly sat back down and put his hands on his chin, miming a small child’s eagerness to learn.
Looking at him, I hesitated. But he was no child, to put his hands over his ears at any reminder of pain. More, I was no mother who would try to shield her child.
“The Hellene gods live in the sky,” I said. “The sky king, Zeus, approached the mother of Hephaestus. She refused his advances, but Zeus tried to force her. Hephaestus intervened. He saved his mother, but Zeus was so angry that he threw Hephaestus from the sky. The kingdom was so high that he fell all day. Finally, he landed on an island. The fall shattered his legs and back. His life was saved by the men on the island. They were great metal workers, and they taught him their craft. And so he returned to Heaven, lame and hunchbacked, but able to work marvels.”
Julien nodded slowly. “I see.”
I showed him my sketch. “I will require an additional hundred ducats to buy the gold. But you will be the talk of the masque.”
“I expect I will,” he said wryly. “One way or another.”
I stared at him, trying to figure out if that was a joke at my expense or at his.
He climbed to his feet and gave me a stiff, careful bow. “Favrielle nó Eglantine,” he said formally. “Will you accompany me to the Midwinter Masque?”
Once again, I found myself foolishly gaping at him. Then I recovered my senses. “Certainly not! I never attend such things.”
Before he could press the matter, I flung the door open. “Come back for a fitting. I will send a messenger with the day and time. Don’t be late or come unannounced. Bring a spare crutch, so we can paint it, and prepare to spend some time; we’ll need to paint your brace as well.”
Julien gave me a long, thoughtful look. His gray eyes no longer made me think of misty mornings, but of wood smoke. I would have to adjust my initial thoughts on the colors I intended to use.
“Go on, go,” I said. “You’ve already taken up far too much of my time.”
With another stiff bow, he went out the door. I sat back down, then leaped up and threw it back open.
“Tell your color-blind clothier you should wear blue and gray!” I shouted.
He didn’t turn, but I heard him say, “I hear and obey.”
I returned to Phèdre’s briar rose blouse, but my mind kept drifting to thoughts of broken gods, of the difference between beauty and perfection, and of wood smoke.
Despite my busy day, I was not hard at work when Julien returned for his fitting. Instead, I found myself waiting for him, eager to fit my partially made costume to his body.
This time I heard his steps in the hall and held the door open for him. He came inside and stood in the middle of the room, giving me a chance to inspect his clothes and body.
“Well?” he said. “Is it an improvement?”
He had cut his hair, not short but shorter. A few strands fell across his forehead, like stray threads of black silk, but the rest was brushed away from his face. He no longer wore gloves, and his clothes had been chosen more to set off his coloring than to hide his body. His trousers and brocade coat were gray as storm clouds, and his shirt was blue as the sky after the storm had passed.
“Passable,” I said grudgingly. “I could have done better. You must hire me to make all your clothes, once I have more time. But it’s certainly better than last time.”
He laughed. “Yes, my household agrees with you. They have urged me to fire my clothier and see only you.”
I heard a double meaning in his words, and thought again of his invitation to the masque. I would not attend, of course. But I had made no vows against dalliance. True, I had never dallied with a client of mine, but…
I felt irresolute. I, a former adept of the Night Court, was no trembling blossom— not even such as inhabit Cereus House. And yet I felt as if anything I might propose or agree to which involved this man might be… dangerous? Too much?
The image came to my mind, of Hephaestus plummeting from the sky. That was it. When I thought of getting involved with Julien, I felt as if I was falling. How strange. He was the one who had fallen.
“Strip,” I ordered, and knelt to assist him.
Soon he stood nude before me. I fitted on his half-made clothing and armor, taking measurements and inserting pins. Finally, I had him sit again.
“I have to remove your brace,” I said.
Though I had seen and touched his naked body, this seemed more intimate. He clearly felt so too, for a flush rose up over his face and body.
He jerked his head sharply to the side. “I can do it.”
Working mostly one-handed, he undid the buckles and eased off the brace. The scarring over his leg was no worse than it was over the rest of his body, but the muscles were wasted and flaccid. He thrust it at me. His entire body was tense, his jaw clenched tight.
I took the brace in both hands, as if I was accepting a gift from royalty, and laid it carefully down on my desk. It was heavier than it looked.
I quickly helped him dress, not meeting his eyes, and returned to my worktable, where I picked up my brush and dipped it into silver paint. “This could take a while. I hope you brought a book.”
There was a silence in which he must have nodded or shaken his head, but I was bent over my task. It was a simple job, to paint the wooden bars so that they looked like bronze, and the leather straps so that they looked like hammered silver. I could have given it to Marie. But I didn’t like the thought of anyone but me touching Julien’s brace. It was like a part of him, vulnerable and sturdy at once.
When I finished working on the brace, I caught him watching me, as absorbed as I had been in my task. “I have to let it dry. I see you didn’t think to bring a book. I could have Marie fetch you something. Perhaps you could educate yourself on the Hellene myths.”
He shook his head. “You have work to do, don’t you? I like watching you work.”
“You don’t find it dull?”
“Watching a master craftswoman at work? Watching a beautiful woman using her body to create more beauty? I find it entrancing.”
I snorted in disdain. “Please, spare me from the cozening. I am the opposite of beautiful.”
Julien leaned forward. “You are a woman who was once an adept of the Night Court. You are not allowed to be anything but exquisite.”
I tapped at the scar that marred my face. “You’re right, we are not allowed to be anything else. Hence the once.”
“Your Dowayne should not have dismissed you. You would have still gotten patrons.”
I shook my head and looked for my scissors. I could not seem to remember where any of my tools were.
“If I may, Favrielle…” Julien’s voice was soft but impossible to ignore. “How did it happen?”
“I slipped and fell in the bath,” I recited. “It was an…”
The lie accident caught in my throat. I put down my scissors, which had somehow gotten clenched in my hand, and walked up to where Julien sat in his chair. I pulled up another chair and sat down, facing him at last.
“It was not an accident,” I said. I could hear my voice shaking. “Another adept was jealous of me. She hired a man to waylay me with a knife. He gave me a choice: he could cut my face, or cut the tendons in my right hand. I’d never be able to sew or draw properly again. I asked him to cut my face— I asked him to!”
Tears were rolling down my cheeks. We learn to cry without making ourselves ugly, we adepts of the Night Court, but I could not recall how. I could feel my face crumpling into an even uglier form. My nose was running, too.
Julien pulled me against his chest and put his warm arms around me. He lowered his head, letting his silky hair fall across my face. I sat there and sobbed— I, Favrielle nó Eglantine, who hadn’t wept when my face and my career had been ruined in one quick slash of a knife.
It seemed a long time before my tears ran out, but they finally did. I lifted my head and scrubbed at my face with my hands. Julien caught my hands, then took out a handkerchief and wiped my face dry.
“I’ve cried all over your shirt,” I said. “I’ve ruined it.”
He shrugged. “You can make me a better one.”
“I was never supposed to tell anyone what happened. It would make Eglantine House look bad.”
Julien sighed. “And so there was no justice done? What happened to the other adept, and the man with the knife?”
“There was justice, of a sort. The man with the knife was arrested for some other crime, which he swore he didn’t do. I suppose it was a frame. But he was punished. The other adept was also barred from the Night Court. She went to work as a tumbler and a gymnast. A year later, she fell from the high rope and broke her neck.”
“Kushiel’s justice,” murmured Julien.
“I suppose. I’m still ugly, though.”
I felt the muscles of Julien’s body tense as he spoke. “No. You are not ugly. If you can see me as beautiful, you can see yourself as beautiful.”
He gave me a gentle shove away. I stood up, startled.
“Go fetch the mirror,” he ordered. Then, apologetically, he added, “I don’t mean to order you around. It’s only that I can’t do it myself.”
I rolled over the standing, full-length mirror. My face felt hot and swollen, and I was sure I had never looked less beautiful. But I stood beside him and looked at myself in it. As I had guessed, my face was red, my eyes were puffy, and strands of hair were matted to my forehead. I looked terrible.
I looked terrible, but not because of my scar.
In the mirror, Julien was watching me hopefully. I wanted to tell him what he was obviously longing to hear, but except for the story the Dowayne of Eglantine House ordered me to tell, I have never been a liar.
“Maybe I’ll be beautiful after I bathe,” I said.
Julien laughed. Then he laid one hand on my cheek— his left hand, with the broken fingers and the scars. “Favrielle nó Eglantine, will you accompany me to the Midwinter Masque?”
Again, I felt as if I was falling. But this time, I let myself fall.
“Yes,” I said. “I will.”
Julien came to pick me up on the night of the Midwinter Masque. He had already been dressed by his attendants, and I took the time to admire his completed costume.
I had done as I had promised: I had made him into a god. A fallen god, a broken god; a god of forge and fire. I had clothed him in asymmetrical armor, rent as if he had come from battle, wrought of leather painted to look like inlaid bronze. His crutch was painted in a similar fashion, as was his brace. I had placed the rents so that sometimes they showed scars and sometimes unmarred skin, emphasizing that he could have chosen to hide his scars and had not cared to.
His hair was braided back from his face and the braids tipped with beads of real red gold that clinked softly as he moved, contributing to the illusion that he was clad in metal. His braids were dusted with red and orange glitter, so that he appeared to have just stepped out of the forge, and still had sparks in his hair. The replica smith's hammer that hung at his belt was painted so that the head appeared to smolder red-hot. He wore no mask.
He looked magnificent, if I do say so myself.
“Definitely some of my finest work.” I was suffused with the deep satisfaction that comes from seeing my own creations come to life, as they only can when the right person wears them.
“You’re lovely,” he said. “Who are you?”
“You should have taken my offer to let you read the book of Hellene myths,” I said. “I am Pandora, a statue carved by Hephaestus and given the breath of life.”
I had made myself a gown of silver silk. It was high-cut, long-sleeved, and floor-length, puddling around my feet so that I seemed to stand in a pool of molten metal. It would have been modest if it hadn’t clung so tightly to my body, displaying every curve. All over, I had embroidered it with delicate thread one shade darker than the base silk, so that I looked like a living statue of inlaid silver.
It was simple, yet dramatic. There would be nothing at the masque to match it— not even the gown I had made for Phèdre. I did not delude myself that people would be more captivated by me than they would by her, but any connoisseur of clothing would be able to compare my designs side by side, and judge the one I wore as the finer.
“And… your mouth?” he asked hesitantly.
I had dabbed a touch of silver paint over my scar.
“Your chisel slipped.”
Before we stepped outside, we stopped to kiss. Our bodies locked together, leather and silk, flesh and flesh, as perfectly as if I had measured us to fit. We had not yet set foot in the Midwinter Masque. But I fancied that his kiss tasted of joie.