The Nobody Crown
by Alexis Cohen-Pena
Here follows an integral part of the origins and beginnings of Alva Goldfinch,
Fairy Hatmaker and Dealer of Secrets.
This story is set approximately Forty years prior to “Curiosities”.
The old Human lay slumped at the mouth of the alleyway, his right side pressed hard against the cold, damp bricks of the wall.
He looked like a tramp who had given up on tramping. There was no tin cup or upturned hat in front of him, to elicit a donation. Nor did he attempt to engender charity through eye contact with the pedestrians that stalked up and down the sidewalk. Instead his head hung forward and down, curled so low that his face was nearly buried between the collar of his coat and the newsboy cap on his balding skull.
He was dirty, but the filth was superficial. It streaked his clothes without staining the fabric; the mud on his shoes was still wet and fresh. His skin was aged and spotted, but not crusty-gray and ingrained with street muck.
He had been outside for perhaps a day; two at the most. And yet he was clearly in a terrible state. His legs were splayed like dead weights, and his chest barely moved with the rise and fall of his thin, wheezing breaths. He would have looked the very picture of a corpse—except for his hands. Long-fingered, callused and wrinkled, they shook in his lap with a palsy that revealed he was still there. Dying, perhaps. But not dead.
At the sound of the loud, piping voice, the old man slowly raised his head. He blinked to clear the grit and water from his eyes, wincing as the cool wind of First Autumn blew sharply across his nose and cheeks.
“You’re sure, Ezzy?”
“Sure as houses! This is him here.”
The old Human blinked again, his vision finally focusing.
He found himself face to face with a scruffy young Fairy woman. She crouched in front of him on her hands and knees, indifferent to the grime of the alley. Her red hair was a puffball cloud that framed her face, floating around her pointed ears. She was dressed in grown men’s clothing; the cuffs and hems rolled into fat doughnuts around her elbows and ankles. The huge waist of her trousers was cinched and belted with a length of rope.
She scowled at him, wrinkling her nose.
“For an old wanter what shakes and stumbles, you sure took off like a dire goat on the trackline!” The young Fairy woman complained. “Do you know how many neighborhoods you crossed? I had to get a Pixie to follow you, and come tell me where it was you finally stopped!”
The old man coughed, feeling something loosen in his throat.
“What? I…” His voice was soft and light with age; his tone confused. He coughed again.
Fingers touched the old man’s left arm. He turned his head.
A second Fairy was kneeling beside him, this one better dressed and cleaner than the first. Her black wool frock was plain, but nearly spotless. She had a pretty face, and thick blonde hair tucked under a cheaply-made straw bonnet.
“That straw has a poor weave.” The old man croaked. “Terrible hat.”
The Fairy woman smiled broadly.
“Is your name John Crowner?” She asked gently. The old man wet his lips and swallowed, trying to push the last of the phlegm from his throat.
“John Crowner, yes Miss.” He said. “Do I know you?”
“Not at all.” The Fairy woman replied. “But as of this morning, I know you. You work for the Videllian Hattery on Averdeen, do you not? On the edge of the Second Ward?”
John’s eyes turned down. “Most recently, Miss. But not anymore.”
“I told you, Alva!” The first Fairy said. “I told you it looked like he’d gotten the sack. You said to keep an eye out for castoffs whenever I snuck in the Poshway. And if this wanter ain’t cast and off twice over, then I’m the Dair’s grandbaby!”
The blonde Fairy shushed her companion, raising two fingers to her lips. She turned her head back to John, green eyes boring into his.
“My name is Alva Goldfinch, Mr. Crowner. Ezzy, here.” Alva tilted her head to the side, indicating the other Fairy. “Says she saw you pushed out the back door of the hat shop, with a bindle in your arms. Which you lost twenty minutes later, trying to leave through the ward gates.”
“Those marker guards took one look at his dismissal papers, and ripped it right out of his mitts!” The redhead Ezzy cried. “Made up some smish about ‘Poshway contraband’. Joke’s on them, though. It just looked like old clothes to me!”
“It was.” John confirmed. He drew his shaking hands closer to his chest. “I tried to hang on to it. But I can’t…I can’t carry things so well anymore.”
“I can see that.” The Fairy Alva said. “And I suspect that is precisely the reason for your current predicament. Am I wrong?”
“No.” John replied. “You’re not.”
“Which means you weren’t just scrubbing windows or sweeping floors in that hat shop.” Alva deduced. “Or you could have kept up, despite the shakes. And you weren’t a heavy lifter either—else you’d have been sent on your way long ago, just for withering like Humans do.”
“I cleaned some.” John muttered. “I lifted some.”
“But that wasn’t your real work.” The Fairy woman leaned.
Alva squared her jaw. She seemed to have decided something. “You did well, Ezzy. You did exactly what I asked.”
“Well it weren’t for the praise and plaudits, love.” The other Fairy quipped.
“Quite.” Alva reached for a pouch belted around her waist. She withdrew two copper lara, and placed the coins into Ezzy’s waiting palm.
“That’s for your efforts.” Alva said. She reached into her pouch again, and pulled out a dark iron og, holding it between thumb and forefinger.
“And this,” She added. “Is for your silence.”
“You have it!” Ezzy said.
“I want your word, Ezrellda Paige.” Alva said. “You never saw this Human. You never led me to him.”
“I never saw this Human. I never led you to him.” The scruffy Fairy repeated. “I swear it now and forever. Dair gut me if I lie!”
Alva dropped the money into Ezzy’s palm. “Off with you, then.”
The redheaded Fairy leapt up, and ran down the road. Alva climbed slowly to her feet. She looked down at the old Human.
“Do you want to live a while longer, John Crowner?” She asked.
“Then come with me.”
Alva bought them both tickets for a cross-ward train ride, and helped John climb on after her. They sat on hard wooden seats amidst their fellow passengers, and watched as the city rolled past them. After an indeterminate amount of time, the young Fairy had them disembark at a station and continue on foot.
John kept up as well as he could, but eventually his knees began to wobble. By the end of their journey Alva was half-dragging him, gripping him tight under his right armpit with his left arm thrown across her shoulders for balance.
They stopped outside a tenement building, at the end of a narrow side road. The structure was shabby with age, but there were no broken windows or piles of rubbish in the street. As dismal and destitute as the area was, it seemed moderately well kept.
“Where are we?” John asked. He almost didn’t expect a reply. The Fairy woman had been taciturn on the trip, refusing to explain where they were going, or why she had plucked him from the gutter.
After a pause, Alva answered him. “The Fifth Ward.”
John squinted. “And what sort of place in the Fifth Ward?”
“A place of convenience.” Alva said. “Not every rich family wants to go to the trouble of housing their entire staff. Or the families of said staff. So they hide apartments like this off the beaten path. Which is lucky for you, because I need you close by but I can’t exactly put you in one of their closets.”
“Whose closet?” John asked.
Alva left John leaning against a wall, while she went up into the tenement. The old Human hunched down into his coat, and tried to think warm thoughts.
The Fairy returned within half an hour, carrying a key. “We’re going up the back way. Try to be as quiet as possible. If you see anyone, keep your face down.”
Alva helped John up three flights of rickety wooden stairs. Save for a few distracted Pixies flittering up and down the stairwell, they encountered no one. But the noises of life were all around them. Pots and pans clattering, water pouring, brooms thumping, children wailing and adults arguing; all of it barely muffled by the thin plaster walls.
They stopped on the fourth floor, by a door near the stairs. Alva unlocked it to reveal a small windowless room, barely eight by eight feet. There was a cheap, smelly lightglobe affixed to the ceiling, and a cot with a threadbare mattress. Aside from that, the tiny room was empty.
“What was it you just said about not keeping me in a closet?” John remarked.
“Shut your sandwich-hole.” Alva pulled John into the room, and sat him carefully down on the cot.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can.” Alva said. “Half a day at most. Get some rest.”
“Wait! What—” John’s protest fell on deaf pointed ears. Alva was already gone, the door closing behind her.
John’s eyes widened as he heard the loud click of the door lock bolting him inside.
Alva returned within four hours. But John was in no mood to be appreciative.
“You locked me in!” He said, as Alva stepped inside and shut the door.
The Fairy tilted her head, and shifted the large bundle she carried under her arm. “I’m sorry, was there somewhere else you needed to be?”
“I’m not a slave, or an endangered squirrel at the zoo. I don’t like being held captive.”
“Your body holds you captive well enough on its own.” Alva said bluntly. “Even if I had left the door open, do you really think you could have made it down the stairs by yourself?”
“I could have tried.” John said.
“I locked you in to keep you safe.” Alva sat down on the floor, settling her skirts around her crossed legs. “I promise, I’m not here to hurt you. Look…”
Alva unwrapped the bundle.
“I brought bread.” She offered. “And cheese. Plus a slice of the meringue pie that no one wanted to eat because they thought it smelled funny. Picky fenners…I also brought blankets, a chamber pot, a pitcher for water, a basin, and ginger beer.”
John’s throat was parched. “May I…?” He held out two trembling hands for the beer bottle.
Alva frowned. Uncorking the bottle, she rose up on her knees and held it to John’s mouth. He drank gratefully, taking long pulls.
Alva ripped a chunk of bread from the loaf, and smushed it into John’s shaking fingers. “You can feed yourself. It’s a less precise art.”
While John ate, Alva arranged the objects in the tiny space to her liking. Then she resumed her seated position on the floor, hands resting comfortably on her knees.
“You made hats for the Sylvani Rhoswen Videllian.” The Fairy said. It wasn’t a question.
John finished eating, and rubbed his bearded face against the inside of his elbow to clear away the crumbs as best he could.
“I am—was—her backshop boy.” John said. “All the grunt labor and fussy details. Tracing and cutting, gluing and stitching, oiling and lining. The tedious work nobody ever wants to bother with.”
“But it was still hatmaking.” Alva pressed. “You learned the trade. And if you learned it young, that’s decades and decades of experience under your belt. As much as any Human can hope to achieve. You know how to make hats. Quality hats. The bespoke kind, that ladies and gentlefey of high position will pay dear money for.”
John nodded. “I do.”
“Good.” Alva said. “I want you to teach me.”
John let out a guffaw, which promptly turned into a choking wheeze. He coughed loudly, trying to clear out his throat. “What???”
“I will bring you food, and pay the rent on this room.” Alva explained. “And in exchange, you will teach me everything you know about millinery. You will show me how to make hats as well as you do.”
“In this cramped little water-closet? There’s no work table!”
Alva spread her hands. “As you can already see, I have no problem sitting on the floor.”
John shook his head. “I can’t teach you. You’ll need tools, materials to work with. Those can be costly. And my hands…I can’t sew anymore.”
“You can still see, and you can still speak.” Alva said. “That’s enough for you to tell me what to do, and then check to make sure I’m doing it right. And whatever tools or supplies we need, I will find a way to get them.”
The old Human still looked skeptical. Alva frowned.
“I’ll make this plain to you.” The Fairy said. “Either you teach me as you would any apprentice, or I take you back down the stairs, and you can try your luck on the streets. The choice is yours.”
“I’m not some genius Peer or licensed tradesman.” He said. “I can’t promise what I know will be of any use to you. If you truly want to learn this craft, you’d be far better off with an apprenticeship to a skilled hatter.”
“Most likely.” Alva agreed. “But I don’t have that. You are all I have.”
John rubbed his arm across his forehead.
“Do you have paper and lead?” The old Human asked. “Because this is going to be a long list.”
It took the rest of First Autumn and the first half of Latter Spring for Alva to assemble the full range of tools John deemed fundamental to millinery. Some of what she brought was clearly scrounged from rubbish bins—a stained ironing board, a rusty brazier, and literally half a sadiron. More specific items, like the hat blocks, she must have purchased—though likely secondhand, given their condition.
As this collection amassed, John taught her in a piecemeal fashion. He described the most common hats, their basic components, and how to fit them together. He discussed the different materials used to make hats—from straws, to leathers, to felted wools or hairs.
“The more exotic or magical the material, the more it appeals to the average customer.” He lectured. “The poshfey want to show off. And those below want nothing more than to mimic them.”
“And what about the un-average customer?” Alva questioned.
John smiled. “Oh, they’ll still want the best of the best. But they know what to ask for. And they can tell the difference between true style, and a big mess thrown together for the sake of looking flashy.”
He had Alva cut her ugly straw bonnet to pieces, and stitch it back together. Then she did the same with his newsboy cap.
“Newsboys are the easiest, after cloth mobcaps.” He advised. “A little bit of stiffening around the band, that’s all. Most other styles require structure. Posture. They must be fitted and shaped, steamed and pressed.”
Alva brought in a thick piece of felt one day, twisted into a corkscrew shape.
“I found a weather spell in a book, and tweaked it.” She said cheerfully. “Water and air, overlaid with heat. Now I can make steam with my hands alone!”
John blinked. “You used magic?”
“It was much quicker than heating up the sadiron on the brazier—”
The old man interrupted her. “No. Do NOT use magic.”
Alva was baffled. “But you just said the other day that magic was necessary for certain techniques! For bespoke fitting, and the final touches.”
“I know what I said.” John’s face was like stone. “But I’m not going to sit here and watch you take shortcuts.”
“It’s not a shortcut, it’s practical!” Alva protested. “And it’s my magic. I was born with the knack for it. Just because Humans can’t do it—”
“Everything that you can do without magic, you will do without magic.” John said. “Otherwise we can stop right now. There is nothing easy about this craft. To do it it right, to do it perfectly, you have to learn how do it the hard way.”
Alva glared up at John. “You don’t get Wise Old Teacher points for preaching about the importance of hard work.”
“Hard work is necessary.”
“It’s a lie.” Alva sneered. “It’s a big fat lie they tell you, so you spend your life obedient and industrious. Like a good little slave. Clean this, cook that. Forget respect, forget dignity, you don’t need those! Hard work will make you good. Hard work will set your spirit free!”
Alva shook her head. “It’s all bunk. The deck is stacked against honest people. The only way to get ahead is to do what the poshfey do: dissemble, and cheat.”
“Then dissemble and cheat!” John said. “Break the rules all you please, girl. But how can you break the rules and cheat your very best at a game, without knowing first how the game is played honestly?”
John hunched his shoulders, and looked Alva in the eye.
“Learn without magic.” He said. “Save your spells for later. And I promise, you will profit from it.”
Time passed. John kept track of the spans on a paper grocery sack with a stub of charcoal; but without a window in his room he had to rely on Alva to tell him what day it actually was.
The Fairy’s movements were no help as an accurate timepiece. Her visits were irregular. Sometimes she would leave and return several times a day. Other times she would be gone for what felt like forever, and return to inform John that three days had passed. She brought packaged food in tins and wax paper, and ginger beer in bottles, in case he ran out of fresh food and pitcher water in her absence.
She often looked tired when she came in. Once she set her mind on that day’s task or lesson, her eyes would become alert and focused. But her exhaustion was obvious.
“What do you do when you’re not here?” John asked.
“I work.” Alva said. “I work my fingers to the bone. Or I avoid work, so I have time to come here.”
“No time for sleep?” The old Human joked.
“I sleep.” Alva said. “But true sleep is for the rich. Or the dead.”
“You’re a domestic.” John concluded. Alva nodded.
“Is that where the food comes from? You pinch it from you employer?”
“I have to.” Alva sighed. “I’m as careful as I can be, but I can’t afford to feed you any other way. My wages all go to your rent. And a bit of my savings each time, too.”
“Do you ever steal anything else? To sell for money?”
“Of course.” Alva said. “But I’m even more careful in that regard. I only do it rarely. And never anything that is likely to be missed. That narrows down my options considerably.”
The Fairy looked back down at the felt hat she was stitching together.
“I hate stealing anyway. It’s too obvious and risky. If I lose my job, it’s all over.”
John nodded. “You’d be cast out.”
“In more ways than one. My father arranged for my position when I was a girl—he’s a valet in the same house where I am a maid.”
Alva’s needle moved briskly but carefully through the felt. “He takes great pride in his work; cultivates a deep loyalty to our employers. And he thinks I ought to do the same. If I was ever sacked for thieving, and he got his hands on me, disownment would be the least of my worries.”
John laughed. “Well, loyalty is a valuable thing! And loyalty to family and employer are so often wound together. I worked for Rhoswen Videllian my entire life. So did my father, and my grandfather, and my great-grandfather to her father, and backwards like that. The Crowners have been in the employ of the Videllians for generations. Centuries.”
“Yet Madame Rhoswen sacked you, and threw you out on the street.” Alva said flatly.
The Human made an unhappy noise in the back of his throat.
“It wouldn’t have happened like that in the old days.” John huffed. “Her family always took care of mine. But the apple fell far from the tree with Madame.”
He seemed equal parts angry and embarrassed, as if his employer’s behavior reflected badly on himself. Alva rolled her eyes.
“Your loyalty was misplaced.” She said. “My father’s is, as well. But it’s his life, to do with as he pleases. Just as my life is mine. And I won’t stay where I am. I’ll find a better position! One where I can dress in fine clothes, and have fey come to me as supplicants. Where I’ll be treated like a person, instead of part of the furniture. Where I can truly thrive, instead of just survive.”
“You dream grandly.”
Alva made a careful knot on the hat, and clipped the thread with a pair of scissors. “There’s no other way to dream.”
“But if that is your goal, why waste your time and money on me?” John asked. “Why not seek a proper apprenticeship, to a proper master?”
Alva looked up at the old Human.
“You have a wealth of knowledge, John Crowner.” She said. “But inherited backshop employment apparently leaves room for naivete. Apprenticeships cost money. They require references. I have enough coin to enlist street urchins like Ezzy, pay for this broom closet, and occasionally purchase a funny-looking millinery tool. I have nowhere near enough to afford a real apprenticeship. Not with a reputable master of any trade.”
“So as you cannot advance through professional means, you’ve gone the other way entirely.” John observed.
Alva smiled. “Come now, give yourself some credit! More and more, I gain the impression that while Madame Videllian fitted and flirted in the front-shop, you were doing the bulk of the work in the back. And not just the tedious parts.”
John shrugged. “I may have done some design work. Made a few artistic decisions here and there.”
Alva’s smirk was triumphant. “I knew it!”
“It doesn’t matter.” John grunted. “They were never my ideas once I spoke them. And she only used some of them anyway. Others she just laughed at.”
John set his hands upright on his lap. Doing his best to ignore how they shook, he outlined the shape of a building as he spoke.
“I had the idea for a bigger hattery,” He began, “That wouldn’t be just a hattery. It would sell different things too; walking-sticks, and reticules, and other such accessories. And there would be a place to eat as well.”
“In the same building?”
“Yes. A place for customers to sit and eat lunch, or maybe raise a glass or two together. They can go from trying and buying hats, to eating, then back to trying and buying again.”
Alva rubbed her thumb against her lower lip. She looked thoughtful. “You think the poshfey would have an interest in that?”
John shrugged. “Madame Rhoswen loved to talk to her customers. And they loved to talk right back to her. The two best places for a chat are over food, and over shopping. I thought the two might mix well.”
“Did you ever chat with the customers yourself?”
John laughed, and shook his head.
“A Human as a shop assistant? Fitting heads and handling money?” He chuckled humorlessly. “Madame Rhoswen would never have allowed it. It would have spoiled the look of the place. No, I stayed in the back. But I stuck my nose out and watched how it went, whenever I could.”
Alva nodded soberly.
“That is something I shall have to learn.” She said. “How to speak to customers. How to flatter, and appease, and accommodate.”
“Well, you have the ear-points for it.” John said ruefully. “It’s not just magic you have over me. You can also be a face and a voice, in spaces where I would never be welcome.”
John’s expression was bitter. But the trembling hand he placed on Alva’s shoulder was warm and encouraging.
“You can do what I cannot. Don’t waste it.”
True Winter brought with it a bitter cold, that seeped through the thin walls of the tenement like water through cheesecloth. John woke one morning with his entire frame shaking like his palsied hands. It set him into a panicked terror that his whole body had succumbed, until the sight of his breath in front of his face showed him what was truly going on.
Alva brought extra blankets, and enough coals to keep the brazier constantly lit. It only helped so much.
“I could pile all the hats on you, before I leave.” Alva considered, in a tone that suggested she was only half joking. “For extra warmth.”
John looked around the room, at the bowlers and bonnets laid out on the floor. Alva had done what she could to secure the necessary materials, and he had begun teaching her how to make hats from scratch. There were only six so far, but the improvement between the first and the last was considerable.
“Leave them where they are.” John said. “I like looking at them. It reminds me of the old shop, and my home in the back room.”
Alva folded her arms good-naturedly. “Very well. And I won’t take offense that you don’t consider this rat-hole a home.”
“I appreciate that.”
The final night of the year was slightly warmer than the nights preceding it. John was grateful, and slept well despite the noise buzzing throughout the tenement. A number of its residents were Human, but not all of them, and the fey celebrated Moonlit Eve and the new year with their usual mad celebrations and wild parties.
Alva did not come to the tenement for what felt to John like many, many hours. When she did return, she carried a large paper sack, and moved stiffly.
“I have leftovers.” Was her only greeting as she shut the door behind her.
“Is it Firsdaytyne?” John wanted to know. The building had been quiet for long hours after the Moonlit festivities had ended—Firsdaytyne was traditionally a day for nursing hangovers and purging poor choices, just as the night that preceded it was traditional for abject debauchery.
“No, the day after.” Alva answered. She set the paper sack down on the floor, and John got a good look at her.
“What the kag happened to your face?!” John cried, horrified.
Alva looked up at him. The left side of her face was nearly one whole bruise; black and blue fading at the edges into a jaundiced yellow. The bruising ran from her hairline down to her jaw, and the skin around her left eye was swollen enough to give her an uneven squint.
The Fairy straightened, and let out an odd snigger.
“You should have seen me before a healer fixed the worst of it.”
“But your face!” John repeated. “It’s half undone. Who did that to your face???”
“…Neema Fleet.” Alva said.
This was the first time she had named her employers in front of John.
“Fleet?” He echoed. “As in the Janni high house? You work for them?”
“And one of them struck you?”
The Fairy snorted. “Not quite. It was the Moonlit Eve party. There’s a bonus for fey staff who work then, so of course I did. Things got rowdy. I was serving drinks. A guest accused Neema Fleet of saying something…untoward. I didn’t hear what, exactly. But the guest, she started throwing things at Lady Neema. And Lady Neema started throwing things back at her. One of them was me.”
“She threw you???”
Alva started giggling.
“It’s not funny!” John was flustered, and clearly agitated. “No one should be treating you that way. Especially not the child of a high house! They are the noblest of the noble. They set the example for all of us!”
Alva laughed harder. “I sure as kag hope they don’t! Or Ammingrad is doomed!”
John shook his head in bitter disgust. “No wonder you want a better position. No wonder you dream grandly. I should have done the same. I should have…I should…”
The Fairy’s laughter slowed. “Should have what, John?”
The old Human slammed his palsied hands together with a loud smack. Alva’s laughter stopped short.
“I should have known she was going to do that to me!” John shouted.
“She? You mean Madame Rhoswen?” Alva sat down on the floor, slowly.
John nodded, baring his teeth.
“It was right there! As obvious as being flung across a room. She tried to do the exact same thing to my Dad, when he got too old to work! And if she’d do it to him, why wouldn’t she do it to me?”
The old Human rubbed his shaking, swollen hands together. “I should have gotten out. Found better work, when I was still young and healthy. Dreamed grandly, like you. But I didn’t, and now I’m here instead. A nothing. A nobody. A—”
John cut himself off with a sudden fit of coughing. He wheezed and hacked, trying to get his breath back.
Alva waited patiently, face expressionless, until the fit died down.
“…You said just now she tried to throw your father out.” The Fairy said quietly. “Did she succeed?”
Amidst his panting breaths, the corners of John’s mouth turned upwards.
“No. I put a stop to it. Told her she had to let me keep him in the back room, so I could take care of him until he passed. And I did.”
“That’s not the act of a nobody.” Alva said. “That’s the act of a somebody. Of a son, and a good one at that.”
John looked down at his lap.
“Did you not have a son or daughter to do the same for you?” Alva asked.
John shook his head. “I never did. I was married though, years ago. My Millie and I…well, we tried for kids. But they never came. And then Millie got sick, and…”
John rubbed his nose with his forearm.
“Well, it was making the hats that got me through that. I just focused on my work. Hid in my own little world. No one could have replaced Millie. So I didn’t even try.”
Alva leaned back on her hands, collecting her thoughts.
“…You did the best you could.” She finally said. “You found a purpose. You stuck with it. And Dair knows how many fey are walking around this city right now, with your handiwork on their heads. You improved their lives. And more so, you improved the lives of those who truly cared for you. Your father. Your wife. You mattered to them. In their final days, you probably mattered to them more than anything else in the whole world.”
John sniffed audibly. Alva’s eyes looked distant.
“I have no idea what that would be like.” She said truthfully. “To care about another person so much.”
“I’m sure you’ll find someone like that for yourself, someday.” John offered.
Alva shook her head. “Doubtful. People inspire many things in me. Anger, fear, joy…satisfaction. Amusement. Determination. Vengeance. But love? Not that. Never that.”
John squinted. “Has anyone ever told you you’re a bitter little smish?”
The Fairy woman smiled. “No.” She replied. “But no one knows me the way you do.”
Long seasons went by. Being of chiefly warm or temperate weather, they tended to blur into each other. John still kept track of the spans, but he had less and less desire to go outside.
“Do you want your walk?” Alva would ask, whenever she came by in the earliest hours. So long as it was between two and five in the morning, when the streets were deserted and the building mostly silent, Alva had no problem with bringing John down the stairs. She would walk him around the adjoining stone courtyard, or place him quietly on a bench beneath the washing lines.
More often than not, he declined. “My knees hurt today.” and “I lost my breath just bringing the basin to the bed.” were his most common excuses.
In Alva’s absence, the old Human had begun spending most of his time sleeping. He also started leaving his meals half-eaten, though he always swore he had consumed his fill.
There was an unspoken concern that hung in the air. But beyond stating plainly how he felt, John made no requests for pain relief or medical help of any kind. And Alva was afraid to bring it up. Tinctures and balms cost money. As did healers.
John remained a patient, but firm teacher. Despite his insistence that he was no master, his expertise was undeniable. He examined Alva’s work with a critical eye, and would often make her undo her stitches, or steam glued pieces loose to begin again. With materials in short supply, this was frustrating. But it was also effective. Alva knew her work was getting better.
One day, Alva came into the room with a large, empty sack.
“I have an in!” She cried excitedly.
“An ‘in’?” John said, slowly moving to sit up on the edge of the bed. His eyes widened in fear and outrage as Alva began stuffing the hats on the floor into the sack.
“What are you doing?!” He exclaimed. “Those need to go in hatboxes! You’ll crush them!”
“It’s fine, I promise!” Alva said. “The buyer’s not picky.”
Alva’s grin was a mile wide.
“I have struck a very reasonable deal with a Gobbin who owns a sidewalk establishment.” She proclaimed. “A young fellow by the name of Felsby. He is a purveyor of knickknacks and accessories. He’ll buy the hats, and sell them on his cart.”
“You mean one of those sidewalk carts that sell cheap reticules and parasols?” John wrinkled his nose. “That’s all mass-produced junk!”
“Well, as much as I’d like to sell these painstakingly crafted hats in a fancy Poshway shop, I lack the kagging shop.” Alva pointed out. “One has to start somewhere!”
“Start anywhere else, please.” John said.
“Nope!” Alva replied gleefully, running out the door with the sack over her shoulder.
John eventually warmed up to the idea of Alva’s handiwork being sold through shifty street merchants. It helped that Alva was galvanized by it—she began to work even quicker, endeavoring to produce hats of the same caliber at twice the speed.
“Pace yourself.” John cautioned. “Speed comes with practice. Focus on quality over quantity.”
“The more hats I make, the more I can sell.” Alva reminded him, not bothering to look up from her work. “And the more I sell, the more money I have to buy new materials and pay for your rent.”
“Very well.” John relented. “But if you kag anything up, I’m still going to make you take it apart and start over.”
He did exactly that, more than a few times. But Alva’s speed and surety continued to improve. Span by span, there was less and less for John to find fault with.
“You’re reaching a point where the flaws in your work will become minimal.” He advised. “After that it’s just a matter of practice, and repetition.”
“That can’t be all there is.” Alva protested. “Most apprenticeships last for years. Sometimes decades.”
“I can’t speak to proper apprenticeships, can I?” John groused. “As far as I know, what comes after repetition is improvisation. Altering the techniques you are familiar with, to find new tricks or design new styles.”
“To put my own…spin on things?” Alva smirked, balancing a high hat on her hand, and spinning it by the brim.
John cracked a smile in spite of himself. “Yes. Especially if you put your creativity into piecing instead of punning!”
Before either of them knew it, Latter Spring had arrived. John Crowner had been living in the tenement for a full year. It barely felt that long—with so many seasons under his belt already, the old Human supposed time was speeding up for him.
John awoke one afternoon to discover Alva had arrived without him noticing. This happened every so often, but Alva usually woke him up at once. This time, she had neglected to do so in favor of sitting against the opposite wall. Her legs were stretched out before her, and she stared blankly into the middle distance.
“Alva?” John croaked. He sat up, pushing the blankets away. “What’s wrong?”
“It costs more to house you than I make.” The Fairy said.
John wrinkled his nose. “What?”
“It costs more. To house you. Than I make. Each season.” She repeated slowly. “And there is no way around that. I have checked. I have looked. I even haggled with the landlady. But there simply isn’t.”
Alva looked down at her hands.
“I saved my money for years.” She sighed. “Almost since the beginning. I always put a little of my pay to the side, every time. And I was so proud of how my savings grew. I felt like a rich fey, albeit a private, thrifty one. But now it’s all burning away.”
Alva closed and opened her hands, flexing her thin fingers.
“I suppose I should be lucky it lasted this long.” She muttered.
John shifted in his seat on the bed. “Selling the hats helps, right?”
“It does.” Alva confirmed. “But part of that income always goes to buying more hat materials. It’s not enough. None of this is.”
“…So it’s very likely I might end up on the street again.” John concluded.
Alva looked up.
“I won’t let that happen!” She said firmly. “I promise. You don’t deserve it.”
John let out a short, humorless laugh.
“I never much thought of what I deserved.” The old Human mused. “But I suppose that’s what got me here.”
“Stop dwelling on that!” Alva snapped.
She instantly looked apologetic. “I’m sorry, John. I just…ugh!”
Alva slammed her fist against the floor.
“This feels hopeless!” She groaned. “I wanted to learn a trade. I thought that would be the first step. But the staircase goes nowhere. I can’t sell bespoke hats for high prices unless I open my own shop. And I’d need a loan for that. Which means I’d need collateral. And I can barely afford to pay for this room, let alone back up a loan!”
“And even if a huge bag of gold dairs magically fell into my lap,” Alva raged. “It wouldn’t make a kagging difference! I could open a hattery, sure. In a second-rate shopping district. Maybe a middle class neighborhood. But coming out of nowhere, with no reputation…there’s no way I could secure the best licenses from the Commerce Guild, or attract the custom of influential poshfey. I’d be selling common hats to common folk. There’s no way to climb out of that!”
Alva slumped back against the wall, and turned her head to stare upwards.
“You’re a clever girl.” John said. “I’m sure you’ll think of something.”
Alva blew a long breath of air towards the ceiling, and lowered her chin again.
“I must, so I shall.” She said dryly. “And in that very vein, I had best get back to work.”
Second Autumn came soon after, colder and more blustery than John felt it had warrant to be. Whole spans went by, and the wind never seemed to stop whistling through and around the tenement.
“Put in a complaint to the Weather Guild.” He told Alva as she wrapped a blanket around his thin shoulders. “Not every Autumn morning requires freezing dew, followed by a piercing wind that finds the cracks in every square foot of this wall!”
“I’ll send an angry Pixie to the current Weather Master.” Alva promised. She sat on the floor, cradling her latest completed hat in her hands. She stared down at it, her thick hair obscuring her face.
“What’s the matter?” John queried.
“Nothing.” Alva replied. John scoffed.
“That’s a load of smish.” He said. “Out with it.”
Alva was quiet for a moment. Then she spoke.
“My savings are gone.” The Fairy said. “The last of it went to the rent earlier this season. I’ll have my wages by and by, but they won’t be enough.”
John nodded slowly, biting his lower lip.
“Can you sell that bowler on your lap?”
“I can and I will.” Alva confirmed. “But that still might not cover it. Felsby would be buying it as a favor, despite its quality—this is hardly the season for streetside shopping.”
“And you wouldn’t have anything left over to buy more felt, or embellishments, to make another hat.” John pointed out. He coughed, and pulled the blanket tighter around his chest.
“I asked my father for help.” Alva said suddenly.
“You did?” John was surprised. “What did you tell him, exactly?”
Alva looked up, eyes wide.
“I told him a friend of mine was in trouble.” She said. Her voice was tight, and the words tumbled quickly out of her mouth. “That he was too sick to work, and was going to end up on the streets. I asked him for a loan from his own savings, to keep my friend from being homeless.”
Alva grimaced, shaking her head.
“He told me that was what poorhouses were for.” She spat. “And debt indenturement! That I couldn’t go around taking pity on every miserable sod down on their luck. I had to put my feelings aside, and take care of mysel—”
“Watch the hat!” John said sharply, seeing Alva’s hands begin to clench. She pushed the bowler off her lap, and began twisting the hem of her dress.
“I can’t wait until he’s one hundred and fifty-nine.” Alva declared. “I hope he lives that long. I hope he lives long enough to wish he was dead. I’ll lean over his withered face, and remind him what he said. I’ll tell him I have to take care of myself, and I can’t waste time feeding or cleaning him. I’ll leave him to whatever care the Fleets feel inclined to provide, and whatever pittance the Sanitation & Service Guild deigns to gift him. It’s what he always wanted, anyway. Well now he’ll choke on it. He’ll suffer on it. They’ll all suffer—”
“Stop it!” John cried. He coughed again, much louder this time, his throat rasping like sandpaper.
Alva immediately sat up on her knees, and reached for the water pitcher as John bent over coughing. She poured a cup halfway full, and lifted it carefully to his lips.
“You won’t die on the street.” She said, her voice a wild whisper as he drank. “It won’t happen. I’ll come up with a plan.”
John moved his head back, water dribbling down his chin. He wiped his mouth clumsily with the back of his palsied, shaking hand.
“There are worse things than dying from exposure.” The old Human wheezed. “Like living with malice. You can’t keep thinking those kinds of thoughts. They’ll eat you alive until nothing good remains.”
Alva didn’t reply. She put her hand on the side of John’s head, fingers spread, her palm resting on his temple.
The old man put a trembling hand over hers. “It will all be well. Take heart.”
Alva nodded. But she wouldn’t meet his eyes.
“I’m tired.” John said. “I’d like to rest.”
He lay back on the bed. Alva placed the water cup on the floor, and pulled the blankets over John’s frail, narrow form.
She waited until John’s harsh breaths grew smoother and steadier in sleep. Then she climbed to her feet, picked up the bowler, and quietly left the room.
Alva next returned to the tenement on a Nineday evening, two days before True Winter would begin. She carried her customary bundle under one arm.
“I brought day-old scones and tea.” She said, closing the door behind her.
“What kind of tea? Black?”
“Herbal.” Alva returned John’s sour face with a mocking pout of her own.
“Don’t give me that look!” The Fairy chided. “This is a special chamomile blend. A Brownie cook in the Fleet kitchens makes it, and she’s as skilled as any fernwitch. It’s good for warming the gut, and bringing deep sleep with good dreams.”
“Black tea would still warm my gut.” John grumbled, as Alva set a pot of water to heat on the brazier.
“Do we have a plan?” John asked. “For when I have to leave here?”
“I have one or two schemes up my sleeve.” She assured John. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of everything.
Alva steeped the tea in the hot water, and poured two cups. She held John’s cup to his mouth, encouraging him to drink deeply.
The Fairy then set his cup on the floor, and poured more tea into it. John promptly leaned over, and awkwardly dunked his scone into the cup.
“Barbarian.” Alva sassed.
“You try chewing hard scones with these teeth!” John retorted. He sat back up, and took small bites from the soaked scone shaking in his hand.
Alva held her steaming cup of tea in both hands. “Describe how to shape a bowler hat.”
John swallowed the piece of wet pastry in his mouth. “You know all about how to do that.”
“Tell it to me again.” Alva insisted. “Tell me everything.”
John shrugged, and began to describe the best techniques for molding flat materials into round crowns. He then moved to brim angling, and band fitting, and how to stitch a lining that was neither too loose nor overly taut.
Halfway through an explanation of how to stretch fishskin leather over stiffened buckram, the Human yawned.
“…And I slept for so long before you arrived. I must be getting old!” John joked.
Alva got up on her knees. “Here, lie back down.”
The Fairy shook out the blankets and fluffed the two pillows, placing one on the floor.
“You’ll sleep better with a straighter neck.” She advised. She helped John to lie back against the one pillow, holding the back of his head and slowly lowering him to the mattress.
She pulled the blankets up to his chin, and tucked the sides snugly between the mattress and the cot frame.
“Comfortable?” She asked. John nodded.
“I was thinking about that last hat you made.” John murmured drowsily. “The blue bowler with the artificial sprig of mint in the band. Wouldn’t it be clever if the whole hat smelled of mint? Then the wearer would have the scent in his nose, wherever he went.”
Alva smiled. “Are you giving me permission to use magic now? To spell a hat to smell of mint?”
“I suppose.” John sighed. “But what’s wrong with soaking the band in a mundane oil or perfume? There’s always…a way…”
John’s final words were unintelligible, as he slid into sleep mid-sentence. Alva remained where she was, kneeling upright by the bed. She watched John as he slept, observing the slight rise and fall of his chest. Slowly, his mouth fell slack. The worry lines in his forehead and face smoothed out. His breathing grew shallow and more even, as he descended deeper into sleep.
Alva picked the pillow up off the floor, and pressed it firmly over his face.
She made three trips from the tenement, in the small hours of the morning between two and five. That was the perfect time, when no one was ever about.
The first trip, she carried a large blanket tied and twisted into a sack. Within it were all the domestic supplies that had accumulated—pillows, pitchers, canned foods, ginger beer bottles. It was an unwieldy load, but she managed to carry it back to her own garret room at Fleet Manor with little difficulty.
The second trip, another blanket bundle. This one was slightly smaller but much heavier, full of hat blocks and head-stands, an emptied brazier and half a sadiron. Not to mention a tidy quantity of sewing supplies: specialty needles and sharp pins, measuring tapes and the like. Those little notions were all contained within a latched wooden box, that bumped and rattled in the blanket as she walked.
The last trip was the hardest. Alva stepped out into the empty corridor, and looked around carefully. Convinced no one was coming or going, she snapped her fingers three times at the ceiling. The cheap lightglobes that lit the hallway and staircase promptly burned out, plunging her path into darkness.
Alva carried a heavy weight from the room, slung piggyback over her bowed frame. She moved quietly and carefully, favoring silence over speed. After long minutes that felt like endless hours, she finally exited the tenement and made her way to a nearby alley.
She deposited her cargo behind a pair of rubbish bins. She was as gentle as she could be, though she knew it didn’t matter one lara how gentle she was. What was important was that it looked as if he had fallen asleep in the alley. She had checked the almanac—an early frost was scheduled for the next six hours. It would look for all the world as if he’d gone to sleep, and frozen in the cold.
The lightglobes in the tenement flickered back on within twenty minutes. She’d left the door of the tiny room ajar, with the key placed on the threadbare mattress of the narrow cot.
The room was left exactly as it had been entered, so many seasons ago. It looked as if nobody had ever lived there.
It was First Autumn again.
Almost two years to the day since she had met John Crowner, Alva Goldfinch stood on the sidewalk outside the Videllian Hattery in the Second Ward.
She was scrubbed clean from head to toe, her blonde hair plaited and shining. She wore a modest lavender dress, and a matching lady’s day-hat. The hat was trimmed with lace, and ringed with enchanted flowers that repeatedly bloomed and faded. Alva had made the hat herself; along with the men’s high hat she carried in a box under her arm.
Alva looked up at the fading sign above the door, and the selection of hats in the window. Ezzy Paige had originally described the shop as posh, and well-to-do. Had the sign perhaps been brighter then? The display hats more appealing to the eye? She had no idea.
It occurred to Alva suddenly that this shop front was unimpressive. Unremarkable. And if the prestige of the window dressing was so lacking, how could the inside be better? The Videllian Hattery was riding a reputation of quality that far exceeded its current reality.
Alva was going to change that. It didn’t matter how many years it took. Nothing could stop her. Least of all the heartless, boorish Sylvani woman that Alva knew awaited her within.
After what they had both done to the same Human, they deserved each other. Whether that would bring success, or catastrophe, only time would tell.
“I can do everything he could.” Alva murmured to herself. “And everything he couldn’t, as well.”
Taking a deep breath, Alva stepped forward and entered the hat shop.