A Hat For A Storm
by Alexis Cohen-Pena
The following pertains to the public profession and private machinations of one Alva Goldfinch, Fairy Hatmaker and Dealer of Secrets
This story takes place approximately one year prior to the “Curiosities” storyline.
Silkrose Café & Hattery
4480 Cadence Lane
The Poshway, 2nd Ward
Ammingrad of Dairswyn
Forday, Second Span of Middle Spring
The taxi carriage wove through the bustling city streets, and came to a stop at the corner of Cadence and Aquiline.
It was a high quality carriage, which meant fresh paint, and a fey carriage, which meant no wheels. The close-topped body floated four feet off the ground, rocking gently from side-to-side like a fish’s tail waving through the water. It was pulled by a tall chestnut horse, who despite her mundane nature appeared unperturbed by the levitated state of her cargo.
The door of the carriage opened, and a male Ifriti with red skin and hair like an oilslick hurried nervously down the coach’s metal steps to the street. He promptly turned, and held out a genteel, sharp-nailed hand to the second figure emerging from the door
Chelsi Fleet, fourth scion and third daughter of the High House Fleet, giggled loudly as she climbed out of the floating carriage. She straightened, only to duck again as delicate, hand-sized woman with silvery wings flew past her head.
“Decorum, decorum!” The figure chirped. She wore a little dress in the livery colors of House Fleet, with a long skirt and modest cut. “On your best behavior, My Lady!”
Chelsi scoffed, and waved the Pixie Chaperone away from her face. The tiny woman flew up a few feet but remained focused on her charge, flitting this way and that above Chelsi’s head.
The Janni girl shook off her scowl, and smiled at her traveling companion. She took the young Ifriti’s hand and, eschewing the metal carriage steps, simply kicked her feet into space and allowed herself to float gently to the ground.
“Antilos, what fun!” Chelsi laughed as her shoes touched the cobblestone road. “A public taxi, of all things! I had never been in one before. How delightfully common!”
The Ifriti, Antilos Brennyng, let out an exultant breath. He decided not to mention that the taxi was first class, and therefore rather uncommon (or at least, expensive). Instead, he offered Chelsi his arm.
“I thought you might like it.” He remarked happily, as her slim hand curled around his forearm.
“I did, I did!” The Janni girl agreed. “I so rarely get the chance to slum it, you know. And private coaches are far more stodgy and safe, especially my Father’s. They don’t bounce or wave through the air at all. One might as well be sitting still, and going nowhere!”
Antilos’ heart beat faster as Chelsi grinned, her perfect lips pulled back from flawless teeth. On most girls, such a big smile might come off as improper, or even manic. But with Chelsi’s heart shaped face and marbled blue-and-white skin, Antilos found it irresistibly charming. Everything about Chelsi exuded light and merriment. Even her canary yellow hair, pinned into intricate braids beneath a wide-brimmed hat, seemed to glow like the sun and illuminate her features.
The Gobbin carriage-driver cleared his throat loudly, shaking the young couple from their reverie.
“The driver! Pay the driver!” Chelsi’s Chaperone exclaimed, her tiny voice shrill and insistent. Antilos reached into the breast pocket of his day jacket, and handed a palmful of coins up to the Gobbin.
“Keep the change.” He advised. The Gobbin grunted and tipped his hat, then shook the horse’s reins.
As the carriage pulled away, Antilos felt Chelsi tug his arm, pulling him up onto the curb.
“Behold, Master Antilos, our mystery destination!” Chelsi proclaimed, throwing out her arm for emphasis.
Jostled slightly by the crowd of passers-by on the busy sidewalk, Antilos looked up at the large two-story structure before them.
Like all the buildings on Cadence Lane it was made of sand-gold limestone, the bricks deliberately cut and stacked in rough, raw wedges. But this shop front in particular had vines of ivy crawling across the stones, with large blooming bushes of roses and bougainvillea draped across the window-terraces and clustered by the cornices. The sign hanging above their heads was mossy green in color, with large gold lettering and a drawing of a pink top hat festooned with white flowers.
“The Silkrose Café and Hattery.” Antilos read slowly. He furrowed his brow. “You brought me to that novelty hat shop everyone keeps going on about?”
“I couldn’t believe it when you said you had never been here!” Chelsi confided giddily. “I practically let the window open when I heard. Look at it. Isn’t it marvelous???”
“I suppose.” Antilos agreed neutrally.
“You suppose!” Chelsi swatted him playfully on the arm with her free hand. “This is only one of the most popular day-meeting places for sophisticate fey in all of Ammingrad!”
Antilos frowned up at the sign.
“I suppose it’s where the trend-setters come.” He allowed.
“It’s where everyone comes.” Chelsi insisted. “Fashionistas, guildsmen, scholars, philosophers…even fuddy-duddy alchemists like you!”
“I am not a—” Antilos sighed. “Lady Chelsi, please.”
“It would please me if you relaxed a little!” Chelsi said, nudging his shoulder. “How the scion of a beer company can be so uptight, I have no idea.”
Antilos pursed his lips. “Look, I understand that the production of alcohol seems like it ought be a jolly, carefree matter, because of the end result—”
“My brother was very happy to meet you.” Chelsi grinned cheekily.
“—but it is a complex craft, Lady Chelsi. Each type of beer Brennyng Brewery produces has its own unique preparation. And ensuring that the final product is up to Commerce Guild standards is a serious matter. Regulation is key. Especially for those substances infused with magical properties.”
“Which is why you spent years shut up in Woadhall, without a social life, learning to be the best fuddy-duddy alchemist in the city.” Chelsi concluded. “And it’s paid off, hasn’t it? The new Brennyng Greenmalt is the talk of the Wards. Kaldeas has nothing but praise; he says it makes him feel like he’s floating upside-down over a barley field. That was all your doing, wasn’t it?
“You’re coming up in the world, Antilos. And that makes this place perfect for you!”
“Besides which.” Chelsi added, giving Antilos’ head a pointed look. “You need a new hat.”
Antilos touched the side of his brown bowler, suddenly self-conscious. “What’s wrong with my hat?”
Chelsi tossed her head. “Oh, I could write a book on it! But I’ll leave that to the professionals. Suffice it to say, you are not coming to my brother’s party next Elvnday in that old thing.”
“No more protests!” Chelsi strode forward purposefully, and Antilos found himself being pulled towards the door. The flutter of wings passed over their heads, as Chelsi’s Chaperone Pixie flew down to follow them.
A bell above the door tinkled cheerfully as they slipped inside; Antilos was immediately overwhelmed by a wave of new sounds. Footsteps on polished floors, utensils clinking against porcelain plates, the susurrus of two dozen conversations. And over it all, what sounded like a pair of violins playing an elegant duet.
They stood in a foyer, the walls, floor and ceiling made of cherry-brown lacquered wood. A brass chandelier hung above their heads, festooned with white roses. More flowers ringed the room, growing in pots or out of earth-filled knotholes cleverly formed in the wooden walls. The air smelled of sap, soil, and a gentle floral musk.
A pair of glass double doors were thrown open to the large room behind the foyer. Beside the doors, a young Fairy woman in a pink dress stood before a podium.
“Welcome to the Silkrose Café & Hattery!” The Fairy smiled. She stepped out from the podium, and bobbed a swift, polite curtsy. “May I seat you?”
“Not as yet.” Chelsi said. “We’d like to go upstairs first. I made an appointment.”
“Of course, my Lady Fleet.” The Fairy said, without even a side glance at the podium. Antilos wondered if the hostess knew Chelsi by her face, or by the livery of her Chaperone. “If I may escort you—”
“We’ll find our own way, thank you.” Chelsi shot an exasperated glance at Antilos, and stuck her tongue out slightly from the corner of her mouth.
“Decorum!” The Pixie Chaperone shrieked. Chelsi ignored her. They swept past the Fairy hostess, and into a large room full of light and motion.
The Silkrose Café was full but not crowded, the circular tables spaced wide enough apart to allow for easy movement between them. Many were small, designed for two people at most, but several were large enough for parties of four or five. Each table sported a white linen cloth, and a lush centerpiece of roses, baby’s breath and emerald-green ferns.
The ceilings were vaulted, taking up part or all of the second floor. There were curved windows set high in the walls, and the natural light cast into the room made the hanging lightglobe lamps seem purely decorative. As in the foyer flowers and vines grew from the walls, though the aesthetic was more spread out to match the open, airy nature of the space. And there were indeed a pair of musicians; two Fairy violinists playing in the corner behind a music stand.
The waitstaff seemed to be chiefly Fairy and Brownie, each garbed with a modest suit, a pristine apron, and a corsage or boutonnière of pink rosebuds. They carried trays to and fro from the back, serving the fey custom–most of whom were High Fey, and all of whom were well-dressed. These sophisticates sat comfortably in round-backed cherrywood chairs, eating off ceramic plates, and drinking from teacups and sherry glasses.
On the left wall, a tall set of hinged window-doors opened into a small secluded garden. Antilos could see a fey or two lounging on wicker chairs amidst the verdant growth, laughing in the sunlight.
Along the right wall was a large staircase, leading up to a receded second floor with a balcony that overlooked the café. Several marble busts were posed at the balcony railing, smooth and featureless as shop-window mannequins. One faceless bust wore a sharp top hat, another a fine cloche; still another a large and ostentatious bonnet.
Chelsi pinched Antilos lightly on his arm.
“Look.” She pointed across the room.
Antilos followed her gaze to a older, stately-looking Sylvani woman standing next to a small table. Like most tree fey she was tall, with a long neck and corrugated reddish-brown bark for skin. Her hair blossomed in dense clusters of green and yellow mahogany tree-flowers; all gathered in an elegant upsweep beneath a tiny lady’s top hat. Her dark purple day dress was very proper, almost matronly, but it flattered her shape. She spoke animatedly to the two Naiadi gentlefey seated at the table, her hands folded courteously at her middle.
“That’s Madame Rhoswen Videllian.” Chelsi explained. “She’s the proprietress. Not so active on the millinery side of things these days, but very hands-on in the café.”
Antilos squinted, trying to think. “The Videllians are prominent in textiles, aren’t they?”
“Quite prominent.” Chelsi agreed. “Rhoswen’s grandfather opened the original Videllian Hattery centuries ago, on the far side of the Ward. A very well-respected establishment, with fine caliber hats. But nothing extraordinary enough to send a Pixie over.”
“Then twenty-five years ago, out of nowhere Madame Rhoswen sells the old shop, buys this whole building, and opens the Silkrose. It must have seemed like a very silly idea on paper. But the execution worked perfectly!”
“An unprecedented combination of hat-shopping and day-dining bears rich fruit.” Antilos noted. “And the bloom of novelty has yet to fade from the tree?”
“Everyone who’s anyone needs to rub elbows over drinks.” She remarked primly. “And everyone who’s anyone wears a high quality hat.”
Antilos felt Chelsi nudge him to the right.
“Quick now, up to the shop. Rhoswen can talk the ears off a statue. If she sees me, she’ll come over for a chat and then we’ll never get upstairs.”
The Pixie Chaperone shot up the steps ahead of them, her wings humming. As they ascended, Antilos had to admit that from an elevated position, the café looked very impressive.
“If they followed the instructions of my appointment request,” Chelsi said. “We should be the only customers in the shop.”
“You can do that? Reserve the whole shop?”
Chelsi grinned toothily at Antilos, and wagged her eyebrows. She said nothing, but Antilos knew exactly what she was thinking.
I am Chelsi of House Fleet. I can do anything I please!
Well, almost anything. The Pixie Chaperone circled their heads as they reached the top of the stairs, before settling herself on the banister knob.
As soon as their feet touched the landing, the sounds from the café below abruptly vanished. Antilos started, not expecting the sudden quiet. Inwardly, he cursed himself for a fool. Of course the shop portion of the building would have silencing spells, to muffle the noise of the busy café below. The young Ifriti looked quickly at Chelsi, hoping she hadn’t noticed his surprise.
She had not. Chelsi let go of Antilos’ arm and took a step forward, unpinning her hat from her head and holding it in her hands.
“Miss Goldfinch? Are you present?”
The millinery shop was much cozier than the café. There were round woven carpets beneath their feet, and silk valances around the windows. Tables and shelves of honey-colored wood lined the walls and filled the floor. They displayed hats of all shapes and styles; for men and women both, in a wide range of sizes from Sylvani-large to Brownie-small.
The back of the shop sported a large trifold dressing-room mirror, flanked by two velvet curtains. One of the curtains moved, and a Fairy woman stepped out.
“Welcome, Master.” The Fairy curtsied. “And my Lady Chelsi! How may I help you this afternoon?”
“Miss Goldfinch!” Chelsi smiled warmly. “I have with me today a young fey in need of a hat.”
The Fairy Miss Goldfinch approached them. She was of average height and shape for one of her race; nearing her prime but still with a youthful look to her. She wore a fine white shirtwaist, and a sapphire blue skirt. Her thick hair was swept up into a high, loose bun, with a few stray curls falling around her pointed ears. Her eyes were wide, green, and unassuming. Overall she was pretty enough, but next to Chelsi’s striking coloration her blonde hair and pink complexion seemed dull in comparison.
“You do indeed have a young man in sore need of a hat.” The Fairy’s eyes swept over Antilos from bottom to top, settling on his brown bowler.
Antilos lowered his eyes, feeling his face fill with a cold blush.
“May I inquire as to your name, good Master?” Miss Goldfinch asked kindly, apparently sensing his discomfort.
Antilos removed his hat, as much to be polite as to get it off his head and behind his hand.
“Antilos Brennyng, of Brennyng Brewery and Crispwick Park. A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Goldfinch.”
“Likewise, Master Brennyng.”
The Fairy looked sidelong at Chelsi, the corners of her mouth turned up in a light, wry smile. “What a fine new flame you’ve collected, my lady.”
Chelsi giggled. Antilos frowned for a moment at the Fairy’s choice of words, but his thoughts were disrupted as Miss Goldfinch plucked the brown bowler from his grasp with small, delicate hands.
“This one served you well for a long time, Master Brennyng.” Miss Goldfinch remarked, moving her fingers over the pressed felt. “And as much as hats may love, it loves you. But you’ve outgrown it.”
“That’s exactly what I told him.” Chelsi chimed in. “My brother Kaldeas is throwing a huge party; it’s going to be the biggest bash of Middle Spring. I want Antilos to come, and if he’s going to come, he has to look his very best. No old bowlers or dusty top hats from his closet. Antilos needs something new, and to the very height of fashion!”
“A plain high hat will be fine.” Antilos interjected hastily. “I mean…I’m not worried about expense! Not at all. But I never go in for the more lurid styles. Something simple to match my best suit at home will be sufficient.”
Miss Goldfinch shook her head.
“Far better to match the suit to the hat then the hat to the suit, Master Brennyng!” She cautioned. “A hat can make or break an ensemble. It tells the world who you are, what you are, and where you are going.”
“Miss Goldfinch is something of a philosopher.” Chelsi smirked. “But she knows what she’s talking about.”
“Your trust and confidence are warmly appreciated, my Lady.” Miss Goldfinch peered up at Antilos, as if studying his hairline. Her eyes, which had just a minute ago seemed placid, were now intense and sharply focused. Antilos fidgeted under her scrutiny.
“Salamander.” Miss Goldfinch murmured.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Salamander skin.” The Fairy milliner elaborated. “A refined material, very popular with Ifriti gentlefey. The largest Salamanders live in swamps and bogs, close to the border Wall. They only breed in fire, and if caught during mating season their skins retain a magical warmth even after death. They also come in a wide variety of colors.”
Miss Goldfinch nodded, tapping her index finger against her chin
“A deep crimson will suit you. It can compliment the lighter red tones in your skin, without making you seem bleached or faded the way a more fluorescent color might.”
The Fairy motioned for the pair of young fey to follow her.
“Please, if you would…?”
Antilos trailed after Miss Goldfinch, Chelsi behind him. He watched as the Fairy passed the tables, running her fingers across the brims and crowns of display hats.
She selected one from a rounded hat stand; a black top hat about seven or eight inches tall. Then another, of similar height. Then another after that.
“You don’t need a hat that brushes the ceiling. A crown of moderate size will suffice.” She said, half turning her head.
Miss Goldfinch stopped before the trifold mirrors, and set the armful of hats (including Antilos’ bowler) on a work bench varnished to match the decor. Chelsi let herself drop into a brightly upholstered armchair nearby. Antilos stood awkwardly, staring at the polished square board positioned before the mirror.
“You can step into the fitting space, Master Brennyng.” Miss Goldfinch assured him. “I’ll just be a moment. I have to fetch a few things.”
Miss Goldfinch moved towards the velvet curtain, and disappeared behind it. Antilos stepped onto the polished board.
Almost immediately, faint horizontal lines like ladder rungs appeared around the board, fencing Antilos in to just below his knees. He kicked lightly outwards; his leg passed through the lines like they didn’t exist. The lines glittered in the sun streaming through the windows, but without direct light they were almost invisible.
Antilos put his hands into his trouser pockets. He turned his head to look at Chelsi, who smiled up at him from a decidedly improper slouched position in the chair.
“What do you think?” Chelsi asked merrily. “Of Miss Goldfinch, I mean.”
Antilos hesitated before he spoke. “She seems somewhat…assertive…for a hatmaker. Especially one in the employ of another.”
“I told you, Madame Rhoswen takes less interest in millinery these days.” Chelsi said. “She has other assistants, of course. But it’s Miss Goldfinch who practically runs the place for her.”
“She’s a funny little brooch, Miss Goldfinch is! Odd, but undeniably useful. And to anyone who needs the perfect hat, her opinion is practically priceless. She used to be a chambermaid in my house, you know.”
“She was?” Antilos was taken aback. He’d visited Chelsi at the Fleet manor house in Terraceton. The servants there had been like wisps of wind: swift, silent, and practically transparent. Nothing like the deliberate, very visible Fairy they’d just encountered.
“It was decades ago. She was much younger.” Chelsi recalled. “A very proper maid though. Always minded her P’s and Q’s. And a good little listener too, if one needed an ear at the time.”
“But then she was dismissed?” Antilos asked.
“Hardly. She left of her own accord!” Chelsi made a bemused face, as if the idea still flabbergasted her after so many years.
“Apparently she gave her notice one day; I didn’t even realize she was missing at first. But the next time I see her, she’s working at the Videllian Hattery for Madame Rhoswen! Then the Silkrose opened, and now the whole city knows how skilled a milliner Alva Goldfinch is. She brings Madame Rhoswen’s designs to life, and one never has cause for complaint with her. It’s beyond belief!”
“What is? Her skill?”
Chelsi scoffed. “No, I meant Madame Rhoswen nabbing such a superb servant from under my family’s nose! I’d call it a coup d’etat, if not outright robbery. If we’d known how clever the girl was with a needle and thread, we never would have let her go!”
Miss Goldfinch emerged from the curtain, bearing swaths of fabric, scissors, tape measure, and a large cushion bristling with pins.
“Here we are.” The Fairy woman placed her tools on the work bench. “We’ll have you fitted in two shakes of a hippocamp’s tail, Master Brennyng.”
Miss Goldfinch straightened, making a concerned face.
“And I am most sorry, my Lady Chelsi,” She apologized. “But Madame Rhoswen sent a Pixie up the back stairs just now, to let me know she spotted you coming up. She wonders if you might go back down so she can say how-do…if you aren’t terribly busy, that is.”
“Uuuuughhh!” Chelsi made a rude, drawn-out noise. The Chaperone Pixie, seated on a high shelf beside a green silk hat, squawked in outrage.
“You hush! No one can hear me up here.” The Janni girl shook her head vigorously, and her sunny yellow hair abruptly darkened into a deep, thundercloud gray.
Chelsi sighed heavily, and sat up from the armchair. She smoothed her skirts, and re-pinned her hat over her now-dark braids.
“Duty calls. If I try to excuse myself, she’ll make an overdramatic stink over it…old splinter-bag.” The Janni girl rolled her eyes. “Should you need me, dear Antilos, I shall be downstairs having my ears filled with hot air and dead leaves!”
Chelsi crossed the hat shop and headed down the stairs, her Pixie Chaperone buzzing after her.
Antilos turned back to Miss Goldfinch, who stood before him with the tape measure in her hands. He took his own hands out of his pockets and ran them over the front of his jacket; as if to brush off Chelsi’s uncouth behavior and subsequent departure.
“I, ah…I suppose Lady Chelsi did not want to miss this hat fitting.” He said awkwardly. “She has a…unique way of expressing herself.”
“She certainly does.” Miss Goldfinch said, her tone neutral. “I used to witness her ‘expressions’ up close. I believed she informed you of my previous position in the Fleet Household?”
“You heard us talking?”
Miss Goldfinch smiled gently. “It’s a curtain, not a wall.”
“I am sorry for what she said, just now.” Antilos added quickly. “About Madame Rhoswen. That was rude.”
“But not wholly inaccurate.” Miss Goldfinch shrugged. “At any rate, Lady Chelsi’s words are not mine to share. This is a private space, and a private appointment. You may rest assured, Master Brennyng, that all things spoken here will never be heard elsewhere.”
“That is most courteous of you, Miss Goldfinch.” Antilos said, relieved.
Miss Goldfinch raised the tape measure. “If you would stand as straight as possible, Master Brennyng?”
Antilos squared his shoulders. Miss Goldfinch moved to the polished board, and placed a foot on one of the faint horizontal lines. She stepped upwards, moving her second foot onto the magical line. It held her weight, and she seemed in no way off balance.
Now level with Antilos’ height, Miss Goldfinch wrapped the tape around the Ifriti’s’ head.
“Did you know your bowler hat is two sizes too large?” She asked.
“I did not.” Antilos replied. He was perplexed. “It has always fit me just fine.”
“That’s because of your horns.” Miss Goldfinch unwrapped the tape, and stepped softly down to the floor. She turned back to the table, and selected one of the top hats.
“You bought your bowler oversized, so it would fit your horns. A common practice; and certainly preferable to avoiding hats altogether! But truth be told Master Brennyng, it is completely unnecessary. Try this one.” She said, passing it to the young Ifriti. He took it, and settled it on his head.
“It sits comfortably.”
“Yes, because you’re pulling it over your horns.” Miss Goldfinch observed. “The inner band rests on your forehead correctly. But you’re letting the arch where your horns curl backwards push against the crown of the hat, stretching it. No wonder that old bowler of yours is so ill-shaped.”
Antilos took off the top hat, and touched the slim, dark horns sprouting high above his temples. His hats always covered them. It had never occurred to him that they weren’t supposed to.
“But my horns are too high to sit below a brim.” He protested. “Not unless I hang the hat off the back of my skull.”
“Any bespoke hatter worth their thread can fit a head with horns, fins…even a mass of stiff branches.” Miss Goldfinch said pointedly. She took the top hat back from Antilos, and selected another. “Try this one now.”
Antilos did. “It’s too small.”
Miss Goldfinch moved to stand in front of him, and used the magical lines to step back up to his height. She took the hat from Antilos and stared hard at his forehead, eyes moving rapidly.
Holding the top hat between them, Miss Goldfinch looked down and spaced her fingers along the crease where brim met crown. Her thumbs sank into the felt, then through it, forming two perfect circles in the hat.
She turned the hat over in her hands, then raised it above Antilos’ head. “You move it backwards, then forwards. The holes catch on your horns, then you slide it down and settle it comfortably.”
Antilos felt the hat slip over his horns, and rest around his brow. Miss Goldfinch lifted it up and backwards again, then handed it to Antilos as she stepped down to the floor once more.
“Try it on your own.”
Antilos copied her motions, and found his horns slid right through the holes in the hat, which now fit his head well. He positioned the hat to his liking, and looked up into the mirror.
It was almost like looking at a different Ifriti. With his horns curled around the outside of the hat, his jawline looked sharper, more streamlined. He could picture himself walking into an opera house swinging a cane, like some famous Peer or wealthy Lord.
“Amazing!” He blurted out. Miss Goldfinch laughed; a soft, bubbly chuckle.
“It’s not even the right color yet.” Taking up a swatch of red, strangely textured material, Miss Goldfinch wrapped it around her hand and wrist.
“Lean down to me.” Antilos bent his head, and felt Miss Goldfinch press her covered hand against the flat top of his hat.
“Just a temporary transmutation…look in the mirror!”
Antilos looked up. The hatband was still black silk. But the top hat itself had turned a rich crimson, and was now made of some thick leather. He touched the brim; the animal skin felt smooth and taut beneath his fingers.
“That’s what your hat will look like once we’ve made it.” Miss Goldfinch pronounced. “You’ll want a crimson suit to match it. Or at least a suit with some crimson in it. There are plenty of tailors in this Ward whose work is more than sufficient. I can give you a few good names, if you would like.”
“Yes, please!” Antilos was enthused. He’d never expected to feel this excited about fashion, of all things. But it felt good, to look at himself in the mirror. To admire the hat, and his own head, from every angle afforded.
Miss Goldfinch retreated to her work bench, and unwrapped her hand.
“I’m sure you’ll cut a dashing figure at the party, Master Brennyng.” She remarked. “Kaldeas Fleet and his friends will be falling over themselves out of jealousy.”
“Falling over the drinks table, more likely.” Antilos said.
It wasn’t planned. The words just slipped from his mouth. Antilos turned, horrified, as Miss Goldfinch looked up with an expression of curious amusement.
“I’m sorry!” Antilos said.
“Whatever for?” The Fairy milliner asked. “If this party my Lady Chelsi spoke of is to be such a grand event, I’m sure there will be copious amounts of alcohol. And everyone will partake most freely. Which if I’m not mistaken, is good for your family’s business?”
Antilos nodded sheepishly.
“Kaldeas has already placed a very large order with Brennyng Brewery, specifically for the fête.” The Ifriti admitted. “I offered him a generous discount, since he bought so much. A part of me wonders how in the Dair’s name they’ll finish it all. But I know exactly what sort of party this is going to be. By dawn, there won’t be a wet glass or a sober head in the room.”
Antilos looked down at the floor.
“…I suppose he might be using me. Befriending me, permitting my association with Chelsi. All to receive a discount on Greenmalt, and Fire-ale, and even our selection of Glowing Beers.”
The words kept flowing out. Antilos couldn’t stop them. And he didn’t want to. It felt so good, to get everything he’d been worrying about off his chest.
“It’s a disquieting thought. But it really is financially beneficial for the company, even with the discount. And if I do Kaldeas this favor, it will doubtless lead to more opportunities in the future. In the grand scheme of things, the positives are well worth the negatives!”
“That’s not what you’re being used for.” Miss Goldfinch said.
Antilos blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
Miss Goldfinch straightened up from the table, tidily folding the measuring tape into itself.
“Your product is good. So they bought it from you. That’s all.” Miss Goldfinch finished her folding, and set the tape down. “Kaldeas Fleet already has plenty of illicit connections to get whatever alcohol he needs for his parties. Anything from the finest and rarest wines, to the most high-proof bathpool gin.”
“That…I…” Antilos stuttered. He squared his jaw.
“I suppose that makes sense.” He allowed. “And while I can’t say I approve of illegal bathpool gin, I’m happy not to be involved in anything underhanded. I would be most reluctant to be used in such a way!”
Miss Goldfinch draped the sample fabrics evenly over the work bench.
“If you are reluctant to be used in an underhanded way, Master Brennyng.” Miss Goldfinch advised. “Then I suggest you keep your ears pointed for any conversation pertaining to your brother.”
“…my brother?” Antilos was caught off-guard.
“Especially if Lady Chelsi Fleet is the one to mention him. Halloran Brennyng, I mean. Your brother.”
Antilos scowled. He was about to ask exactly how Miss Goldfinch knew about Halloran, when he processed what she had just said.
“Wait a second! Why would Chelsi care about a kagging cad like Hal?”
He hadn’t meant to curse. But Miss Goldfinch appeared unaffected by his language.
“Halloran’s not much older than you, is he?” She remarked. “But he’s far more notorious. Serves as second-in-command to an exclusive dueling club. The Roaring Maras, if I recall correctly. Yes, I could see my Lady Chelsi taking quite an interest in him.”
“Chelsi doesn’t care about dueling clubs.” Antilos scoffed.
“But she cares about having a good time.” Miss Goldfinch pointed out. “And your brother is a very good time.”
“A good time?!” Antilos exclaimed.
“I try not to listen to gossip, Master Brennyng.” Miss Goldfinch said. “It corrupts the brain. But everyone knows that the Roaring Maras are in it purely for the chaos. Every dueling club is different. The Heroes have their adventures, the Pell-Mells have their profits, and the Flickering Flame has…well, they get something out of it, I’m sure. But the Roaring Maras are dedicated to raucous, captivating celebration. And apart from Mara Wald herself, your brother is the most captivating of them all.”
“Captivating my fundament!!!” Antilos cried. His cheeks were ice-cold; he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been this furious.
“Halloran is a rakehell! A menace to society! He runs with hooligans, fights openly in the streets, and lacks all measure of common decency!”
“A reputation claimed by many duelists. It does not damage their popularity.” Miss Goldfinch crossed back to the fitting board.
“Your hat is crooked.” She said calmly. ”Let me adjust that for you, Master Brennyng.”
Antilos caught Miss Goldfinch by the wrist. She looked up at him.
“Halloran…interferes…with women.” The Ifriti hissed.
Miss Goldfinch raised a single blonde eyebrow. “Does he now.”
“With men, too. All the time.” Antilos spat. “It’s disgusting. And he never discriminates. He flirts aggressively with anything that catches his eye. Any creature of any race, any class. Some of them respond to such filth—his wealth and status appeal to them, I suppose—but most recoil, and shameless he continues!”
“We’ve lost servants because of his obscene behavior. He laughed and tossed a fireball at one once—her skirts caught on fire! She could have been seriously injured. But my parents did nothing. Just bought her silence, and sent her away.”
Antilos clenched his teeth in frustration.
“They indulge him at every turn. He ignores the Brewery, ignores our younger siblings. He graduated from Woadhall ahead of me, with better marks, but he still refuses to apply himself to any respectable pursuit or profession. Dair knows where he gets his extra spending money, or how he squanders what my parents do give him. Yet he is the favorite son, and my every effort is simply taken for granted. I have studied. I have worked. I have forced myself to acclimate to high society. I am doing everything, everything I can, to make our family proud and strong. To push our business to the very top, and bury the competition in our ash!”
“And Halloran? All he does is brawl, and use violent magic…when he’s not busy drinking, or gambling, or chasing innocents. I fear to discover what he’s done that we don’t know about…especially to those who are too poor or powerless to fight back. At least ladies and gentlefey of quality have the position and protection to turn him down!”
“If they wanted to.”
“If they wanted to?” Antilos echoed. “What fey of good breeding would stand for such vulgar treatment?”
Miss Goldfinch extracted her wrist from Antilos’ grasp, and crossed her arms.
“Who can say, Master Brennyng? It’s true, no one should be forced to stomach rude or violent threats. But the world is not so safe and proper as one might wish. And unlike the poor and powerless, some youngsters of good breeding might even enjoy your brother’s behavior. It would be a game. Playing with fire, to relieve the boredom of a lavish life without hardship. If your brother is as charming as you claim–”
“I didn’t say charming, I said obscene!”
Miss Goldfinch shrugged.
“A matter of perspective, Master Brennyng. A young fey of propriety and status such as yourself would see your brother as a knave, and a fiend. And I suspect a noble fey of high rank known for caution and wise judgment would see the same thing. A fey like Jardane Fleet, Chief Director of the Wardens of Ammingrad.”
“But a beautiful young Janni girl, of high position but even higher spirits–chafing at the bit, desperate for the wild times so often denied to one of her elevated station–she might perceive a creature such as your brother in a vastly different li–”
Antilos grabbed the Fairy milliner sharply by the chin, his clawed fingers curling around the underside of her jaw.
“Are you saying…” Antilos’ voice came out in a croaking whisper. It was as if his throat had closed up with rage. “Are you saying that Chelsi Fleet is using me to meet my brother?”
Miss Goldfinch looked up, her green eyes unreadable.
“…I am sure Lady Chelsi is quite fond of you, Master Brennyng.” She replied. “And I don’t doubt you are the kind of young fey her father would prefer for her to associate with. Intelligent, but cautious. Ambitious, but traditional. Dedicated to his family’s business, without a black mark to his name.”
Miss Goldfinch put three fingers on Antilos’ wrist, and gently but firmly pushed his hand away from her face.
“And when associating with a proper gentlefey like yourself, especially one of such filial piety…why, any courtesy extended to you must be extended to your family members as well. Mustn’t it?”
There was a moment of utter silence; the air seemed to hang dead in the room. Miss Goldfinch reached up and adjusted the brim of the hat on Antilos’ head.
“We should have your hat ready by Secnday of next span, Master Brennyng.” Miss Goldfinch assured. “I’ll see to it myself that it has a fine oiling, inside and out. Charms as well, to completely waterproof it. Salamander skin keeps its heat indefinitely. But it has a tendency to gray over time if exposed to the rain.”
The Fairy’s small, dainty hands moved down from the hat, and smoothed the collar of the Ifriti’s shirt.
“We wouldn’t want such a fine hat to be ruined by a cloud bursting over your head. Now would we?” She asked.
Antilos clenched his jaw.
“No.” He muttered. “We wouldn’t.”
Ten minutes later, Antilos Brennyng descended the stairs to the Silkrose Café. His brown bowler was once again perched on his head, covering his horns. He moved slowly, back straight, steps hard and deliberate.
He reached the foot of the stairs, and spotted a sky-blue hand waving at him from a table.
“Antilos!” Chelsi called. She sat opposite the elegant Madame Rhoswen, but sprang to her feet as Antilos approached. Her Pixie Chaperone flittered up momentarily from the centerpiece, then settled down again on a stout fern.
“My hero!” Chelsi murmured, winking at the Ifriti. Then louder; “Madame Rhoswen, may I present Master Antilos Brennyng?”
The Sylvani woman rose gracefully from her seat. She offered her hand.
“Master Brennyng, what a delight!” Her voice was a rich contralto, low-pitched but ebullient. “Lady Chelsi was just speaking of you–in between a little tiff we were having over the weather; I always prefer rain in the evening, you see, and Lady Chelsi insists it is best in the early hours, it makes the morning air smell better to her, I suppose–but your recent achievements, such an accomplishment! The Greenmalt is doing quite well; I don’t always have time to take in the financial scripts, but we carry Brennyng brews here, and even in the elite café setting they are remarkably popular! Your family’s Brewery is well served by your alchemical prowess; you should be very proud of yourself. And I am honored you have chosen to patronize my humble establishment!”
Antilos waited for Madame Rhoswen to take a breath. Then he took the Sylvani’s hand, and politely kissed it.
“The honor is mine, Madame Videllian. Your work is superb; I have never seen such a selection of excellent hats.”
Madame Rhoswen placed a hand over her heart. “Your praise shines as sunlight for the soul, Master Brennyng! And rest assured, that selection is forever at your disposal–whatever hat you require, for any occasion, you need only ask and it shall be provided. I am dedicated to serving the bespoke needs of my clientele, to offer each individual their own heart’s desire…”
Antilos’ eyes wandered. Looking up he spotted Miss Goldfinch standing at the top of the stairs, hands on the bannister. Her pretty face was expressionless, but her eyes met Antilos’ and he felt for a moment as if she was standing right beside him.
Then she turned, and disappeared back into the hat shop.
Madame Rhoswen had not stopped talking. “And boating hats will remain a valued accessory even as the weather turns cooler–”
“You serve little cakes shaped like hats here, do you not Madame?” Chelsi interrupted. She was smiling, but there was a strained edge to her voice. “I’m sure Antilos would love to try them; and I for one am positively famished!”
“Of course, of course!” Madame Rhoswen raised a hand in the air, and snapped her fingers for a waiter. “How rude of me to keep you from ordering; please, enjoy your first round of drinks on the house. And do try the chipped armadillo beef on toast, my Lady–a new specialty as of this season. The scallion-and-dill cream sauce is positively divine!”
The summoned Brownie waitress navigated patiently around Madame Rhoswen, who stretched out her farewells as the pair sat down and gave their drink orders. Finally she departed, as did the waitress.
Chelsi looked for all the world as if she would like to collapse backwards in her seat. But she kept her posture.
“I really do love it here.” The young Janni girl said. “The atmosphere is well worth the management. But Kaldeas’ party cannot come fast enough. I want nothing more than to lie on a settee couch, with my nose full of incense and a glass brimming with Heart-Go-Fonder!”
“I’ll be sure to fetch you one, first thing.” Antilos promised.
Chelsi grinned, looking almost bashful. “You are truly the sweetest, Antilos. I cannot wait to see how you look in your new hat. You’ll be the shining star of the fête!”
“I would be hard pressed to outshine you, my Lady.”
Chelsi laughed. “Flatterer!”
The Brownie waitress returned, bearing their drinks. Antilos sipped quietly on his smokestack on-the-rocks, feeling tendrils of amber-brown smoke slip from his nostrils and curl past his pointed ears.
Chelsi lowered her glass of goldsherry. “I did wish to ask; was there anyone else in your circle you would like me to invite to the party? You are with me, of course. But I can always persuade Kaldeas to squeeze in a plus one or plus two on your behalf!”
Antilos looked up from his drink.
“I don’t really have a circle, my lady.” He confessed. “Co-workers, yes. And a few acquaintances from school. But there’s no friends I would consider close enough to invite to such an event.”
“Well, what about family?” Chelsi suggested. “You have a passel of brothers and sisters, don’t you? I remember you mentioned that.”
Antilos squeezed his whiskey glass, fingers sliding against the condensation.
“Most of them are rather young.” He replied stiffly. “Too young for a Fleet party, I would say.”
“But you have an older brother.” Chelsi remarked. “He could come!”
Her voice sounded merry. Lighthearted, and completely innocent. But there were the words. Real as robbery.
“I’ll ask him.” Antilos said. It took everything he had to keep his tone casual. “But I don’t know if Halloran would be interested.”
“Oh, I’m positive he would be!” Chelsi said confidently. “You’ve not been to one of my brother’s parties before; they defy description. Whatever wild rumors you’ve heard? The truth is ten times better.”
“I have no doubt, my lady.” Antilos gazed across the table at Chelsi. He took another drink, his mouth twisting behind the glass. “We are sure to have a splendid time.”
Antilos watched as the beautiful Janni girl sipped from her glass. She smiled as she drank, the goldsherry gilding her blue lips. Antilos had never seen anything more charming. Or more hollow.
She wanted a good time? His brother’s idea of a good time?
He’d give her exactly that.
Upstairs in the hattery, Alva Goldfinch returned the sample hats to their proper homes. She gathered up a few final tools off the work bench, and slipped past the velvet curtain into the back room of the Silkrose Hattery.
The workshop was organized chaos. Metal shelves formed aisles through the center of the large space; some cluttered with bolts of fabric and boxes of embellishments, others mostly bare and housing half-completed hats on mannequin heads. Against the walls stood high wooden stools and wide, tall tables, on which an assortment of hat blocks, head forms and sadirons rested. Notions and tools were collected into little racks and baskets, or hung off curved nails hammered into shelves and walls. It was to these hooks and crannies that Alva returned each item, humming a little tune under her breath.
“Mummy didn’t send a Pixie.”
Alva let out a yelp, nearly jumping out of her skin. Spinning around, she caught sight of a young Sylvani child standing half behind a shelf.
“Hewie!” She admonished, one hand over her heart. “You startled me!”
Hew Videllian stepped fully out from his hiding place. The small boy’s hair was an untidy thicket of thin twigs and stubby leaves, set above a bright, questioning face. His skin was a smooth, grassy green, only a few shades lighter than the foliage growing on his head. He wore a little blue sailor suit with a knotted kercheif, and he carried a large hardcover book tucked under one arm.
“You told the man and the lady in the shop that Mummy sent a Pixie upstairs for the lady.” Hewie said to Alva. “But no Pixie came up. Mummy didn’t do that.”
“No, she didn’t.” The Fairy admitted. “I wanted to talk to the man in private. So I made up a story to make the lady go downstairs.”
Hewie stared up at her with round, berry-brown eyes. Alva could tell he had a dozen more questions, but was stuck on which one to ask next.
She approached the boy. “I didn’t realize you were up here, Hewie. Don’t you go to your play-group on Forday?”
Distracted by this query, the small Sylvani shook his head.
“Not anymore.” Hewie said sagaciously. “Teddy Hornbeam-Smythe caught head aphids, and he gave them to three other kids! Miss Peaseblossom told Mummy play-group is cancelled, until they foomygate the whole crèche.”
“Fumigate.” Alva corrected.
“Fumigate.” Hewie repeated. Alva smiled.
“Good boy.” She raised a hand to ruffle the stems on his head.
“So you’ve been in Madame Rhoswen’s office all morning.” Alva said. “And you didn’t come up to visit me until just now?”
“Mummy said I was supposed to stay put.” Hewie explained. “But I finished my book, and got bored.”
“Of course you did.” Alva’s hand lingered in the boy’s twiggy hair. “Well, I’m sure she won’t mind you being up here. I certainly don’t.”
She took the book out of Hewie’s hands, and placed it on one of the work tables. Then she checked her pockets.
“I think I have a biscuit or two in here…but that’s hardly a mouthful, and it’s almost time for tea!”
Alva bent down slightly to get closer to Hew’s level, and held out a chocolate mallomar.
“Why don’t we pop downstairs, and get a proper tray from the café kitchen?” Alva suggested. “Sandwiches, cake, everything. Then we can have tea up here, and you can tell me all about the book you were reading.”
“Yes!” Hewie agreed, taking the biscuit happily. But he still looked troubled, glancing back at the curtained doorway that led out to the shop floor.
“You made that man upset.” Hewie said, matter-of-factly. Alva sighed.
“I did.” She confirmed. “Because I told him true things. The truth can upset people. It upsets me, sometimes.”
“Were you trying to make him sad?”
“Not him.” Alva said. “The lady he was with.”
“Why?” Came the inevitable question. Alva paused for a moment, choosing her words carefully.
“Because she deserved it. Like how he deserved to know the truth.” The Fairy finally said. “And what he does with that truth is up to him.”
Alva smiled warmly at Hewie, and held out her hand. The Sylvani took it, and she led him to the back stairwell that spiraled down to the café kitchens.
“But I have a feeling,” Alva said as they descended. “That I will enjoy the outcome.”
Eighteen days later, as read in the scripts and newspapers of Ammingrad:
Wild Fleet Party Turns Violent
Wardens Suspect Tainted Gin, Magical Sabotage