Outside the cracked window of the garret, the cockle-seller hollered, “Cockles an’ mussels! Cockles an’ mussels!” Her voice blended with the other London morning street sounds to mean that Vaughn was going to be late.
“Botheration.” He tied off the thread in the fine blue leather of the gloves he was stitching and snipped it with the little pair of silver shears he’d snuck out of the master’s shop. Be his hide if he were caught taking them home, but worse if he bit the thread off instead of snipping it neat. No telling what his saliva would do when the guild brownie added the beauty spell to it.
Shoving back his rickety chair from their equally rickety table, Vaughn tucked the shears into his pocket and tied it to the belt of his jerkin. He grabbed the gloves with one hand and a slice of rye bread with the other.
His sister laughed, “Are you going to be late again?”
“Was trying to finish these gloves for Master Martin.” He slid the gloves into the pocket, heading for the door. “I’ll be glad when this damn journeyman period is over.”
Behind him, Sarah made a coughing grunt. Vaughn’s heart jumped sideways in his chest. Not again. He dropped the bread and spun, but not in time to catch her.
Her chin cracked against the worn wood floor as she hit. Every muscle in her body had tightened and she shook, grunting with another seizure. Vaughn dropped to his knees next to her and rolled Sarah onto her side, brushing her hair back from her face.
She couldn’t hear him when one of the fits came over her but he sang to her anyway, just because that’s what their Gran had done.
“As I walked forth one summer’s day,
To view the meadows green and gay
A pleasant bower I espied
Standing fast by the river side,
And in’t a maiden I heard cry:
Alas! alas! there’s none e’er loved as I.”
The tremors subsided, but her eyes still had the glaze about them. Drool puddled from her mouth onto the floor. At least she hadn’t vomited this time.
Vaughn gave a breathless laugh. The things he was thankful for these days.
Sweat ran down his back like it was chasing him through the streets of London. Vaughn dodged around a fine lady in ruddy silks with her fairy chaperone and slid around a pair of gentlemen, wearing green antlered gloves for cunning. He skidded around the corner into the alley between the perfumers and the glovers.
Slowing to a walk, he tried to keep his breath slow, as if he hadn’t been running flat out for ten streets. If the master were only in the front talking to customers…
He needn’t have bothered. Master Martin stood square in the middle of the workshop, glaring. “Vaughn Johnson! Do ye not hear the bells?”
“Yes, sir.” Vaughn swept his hat from his head. “Sorry, sir. Won’t happen again, sir.”
“’Tis the third time this fortnight!”
“I know, sir, and I’m very sorry.”
Across the workshop, Littleberry, the guild brownie who worked with his master, continued to concentrate on the gloves he was ensorcelling as if Master Martin weren’t yelling at the top of his lungs.
Sweating, Vaughn pulled the blue gloves from the pocket tied to his jerkin’s belt. “I finished the commission for Lady Montrose.”
The master glover snatched them out of his hands. “Was it that sister of yours again?”
He tried not to notice Littleberry’s long ears prick up with interest. Brownies valued an honest man, and if Vaughn wanted to join the guild, he had best tell the truth. “She had a fit this morning but is as well as anything now. I’ll be on time tomorrow, sir.”
“They have places for such as her.”
Vaughn swallowed. After Gran died, he looked into a sanitarium but the places that he could afford were no fit place for a sixteen-year-old girl. No fit place for anyone really, but he couldn’t send Sarah there. “I can’t afford that. Sorry sir.”
“Eh—I’m not talking about some fine and mighty place such as a lady might go. There’s almshouses.”
Rage flooded through Vaughn and it pushed words out of his mouth. “Maybe I should simply take the master test and then you’ll be shut of me.”
“Oh ho! The mouse bites.”
“Sorry, sir. It was only an idea, sir.” But what he wouldn’t give to already be a master so he could make Sarah’s gloves. With those, he wouldn’t have to worry about leaving her alone. “But if you think I’m ready…”
A bell jingled at the front of the store.
“Ye’ve made a contract with me, and I’ll not waste a minute more of it than I already have. Not with King Henry’s ball coming up. Bring on another journeyman, after I’ve spent all this time getting ye trained up?” He barked a laugh and strode through the curtain that separated the workshop from the front of the store. Master Martin’s tone changed immediately to something honeyed and without the burr of his native accent. “Ah, my dear Lady Flannery, so honored to have you grace our store.”
Vaughn clenched his fists and his jaw. Of course, his master was too cheap to give up a journeyman early. Stalking over to the workbench, he glanced at the other end of the bench to be sure that Littleberry was occupied. The brownie’s back was bent over his work, eyes wrinkled shut.
Slipping the shears from his pocket, Vaughn set them on the bench and hoped Littleberry wouldn’t notice. He had half a mind to make a bargain with the brownie on his own. Guild rules said that he couldn’t sell unlicensed gloves, but if it was just for Sarah—
Right. If he didn’t mind making a deal without the auspices of the Worshipful Society of Glovers, losing his guild membership, and winding up in the streets.
But he couldn’t keep leaving Sarah alone. It wouldn’t hurt to simply ask Littleberry his terms for ensorcelling gloves to control seizures.
Vaughn snorted and laid a pattern on the inside of a sheet of pure white kidskin. The brownie was from Faerie. There was always the potential for harm, even in just the asking.
To make up for being tardy, Vaughn worked well past his usual time. It was full dark by the time he left the shop, locking the door behind himself. His eyes blurred when he tried to look in the distance so the candles in the windows turned into dancing globes like will-o-the-wisps come to the city. He had the pieces for another set of gloves folded in paper in his pocket and had snuck the little shears out of the shop.
Sarah would be worried about him, but she knew well enough that the master had say over his time. Tucking his hands in the sleeves of his overgown, Vaughn hurried for home. If he was lucky, the pie shop would still have something otherwise it was yesterday’s bread for dinner.
Before he even got out of the alley, a hand clamped down on his shoulder with the weight of iron. Vaughn gasped and tried to wrench free, but the man’s fingers dug in, unnaturally strong. His vision went white and red. He dropped to his knees, grabbing by instinct at the source of the pain and touched leather. A glove of smooth oxskin, embroidered at the knuckles with fool’s knots and chains.
“I’ve got nothing.” Vaughn stopped struggling, but the scoundrel’s grip on his shoulder didn’t lighten. Lord. They’d break his shoulder at this rate. At least it was his left. He could still stitch if they didn’t hurt his right.
What a stupid thing to worry about when he might not live through the night. Vaughn knelt on the cold cobblestones, with one knee in a puddle of something.
“Don’t try anything.”
“I won’t.” Who had made the man’s gloves? Vaughn kept his head down as the fellow released him. Partly this was so he didn’t look like a threat, but also so he could see the gloves.
Bright red oxskin with the requisite fool’s knots and chains stitched at the knuckles. The man yanked his pocket off his belt, likely harder than the man had intended, and the cloth split down the seams. Green thread marched up the sides of the gloves in flames that looked like it had come out of Master O’Connell’s shop. Not that it mattered. Like as not they were stolen.
Sumptuary laws being what they were, someone of their station couldn’t afford a pair of gloves, much less flaunt them. Heavens no, if they wore something so fine, someone might mistake them for nobility.
“Ha!” The thief dug through the shredded pocket and found Vaughn’s meager purse. Thank heavens he hadn’t been paid yet this week, but there went any chance of buying Sarah a pie for dinner.
When the thief drew out the leather for the gloves, Vaughn groaned. “Please— those aren’t ensorcelled yet. It’s just leather and—”
The thief threw the kidskin on the ground, right in the puddle Vaughn knelt in. Bollocks. Even if the liquid were by some miraculous chance pure water, the leather would warp and stiffen. Master Martin would take it out of his wages.
The man found the little silver shears, and tucked them away. Small though they were, a pair of silver shears were worth more than Vaughn would make this month. Thank God he’d already hocked his father’s snuff box, or that would be gone as well.
“That’s it?” The thief grabbed him by the collar.
“I’m a journeyman.”
“You don’t dress like one.”
“My master wants us to look smart for his customers.” He’d near beggared himself meeting the requirements for the journeyman contract, but it was the only way to advance in the guild. If he were wearing a cotte, as he had most of his life, the thief wouldn’t have looked at him twice. “If you thought I was a nobleman, I am sorry to have wasted your time.”
“Guess I’ll take your overgown and hat for my troubles.” He snatched the hat off Vaughn’s head.
“Please—I’ll lose my place if I’m not—”
“Your place or your life. Either way, they’re mine, ain’t they.” The thief clapped his hands together and the threads glimmered with the spellwork caught in them. “Off with your overgown.”
What choice did Vaughn have? He shrugged off the overgown, and though it was tempting to throw it in the puddle same as the leather, he wasn’t a fool. He handed it over, jaw clenched to keep from crying as the thief threw the overgown across his arm. It wasn’t fair. He’d worked so hard to get here, to make something of himself and—
The thief’s free hand drew back, curling into a fist. If that connected, Vaughn was a dead man. He threw himself back. The blow whistled past his face, just brushing his cheek. Even that fleeting contact lit the night sky for a moment. Then his head smacked against the cobbled street, and everything went dark.
There were no bells to tell him the time. All Vaughn knew as he dragged himself up the stairs of their garrett was that he stank. The bastard had robbed him of his shoes and the buttons off his jerkin while he lay there. He was lucky to still have his doublet and netherhose, but his feet ached from walking home in nothing but his stockings.
When he reached the top of the stairs, a light flickered under their door. He winced. It had been too much to hope that Sarah would have gone to bed. Before he’d even reached for the latch, a chair scraped on wood and Sarah’s footsteps hurried toward the door.
“Vaughn?” She yanked the door open, a shawl over her nightgown. “Oh my lord. What happened?”
He tried to grin, but his cheek hurt too much. At least his jaw wasn’t broken. “Robbed coming home. But I’m fine.”
“You are not fine!” She put an arm around his waist, as if he hadn’t just walked home all by himself. “Come and sit. Oh— your face.”
“Bad, eh?” Probably for the best they didn’t own a mirror. He patted her shoulder and slipped out of his sister’s grasp. “Let me get out of these clothes first.”
“I’ll heat some water to clean your cheek.” She hurried over to their small hearth, one of the few perks of the garret, and put another log on the fire.
“I’m fine. Really. Look worse than I feel.” That might have been a lie, but he couldn’t stand to see her worried on his account. Vaughn limped over to the curtain they’d hung in the corner to give some modesty for bathing. “How was your day?”
He’d pulled off the stinking jerkin — at least he didn’t have to unbutton it —then his doublet, which was also sans buttons, and tugged up his shirt. The movement made the bruises on his left shoulder catch, dragging his breath out with a hiss. He couldn’t lift his arm higher than his waist.
He bit back a half dozen curses as he tried to wriggle out of the shirt, and then realized that Sarah hadn’t answered. “Sarah?”
Certain that his sister would be on the floor, Vaughn came around the curtain in just his shirt and netherhose. But she knelt in front of the fire, setting the kettle on the grate.
His heart slowed a little. “Is something wrong?”
“No.” Sarah shook her head. “I was just thinking about how to answer.”
“That sounds like something is wrong.” He stepped back behind the curtain to splash a little cold water over his face. His cheek stung and the water in the basin turned pink. He probed the side of his face and winced as he found the raw edges where his skin had split over his cheekbone. Vaughn shucked out of his netherhose, managed to pull his shirt off, and then dragged a nightshirt on, carefully.
What the hell was he going to wear to work tomorrow?
Carrying the basin of dirty water, Vaughn limped over to their single, high window and reached up to open the casement. He grunted as the bruises on his left shoulder caught. “Sarah… I’m sorry. Could you?”
“Of course!” She hurried over to take the basin from him. “Go sit by the fire now.”
“Now.” And all of a sudden, her voice snapped like Gran’s.
Vaughn went. As she opened the small window and dumped the waste water on the street below, he dragged their other chair next to the fire and settled into it with a groan. He might never stand again.
Sarah hurried back over to him, firelight warming the room around her and catching in the honey gold of her hair. It also caught on a new cut on her lip.
Vaughn straightened, taking his sister’s hand as she sat. “Did you have another fit? After I left?”
She pressed her lips together as if that would hide the cut. With a shrug, she turned to the fire. “What if I did?”
“Sarah… You’re supposed to tell me.”
She set the empty basin on the floor by the fire. “Why? There’s nothing to be done about it.”
But there was. It was just that tonight’s mishap put it even further from his grasp.
Dressed in his workboots, second-best hose, doublet, and jerkin, Vaughn hunched over the bench. His shoulder had stiffened overnight and all it was really good for was holding down the leather while he traced. His eye had swollen up enough that he had to tilt his head to the side to see the leather clearly. But his right hand was steady and he gave thanks for that.
The shop bell jangled at the front as Master Martin arrived. As the glover whistled his way into the back of the shop, Vaughn laid his pencil down and prepared to make his case. He turned on his stool and Master Martin jumped, taking a step backward. Sitting on his shoulder, Littleberry had to clutch his collar to stay seated.
“Good lord!” Swiping his hat off his head, Master Martin’s astonishment turned into a scowl. “I’ve got no patience with brawlers.”
“I—” Brawling? He’d been working for the man for three years and had never so much as raised his voice. “I was robbed, sir. Sorry for my appearance, sir.”
“Robbed? Here?” Master Martin swung around as if someone might be lurking in the shadows.
Littleberry used the motion to jump down onto the workbench, his nose wrinkled in sympathy. At least someone felt sorry for Vaughn.
“No, sir. On my way home.” Vaughn bit his lower lip. “I had the leather for the Lady Flannery commission, I’m afraid.”
“The royal blue! Do you know how dear that shade of blue is?”
“Yes, sir. I’m very sorry, sir.”
“It’ll have to come out of your pay.” Master Martin set his hat on the rack next to the door. “Anything else?”
If he could have hidden it, he would have, but at some point Master Martin would notice that the little silver shears were missing. “I’m afraid I had inadvertently left the small shears in my pocket.”
“Those were not to leave the shop! Ye think I can just run willy-nilly over to Faerie anytime I need enchanted silver?”
“I’m very sorry, sir. Of course, I will pay for them.” Before Master Martin had time to get redder in the face, Vaughn drove forward. “The brigand also took my overgown and shoes. I have nothing else appropriate to wear. Would it be possible—”
“An advance? After all this, ye have the nerve to ask for an advance?”
Vaughn had actually planned to ask if he might be excused from wearing an overgown until he could afford to buy a new one. He wouldn’t be allowed in the front of the shop anyway until the bruises faded. But, in for a penny, in for a pound. He was going to be paying for this for the next year anyway. “I’m sorry, sir. I know you take pride in the neatness of your shop and I want to be a credit to you.”
Master Martin scowled. “I’ll think on it. For the time being though, ye stay here in the back. I don’t want one of the customers catch sight of ye.”
“Of course, sir.” The pencil rolled off the workbench, and Vaughn reached to catch it. The movement sent a lance through his left shoulder and he couldn’t hold back a cry.
“I think the lad is really hurt, aren’t you?” Littleberry’s voice piped like an ancient bird, as his head cocked with curiosity.
“It’s nothing.” He moved more cautiously, keeping his arm close to his side. The last thing he needed was for Master Martin to decide that the injury meant he couldn’t work.
“Is that the truth?” the brownie asked.
“It’s just bruises. He had strength gloves and I reckon didn’t realize how hard he was grabbing me.”
Master Martin straightened, blinking owlishly. “Strength gloves. Are ye sure?” His professional assessment suddenly came to the front and this was why Vaughn put up with his peevishness, because the man knew his stitching.
“Red oxskin. Fool’s knots and chains on the knuckles.” Vaughn hesitated for a moment, but training would out. “Green flamestitching up the side that had the peaks distinctive of Master O’Connell’s work.”
Master Martin slapped his handkerchief down on the workbench. “That gad-about. He’ll ruin the guild’s reputation, selling to any old person. Let me see.”
“The bruises.” He beckoned with one hand. “Let me see the bruises.”
“Yes, sir.” Vaughn unbuttoned his doublet, which came off easily enough. He undid the string that held the collar of his shirt closed. Any hope that he might be in better shape today vanished when he tried to pull his shirt off. He closed his eyes, and took a careful breath before trying again..
“Here, lad.” Master Martin’s hands were unexpectedly gentle as he helped Vaughn get the shirt off. His fingers were soft from the oil he worked into them every day. “Ach. Oh… That’s strength gloves for certain.”
Of course it was. Vaughn wasn’t an idiot. If not for this, he’d be only a year away from doing his journeyman project and applying to be a Master at the guild. He nodded, lips pressed together around the words he couldn’t say. “Yes, sir.”
“I want Littleberry to take a look at this…”
Master Martin waved a hand. “See if it was done with unlicensed goods. I’ve had a suspicion that O’Connell has been doing that. Keep your shirt off a moment.”
Skin standing all over gooseflesh, Vaughn tried not to shiver. Even standing on the workbench, the brownie barely came up to his shoulder. He cocked his head to the side, studying Vaughn as if he were a pair of gloves. “Hm. Sit, would you?”
Vaughn slid onto the tall stool next to the workbench. The brownie’s cool, dry fingers danced over his skin, marking each of the four livid bruises on the front of his shoulder. Wetting his lips, Vaughn stared steadily ahead at the windows.
He was looking past the glass, and only when Master Martin moved did he realize that there was a reflection there. For the first time since the robbery, he saw his own face and it was no wonder Master Martin had jumped. His cheek was swollen and purple, with a nasty cut that was nearly black in the reflection. The bruises stood out clear as anything in livid purple splotches against his winter white shoulder.
“Aye. ‘Tis the work of Mossthicket.” Littleberry stepped back, sighing. “The marks are all over it.”
“So they’re unlicensed.” Master Martin rubbed the back of his neck. “Ye said ye recognized the stitching as O’Connell?”
“Yes, sir.” Vaughn swallowed. “His flame stitching has a distinctive point and—”
“Any chance ye’re wrong.”
Of course there was a chance he was wrong. It wasn’t as if he’d been able to pull them off and look at the maker’s mark. “It was dark, sir.”
Master Martin grunted. After a moment, he handed Vaughn his shirt. “Let’s get ye dressed again, lad.”
“Thank you, sir.” A half-dozen questions pestered his tongue for voicing, but Vaughn knew his place. The master helped him get the shirt back on and even with assistance, Vaughn felt queasy all the way to his knees. He breathed through gritted teeth, waiting for the pain in his shoulder to pass enough that he could pull the doublet on.
“I’ll tell her majesty when I cross the border, but like as not she’ll do nothing.” Littleberry tugged on one of his ears. “Not without the actual gloves.”
Master Martin nodded. “The guild will have the same problems. Still. I’ll report it to the warden and see if anything comes of it. Unlicensed gloves… The devil take O’Connell.”
For the second night running, Vaughn had to stop on the landing to catch his breath. The bruises on his shoulder hurt with every inhalation and he wasn’t entirely sure he’d make it to the top of the stairs. At least tonight he had shoes.
No candlelight under the door tonight. He sighed with relief that his sister had been smart enough to go to bed. Vaughn pushed the door open.
The stench of vomit and urine smacked him in the face.
“No…” He fumbled for the candle that sat by the door. The fire had burned out and the room was as dark as the stairs. “Sarah?”
Heart stepping up its pace with every beat, he knocked the candle to the floor. “Damnit. Sarah!”
Dropping to his knees, Vaughn fumbled in the dark, until he laid hands on the candle. Forcing himself to slow down, he found the tinderbox. Struck it. Lit the candle. Lifting it high, with his good arm, he turned.
Sarah lay in a jumble on her side next to the bed. A puddle of vomit soaked her hair. A litany of fear filled his head as he scrambled across the floor to her. Please don’t be dead. Please. Please. Vaughn set the candlestick on the floor. “Sarah?”
Her cheeks were pale, but—thank God—her pulse beat visibly in her throat. Vaughn slid his hands under her neck and knees to lift her. This was going to hurt and he goddamn didn’t care. He ground his teeth together, braced, and lifted.
Something in his shoulder popped.
White and red and black explosions peppered his vision. Screaming, tumbling forward, he dropped Sarah. His left arm cushioned her head, only because he couldn’t move it out of the way. They both landed in the pool of vomit.
Sarah’s head flopped back and she moaned. She didn’t wake up. Please, God. Please, let her wake up. Vaughn pressed his good hand against his upper arm, biting the inside of his cheek so hard that he tasted the copper of blood. Waves of iron hot and steel cold pulsed in sickening waves.
Gasping around the pain, he tried to pull himself out of it. Sarah. Sarah needed him. Think, Vaughn. Think.
He couldn’t lift her onto the bed. A pallet on the floor then.
Wrapping his left arm around his waist, he buried his fingers between the buttons of his jerkin to keep from jostling it too much. With his good hand, he tugged Sarah’s shift down around her calves and twisted it to get a better grip. Sliding back on his knees and haunches, Vaughn dragged Sarah away from the mess by the bed. Where she’d been lying, the floorboards were stained dark with piss. Which meant her shift needed to be changed.
One thing at a time. Vaughn staggered to his feet and fetched the washbasin. Thank God he’d filled the pitcher before he’d left that morning. He got a clean rag and dipped it in the water, wiping the vomit from her hair and cheeks. A deep purple bruise blossomed on her temple. He built the picture in his head. She’d been getting ready for bed and had a fit. When she fell, she hit her head on the edge of the bed. Only sheer luck had caused her to fall on her side or she’d—
He cut that thought off. She was alive. What-might-have-beens didn’t matter. She was alive. Vaughn got her cleaned up as best he could and dragged the blankets off the bed. Every movement sent fresh pain stabbing through his shoulder. He used the blankets to prop Sarah on her side, head lifted off the ground, and then sat back against the wall.
Exhausted, he stared at the little garret window. Clouds drifted past, barely lighter than the violet black sky. Carefully, he probed his shoulder. His collarbone was… not right.
What the hell was he going to do?
“Vaughn?” Sarah’s voice was so soft that it blended with a dream he was having. “You’re going to be late.”
But it wasn’t a dream, that was his real sister’s voice and that was enough to knock whatever the dream had been right away. Vaughn dragged his lids open. He was slumped against the wall, with his head at an awkward angle. He sat up too fast, and his shoulder awoke. Gasping, Vaughn clutched his arm and waited for the throbbing to back away a little.
Sarah was still resting on her side, but her eyes were open. She smiled. “Good morrow.”
Sharp tears pricked his eyes. Now? When she was awake and safe, now his body decided to cry? Irritated, he swiped at his eyes with the back of his arm. “Good morrow. How are you?”
“Dizzy.” She frowned, plucking at the blanket. “Why am I on the floor?”
“You had another fit.” She would know that, of course. But it saved him from telling her that like as not his collarbone was broken. The strength gloves must have given it a fracture and then it went the rest of the way when he lifted her. “It looks like you hit your head.”
“That explains why it hurts.” She smiled ruefully and lifted a hand to the bruise on her temple.
Outside, the church bells started and Vaughn groaned. He was beyond late. Using the wall as leverage, he pushed himself up to stand. “I’ll ask Mrs. Nelson from downstairs to come sit with you today.”
“She smells of liniment.”
Half a laugh didn’t hurt too badly. “True, but she’s old and her joints ache.” Perhaps he could borrow some of that lineament…
“And I don’t want to hear another story about her dear departed son.”
“Alas, poor Geoffrey. How else shall his adventures in his majesty’s service live on?”
Sarah stuck her tongue out at him, and snuggled into the blankets. “I’ll probably spend the day sleeping anyway. Truly I would rather be left alone.”
“Sarah— I cannot.” Vaughn squeezed his eyes shut as the church bells faded into the morning hubbub of London. He was so beyond late. “I cannot leave you here alone.”
“But I don’t want her! I don’t want to be stared at and cosseted and—I just want to be here and quiet and by myself. I ask little enough.”
“And I just want to come home and not find you drowned in your own vomit!” He squeezed his eyes shut to block out her widened eyes and shock. “I’m sorry. I should not have yelled. Or said such things. Only… Please.”
She sighed as if all the fight had gone out of her. “Of course. Would you help me up from the floor? I do not mind looking the invalid to you, but at least let me be dressed when she arrives.”
It would make him later still, but Master Martin would have to wait.
Vaughn couldn’t have run to work if he’d tried. Every step sent a throb through his collarbone, even with his left arm clutched close to his side. The traffic on the footpaths got steadily finer as he got closer to the shop. He stepped to the side to give space to a pair of gentlemen wearing gloves with egrets stitched on their backs for height. A fine young lady sneered at him as he stepped around her chaperone. Both of them in pure white kidskin with golden chains around each wrist to preserve the young lady’s chastity. There was a lady in pale blue lambskin with gray doves peeping out from her cuffs to keep her in childbearing years longer.
All of these people in their silks and damask wore gloves. His sister needed just one pair. Just one. But of course, you couldn’t have anyone confused about their station. Why, with gloves, a mere journeyman could make himself into a gentleman.
Vaughn resisted the temptation to walk in the front door of the shop and went down the alley. He opened the door to the workroom and—
“Where the devil have ye been?”
It was not an honest question, so Vaughn merely lowered his head to Master Martin. “Sorry, sir.”
“Sorry is not good enough! If that sister of yours is going to keep being a problem, I am not certain our relationship can profitably continue.”
Rage broke over Vaughn’s body like a sweat. “My sister, sir, is my own concern.”
“Not if she is preventing ye from fulfilling the terms of your contract.”
A small rational voice shouted at him not to argue with his master. The pain in his shoulder drowned that out and only added heat to his anger. Vaughn gestured at his face. “Might I remind you that I was robbed and beaten but two nights ago. And yet, I have completed all the work you have set me to. I am late today because I am exhausted and in pain. Am I at fault for being tardy? Assuredly. But you must know that I will still complete the work required of me!”
He had just yelled at his master. Vaughn closed his eyes, trying to calm down. Heat flushed his body, centering in the cut upon his cheek and the mass of pain that was his shoulder. His breath came as if he had been running.
“If ye are in that much pain, stay home.”
No, no, no. He could not lose this journeyman position. No one else in the guild would take on a journeyman that another master had dismissed. Vaughn opened his eyes, fists clenched. “Please, sir. Give me another chance. If I might make a pallet here for the next week, until I am somewhat recovered, then you would not have to worry about me being late.”
Sarah would hate it, but he could get Mrs. Nelson to stay with her for a week. It would not take more than that surely.
A piping voice cut into the silence. “Martin… be gentle with the lad; those bruises will take a while for healing.”
“Both of ye?” Master Martin held up his hands. “It is not permanent. Take the week. I’m not a cruel man. If ye take the week, I can use your salary to bring in someone to help, and your position will still be waiting.”
And how was Vaughn supposed to pay his rent without a salary? How were they supposed to even eat? He swallowed. “I could take work home, if you like.”
“No. No… If you are going to rest, then rest.” Not cruel, but clueless.
Something in him snapped, the way it had when his collarbone cracked. Spots danced at the edge of his vision and Vaughn took a slow, careful breath to try to stay standing. “Since I’m here, shall I finish working through the day?”
Master Martin hesitated, no doubt considering the work orders awaiting them.
Vaughn pressed the point, thinking of the stack of blank leathers. “You’ll need time to bring in another glover.”
“If ye are up to the task.” Master Martin squinted, light reflecting off his spectacles. “It would be appreciated.”
“Of course, sir. I am at your command.”
Standing on the sturdier of their two chairs to reach the window of their garrett, Vaughn peered over the roofs of London, past the smoke rising from a forest of chimneys and through thickets of laundry to the horizon. The sky glowed pink and red with sunset. The sun itself had dipped out of sight.
Wetting his lips, he hopped down from the chair and hissed as the impact jarred his shoulder. Four days of rest and it still hurt when he moved it. Although at least the bruises were fading from purple into a sort of greenish yellow haze.
“Are you all right?” Sarah looked up from repairing his jerkin by the light of a single candle.
Vaughn waved with his good hand and straightened. “Fine. Sun has set.”
She bit her lower lip, tucking the needle into the fabric on the front of the jerkin. “It won’t hurt to wait.”
It would. He was not going to watch her have one more day of seizures. “I need to be able to make changes if the brownie doesn’t approve of my stitchwork. Once I’m back at Master Martin’s I won’t have time.”
“But you… This was to be your masterwork.” She looked at the table where the gloves he’d made from the purloined leather lay in a shimmering pile.
He had worked honeysuckle vines around her wrists with cascades of thread in white, yellow, and pale green. The flowers almost seemed to move, even lying on the table. It was beautiful work that no one would see, except for Sarah and, with luck, this brownie. “I’ll make something else. Face away from the table now.”
Were there any guild rules he wasn’t breaking? Calling a brownie in the presence of a non-guildmember. Stealing leather. Calling a brownie without his master. Unlicensed gloves.
His palms were sweating a little as he picked up the pitcher of cream he’d purchased with funds he could ill afford. Carefully, he poured it into a tiny blue earthenware bowl, as prescribed by the agreements between Faerie and the mortal world. He set that next to the gloves, along with a honeycomb and a bit of rye bread. Crossing his fingers, he spun widdershins thrice.
“Brownie Mossthicket, Mossthicket, Mossthicket. If ye have the will, I have presents three to trade with thee.”
And then, pulse pounding hard enough that he felt it in the break in his collarbone, Vaughn turned his back on the makeshift worktable, with the gloves and traditional gifts. If the brownie didn’t come, that was fine. He would try again with a different name. Mind, he had no idea what that other name would be, because all the brownies he knew were associated with the guild, save this one.
Please come. If this didn’t work, he’d—he didn’t know what he would try next.
Behind him, crockery shifted on wood. Vaughn rose onto his toes, but didn’t turn yet. Slurping. Thank heavens. The brownie had come and he’d drunk the cream.
A soft belch. “Who calls me? I know you not.”
Wiping the sweat from his palms onto his doublet, Vaughn turned and stopped with his mouth open. The brownie was a girl. He’d only seen male brownies, but this one had a long skirt and unmistakable curves. “Well met. I am hoping to offer a trade.”
She raised an eyebrow, forehead wrinkling into deep fissures. “You know that you have to offer more than bread, honey and cream. Right? I appreciate the formalities, though.”
“Yes. Yes, of course.” Vaughn wet his lips and walked a little closer to the table. “Shall I show you what I want?”
Mossthicket glanced at the gloves at her feet. “Seizures?” Lifting her head, the brownie looked past him to where Sarah still sat with her back to the table. “Her?”
“This is my sister.”
“She can turn around.” The brownie crouched next to the gloves, grunting. “Your work?”
“Yes.” Vaughn glanced at Sarah, who had spun quietly in her seat to peer over the back of it. Her eyes were wide and he realized that this was likely the first time she had seen a brownie since they were very small. “I can make any changes you require.”
With a tiny hand, the brownie waved him into silence. She picked up the gloves, holding them so close to her eyes that her long nose seemed to be smelling the flowers. As she studied them, the tips of her ears went up and down with something like curiosity.
“Huh.” She set the gloves on the table. “You’re not with the guild, or you wouldn’t be calling me, but you do guild-quality work. Why?”
This was not a line of questioning he expected, but Master Martin had always impressed upon him the importance of complete honesty with brownies. Other members of Faerie, not so much, but brownies prized the honest man. “I’m a journeyman.”
Her brows went up in surprise, nearly disappearing into her hairline. “With?”
“Ah… Well. That explains why you do such good work. Excellent craftsman, that one, even if he is a bastard.” She tugged on one of her ears, cocking her head to the side as she studied him. “Who gave you my name?
“The brownie Littleberry.”
She barked a laugh, entirely outsized for her frame. Standing, she dusted her hands off. “Shame you’re a liar.”
“Wait! No. It’s true —” Sweat poured down his back and calves and squirmed along his scalp. “I mean. I learned your name from him, but he didn’t offer it. I was just there when you were mentioned and—well. But it really was Littleberry.”
How could someone so short make him feel so small? He might as well be an apprentice again whose stitching was found lacking. Mossthicket crossed her arms under her bosom. “And under what circumstances, pray tell, would that learned fellow utter my name to a member of the oh-so-august Worshipful Society of Glovers?”
“You ensorceled some gloves for O’Connell? Strength gloves?” In for a penny, in for a pound. “I was robbed by a man wearing them. Littleberry recognized your work from… traces? On me?”
Her face went very still. “You were robbed. With strength gloves.”
At his side, Sarah burst out. “Don’t you dare doubt him! He’s been in constant pain since then. Just look at his face!”
“I am,” the brownie said.
“It’s all right, Sarah. I’m sure that our visitor doesn’t doubt that.” How bad was his face now? Had it gone the same greenish yellow as his shoulder? “The point is simply that I knew that you were willing to do unlicensed work and, well, I have such a need.”
“Just the gloves for seizures? You don’t want to add chastity or beauty to the stitching? I could make her talk like a lady and dance like an angel. She could marry any lord in the land…”
“NO!” Sarah rose to her feet, face flushed. “Nothing that makes me not me.”
“Are not the seizures part of you?”
Vaughn stepped between his sister and the brownie. “Leave her be.”
“They are, but they stop me from doing things I love. They make my brother afraid to leave for fear that I’ll take ill while he’s gone. Those other things? What if I were to take the gloves off and my lord hears me speak with my country tones, and my ordinary face?”
The brownie shrugged. “Is no matter to me.” She pointed at Vaughn. “Here’s the bargain I’ll offer you then. Make three sets of gloves for me, to my specifications, and the ones for seizures are yours.”
“What… What gloves?” Three pairs of gloves? Three. Where was he to get the leather for that many sets of gloves? He might be able to get another set out of the kidskin he’d stolen, but it depended on the color.
The brownie winked. “Nothing that a man of your skill can’t make.”
Oh no. He knew better than to make a deal with a brownie without all the details. “The materials though—I mean, if the gloves you ask for require the skin of a virgin, then no. Or if they need diamonds, I would have to beggar myself and at that point might as well hire someone else to make the seizure gloves. I shall need to know the specifications first, before I can agree.”
The brownie jutted out her lower lip. “Yellow kidskin, embroidered with the sun. Blue kidskin, embroidered with the moon, and black kidskin, embroidered with the stars.”
“Only those? Nothing else on them?” He had worked in suns on blue, with swans, to dispell melancholia. Stars aplenty, on deep navy, with the zodiac to aid astrologers. But these pairings… He did not know them.
“That is all.”
“But—what are they for?”
She shrugged. “Will you or no?”
Well, what answer was he expecting when she was asking for unlicensed gloves? Kidskin was possible. Those were common enough colors that they were always in Master Martin’s shop. He could steal them after Littleberry had left with the master. Only… “Are you specific about the exact shades and dying methods of the leather? Likewise, the thread employed, both its composition and precise shade?”
Mossthicket shook her head, tips of her ears curling down. “See, now. This is why I don’t usually work with the guild proper. All these questions…”
All these questions? Of course he needed to know— oh. Oh, of course. The brownie was bargaining. Much as he wanted Sarah to be free of the seizures, it was no good if they were to be trapped in a bad bargain. And, as Master Martin had taught him, you had to be willing to walk away. Vaughn took a deep breath and his heart ached as badly as his shoulder, because he might be wrong. But he had to try to force the brownie’s hand. “Well. I don’t want to trouble you with my questions. Perhaps someone not associated with the guild would be better suited for your project. I am sorry that we could not come to an agreement.”
“And the lady here?”
“We shall continue on as we were.” Though how, he did not know. “The honey and bread are, of course, my gift to you for your time.”
His entire body screamed at him, as he turned his back on the brownie, stretching a hand out to Sarah to bid her do the same. He had been rash enough in stealing the leather. Agreeing to a bargain without the details was fool’s talk and exactly what led to ruin. They would be prudent and they would retrench. Yes, he would have a debt to the master, but that at least was a known quantity.
“Hold on now, sir.” The brownie’s raspy little voice sent a shiver of relief through him. “Hold on now. I haven’t said I wouldn’t give you the details. You want to know the exact specifications at the beginning? Well, that’s all right since you were so good as to show me the gloves you want ensorcelled. It seems fair, it does.”
Vaughn bit his tongue to keep from offending the brownie by offering thanks as he turned back around. “I have paper. Would you be so good as to write your needs down, and if I am able, I shall fulfill them to the letter.”
With a laugh, the brownie laid her finger alongside her nose. “Ah. You’re a sly one. To the letter, indeed.” She nodded. “Give me the paper then, sir, and let us make our bargain.”
In the front of the shop, Master Martin spoke in his honeyed tones to a fine gentleman looking for elegance gloves for his daughter. Vaughn pulled his stool closer to the window, trying to catch the last bit of daylight before he was forced to light a candle.
The skin under his left eye itched. He rubbed it, without thinking and nearly cursed aloud as he cracked the scab that was healing. Blood spotted his forefinger, and he slid back from the bench before he could get anything on the gloves he was working on.
“What ails you, young sir?” The piping voice came from his knee.
Vaughn tilted his head down to meet the gaze of Littleberry. The brownie’s eyes were bright with interest.
“Nothing, th—” He bit the thanks off just in time. “—that is of any concern.”
The brownie smiled, wrinkles curving into a map of concern. “How are you healing then? Come now, tell me true since Master Martin isn’t here.”
Vaughn grabbed a rag and pressed it to the spot under his eye. Guild brownies valued an honest man, and he wasn’t sure he could even remotely be considered that anymore. “Well enough all things considered. I’ve still some aches and pains, but I’m much improved from a fortnight ago.”
“You look more tired though, begging your pardon.”
That would be from staying up late stitching Mossthicket’s gloves, but that truth was not one he needed to share. Vaughn pulled the cloth away and the bleeding had already stopped. Gingerly, he probed the spot. It was still tender, but his fingers came away dry. “There. See?”
Master Martin pushed through the curtain into the back, rubbing his hands together. “A fine day. That’s the seventh pair of elegance gloves! Oh, how I wish King Henry went looking for wives more often.”
It seemed to Vaughn that he did that more than often enough. He folded the cloth and set it aside as he sat at the bench again. “Excellent news, sir. I can get those cut tonight.”
“No need, lad.” Master Martin tousled his hair.
Vaughn winced. It was a new, annoying habit, but better than being clapped on the shoulder. Master Martin, to his credit, had only done that once after the robbery. “Sooner begun is sooner done, sir.”
Littleberry climbed the ladder built in the leg of the workbench. “Aye. I can stay as well, to give a hand to the young sir.”
Stay? Littleberry always left with Master Martin. Vaughn picked up his needle and concentrated on the leather in front of him. Or pretended to do so. Sweat began to trickle down the back of his neck. Could Littleberry know that he’d stolen leather? He bit his lower lip as he fit the thumb into the glove. “We’ll be done the faster then. Many hands make light work and all.”
“Did neither of you hear me? There’s no need. We’ve a fortnight to make the delivery so all of us are going home while there’s still light.” He tousled Vaughn’s hair again. “Wouldn’t want you to get robbed again, would we?”
“No sir.” Vaughn put his needle down and thanked God for years of training in hiding his true feelings from the master. “I’ll just tidy up and be off then.”
Because the truth was, he’d already stolen everything he needed. He just felt guilty.
Three pairs of gloves lay on the table, threads glimmering on them like the sun, the moon, and the stars. A fourth pair with honeysuckle twining in delicate branches lay next to them. Vaughn and Sarah faced the fire, as he waited for the sound of Mossthicket’s arrival.
The earthenware scraped on the table and Vaughn’s head dropped forward with relief.
“I was wondering what you were up to, young sir.” Littleberry’s piping voice drove Vaughn to his feet.
Spinning, he whirled to face the table, where the guild brownie stood with his hands upon his hips. The room seemed to continue spinning around him as Vaughn gaped, gasping for air. He was ruined.
“Vaughn?” Sarah’s voice snapped him back to himself.
“Go—go downstairs to Mrs. Nelson’s.” He could not look away from Littleberry.
“What’s the matter?”
There was no use pretending with his sister that nothing was wrong. Vaughn swallowed, pressing his lips together, and dragged his gaze over to hers. “This is my master’s guild brownie.” The small wordless cry from her nearly undid him, but he pressed on. “We have some business to discuss and it will be easier in private. Please, Sarah?”
She nodded, pulling her shawl tighter around her, and hurried to the door. Vaughn waited, flexing his hands into fists and out again until he heard the door shut and her feet upon the stairs. Drawing himself up, he faced the brownie. “She has seizures. I needed gloves to control them.”
“I know.” The brownie nodded, all wrinkles and sadness. “And how many times has Master Martin warned you about your sister interfering with your work?”
“If she had gloves, she wouldn’t!” He was ruined now, so there was no point in holding back. “Put her in an almshouse? Did neither of you think that, maybe, the answer would be to help us? I even asked if I could make them myself! I would have paid for them and put myself into debt but no, a man of my station can’t own such things. So yes—YES. The honest answer is that I am making unlicensed gloves.”
“There are laws for reasons.”
Vaughn laughed. “What reason? What reason beyond vanity and fear justifies this?”
“In the wrong hands, all gloves can be used for crime.” Littleberry gestured at Vaughn’s shoulder. “Look to your own form for proof. Strength gloves, designed to help master builders lift and steady are instead used for robbery.”
“And what crime would one commit with seizure gloves?”
“Where does one draw the line?” Littleberry shook his head. “The Faerie Queen set the laws and I trust her judgement better than that of a single thieving mortal.”
“I had no choice!”
Litteberry shook his head, and tsked. “We always have choices. You made the choice to steal from your master. You made the choice to create a princess.”
Littleberry gestured at the gloves on the table. “The sun, the moon, and the stars? Unadulterated. Did Mossthicket not tell you what she needed them for? Oh, my lady Queen will be wroth with her indeed.”
Behind Littleberry, the world twisted around an oval spot, the center of which danced like an oil slick. Whatever Vaughn had been about to say vanished, as Mossthicket congealed in the center of the oil. Littleberry’s brows went up and he turned to look over his shoulder.
Mossthicket slit his throat.
Hand flying to his mouth, Vaughn staggered back in horror. A pair of silver shears, perfectly sized for her tiny hands, dripped blood on the table. Littleberry clapped his hands to his throat, coughing and gagging blood. He staggered to his knees. Mossthicket caught his body, steering him away from the gloves and pushed him over the side of the table.
His tiny body hit the floor with the sound of breaking twigs. He thrashed once and lay still.
Mossthicket wiped her shears on a tiny handkerchief. He knew those shears.
“What—what did you do?”
“Solved a problem.” She slid the shears into the waistband of her skirt. “Best put the body in the fire.”
“What are they for? A princess? What does that mean?”
Vaughn stared at her wrinkled ease and calm. Her nutbrown face had set in lines of determination and a single drop of blood stained one cuff. Littleberry was dead. “What should a girl like your sister do, if she wants to rise above her station? Hm? What if the king has called for all of the eligible young ladies to go to a ball, and she should but, alas… Her stepmother won’t allow it. There are rules and laws and none of them are made for the likes of her.”
What would he do? “I damn well wouldn’t kill someone for Sarah.”
“Then I guess it’s a good thing that I would.” Mossthicket rubbed her forehead with one hand. “Or did you not think about what would happen to her when her brother was clapped in irons and hanged for stealing?”
Hanged. But he wouldn’t kill. She had killed and he—and Sarah and—Vaughn’s stomach turned inside out. He retched on the floor. Chunks of bread and bile spattered into the blood.
“I’ll deal with the blood and the mess.” Mossthicket’s ears twitched toward the door. “Right now, you best burn the body before your sister comes up.”
He had to repeat the words to himself five or six times before he could make himself move. Put the body in the fire. Vaughn halted forward and knelt. He could have picked Littleberry up with one hand, but it seemed disrespectful somehow. He scooped both hands under the little body and gagged again, but didn’t vomit, thank God. He almost laughed or cried. The things he was grateful for these days.
His shoulder didn’t hurt at all to lift the brownie. “The fire?”
“Go up like kindling, we do.” She had her hands over the blood, brows drawn down in concentration. “Hush now. I’m working.”
The fire. What was he to do? The fire. His brain emptied and seemed to simply watch as his body turned and walked to the hearth. He laid Littleberry’s corpse on the embers.
A flame curled around the little cotte. With a whoosh, green flames swept down the length of Littleberry reaching for the chimney as if he was going to flee on a column of smoke and fire. Vaughn threw his good arm over his eyes, turning away from the harsh light. His shadow stretched across the room to the door.
Sarah opened it, eyes wide.
He dropped his arm, stepping between her and the table so she wouldn’t have to see the blood. Only—it was gone. Mossthicket sat on the edge of the table, kicking her heels beneath her skirt.
“Are you all right?” Sarah rushed to him and took his hand.
“Yes.” He lied, but his head whirled too much for the truth.
“What did Littleberry say?”
He glanced back at the hearth, but all that was there were glowing embers and a smattering of ash.
Mossthicket smiled at Sarah. “I worked things out with him. Naught to worry about there.” She pulled the seizure gloves over her lap like a blanket and traced the honeysuckle vines with the tip of her fingers. A webwork of light shimmered behind her hand, wrapping around the threads of Vaughn’s embroidery. “Come now, miss. Let’s fit you with your gloves, shall we?”
Littleberry was dead. Sarah did not know that and never needed to know that. Vaughn let go of her hand, pulling a smile from somewhere. “Go on.”
She lingered for a moment, searching his face, and he dragged the smile higher until she pattered over to Mossthicket. Who had murdered Littleberry.
“Wait—” Vaughn walked over to the table and looked down at the brownie. Even though he’d made these gloves and knew damn well what the stitching would do, he just needed to hear it. “These will keep her seizures from happening and nothing else. Right?”
Mossthicket bowed her head. “We had a bargain and I’ve not played you false.” She smiled up at Sarah, cheeks curving in a mask of pleasure. “Besides, I like the young lady. She reminds me of my goddaughter.”
He nodded, but the sense of creeping wrong would not let go of his spine. Vaughn knotted his hands into fists as Sarah pulled on the gloves. She frowned, shoulders drooping in disappointment. “I—nothing feels different.”
“That’s what you wanted though, wasn’t it?” The brownie winked and scrambled to her feet. “Wear them for a week and see if things aren’t different. And now—I’ll take my payment and go.”
“I trust they are to your liking.” How could he care what she thought of his craftmanship now? But he watched her face anyway as she picked the gloves up, running her fingers over the embroidery.
“You do fine work.” She pulled the gloves closer, peering at the variegated thread he’d used for the sun’s rays. “Might be that we can work together again in the future.”
“Thank you.” It was rude. That was why he said it. “No.”
She shrugged, one cheek curving up in a grin. “I’ll give you time to think it over. I could use guild quality gloves. I’d cut you in on the profits.”
“I am really not interested.” What was Master Martin going to do when Littleberry failed to show up tomorrow? God. She had killed Littleberry, who was yes, going to turn him in, but the brownie had not deserved to die for that.
“Hm.” She threw the gloves around her shoulders like a cape of the sky. “And when the young miss’s gloves wear through? We’ll talk again, I’ve no doubt.”
The oilslick blossomed around her, and she melted into it, gloves and all.
Vaughn dropped to his knees. What had he done? All he’d wanted was for his sister to be safe and healthy and happy and he’d bound himself to a murderer.
Because Mossthicket knew he would do anything to keep his sister safe and healthy. He hadn’t agreed to a new bargain, but he was bound by it nonetheless. Gloves to make a princess this time. What would it be next? Gloves to kill a king? Despite his best effort to smile at Sarah, each breath hurt as if he’d broken his shoulder anew.
Sarah knelt next to him, putting a honeysuckle clad hand on his arm. “Vaughn? Why are you crying?”
“I’m not.” He wiped his cheeks, and his hand came away wet.
“Liar.” She tweaked his nose, laughing.
That single word nearly broke him, because he would never be able to join the guild after tonight. The brownies valued an honest man and the stink of lying would stick to him for the rest of his days.
Vaughn sat back on his heels and clutched Sarah’s hands in his. The kidskin was fine and cool beneath his touch. She didn’t need to know. Sarah never needed to know the cost. “There… Now you look like a lady.”
(Editors’ Note: Mary Robinette Kowal is interviewed by Julia Rios in Issue Seventeen.)
© 2017 by Mary Robinette Kowal