by Sylvia Anna Hiven
The first time it happened was with a button.
It was gold and shaped like an acorn, and snapped loose from a man’s overcoat as he bumped into Valenka on the street. Clattering into the gutter, it came to a stop against her scuffed boot.
Valenka hadn’t experienced much magic in her life—only gray days spent tugging at sleeves for coins. Still she understood that something special happened when she picked up the button. All the walls of her mind fell away, and into her head, accompanied by the chilly Prague breeze, swept the man’s past.
That man is good, she thought, holding the button in her little fist. He has a wife and two daughters whom he kisses goodnight each day. He kissed another woman once, but only once, and he regrets it still. He gives coins to a lame man in Petrin Hill Park on Sundays. And he loves God. Yes, the owner of this button is a good man.
After that, it happened more frequently. People’s pasts came to her uncalled as she brushed against shoulders in the market, or when she picked up someone’s forgotten glove in an eatery. When she was seventeen and found employment as a seamstress in Dvorak’s Tailor Shop, it became an unavoidable part of her life. Each piece of silk had a story to tell, and each strip of macrame whispered a past. Valenka learned about grief through black funeral gowns, and understood the meaning of passion as she mended ripped lace blouses. Lives, although she did not live them, passed before her eyes.
Mostly, experiencing memories was effortless and her ability showed her everything there was to know. Other times, the past only seeped into her mind in elusive glimpses. But never had Valenka seen someone’s future.
Not until she touched the hem of a murderer.
The couple came into the tailor’s shop on a spring afternoon. The man was tall, with bright blue eyes and a natural wave in his wheat-golden hair. The girl on his arm was petite and pretty like a china-doll, wrapped in a mink coat despite the pleasant weather outside.
Valenka enjoyed guessing things about her customers when they walked in. After all, once she had touched their clothes, she’d know everything about them.
Aristocrats, she thought. He tried to impress her by gifting her that coat, and she is too in love to tell him it’s too hot to wear it. Not yet married, I reckon.
Master Dvorak, a squat man with wild tufts of hair above his ears, met the couple with a wide smile. “May I help you, sir?”
“Yes,” said the man. “Do you make custom wedding gowns?”
“Of course, sir,” said Dvorak. “With the finest Chinese silks, and the best velvets from Cairo. Handmade pearl embroidery is our specialty, too, which is much in fashion at the moment.”
The girl’s eyes widened, and she squeezed the man’s arm just slightly harder.
“Pearls,” she said. “I would love pearls.”
The man glanced at her and smiled with satisfaction. “And you can design a groom’s suit as well, I assume?” he continued, turning back to Dvorak. “I hear you are the best tailor in all of Prague, and we’ll need the gown and suit in a fortnight.”
“Sir, I assure you,” said Dvorak, “my team of artisans can make the finest wedding clothes in all of the country, if not all of Europe. If you let me take measurements today, we can have the garments ready in a week.”
Valenka, who overheard the conversation from the rear counter, resisted the urge to roll her eyes. There was no team of artisans—there was just her. Her master often made ambitious promises to the aristocracy and expected her to fulfill the commitments. Fortunately, she didn’t ever have to think or plan or design—one graze against her customer’s hand, or one touch of their coat sleeve, and she knew what they wanted. She didn’t even have to think about it; the flourish of her needles created the exact garment the customer desired. It wasn’t difficult work, and while Dvorak stole the praise more often than not, he never failed to pay her—and he never asked questions. It was a fair arrangement.
“A week,” said the man. “That would be very impressive.”
“The fitting salons are this way,” said Dvorak, gesturing towards the rear rooms. “Valenka, will you escort the young lady and take her measurements, and I shall tend the gentleman?”
The young girl was barely older than Valenka. She was undeniably pretty with skin like milk and eyes the color of chestnuts; still, she displayed an unpolished gawkiness as she stepped up on the fitting dais on skinny legs. As Valenka took the measuring band and slid her arms around the girl’s narrow hips, bursts of a simple life blinked in her mind.
When she was little, she played in a rose garden behind a white cottage. Deeply pious. She visits her mother’s grave every week. Still a virgin, in body and spirit. It delighted her to sense such a pleasant soul. Her name is Milena. She is a good girl.
“He is handsome, your friend,” Valenka said, standing up and slipping the measuring band around Milena’s waist.
“Vaklav Nuvotny?” said Milena. “Yes, very handsome. He and his brothers are the finest young gentlemen in all of Prague. The Novotnys are from a most noble family.”
“You’re marrying well. And your wedding is merely a fortnight away.” Valenka raised an eyebrow. “That’s not a lot of time.”
Milena sighed. “You imply the engagement is too short. That there is scandal afoot.”
“I imply no such thing, miss.”
“Well, it is fast, and there are rumors. People are cynical when customs aren’t followed.” Milena’s voice sounded injured. “But I am in love, that’s all.”
Valenka knew the girl spoke the truth—love saturated every inch of her slip, her silk stockings, and even the satin ribbon in her dark hair. Valenka saw an accidental meeting in a park, and a first kiss so passionate she almost felt the brush of a man’s lips against her own.
“You want the cream-colored silk,” Valenka said as she made notes of Milena’s measurements. “And the pearl embroidery, I suspect. How about a pattern of roses on the bodice?”
“I love roses. You must be a mind-reader.”
“And lace sleeves? It’s old fashioned, I know, but—”
“My mother had lace sleeves when she married my father.” Tears gathered in Milena’s brown eyes. “That would be the gown I’ve dreamed of.”
Valenka finished her task, told Milena to get dressed, and then moved to the other fitting salon. Master Dvorak was busy making idle conversation about wedding customs and the tedious obligations of Vaklav’s brothers, and he had made little progress on the measurements.
“Can I help?” asked Valenka.
“Yes, yes, take the inseam length,” said Dvorak. “I fear Lord Nuvotny has been distracting me with tales of his family history. Did you know his older brother is on the City Council? And that the wedding ceremony will be in Saint Vitus Cathedral? How grand!”
Dvorak chattered on, and Valenka thought it best to take the measuring band from him.
As Valenka kneeled before Lord Nuvotny and brushed against his pant leg, she prepared to see a past of careless play on emerald lawns, hunting parties and frivolous balls. But what flowed into her was a shadow, dark and cold. She pulled her hand away to cut off the visions, but it was too late. They had already weaved into her mind, and no shears in the world could cut the connection.
He killed two kittens when he was six, and a Labrador puppy when he was ten. The sights of the butchered animals made her nauseous. He cut a prostitute in an alley when he was eighteen because she would not relinquish payment. She was the first, not the last, and he is not done. She shuddered. He wants to kill someone innocent. He is a bad man. No, an evil man.
Valenka released a breath, waiting for the world to return, the impressions didn’t stop in the present. Instead her mind raced forth, skipping into events that hadn’t yet come to pass. There was a wedding in white and cream, and it smelled of roses. There was a swirling wedding dance, and then a rush into a darkened wedding chamber.
And there was a bed with Milena’s body spilled over it, her throat sliced open and her dark-red blood staining satin sheets.
“Valenka, what is the matter with you?”
Dvorak, usually a gentle man, turned toward Valenka as the couple left the store. His eyebrows were shoved together in a deep scowl of disapproval. Valenka couldn’t blame him for his anger. She’d nearly fainted at the foot of the fitting dais, and as Lord Novotny had tried to help her to her feet, she’d screamed, for his touch had been like daggers into her mind.
“I’m sorry,” she said, sinking down on her stool behind the counter. “I felt ill, that’s all.”
Dvorak’s eyes narrowed further. “Ill? You are not in the way, are you?”
Valenka sighed. “Of course not.”
“Good. And keep it that way.” Dvorak shook his head, the contempt flaring in his eyes. “That pretty little thing got herself in the way on purpose, that is for sure, and now they must marry, as the aristocratic custom demands. It’s disgusting how some take advantage of traditions for their own gain.”
“You don’t know her intent,” replied Valenka. “She’s just an innocent girl.”
Dvorak’s tone took on an inflection of contempt. “You may know what dress a girl likes to wear, and what coat a gentleman prefers, Valenka. But you know nothing about the hearts of people. You be mindful of your place. Now, get to work. They return tomorrow afternoon and we should have the muslin pattern and sketches ready by then. We must work well into the night if we are to be ready. ”
Dvorak left the shop to go to the weaver at the edge of town, leaving Valenka alone as the darkness lowered outside. She sat by the light of her oil lamps well into the night, cutting the patterns. She didn’t bother with a sketch—she knew she didn’t have to. The couple would love her designs, just like everybody always adored the garments Valenka created.
As she worked, she tried to concentrate on her shears and needles, but she couldn’t stop the visions of Milena’s lifeless body, the bodice of her dress ripped and the pearls strewn across the floor. The scene replayed before Valenka’s eyes with such ferocity, she almost smelled the blood that soaked the bed. Eventually, the visions colored everything a maddening red—the flickering light of the lamp, the skin on her hands, the fabric of the muslin. Frustrated, Valenka tossed the needles aside and buried her face in her hands.
How can I possibly do this? she thought. How can I just ignore this warning? How can I let that girl walk into the arms of someone who means to murder her?
The answer was simple. She couldn’t. It was true that Valenka knew nothing of nobility customs or traditions of the wealthy; however, the one thing Valenka knew better than anybody were hearts—and it was time for her to follow her own.
Valenka didn’t often go to the riverbank. The port district was a dark place where people with unsavory needs met to strike deals with those that could fulfill them. Criminals exchanged information for coins, and harlots gave pleasure to drunk sailors in the shadows of the dilapidated buildings. Valenka averted her gaze from all that she met, and she tried to not be noticed.
When Valenka arrived to the water’s edge, she found herself blessedly alone. She lifted her skirt and waded out into the black water. Her boots sank into the muddy riverbed, and it stirred a stench of rot and decay. She didn’t care—it was what she had come for, after all. After wrapping her hands in her wool scarf, she reached into the chilly water, grasping at what grew beneath the surface. When she pulled plants up, and looked at the glistening leaves of water hemlock in the moonlight, she felt relief.
I’ll lace the fibers into the cuffs and the waistband. If I weave it into the undershirt too, it should take no more than a few hours for the poison to find his heart. He should fall down dead before the final dance on their wedding.
As she walked back to the shop, the bundles of plants hidden in her scarf, she felt a certain excitement. Someone had given her this task—given her mysterious ability a purpose, finally, beyond creating perfect dresses and coats. She was unraveling a fate, undoing it with her needle, and she was about to save a life. Though she was about to do so by taking another, she felt no fear—only the steadfast beating of her heart.
The couple returned the next day. As expected, they found Valenka’s patterns most agreeable. While the gentleman and Dvorak settled the payment at the counter, Milena leaned over the fabric samples for the groom’s suit lining.
“Blue, I think,” she said. “It will match his eyes. And I’m using bluebells in the wedding bouquet.”
Vaklav leaned in over Milena’s shoulder, wrinking his nose at the sample she had chosen. “Blue?” he said. “I abhor blue.”
Milena slapped him on his arm. “I am the bride, and I like it,” she said. “Who cares what you think?”
Her gesture was playful, and so was her tone, yet Valenka saw a shadow of discontentment flow over Vaklav’s face, and his smile stiffened just a moment. He grasped Milena’s shoulder. “We should go,” he said. “Jiri is waiting with the chef at the mansion. You know how busy he is.”
Valenka’s eyes lingered upon his fingers clasping the girl’s shoulder. She knew if she had been touched by Vaklav in the same manner, the horror that had rotted his heart would assault her senses, warn her, remind her of the danger he posed and the ill deeds he had committed. But Milena just laughed at the man, and straightened her back.
“Let us go, then,” she said. “A nobleman should not be kept waiting.”
When they walked out of the shop, Valenka saw a ribbon of darkness flow behind them. It was a ribbon of damnation and death, tying them together in a dark fate—one that she was meant to undo.
She worked well into the night on the silk fabric of the undershirt. Wearing silk gloves, she peeled out the fibers of the water hemlock, twisting them into threads, and sewed them into the seams carefully. The green color shimmered against the blue fabric—an elegant swirled embellishment, inconspicuous in its lethality.
When the first rays of dawn crept along the floorboards, and she finally dropped the needle from her thimbled fingers, she was finished. The shirt lay before her, each seam perfectly straight, with delicate embroideries around the cuffs and collar. It was her best garment yet, and she knew Lord Nuvotny would not be able to resist its beauty—nor the poison that hid within it.
The day that the gown and the suits were picked up, Valenka stayed in the back of the shop. She didn’t want to look at the evil man again, and she didn’t want to see the face of the pretty bride, knowing the danger that loomed over her. In truth, perhaps she was also afraid that she would change her mind—that she would lose the courage, tear the shirt from Nuvotny’s hands and let Milena face her fate, despite its horror. After all, Valenka was punishing a man for a crime he had yet to commit.
She did not have to face that decision, however. When she returned from her midday break, Dvorak met her with a disgruntled look.
“Where have you been?” he said. “The Nuvotnys were here, and I had to fit them on my own.”
“They loved their garments, did they not?” said Valenka.
Dvorak fumed. “Yes,” he said, seemingly pleased and angry at the same time. “And I thank you each time a satisfied customer walks out the door, without asking questions. But whatever skill it is that you possess, it can easily go to your head, Valenka. You are a seamstress, not a magician.”
“I’m sorry,” said Valenka. “It won’t happen again.”
As she sat down to mend a few frayed dress hems, she prayed it truly wouldn’t happen again—not the visions of the future, not the knowledge of treacherous hearts.
Three days later, a grieving Lady Milena returned to the shop.
She looked like a different girl as she stepped through the doorway. Her hair was pulled taut in a modest bun, and she wore a somber gown of black lace. Valenka, her heart pounding, didn’t have to touch the girl to know that she’d just experienced a loss.
“Lady Milena,” Valenka said, getting to her feet. “It is good to see you again.”
It was a stupid thing to say, but they were the only words that came over her lips. Milena did not seem to notice the clumsiness of her words, in any case. Her face was pale like that of a corpse, and her eyes flat and without sparkle.
“I have come for a burial suit,” she said. “For my late husband.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Valenka.
“Thank you.” Milena took off her gloves, revealing a pair of delicate, white hands. Valenka noticed that there still sat a diamond engagement ring upon her finger, and it glittered in the sunlight.
“You kept the ring,” said Valenka.
Milena looked down at her hand. She laughed the most pitiful laugh, and shook her head. “Oh. Well, Vaklav would not approve of waste.”
Master Dvorak stepped out from the back room. “Ah, Lady Milena,” he said. “I received your message, and I’m having the suit sketch drawn. Would you like to see it?”
Milena shook her head. “I trust you,” she said. “You did such a wonderful garment the last time, and you have our measurements already. Jiri will look so handsome in the casket, I am sure.”
Dvorak and Milena spoke for another few minutes, about patterns and colors and fabrics, but Valenka was too confused to follow their conversation. As Milena stepped out on the street again, Valenka looked at Dvorak with bewilderment.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “She spoke of Jiri. She is getting a burial suit for her husband’s brother, too?”
“No, Valenka,” said Dvorak. “Jiri was Lady Milena’s fiance, who fell dead to the floor as soon as they left the church.”
Valenka shook her head. “I thought we fitted Vaklav Nuvotny for the groom’s suit.”
“We did. The eldest brother of a lord is lucky to have a twin brother to dispatch for simple duties, like suit fittings.”
Dvorak stared at Lady Milena’s carriage outside. Valenka followed his gaze, and her heart raced as she saw Vaklav Nuvotny help Milena into the carriage. He was alive and well, that much was certain, and his hand curled around Milena’s arm in a possessive manner. As the carriage pulled away, Valenka caught a glimpse of satisfaction in Vaklav’s face.
“I hope Vaklav takes his brother’s place in a marriage as easily as in a suit,” continued Dvorak.
“Vaklav will marry Milena?”
Dvorak rolled his eyes. “I’ve told you that you do not understand nobility, Valenka. Affinity customs demand that a nobleman must marry his brother’s wife if the marriage wasn’t consummated. Vaklav and Milena marry this afternoon.” The old tailor shook his head. “Right after she lost Jiri. It’s a tragedy. Milena will take no pleasure in her wedding night, I am sure.”
Dvorak let out a sigh, and then returned to the counter to prepare Milena’s order.
Valenka remained standing by the window, staring at the carriage, her heart frozen. As the carriage driver snapped his reins, it felt to Valenka as the seams of the very world unraveled and fell apart.