Posts Tagged ‘Sylvia Anna Hivén’

Episode 108: The Cardinals of Ever June by Sylvia Anna Hivén

The Cardinals of Ever-June

by Sylvia Anna Hivén

I put up with much when I was a boy. I had no choice, really, because I was orphaned at the age of eight, and an orphan has less of a voice than a mute.

I had no say when my sister and I were shipped off to a poor-house, run by a cruel man. I accepted that I had to work most of my waking hours and face hard fists if I refused. I endured the lice-infested beds, watery broths and poverty seeping into my very pores. That’s just the way life was. But no matter how much I could withstand, I couldn’t accept a life of misery for my little sister. This is the story of how in order to save her, I let her die.

Hearing me say that might leave you cold. I won’t blame you if it does. But in the end, when you’ve heard the whole story, I still hope you’ll find it in your heart to say a prayer for me.

The snow groaned under my boots as I dragged Tatyana along the forest path. She was a small girl for eleven, but toiling with her through snow droves that stood to my knees was like pulling a giant through the eye of a needle.

“Come on, Tatya,” I pleaded. “It’s gonna get dark soon, and you know how angry Vladimir gets if we’re late. We gotta walk faster.”

“I’m sorry, Mischa. I’m so tired. Can I rest for a minute?”

Despite the pines towering above us like an army of black sentinels shrouded in mantles of snow, there was little shelter from the wind. I could see how tired and cold Tatyana was: wet snow clung to her coat, a splotch of red danced on each hollow cheek and half-frozen snot trailed from her nose.

“You know what’ll happen if you sit down in the snow for too long when you’re tired,” I said. “You’ll end up just like Yuri.”

Yuri had lived with us at Vladimir’s poor-house for two years. He’d been a sickly boy and he’d died from pneumonia the previous winter. I buried him myself, and Tatyana sung a hymn over his grave; everybody else in the cottage were too busy lamenting their own misery to care. Tatyana hated it when I brought up Yuri. Nevertheless, it scared her enough to where I could convince her to do almost anything.

I gave her a small hug. “Two years, Tatya. Then I’ll be old enough to move out of the poor-house, and I’m taking you with me to Moscow. Two years, and we’ll be free.”

She shook her head. “I don’t know that I can last the winter in that place, let alone two more years.”

“Sure you can. As long as you keep away from the sick folks and eat properly, you’ll be fine.” I gave her my sternest big-brother stare. “You did eat the lunch Vladimir sent, didn’t you?”

She rolled her eyes. “Boiled potatoes. Again.”

“When we’re in Moscow, I promise you’ll never have to eat another boiled potato for as long as you live.” I gave her an encouraging grin. “Now, let’s go. Or I’ll make you sleep next to old Vanya, and you know he hasn’t taken a bath since last summer.”

“He farts under the covers, too!” Her giggles were a rare treat, and they faded into seriousness all too quickly. She took my hand and nodded with determination. “Two more years.”

By the time we arrived home, the belly of the clouds had darkened to a charcoal grey. Swathed in a blanket that stunk of old tobacco, Vladimir waited for us on the stoop. His black moustache twitched as we approached.

“You’re late,” he huffed.

“Sorry, Vladimir Sergeyevich, sér,” said I. “It snowed more since this morning. The trail was covered.”

“I don’t want to hear your excuses, Mikhail. There’s wood to chop and Tatyana needs to help with dinner. You need to learn how to get your sraka home before dark, or there’ll be no more school for either of you.”

It was an empty threat, I knew—Vladimir wouldn’t be paid the ten kopecks a week for taking in Tatya and me if we didn’t show up to school like we were supposed to—but I wasn’t about to give him an excuse to knock me around. Instead, I bit my tongue, shoved Tatyana inside, and went to fetch the axe.

I spent an hour chopping wood in the barn before the smell of cabbage broth beckoned. When I entered the cottage, Tatyana elbowed her way around the table, trying her best to fill the bowls of the ten other inhabitants that Vladimir had taken in. She was exhausted; her hands trembled, and as she moved to fill Vladimir’s bowl, she spilled some of the steaming broth.

“Watch what you’re doing, bliad!”

Vladimir moved to slap her, and my muscles tightened. I would not stand for anyone to beat my sister. But I didn’t have to come to her defense; his face softened and he lowered his hand.

“No,” said Vladimir, unsettling malice glimmering in his eyes. “I’m not going to beat that pretty face of yours. One day it may earn me more money than the pathetic five kopecks I get for you now.”

Tatyana was young; she only looked bewildered by his words, but I knew what he meant. Vladimir wanted to sell her as a servant. Perhaps Tatyana and I didn’t have two years, after all.

We were the poorest children in our school, and the only orphans.At no time did our circumstance sadden Tatyana more than when she saw the  lunches packed by the considerate mothers of our classmates. Her eyes would widen at the meat-filled pirozhki or tart winter apples emerging from their sacks. And there she would sit with cold, boiled potatoes—the bland stigma of our misery.

“Eat,” I told her the next day when, as usual, she looked at her food with disdain. “I won’t have you end up like Yuri.”

“So what if I do?” responded Tatyana. “Yuri’s probably much better off, wherever he is.”

“Don’t talk like that. Yuri’s dead.”

“Like I said, better off.”

I left her alone, hoping she would be in a better mood on the way home, but she dragged her feet more than ever. When we had reached the halfway point between the school and Vladimir’s cottage, she stopped.

“That’s it, Mischa,” said Tatyana. “I’m not taking another step.”

I turned around to face her and sighed. “Don’t be silly. We have to get home before it gets dark. I don’t want to get yelled at again.”

Tatyana responded by dropping her school bag into a snow drove and plopping down on top of it. “I’m not moving. I’m gonna sit here and pray for the gods to freeze me to ice, and that I’ll never have to see Vladimir or the poor-house again. You can go on if you want.”

“You’re crazy if you think I’m gonna leave you alone in the forest. Pray if you must, but in ten minutes, I’m carrying you home if I have to.”

I sat down next to her, also bundling my school bag beneath me to keep off the snowy ground. We sat so for a while and Tatyana mumbled angry prayers.

I had almost fallen asleep when Tatyana nudged me with her elbow. “Look,” she whispered.

Just a few feet from us, a group of red cardinals pranced on the stiff snow. They hopped around, kicking their little legs in some odd dance, and chirped at us.

“Do they think we have food?” asked Tatyana.

“I don’t know. I’ve never seen cardinals behave like that.”

The smallest bird jumped closer and skittered up Tatyana’s leg. It perched on her lap, twittered at her with a tilted head and then, as if they’d heard a signal beyond what I and Tatyana could hear, all the birds flew a few feet farther into the forest. They again performed their curious dance, and took another unanimous leap farther between the pines.

Tatyana got to her feet. “Well, let’s go. It wants us to follow.”

“And leave the path, when it’s about to get dark? We’re gonna get lost.”

Tatyana just laughed and ran after the birds, her fatigue forgotten. I had no choice but to run after her.

The birds did appear as if they wanted us to follow. They skipped around the tall pines, sometimes fluttering in a tight group, other times scattering about but always heading in the same direction. If Tatyana and I slowed down, they waited until we caught up. When they finally stopped near the ruins of an old stone cottage, both Tatyana and I were out of breath.

The cottage looked like it had been abandoned for years. Its southern facade had collapsed, and a burned brick chimney rose into the air through the crumbled ceiling. Moss-covered roof tiles lay scattered on the ground, undoubtedly hurled off the roof by decades of winter winds.

“Do you think anybody lives here?” asked Tatyana.
“I doubt it. But we should go inside and see if we can start a fire. It’s going to get dark soon and I don’t think I can find our way back to the path until morning.”

I opened the door and ushered my sister inside. To my astonishment, as I followed behind her, I stepped into a bright summer’s day.

I could not believe my eyes. There were children everywhere, bathed in sunlight. Nearby, two boys fenced with wooden sticks. One of them executed a particularly fine attack and pierced the chest of his opponent who fell to the ground in a fit of laughter. Further away, around a large oak tree with silver-trimmed leaves, girls braided ribbons and rosebuds into each other’s hair. Beyond the oak, a field of sunflowers stretched for as far as my eyes could see, and in it waded more children. They were flying kites shaped like bumble bees and dragonflies, and they shouted with glee as their kites dipped and rose in the sky.

Beyond the field and the silver oak, up on a hill, sat a school house. It wasn’t like our school house—small and grey—but painted cranberry red and with a brass bell mounted on a pole outside. A woman in a white frock stood on the steps.

“This is impossible,” said I. “How can there be summer here, when it’s winter on the other side of that door?”

The door through which we had come stood closed, and to my dismay as I yanked at the handle, it was glued to its frame.

“There’s no use,” said a soft voice. “You can’t leave Ever-June through that door; it only opens one way.”

The person that had spoken was one of the fencing boys. A thick mop of auburn hair brushed his freckled forehead. He wore linen shorts and a white shirt smudged with grass stains on its elbows—probably from vigorous play rather than hard work, I noted with envy.

“Ever-June?” asked I. “What is this place?”

The boy grinned, but he didn’t answer. He pointed to the woman by the school house. “You should go see Nadya Alekseeva.”

“Will she be able to tell us how to get home?”

The boy frowned and shrugged. “If that’s what you want.”

Tatyana, who had been eyeing the boy in silence, took a step forward. “Yuri?” she asked. “Is that you?”

It struck me that the boy did look a bit like Yuri—or rather, as Yuri would have looked if he had been born into a rich family that could feed and clothe him. But the boy just shook his head and laughed.

“I’m me; I don’t know a Yuri,” he said and ran back to his friend.

As the sound of their furious stick battle resumed, I took Tatyana’s hand. “Come on,” said I. “Let’s go see that lady.”

“I’m sure that’s Yuri,” protested Tatyana. “And I smell fresh bread. Jam and cherries, too.”
The lady pointed out to us by the-boy-who-wasn’t-Yuri came walking down the hill. When she came closer, my face grew hot with admiration at her beauty. She was young, but with wise eyes of a color too vivid for words.

“Welcome,” she said. “I’m so glad the birds found you. I am Nadya Alekseeva.”

“What is this place?” I repeated, hoping she would be more forthcoming than the boy had been.

“Ever-June, of course,” she said as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Now take your coats off and come. We are about to have lunch and you both look hungry. Do you like pirozhki?”

Madame Alekseeva showed us to a courtyard behind the school house. There, a long table lay heavy with the most amazing dishes I had ever seen: not only pirozhki like she had promised, but also fresh loaves of bread with butter and fat slices of cheese, cherry fritters coated in sticky honey, bowls of strawberries and sour cream, and huge pitchers of ice-cold milk. The other children flooded the table and took their meal in loud chatter.

Even though Tatyana and I both ate as if we’d never seen food before, it didn’t stop us from playing with the other children afterward. I flew a kite with some of the boys, and two twin girls took Tatyana to the oak tree and braided yellow ribbons into her unruly hair. We played for what felt like an eternity, but the sun didn’t move from its high place in the sky. Even though the house on the hill was a school house, Madame Alekseeva never rang the bell for class. It was the longest, most enjoyable recess I’d ever had.

By the time I played tag with Tatyana and the twin sisters, I had almost forgotten that I didn’t belong. But as Nadya Alekseeva came and told me it was time for me to leave Ever-June, harsh reality came rushing back.

“Why must I leave?” asked I, tears burning at the corners of my eyes.

Nadya Alekseeva looked saddened, but unrelenting. “The cardinals only invited your sister. She’s welcome to stay, because she earned her way. You came along, but that’s against the rules. You have to find your own path here.”

Tatyana, who had abandoned the twins, clung to my arm with a deep frown. “Madame Alekseeva, I really love it here,” she said. “I like playing with the-boy-who-isn’t-Yuri and the twins. The pirozhki and the fritters were delicious. But I’m not staying unless Mischa can stay, too.”

“If you truly want to leave, Tatya, I can’t force you to stay.” Sadness veiled Nadya Alekseeva’s face as she spoke. “The door to Ever-June only opens from the outside, so you can’t return that way. But if you lay down and rest under the silver oak, I’ll make sure that when you wake up, you will be back home.”

She took both of us by the hand and led us up on the hill to the oak tree. The sun’s rays trickled in through the canopy of the silver leaves above, but it was still cool enough to be comfortable beneath it. The grass was soft, and it didn’t take long before I fell asleep.

When I awoke, it was freezing cold. Tatyana and I both sat perched against a rough pine where we had first seen the red birds. There was barely a thin layer of snow on my coat, and even though we had spent hours in Ever-June, it was still light. It was as if time hadn’t passed at all.

“I had the strangest dream,” said Tatyana and rubbed her eyes. “I dreamed that it was summer. I had cherry fritters and you flew a kite, and I think we saw Yuri.”

I knew it hadn’t just been a dream—we had seen a place beyond a slumber that perhaps had been meant to last forever—but I didn’t tell her. Instead, I helped her to her feet and together we hurried home.

We weren’t late when we arrived at the cottage, but that didn’t stop Vladimir from berating us. He sat on the porch and talked with his brother, a big pipe sticking out from beneath his bushy moustache. As soon as we shook the snow off our coats, he shouted at me to go fetch wood, and for Tatyana to start preparing supper.

The hearty meal in Ever-June had energized me, and I finished my chore quicker than usual. When I came out of the barn, carrying a load of wood for the stove, the conversation I overheard between Vladimir and his brother froze me in my tracks.

“When is Ivanovich coming for the girl?” said the brother.

“In a fortnight.”
  “And how much is he paying you?”

“Twenty-five rubles. Not bad for that dirty little runt.”

“What are you gonna say when the officials from Moscow ask why she stopped showing up at school?”

“I’ll tell them she got pneumonia and died. I’ll stick a cross in the back yard. No reason for them to question me.”

“Unless Mikhail talks.”

“That little mudak won’t be talking. I’ll have him tossed out to the wolves long before then.”

As I put away the wood in the box next to the stove, I cursed myself for letting my sister leave Ever-June. How could I’ve been such a fool? She would have been happy there, playing her way through an endless summer day. In our cold world, all that awaited her was to be sold as a servant for a few coins.

Tatyana went about her duties that evening with a smile on her face, and when we went to bed later, she whispered prayers to the gods that the birds would come to her again and bless her with the same lovely dream. Even though I knew what she prayed for was real and not a dream, I didn’t pray. Instead, I just lay there, biting my blanched fists in regret.

For the next few days, I deliberately stalled as we walked to and from school. I scanned the forest, seeking the flutter of red wings between the tree trunks, but to no avail. I remembered what Nadya Alekseeva had said—the birds would only come to those in true need—and it made me angry. Who in the world had more need than my sister?

A fortnight passed. I constantly looked over my shoulder in fear of seeing Vladimir approach with the axe raised over his head. Oddly enough, the disgusting man stayed clear of both me and Tatyana, not even hassling us when we arrived home after dark. I hoped the deal he had with his friend had fallen through, and that Tatyana was safe.

That was, until one evening when Vladimir approached me after supper and ordered me to chop extra wood. “Use it to heat up water in the steel tub,” he said. “And find me some soap.”

“You’re taking a bath in the middle of winter?” I asked.

“It’s not for me; it’s for your sister. She needs to look her best for some friends of mine tomorrow night. Now, stop asking questions and do as I tell you.”

I knew then, our time was up.

The next morning, as Tatyana and I walked to school, my frantic mind kept searching for ways out of our bind. Nobody in the village would take in two kids from the poor-house, knowing very well the diseases that ravaged the poor souls of that cottage. We had no money for a coach to the larger cities, and without papers, the militsiya would surely arrest us and send us right back to Vladimir. I toyed with the idea of finding shelter in the forest and try to survive by laying traps for small rabbits, but I knew we wouldn’t last a single night in the frigid cold.

There was no way out, and it tore at my heart.

“I have to rest, Tatya.” I fell to my knees in the snow. “I have to rest, and I have to pray.”

“Pray, now?” Tatyana watched me with confusion, pulling her coat tighter around her neck. “You don’t ever pray. And we’ll be late for school.”

“There are worse things than being late for school.”

So while my sister stood by, not knowing that what I was pleading for was her life, I prayed; I prayed that there would be a blizzard to stop Vladimir’s friends from showing up; I prayed that if they came, they would find her ugly and not want her. I prayed for any possibility, any mercy, to any god that would hear me.

“Mischa, look!”

I opened my eyes. The red birds had returned. The smallest cardinal tilted its head, twittered eagerly, and just like before it skipped into the forest, urging us to follow. I took Tatyana’s hand and stumbled after it, tears of relief streaming down my face.

Again, the birds took us to the dilapidated cottage. As soon as we stepped through the door, and Ever-June took us into its sunny arms, Tatyana wormed out of her coat and ran to the boy-that-looked-like-Yuri-but-wasn’t. He nudged her with an elbow and yanked playfully at her braid before taking off running towards the oak tree. Tatyana followed, her laughter pealing like bells.

I took my coat off, too, and walked up the hill toward the school house. Nadya Alekseeva stood on the porch. She looked as though she had been expecting me.

“Welcome back, Mischa.”

I couldn’t hold back my gratitude. I threw my arms around her slender waist, hugging her tightly. “You sent us the birds again, Madame, even though you said they would only come one time. Thank you.”

She withdrew and cupped my face in her hands, seriousness muting the odd color of her eyes. “No, Mischa. I don’t control the birds. You do. If you want the birds to come to you, and your need is dire enough, they will appear. Last time, Tatyana asked for them. This time, you did.”

“Well, this time, we’ll stay,” said I. “We can’t go back home again.”

“You can stay, if you wish,” said Nadya Alekseeva. “But Tatyana can’t. She turned down the offer of the cardinals once, and it’s not an offer that’s given twice.”

Desperation rose in my throat. “Please, Madame. She can’t go back. Terrible things will happen to her if she does.”

“I’m sorry, Mischa.” She looked pensive for a moment. “Now, if you’re willing to give your place to Tatyana, I could keep her here with me. But you would have to go back from where you came, and you wouldn’t be able to come back—not ever, no matter how hard you pray.”

I looked down the hill. Tatyana was playing tag with the other children down by the oak tree, and I heard her reckless laughter echo across the fields. It was the most wonderful sound, and I didn’t want it to stop—not even if I had to spend the rest of my life too far away to hear it.

“Yes,” said I with a heavy heart. “I want to give her my place.”

“So it will be, then. You’re a good brother, Misha.” She smiled somberly. “But it’s early yet, and the winds are brisk today. Why don’t you go down to the sunflower field and show her how to fly a kite. And when you are ready, the silver oak will be waiting to take you back.”

Tatyana was ecstatic that I would show her how to fly the kite. She was a fast learner and it didn’t take long before she was rushing across the meadow, shrieking in triumph as the kite fluttered high above her.

When she had learned well enough to fly it on her own, I went to sit by the oak. I tried to etch her face into my memory the best I could, but sleep came quickly that balmy afternoon. The last thing I remembered before falling asleep was that yellow ribbon fluttering among Tatya’s curls.

When I woke up, I sat under the same pine as the last time we returned from Ever-June. Tatyana slumped next to me, leaning against the tree trunk, but this time, she wasn’t stirring. The yellow ribbon lay frozen against her forehead, and her little lips looked stiff and blue. She was barely breathing, and the whirling snow coated her with alarming eagerness.

A dark hollow opened in my chest as I realized that was how I had to leave her—cold and alone, the winter tucking her into her last sleep.

I still remember how icy her cheek felt when I bent down and kissed her goodbye. Then I walked away with my school bag slung over my shoulder, and despite the tears that trailed down my cheeks, I withstood the temptation to look back.

Vladimir’s friends did show up that night, and from the menace that lined their scarred faces, I knew I had made the right decision. Vladimir was furious when I told him Tatya had gotten lost in the forest, but he didn’t beat me too much over it, and my broken nose certainly healed faster than my crushed heart.

I still sleep among lice-infested men in this dank place, but it is easier when I know that Tatya is safe. Sometimes I see her in my dreams. Often she pulls a kite across the sky with greater skill than any of the other children. Other times, she chases the-boy-who-isn’t Yuri around the silver oak. Never is she made to eat a cold, boiled potato.

I pray every night that I’ll see the cardinals and that they’ll take me to Ever-June again, but I suspect my pleas fall on deaf ears. I relinquished my place, and I’m paying the price.

However, now that you know the whole story, bitter as it is, perhaps you will pray for me. And if you pray hard enough, maybe I’ll see the flutter of red wings some day, after all.

Episode 101: Custom Made by Sylvia Anna Hiven

Custom Made

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.