In celebration of MASQUE’s fast-approaching 1st birthday, I present to you A BEAUTIFUL HAT AT A REASONABLE PRICE, a MASQUE short story! Full of froth, feathers, and even a bit of intrigue…
A Beautiful Hat At A Reasonable Price
A beautiful hat at a reasonable price is always an essential item. It is, of course, doubly so if one has set out with the purpose of buying a hat, but lack of necessity should never be allowed to impinge upon one’s millinery purchases.
That morning, I did set out to buy a hat. I had a very specific hat in mind: a delightful, frothy confection of blue silk and netting that I’d seen on the previous day’s outing. I had been driving with Alexander at the time, or I would have stopped and bought it then and there. Alexander is a dear, but he’s no fonder of kicking his heels in a milliner’s front parlour than any other man and I only believe in annoying him when it’s absolutely necessary. If it had been a frock in that particular Lacunan silk, now–
However, I digress. It was a pleasant morning for a walk: rain had fallen the previous night, clearing away the heavy heat that too often clings to Glausian streets, and there was a promising clarity to the morning sky. Vadim scurried along behind me, vainly trying to keep up, and more than once did I consciously slow my step before I threw a smiling look at her over my shoulder.
“Do you need to catch your breath, child?”
“No!” said Vadim, with something of a gasp. “Only now you’re not pregnant you’re awfully hard to keep up with again!”
“It did slow me down a trifle, didn’t it?”
“No so much as all that, lady. Do you really think it’s a good idea to leave the baby with Keenan?”
“Alexander put a warding on them both,” I said. Truth be told, I was a little worried. I had learned very quickly that I worried whether or not there was cause, however, and it didn’t seem practical to let such a pernicious feeling overrule my life. Besides, Keenan was far more qualified to deal with baby Raoul’s spurts of magic than I was.
“I’m sure they won’t be able to set fire to the drapes this time.”
“Ye-ees,” said Vadim doubtfully. “Are we going straight back after we buy your hat, lady?”
“Good heavens, yes. If it’s not the drapes it’ll be something else. Vadim, am I mistaken, or is that nasty little shop still selling the same appalling hats it was selling when I was first confined?”
Vadim threw a look at the offending shop front. “Looks like it,” she said. “Prob’ly couldn’t give ‘em away.”
The hats were exceedingly ugly. It wasn’t simply their ugliness that had caught my eye, however. There were too many of them in the window. A well set-out millinery shop will present some four or five hats of their best workmanship: this one had at least ten, in a hodgepodge of mismatching satin, fur, and…velvet. Black velvet.
Oh, how interesting!
Vadim said: “Did you forget something, lady? Mistress Conningway’s is further up the strand.”
“No,” I said thoughtfully. “I believe I’ll shop here today, Vadim.”
“But they’re all ugly, lady!” protested Vadim, who was gazing at the shop window with fascinated eyes.
“Dreadful!” I agreed, setting my foot upon the first step. “And that is exactly what interests me.”
We were in Circe Strand, you see. One well-cobbled, gently curving arc of high fashion and expensively delightful tea shops. I was quite well aware of what the license for one of the diminutive tea shops was worth—well, what should the very pregnant wife of the Watch House Commander do but arrange his paperwork?—and beside the cost of even the smallest of the holdings was the cost of the starting materials for merchandise. A badly fronted store should not have survived the length of my pregnancy. And yet, here it was still.
It could be that it was simply a rich woman’s plaything, a present from an indulgent and doting husband.
I didn’t believe it for a moment.
Our entrance prompted a dull clattering of dust-laden bell-clapper in the stale air. This should have precipitated the prompt arrival of a smart little shopgirl: instead, it produced a thin, angular woman with wary eyes and a frown of surprise between her brows.
“Yes?” she said shortly. She had clever hands, but they were somewhat lined and workworn. Not a rich lady, then, and almost certainly a real milliner. Which left the question of why her hats were so dreadful, and how she managed to stay in business with such items.
“You have such unusual hats!” I said, with perfect truth. “I would like to order one made.”
She hesitated, clearly torn, and then said reluctantly: “Of course, my lady. Summer or autumn?”
“Summer, I rather think,” I said. I caught a flicker of movement in the glass doors of the bead cabinet behind her. They were slightly ajar and showed a sliver of the shop’s back room, where a giant of a man was sitting uneasily on a chair that was by far too small for him. The movement I had seen was his sleeve sweeping a box of ribbons to the floor. He didn’t try to pick it up, which I thought sensible of him: there were three or four other things he would have knocked to the ground in his attempt to pick up the ribbons. He was no milliner. Soldier, perhaps. Craftsman, certainly not.
“Something light and bright, with less brim than usual. Perhaps a side-tilt. Can you manage a side-tilt, miss–?”
“Judith,” she said. “Just Judith, lady. And I can do a rare passable side-tilt. Would you be liking blue or green?”
“Blue, I rather think,” I said, repressing a sigh at the thought of the lovely hat that I would once again fail to purchase. I sat myself down on the dusty leather couch and said brightly: “Show me your trimmings!”
That night after dinner I said to Alexander: “If I were to ask—if, mind!—what Black Velvet is interesting itself in at the moment, what would you tell me?”
Alexander, who had been lounging back in a distressingly informal way with baby Raoul loosely clasped in one arm, seemed to sit up just a little straighter. “Asking for yourself or the king, Isabella?”
“A purely personal matter,” I told him, my eyes laughing at him. Alexander doesn’t like my working for the king as something approaching a spy. He doesn’t stop me, but he worries.
“I’ve the feeling that I’ve been rather oblivious, and I don’t like the feeling.”
“You’ve been busy,” he said, sitting back again. He didn’t say it reprovingly, or even look down at Raoul, which sent the smile on my lips to my eyes as well.
“Oh, I’m not repining,” I said. “If it’s a choice between Raoul and the king, the king can shift very well for himself. But I can’t help feeling that I should have noticed something that I didn’t notice. Black Velvet, Alexander?”
Alexander paused for long enough to make me very sure that there was indeed news and that he was unsure of how much to tell me. At last he said: “Officially, it’s business as usual. Unofficially, Civet seems to be trying to help Lacuna with its succession issues. Last time I spoke with Melchior I got the impression that the crown and Black Velvet were allied in the matter.”
“Then the king has been withholding information from me,” I said, frowning. “I wonder why? If Annabel and Melchior are involved then doubtless we in Glause are also involved.”
“I think he was being…kind,” said Alexander, and this time he did look down at Raoul.
My eyes opened a little wider. “Do you really think so? How very avuncular of him! I must remember to thank him!”
Alexander laughed outright. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t bring royal disapproval down on the house of Pecus, Isabella. There’s nothing he’d hate more!”
“It’s really very tempting,” I said, leaving my empty dishes and crossing to Alexander’s side of the table. I took Raoul from him, using the moment to say: “Now, Alexander, you didn’t forget that we’re to have Lieutenant Trophimus and the officers of his unit to dine tomorrow?”
Alexander’s arm snaked around my waist and pulled me onto his lap, baby Raoul and all.
“Forget?” he said deliberately. “No, I don’t think I forgot.”
“However,” I added firmly, kissing his nose, and then—under compulsion—his lips; “I find that I’ve forgotten to mention the dinner to Trophy and the others. Would you be so kind as to bring them home with you tomorrow?”
“Oh, is that all?”
“The tiniest favour!” I said coaxingly. “Oh, and one more thing, Alexander, if you please. I shall be out for a fitting tomorrow: 203 Circe Strand. Perhaps you could call for me there on your way home?”
The window had changed by the time I got back to the hat shop the next day. I eyed it thoughtfully, taking in the new hat that had pride of place in the shop window. Where the window had before been teeming with hats, now it had only one: a distressingly heavy summer hat in black velvet, with a buckle-brooch pinning the intricate folds of the hatband in place. It was made from Lacunan royal beech, which made my eyebrows rise. So Black Velvet had the Lacunan heir already, did they?
I swept into the store with Vadim in my wake, and said brightly: “Such a
lovely change for your window-front! Do you vary it often?”
“Changes after every week’s end that there’s new merchandise,” Judith said shortly. I fancied she looked slightly annoyed: she hadn’t counted on clientele, that much was obvious. I wondered where her hulking partner was. It would be rather inconvenient if he decided Vadim and I were more trouble than we were worth and decided to dispatch us rather than serve us. How fortunate that I had arranged for Alexander to meet us here!
“What a shame, though!” I said. “I was rather hoping to get another look at those hats.”
Judith stared at me narrowly for a suspicious moment, but eventually said: “They’re all gone now, lady. Maybe next time. Would you like to try on your hat? It’s ready for you.”
“Certainly. Vadim, do go to the door, won’t you? My husband is to call for me shortly,” I added, with a friendly smile. “He doesn’t like to wait in shops.”
“Men,” muttered Judith. “Such children when it comes to waiting.”
“I couldn’t agree more. My goodness, you’ve done lovely work! Did you weave the band yourself?”
The clattering of the disused bell fell loudly into her silence, and I looked up from the hatband to find that Vadim was holding the door for Alexander. Behind him came Lieutenant Trophimus and his four fellow officers, crowding the shop with their broad shoulders and bright buckles.
Judith’s face had gone paper-white.
She squeaked: “The Beast-Lord!” and plunged desperately for the front door, darting between the officers with her skirts flying. They watched her go with matching baffled expressions, and as one, turned their eyes upon me.
Alexander opened his mouth to speak, but as he did so there was the sound of a table overturning in the back room, a thump of wood against wood and the shower of beads hitting the floorboards. Then the giant of a man I had seen yesterday took to his heels through the back way as if he fled from death itself.
Alexander, his expression put-upon, gave me a Look.
“Well now!” I said, in a pleased voice. “I thought that might prompt a reaction! You’d probably better chase them, Alexander. If I’m not mistaken, they’re passing information on the position of that item we were discussing last night.”
“Get the woman,” Alexander said shortly to Lord Trophimus, and made for the back door at a run.
“How exciting!” I sighed to Vadim, when they were gone. “If I weren’t such a lady, I’d be very much tempted to join the chase.”
“Not in those shoes, you wouldn’t,” she said, grinning.
“Well, perhaps not. No, don’t touch the hat, if you please. I think Alexander might like to see it.”
Vadim looked doubtful but did as she was told, turning her attention instead to the dusty window.
“Looks like they’ve caught the old woman,” she said. “Tough old tarter, she is: she’s given one of them a bloody nose!”
I chuckled beneath my breath. Unfortunate man! His brother officers would never let him forget it.
“Lady, they’re putting her in your coach!”
“It’s the best place for her, I should think,” I said. “Alexander has spells on it, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been stuck in it without being able to get out! Sometimes it was even accidental.”
Vadim giggled. “Will you ride home with them, then?”
“Certainly not!” I said. “If you’ll remember, Vadim, we set out to buy a hat. It would be most remiss in us to return home without one for a second day!”
“Yes, lady,” said Vadim, grinning, and moved to open the shop door for the officers.
They crowded in the small receiving room, looking suitably abashed.
“Sorry we let her get out, lady,” said Lieutenant Trophimus. “We didn’t know she was a spy.”
“That’s quite all right,” I said. “I wasn’t quite sure for a moment or two, either. She looks so prim and proper.”
“Tell you something,” said the officer with the bloody nose, in a thick voice: “She ain’t!”
I looked at him with laughing eyes. “I can see that!”
Trophimus, looking around the millinery shop in wonder, said: “What made you sniff this one out, lady?”
“A simple case of fashion,” interrupted Alexander from behind us. He was shoving his captured quarry ahead of him through the back door of the shop. He was considerably rumpled, as was his quarry, but there was a cheerful look to his eyes that suggested he had acquitted himself well. He grinned at me as he said: “Wooden brooches aren’t being worn with velvet this year.”
“Oh,” said Trophimus, taking custody of the small giant with the help of two of the other officers. “That makes it much clearer, sir.”
“It’s nothing like so complicated,” I said reprovingly. “My dear Alexander, Glause is preparing for its hottest summer in ten years. Velvet for a summer hat!”
“Black Velvet,” he nodded, a laugh glowing in his eyes. Certainly he’d also seen the wooden brooch: and as certainly, he knew what it meant. “I don’t like to ask redundant questions, Isabella, but are you sure that this particular display hasn’t been seen yet?”
“Almost completely,” I said. “The displays change at week’s end, according to Judith: when there’s new information, of course. This one is new since yesterday.”
“Very good. I’ll need to take a likeness of it. Then–”
“–you can play with it,” I nodded. “The king will be delighted! He does love spreading confusion. Besides, you might be able to find their contact if you’re clever enough about how you set out the window.”
“What information was already passed?”
“I’m almost certain their contact knows that Black Velvet—and by inference, Civet—is helping Lacuna, but the brooch was missing from the original window. If I read the hats aright, these two were trying to pass several possible locations for the ah, brooch. They didn’t seem to know which one. I counted six or so hats that could have signified various locations around the Triumvirate—skerry-fleece buttons on a kennel-wall brim with poppies around them, a purple dyed gnau leather chip hat—that sort of thing. As far as I know, those buttons are only made in Civet, and correct me if I’m wrong, Alexander, but I seem to recall that in the town of Kennel there is a rather well known chemist who produces most of Civet’s Syrup of Poppies. As for the purple dyed gnau leather, well–!”
Alexander’s brows rose but he didn’t remark.
“Yes, I thought that might mean something to you,” I said in satisfaction. “I’ll report to the king, of course. I rather think he’ll ask me to find our leak. I suppose you’ll go after the contact?”
Alexander grinned suddenly. “Oh, with your permission, of course!”
“There’s no need to be facetious, Alexander,” I said loftily; but I smiled up at him as I tiptoed to kiss him. “Do you need me for anything else? No? Then I’m afraid I’ll have to leave you to your investigations. There is a hat I simply must purchase!”
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