A Beautiful Hat At A Reasonable Price -A MASQUE Short Story

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.

Beautiful hat 3

Photo via RiverJunction

“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

Beautiful hat 2

Photo via RiverJunction

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!”

Like this short story? Get MASQUE here!MASQUE - 2000

 

A Night At The Opera…And Other Things

Photo by Prudence Upton

Photo by Prudence Upton

So I went to Melbourne for the long weekend. I went to see The Marriage Of Figaro, while the Hubby went to see Jeff Martin & The Tea Party. It was an eventful weekend, during which I managed to pull a muscle in my neck, sprain my ankle and wrist slightly at the opera, get uncomfortably sunburned….and then see the news, when stopping for lunch in a nearby Hungry Jacks (that’s Burger King for you Americans) that Paris had been attacked by terrorists. That led to a prolonged discussion through most of Sunday with the Hubby, about terrorism, muslims, Christians, and the state of the world. We disagree on quite a few things, and we both have slight difficulty in expressing our thoughts, so it proceeded in stops and starts as we collected our thoughts, came up with new arguments and insights, and went to church.

Since most of my thoughts regarding the situation are reasonably bleak and not at all fun (there are no winners in this kind of war), I’m instead going to concentrate upon the delightful, fun part of the visit.

That being the opera. It was three and a half hours of fun, zany story told in a delightful blending of voices that were as impressive as they were beautiful. Susanna is to marry Figaro. Figaro made a bad contract with Marcellina, who wants to marry Figaro and has the right to marry him. Count Almaviva is in lust with Susanna (and every other girl in the flamin’ castle). Countess Almaviva is in love with her husband, who needs repeated punching in the face with something hard and heavy. Cherubino is in (puppy) love with Countess Almaviva. Count Almaviva, in spite of chasing every woman in the castle (sensing a theme here?) is jealous of Countess Almaviva’s attention to Cherubino. Oh, and then there’s the little maid Barbarina, who is in love with Cherubino and also seems to be playing footsie with the Count.

Sounds confusing, yeah? Well, it wasn’t. Not really. It translates to the stage VERY well. I wasn’t confused for a moment and I loved every bit of it.

Basically, Susanna (the brains of the outfit) spends the opera trying to:

-Fix the count and the countess
-Avoid the count’s attentions
-Get the count’s permission to marry Figaro
-Marry Figaro before Marcellina can get to him
-Fix Cherubino’s romance/life

She is sometimes helped and sometimes hindered by Figaro, who she declares to have not enough wit, but who proves by the end of the opera to know a trick or two. Their romance left me feeling highly satisfied at the conclusion.

Things I loved:

-The subtitles. SUBTITLES, PEOPLE. THE LIVE OPERA HAD SUBTITLES. I can’t express how much that meant to me. I expected not to understand more than one in ten words (if that). Instead, I was able to enjoy not only the excellent singing and delightful acting, but the puns, insults, snark, and at times gorgeous lyrics. I’m never going to stop being excited over the fact that I could see a live Italian opera and enjoy it with perfect understanding.

Cherubino

Photo by Prudence Upton

-The music. I expected to recognise a few of the themes and leitmotifs. I did not expect to recognise one in every three or so. Apparently I’ve heard a heck of a lot more music from The Marriage of Figaro than I ever realised. Not only did I recognise a lot of it, but it was all gorgeous! I’ve always liked Mozart, but this was especially delightful. The orchestra was talented but understated, never overpowering the singers, and they blended beautifully.

-The acting. It’s hard to say the exact things that were so good, because there were just so many. It was tiny little things like the ‘stuff you!’ kind of curtsey Taryn Fiebig (Susanna) gives Shane Lowrencev (Count Almaviva) as she’s very politely putting him in his place. The cringe-inducing way that Count Almaviva manages to run his hands over every flamin’ female he comes into contact with (hint: he makes sure he ‘comes into contact’ with ALL OF THEM). Small and perfect touches all the way through.

-The plot. Oh heck, the plot! So delightfully mad! So wonderfully insane! I will never be sick of massive, elderly female characters who are intent upon marrying the young, handsome male lead. The ones who trade polite (and sometimes not so polite) insults with the heroine, whom the hero really loves and has chosen to marry. And who, upon learning that the male lead is in fact their son, immediately switch courses half way through and are in raptures at their new-found son.

-The lighting. Oh my. I don’t think I can say enough about how good it was. My program says that the lighting was ‘realised’ by David Parsons, and that the lighting designer was David Finn. These blokes need a medal. The lighting proceeded from early morning through to late morning; from thence to afternoon and then late afternoon; and eventually, through evening and even night. It was done elegantly and entirely believably: I could have sworn they had the windows open to the outside world, and that we were rapidly going through one summer’s day.

-The use of a woman as Cherubino. I don’t know if that’s what always happens with this opera, but I’d have to think it’d be a difficult part for a man to sing–even a really good tenor. Be that as it may, I found it a wonderful choice. It emphasised the boyishness of Cherubino, the slim, raw, youthfulness of the character. And Sian Pendry was wonderful in the part: she managed the boy dressing up as a girl bit amazingly well: you would have sworn it was a young boy swaggering in those skirts.

-I’m still squeeing over the fact that Cherubino sings Lizzy Bennett’s song! (Yeah, yeah, technically it’s Lizzy singing Cherubino’s song, but whatever). I’m delighted. It adds so much more meaning to a part of the BBC’s Pride & Prejudice than it already possessed. It’s a song of longing, of surprising and new love being discovered, of uncertainty and novelty. It’s perfect for that part of the movie and whoever chose it is a genius.

Things I didn’t like so much:

-It wasn’t as loud as I expected. I suppose I’m just used to having the telly turned up ridiculously loud when I’m watching G&S operettas (so I can sing at the top of my lungs), but although the opera was a pleasing loudness, it didn’t quite live up to my expectations of flamboyantly crashing loudness. I was just a smidge disappointed at that.

-Nope, that’s it. It was an awesome opera, and I now need to find a dvd version to show the Sis.

So that’s it. My night at the opera. Hopefully the first of very, very many. I highly recommend it.

Shhhhh! Be Vewwy, Vewwy Quiet! It’s NaNoWriMo!

It’s NaNoWriMo (as if you haven’t already figured that out). And this being not only week two, but the first day of my week off from work, I’m at a little over 4000 words for the day of a proposed 6000.

So, no real blog post for you guys this week, except to share the meme me Ma made me. Ain’t she grand?!

I honestly don’t think I can ever love this meme enough. Enjoy. Sucker.

BA Baracus

Leprechauns!

This week I’m Playing Nice With Others. Absolute Write’s blogging section has a blog hop every month, and this month I decided to join up. Hi out there, Absolute Writers! The prompt was St. Patrick’s Day, Ireland, or anything Irish. So of course I made you all a flash piece of fiction about sadistic leprechauns. Because I can.

Do enjoy.

 

* * *

There’s an old song that goes: “There are fairies in the bottom of my garden”. You know the one.

I don’t have a problem with fairies. They’re stupid, ineffectual little glitter-puffs, but they don’t give a gardener much trouble so long as the occasional plate of Dollar-5s is left out for them to eat. No, my garden is chock-a-block with leprechauns.

Shut up. It’s not sweet. It’s not cool. And if there’s a pot of gold down there those little suckers sure as heck aren’t letting anyone get at it.

They’ve killed one gardener already: hung his corpse on a couple of crossed sticks as a gruesome kind of scarecrow. Mum can’t see either the leprechauns or the dead gardener: she thinks he’s run off to Fiji or something. I see him every time I go out into the garden, though.

I tried to get rid of them once when I was ten. They were eating all my best carrots and eviscerating the sweetpeas I was training, and maybe we could have negotiated that. Only then they went and killed my dog. Cut out his heart and tore mouthfuls from it as I watched, yelping with laughter as I cried.

I laid rat-baits for them the next day. I reckon I must have caught a couple of them on the hop, because when I went out into the garden later on they tied me to the beanpoles and cut off two of my fingers. One for each dead leprechaun.

Mum thought I’d cut off my own fingers by accident: she couldn’t see the leprechauns then, either. That’s when I knew I was on my own.

 

“Don’t you know that today’s March 17? It’s a day for the wearin’ of the green!”

That’s a song, too.

It’s taken me a while to work it all out. It took a lot of time sneaking around the bottom of the garden and peeping out from behind the curtains in the upstairs bedroom before I found out where their burrow was. And it took a lot of time to gather all the petrol I needed.

Leprechauns like to drink, you see. And March 17 is their big one. They drink and wail and cause as much bloody mahem as possible. I think even Mum gets close to seeing them then. By the time midnight comes they’re back in their burrow, sleeping it off.

So in the wee hours of the morning on March 18, I sneak into the garden with my jerry-cans, one by one until they’re all lined up in a smelly row. It takes a long time pouring and a lot of petrol before I can’t pour any more into the hole. They’re probably already dead, drowned; but I can’t take that chance. The matches are in my back pocket.

 

The newspapers will probably talk about it for weeks. The morning the Schulmann garden blew up in a spray of concrete chunks and turf that sent the clothesline hurtling into next-door’s swimming pool. The roar that shook the neighbourhood and left a crater the size of a small car.

I lost my eyebrows, but it’s worth it. When I scrabble round in the debris the next day, I find a few blackened skulls and my fingerbones. There’s no sign of the gardener. I don’t know where he went.

 

Now there’s a tiny skull on a stick at the garden gate. Mum can’t see it, so why not? I hung my fingerbones with it as well, as a warning.

So far I haven’t had any more trouble, but if I do, I’ll know how to deal with it.

* * *

Check out the other blog posts in the blog hop:

J Elyzabeth’s Blog Post

BB Burke’s Blog Post

Joanne Zebedee’s Blog Post

A Simple Syrup’s Blog Post

Layla Lawler’s Blog Post

Sudo One’s Blog Post

Improv-o-matic’s Blog Post

Ahelia’s Blog Post

Leigh Anderson’s Blog Post

(NOTE: The last three are yet to be updated with links to the actual post, as they are after me in the blog chain. Do bear with me.)

Let The Games Begin! (Aka, Masque Is On Tour, And So Am I)

Let the games begin! The book blog tour for Masque has kicked off at The Indy Book Fairy, where you can read an excerpt and enter to win a paperback copy of Masque. Come on along and say Hi!

Further stops will be:

15th- I Heart Reading (Starter Party)

17th- Nat’s Book Nook (Promo Post)

18th- Books, Books, and More Books (Promo + Excerpt)

20th- Howling Turtle (Promo Post)

22nd- Mystical Books (Guest Post)

24th-100 Pages a Day (Book Review)

25th- Tea Talks (Promo Post)

26th- Jooniel Obsesses Over Stories (Book Review)

28th- Literary Musings (Book Excerpt)

28th- Dreams Come True Through Reading (Promo + Excerpt)

29th- C.J. Anaya’s Blog (Book Review and Character Interview)

So follow along with me as I traipse merrily across the blogosphere: and don’t forget to enter into the rafflecopter draw to win a paperback copy of Masque!

(I’ll even sign it for you. Hmm, draw or put-off . . . ?)

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