Velvet, page 1
By Xavier Axelson
Published by JMS Books LLC
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Copyright 2018 Xavier Axelson
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are solely the product of the author’s imagination and/or are used fictitiously, though reference may be made to actual historical events or existing locations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Published in the United States of America.
* * * *
To “E,” my one and only king. To Vogue’s “Last Look” and the shoe that inspired this novel. And to my mother, who taught me everything I know about personal style.
* * * *
By Xavier Axelson
I’d been staring at the vast body of water surrounding the ship when I was startled to find a woman, heavy with child, standing by my side. She wore a red gown that gathered beneath her ample breasts. The gown fell freely, billowing against her in the brisk sea air. Her red hair hung in two braids threaded with crimson leather. Upon turning her head, small red jewels, woven throughout her hair, caught the light.
“The sea is dark as the grave, and as good at keeping secrets.”
“Who are you?” I asked. Since I’d boarded the ship the day before, I’d conversed only with Seton and my brother, Sylvain. I’d yet to earn my sea legs and everything seemed strange.
“I am Adis, wife of Doremme, the man whose ship you stand upon.” She came closer. “Secrets are only as powerful as those who carry them and the sea is a perfect place to bury what haunts you.”
“You talk as though you know me, and as I am a stranger on this ship, I know this cannot be.” I was about to bow and take my leave when she laughed.
“Fear is not your way, tailor. You were the royal tailor of the king whose land we left, were you not?”
Were the royal tailor…Her words struck at my heart. I felt this truth so keenly that I gripped the ship railings to steady myself.
“I fear only those who know more of me than I wish, and while I am indebted to your husband for granting us passage, I am in no mood for games.”
Though her laughter died, a smile lingered on her lips. “I mean you no harm, but you seem to have caught the interest of my child.”
I looked at her swollen belly. “Your child?”
“This is my third and final.” Her hands caressed her stomach. “She will be a visionary, and in her birth, I will know death. Not unlike your mother. She bore your brother, who I am told is also a visionary. And blind. How fortunate. Those who are physically afflicted see further than those who aren’t. Nature seldom curses without blessing at the same time.”
This time I laughed. “Perhaps you should ask my brother if he thinks himself fortunate. Or better, summon my father from the grave. Ask if he wished his wife lived and his son had sight!”
After this outburst, we grew silent, but the woman did not leave my side.
I closed my eyes and, swallowing hard, felt the pull of the stiff fabric scrap tied around my throat. The raucous shrieks of hungry gulls overhead made me look up. I watched as the birds swooped and mercilessly chased each other. I envied their flight, but cringed beneath their cries. Behind my eyes, I saw white peacocks, heard their shrieks, and felt the crawl of disease. I shuddered, shook my head of further memory, and let my eyes fall upon the distant horizon. Would I never know peace? Or would memories chase me like the gulls chase one another, endlessly hungry and insistent?
When Adis eventually spoke, these questions and memories faded away.
“True, your father suffered, but his gifts as a tailor delivered him from the grief of losing his wife and gave him the strength to care for a blind son.”
The truth in her words stirred long buried pain. While Sylvain’s blind, tumultuous, and bloody welcoming into the world killed our mother, it also strengthened my father’s resolve to care for us at any cost.
I know not what would have become of us without King Killian’s demand for my meager abilities as a tailor. We would have been lost, we owe our king a great debt and service.
My father told this to me one day when I found him bleary eyed and exhausted at his work. I could remember the way his hands trembled, the nerves in his fingers twitching involuntarily as he struggled with buttonholes on a vest meant for Killian’s nephew.
When his voice vanished, a bitter sadness rose in me as the waves crashed against the ship.
“Say no more to me. If you were not mistress of this vessel I would think unkindly of you!”
Before she could reply, music—soft and familiar—reached us. I knew the player of the tune, knew it because my heart leapt at its playing as it did the first time I’d heard it.
“Someone has leant Seton a lyre. How beautifully he plays, and how lucky his hands are healing. He is a man of passion and strength. It is no wonder you found love with him, as he with you.” Adis placed a hand on my wrist. “I am no witch or visionary. My daughter beckons from my womb. I am but a vessel as is this ship. She is my most precious cargo, and anxious to know life. You must forgive me if I have angered you. Her voice comes from my lips, so I am often unaware of what I say.”
The music rose, fell away only to start again, and as it did, I examined the woman, and seeing her kind face, put a tired hand over hers. “There is nothing to forgive. I am the one speaking from another place.”
“Your voice comes from the shores we have left behind. It would be wise to find a new sound to carry with you.”
Beyond her I saw my brother sitting cross-legged, his fox playing in his lap. He seemed peaceful. “I keep staring into the sea, hoping it will take the past from me, but it seems I may never know peace.”
“In time, you shall. Nothing is forever, except the sea.” Adis cast her eyes from my face to the expanse of water surrounding us. “She is our eternal mother and will listen to you forever.”
Behind Adis’s rather mystical analogy, I had a sobering thought. “There is so much uncertainty in the world. I wonder if I have done right. Perhaps I could have done better.”
“You left a land soon to be riddled with illness. This alone made it the wisest decision for you all.”
Her knowing so much of my life discomforted me. “Must everything be told in portents and omens? What of reality? What of truth?”
“I have not heard talk of the tree witches since I played at my mother’s feet. Surely they no longer exist!” I replied, incredulously.
“I cannot say. Who can say if they exist or ever really did?” Adis said.
I sighed resignedly. “I have lived a small life in the court of a small king, and I carry the wounds of that life as sure as I carry the clothes on my back.”
“It is not for me to say what you carry with you, but I can give you a piece of advice not from my daughter, but from my own lips: Stop trying to escape what haunts you, instead think long and hard about it. Every detail, every nightmare, dream and transgression. Leave nothing out. Do this until you have expelled the poison, and when there is no more, you will find yourself exactly where you are supposed to be.”
With these words, Adis left me. I stood alone, listening to the sea, the sound of Seton’s music, the distant cries of the squabbling gulls, and my eyes focused on the unknown horizon.
What led me to find myself on the water, destination unknown? The life I knew was gone, broken, and mercurial as the swirling foam frothing in the ships crushing wake.
I would tell myself the story, if only to steal a glimpse at the unknown ending.
How would my tale end? Beginnings are for children; fairy stories begin with “Once upon a time.”
Once upon a time there was a tailor. He knew string, scissor, and pin. He did not know his heart.
My breath caught.
Oh, my heart. Once upon a time, there was a heart and it was not free…
I was a tailor.
No, it cannot begin this way.
My heart knew dangerous things, but now it was free and in it’s new freedom I allowed it to teach me the way my story should begin and knew by wild instinct, if I followed it, I would know the ending, a true, and dare I hope, happy ending.
With no one to listen but the dark sea and the wheeling, crying gulls, I closed my eyes and let my thoughts move with the undulating water, its gentle rocking seeming to urge the release of my torment.
The castle, dark and glorious, loomed up in my memory…
The grand architecture of King Killian’s castle boasted many gardens, some private and filled with rare roses, with others public for feasts and celebrations. Vast halls connected even grander rooms where banquets were held, political treatise decided and artistic orations dispatched. The kitchens were always bustling with activity, drama, and gossip. Many days Duir and I lingered with yeasty slabs of thick bread slathered with salted butter, listening to the petty but always urgent musings of scullery maids and the ranting and roaring of cooks. Duir made an ideal companion in childhood trouble. If we were caught at some mischief, it would often be overlooked because of his princely heritage.
King Killian adored my father, both of whom lost their wives in childbirth. More often than not, my father could be found by Killian’s side. This allowed for my friendship with Duir to grow.
One day, while playing in the gardens, Duir asked if I would be his tailor when he inherited the crown, to which I alleged myself in full and innocent certainty. We were close friends. Why wouldn’t I want to be cherished as my father in such a noble and respected court?
* * * *
When my father was killed by an out of control carriage, King Killian called me to court.
“I am much saddened by the death of your father, Virago. His loyalty and friendship will be missed, but never forgotten.”
I bowed before him, tears stinging my eyes. “My Lord, my brother Sylvain and I are most appreciative of your kindness during this difficult time.”
“His rare talent shall live on in the work he left behind.” He rose from the throne and came to me, putting his hand on my bowed shoulder. “Rise.”
“Forgive me, My Lord.” I began to wipe at my face, but he stopped me.
“Your tears are not in vain. I, myself cried at his death. But now I must ask you to take his place.”
Before I could grasp Killian’s request, Duir came into the room.
“My son, come closer. I am asking your friend, Virago, to take his father’s place at court as Royal Tailor.”
Duir strode towards us, and instead of standing by Killian, came and threw his arms around me.
“I am sorry for the loss of your father.”
“Thank you, my Prince. You are kind to say so.”
“Kind nothing!” Duir released me from his embrace. “I’ve long thought of him as a second father and you a brother. You must come to court as Royal Tailor.”
King Killian interrupted. “Virago, you’ve apprenticed with your father since you were a child. Your talents are worthy of this position.”
Although my father apprenticed me in the hopes of such a possibility, I’d never thought the chance would come, and certainly not as unexpectedly.
“You were always a thinker, Virago.” King Killian broke in on my thoughts. “But there are rumblings of war in the north, and I shall answer their call. It would give me some comfort to know you were at court to serve the Prince.” His eyes found his son. “For he will rule in my stead and you know him well.”
“Too well,” I answered before I could stop myself. I immediately began to apologize, but both men burst into laughter.
I accepted the position as royal tailor and in doing so, ensured monies necessary for Sylvain’s and my survival.
The following spring, war, as The King predicted, came to the north. King Killian being their ally, answered their pleas for aid. I remember the day he departed. Duir stood by Killian’s side while the Privy Council advised, argued, and pleaded with King Killian to stay behind the walls of the castle; leave the battles of the north to the north, and tend the matters of his own realm.
“You forget, my Lords, the Lord of the North came to our aid directly when we battled the savages of these lands. He did not send some underling, but came himself to fight alongside me, and now I must do the same!”
With heavy hearts and many misgivings behind him, King Killian rode forth from his gates.
News of the war came fast and furious to our lands and along with it, many messages from Killian to his son. When these messages stopped, Duir feared his father met his end.
A month after Killian’s last message arrived, I returned home to find my brother waiting for me at the door. He wore a strange expression on his face.
“What is it?” I asked, hoping I’d misread his dour countenance.
“I’ve heard talk of the war,” he answered with cold certainty.
“There is always talk these days, Sylvain. You mustn’t listen to every rogue piece of gossip.”
“Killian is believed to be dead. Killed on the fields of the north.”
His words struck me as though I’d been hit. I had no reply, for even as I longed to deny his news, something struck the timber of my soul with chilling realization.
“From whom have you heard this?” I asked, only after I’d found respite in a chair and a draught of bitter ale.
“From Maura, wife to Aran,” he replied.
“No, it cannot be true. She must have misunderstood. Maura is always half-hearing things. Do you remember last spring when she thought…” I couldn’t go on. I wanted desperately to fill the space in my heart that was filling with dread, but couldn’t.
“Virago, Killian is dead.”
I shook my head violently. “Lies!”
“Feckless as Maura may be, you would question Aran’s word? He is Killian’s most trusted field marshal.”
“You must go to court and tell Duir of this,” I said. “If this is true, Duir must be pre
“Aran bid her to stay silent. A royal envoy from the north has been sent with the news.”
I shook my head in incredulous disbelief. “Duir must remain ignorant while his beloved father lies dead?”
“Virago, if I go to Duir—”
“It is not a matter of if,” I shouted. “It is a matter of when, Sylvain! You must go now!”
Sylvain did go to court and sought an audience with Duir. I stood by his side and even now, I remember the exchange as if it were only the day before. Duir had gathered his three closest men and council: Auberon, Briar, and Cale. They all were sitting around a long table engaged in games of strategy when we entered.
“My Prince.” I bowed low to Duir. “My Lords.” I bowed to the three men. “My brother wishes to have a word. He has heard urgent news of King Killian.”
There were many times after this meeting I’d wished I’d thought better of sending Sylvain to tell Duir of what he’d learned. I saw not only shock and disbelief cross the faces of Duir and his men, but also disdain and disgust for my blind brother.
“Until I see my father’s body, I will believe in what is before me,” Duir replied, darkly. “While neither Lady Maura nor you are familiar with war and the treachery it brings, my men and I are. You forget letters may be written by any hand, and it has happened before when false letters of death have been sent to dishearten and encourage despair!”
After his outrage, we were dismissed.
Several days later, the expected envoy arrived bearing King Killian’s sword and confirmation of his death.
Duir was twenty and I twenty-two when King Killian died in battle. At Killian’s funeral, Duir embraced and beseeched me. “You must continue to serve as my tailor.” He insisted and stared intently at my face. “I demand your fingers be the only ones to weave my garments and those of my court. Your brother,” he continued and cast a malignant eye in Sylvain’s direction. “May sew the horse’s blankets.”
In the days following his father’s death, Duir retreated into depression and fits of cruel brutality. He beat servants for spilling wine and rumors swelled within the castle walls when one of Duir’s favored attendants disappeared.