The hunters trudged in with the dawn, driving carts that sagged under the weight of their spectacular slaughter. At the front of the convoy they flaunted a dragon’s head, with spines to be sawed and sanded into buttons; a lolling tongue soon to become a deadly pair of gloves; a hide to be tanned in the sprawling soot-blackened factories of the lower city, then shipped uptown to be cut and sewn by skilled practitioners into the fine attire and regalia that imbued the Swathed with all the unnatural radiant heat of their authority.
Jorren Borriwack watched the carts climb up the long street toward her tailor’s shop—and pass her by without a glance, and continue on to the gallows gate. From their muddy wake, a boy of twelve emerged, coughing and dragging a beat-up bloodstained sack. He set it on the cobblestones before Jorren, who nudged it with her foot and peeked doubtfully inside.
“They’re getting smaller.”
“Swamps are almost cleared out,” the boy said, reaching in to poke at the snakeskins for himself. He hacked hoarsely, and the phlegm he spat out scintillated with the telltale light of inhaled supernatural fibers. He’d already gone to work in the factories.
Jorren flipped her cascading monocle lenses back to rub at her deeply wrinkled eye and the scar-knotted fissure that indented the other side of her face. She paid him as much as his family’s pride would allow—wishing they’d use it to get him out of the spindle rooms while they could, but not daring to hope. Jorren was not the hoping kind.
In the courtyard behind her shop she stretched the fresh skins out to cure in the already balmy air, on their way to becoming what passed for dragon leather in the lower city. Despite all signage to the contrary, nothing in her windows harbored any supernatural properties. She catered to other small-time merchants, gangsters dressing to intimidate, laborers and gamblers eager to spend down a bit of luck or inheritance on an outfit just fine enough to imagine, with enough hard squinting, that it had once soared over wild places spitting blue fire instead of slithering through the bog just outside of town. Something to make them feel, however fleetingly, that there was a bigger world somewhere beyond the bald peaks ringing the ever-sweltering horizon, even if they’d never live to see it. For fifty years that had been the closest thing to magic Jorren had touched.
She slumped behind her desk to mark the purchase in her ledger—and just then the bell clinked, warm wind rustled the page in her hand, and she looked up with a flash of intuition that the blurry figure in the doorway had come to deliver her doom.
He swept through the shop, craning his neck around the shelves. Not to examine her merchandise, she realized, but to confirm she was alone. She thought she detected the inky luster of oblivion silk in the fringe of his hooded cloak, making him harder to focus on and easier to forget—giving her a headache just to look at him—but who in the lower city could afford real oblivion silk?
“May I help you find—?”
“This shop is closed,” the stranger declared, and each word blasted her with supernatural heat and twisted itself into the truth in her mind. Before she could think, she’d already bolted the door, turned the sign, and drawn the curtains.
He pulled back his hood and let her see him, from his chiseled jaw to the ribbons in his braids. He wore a vest with a high and tight collar, swirling with the cooling geometric sheen of abyssal spider silk, fastened by a wide belt of dragon leather, and undoubtedly lined with the cruel metallic mesh of woven youth. He was the paragon of a Swathed gentleman: permanently in his prime, immaculately coiffed, with his natural beauty augmented by every unnatural means known to Tailoring. And here he was, inexplicably, on the bad side of the gallows gate.
Jorren wiped sudden beads of sweat from her brow and tried not to look too terrified as she knelt. “To what do I owe the—”
He waved her impatiently back onto her feet. “Swathed Araias. You’re Jorren Borriwack the High Tailor, are you not?”
“Just a tailor. Not a high one. Sir.” She flinched as the act of contradicting him sent a wave of fever through her body.
“Oh? That’s not what I hear. You carry scissors on your belt as a High Tailor would.”
“Purely decorative,” Jorren stuttered—this time taking care not to exactly disagree.
“And yet you know the craft. The real craft. Don’t you? Or would you tell me I’m mistaken?”
Jorren bit her tongue as a warning heat washed over her. Long-repressed sensations strained against the memory-numbing effects of the lacuna silk lining her eyepatch: a slash too quick and sharp to feel, disbelief at the hot blood coursing down her cheek. She tried to think of some way not to answer. Any way to get him out of her shop.
Meanwhile the Swathed gentleman perused the shelves. He picked up a snake-leather shoe and tossed it in the air. “Where do you keep the real thing? Answer me.”
“I have scraps of High fabrics,” her mouth said for her. “But no more than scraps. It’s been fifty years since I, um. I might still have enough dragon leather for a bracelet.”
He flapped his gloved hand dismissively. “Any novice with a spool of dream-thread can stitch together dead animal parts. True mastery begins with the spectral and sentimental fabrics, does it not?”
“Yes, but I have only scraps of—”
“Fine. But if you had the materials. If I brought you, say, a bolt of woven delight, could you fashion a dress for my wife? Do you remember how?”
The astronomical cost of an entire bolt of delight-weave made Jorren’s head spin as much as the psychic heat radiating from Araias’s belt, but she nodded.
“What if I brought you ghosts. Raw ghosts, bound in a salt jar. Could you card and spin them and weave a scarf?”
Jorren swallowed with a parched throat. “I would need a vapor loom, but—”
“Fog?” he pressed, his voice sharpening. “Wind? Not many know the craft as it pertains to wind. Dawn light? Moonlight?”
“I do,” she croaked helpessly. “I did. At one time I could make garments out of any skin, sentiment, or specter known to Tailoring. Anything. But that... was a very long time ago.”
Araias stepped closer to tower over her. “How about sky.”
Her breath left her. “Sky?”
“I want a jacket made of sky. Contemporary style, above the knee length, slimming pattern, flattering lines. Tell me whether you’re capable of that.”
His power bit at her mind, but she rallied the strength to resist. “I... I very much regret to inform the Swathed gentleman that I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a garment made of sky. Tailors through the ages have attempted to gather such a fabric, but to my knowledge—”
“You’re obfuscating,” he interrupted. “You haven’t seen such a garment, but you know more than you’re letting on. You’ve tried it, haven’t you?”
“What?” Sweat dripped down her face and neck.
He sighed impatiently. “It’s a simple question! Have you ever tried to gather a piece of the sky?” When she was too tongue-tied to respond, he continued: “It’s irrelevant. What matters is that I’ll pay a stipend of two gold pangs per day for your best attempt. Plus expenses. And if you succeed, I’ll pay two hundred thousand for the finished item. More than enough for a woman of your station to retire, I should think. Tell me what you think of that.”
Jorren’s head swam in the broiling heat of his command. She managed to prop herself up on the nearest coat rack. “Surely there are High Tailors in the Upper City who—”
“Of course, but there are all sorts of politics and petty intrigues afoot among your betters, and I can’t exactly rely upon their discretion. I believe if I ask you to keep my order secret, you will. For your sake.” He turned to a full-height mirror to examine himself. “It’s a gift to myself for my 400th birthday. If any of my guests find out, they may try to outshine me, and I won’t have it.”
She sank down onto the stool by the shoe rack. She knew she was on the verge of heatstroke now, but she forced the words through her chapped lips: “I can’t. I can’t.”
His glare blasted her like an oven. “Why not?”
“I couldn’t take your money for something I don’t know I can do. I don’t know if anyone can do it.”
He studied her for a moment. Then he bent over and lifted her sweat-greased chin with his gloved fingertips.
“I know your story,” he said. “I know where you’d be today if not for your little indiscretion. I’m offering the closest thing to a second chance you’ll ever receive.”
“I’d have to close my shop. It’s all I have.”
“But you’re going to take my offer anyway,” he said, and the fire in his voice warped the air and filled her vision with stars until—
Suddenly the heat ebbed. Jorren’s lungs sucked in air hungrily as the invisible flames snuffed out and the power let her go. Araias had taken off his dragon leather belt. He held it aloft by its metal ring, waiting for her to look up.
“You’ll do this,” he said through a nearly sympathetic grin, “not because I’ve made you do it—although I could. It won’t even be for the money. You’ll do it because if you decline... in a handful of years, when you’re too frail to push a needle through second-rate snakeskin, you’ll look back on this moment and know that it was your last chance to do something worth remembering. To earn your very own little bit of glory. That is what I’m offering.”
Without another word he slapped a list of his measurements down on the counter, pinned under a fat stack of coins. He refastened his belt, tugged his hood back over his head, and left.
Jorren perched on the stool for a long time, feeling her pulse slow and her skin dry. She didn’t dare to reopen the curtains or turn the sign on the door.
An insistent whine grew in her awareness. She raised herself up and crept past the shelves of snake labeled as dragon, deer labeled as unicorn, chicken labeled as basilisk, dyed goose down labeled as phoenix. She groped in the darkness until she found her way to the bottom shelf in the farthest cabinet.
The sound became a melodic thrum as her fingers reached its source. From underneath tufts of cobwebs and a box lid all but rusted shut, her last glowing spool of dream-thread was singing again, for the first time in fifty years, to the hands that had spun it.
It took all morning for the conversation to percolate through her mind. After that there were the hours spent exhuming her old journals and grimoires from their burial places around the shop: boxed up, fallen behind shelves, used as wedges to prop up displays, crumpled into mannequin stuffing. When the crucial notebook was finally in her hands, she was left with the mind-numbing task of re-learning the cipher she’d created to protect it.
How had Araias known she’d ever been interested in sewing sky? Before today it hadn’t crossed her mind in decades; certainly it was the least of all the ambitions she’d abandoned after her bloody exile from the Upper City. The problem back then had been finding time for her research. The problem now would be retracing her long-faded steps and praying she still had the skill to do it, if indeed anyone alive could do it:
Gather, and sew, four square yards of sky.
The next morning she unboxed her best dress, dismissed the moth-wards, and dutifully took in its seams until it fit again. It was only ordinary silk and linen, but to an untrained eye it might pass for Tailored. She bought a decent haircut across the street and then, for the first time since her exile, she started up the length of the steep cobblestone street to the white walls of the Upper City.
Her climb led her through the sweltering heart of the lower city’s unrest. Two streets up she passed into the long shadows of tenements exhaling the smoke of burning refuse over a gauntlet of beggars—who mistook Jorren for a wealthier woman and shouted out at her, offering proof of need in all the knuckles robbed of fingers in the factories and mills. Further up the street, the more desperate among them lined up outside a youth-spinning workshop and tried not to notice their suddenly elderly peers staggering out the other door.
When Jorren reached the gate she held her breath. She avoided looking up and tried not to hear the taut rope creaking in the torrid wind.
“My name is Jorren Bor—”
“We know,” the gatekeeper said through a yawn. “We were told to expect you.”
She flinched when the gates creaked open. Ahead of her the wider, cleaner, cooler streets spread out, full of dreamlike scenes.
In the Upper City all the clothes were real, every last thread chosen for its magic. Even the lowliest couriers wore belts or bands that imbued them with protection from theft or accident. Every estate was packed with servants rendered all but invisible by robes of spun shadow. The ruling caste themselves spent their days in elaborate and complicated costumes: ghost-weave scarves that whispered true secrets to their wearers; shirts that concealed their wearers’ secrets from the ghost-weaves of others; a thousand other articles, collectively suffusing the air with effects and counter-effects thick enough to choke on.
The only Tailored article Jorren wore was a thin hatband packed with coarse sticky fibers of spun banality. With luck it would render her utterly forgettable to anyone who saw her—especially, and most crucially, the jaded and easily bored Swathed. She tugged the brim down and uttered a prayer. Five blocks up she fell under the shadow of the Upper library.
Despite her makeshift invisibility, from the moment she stepped into the bone-dry darkness of the stacks she felt someone’s unwavering attention fix on her. Chair legs squeaked and rapid footsteps echoed off the marble. Jorren kept her head down and moved to lose her pursuer in the maze of shelves, but a book cart blocked her path and—
“Jorren?!” the librarian whispered. “Is it really you?”
The woman stepped in too close, passing through a brief island of dusty focus before blurring again—but it was the sound of her voice that made Jorren’s hand shake and her throat tighten.
“Tyan?” She fiddled nervously with her hat.
Tyan glanced up and snorted. “You know that hatband won’t work on me, old friend. You can’t do my job without learning to focus through banality. But I thought...” For a moment she froze. Her roaming gaze carefully avoided the scars. Then she wrapped her arms around Jorren and hugged her. “All these years, I thought you were dead!”
“Exiled,” Jorren responded.
Tyan looked stricken when she pulled away, as if exile was the worse of the two fates. Maybe she was right.
It took Jorren a moment to realize that Tyan hadn’t aged more than five years over the last fifty. The uncomfortable tingling she’d felt in that embrace confirmed her suspicion: the piping of Tyan’s jacket gave off the metal-wire gleam of spun youth. Not enough to render her entirely immortal like the Swathed; only enough to be worth a larger fortune than Jorren would ever touch, even with Araias’s patronage.
“Why are you here?” Tyan whispered.
“I wish I could tell you.” Part of her ached to. Most of her only wished she could have bought real invisibility and avoided Tyan completely. Those still-young eyes were like a memory made eerily real, and it strained Jorren’s heart to stand so close. “It’s... complicated. It’s a matter of discretion.”
Tyan nodded, and her expression hardened. She put her hand on Jorren’s shoulder and squeezed a little too tight and said “What do you need?”
The day’s work went more easily with Tyan’s help, however hesitant Jorren was to accept it. Tyan found her a private reading room and let her fetch books without leaving a record. Finally she relaxed enough to take her hat off, switch her monocle to reading focus, and start the daunting task of reconstructing her old research.
There was no shortage of tantalizingly vague suggestions that it might be possible to fashion a garment made of sky. High Tailors had been spinning threads out of wind and water and light since the dawn of recorded time. In her youth she’d started from the assumption that no one had ever cut or spun or felted sky simply because it was too far away to reach—but the more books she read, the more she noticed how close they all came to mentioning sky only to abruptly change the subject.
This was why she’d enciphered her notes all those years ago: however paranoid it seemed, it was as if there was a conspiracy afoot to censor any information about this very task—and that could only mean that the information had existed once. It taunted her as much with danger as with possibility.
A shudder ran through her at a sense of being watched. Something was there in the edge of her vision, propped up in the corner: a humanoid blur the color of gangrene. Her heart seized with fear, but when she reached a trembling hand to her monocle, it had vanished.
She tried to dismiss it as nothing, but a rancid odor hung on the air. She stuffed her notebook back into her bag and started to leave.
“Is everything all right?” Tyan said, catching her at the door. “Do you need anything else?”
Jorren tried to ignore the bad taste lingering on her tongue. “No. All is well. I’ve done what I can today.”
Tyan nodded, hesitated, then hugged Jorren again and whispered in her ear: “If anything should happen. If you need me. Find me in our secret place.”
Jorren stammered some words of thanks and left.
She perceived that same watchful presence in the streets as she made her way home. It matched her slow pace. It stayed too far behind her to see clearly, but she kept catching glimpses of what looked like a lumbering wad of coarse, mold-gray rags, and she could tell that she wasn’t the only one responding to it. People bent around the thing in the street, always giving it a wide berth and twisting their heads to keep it out of their sight.
At the gallows gate, against her better judgment, she hailed the nearest guard. “Do you see that? That gray thing?”
He squinted up the street where she was pointing. His skin visibly paled. He looked away and said, “No. Nothing there. Move along.”
In the lower city the weight of the Gray Thing’s presence lifted again, leaving her to stumble back to her storefront and bolt the door behind her.
She didn’t need to know exactly who or what was following her to feel in her bones that it was deadly. It had to be some function of the Upper City intrigues Araias had alluded to. But she had known this job would put her at the mercy of the whims of the Swathed—and oddly enough, it wasn’t the Gray Thing that haunted her that night as she lay waiting for sleep to take her but rather the question she had until then forgotten to ask:
As all High Fabrics had their supernatural effects, what would a jacket made of sky do?
The Gray Thing didn’t appear again in the weeks it took her to rebuild and finish her research, to the extent that her goal could be researched at all. She could only string together inferences based on what the books left conspicuously unsaid. One volume mentioned sky only to say that it ‘could not be accumulated in a soul-mesh trap,’ implying that it could be gathered by some other means; another included it in a table of comparative vapor species, with a citation pointing to a nonexistent footnote; a third listed sky in the index but the relevant pages were missing.
She had only one idea. She dreaded to think where she’d be left if it didn’t work.
She spent everything she’d been paid so far on the finest spun-shadow blanket she could get her hands on, using Tyan as an intermediary. Wrapped in its soft fuzz, she crept through pre-dawn alleys and followed the back roads out of town, until the last buildings faded into the jungle and she was left alone, staring ahead to the wind-scoured peaks of Silver Mountain.
The journey to the summit took her longer than she’d hoped. She spent the night between the trees, afraid the snakes might seek revenge for the legions she’d made into clothes over the years. In the morning she crossed the timber line, hidden from the blazing sun under her shadow blanket. When she finally planted her blistered feet on the shore of the placid crater lake at the summit, it was deep into a moonless night and the arc of galactic light was too dim for precision work.
At dawn she cursed herself for sleeping: the summit was shrouded in muggy fog, and there was nothing to do but wait for it to clear. She spent hours pacing the rocky ground. She hadn’t fully relaxed for one moment since Araias had paid his visit. To hire her. To endanger her life. To remind her of everything she’d lost.
She felt an itch under her eyepatch, and when she lifted it, her swatch of lacuna silk fell away in shreds, worn completely through. A long-cultivated inner numbness gave way to tingling as its memory-blunting effects abruptly ebbed.
She saw Tyan, forever young. She saw herself, back when they’d been the same age, studying under the same guild master. How they competed to weave the finest cloth or stitch the perfect seam—how, despite their rivalry and all the stresses of their apprenticeships, they turned on their stools when the master wasn’t looking, risking a secret kiss or a whispered promise to make a life together once they were Tailors.
She wished she’d never seen Tyan again.
Every hour that the warm fog refused to lift, the fever of resurgent memory worsened. She tried singing to herself, arranging rocks, even focusing on her present anxieties to escape past ones, but she couldn’t dispel the vision haunting her.
“They let just anyone practice the craft now, do they?” said the Swathed lady in her mind’s eye, storming into the fabric mogul’s ball to confront Jorren in front of everyone. Brandishing a newly bought scarf like a weapon.
Shut up, Jorren commanded. Shut up, shut up!
“A single day I’ve been wearing this moonlight-knit, and it’s already coming apart!” the lady snapped.
Don’t respond, Jorren thought. Don’t reply. Offer a refund. Run away. Anything. But the apparition of her younger self responded: “It’s a very fine material. You have to avoid worrying the edges.”
Forget, Jorren thought. She pounded her head. Forget.
“A tailor presumes to command me?” the Swathed lady said, and in one effortless motion she snatched the scissors from Jorren’s belt and whipped them open to slash with a blade sharp enough to swim through flesh as if through air; precise enough to destroy a person’s entire life without killing her.
Jorren startled awake to find the naked dome of the sky spread out above her, endless and blue.
She walked the circumference of the lake with her last spool of dream-thread, laying it down carefully so as not to disturb the water’s surface or let any part of it sink. Her every nerve felt taut with the sudden fear that after all of this she wouldn’t remember her own craft, but she forced her mind clear. She held both ends of the loop she’d laid, let its otherworldly humming fill the whole of her awareness, and began to give it a series of light tugs.
For the longest time, nothing happened.
Then she began to feel it. The just-perceptible crinkling resistance. The dream-thread gently combed a luminous fabric off the water’s surface: the impossibly thin sky, caught in the mirror of the lake, progressively achieving substance as Jorren pulled the loop in toward herself. She slowed and held her breath when it thickened and bunched at the edges, afraid to tear or wrinkle it. After several minutes it arrived in a soft, fat pile at the water’s edge.
She didn’t dare to handle it directly, but with some care and a pair of tongs she was able to roll it up. It was cumbersome but blessedly lightweight on her back, and its brilliant light streamed out the top of its sack and painted the barren rocks in lapping waves of azure and pink as she started her way down.
The door to her storefront was open a crack when she reached it. She wavered outside in the night, clasping her spun-shadow blanket with shaking hands and praying no one could hear the soft, insistent humming of the dream-thread in her pocket. The sliver of darkness past the bashed-open lock taunted her with promises of dry coolness, a bath, food and fresh socks—and pain or death and the hands of whoever might be waiting just inside: a robber; an assassin sent by Araias’s enemies; Araias himself. But it was too late to turn back. Her only way out of this now would be to finish the job.
She took a few last breaths, switched her monocle to medium focus, and pushed the door fully open.
There was a scraping sound from the coins Araias’s courier had pushed under the door in her absence. Nothing else moved. A faint rancid smell hung on the air, but it blew away before she could identify it, and the shop was empty.
She rushed to seal herself inside. She braced all the windows and barricaded every possible entrance with stacked boxes and tipped-over shelves.
Her body was wracked with fatigue, but there was no time for a bath or a change of clothes or a foot-soak. There was nothing to do but pour a cup of tea, scrub the mountain dirt from under her fingernails, and go to work.
In the darkness of the shop, the unfurled fabric of the sky glowed too brightly to look at directly. She had to put her monocle’s sun lens down whenever she got close to it. When her gloved fingers slid over it she had no doubt that it was the smoothest surface she’d ever touched.
Her Tailor’s scissors lay in their velvet and ironwood box like a corpse in a coffin; gold and abalone grips, trigger-wires for each finger to precisely control the action of the blades. She reached out, but phantom pain pushed her hand back. Her scars ached as if they were new.
“You can’t hide from what that Swathed lady did to you,” said a voice in her head, rasping like a dusty wind. “Admit the object’s history. Know it for what it is.”
This time she didn’t force the memory of the slash back down into the recesses of her mind. She let it surge through her as she lifted the scissors for the first time since her exile. Only when she was sure her fingers remembered how to operate them did she slide the sky’s edge into their jaws.
The blades twitched in the fabric. They started to jam on the impossibly thin material.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” Jorren muttered. It had been fifty years, for lint’s sake. “Why was I such a damned fool as to think I could still do this.”
“Because you can,” hissed the voice.
“The last time I Tailored anything,” she answered it aloud, “I had two sharp eyes and a clear head. My hands were agile. Fresh from years of practice.”
The voice in her mind rasped: “Once you were a pawn in the petty games of the Swathed and knew nothing of the world beyond the gallows gate. But you have now what you did not then.”
Truthfully, even at the height of her skill she had never attempted anything where success was less assured. But as her cuts grew straighter, she realized the otherworldly voice in her head was right. She’d gained something for all her lost years, and she could feel it uncurling in her now like a sinewy knot: a bone-deep longing that intensified with her every squeeze of the blades. She had missed her true craft. She’d had no idea just how much she’d missed it.
“Yes,” whispered the voice. “Feel. Let it flow through your touch. On that ancient pain, all else depends.”
She was surprised at her own tears. She wiped them away before they could stain the glowing surface below her. So suddenly and so strangely, the work had become reflexive. The fabric complied as if it craved her design. Before long the pieces were all laid out. The edges were the smoothest and straightest she’d ever cut.
She carried them to the sewing machine. She spent some time simply feeling the texture of the fabric between her gloved fingers, sensing out its subtle elasticity. Then she strung her softly humming dream-thread through the eye of the bone needle.
She sewed for hours, turning the wheel slowly, sensing out the tension at every loop—and again the fabric moved as if seeking its own perfect geometry. It drank up the thread, and its seams faded away with a shimmer as they passed. Every turn and twist of the fabric cast brilliant patterns of light around the room and burned like pink fire on the machine’s brightly worn cog teeth.
“Exquisite,” said the voice in the back of her head.
It was done. It seemed to shine directly on her when she lifted it by the shoulders, and its light had a bittersweet taste reminiscent of plum blossoms. She had no doubt that it was her finest work. Traces of distant cirrus clouds moved kaleidoscopically over the breast, and evening stars twinkled along the collar. It made her ache to be near it.
Finally she realized that the voice she was hearing was not really in her head—and she realized, even before she switched the lens to bring the Gray Thing into focus, why it had been so overwhelmingly difficult to perceive.
“Misery,” Jorren said. “You’re wearing a coat of felted misery.”
“The miseries of the lower city,” the Gray Thing confirmed in its rasping voice. “Poverty. Hunger. Despair. Slow death. A blend of them all.”
It hurt to look at. The coat seemed to exude noxious malaise from every matted fiber. “Could you please take it off?”
“I cannot. Its fibers long ago grew into me. It was necessary. To disappear from those who would have possessed me, and appear to those with the heart to notice.”
Jorren was surprised at the calm that came over her to ask: “You’re here to kill me. Aren’t you?”
“I was,” the Gray Thing said. “But then you noticed me.”
By the light of her creation she perceived more of her visitor’s details—how those mottled, fibrous tufts of misery had grown like mold over the anonymous body they had once contained, supplanting skin and hair. The only visibly human parts of it were the long yellow teeth in the hollow of its mouth.
“Then what do you want?” Jorren said. “Why have you been following me?”
“A hundred years have I waited for someone to make the sky again. I could no longer do it myself.” It raised what had once been its hands, fused by the organic growth of that brutal fabric into a sort of blunt claw, and made a dry chuffing sound not immediately recognizable as laughter. “At last my day has come. You will give it to me.”
Jorren clutched the jacket a little tighter. “Why do you want it?”
Its gray lips peeled back over its clenched teeth. “That I may burn the city.”
The Gray Thing stepped closer. “The Upper will be incinerated first, yet the flames must stop for no wall. Know that the fire in me hungers for all cruelty, Tailor. From the Swathed down to the petty ruffians and husbands’ fists. All that made me must go into that fire.”
Behind Jorren a coatrack slammed to the floor. She managed not to trip as she crept backward. “I don’t understand. Why do you want to destroy the city? How could this jacket, any jacket, do such a thing?”
The Gray Thing hissed impatiently. “What is the sky to us? When we reach for it, what is it we reach for? What in it would the Swathed reach for? What would you?”
Its innards emitted a crinkling sound like dry leaves as it closed in—then froze, stilled by a knock at the barricaded door of the shop.
“No more time,” the Gray Thing growled. “Give me the sky.”
“I don’t understand. Who are you?”
“I was you. I am what you will become if you repeat my mistake. The rest, I have already told you. Give me the sky.”
The knock came again, louder.
The Gray Thing rushed forward. Jorren tripped and fell back onto the loose floorboards with the jacket clutched to her chest. Its rasping voice rattled the windowpanes. “I can snap your neck with a nudge. Give me the sky!”
It bent over her, and its breath was so wet and rank that Jorren blessed the emptiness of her stomach. She felt her body go rigid as the claws of rotten felt curled around her wrist to pry her grip open. The fibers stabbed into her skin like spines.
An earsplitting crack rocked the room. Jorren held her breath against a blast of searing acrid fumes, and when she looked up a flaming hole had been blown through the storefront. Someone was stepping through, silhouetted against the glittering embers. Araias. Wearing extravagant dragon-tongue gloves that stretched fully up to his elbows; brandishing white-hot fingertips.
“Get out of the way, old woman.” His whole body was radiant with destructive urge as his eyes fixed hard on the Gray Thing. “You’re in danger.”
Before she could move, he unleashed another gout of flame that melted the sewing machine to glowing slag in the time it took the Gray Thing to tuck and roll out of the way. Then it lunged for Araias, and the two collided in a frenzy of swinging claws and jets of flame amid the thickening smoke.
Jorren crawled coughing from the wreckage and out into the muggy night, clutching the sky in her gloved hands. The rough, rain-damp cobblestones scraped at her knees. She looked back in time to see a final blast of dragon’s breath overflow what was left of her shop. Glowing embers spewed into the street, followed by a single wretched blood-curdling howl of inhuman anguish.
Jorren felt something swelling the skin of her wrist: a matted tuft of mold-gray fiber, sticking where the Gray Thing had touched her. She tried to wipe it off, and just then Araias stepped out of the wreckage, looking exhilarated, lifting the hem of his light coat to avoid soiling it with the soot of his own destruction.
“Misery, as it happens, is quite flammable,” he said matter-of-factly. He blew the last wisps of smoke from his fingertips. “You’re lucky I happened by. I have no idea what that creature was, but it would have killed you, I’m sure.”
He reached down to her: not to help her up, she realized, but to take the jacket. Something was itching in the back of her mind as she crawled back and stumbled to her feet. She held her creation tight.
Araias waved his hand impatiently. “I see you’re unhurt and you’ve completed your task. Delightful. Give me my order and you’ll get what you’re owed.”
She started to comply automatically, but the dragon-leather burn of his authority tangled with an alien feeling in her chest: light, cool, and pure. She froze and looked down. In her scramble out the door she’d ripped her gloves on some broken glass, and when she’d grabbed at the sky she’d unknowingly touched it directly.
“Now,” Araias commanded, but all the supernatural heat radiating from his scaly belt couldn’t compel her anymore. There was a stronger power reaching from within herself, compelling her to hold the jacket even tighter.
A sort of awful sense began to weave itself in her mind.
“The Gray Thing wasn’t invisible to you at all,” she realized. “You felt no urge to look away.”
His eyes widened, astonished at her resistance. “Give me my jacket, you old coot!”
“The way you looked at it—” She swallowed hard. “It was as if misery delights you.”
Araias cracked his knuckles in their tongue-leather gloves. “I won’t ask again. The jacket. Now.”
She knew without having to think it that her chances of living to see another day were rapidly wearing thin—but she felt the cold-burning seep of the sky’s magic through the skin of her palm, and she began to understand what it was she really held in her quivering hands.
She whipped it around and stuffed her arms into its sleeves. Her body shuddered and her breath left her lungs as the fullness of the sky’s power rippled through her.
“Have you lost your mind?” Araias was shouting. “How dare you? That is my jacket!”
He clapped his hands sharply, and fifty-odd black-clad figures emerged from hiding places along the street, creeping over the crests of rooftops, darting out of alleyways, casting off sheets of shadow to reveal they’d been standing in plain sight. They carried crossbows, kukris, throwing knives, bolases, and whips hewn of every variety of supernatural leather.
Jorren raised a quivering hand to brandish her Tailor’s scissors.
Araias was incandescent with rage, but his lips peeled back into a taut grin. He tugged his gloves off finger by finger and declared to his mercenaries “I shall have no burn marks, no wrinkles, not one split seam on that jacket! You, with the crossbow. Come here.”
What is the sky to us? Jorren thought, frantically. What prisoners see through their bars. What sailors pray to for the stars to lead them home. What the drought-stricken watch for the miracle of rain. What we all stare up into, awed to wonder whether there are unimaginable other places out there beyond the curtain of night. It’s hope itself.
Araias squinted over the arbalist’s shoulder, judging angle. “A single bolt through the forehead should keep the soiling to a minimum, yes?”
No, this is what mere hope reaches for and never touches. It is the realization of hope, the answer to all unanswered and unanswerable prayers, the vindication of all the world’s broken-hearted yearning. I am surrounded on all sides by death, and the only way out would be to—
The ache in her knees and feet ceased. It took her a long moment to realize the ground was no longer pressing on them, and longer still to notice herself lifting. But she wasn’t flying so much as lurching sickeningly upward with no control over speed or direction—
“Kill her, you scruffy buffoons! Now!”
Jorren screamed, as much from her sudden altitude as from the bolts and blades whistling past her ears, but her attackers were almost as bewildered by her flight as she was, and by the time they straightened their aim she had already tumbled up out of sight behind a smoke stack.
“Help!” she yelled as she continued to rise. She fought to clear her mind and remember that thought alone wouldn’t steer her flight; the jacket only responded to deep yearning. She stopped trying to right herself and focused instead on feeling the full force of her need to be upright—and when she opened her eye again the horizon was a steady, unshifting ring.
Where did that leave her? She couldn’t yearn for the ground while violent death waited down there. She thought of yearning for Araias’s forgiveness, but that was too difficult to imagine.
But she knew how to yearn for Tyan.
With her arms in the sleeves of this jacket, that longing carried her like a wind.
“If you need me,” Tyan had said. “Find me in our secret place.”
The soot-blackened rooftops rushed by under her holey boots, followed by the trapezoidal spires of the great white wall, and everything below her instantly turned clean and lustrous. The jacket bore her down past gold-flecked domes and ornamented terraces, between flowering trees and Tailored flags that cast their magic over everything below.
Tyan was already there, waiting on the narrow walkway that ringed the dome of the Upper Library, a place the two of them had chosen for its privacy so long ago.
“I woke from a dream of you coming here,” Tyan said, and extended a hand to anchor Jorren to the Earth again. And when Jorren pulled their bodies together into a tight hug, all the heart-pounding dread and sweltering heat of the world outside fell away. Within the jacket’s cool aura, only the two of them existed.
Then Jorren realized: Tyan’s lack of surprise wasn’t just because of some dream.
“You knew,” Jorren said. “You were the only person I ever told about my research into sky. You told Araias to hire me?”
“Oh, love.” Tyan looked sadly out across the city stretching away into the lightening twilight. “Why couldn’t you just have given him his due?”
Jorren let go and gripped the railing instead. “I couldn’t let Araias have it,” she said. “I didn’t know what he would do with it once he had it. What could he want from this jacket that he doesn’t already have?”
Tyan gripped Jorren’s sleeve. She inhaled sharply, sharing momentarily in the energy pouring out of the fabric, and murmured almost drunkenly: “There’s only one thing a man with so much power yearns for.”
Jorren blinked. Her hands tightened around the iron railing that tethered her. “For his power to be unquestioned.”
Tyan lay her smooth young hands on Jorren’s wrinkled ones. “I don’t think anything could convince Araias to spare your life now, but you still have to give him the sky. If not for yourself then for the good of the entire city.”
“For lint’s sake, why?”
“Fifty years you’ve been trapped on the other side of the wall. You must’ve sensed the growing unrest. The social order is unraveling. If nothing is done there’ll be chaos. A massive and bloody revolt could kindle any day now. In the right hands, this jacket can defuse all that and restore order.”
Jorren couldn’t help looking back at the line where the soft lamplight of the Upper City gave way abruptly to the smoky darkness of the lower. “They deserve better.”
“They won’t get it. They have no real hope, and hopeless rebellions are cheap and invariably crushed at great human cost. For all their imperfections—” here Tyan flinched and looked away from Jorren’s scars— “the Swathed want peace. When Araias has the sky, its magic will cause all rebellious passions in the lower city fade into apathy. All unrest quelled.”
“I’m not the first person to sew sky, am I?” Jorren said. “All references to it in the library are censored. But all of this must have happened before.”
Tyan nodded. “It was a sky dress that pacified the lower city a century ago. But when it was worn threadbare, the Swathed fought each other for control of the knowledge of its creation, until all was lost.”
“What happened to the Tailor who made it?”
Tyan looked away guiltily. “He was held captive by one Swathed or another. Then he disappeared. I want you to know I had a plan that would have protected you. For what little that’s worth now.”
“I don’t think he died,” Jorren said, her head spinning. “Not then. I think he was presented with the same choice I was, and he regretted his decision.”
Tyan squinted. “Why do you think that?”
Jorren could feel the materialized misery creeping up her arm. She stared away into the gloaming and failed to speak.
Tyan took back Jorren’s hand and squeezed it. “It’s not important. What matters is that... although you must give the jacket to Araias, you and I still have this moment, here and now. It’s ours. And for as long as you’re safe here with me, there are things you could wish for. Wishes the jacket would grant.”
Her eyes watered as she reached out and cupped Jorren’s unscarred cheek. “Only true longing could have brought you here to me. I feel it too. Please believe I’ve missed you every day since your exile. And you, you must yearn so deeply to have your eye again, and for your scars to fade. All you have to do is focus on—”
Jorren stopped her. “I don’t.”
Tyan stared uncomprehendingly. “But surely you long for us to hold each other as we did, both beautiful and whole. Don’t you yearn to be young again?”
Jorren sighed. “There was a time when I would have given anything to be that person again. I don’t anymore. Not at all.”
The bewilderment in Tyan’s gaze turned over into disbelief, on its way to anger. “How could you not?”
Jorren’s heart sank. The hand with which she pushed Tyan’s away was the one where the mold-gray felt continued to spread from the wrist, already forking up the veins of her arm. She rolled up her sleeve and asked: “What do you see?”
Tyan grimaced and shuddered. She averted her eyes and choked out the words “Nothing. There’s nothing there.”
It was already happening, Jorren realized. She was becoming invisible in the same way the Gray Thing had been: not truly invisible at all but irresistibly pleasant to ignore or deny or forget—for someone who could. Someone like Tyan, whose jacket in the dawn light shone with the cruel metallic thread of other people’s spun-away youth. In this thought, Jorren felt a rush of vertigo as she unwittingly lurched back into the empty air.
“Wait!” Tyan shouted after her. “Where are you going?” She clutched at Jorren’s sleeves, but the jacket was answering a yearning to be elsewhere that was stronger by far than Tyan’s desire to keep her. She closed her eye, and by the time she opened it again Tyan was too far away to see.
The streets drifting by between her feet changed color again as she passed back over the wall. By now dawn was breaking between the plumes of smoke from chimneys and stacks. Araias’s assassins had split into groups to haplessly chase Jorren through the streets—and everywhere their shouts rang up, the commotion called hundreds, soon thousands of people out of doors and windows: all the dyers and tanners and weavers and knitters who lived out their days in factories and workshops, and all those too young or old or sick or gaunt with starvation to join them. Sullen and sooty throngs looked up and pulled the caps from their heads in awe.
What would you reach for? the Gray Thing had asked.
Finally she knew.
Her hands found her scissors, and her cuts were quick and jagged. All that mattered was creating as many tiny shreds as possible, as quickly as she could. Each piece hung on the wind for a moment before losing contact with her desire to stay aloft. Then one by one they began to snow down across the lower city.
By the time her scissor blades reached the buttons, she could feel herself losing buoyancy; by the time she reached the sleeves the wind of her descent was roaring in her ears, but she didn’t dare to divert any attention from her work. As the ground rushed up to meet her, she thought to herself with a laugh that for all the wickedness of the deal she’d made with Araias, he hadn’t lied: the glory he’d promised had been paid in abundance.
In the streets below, a young boy in search of new customers for a sack of snakeskins paused in the shadow of the great white wall to cough and spit, but just then something made him look up.
The shred of sky was nearly invisible from below, but as it drifted down it cast a faint glimmering light into the wall’s shadows. The boy stepped forward and caught it. He pressed it to his cheek; its fabric was deliciously cold to the touch, and every breath he took as he held it was a little easier than the last.
He found himself thinking of all the things he hoped for. The more he did, the more he became aware of others all around him, all thinking the same thing. And when a noise turned his head, he could just make out the thin cracks snaking their way up the wall, singing like dream-thread.