Kwayask nātohta. Listen carefully. There once was a woman who sewed clothes so powerful they made you become the person you needed to be. Children’s feet wrapped in her flower-beaded moccasins never stumbled. Otipēyimisowak orators, backs held straight by her finger-woven sashes, never lost a vote. Loved ones, buried in family robes storied with a thousand hand-dyed quills, were never forgotten.
This woman, called Miyohtwāw, used her gifts with bead and shell and calico and stroud to sew kin relationships together all across the Plains. Then, at the direction of the grandmothers, she was asked to do the same between the Otipēyimisowak and the distant Hauthasan kwīn.
Yes, she remembered their language from her time with the nuns. Yes, she could still count their coin and twist her hair up like a “lady,” though it was now touched with grey. A Hauthasan lord sailing home was even willing to present her in the Hauthasan court. This lord assured the Otipēyimisowak that his great woman leader across the salt sea was a compassionate and upright woman, who cared for the people of the lands she ruled from afar like a mother cared for her children. No matter how different they might be.
But Miyohtwāw was no ambassador. She always spoke through her clothing if she could. And yet, the Otipēyimisowak Nation badly needed to be heard—before the next great wave of land-hungry Hauthasan moved onto the Plains. The grandmothers heard out her own qualms but insisted nonetheless.
Over and over, for the two lonely moons it took to sail across the world, she reminded herself: others, at least, thought her gifts were enough.
They finally arrived at the cold Hauthasan palace—a monstrous block of white stone held tightly together by its harsh, straight lines. Inside, Miyohtwāw trailed the Hauthasan lord as he hurried them to the “audience room,” where they were to meet his leader, the kwīn. Every angle and awning was astonishingly cut, with an almost inhuman precision. Miyohtwāw couldn’t help but run her fingers over the gleaming metal banisters, the plush bench covers, even stopping mid-ascent to press her palm flat against the impossibly smooth marble stairs. This earned her a frustrated harrumph from the lord presenting her, just as the nuns once scolded her as a dawdling child. All it took was that one huff of scorn for Miyohtwāw to feel as stripped bare as she had felt decades ago, defenseless before the nuns. She quickly carried on.
Soon enough, the palace helpers stopped in front of a set of heavy oak doors. They threw them open and ushered her into a cavernous room that smelt sharply of boot polish. She barely knew where to look—at the great pillars, intricately carved and sparkling with gold? Or the ceiling, painted with hundreds of near-naked figures laying on clouds? The room itself was filled with hundreds of the queen’s kin, dressed in swelling skirts and brass-buckled coats. Furious whispers rose up like a deadly storm of mosquitoes—each word too quick for Miyohtwāw to catch but all together enough to strip a horse of its flesh.
She fought to catch her breath. It was the sheer size of it all. This room alone could have held every Otipēyimisowak woman, man and child in her hunting brigade, plus the carts, even before the Great Famine several winters before.
Suddenly she was back on the Plains, she and the other women taking advantage of the late-setting sun to bead together in the cool breeze, her mother-in-law laughing raucously. Home.
Miyohtwāw wished she could sink into the sweet memory of that laugh; let herself believe her family was only an arm’s-brush away. But now was not the time. She let the memory’s medicine loosen her chest and straighten her back but blinked the tears away.
The Hauthasan lord’s hard palm pushed her forward until they stood before the queen—a short, round-faced woman whose sharp eyes moved lightly around the room, as if counting wayward children. But when Miyohtwāw opened her mouth to introduce herself, the lord’s voice drowned her out.
“Your Majesty Queen Victra, may I present to you one of your very own red children, who has traveled a great distance to meet her Great White Mother Across the Salt Sea,” announced the man, who was called Lord Macall. He bent deeply at the waist, head down, as if afraid to look his Great Mother in the face. They called it “bowing,” she knew—a gesture Miyohtwāw still found strange.
The queen herself did not look angry with the lord, although she did not look particularly joyful to see him, either. Her clothes were richly made but unassuming: her skirts did not lack for fabric, swirling in lace-edged folds that gently pooled to the floor, but their soft grey calmed the room. Her face remained still as she listened.
“She is a full-blood herself,” the lord announced, inexplicably, as if this were meaningful information. “But she married into a group of half-breeds from the outskirts of La Foursze, where your Hauthasan subjects have been dutifully working to create a new colony out of such wild land. I have assured her people, who are a fractious breed, that Your Majesty the Queen has always loved her empire’s red subjects well. As Your Majesty knows, you are always kind to them, and they strive to be obedient in return. This woman’s chief has sent her to honour you with gifts and to thank you for your benevolence, Great Mother, which has done so much already to improve her people.”
Miyohtwāw nearly choked on the unexpected disdain folded neatly into this introduction. Was this the lord’s intention all along? She looked for malice etched into the deep lines around his mouth, but saw only... indifference.
While she struggled to think how best to correct this characterization of her adopted nation, he added as an afterthought, “Her civilized name is Mrs. Maurisse Paquette.”
The queen’s servants began opening the chests of gifts Miyohtwāw’s okimakan had indeed sent with her, but as a sign of reciprocity and mutual respect—two dozen buffalo robes, stacks of beaver pelts, tobacco and other medicines, and more. The spicy-sweet smell of sage wafted through the hall.
“Your Great Mother thanks you, Mrs. Paquette,” the queen said, not uninterestedly, as her chittering kin around the room nearly toppled over each other to get a better look. Then, to Miyohtwāw’s dismay, the queen looked over Miyohtwāw’s shoulder, her eyes already on the next person in line.
A rough official was pinching her elbow to pull her aside when Miyohtwāw found her voice. “Great Mother,” she said, which were bittersweet words for her, as for any orphan child, no matter how much she had grown and how many children of her own she now had. “Please—I have a gift of my own making to share.”
The mosquito-chatter abruptly stopped when Miyohtwāw, herself wearing only a simple waisted dress with a single line of buttons down the front, opened the chest at her feet and pulled out her gift—a gown that balanced the structured esthetics of the Hauthasan with the varied influences of the Otipēyimisowak Nation and their home community of La Foursze.
She had decided to keep the corseted bodice and satin overskirt that marked Hauthasan high fashion. But she’d splashed the cream silk with beaded serpentine leaves the tender green of new spring, using a unique two-leaf pattern of her mother-in-law’s design. The heavy folds of the skirt were trimmed in white fur, from northern foxes Miyohtwāw had trapped and tanned herself. The soft deerskin leggings underneath—a testament to the days she’d spent dragging the stiff skins over the mouth of a metal pipe to break and soften the hide—were pure Otipēyimisowak. Rosettes of porcupine quill, echoing the decorated ankles of Miyohtwāw’s own leggings, were laid over ribbon work in every colour of wildflower imaginable.
For the Otipēyimisowak, Miyohtwāw had poured every one of her gifts into the making of this gown—the ones she’d learned, the ones she’d been born with, and the ones that came straight from the Great Mystery; gifts of power that sometimes defied explanation. Even now, lilies—living, breathing lilies, which she had woven around the high collar of the gown—bloomed the fresh colour of a Hauthasan girl’s blush. This beauty was the lily’s own to give; but it was Miyohtwāw’s touch that ensured that, despite crossing an ocean in a locked trunk, not a single lily was crushed.
Miyohtwāw stumbled slightly over the Hauthasan words she hadn’t spoken for half a lifetime. “It makes my heart sing to bring you this gift of kinship, representing the many ties between the Otipēyimisowak and our Great Mother Across the... Salt Sea.” She almost said “ocean,” which she knew was the correct term, but decided it was safer to reflect their own words back to them.
The queen’s sparse eyebrows lifted incredulously while the Hauthasan lord sputtered. She peered closely at the luminous gown but didn’t touch it. She was silent a long time.
Miyohtwāw opened and closed her mouth. She’d hoped to sew a dress powerful enough to remind the queen who the queen claimed as kin, and who claimed her in return. Should she present the Otipēyimisowak petition now? Should she wait?
“This is certainly... one of a kind, Mrs. Paquette,” the queen said at last, and Miyohtwāw could not tell if it was the queen’s intonation or her own rusty language skills that flattened the queen’s tone. Then the red-coated official bent low to whisper in the queen’s ear; she nodded, fixed her eyes on the next group behind Miyohtwāw, and did not look at her again, even though Miyohtwāw was only a few strides away.
The queen’s kin followed her lead, turning away from Miyohtwāw with a rustle of taffeta and a tilt of the chin. The only one, seemingly, who could still see her was the Hauthasan lord, Lord Macall. Shoulders tense, he suddenly loomed large at her side, muttering “Come, come.” The weight of his presence forced Miyohtwāw to step back, nudging her towards the door.
Without a word, she had been dismissed.
Even after her fourth request, the queen still would not grant her an audience. Miyohtwāw tried to appeal to Lord Macall, who had made such protestations of the queen’s concern for her red children when he met with the Otipēyimisowak in La Foursze, but her messages went unanswered. As winter all too quickly slipped past, Miyohtwāw found herself confined to her small musty room in a far corner of the palace, at a loss for what to do.
She should have spoken up when she had the chance. What had the grandmothers been thinking, to send her? All she was doing now was waiting—and she couldn’t wait, trapped, within these walls forever. The relationship between the Otipēyimisowak and Hauthasan farmers had been fraying badly, and Otipēyimisowak families were the ones suffering for it. They needed someone, anyone, to intervene by spring—when the ice would break on the connecting rivers, and waves of new Hauthasan settlers would bleed out of the eastern cities into the Plains, armed with scribbles on paper and land-claiming “surveyor sticks” as lethal as guns.
Her nation’s petition, its beeswax seal unbroken, weighed on her mind until she could not even sew. Under the judgemental eyes of the half-dozen grandly dressed Hauthasan men whose portraits decorated her silk-covered walls, her stores of cloth and sinew from home sat untouched. Instead, she punished herself with the backbreaking task of drilling miniscule holes into soft stones for threading and tried to swallow her fear.
Then everything changed.
In the dying days of kisepisim, the cold month, the knob of Miyohtwāw’s door squealed and nearly spun off its track as the door burst open. Miyohtwāw blinked blurrily, looking up from the small table where she worked, to see—the queen, in her chambers, practically bouncing like a pup. “It worked!” the queen called out with apple-red cheeks.
Miyohtwāw held completely still, unsure how to reply.
“Great Mother?” she finally asked, tentatively. “Are you well?”
The queen startled at the address, but her eyes softened and she smiled. Deep lines framed her thin mouth. “My dear,” she said. “I wore your dress, and it worked.” And Miyohtwāw set down her bow drill, her shoulders shaking with the sudden release of tension.
“I wore it to the House of Lords,” the queen said, “and it utterly bewildered them! Which is exactly what I needed it to do. The republicans were too distracted by the wildness of it all to push forward their calls for reform, and their latest chance to press advantage over the monarchy slipped out of grasp. For one more session of Parliament, at least.”
Her tone abruptly changed even as Miyohtwāw stood up, struggling to remember who the rēpablikans were.
“Please forgive my inability to meet you before this, Mrs. Paquette, but my affairs have been keeping me extremely busy these past weeks.”
“Of course,” Miyohtwāw said graciously. “A mother is always busy with her children.”
“It is ‘Of course, Your Majesty The Queen,’” the queen corrected.
Miyohtwāw clicked her jaw shut. She was familiar with the address, although not its exact meaning. But it couldn’t possibly be a stronger term of respect than mother.
“Forgive me, Great Mother, your majesty,” she said finally, her bones singing with renewed opportunity. Rude or not, what mattered was that the queen had given her a second chance. “The Otipēyimisowak have nothing but the greatest respect for your power and compassion. In fact, they have sent me with a petition, asking you to help rectify a great injustice being done in your name.”
Miyohtwāw quickly drew out the petition, but the queen stopped her. “Oh, yes? Well, we shall come to that. But first, I must make you a commission. Specifically, another dress.”
Miyohtwāw paused. Another dress like the one she’d given the queen would take most sewers a year to make, and had made use of so many gifts—the fox its fur, the lilies their beauty. Even with the added strength her ancestors gave her, it had taken Miyohtwāw four full moons. And to her knowledge, the queen had not yet gifted the Otipēyimisowak anything in return for the stacks of furs and medicine Miyohtwāw presented that first day in court.
But the queen called herself their Great Mother. She saw herself as kin.
“Of course,” Miyohtwāw said. “I will lend you my skills. In the meantime, you may review our petition.”
“Wonderful!” The queen’s sky-coloured eyes lit up, but then she seemed to grapple for words. “Next month I am meeting someone our court very much needs to befriend. I need a gown... not like your previous one—perhaps ruffled, or with a cape, it must be acceptable in our courts, at any rate. Perhaps...” She moved her hands in a vaguely dome-like gesture around her generous hips. “But absolutely nothing like the ones I already have,” she said severely, then looked helpless again.
“Don’t tell me what you think it should look like, your majesty,” Miyohtwāw interjected, although she already winced at the short timeframe required. One month! “Tell me instead what you need your dress to do, and it will do it.”
The queen’s head bobbed back in surprise. Then she leaned in closer. “What I need...” She licked her lips. “I need to seduce.”
Miyohtwāw’s throat tightened. She knew the word sedōs, thanks to the grey nuns she’d been placed with as a child after typhus took her parents. It had featured prominently in their lectures on the sinful ways of women, especially dark-skinned, loose-moralled women like Miyohtwāw, and Miyohtwāw’s mother, and her mother’s mother before her.
Years later, after she’d arrived in La Foursze, Miyohtwāw had had to work hard to suppress the memories of the grey nuns, who lived on as voices in her head. Her mother-in-law helped the most, as did her own daughters, born not full of sin but squalling and perfect. Decades later, Miyohtwāw no longer accepted the nuns’ edicts as fact. But seduce... she didn’t believe in toying with others’ emotions. What did this queen mean by that word? Did she mean the same thing the grey nuns meant? Miyohtwāw wished fervently that the nuances of this language didn’t slip so easily out of hand like a fish.
The Hauthasan queen was far from perfect. But she needed something from Miyohtwāw. And Miyohtwāw needed the queen to remember how family leaned on each other.
“Our two nations must help each other in our times of need,” she said gently. “I will finish it in time.” She took a deep breath and reached out to shake the queen’s hand.
Shock spasmed across the queen’s face, and Miyohtwāw almost yanked her hand back. She knew it wasn’t her knobby knuckles that put the queen off, or the pulsing veins in wrists that gently betrayed her pounding heartbeat. It was that she had broken Hauthasan protocol. She was attempting to strike a deal with the queen—not as a supplicant, but as an equal.
But between the nuns, then the Otipēyimisowak, and now here, Miyohtwāw had spent her whole life first unlearning and then relearning protocols. And the Hauthasan queen had sought her out, after all. Had come to Miyohtwāw’s out-of-the-way quarters, to make a private request.
Miyohtwāw waited with eyes of water—balanced, cool—that hid her turmoil within.
Eventually the queen shook her hand, once, and left the small musty room.
At the end of four weeks—four long weeks, in which Miyohtwāw offered tobacco and gave thanks to sinew and silk, sewing late into the night—the dress was ready.
It was slimmer-fitting than the first, the bold red of a cardinal, with feathers that accentuated the queen’s hips. Capped sleeves were made of single rose petals Miyohtwāw had whispered sweet encouragement to, until they were larger than any rose petal had a right to be. Intricate cutouts edged the neckline, creating more petal shapes through the absence of fabric, rather than its presence. Most daringly, down the centre of the bodice was a small slit, only a finger’s width, but almost to the queen’s navel. There it disappeared into a wide ribbon bow.
The cardinal was Miyohtwāw’s oldest daughter’s favourite bird; the wild red roses had been gently cultivated over many seasons by Miyohtwāw’s son. She had kept the queen’s intent firmly in mind as she sewed, until every stitch knew what to do. It was quieter in many ways than the first dress, but it held the promise of conversations in voices kept low. It had also depleted half Miyohtwāw’s stores to complete.
The queen, who had just had her ninth child and was not known for her fashion, could not put it on fast enough. With a swish of silk, her short figure softened into a much younger-seeming silhouette. In the privacy of her dressing room, with only Miyohtwāw in attendance, her eyes glowed with—surprise? Yes. And delight. And—greed. The joy of such a daring gown stripped years away from her frame.
It suited her.
“Why, I could pass for a girl of twenty,” the queen said softly, and indeed, the lines around her mouth and at the corners of her eyes almost melted away. “When I was bold enough to take on the world!” Then, suddenly, she asked, “Is it... magic?” Her voice sounded as young as Miyohtwāw’s smallest daughter’s, who was just beginning to know herself as a woman.
Majik... A Hauthasan word for a person’s unique gifts, perhaps? The queen’s tone was edged with fear. It was true some gifts were more mysterious—and therefore more frightening—than others. Miyohtwāw knew her clothing made people become who they needed to be in ways simple cloth usually did not. But everyone had gifts, of all different natures. A person’s strongest gifts, no matter their origin, were often the most overlooked by the person gifted them.
“I don’t know this word, Great Mother, your majesty,” Miyohtwāw said gently, to calm the queen’s fear. “Perhaps you are simply more powerful than you think.”
Miyohtwāw squeezed the queen’s hand. The queen snatched it back, as if bitten, and hastily returned to admiring herself in the oval of glass that reflected her like water.
Miyohtwāw stood as tall as she could. “But now, Great Mother, we must discuss the petition I brought,” she said. “I hope you can see why it is so urgent to rectify this matter for the Otipēyimisowak Nation?”
“Ah, yes, the petition,” the queen said, but she wouldn’t meet Miyohtwāw’s gaze. Instead she continued to feast solely on her own image, swishing the deep red satin to and fro. “I regret that I have not yet had time to review it, but you may read it to me now if you wish.”
Not yet read it? But it was almost spring!
Once again, Miyohtwāw wore only simple clothing, with a light scarf tucked into the neckline of her shirt and sturdy beaverteen trousers. But even the cotton fibres of her clothes froze in place in her cold grip of panic.
“Your majesty—” she started, then couldn’t think of what else to say.
“Are you going to read it to me, or not?” the queen said, more sharply this time. “I still have it, there, on my dressing table.” The motion coiled in her short frame told Miyohtwāw she was prepared to leave if Miyohtwāw didn’t act quickly.
So she did, cracking the still-sealed wax.
When the first Hauthasan farmers arrived on the Plains, looking to laboriously seed and plow great tracks of land they claimed to “own,” the Otipēyimisowak thought them crazy but harmless. The people of La Foursze were a mixed people, after all, and many had family ties to the newcomers through their Hauthasan great-grandfathers. The Otipēyimisowak, the most respected hunters on the Plains, shared their bison meat with only a little ribbing when the farmers’ crops failed six years out of ten.
But then the settlers claimed they acted with the blessing of the queen. They forbade the Otipēyimisowak from cutting firewood to warm themselves, or from fishing to feed their families. They built homesteads on communal lands that had been used by the Otipēyimisowak for generations, splitting apart large extended family townships who relied on each other to survive—physically, and emotionally and spiritually as well. The words the settlers uttered to the Otipēyimisowak at the trading posts grew more hateful by the day, and suddenly Otipēyimisowak women could no longer safely sell their beadwork in town.
All the while, the bison that clothed and fed them all fled farther and farther west.
All the while, more and more Hauthasan arrived every spring. Every plot of land surveyed for the settlers broke the Otipēyimisowak Nation—“the people who rule themselves,” the ones who had given Miyohtwāw a home, a family, a purpose—further apart.
“...this theft of Otipēyimisowak land clearly contravenes the nation-to-nation relationship set out in the Royal Proclamation of 1763,” Miyohtwāw read, stumbling a little over the Hauthasan words. “We press our Great Mother the Queen, or a representative of Her Majesty, to come see for themselves the destruction being wrought on her Otipēyimisowak children in her name. We must reclaim our responsibilities as kin to each other, before our children starve, our families are separated, and our land chokes on our suffering. Signed...”
Four thousand names affirmed the petition, starting with Miyohtwāw’s husband’s. She handed it to the queen.
The queen finally ripped her gaze away from her own mirrored image to take the proffered petition. Her mouth thinned into a straight line as she read name after name. “Mrs. Paquette, you will remember that that proclamation was my father’s, made before my time as Queen.”
“Our relationships do not end with a single generation,” Miyohtwāw said. “That is why we teach our children history and help them learn for the future.”
In the taut silence of waiting for the queen’s reply, Miyohtwāw’s ears roared with the distant clatter of servants’ footsteps outside the queen’s door. She didn’t miss the queen’s glances, drawn over and over again to her silk-wrapped image in the mirror.
Miyohtwāw’s nails dug into the soft pads of her palms. How many families’ lives revolved around this single Hauthasan woman, a wife and a mother and a leader? Not just here in the palace but across the Hauthasan nation and the other lands they laid claim to. How many other families looked towards Queen Victra, even as she stared, entranced, at herself?
“Is this how you wish your children to see you?” Miyohtwāw burst out at this woman who claimed the role of “Great Mother Across the Salt Sea” yet seemed to reject its responsibilities. “As uncaring? Indifferent?”
Rose petals, from bushes lovingly tended by Miyohtwāw’s son, twitched at the queen’s shoulders.
In the looking glass, the dress’s cardinal-red hem began to smoke, then crumbled into ash. It was one of Miyohtwāw’s creations, after all. And Miyohtwāw’s clothes were always vested with more power than silk or sinew carried alone.
The queen’s eyes snapped furiously to Miyohtwāw’s, not noticing the change in the reflection of her dress. “I was not aware of your concerns before this, was I?” she said. “But I am disturbed to hear that my children are being treated in such fashion. I will appoint a governor, who will travel to your lands and act as my proper representative, as requested.”
She paused, her eyes far away.
“In fact... yes, that dovetails well.” The queen’s spirit seemed to snap back into her body. “The man I’m meeting today. He has been agitating for a position, and I cannot have him wooed away by those pushing for reform. A governorship in your lands... Now that would be just the thing. It will settle both our problems.”
A gahvahner... Miyohtwāw would have to learn more about what this was, but for now, the self-doubt tightening around her heart loosened its grip. The reflection of the dress stopped trying to shift with her conflicting intentions and shimmered back to something whole. The queen looked every part the seducer once again.
The queen, who had listened. The queen, who was willing to change her plans on the Otipēyimisowak’s behalf, with Miyohtwāw’s help.
“I am confident in our joint success,” Miyohtwāw said, head light with relief.
“And just like that, Endersby was eating out of the palm of my hand!” the queen crowed to Miyohtwāw a week later. Miyohtwāw still wasn’t entirely sure who the queen had bent to her will, but she understood he was important. From a neighbouring nation, perhaps?
They met in a small salon, this time a place of Miyohtwāw’s own choosing. She liked the large windows and the wheat-coloured wallpaper, even if it did still come with a faint smell of must. The queen had acquiesced.
“He is Gallish, you know, and has never truly forgotten the Hauthasan conquest of Gallish lands, generations ago. But I convinced him to let bygones be bygones. A woman’s touch, you know. We must all forgive and forget, don’t you agree?” the queen asked, her tone attempting to be light, but coming out forced instead. She paused intently, teacup halfway to her lips.
Miyohtwāw briefly allowed herself to close her eyes. She was tired; tired of this self-involved queen, and tired of this self-righteous land. She took another sip of her own weak tea, thinking of beaten-up kettles just starting to hiss over the coals; missing the smokey scent of leather stretched out to tan over the fire. “If harmony and justice have been restored, then yes,” she said and tried desperately to suppress a sneeze.
The queen tsked, as if this wasn’t the answer she wanted. Words bubbled up Miyohtwāw’s throat, but she carefully swallowed them down. Miyohtwāw knew the queen was acting differently around her. She was not a servant, or a seamstress, or truly a friend. The queen’s upholding of her proclaimed responsibilities as a mother was... uneven.
But then the queen said, “He was reluctant at first, but the Earl of Endersby will be eminently suitable as the new governor of La Foursze, I am sure,” and Miyohtwāw allowed herself some hope.
“We welcome the opportunity to work with a representative of our Great Mother who respects the rule of law,” Miyohtwāw responded. She had yet to meet this earl, but thank the Creator that help was finally on its way.
She took advantage of a sudden surge of boldness. “This means I must soon make the journey home,” she declared, and set her teacup down with ill-disguised relief.
Which of her relations would still be there, holding out at La Foursze? Last year, three Otipēyimisowak women had been attacked by Hauthasan farmers. Several of their orators had been thrown in Hauthasan jails for little more than publicly defending their rights. Others—even much-loved mothers-in-law—were taken every winter by typhus. The outbreaks had been vicious last year.
It wasn’t a question of if there would be faces missing when she finally made it home. Only a question of which ones.
“Of course,” the queen continued. “But first, I need another dress.”
Miyohtwāw sagged back in the plush chair. It was not often she felt old, but her back had already been aching for days. “Great Mother, that will not be possible,” she said, trying to hide her frustration like new stitches in a seam. “The snow has already thinned to slush; there isn’t much time left before—”
“This cannot wait,” the queen interrupted, chin set firm. “A public meeting with the republicans and their supporters has already been set. More importantly, our objectives are once again aligned in this. There are too many people around me that do not respect my power. It is always a difficult thing for a leader, more so as a woman.”
The queen leaned in closer, almost conspiratorially.
“The officials in your country who look the other way while your land is seized are championed by men here, the republicans, who claim to speak on my behalf. They do not! They rebel against me, Victra, their Queen!” The queen’s thin hair had pulled loose from the braids on either side of her face, and the strands shook freely in the air. “But my options for using force are limited. I cannot force them to do my bidding. Women... we need armour we can wear in polite company. Armour that protects us and speaks for us when we need it most. Do you understand?”
Miyohtwāw’s chest clenched with the echo of old anguish. “You need to show them your power,” she said slowly.
“Yes,” the queen said. “For both your nation and mine.”
Miyohtwāw had spent four days by herself on the Plains after she ran away from the grey nuns. The prairie grass had grown stinging and tall, and when she stumbled over her own feet, weak with hunger, she felt like she would tip over into the bright blue bowl of sky. After the nuns took her, she had forgotten her family’s lessons on how to live on the land except for what came to her in her dreams. All she had to arm herself with was a single blunt needle and a half-finished piece of embroidery. When she found her future husband’s settlement, drawn at night to the mischievous music and thump of dancing feet, he had had to gently break open her curled fist, so tightly was it clutched around the linen, before he could give her a cup of stew.
“I will do it,” Miyohtwāw said quietly. “As long as you use this meeting with the republicans to affirm the Otipēyimisowak’s rights and responsibilities to our land, and our ongoing kinship with you, our Great Mother Across the Salt Sea. If you do this, I will make you your armour in four days’ time.”
“That is too late,” said the queen quickly. “I meet with them on—”
Miyohtwāw held up her blistered fingertips for silence. “I cannot work faster than the Creator gives me strength,” she said.
The queen looked away from the oozing bubbles of skin. “Very well,” she agreed shortly. “Four days’ time.”
Over the next few days, Miyohtwāw became a prisoner in her own room, working as hard as she ever had. She measured and cut, cut and measured. She whispered as she beaded, threading each bead with the queen’s intent. She held her family close in mind and gave thanks to her ancestors, who lent the power of their fingers to work faster than she ever could have alone, faster than even she thought possible. Finally, with her knees cracking and her eyesight doubling, she finished.
The dress was midnight blue with pointed shoulders, full sleeves that flared at the elbows and a layered skirt in gold and jade. On the back, rich brocade mimicked eagle wings, with a spray of white that would halo the queen. But the exquisite delicacy and power of the gown lay in the fully beaded bodice and train. There were thousands upon thousands of beads of every kind—small, blown-glass beads that shimmered like a glacier lake; faceted gold, silver and copper beads that danced in the light; pony beads in every shade of blue interspersed with shards of bison horn, tracing designs that became increasingly complex down the train that flowed out from the queen like water.
At Miyohtwāw’s touch, the glass and metal, silver and bone swirled and tumbled as real water would at the powerful confluence of two great rivers—just like the one that gave her adopted community of La Foursze, “the fork,” its name. No mere illusion, this swirl of glinting, moving, shining beads was designed to cow anyone caught in its wake.
It dulled the most ornate room of the palace in comparison, and yet—thanks to Miyohtwāw’s gifts—it weighed no more than a light shift. It was a gown unlike any other, and Miyohtwāw had exhausted herself and her stores completing it.
Rather than meet her in person, the queen sent servants to carefully collect the dress. Just as fear had tinged the queen’s awe at the cardinal-red dress, the servants reared like horses with the scent of a wolf in their nose at the sight of this one. After nearly refusing to touch the dress—had they never seen anything so different, so... “majikal” before?—they finally took hold of the dress, handling it as little as possible. They then told Miyohtwāw where to go for the queen’s public address.
She thought she had followed their directions. But when she pushed open a set of black doors, she saw instead Lord Macall, the Hauthasan lord who had brought her across the ocean as a curiosity only to treat her so dismissively before the queen.
Miyohtwāw drew up short. He appeared busy at a desk piled high with sheaves of paper, though he had yet to answer a single one of her earlier entreaties.
“Good afternoon,” Miyohtwāw said stiffly, granting him the minimum respect that protocol required. “Forgive me. I must be in the wrong place.” She quickly turned to go. The queen was waiting.
“No, you’re in the right place,” he called out, without looking up. His steel-nibbed pen scratched sharply back and forth as he signed another paper and moved it aside. If the Hauthasan measured worth by the scraps of paper one signed, he must have been a very important man. “The Queen asked me to meet you here while she was otherwise occupied with quelling rebellion.”
“I am supposed to attend that... kwelīn,” said Miyohtwāw, unsure of much more than just the word.
“You were supposed to give Queen Victra what she needed to intimidate her detractors into submission, which you have now done,” he said, almost tiredly. “Which means that she may continue empire-building in peace. Your role here at court is done; it is time for you to go home.”
Miyohtwāw jerked her head back. His words—the queen’s actions—slowly sunk in.
The Hauthasan queen had never intended to affirm the Proclamation to her own people. Never intended to help the Otipēyimisowak.
Miyohtwāw saw now that all the paper-signing had been a show, a distraction, while he delivered his news without meeting her eye. Was that guilt, creeping in? The man who had assured the grandmothers at La Foursze of the queen’s desire for a renewed relationship wouldn’t look at her now, but he held his body wound tight.
“You knew this about your queen, and yet you proclaimed our ‘Great White Mother’s’ endless compassion for our plight.” The words were as bitter as rat root in her mouth. “Do you people really care so little for the women who raise you? Or is it just this queen?”
He had the grace to flush, then bit out a hollow laugh. “Well, gossip says she hates being pregnant and calls all her newborns ugly,” he said, as if considering the matter for the first time. “She does view herself as better than her own mother, though that is, admittedly, a low bar. Controlling woman—created a series of intricate rules to keep the young Princess Victra away from anyone she didn’t approve of, which was everyone. Mostly, she kept her daughter domesticated, fearful and alone.” He returned to his papers, shaking what looked like sand onto wet ink. “The two of them are now estranged,” he added, heedless—deliberately so?—of the effect his words had on her.
Miyohtwāw tried to speak, tried to deny it, but it was as if her tongue had swollen to twice its size. Her mind recounted every time the queen had reiterated her maternal support. Is this what she’d meant? “Surely that’s not what you think of mothers,” she choked out.
The lord sighed, and finally put down his pen. “It is surely so,” he said. “The Queen knows—as everyone knows—that bringing law and order to breeds like yours is an act of motherly mercy. Why, civilizing savages is what she does. Even now she is using that ‘magical’ armour you made her to appease those calling for republican reform with promises of a great new agricultural colony in La Foursze. Otipēyimisowak land rights complicate things unnecessarily when the Hauthasan colonies are growing at such a rapid pace, you know. Their schools and churches will take you people in, once the bison are gone.” He gave a wave of his hand, as if that settled the matter. “Using violence to suppress her subjects... doesn’t suit the Queen’s benevolent self-image,” he continued. “But a good mother always provides.”
Miyohtwāw tried desperately to find something to say or do. She was no ambassador, no politician—and how she’d proved it, by letting these people take her gifts and distort them for use against her own family. Gifts beyond sewing, gifts of spirit and power that the Hauthasan clearly had no experience with but recognized enough to covet.
And she was spent, majik or not. Even now, all she wore was a rough skirt and bodice of beaverteen, made by others’ hands, barely better than slops. There was no power in these clothes to make her into the person she needed to be, and now she stood, defenceless.
“One more thing.” He pretended to busy himself again, dipping his pen into the inkwell. “I have—in a moment of weakness, God only knows—accepted a new post at La Foursze at the Queen’s request. It at least means I can return you to your home. Our ship sails tomorrow; be ready when the servants come to fetch you.”
The terrible suspicion cloyed like poison on her tongue. He did not look up, clearly deeming the meeting over.
Her voice was barely louder than a whisper. “Then the Earl of Endersby... will not be the new governor after all?”
Finally, he met her eyes. He frowned and sighed again, as though enduring the questions of a child. “I am the fifth Earl of Endersby,” said the man others had called Lord Macall. “As well as the Lord Lieutenant of Selt and a Member of the Order of Hauthasan. Or did you not know?”
In her chambers, Miyohtwāw slowly packed up her tattered few spools of thread and scraps of hide. As night fell, the candles she’d lit threw mocking shadows against the walls while the grand Hauthasan portraits smirked. She had put on her best-loved dress from home, looking for strength. But she was only reminded of everyone she’d failed. This queen is not your kin, she remembered over and again. Her fingers ached and her lower back seized with intermittent pain, but she would not allow herself the release of tears. This queen will not help you or the people of La Foursze.
“Another success!” called a voice from her doorway, and Miyohtwāw jumped as if stung.
The queen swept into the room, jade glinting against velvet brocade in the candlelight, disregarding the deathly silence. “Now, it’s true. I haven’t yet dealt with my father’s Proclamation, as you asked. But good news. One more commission, and we can accomplish what’s best for both our people.”
Miyohtwāw recognized the lie, as she should have from the beginning. “I have exhausted my wares,” she said tersely. “And I leave tomorrow. I have nothing left to give.”
“Oh, but you do,” the queen said. “I don’t need a new gown this time. Only to have one tailored.” She reached out to flick one of the deer-hair tassels that circled Miyohtwāw’s skirt below the hip. “Specifically, your own.”
Miyohtwāw jerked back. “This is a jest,” she breathed.
“It is not, Mrs. Paquette,” responded the queen. “You see, I am coming across the ocean after all. These strange gifts of yours have made me much too curious about your world, and what it can offer my own. Empires are hungry beasts. And we must re-negotiate that Royal Proclamation that has given us all such headaches. I need your leaders to trust me, to see me as one of their own kin. I am their Great White Mother, after all.”
The queen was not lying now. She wanted Miyohtwāw’s dress. And she wanted it to deceive.
Even to Miyohtwāw’s eye, her outfit was hardly beautiful. She had made it with her mother-in-law, one of the first she’d ever completed. She had treated and scraped and prepared the bison hide apron on her own and spun the sinew into strands of thread. Her time with the grey nuns had taught her how to cut out a muslin shirt for the top, but it was the Otipēyimisowak grandmothers who had showed her how to cut leggings by following the lines of the elk who had given its life to clothe her. Her daughters had later used these leggings for some of their earliest embroidery practice. Her husband made the moccasins for her as a wedding gift. He had beaded a blue flower, for her, and a slightly crooked red sash, for him, on each moccasin vamp.
Her whole life was captured, in one way or another, in the folds and beads and textures of the dress—helped by more loving hands than she could count.
When the queen had first come to her, Miyohtwāw had been so relieved that she hadn’t failed after all. And it was true. She hadn’t. But then she’d given her own power to the queen, piece by piece, chasing this woman’s favour as if it were the only thing that could help her nation. She’d forgotten the person she needed to be for the people she loved. Most importantly, she’d forgotten where her power truly lay.
Not just in the clothes she made. But in the paths she’d chosen, in the nation she fought to protect, and in the people whose strength and nurturing had gotten her here.
She remembered now.
“Here, your majesty,” Miyohtwāw said, her tone betraying nothing, and carefully removed the dress. She waited in a dingy shift made from a boiled flour sack and rubbed through at the knees. “Try it on now.” The queen eagerly obliged.
Miyohtwāw whispered in Otipēyimisowak as she helped straighten the leggings, bound the ties of the bodice together. Every one of her family that helped her make this dress, all of her kin—two-legged, four-legged and more—rustled back.
It was time the queen remembered the implications of the power she claimed. Miyohtwāw gave the queen several moments to gawk at herself in a large looking glass, a Hauthasan woman in such exotic garb.
When Miyohtwāw spoke, she spoke with the strength of many.
“One of my responsibilities back home is to dress the dead,” she said, her voice clear. “We women put the black cloth in the coffin, then lay a blanket inside it, trimmed with ribbon. We wash the bodies and prepare them with medicine. Then I dress them for the wake, in their favourite clothes. This helps them remember who they truly are as they make their journey onward.”
The queen plucked at the uneven pleats of the blouse, and coughed. “How interesting,” she said. She kept her eyes on her figure in the looking glass.
“This dress is the dress I hope to be buried in,” Miyohtwāw continued. “Because it represents the most important relationships of my life, the ones that made me who I am.” She paused. “Do you know, queen, what your own most important relationships would look like? Do you know who you truly are?”
Suddenly the room seemed to shift, candles flickered, and the queen gasped at her reflection.
In the looking glass stared back a corpse-pale woman in a high-necked black dress. It was coated all over in pale ash, as a log consumes itself in a fire. Its corset like a fist was made of splitting bison bone, the remnants of an unmolested way of life. A heavy, bib-like collar, like those worn by the dreaded republicans, was tied tight around the queen’s throat.
“What—what is this? What are you?” the queen squeaked out. Her hands flew to her neck, scrabbling to untie the white collar’s stays and only entangling them further.
Miyohtwāw inhaled sharply, but said nothing yet. She’d aimed for a truth-telling, but even she didn’t know what the queen truly carried inside her.
The queen heaved for breath, panicking, wedging her fingers into the hollows of her throat to gain space between the collar and her neck. As she did so her long black skirts shifted, and from her waistband stretched down strings connected to a dozen human puppets. There was one for each of her “children” nations. Their shackled wrists were pulled up high over their heads by threads of gold.
The queen looked at them in horror. Some wore bright printed cloth, others nearly nothing. Their hair was red and straight, brown and thick, black and curly. One small figurine wore a muslin blouse, skirt, and deerskin leggings with unmistakable quill rosettes around the ankles.
Little mouths opened in screams too tinny to make out.
Standing behind her, Miyohtwāw bore witness to the queen’s life story through the looking-glass even as her own faithful blouse, skirt, leggings and moccasins still clothed her. But the queen was too trapped in her reckoning to notice.
“Is this meant to—kill me?” the queen choked out, still scrabbling at her neck, then dropped to her knees. It finally silenced the puppets.
All Miyohtwāw’s old feelings of angry powerlessness flared up. She stepped forward so that she was close enough to put a reassuring hand on the queen’s shoulder, though she didn’t.
“I also grew up without a mother,” Miyohtwāw said, and locked eyes with the queen in the glass. “And while the grey nuns took me in, and gave me food and shelter, it took many more years before I found a home. These are the people you want to break free of—the families of La Foursze, the Otipēyimisowak Nation. Families you don’t even know.”
She stopped, then carried on.
“Come to La Foursze. Come as you planned, but learn this time. Take off your armour. Meet your relatives as relatives and be open to what they have to teach.”
Miyohtwāw finally stepped between the queen and the looking glass. She pulled the queen’s hand away from her high collar, which no longer threatened to strangle her, to help the queen feel what she was actually wearing—the low neck of a Plains woman’s blouse.
The queen still had a question in her eyes as she heaved deep breaths, the vision now broken, and clutched at the other textures of Miyohtwāw’s dress—the soft muslin, the stippled hide, the quill-wrapped fringe. “You can’t learn if you’re dead,” Miyohtwāw said. “And if I stopped you from learning, what kind of mother would I be?”
Kikī-kwayask nākasohta? Did you listen closely?
Well. In the end, the woman who sewed such powerful clothes went home. In success? In defeat? She didn’t know.
She only knew to wrap her own feet this time in freshly soled moccasins to help her find her way. She reminded herself that she had not failed to protect her nation—she had opened the Otipēyimisowak’s eyes when it came to what they should expect from the distant queen. Keeping their families and their land together would be difficult, but at least now they knew they needed to look to their own power as a nation, within. This kept her back straight.
The woman, called Miyohtwāw, did still feel the tug of kinship when she thought of the Hauthasan queen, who claimed the highest role and responsibility of all—that of family—and thought so little of carrying through. She was not their “Great Mother,” that much was certain. But Miyohtwāw wondered how long the Hauthasan queen would remember the lesson of the burial dress, or if it that, too, would soon be forgotten.
When Miyohtwāw gratefully stepped back onto her own land, some faces were gone. But there was one new—a baby boy, her first grandchild, with the joyful lungs of a crow.
That spring did not unfold as expected. Fewer Hauthasan farmers followed the rivers into La Foursze than ever before, and the Otipēyimisowak took negotiating into their own hands to gain new concessions for their families and their lands.
The Earl of Endersby also failed to follow. Miyohtwāw was given to understand the queen rescinded his appointment as governor while her councillors searched for someone more suitable.
It was enough for Miyohtwāw to hold onto a small flame of hope that the queen would come meet her relations on this side of the ocean herself.
The queen did not. But many years later, her son-in-law did.
Like the queen, he heard petitions from the Otipēyimisowak and other neighbouring nations about encroaching Hauthasan claims and responded with words of concern. But he also feasted and travelled and exchanged gifts with Otipēyimisowak kin he met, and claimed as his relations, for the first time.
A year after he’d first stepped onto their land, after much torn consideration, Miyohtwāw went to see him at the nearby stone fort. She wore a brightly coloured skirt of ribbons and her grandchild on her back. He wore not the gold-braided, starchly ironed clothes of his homeland, but a simple blue capote coat of the Plains.
They had never met at the Hauthasan court, and yet he came quickly over to her with a start of recognition in his eyes. A relationship he must have learned, then, from his mother-in-law, the queen. One that didn’t end with a single generation.
He reached out a friendly hand, presenting his family’s greetings. After a moment, she took it.
The circle edge of her skirt kissed the ground and her grandson’s chubby cheek rested gently on her neck. Miyohtwāw stood tall, centred and upright. Thinking of relationships that could be different and yet renewed.
“Please return my greetings,” she said, “to your mother across the salt sea.”