Insurrection in Silk20 min read


Gillian Conahan
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She is drowning in organza and shantung, a rustling mass of indigo and royal purple. The fabric whispers under her hands, defying her to prick a finger and spot the silk. Its cost is unfathomable: even the scraps are precious, trimmed square and painstakingly hemmed into handkerchiefs for royal favors, and the whole is worth far more than a dressmaker’s life.

The apprentices’ work is done, and they’ve gone out to enjoy the Conqueror’s Festival or home to their beds. The imperial dressmaker remains, burning through scores of beeswax candles, her neck and shoulders aching as she hunches over her task. The basting must be finished before the fitting tomorrow morning, myriad shifting layers secured in place and pins banished so that the Empress will not be pricked. Regimented stitches march across the lustrous expanse, no conquering army but a calculated insurrection, an invisible reshaping of the silk’s will.

By the time it is finished, hundreds of hours will be bound into the gown’s seams. The stitches are a chronicle of her captivity, ticks of the clock like hatches on a cell wall.


She was not born to this.

The Empress came to her city three years ago, and before her came the white horde, thousands of them clad in un–dyed linen that quickly grew bright with blood. The dressmaker sat above the fray, a noble daughter with delicate hands. She watched from her tower window, her sewing neglected. Her brother would never wear his new tunic.

A month after the horde burned through her peaceful merchant city, the surviving families were called to deliver tribute. Many refused, and went to their deaths with pride. But the silk merchant’s daughters were not among them. The delicacy of silk is rivaled only by its resilience. It bends before it breaks, and springs back with astonishing strength. They agreed to the terms.

But their wealth alone was not enough. Bales of chiffon and crepe de chine, spools of glistening thread, however fine, lacked the grandeur the Empress demanded. For the first time, the dressmaker’s life rested in her own skilled hands: seams straight as an arrow, stitches so fine she counted the threads between them. Working late into the night, she cut and stitched white chiffon to produce the finest gown ever seen in the Empress’s court. A hundred feathery layers, flickering with tiny beads and shot with threads of gold, restrained by sanguine ribbons above the waist and billowing into lofty clouds below. The result was fragile and yet stately, transforming the colors of the horde into undeserved refinement.

Her sisters had helped as they could, but their skills lay elsewhere. Shrewd Hanna had negotiated the sale of their remaining assets to buy finely worked laces and hundreds of gemstone embellishments. Brisk Marta had taken over the household affairs, caring for their mother in her grief and cleaning relentlessly so that no smudge nor speck of dust fell on the immaculate yardage. But it was the dressmaker’s skill that would carry them all, her arms that ached with unaccustomed labor and her callused fingers that smelled permanently of sericin and beeswax. Her skill that would earn reprieve, and — she could scarcely think of it, it seemed so remote — someday win their freedom, their redemption.

On the appointed day, the dressmaker brought the gown to the Empress’s court in the hall of the gods. She quelled her rage at this presumption; it was only the last of a thousand violations. The Empress presided from a throne of marble and gold, which had been carried all the way from the imperial city though it must have weighed tons. An ivory mask gave her the visage of a raging demon, and a jeweled war axe rested beneath her right hand. Her cloak was ocelot fur, plush and gleaming, its collar heavily embellished with gold and gems. The effect was impossibly rich, but still crude to the dressmaker’s eye. Tremulous hope rose. She could do better.

Attendants brought in the velvet–lined chest and flung it open before the dais. Ethereal layers spilled out, stirring with the courtiers’ gasps, and the soft folds seemed to capture all the light in the room. The dressmaker dared not look around at the assembled courtiers, but she knew that none of the empire’s finest wore its equal. In spite of everything, she felt a glow of pride from that knowledge.

The dressmaker spoke the ritual tribute. “The silk traders bring this offering to the indomitable Empress, righteous storm and vanguard of civilization. We pray that you will accept this token of our gratitude and esteem, O eminence who has brought us into enlightenment, and that it will prove our devotion to the Dominion of all nations.”

The empress smiled behind her war mask, sensual lips framed by the demon’s snarling jaws. “What else have you brought us?”

The dressmaker felt a pang of fear. The tribute had brought her family to the brink of ruin, and if it was deemed inadequate all their lives would be forfeit. But her true weapon, the fulcrum of a hundred hours’ candlelit scheming, still remained. She inhaled slowly.

“I offer my own skills to the glory of the Empress. I will make a thousand dresses, even grander than this, and her magnificence will be unparalleled in earth or heaven.”

The Empress waved one of her ladies over to inspect the gown. Bull–faced and stocky, the woman tugged at the stitches and peered beneath the lining to inspect the seams. The dressmaker held her breath, knowing the workmanship was impeccable but certain the woman would manufacture some flaw out of spite. Finally, though, she nodded.

The Empress smiled more broadly, her eyes gleaming behind the mask. “Present yourself to my steward in the imperial city within one week’s time, and your family will be spared. So long as your work is satisfactory, they will reside in comfort in my capital.”

Held hostage, the dressmaker knew, each to secure the cooperation of the rest. The Empress takes no chances.


The final candle burns low, and the dress is laced up on the dummy, though the many–layered silks are so crisp that it could almost stand up on its own. She whisks away dust and stray threads with a soft brush, and runs her hands over the seams one more time to check for pins. Satisfied, she douses the light.

She buttons her jacket against the night chill, and her hand lingers briefly over the object tucked into its inner pocket. A tin of pins, procured through Hanna’s trade connections. They look perfectly ordinary, just like the ones she always carries in her apron, but she must not confuse them.

“Don’t prick yourself by mistake,” Hanna warned. “And don’t let anyone find them.”

She keeps them close, a talisman against the perils of court. Someday, when all is prepared, the time will come to use them.


Before the fitting, the dressmaker attends the Empress in court. She stands at the back of the hall, next to the door, at the foot of an enormous tapestry depicting the conquest of the Sharpspire mountains. It was another tribute object, like the dressmaker herself, but she stands beside it more to stay out of the nobles’ way than out of any sense of kinship. They are a bloodthirsty rabble, following the example of their ruler, and they will not hesitate to inflict all manner of suffering on the humble foreign seamstress.

The Empress presides from a towering throne, dark–stained wood richly carved and set with rubies. Her gown is ruddy gold taffeta, embellished all over with heavy silver embroidery, hem and décolletage trimmed with stiff black pleats. It is a court dress, so the full skirts pool richly around her feet. The gowns for her campaigns are no less impressive, but she wears the hems shorter, frothing around the ankles of her riding boots and not tangling underfoot. In neither case will the Empress tolerate constriction in her arms and shoulders, for she must be free at all times to wield a sword or the savage war axe, and this gown has sleeves of soft georgette that gather into a neat cuff just below her elbow. The dressmaker lavished many hours on those sleeves, collecting their folds in delicately embroidered smocking to provide beauty without hinderance.

She was unreal, this Empress, when tales of her prowess first reached the dressmaker’s city. She had risen from a noble family in the east, won the throne by betrayal or subterfuge or the patronage of demons, spread through the land like an unnatural plague. As her hordes swept across the continent, the rumors became whispered legend. Her war mask hid a monstrous face. She ate no fruit or grain, but thrived on the flesh of her foes. She swung her axe with the strength of a dozen men.

After all that, the reality should be a disappointment. She is, apparently, mortal. She has won her empire through skill, strategy, and sheer ferocity. She wears no mask among her own people, and her features are unremarkable. If anything about her is inhuman, it is her cold, implacable resolve.

Nevertheless, her presence is formidable. She must be over six feet tall, towering over the ladies of her court and most of the men, with broad shoulders, a lean, muscular build, and steely upright bearing. Her face is architectural, not beautiful, with prominent nose and cheekbones and high, arched brows over piercing black eyes, and her full lips, set in a disdainful curve, give no hint of softness.

Six noblemen are pinioned in her gaze, glorified merchants with a sober and sensible manner. They wear neat, elegant clothing in shades of black and gray, a dowdy flock of seabirds amid birds of paradise. A peaceful delegation, bringing gifts and flattery from Larus, a harbor city a week’s ride to the west. It is well known that the Empress intends to seize their trade–glutted port on her next campaign, and this wretched party hopes to forestall it with negotiations. They’ve come in good faith, bringing gifts and gestures of appeasement, but they are fools to think they can buy her forbearance. Any offer she makes is feline torture, toying with her meal before she devours it.

The leader, a prim man with a daintily cropped beard, steps forward and bows.

“Oh great Empress,” he begins. “Even your redoubtable reputation has failed to convey your glory, your grace, your peerless beauty.”

The merchant has made his first mistake. The courtiers murmur, scenting blood, but the Empress does not react. Her face is fixed in a tolerant half–smile, waiting for him to continue.

He bows again, more confidently. “Truly you are wise to admit us, Empress, for Larus could be a great asset to your noble mission. We hope that you will accept this gift, as a token of our esteem.”

He has brought jewelry, spices, rare scents. His city is wealthy, a nexus of trade with the world’s distant reaches, and his gifts appropriately exotic. Nevertheless, they lack conviction. The merchant thinks he will buy her forbearance with baubles, and he is wrong.

The dressmaker’s brothers were the same, once. To a merchant, wealth and power are two sides of the coin. But the dressmaker has learned a few things about how the empress thinks. The men who come to bear her tribute are taken by her splendor, but it is the axe in her hand they should fear — for she is not above using it. The empress is practical, and she values skill higher than gold. In this, the dressmaker has been fortunate.

For the first year of her captivity the dressmaker cowered in her quarters, emerging only to tend to her work, followed always by the white–clad guards. When she ventured further, she found ample reinforcement for her fears, from predatory courtiers and the capricious rages of the Empress. These merchants of Larus are fortunate that their leader gave no direct insult, as the general of Brevin did, nor condescended like the emissary–priest of Grelair. The dressmaker saw both cut down by axe and sword, saw the Empress paint herself with their blood while her ladies tore their retinues limb from limb. She spent many long vigils quivering, certain that through some error or slight she would come to the same fate.

But she has spent the last three years making herself invaluable. The courtiers cultivate a veneer of grace and sophistication atop their base savagery. Perhaps no seamstress before her has been called upon to drape so many weapons in taffeta and brocade, but the dressmaker has developed a knack for the gracefully concealed knife. Through stubbornness and pride she has inured herself to the storms of court politics. She has won a measure of trust, and though she would never dare to believe she is unobserved, the guards no longer shadow her every movement. Gradually, a grim fascination has crept in around the hollow core of terror that has ruled her thoughts.

If the merchants had asked, she could have warned them. “Give her something she cannot simply take herself.”

But wealthy men do not listen to dressmakers anyway.


The dressmaker returns to her studio, and prepares to receive the Empress.

Apprentices fuss with the other work, hemming and steaming and mending for the ladies of the court. They give the new gown a wide berth, for the empress’s raiment falls to the dressmaker alone. It would be unfair to lay that burden on their heads, when a single slip of unseasoned hands could cost their lives. She’s lost more than one apprentice that way.

At noon the Empress arrives, flanked by two of her ladies. The dressmaker bows until her back creaks, and begins lacing the Empress into the half–finished gown. Mathilde, a short, ample woman who has only recently risen to court after the abrupt death of her mother, drifts over to inspect the bolts of silk, while pale, steely Jasmin berates an apprentice over a fallen hem. All fall silent when the Empress steps in front of the mirror and shakes out her skirts.

The gown is a cathedral, buttressed with whalebone and paned with flakes of onyx and couched pearls. The indigo shantung has a frosty gleam that evokes dragon scales, and the plunging neckline echoes the fearsome war mask’s pointed jaw. Exaggerated shoulders come to a stiff peak, supported by organza and horsehair, and make her look like a granite statue, or a figure out of an illustrated epic.

The dressmaker tugs and pins, smoothing out every wrinkle and imperfection and marking the changes with pale dabs of chalk. Her heart pounds in her ears, and she scarcely remembers to breathe. Though she has now done this dozens of times, any small misstep could mean the end of it.

The empress catches her eye in the mirror and graces her with a wicked smile. “What did you think of the delegation this morning?”

The dressmaker freezes. Is the Empress asking her?

“Mice, the lot of them,” Lady Mathilde says. “They’re even the right color.” She laughs raucously, generous bosom quivering in her green taffeta gown.

“I wasn’t asking you,” the Empress says, with a look of withering disdain. From the look on her face, the dressmaker will be surprised if Lady Mathilde appears at court in the next week.

When addressed by the Empress, it is wise to reply promptly. “These merchants are shrewd men,” she says. “They are accustomed to subtlety, not shows of force, and will use trickery if they cannot defeat you in open battle.”

The Empress raises her eyebrows. “And how do you know this?”

The dressmaker blushes, hoping she has not gone too far. “The lady observed the lack of ornament in their clothing, but it was expensive and well crafted nonetheless. The cloth was very fine, and the fit impeccable.”

The Empress smiles more broadly. “Very perceptive. You’d make an excellent spy.”

The dressmaker bows, glowing at the compliment and hoping the Empress can’t see the terror in her face. She is playing a game the dressmaker doesn’t know, and in such moods she is especially dangerous. “I am only a dressmaker, Glorious Light.”

“That you have survived this long suggests you possess a great many gifts, of which humility and tact are the least. You are entitled to pride. Only beware overconfidence.”

“Yes, Glorious Light.” The dressmaker bows over her work, assuming a studious frown to mask more hazardous emotions.

But the Empress is not done with her. “What do my clothes say about me, dressmaker?”

The dressmaker chooses her words carefully. “Glorious Light, your clothing is both battle standard and weapon. Like you, it commands attention. Weak men are intimidated by your glory, and foolish men see the beautiful facade but overlook the strength within. These merchants will underestimate you, and rue it.”

She thinks for a moment, and adds, “The silk you favor is known as much for its strength as for its beauty, or it could not be woven so fine.”

The Empress smiles again, but the dressmaker would be foolish to understand this as simple approval. In her skills she has all possible confidence, but her foolish tongue could damn her. She is poised on a precipice, no safer for the absence of the war axe, and she finishes pinning the hem amid taut silence. But the blow does not fall, just yet. The Empress departs with her ladies. Sighing heavily, the dressmaker puts the gown up on the dummy. There is work to be done.


Later, after basting in all the alterations and removing the pins, the dressmaker’s hands are still shaking. She will make no more progress on the gown for the moment, so she leaves with the apprentices to mend her nerves with food and drink. It is the final night of the Conqueror’s Festival, which ostensibly celebrates the Empress’s grandfather, though the Empress has taken more territory in her decade of rule than he did in a lifetime. The apprentices show her to their favorite of the tents and offer to keep her company, since she has not been out for weeks, but she waves them away. They will not be young and guileless for long, and they should enjoy their festival before the perils of court exact the usual toll.

The festival–goers wear their garish best, with rich pigments and dyes disguising rough cloth and haphazard cuts. The vivid dyes are costly, but to appear in paler shades is morbid at best. Even in the capital, the pall of the white horde is felt.

She settles in at one of the long tables, with a measure of wine and a bowl of clear soup far too hot to eat. She is not alone for long.

A slender, unremarkable woman in a mossy green dress settles into the seat opposite her. Her features are softly rounded, set close on her face like the dressmaker’s own, and a lock of black hair like a satin ribbon has escaped her kerchief.

“Evening,” she says, without looking up from her own bowl.

The dressmaker looks around nervously, but observes no undue interest from the surrounding festival–goers. She sips hurriedly at her soup, and burns her tongue.

“It’s been too long.”

The dressmaker pauses. “I don’t like reminding her about you.”

“She wouldn’t forget. She always knows where her assets are.”

“She doesn’t need to know their true value.”

Hanna sighs. “It’s not going to last forever, you know.”

“She still likes my work. She wants to keep me happy.”

“To a point. But Father’s — my — trade connections aren’t as unique as your skills. She could find a new supplier and you’d go on making her gowns.”

“I wouldn’t,” the dressmaker says, with less intensity than she feels. She doesn’t dare to raise her voice.

Hanna stirs her bowl, watching the steam rise. “Before we were brought here, I visited a factory owned by one of our major suppliers. It takes two thousand silkworms to produce a pound of silk, did you know that? They raise them by hand, feeding them mulberry leaves for weeks until they spin themselves into their cocoons. Then they boil them.”

She pauses to inspect a dumpling she’s fished out of the broth. “A silkworm only makes one thread in its life, a few hundred yards of filament wound up into that cocoon. If they left the worms to turn into moths, they’d eat their way out of the cocoon and break that strand. You have to kill them at their peak to get the best quality silk.”

The dressmaker scowls. “That’s a terrible analogy. I’m no use to her dead.”

“But you’d break her threads if you could, wouldn’t you? We’ve always dreamed of doing exactly that.” Hanna stands. “I see the white linen everywhere now. She doesn’t like keeping prisoners.”

The dressmaker shakes her head. “Are you sure?” She’s felt freer than ever these last weeks, going whole days without a glimpse of the guards who once dogged her steps. She has earned her place in the court, and though it remains perilous she has enjoyed the relative security.

Hanna gives her a curious look, then sighs. She leans in, as if to kiss her cheek. “Chrysanthemum Queen. Three weeks from tomorrow,” she murmurs.

She turns, abandoning her bowl, and vanishes into the crowd. In her wake, the dressmaker sees a flash of white. More message than accident. The dressmaker’s mind reels. It’s time, then. Does the Empress suspect something? Could Hanna be right that their luck is running out? Was that the reason for her odd questions earlier? If so, then the damage has already been done, and there’s no point in going along as she has. She must act, or lose the opportunity she’s spent three years building toward.

The realization brings its own kind of calm. She’s been expecting for years to die after some small slight, and perhaps she’s waited long enough. She takes a deep breath and sips her soup, which is spicy and fragrant, with delicate wisps of shredded cabbage. The wine is as good as any she’s had, clean–tasting and very strong, but it does little to quiet her nerves. She turns in her dishes and hurries home.


An apprentice is there when she returns, huddled just inside the door and as pale as un–dyed muslin.

“Lily? What’s wrong?” The dressmaker starts to help her up, then follows her gaze to the billows of golden taffeta on the worktable.

It’s the gown the Empress wore this morning, carelessly crumpled and flung across the bench. The dressmaker automatically thinks of the amount of steaming it’ll take to put it right, but in fact the gown is unsalvageable. Something heavy and dark has splashed across the front of the gown, spreading down the skirt, and puddled along the hem.

A heavy, coppery smell fills the room. The Empress has killed someone tonight.

 “Did you see it?” The dressmaker says softly, unable to tear her gaze away from the grisly scene. “Was it the envoy from Larus?”

Lily shakes her head, sobbing. “The woman who brought the dress said it was the noblewoman who was here earlier. She and the Empress had words, she said.”

“She was new,” the dressmaker says grimly. “Nobody bothered to warn her.”

“I was going to make her a dress. She liked the lavender taffeta, and she said my stitches were very neat.” Lily shivers. “How do you live like this?”

“You keep your head down and survive,” the dressmaker says. “You stay lucky.” You stay the hell out of politics. Now that the initial shock is over, her greatest remorse is for the dress. Nothing can remove a stain like that, and they’ll be lucky if they can salvage the embellishments. A thousand hours of work, for a dress worn once and ruined.

“I can’t do it,” Lily says, averting her eyes from the devastation. “I’m sorry.”

The dressmaker looks at her and nods. “I’ll find another apprentice. Go home while you can.”

She’ll deal with the dress in the morning. For now she gathers it into a basket and sets it by the door, where it won’t stain anything else, and scrubs her hands thoroughly in the basin. She has work to do tonight.

The new campaign begins tomorrow. The white hordes are sharpening their weapons, and supply wagons have been arriving for days. In the morning, the Empress will arrive to claim her gown, which is nearly finished and waiting on the dummy. The dressmaker changes into a clean shift, to ensure no speck of blood will mar the precious folds. Such a thing might be seen as bad luck, on the eve of battle.

She takes the gown down carefully, and begins to secure her alterations with fine, even stitches. Her hands are steadier than earlier, though her thoughts remain unsettled.

Chrysanthemum Queen, Hanna said. The name of a ship: one that will carry them to safety, if they can slip past the guards and make their way to the coast. It’s a long journey, and three weeks will be enough only if everything goes smoothly. Hanna will have been planning and preparing this for months, working slowly to avoid detection. Why did she not let on sooner? Did she doubt her sister’s resolve?

Before the Empress, the dressmaker had looked forward to an ordinary life: a good marriage, if all went well, to a local noble or to one of her father’s trading contacts. An uncomplicated life, of modest wealth and little influence. Perhaps she would have sewn her husband’s clothes, made them fine as she could to impress his business partners. But she would have been a lady, with soft, graceful hands and a household to manage.

But the Empress overturned everything. Reduced her, some would say, to a humble dressmaker. Her new life is permeated with fear, punctuated with sudden violence. Her hands are tough and nimble, and she lives or dies by their skill.

In this, she and the Empress are a bit alike. One does not become the most powerful woman in the world without talent and vigilance in equal measure.

She uses a crisscrossing herringbone stitch to secure the gown’s hem, capturing just a few threads at a time, delicate and strong. The hem is substantial, weighty, as wide as her hand and softly padded so the stitches won’t show through. It will swirl heavily around the Empress’s boots, just skimming the laces atop a foam of beribboned petticoats, and cascade magnificently across the flanks of her war horse.

She returns the gown to the dummy and stands back, searching for any flaw, any stray thread that could spoil its grandeur.

The gown is breathtaking. Perhaps her greatest work, glorious and terrible as the Empress herself. She will be an avenging goddess, a demon out of legend. The merchants in grey will cower and run, and they will be cut down. The gown will be painted with blood and the dust of the battlefield, this masterpiece that is worth more than her life, and it will be brought home and discarded, or cut up for scraps if anything is left to be salvaged.

Are her aching shoulders, her callused fingers worth it for one instant of glory and terror?

Would they be worth it for anything less?

She opens the little canister, and carefully extracts a single pin. Small and subtle and wickedly sharp, easily hidden in the layers of silk, where it will wait to creep out and prick the Empress as she rides. She stares at it, watching it glitter in the lamplight.

Just a prick, Hanna said. That’s all it’ll take.

The empire will be in disarray with the Empress gone, but the court will not let her death go unpunished. The dressmaker will have to ride for the shore as soon as the army marches, and meet Hanna there in time to board the ship and sail to freedom. When they arrive in whatever distant land Hanna has chosen, she’ll set up a little shop, take in mending and make an honest living in wool and linen. Few of Hanna’s trade connections will survive, and in any case it will be too risky to take in a clientele that can afford fine fabrics.

She wafts steam from the kettle over the skirt, brushing out the wrinkles. The gown whispers under her hands. Only silk has such life to it, such voice. It feels like saying goodbye to a friend.


In the morning she watches the Empress ride. The gown glows in the sunlight, which sparks from the gems and beading and lingers in the silk’s decadent folds. She watches until the Empress vanishes into the horde, and finally disappears over a ridge. Fingering the tin in her pocket, she goes back to her workshop.

There is work to be done.


  • Gillian Conahan

    Gillian Conahan is a Portland–raised, Brooklyn–dwelling writer and sewing magazine editor with a fabric collection that she suspects is self–propagating. She studied physics and science writing at MIT, and has written nonfiction for Discover magazine and others. This is her first published fiction.

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