We don’t believe in gods any more. We pray to needles and knots. A dressmaker can give you confidence that never falters, youth that never wilts, beauty that never fades.
My mother is a dressmaker, but I’ve never met her. She didn’t even get to hold me before they took me away. Some of the other girls still remember bits and pieces. Marie remembers her mother’s curls and the rhythm of a nail file. Berenice tears up at the smell of violets. I study my mother’s creations.
When I can, I hunt for her work in the collections. I run my fingers over perfectly felled seams and touch fabric dyed with midnight melancholy. I press my cheek to velvet, red with vitality, and I curse the people who took it from her.
I once unpicked a seam of one of her pieces when nobody was looking. I pulled out the long midnight hair she’d used for thread and curled it into my locket.
I pluck my own hair from my brush and wind each strand onto the spools. I chew paper strips with other people’s hopes and wishes written on them. I lie on my stomach while the serums work on my skin, ready for it to be peeled in gossamer sheets and cut into pieces.
Work on the coronation dress begins tomorrow. They pin the design onto the walls of our workstations. Each day starts with a reading from the royal memoirs.
A robe of the deepest purple, embroidered with memories. The dress will be the delicate white of ash and bone. At her throat will be the reddest of ribbons. It stings that this has come from the dressmakers lucky enough to be elevated out of this place. They know what it will cost.
We stare at the designs until the colours, the shapes, the patterns burn into our eyelids. The tiny jewels become the constellations of my dreams. Girls’ necks snag in the corner of my vision, bisected in scarlet.
They split the garment into pieces like a butcher marking out prime cuts. We stake our claims.
We are to make the very front panel, painstakingly sewing each gemstone bead into the royal insignia that will rest over her heart. I have been practicing my stitches. They are so small you have to hunt for them. Marie can match a colour perfectly on the first try. Berenice knows how to piece a pattern without wasting an inch of fabric. We’ll only get one chance at this.
They bring the pearl girls in during the first snow. One born in each month of the new queen’s life. The youngest of the girls are excited, looking around the sweet shop of colour. The rest ignore us like they’re supposed to. There are no people down here, only product. They snatch glances at the dress designs on the walls and one of them brushes her fingertips against a ream of satin. She has skin like off milk, curdled by the rich yellow she has her hand on. I score that piece with my scissors so her sourness doesn’t end up ruining it.
None of us look up when the extractor comes in, but we all know him from the click of heels on the floor and the herbal smell that makes your eyes water. He lingers too long in the atelier and we have to open the windows. He isn’t here for us today though.
The older girls mill about near Marie’s bench, leaning on her table and chattering with each other over her head about how they will one day have dresses of their own. Marie rolls her eyes at me. These twittering birds don’t know they’ve already been plucked. Maybe I should feel sorry for them, but I don’t.
The little ones go first. We can’t hear anything, but one supervisor scurries off to get the bottle of murky brown liquid that means things aren’t going smoothly.
It doesn’t take long after that.
Each group of three gets a basket. One to clean and file, one to shape, one to polish.
The tiniest teeth are easy. They are clean and intact and translucent.
I dip my fingers back into the rusty water bowl and scrape flesh out of my fingernails while Berenice files the points off a molar. I calculate it in my head. If we work through the night, we will have ten thousand pearls by tomorrow. We pocket the rotten, decaying ones.
I can’t feel my fingertips but it doesn’t matter.
We do not take breaks any more. We only work. We say our goodbyes early.
In the day, we do as we’re told.
Once everyone else has gone to sleep, we start our real work. We spit in the silk paints and sew on the rotting teeth pearls. We stamp the lining pieces into the dust and rat droppings and bonemeal from the floor. I stitch the names of every girl into the insignia, under the beading.
On dyeing day, every girl holds back berries from their vats, just a handful each, so none of us get caught.
In the night, we use the iron to crush them up and grind them into a paste. I mix it with honey so it’s less bitter, but it’s still a struggle to swallow. The fever comes on quick and we don’t waste it. The girls unfold the dress and wrap me up in it. I sweat the poison out, forcing every bitter thought through my pores. The sisters I have watched them destroy, the scores on the workbench that I know better than my mother’s face, all the parts of me I will never get back. I hope she feels it all before it chokes her.
Everyone gets a turn.
When we’re done, we fold the dress back into its box and hold on to each other, crying tears that aren’t for anyone but us.