The Lorelei Signal
Written by Dawn Vogel / Artwork by Marge Simon
Princess Orchid said, "I need a new dress," and the ladies went to work.
King Albedo's youngest daughter was the only member of the royal family interested in fashion, and the ladies knew why. She did not like to talk to others, but instead wore her clothing to speak for her. Wimma and Vesper, skilled in the art of communication through fabric and trim, were among the few people with whom the princess would hold a conversation.
Princess Orchid's reticence was due to the myriad suitors who would marry even the youngest princess if it put them that much closer to the succession to the throne. Despite the expectation she would someday choose a spouse, at this point in her life, the princess was not interested.
"Where is your latest suitor from?" Wimma asked, running her hand along the fabric shelves.
"Hudcour," Princess Orchid replied, arms crossed over her chest, a frown marring her round face.
Vesper's eyebrows flew upward. "Hudcour? At a time like this?"
"He hopes by winning my hand, he can force my father's hand to circumvent the outbreak of war."
"And the statement you would like to make?" Wimma asked.
Princess Orchid smiled, though the expression was cold, not reaching her eyes. "Father cannot be bought via my hand. And, for that matter, my hand is not for sale."
"An excellent statement, Your Highness," Vesper replied.
As Princess Orchid left the workspace, Wimma and Vesper looked at each other.
"Gold dripping with gems?" Wimma suggested, reaching for a bolt of silk shot through with fine-spun strands of gold. The fabric needed for a single gown would buy an entire regiment of mercenaries, underscoring the level of wealth this suitor from Hudcour thought he could access with Princess Orchid's favor.
"We should begin with that silk," Vesper said, "but I feel it is better suited for a pair of gloves, so this prince will feel the full richness of it if he takes our Princess's hand."
"Clever," Wimma said, handing Vesper the bolt to allow her compatriot to begin cutting the gloves. "Then I believe the best gown for the job would be purple velvet, sans sleeves, so the gloves can cover the entirety of her arms. I'll edge the neckline to frame the Princess's golden bramble necklace."
Vesper nodded. "Perfection." She picked up a discarded scrap of the silk and twisted it between her fingers until a fine strand of gold popped loose. "We can affix golden brambles to the dress itself, too. At the shoulders, near her waist. Anywhere an impudent prince might try to lay a hand in a patronizing way."
"She will be delighted," Wimma agreed.
The ladies knew the prince's response to the dress would be the true test of their workmanship.
Princess Orchid arrived in their workroom late in the evening, already easing the gloves from her delicate arms, and her expression told Wimma and Vesper everything they needed to know.
"He found my ensemble enchanting," Princess Orchid said. "As do I, of course. He did not comment on its extravagance. He steered clear of the brambles round my neck and on the dress. If he felt threatened by it, he gave me no sign." She sighed. "Nor has he given me any sign that he will leave me in peace."
"What is next on your agenda, then, Your Highness?" Vesper asked.
"Father insists on a dinner with the highest-ranking nobles in a week's time. Seeing as many of them wish to see their children married to me in place of a prince, there is hope they may also try to drive him away." Her gaze slid along the fabric lining the shelves of the workroom. "All the same, I would like another dress. Colder, I think. Less vibrant."
"I've got some ice-rimed crepe satin I've been dying to cut into?" Wimma suggested. "Edged with a light dusting of cut-glass fringe, to reflect Your Highness's disinterest?"
"A lovely idea," Vesper mused, "and I would be able to reuse underpinnings from the Elusian ambassadorial visit."
Princess Orchid nodded, a smile gracing her lips. "I trust you both to create another masterpiece. Let's hope it does the job, so you can both rest for a time."
"Nonsense," Vesper said. "We live to serve you, Your Highness."
"You're both too kind to me," Princess Orchid said. "I'll leave you to it."
As the princess left, Vesper tapped a slender finger against her lips. "A rest. What on earth would we do with a rest?"
Wimma shrugged. "Well, I'd reorganize the fabric shelves. Inventory the trims."
"Mmm, yes," Vesper said. "We might even be able to take our time when the fabric merchants visit."
"That would be something," Wimma said. "But now, you've got the underpinnings in mind, and I have a good deal of careful sewing to be done. Wouldn't do to nick my fingers on the glass and bleed on Her Highness's new dress."
Princess Orchid's skin was flushed bright red when she returned from the dinner in her icy blue dress. "It didn't work," she fumed. "The prince charmed every one of the nobles, and I heard several of them whispering that he would be a fine match for me. And apparently, through no fault of yours, this dress matched the prince's eye color. Now the nobles think he's perfect for me, and he thinks he's perfect for me too." Her voice took on a weary tone. "I must convince my father that half of his strongest supporters are wrong. This will be no easy task."
Wimma hurriedly found a length of muslin and draped it over the entirety of the gray-blue fabric shelves. "No more of that, then, until this prince leaves."
"Your Highness, what will the next event be?" Vesper asked.
"A hunt." Princess Orchid shook her head. "Normally, I would not accompany Father, but I think this time I must, if I am to catch his attention."
Vesper nodded. "Then a riding dress is just the thing, to remind your father you are his beloved daughter."
"The sateen emblazoned with the royal crest, situated strategically across the skirt," Wimma said. "And I'll fetch your old riding cloak and festoon it with orchids."
The worry etched across Princess Orchid's forehead fell away as a smile spread across her face. "Oh, dear Wimma, that sounds truly inspired. I wish I had better news, but can it be done by tomorrow afternoon?"
Wimma nodded, already calculating the fastest and most efficient to get the work done. "Of course, Your Highness."
Princess Orchid reached out for the ladies' hands and gave each of them a gentle squeeze. "You are both treasures. Thank you."
Vesper arched an eyebrow at Wimma as soon as the princess departed. "Inspired, yes, but how?"
"A dress for riding needs to be sturdy," Wimma said. "We'll use a dress of common twill but overlay ribbons and sashes of the sateen. The orchids on the cloak will be the more difficult piece."
"Perhaps not," Vesper said, a sly smile forming on her lips. "Any old cloak is soft and warm enough if it's lined in rabbit's fur, and we still have a bolt of the orchid printed chiffon."
"Ah, clever," Wimma said. "We'd still best get to work now, if we hope to steal any sleep at all tonight."
Princess Orchid was pleased with the sturdy yet decorative dress the ladies had created for the hunt, but when she returned several hours later, she was crestfallen. "Father appreciated my dress, but he thought it a good show for the prince, to remind him of all of my finest qualities. Including my ability to ride a horse in a dress. What noble woman cannot do such a thing?"
The ladies knew many noble women who could not, but they did not correct their beloved princess.
"What next, then?" Vesper asked.
Princess Orchid shrugged. "I could run away, become an adventurer." Her fingers fluttered through the sateen ribbons of her dress. "I suppose I'll need something different to wear, though."
"No," Wimma said, her voice soft. She steeled herself and shook her head. "No, running away won't do at all. You must speak to your father. He has not gotten the message of your dresses. Tell your father you are uninterested, and he must send this prince away."
Her already fair skin paling to nearly white, Princess Orchid said, "You know I can't do that."
"Yes, your father can be difficult to address," Wimma agreed. "Perhaps, instead, you could tell the prince directly of your disinterest."
The sigh that escaped Princess Orchid's lips seemed too large for her petite frame. "I would sooner stay here with you and become a dressmaker, my dear ladies."
"Wimma is right, Your Highness," Vesper said, finally speaking up. "Our dresses have made statements that have been willfully misinterpreted. Your words, if you make them plain, will not."
Princess Orchid remained silent for a time, but finally nodded. "Perhaps you are right, ladies. May I request a suitable dress to make this statement? That is, my statement, with words. The dress is only to back them up."
"Indeed you may," Wimma said. "We shall do our best."
Princess Orchid smiled, a predatory look. "And we will all succeed."
The ladies looked at one another when the princess departed. "Well, I suppose we haven't enough time to cover sufficient yardage with embroidered sentiments appropriate to the situation," Wimma said, blowing out a deep sigh.
"Alas, no. But we are on the brink of war with Hudcour," Vesper said, tilting her head as she ran her gaze across the shelves of fabric. "So perhaps our dress should call upon physical resilience—like armor—to reinforce her words."
"Oh, yes, brilliant idea," Wimma said, her eyes sparkling with glee. "Can we requisition scales from the armory?"
"We could," Vesper replied, "but I think I have another idea. Fetch the fairy steel."
The fairy steel was for the finest of underpinnings, for those dresses requiring a strong structure but needing to be light and airy in appearance.
While Wimma retrieved the steel, Vesper dug through the storage space and found her loom, long unused since the markets had opened to importation of fabrics from other lands.
Wimma gasped when she returned to see the old device. She looked between the spool of fairy steel and the loom until the pieces connected in her mind. Then her smile was as broad as Princess Orchid's had been, though hers shone through her entire face. "Yes."
The steel would drape as soft as fabric once it was woven, but on the loom, its edges were unkind. The ladies wove the steel until their hands bled. They visited the castle's healers and returned to their work, pulling piece after piece of woven steel fabric from the loom. Their hands ached more as they shaped each piece of fabric, using a stone globe to fashion the pieces into something to fit the princess's figure and resemble a dress. No underpinnings were needed--the dress would stand upright without even a mannequin--and once their weaving work was done, the fairy steel would be whisper-soft on the inside, requiring not even a shift against the princess's skin.
It was armor for the princess, figuratively and literally.
It was a dress fit for war.
Wimma and Vesper helped the princess into her dress, standing back and marveling when it was done. Princess Orchid looked like a queen, resplendent in the glistening steel gown.
Princess Orchid's eyes lit up like they never had before when she saw her reflection. She smiled, then, a genuine, warm expression. "I feel ready to command an entire army, ladies. Telling the prince his attentions are unwanted will be as child's play in a dress such as this."
"Then we await hearing of your successful communication with the prince," Vesper said.
Princess Orchid did not return to the ladies before the clocks struck midnight. Wimma and Vesper took turns sleeping fitfully, awaiting word from the princess that all had gone according to plan.
They were nearly through a mid-morning tea when the princess finally graced them with her presence. Her eyes shone brightly, and she carried small wooden chests, the size of a jewelry box, under each of her arms.
"Your Highness, we feared the worst when we heard nothing from you last evening," Vesper said.
"No need to fear, ladies," Princess Orchid said. She set the two chests on the ladies' worktable. "Your dress, combined with my speech, was a resounding success. Father understands now I am not his political pawn, and the prince from Hudcour has scurried along home, with promises to send real diplomats to bargain with my father so they may avoid going to war."
Wimma beamed at the princess. "That is the most wonderful news I have heard in all my years, Your Highness."
Princess Orchid smiled broadly. "I think I have news even better. Open the chests."
Wimma and Vesper looked at each other, but then each took one of the chests. They were heavy enough they could not simply be pulled across the worktable, and both ladies opened the chests with confusion etched across their features.
The chests overflowed with gold coins, a kings' ransom apiece.
"Your Highness?" Vesper asked, her voice trembling.
"A reward for your continued, devoted service. Since Father has agreed I needn't marry for some time, I convinced him to give me one-tenth of my dowry. And though half that pittance to each of you does not come near to compensating you for the hours you have spent on my wardrobe, it was the least I could do for helping me find my voice."
Tears slid down Wimma's face, and Vesper choked back her sniffling, as both the ladies curtseyed low before Princess Orchid.
"If only all of our customers were as generous as you, Your Highness," Wimma said softly. "Thank you."
"Yes, thank you," Vesper added. "Now then, let's talk about what sort of dress you'd like next, shall we?"
Dawn Vogel's academic background is in history, so it's not surprising that much of her fiction is set in earlier times. By day, she edits reports for historians and archaeologists. In her alleged spare time, she runs a craft business, co-runs a small press, and tries to find time for writing. Her steampunk adventure series, Brass and Glass, is available from DefCon One Publishing.
She is a member of Broad Universe, SFWA, and Codex Writers. She lives in Seattle with her husband, author Jeremy Zimmerman, and their herd of cats.
Visit her at http://historythatneverwas.com.