The Lorelei Signal
Trust! The Will of the Fashion Gods
Written by Laura DeHaan / Artwork by Marcia Borell
By the four winds!” the Minister cursed.
Kage raised her fingertips to her veiled lips and blew a kiss on them in the traditional response. “What’s Emperor Fabulous done now?
The Minister sprawled onto a divan. “They’ve been listening to those damn servants again.”
“Oh, you mean the spies?”
“They’re not spies!” The Minister kicked off one of her sandals, sending it spinning across the room. “Emperor Fabulous just decided they were spies and has been treating them that way ever since! Of all the cockamamie ideas they’ve come up with, that’s got to be the biggest pain in my craw.”
“You have to admit, those fake spies have been very useful in keeping Emperor Fabulous up on the latest trends.”
“A newspaper could do that,” the Minister sulked. “Fabulous is just so over-weaning eager to follow in Wondrous’ footsteps they’re tripping over their own feet to do it! Demanding pineapples be present at every meal because Wondrous once had them at a banquet? Fine. Declaring tea mixed with wine to be the only drink necessary to keep one in good health because Wondrous heard about it from some bare-footed hermit? Fine. Then Emperor Wondrous changes their name to Emperor Wondrous and declares they shall only be referred to in the plural and guess who has to do the same? It’s all well and good for one person to have these eccentricities, but Fabulous just looks like some desperate wannabe now.”
Kage blew on her twea. “So? You’re the Minister, you tell them.”
The Minister groaned. “I have! One of the first novelties Wondrous pounced on was to listen to the opinions of commoners. I suppose they think that makes them provincial or some such. Now any time I try talking to Fabulous, they tell me I only have my opinions because I have money. Money! As though that negates anything else I can offer!”
Kage’s pout was visible through her veil. “Then give away your money.”
“And my position, and my dignity.”
“Oh, honey, you can’t give dignity away.”
The Minister flung off her other sandal. “Those wretched spies,” she muttered. “I can’t ruin them, not really. It’s just cruel to kick those whose positions in life are already at the level of dirt. Servant!” She barked this at a pair dressed in serving veils who had happened to pass by the open door. “Pick up my sandals and put them back on my feet.” The Minister sighed in annoyance as they did her bidding. “Plus, Fabulous is so over the moon about them their identities are kept secret from me.”
“Because they think you’re jealous?” Kage said innocently.
“I am not jealous.”
“Ah, then Fabulous only wants to protect them from their non-jealous courtiers.”
The Minister shooed the servants away before they could tighten the straps of her sandals. “This is for their own good! My only recourse is to make Wondrous do something so stupid, so ridiculous Fabulous can’t help but realise they need to stop all this silly imitation.”
Kage drew a bubble wand from a nearby flagon and waved it about. “This is a fun trend.”
“Except when you’re eating.”
She popped a bubble. “Bet you can’t find anything silly enough.”
“Bet you I can! Servants! More twea!”
As the servants obligingly began the process of boiling the wine and adding the fruits and flowers to the tiny sachets for steeping, the Minister idly kicked one of her returned sandals across the room again. “Actually,” she said, “I bet you you can.”
Kage raised her eyebrows.
“Wondrous wouldn’t listen to me,” the Minister said. “I serve Emperor Fabulous, after all. But you, you have several points in your favour.” She ticked them off on her bare toes. “One, you’re exotic.”
Kage snorted. “Weak point.”
But valid, Kage had to concede. She was obviously a foreigner; she knew of no one else native to the empire who had her white-blonde hair and eyes set so wide apart they could hardly both be seen at the same time.
“You have novelty, which a new trend needs, and probably some delightfully backwards traditional customs from your homeland, wherever that is.” Kage’s eyebrows remained raised, managing to convey a new set of emotions the Minister failed to notice, being engaged as she was in her toe-counting. “Two, you’re not nobility, which automatically gives you an edge, given their current baffling admiration of commoners. Third, you’ve proven you have enough charm to hold the ear of someone who is noble.” Kage tipped her teacup in a bare salute. “Fourth…well, three points is plenty.”
Kage stretched. “I’ll think about it.”
“We’ll think about it.” The Minister motioned for a refill of Kage’s cup. “With my brains and your charm, I’ve no doubt we’ll think of something that will finally bring sense to Emperor Fabulous!”
And in case things go poorly, the Minister thought, I can put any embarrassment squarely on the foreigner. Hopefully it won’t come to that, but if it does, well, better her than me.
“I thought they’d never pass out,” Occa said.
Seppon flapped his veils in an effort to dry his sweat and air out the stink of a prolonged night of many cups of floral twea. “Gosh, it must be hard to be any kind of nobility,” he said. “Could you keep track of anything they were saying? And I must have picked up that Minister’s sandals a hundred times. What a klutz!”
“Oh, who can tell what those moving moneybags are thinking,” said Occa. “Let’s get a quick bath and some fresh veils. Emperor Wondrous will want their clothes brushed down.”
“By the four winds,” Kage winced. “How much did I drink last night?”
She was back in her assigned guest room with the Minister nowhere in sight, but a note lay on the small shrine to the four winds that was a requisite in every room with a window. Kage, sorely hung-over, blew on the multicoloured pinwheel and shut her eyes against its nauseating spin. When her stomach settled, she took the note and read it with some difficulty, then read it again.
A few words stood out.
First were her signature and the Minister’s near some needlessly elaborate scrawls proclaiming THEREBY and HENCEFORTH and WAGER.
And EMPEROR WONDROUS.
And NEW CLOTHES.
And BUT REALLY, THEY ARE COMPLETELY NAKED.
Kage shredded the note into indecipherable pieces and scattered them out the window. “Sounds like a challenge,” she said.
Emperor Wondrous was playing croquet in their vast garden complex when a beflowered trellis fairly blew apart in an explosion of petals and fragrance.
“Hello, yes, I am here,” an imperious voice said.
Occa and Seppon, ready with feather dusters and extra mallets, blinked at the sight of a scantily-clad woman voguing in the midst of the shattered trellis.
Emperor Wondrous did not get where they were in life by being easily surprised and merely said, “Are you any good at croquet?”
“I am terrible at many things! Most of all, hitting things! My power lies not with blunted wood, but pointed needle!” The mysterious woman plucked a mallet out of Seppon’s hand. “But I could never resist a challenge. How are you for clothes?”
Occa shot a look at Seppon. Seppon did not notice, because there were butterflies.
It was astonishing how quickly things could be made to happen when one was an emperor. Barely an hour had passed before Emperor Wondrous had the mysterious exotic foreigner and her trunks of mysterious exotic fabrics up in their dressing room. Occa and Seppon, tasked with transporting the goods, finished shoving them into neat rows and stepped back, waiting to be useful again.
“Those trunks were awfully light,” Occa murmured to Seppon.
“Well, look at what she’s wearing,” Seppon said. “I bet my veils weigh more than her whole wardrobe!”
Occa blinked. “That’s actually a reasonable statement. Still, there’s something fishy about this. Remember last night—”
He snapped his lips together as the foreigner twirled and bowed to Emperor Wondrous. “Now is the time for formal introductions! I am known in my country as…Tailorororer!”
“That is a very exotic name,” Emperor Wondrous’ own Minister whispered to them. Addressing Tailorororer, “And where is your country?”
Tailorororer looked momentarily panicked. “In the faraway lands of Land…andand.”
Emperor Wondrous fingered a pineapple with an air of cunning. “You are Tailorororer, from Landandand?”
“Yes!” Tailorororer said. “My people are so ahead of the times, we must repeat ourselves to retain the good bits!”
“Exceptionally quaint,” the Minister said approvingly.
Wondrous waved his comment away. “Lint-removers. Would you give your opinion on Tailorororer’s apparel?”
For the first time, Tailorororer and Occa made direct eye contact. Tailorororer intended to wink conspiringly but recognition, sudden and gut-wrenching, made her instead sweep over to Occa and envelop him in her scented arms.
“Feel the lightness on your skin!” she said, and then, very quietly and very pointedly, “I will pay you SO much money to go with me on this.”
“It feels like there’s nothing there at all!” exclaimed Seppon, who had not heard her.
“But it looks so dazzling to my eyes!” said Occa, who definitely had.
“Exceptionally perceptive!” Tailorororer said. “Indeed, this fabric, these clothes, they can only be perceived by those whose opinions the wearer trusts! I wear a little ordinary cotton and silk because, alas, I am a foreigner to your lands, and trust must be earned. But see!” She twirled again, arms sweeping through the air. “This fabric, so light, so airy; merely breathe in it and it swells to the rhythm of your heart!”
“Wow,” Seppon said.
Emperor Wondrous looked intrigued. “Pour us some twea,” they told Occa.
“TWEA??” Tailorororer roared. Her unexpected outburst made the others jump in fear. She dragged her fingers down her cheeks in horror. “Perhaps when you’ve bought my most marvellous fabric and I have created for you the sort of garments that would make mothers weep in despair, knowing their own children could never be born with such beauty, then you have my permission to carry open liquids around them. Until then! Would you smoke ugly tobacco in front of a painting still wet, or shave over a roasting zucchini? Do not think you can sully my fabrics before they even have a chance to live!”
She spun away, suddenly demure. “Forgive me, Emperor Wondrous. It is just my humble country way.”
After that, of course, it was merely a matter of haggling.
Tailorororer was given a suite in which to live and craft her promised garments. It would be a week, she said, before she could have a full ensemble made. She also requested the use of Occa and Seppon, since they were highly skilled in the art of picking lint and brushing dust off clothes.
“Don’t work them too hard,” Emperor Wondrous said. “I’ll need them for their usual duties as well.”
Tailorororer waved goodnight to Wondrous and their Minister, then gestured Occa and Seppon into her bedchambers.
“It will be a lot of money,” she said.
“That’s all right, the Emperor can afford it,” Seppon said.
Occa placed a gentle hand over his mouth. “I’m going to talk to Tailorororer now,” he said. Seppon gave him a cheery thumbs-up.
“By the four winds,” Tailorororer said, and they all blew a brief kiss, “you two were the ones getting the Minister and me drunk that night! I didn’t recognise you at first.”
“Emperor Wondrous decided they liked veils on their servants and then, well, you know how Emperor Fabulous is,” Occa said. “I don’t make the rules.”
Tailorororer waved her hands idly, trying to formulate words. “This is just a silly bet I have going with Emperor Fabulous’ Minister,” she said airily, trying to be casual. “A silly, harmless—”
“Yeah, we were there,” said Occa. “You got really drunk and the Minister convinced you to find a way to make Wondrous dress up funny.”
“Wearing cakes!” Seppon said.
Occa put his hand back over Seppon’s mouth. Tailorororer put her hand over Occa’s mouth. “I’m sorry, wearing cakes?” she said.
“The Minister said you should try getting Wondrous to wear an entire cake and you said ha ha, you agree, so easy, and then you both signed something?” Seppon looked doubtful. “I don’t really understand what anyone is talking about most of the time but you both seemed pretty happy about it and I just pick lint off of shoulders.”
“Sounded like a plan,” said Occa. “I mean, magic invisible fabric? How long do you think you’re going to get away with that?”
Tailorororer went to the sideboard and got out the wine and tea sachets, the latter of which she threw out the window. “So, funny story,” she said. “I really don’t remember anything about that night, except we were planning some ridiculous scheme to make Wondrous look silly. I just woke up to a note that said something about getting the emperor naked. Although now that I think about it, I was pretty hung-over and maybe the note actually said to get them caked. Which still seems like a long shot.”
Occa shrugged. “That’s what you said, at first. The Minister made us keep pouring you more wine. Wine, not twea. And she just had regular tea.”
“So she deliberately got me drunk enough to agree to a plan that already sounded completely bonkers and then I made it even more bonkers?”
“And you talked about it in front of the people the Minister absolutely didn’t want hearing about it,” Occa said. “Still not sure why it’s such a big deal.”
Tailorororer placed three teacups on their little saucers. “The Minister hates you and wants you dead,” she said.
Seppon started crying.
“Oh geez, not seriously, I mean, she does hate you but I don’t think she wants you dead, oh geez,” Tailorororer said. “Have a hanky.”
Seppon only cried louder. “I can’t see the hanky! I’m not trustworthy enough to see the hanky!”
“I didn’t get it out yet! Oh, geeeeez.” Occa took the wine from Tailorororer to free up her hands to get a plain white hanky out of a drawer. “Here, it’s a regular old handkerchief. Have a blow.”
“So you were saying the Minister hates us,” Occa said conversationally.
“She hates that Fabulous pays more attention to your spy info than her advice, so she wants me to make Wondrous look stupid so you tell Fabulous to do the stupid thing and then Fabulous is ridiculed for looking stupid so Fabulous stops paying attention to your spy info.”
Occa looked deep in thought. “But the Minister wants us to tell Fabulous about the stupid thing.”
“But she didn’t know you were the spies when she came up with the plan in front of you! She wanted you to think it was real so you wouldn’t tell Fabulous it was all a trick!”
“Why would we?”
Tailorororer paused open-mouthed with her finger pointing to the sky.
“Do you think two lint-brushing dirt-kickers give a good goshdarn about the royalty looking stupid? We aren’t paid to solve crimes. We get paid to kick dirt. Fabulous gives us a little money every time we tell them whatever latest thing Wondrous is up to, which, being dirt-kickers, does not amount to much more than what they had for lunch. These aren’t state secrets we’re sharing.”
“I don’t really like wearing veils,” said Seppon. “Please don’t tell the emperors.”
“No one’s telling the emperors anything,” Tailorororer decided. She poured each of them a cup of wine. “Except what we want them to hear. Gentlemen, let’s have some fun.”
“Magical invisible fabric that can only be seen by those whose opinions the wearer trusts,” the Minister repeated coldly.
“It sounds phenomenal,” Emperor Fabulous said as their servants applied a watermelon lotion to their legs.
“Oh no, it must be true. My spies told me so.”
It had only been a few days since the Minister had last seen Kage, but even so, it sounded like she was doing her job a little too well.
“Perhaps they meant Wondrous was wearing cake?” the Minister asked delicately.
“Cake? Wearing cake? Four winds, my girl, a toddler wears cake.”
Kage, Kage, the Minister thought, you had better know what you’re doing.
The day of the garment reveal came. Tailorororer had forbidden anyone but herself, Wondrous and two trusted clothes-brushers to view the completed works. Now Wondrous stood on their most visible balcony, a plain grey robe around their shoulders reaching to the floor. A cleric of the four winds, feathered bracelets fluttering as he waved his arms in mystic rites, pronounced a blessing on Emperor Wondrous and their various inspirations, a blessing culminating in a sacred wind which spun the pinwheel on the tip of his sceptre of office but brought no dust to their eyes. A massive throng of the fashion-hungry, commoners and nobles alike, swelled beneath the balcony during the ceremony, waited breathlessly to see what this newest, most magnificent clothing could look like.
With a grand gesture, Tailorororer swept away the robe.
And the crowds lost their damn minds.
“By the four winds!” Emperor Fabulous frothed. All of their courtiers blew kisses on their fingertips in earnest. “Such splendour. The craftsmanship. You! Minister!” They snapped their fingers. “Everyone else, out!”
The Minister glumly went to Fabulous’ side. “Yes,” she said dispiritedly.
“You saw those clothes?”
“Oh, yes,” she lied.
“You saw how very good they were?”
“Minister.” Emperor Fabulous leaned forward. Their noses almost touched. “I want those clothes.”
I might actually die, the Minister thought.
“I’m sure I can find the tailor,” she said brightly.
Emperor Fabulous slammed their hands on the carved pineapples beside them. Bubbles erupted. “No! I will not settle for some second-thought knock-offs! I will have the real article, the genuine intent! I will have them or your resignation!”
I might actually die, the Minister thought.
“Right away, Fabulous!” she said.
She left at once for Emperor Wondrous’ court with only two hopes in her heart. Either she would need to find Kage and make her somehow clean up her mess, or she would have to break the mess into tiny bits.
After a few hours, it seemed like the former option was a wash. Tailorororer from Landandand (and how the Minister fought to keep an easy smile on her face when she heard that outlandish name) was far too busy being entertained by those of Emperor Wondrous’ court for anyone else to try butting in, especially someone from a competing court.
There was only one recourse left, which was, as it so often was, bribery.
“You wanted to see us?” Occa said.
The Minister pushed some nondescript bags full of money at them. “I have a job for you,” she said.
“We already have lots of jobs,” Seppon said. “I don’t think we have time to fetch your sandals plus everything else.”
The Minister waved that aside irritably. “This won’t take any time at all,” she said. “I just need you to tell Wondrous someone’s stolen their new clothes.”
“Oh, no!” Seppon said.
Occa looked dubious. “You want us to steal the Emperor’s new clothes?”
“Absolutely not,” the Minister snapped. “That would be impossible. Just tell them they’ve been stolen.”
“By anyone! It doesn’t matter who!”
“We’d be the prime suspects for sure,” Seppon fretted. “Couldn’t you have done it?”
“Don’t mention me when you say it!”
“Seppon’s right,” Occa said. “As Emperor Wondrous’ most trusted lint-pickers, we would look very suspicious.”
“Don’t worry about the damn clothes,” the Minister said. “Nobody will find a shred of proof you actually did it.”
“Emperors don’t need proof.”
“Four winds blowing!” the Minister exploded. “There are no clothes! You don’t even have to lie and say they were stolen! You just tell the truth: the clothes aren’t there!”
“How do you know there aren’t any clothes?”
Too late, too late, the Minister grasped the significance of Seppon’s first seemingly throwaway comment about her sandals. “You were there when Kage and I made up this wager!” she gasped. “So if you’re Emperor Wondrous’ dirt-kickers, and you were at Emperor Fabulous’ court that late…then you are the spies!”
“Sure, I guess,” Occa said.
The Minister pointed a finger at them. “I’ll tell Wondrous you were spying on them this whole time! I’ll tell them you stole their clothes right out from under their nose! You’ll never kick dirt in this town again!”
“No, you’ll give us a lot more money than this petty cash you’re trying to fob off on us and we’ll leave tonight without telling Wondrous a thing about the stupid trick you pulled. You can still tell Fabulous the clothes were stolen if you’d like, but leave us out of it. We’re sick of dealing with you highborn weirdoes.” Occa held up his hand and Seppon, perpetually out of the loop but always eager to accommodate, gave it a hearty high-five.
It was the thunderclap before the storm. The Minister knew when she was defeated.
As always, it came down to bribery.
The next morning, Tailorororer flew into the dining hall where Emperor Wondrous was eating breakfast. “Emperor Wondrous!” she exclaimed. “Dire tidings! Grim news! A sadness matched only by the death of a beloved pet! I went to your wardrobe to add a ribbon to one of your outfits, and Emperor! Someone has stolen your clothes!”
“You’ve heard the news, I assume,” the Minister said to Fabulous as they dined on a sugared breakfast pineapple, a bathrobe over their shoulders. “Or perhaps you haven’t. I’m sure I don’t know where your darling spies have gone in this, the most triumphant hour of your hours. But it seems like someone has beaten me to it. I’m dreadfully sorry, Fabulous, but I haven’t a clue where to begin looking anew.”
“What in the four winds are you nattering on about?” Emperor Fabulous said.
The Minister blinked. “Wondrous’ new clothes, of course. They were stolen last night. By parties unknown.”
Fabulous rose from their chair. Watermelon lotion glistened on their bare body. “Are you blind?” they said. “I am wearing them.”
The Minister’s mouth fell open.
“It’s a bit chilly this morning, so I threw a robe on over top,” Fabulous said. “I expect I’ll adjust! I do regret the loss of my cherished informants, but it would have been too dangerous for them to stay in the city after they so boldly stole my rival’s prized clothing. Do not weep! I’ve seen that they shall remain comfortable the rest of their days.” Fabulous sat back down with a flourish. “And Minister?”
“Yes?” she squawked.
“You’re dismissed. For the rest of your days.”
Occa and Seppon, comfortably anonymous on the patio of a roadside tavern a half day’s journey from the Emperors and their squabbles, waited for Kage to arrive. When she did, it would be unfair to say she was unrecognisable, for her hair was still white-blonde and her eyes still situated on the sides of her head. She was wearing clothing of a foreign cut, though, a neat little round cap on her head. Occa and Seppon were not wearing veils, which seemed to please them both, even if they were beginning to burn under the sun.
Occa raised a glass of plain water to her. “Looks like we all survived,” he said.
Seppon sighed with a smile. “It’s finally nice to be alive!”
Kage sat with them at their table. It seemed she’d walked the entire way, having no horse with her, yet the roadside dust seemed only to swirl around her feet rather than gather in her hair. “Wondrous is very sad their clothes went missing,” she said. “They might also be sad to know I am likewise missing, but I didn’t stick around to find out. They were furious when they discovered Fabulous was the one who had stolen their clothes, and already both sides have their little soldiers lined up against each other’s gates! Fabulous’ Minister—oops, former Minister—had a little army of her own pointing sticks at the both of them. How quickly those in power can get things moving!”
“I am confused by everything you said,” Seppon said. “But none of that is my problem now! I can keep drinking water and not have to pick up anybody’s shoes.”
“I’m going to get us further away from that place and when we get somewhere nobody has even heard of pineapples, I will pay them to build us a house,” Occa said. “Or something. I’ve only been independently wealthy for twelve hours, I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Kage stretched. “I can finally go home,” she said happily.
“Ah, because Wondrous paid you handsomely for your fake clothes?” Occa nodded.
She giggled. “Nope! Just settling a bet that got made long ago. Well, more of a challenge.” She set her hat on the table along with a small bag she wore around her waist and started fishing through the pockets. “My mother said I was such a troublemaker when I was little. ‘Kage,’ she said, ‘someday you’re going to start a war, you make so much trouble.’ I never could resist a challenge.” She laughed again and pinned something to her hat.
There being butterflies, Seppon didn’t notice, but Occa did and blew a dozen tiny kisses in all directions.
“Did you need some of our money, then?” Seppon said. “I don’t even know how much we have, but between the Minister and Fabulous I’m sure we can buy you a boat or something.”
“Nah,” Kage said. “Thanks, though. This was fun.” She stood and buckled her bag around her waist. On her hat, a little golden pinwheel spun furiously.
“Heading out?” Occa said, very politely.
“Heading home,” she said.
“Bye!” Seppon said.
“Give our regards to your mother,” Occa said.
Kage waved and walked away, and away, and up.
“Did you know her mother?” Seppon said. A butterfly landed on his nose.
“Everyone knew her mother,” Occa said. “Kage’s the daughter of the four winds.”
Laura DeHaan is very quiet and definitely not behind you.