By Genevieve Valentine
27 July 2009
Disease Control had sprayed while Petra was asleep, and her boots kicked up little puffs of pigment as she crunched across the butterfly wings to the shop.
Chronomode (Fine Bespoke Clothing of the Past, the sign read underneath) was the most exclusive Vagabonder boutique in the northern hemisphere. The floors were real dateverified oak, the velvet curtains shipped from Paris in a Chinese junk during the six weeks in '58 when one of the Vagabonder boys slept with a Wright brother and planes hadn't been invented.
Simone was already behind the counter arranging buttons by era of origin. Petra hadn't figured out until her fourth year working there that Simone didn't live upstairs, and Petra still wasn't convinced.
As Petra crossed the floor, an oak beam creaked.
Simone looked up and sighed. "Petra, wipe your feet on the mat. That's what it's for."
Petra glanced over her shoulder; behind her was a line of her footprints, mottled purple and blue and gold.
The first client of the day was the heiress to the O'Rourke fortune. Chronomode had a history with the family; the first one was the boy, James, who'd slept with Orville Wright and ruined Simone's drape delivery par avion. The O'Rourkes had generously paid for shipment by junk, and one of the plugs they sent back with James was able to fix things so that the historic flight was only two weeks late. Some stamps became very collectible, and the O'Rourkes became loyal clients of Simone's.
They gave a Vagabonding to each of their children as twenty-first-birthday presents. Of course, you had to be twenty-five before you were allowed to Bore back in time, but somehow exceptions were always made for O'Rourkes, who had to fit a lot of living into notoriously short life spans.
Simone escorted Fantasy O'Rourke personally to the center of the shop, a low dais with a three-frame mirror. The curtains in the windows were already closed by request; the O'Rourkes liked to maintain an alluring air of secrecy they could pass off as discretion.
"Ms. O'Rourke, it's a pleasure to have you with us," said Simone. Her hands, clasped behind her back, just skimmed the hem of her black jacket.
Never cut a jacket too long, Simone told Petra her first day. It's the first sign of an amateur.
"Of course," said Ms. O'Rourke. "I haven't decided on a destination, you know. I thought maybe Victorian England."
From behind the counter, Petra rolled her eyes. Everyone wanted Victorian England.
Simone said, "Excellent choice, Ms. O'Rourke."
"On the other hand, I saw a historian the other day in the listings who specializes in eighteenth century Japan. He was delicious." She smiled. "A little temporary surgery, a trip to Kyoto's geisha district. What would I look like then?"
"A vision," said Simone through closed teeth.
Petra had apprenticed at a tailor downtown, and stayed there for three years afterward. She couldn't manage better, and had no hopes.
Simone came in two days after a calf-length black pencil skirt had gone out (some pleats under the knee needed mending).
Her gloves were black wool embroidered with black silk thread. Petra couldn't see anything but the gloves around the vast and smoky sewing machine that filled the tiny closet where she worked, but she knew at once it was the woman who belonged to the trim black skirt.
"You should be working in my shop," said Simone. "I offer superior conditions."
Petra looked over the top of the rattling machine. "You think?"
"You can leave the attitude here," said Simone, and went to the front of the shop to wait.
Simone showed Petra her back office (nothing but space and light and chrome), the image library, the labeled bolts of cloth—1300, 1570, China, Flanders, Rome.
"What's the shop name?" Petra asked finally.
"Chronomode," Simone said, and waited for Petra's exclamation of awe. When none came, she frowned. "I have a job for you," she continued, and walked to the table, tapping the wood with one finger. "See what's left to do. I want it by morning, so there's time to fix any mistakes."
The lithograph was a late 19th century evening gown, nothing but pleats, and Petra pulled the fabrics from the library with shaking hands.
Simone came in the next day, tore out the hem of the petticoat, and sewed it again by hand before she handed it over to the client.
Later Petra ventured, "So you're unhappy with the quality of my work."
Simone looked up from a Byzantine dalmatic she was sewing with a bone needle. "Happiness is not the issue," she said, as though Petra was a simpleton. "Perfection is."
That was the year the mice disappeared.
Martin Spatz, the actor, had gone Vagabonding in 8,000 BC and killed a wild dog that was about to attack him. (It was a blatant violation of the rules—you had to be prepared to die in the past, that was the first thing you signed on the contract. He went to jail over it. They trimmed two years off because he used a stick, and not the pistol he'd brought with him.)
No one could find a direct connection between the dog and the mice, but people speculated. People were still speculating, even though the mice were long dead.
Everything went, sooner or later; the small animals tended to last longer than the large ones, but eventually all that was left were some particularly hardy plants, and the butterflies. By the next year the butterflies were swarming enough to block out the summer sun, and Disease Control began to intervene.
The slow, steady disappearance of plants and animals was the only lasting problem from all the Vagabonding. Plugs were more loyal to their mission than the people who employed them, and if someone had to die in the line of work they were usually happy to do it. If they died, glory; if they lived, money.
Petra measured a plug once (German Renaissance, which seemed a pointless place to visit, but Petra didn't make the rules). He didn't say a word for the first hour. Then he said, "The cuffs go two inches past the wrist, not one and a half."
The client came back the next year with a yen for Colonial America. He brought two different plugs with him.
Petra asked, "What happened to the others?"
"They did their jobs," the client said, turned to Simone. "Now, Miss Carew, I was thinking I'd like to be a British commander. What do you think of that?"
"I would recommend civilian life," Simone said. "You'll find the Bore committee a little strict as regards impersonating the military."
When Petra was very young she'd taken her mother's sewing machine apart and put it back together. After that it didn't squeak, and Petra and her long thin fingers were sent to the tailor's place downtown for apprenticeship.
"At least you don't have any bad habits to undo," Simone had said the first week, dropping The Dressmaker's Encyclopaedia 1890 on Petra's work table. "Though it would behoove you to be a little ashamed of your ignorance. Why—" Simone looked away and blew air through her teeth. "Why do this if you don't respect it?"
"Don't ask me—I liked engines," Petra said, opening the book with a thump.
Ms. O'Rourke decided at last on an era (18th-century Kyoto, so the historian must have been really good looking after all), and Simone insisted on several planning sessions before the staff was even brought in for dressing.
"It makes the ordering process smoother," she said.
"Oh, it's nothing, I'm easy to please," said Ms. O'Rourke.
Simone looked at Petra. Petra feigned interest in buttons.
Petra was assigned to the counter, and while Simone kept Ms. O'Rourke in the main room with the curtains discreetly drawn, Petra spent a week rewinding ribbons on their spools and looking at the portfolios of Italian armor-makers. Simone was considering buying a set to be able to gauge the best wadding for the vests beneath.
Petra looked at the joints, imagined the pivots as the arm moved back and forth. She wondered if the French hadn't had a better sense of how the body moved; some of the Italian stuff just looked like an excuse for filigree.
When the gentleman came up to the counter he had to clear his throat before she noticed him.
She put on a smile. "Good morning, sir. How can we help you?"
He turned and presented his back to her—three arrows stuck out from the left shoulder blade, four from the right.
"Looked sideways during the Crusades," he said proudly. "Not recommended, but I sort of like them. It's a souvenir. I'd like to keep them. Doctors said it was fine, nothing important was pierced."
Petra blinked. "I see. What can we do for you?"
"Well, I'd really like to have some shirts altered," he said, and when he laughed the tips of the arrows quivered like wings.
"You'd never catch me vagabonding back in time," Petra said that night.
Simone seemed surprised by the attempt at conversation (after five years she was still surprised). "It's lucky you'll never have the money, then."
Petra clipped a thread off the buttonhole she was finishing.
"I don't understand it," Simone said more quietly, as though she were alone.
Petra didn't know what she meant.
Simone turned the page on her costume book, paused to look at one of the hair ornaments.
"We'll need to find the ivory one," Simone said. "It's the most beautiful."
"Will Ms. O'Rourke notice?"
"I give my clients the best," Simone said, which wasn't really an answer.
"I've finished the alterations," Petra said finally, and held up one of the shirts, sliced open at the shoulder blades to give the arrows room, with buttons down the sides for ease of dressing.
Petra was surprised the first time she saw a Bore team in the shop—the Vagabond, the Historian, the translator, two plugs, and a "Consultant" whose job was ostensibly to provide a life story for the client, but who spent three hours insisting that Roman women could have worn corsets if the Empire had sailed far enough.
The Historian was either too stupid or too smart to argue, and Petra's protest had been cut short by Simone stepping forward to suggest they discuss jewelry for the Historian and plausible wardrobe for the plugs.
"Why, they're noble too, of course," the client had said, adjusting his high collar. "What else could they be?"
Plugs were always working-class, even Petra knew that—in case you had to stay behind and fix things for a noble who'd mangled the past, you didn't want to run the risk of a rival faction calling for your head, which they tended strongly to do.
Petra tallied the cost of the wardrobe for a Roman household: a million in material and labor, another half a million in jewelry. With salaries for the entourage and the fees for machine management and operation, his vacation would cost him ten million.
Ten million to go back in time in lovely clothes, and not be allowed to change a thing. Petra took dutiful notes and marked in the margin, A WASTE.
She looked up from the paper when Simone said, "No."
The client had frowned, not used to the word. "But I'm absolutely sure it was possible—"
"It may be possible, depending on your source," Simone said, with a look at the Historian, "but it is not right."
"Well, no offense, Miss Carew, but I'm paying you to dress me, not to give me your opinion on what's right."
"Apologies, sir," said Simone, smiling. "You won't be paying me at all. Petra, please show the gentlemen out."
They made the papers; Mr. Bei couldn't keep from talking about his experience in the Crusades.
"I was going to plan another trip right away," he was quoted as saying, "but I don't know how to top this! I think I'll be staying here. The Institute has already asked me to come and speak about the importance of knowing your escape plan in an emergency, and believe me, I know it."
Under his photo was the tiny caption: Clothes by Chronomode.
"Mr. Bei doesn't mention his plugs," Petra said, feeling a little sick. "Guess he wasn't the only one that got riddled with arrows."
"It's what the job requires. If you have the aptitude, it's excellent work."
"It can't be worth it."
"Nothing is worth what we give it," said Simone. She dropped her copy of the paper on Petra's desk. "You need to practice your running stitch at home. The curve on that back seam looks like a six-year-old made it."
Tibi cornered Petra at the Threaders' Guild meeting. Tibi worked at Mansion, which outfitted Vagabonders with a lot more pomp and circumstance than Simone did.
Tibi had a dead butterfly pinned to her dress, and when she hugged Petra it left a dusting of pale green on Petra's shoulder.
"Petra! Lord, I was JUST thinking about you! I passed Chronomode the other day and thought, Poor Petra, it's SUCH a prison in there. Holding up?" Tibi turned to a tall young tailor beside her. "Michael, darling, Petra works for Carew over at Chronomode."
The tailor raised his eyebrows. "There's a nightmare. How long have you hung in there, a week?"
Five years and counting. "Sure," Petra said.
"No, for AGES," Tibi corrected. "I don't know how she makes it, I really don't, it's just so HORRIBLE." Tibi wrapped one arm around the tailor and cast a pitying glance at Petra. "I was there for a week, I made the Guild send me somewhere else a week later, it was just inhuman. What is it LIKE, working there for SO long without anyone getting you out of there?"
"Oh, who knows," said Petra. "What's it like getting investigated for sending people back to medieval France with machine-sewn clothes?"
Tibi frowned. "The company settled that."
Petra smiled at Tibi, then at the tailor. "I'm Petra."
"Michael," he said, and frowned at her hand when they shook.
"Those are just calluses from the needles," Petra said. "Don't mind them."
"Ms. O'Rourke's kimono is ready for you to look at," Petra said, bringing the mannequin to Simone's desk.
"No need," said Simone, her eyes on her computer screen, "you don't have enough imagination to invent mistakes."
Petra hoped that was praise, but suspected otherwise.
A moment later Simone slammed a hand on her desk. "Dammit, look at this. The hair ornament I need is a reproduction. Because naturally a reproduction is indistinguishable from an original. The people of 1743 Kyoto will never notice. Are they hiring antiques dealers out of primary school these days?"
Simone pushed away from the desk in disgust and left through the door to the shop, heels clicking.
Petra smoothed the front of the kimono. It was heavy grey silk, painted with cherry blossoms and chrysanthemums. Near the hem, Petra had added butterflies.
The light in the shop was still on; Petra saw it just as she was leaving.
Careless, she thought as she crossed the workshop. Simone would have killed me.
She had one hand on the door when the sound of a footstep stopped her. Were they being robbed? She thought about the Danish Bronze Age brooches hidden behind the counter in their velvet wrappers.
Petra grabbed a fabric weight in her fist and opened the door a crack.
Simone stood before the fitting mirror, holding a length of bright yellow silk against her shoulders. It washed her out (she'd never let a client with her complexion touch the stuff), but her reflection was smiling.
She hung it from her collarbones like a Roman; draped it across her shoulder like the pallav of a sari; bustled it around her waist. The bright gold slid through her fingers as if she was dancing with it.
Simone gathered the fabric against her in two hands, closed her eyes at the feel of it against her face.
Petra closed the door and went out the back way, eyes fixed on the wings at her feet.
When she came around the front of the shop the light was still on in the window, and Simone stood like a doll wrapped in a wide yellow ribbon, imagining a past she'd never see.
Petra turned for home.
Disease Control hadn't made the rounds yet, and the darkness was a swarm of wings, purple and blue and gold.