I. Mr. North Joins the Firm
James North had been riding comfortably in a well-sprung coach for fifteen minutes, and had no idea how much longer he had to wait before he arrived at his destination. His stomach fluttered intermittently. He alternated between staring at his knees, where he kept wiping his sweaty palms, and staring out the coach window at the autumn-touched trees.
The coach slowed abruptly and rolled to a halt. James leaned to the opposite window and looked outside, expecting to see a building. There was nothing in sight but forest.
He slid the window open and leaned out. "Why have we stopped?"
The driver slewed round in the seat to glare at him. "The horses will go no farther. I told you before we left, sir, that there'd likely be trouble."
"Yes, and I told you the notion was preposterous. What's the bally difficulty, anyhow? There's not a thing wrong with the road."
"The road!" The driver gave a bark of laughter. "'Tis no' the road as be the difficulty. Get out, sir, or come back t'the safety of the village."
James stared at the man, wondering at his sudden acquisition of an accent. "It's not a village, it's a city, and if we don't go on soon I shall be late for my first day at a new post."
"Out!" the driver roared, mustache bristling. "The horses will go no farther, I say."
Indeed, the horses were sidling and blowing now.
"Oh, but, I say, man, I don't even know where I am." James climbed down from the carriage. His first day in Hillgate and he had the rotten luck to engage a driver who was mad. "How far--"
The driver pulled the horses round in a wide arc, the coach bouncing over ruts and weeds, and galloped back the way they'd come. James stared after him, mouth open.
"Where am I, you daft twit?" he shouted, but the sound of hoofbeats was already fading into the distance.
James stood for a moment. The ill-kept road ran along a valley; to either side, birds sang in the trees. A light breeze ruffled his hair. He would have to walk the rest of the way.
The road rounded a bend and stopped. James stopped too. The road wasn't washed out or overgrown: it simply ended, and clearly had never existed. "No wonder the dashed horses would go no farther," James muttered.
A footpath did continue through the weeds. James started down it. After a few minutes the path climbed out of the valley.
James cursed as his shoe slipped on a rock. "Oh, dash it all!" He thought complaining aloud might him feel better, so he added, "If I'd wanted a ramble in the woods I would have dressed differently. How absurd." His voice sounded uncertain and peevish to his own ears. He fell silent and continued past a standing stone with a terrible face carved into its side.
Ahead was a wide, flat area paved with slate, completely free of moss and leaves. In fact, the stones looked as scrubbed as any town doorstep. What made James stop short in awe, however, was the building ahead.
It was not precisely a building, more a facade carved into a cliff. Everything about it seemed extraordinary, more so since it was surrounded by nothing but wilderness. It was black and severe, windowless, and decorated only by vertical lines that accentuated its height. After a moment James noticed the door, which looked as tall as a small house and nearly as wide, as though the building's occupant were a giant, or expected giants to call.
James took a deep breath. There was no need for a sign: this was Evil Outfitters, and he was expected to march up to that enormous door and--and what? knock? Perhaps there was a discreet bell.
He squared his shoulders and crossed the courtyard.
Six broad, shallow steps led up to the door. The moment he stepped onto the top step, the door--doors, rather, a pair--swung soundlessly open, revealing a cavernous hallway tiled in white marble. No one was in sight.
James stepped inside, his shoes clicking on the marble. Enormous columns supported the roof and drew James's eyes upward. Silver and crystal chandeliers, lit with globes of bluish wizard light, hung between the pairs of pillars.
The doors swung shut again behind him, so silently that only the sudden absence of sunlight alerted him to their closing. From the inside there appeared to be no doors at all. James shuddered, and not just from the building's stone chill.
Still, he was here, where he was meant to be. He cleared his throat, then called, "Halloo?" His voice, to his pleasure, sounded rich and deep in the vast hall.
There was no response to his halloo, so he sang a scale, cautiously at first, then more firmly. Dear God, but he sounded terrific. He filled his lungs and began the "Die Frist ist um" from Der Fliegender Hollander.
"I see you've discovered our excellent acoustics," said a man's voice, so near that James shied sideways like a frightened horse.
James fell instantly silent and looked around, feeling his face flush. A large, tidy man stood next to the nearest pillar. The man had a neatly clipped mustache and wore a suit of excellent quality, gray with a subdued stripe. Everything about him, from the white flower in his buttonhole to his air of polite sorrow, made James think of a mortician.
"I'm very sorry," James said. "I'm James North. I'm supposed to meet Mr. Everett Pritchard."
"And so you have. I am he." The man smiled and James shook his hand. "I trust you had a pleasant voyage to our fair seaside town?"
"Yes, quite pleasant, thank you. Hillgate is a much larger town than I expected, and, er, my trip here from Hillgate was rather odd."
To James's surprise, Mr. Pritchard laughed, a faintly melancholy laugh worthy of a mortician. "Ah, yes. The driver made you walk the last part of the journey, am I right? We have an agreement with Hillgate's taxi services. Masterful, isn't it?" Mr. Pritchard chuckled again and James joined in, feeling gullible. "Just one example of Evil Outfitters' attention to detail. In the future tell your driver to take the back road, but we will be issuing you a horse as soon as Mr. Smith can find a suitable steed."
While he spoke Mr. Pritchard began to walk, motioning for James to follow. James's shoes rang on the floor but Mr. Pritchard's were silent--crepe soles, James supposed, but still unsettling. They walked along the wall, and Mr. Pritchard opened a normal-sized door in the corner of the room, its latch set in a groove and scarcely noticeable.
"This is the employees' area," Mr. Pritchard said, ushering James into a hallway with emerald carpeting and doors along its length. It felt quite homey after the marble entrance. "Upstairs are the dormitories. There's an available flat in the men's dormitory if you would prefer to live in-house instead of in town. The rent is very reasonable and, of course, it's quite convenient after a long day."
James looked at the doors as they passed. Each had a window, and beyond the windows were small offices. A few were tenanted: a small dark-haired man frowning at a paper, with more papers stacked all over his desk; a woman and man apparently having a good-natured argument, their words muffled by the door. James found the general air of busyness and concentration appealing.
The hall ended at another door. "Beyond is the sales floor," Mr. Pritchard said. "We don't have customers in every day, but it's always best to be prepared to encounter a client at any moment."
The door opened onto a vast workroom with half a dozen white marble tables in the center. The walls were lined with varnished cabinets and shelves stacked with books and scrolls.
At the moment only two people were in the room, two men poring over a rolled-out scroll on a table. One of the men was tall and wore midnight-blue robes that nearly brushed the ground; the other man was shorter and wore workman's leathers, and had frizzled-looking white hair that stuck out around his head like dandelion fluff. He looked up as Mr. Pritchard and James came in and stared at them intently.
Mr. Pritchard smiled. "Ah, two of our most useful people--the wizard Dexarth and William Bones. They head our architectural department."
Dexarth gave James an unpleasant smile, and Mr. Bones jerked his head in what James supposed was a nod. Mr. Pritchard said to them, "Mr. North is joining us as assistant to Miss Muir." At this Dexarth raised his eyebrows with another smile, so that he appeared knowing and supercilious. Mr. Bones simply continued to stare.
"I heard my name." James looked around at a woman's voice, and saw her enter the room through a doorway between two cabinets. She was tall, nearly as tall as Dexarth, and only kept from seeming lanky by her grace of movement. Her deep red dress set off her dark hair and slightly sallow skin.
James straightened his shoulders so his suit wouldn't look rumpled.
"Ah, Madeline Muir," Mr. Pritchard said. "Just the person we wanted to see. I'll turn James North over to you."
James shook hands with Miss Muir. She had a firm handshake and keen dark eyes. His nerves returned.
"Come through here and I'll show you where you'll be working." Miss Muir led him back through a door propped open with a block of marble.
"This is our workroom," Miss Muir said, "and I hope you like it, as you'll be wasting many hours of your life here. I meant to tidy up." One wall of the spacious room was taken up by a worktable cluttered with scraps of fabric, and a drafting table tilted to catch the most sunlight from a large window that overlooked a pasture full of horses. All the horses were black. The opposite wall had a trio of large, fine mirrors and a screen to change clothes behind. An enormous wardrobe stood beside another door, next to a pair of tailor's dummies.
"Our fabric room," Miss Muir said, opening the door. This room had a window as well, and was stacked with bolts of cloth on racks to the ceiling. James got the impression that most of the cloth was black before Miss Muir shut the door again and opened the wardrobe.
"Work in progress on these shelves, finished work on the hangers. We pride ourselves on delivering orders very quickly, though, so many orders never make it that far." Again the predominate color was black. James stretched his hand out to examine a robe, but paused and glanced at Miss Muir for permission.
"Go ahead," she said, and James pulled the robe out. It was black silk of very high quality, generously cut with full sleeves. The other robes in the wardrobe appeared to be for the same man, all similar but not identical.
"These are for a wizard in Dyersburg. Apparently he has a reputation to uphold locally, or thinks he does. He's a small man so I try to cut his robes to give him a feel of height. It's a struggle, though, since he's always asking for big wide collars and sashes, the ninny." Miss Muir sounded more fond than exasperated. "You'll find one of the hardest parts of this job is tactfully explaining to a client that his ideas are rubbish."
James smiled. "I've had some practice in that area, fortunately."
"Of course; Pritchard said you've been tailor to the court." Miss Muir gave a brisk nod, although James couldn't tell if she approved or was simply confirming what Mr. Pritchard had told her. "As for work in progress, I'm designing the prototype uniform for a death squad. I'm not happy with the collar." She picked up a black canvas jacket from a shelf in the wardrobe and held it up, frowning at it. "What do you think?"
James looked at the jacket, which was neatly basted and pinned together. "I think it's a touch too modern."
"I believe you're right," Miss Muir said, and James felt himself relax, as though he had passed a test. "Yes. I'll change that now, while I'm thinking about it. I'll be done soon. Look round while you wait." She picked up a pencil and began to sketch the collar on a scrap of paper.
James watched her for a moment, then turned back to the wardrobe. With Miss Muir's back to him he was able to examine her stitching without giving offense. The stitches were tiny, close, and nearly invisible. He turned the sleeve of one of the robes inside out; the hem was six inches deep.
He was wondering how long it would be before he got to try out his own designs when he thought he heard his name. Mr. Pritchard was still in the main room outside, talking to the other two men. James heard him say, "Yes, singing in the entrance, as though he owned the place."
James felt his ears burn as he blushed. What an idiot he must have seemed. He heard Mr. Pritchard and the others laugh. Then a raspy voice said, "He'll fit right in." The others murmured agreement.
The sting of their laughter diminished abruptly. It sounded as though they approved. James was trying to make sense of that when Miss Muir said, "Done."
James turned round. Miss Muir was holding up the jacket again, now with a roughly modified collar. "Oh yes, much better," he said. "I like it."
"I do too." She returned the jacket to the wardrobe. "So what do you think of us so far? I know Mr. Pritchard engaged you sight unseen--something quite unheard of. Your sample pieces were too marvelous."
"Thanks. I believe I'll like it here."
"I hope so. Why did you leave court? I'd have thought there'd be no more exciting place for a tailor--such finery, you know, and money is no object."
"Like here, you mean? Well, you'd think so. Much of the time it was that way."
James hesitated and Miss Muir prompted him by saying, "But?"
"But half the bli--customers never paid their bills," James burst out, "and the complaints! I know all customers complain, but I had complaints from ladies who looked like overstuffed sofas that my gowns didn't make them into sylphs. I'm not a miracle worker, dash it all. But mostly it was the politics, which made it very difficult. If A was out with B, and I made A a suit, all of B's group would withdraw their orders. That sort of rot."
"Very trying," Miss Muir said. "Our customers pay, at least, and usually pay promptly. If they don't, I believe Dexarth sends a ghastly visitation of some sort. There are drawbacks to working here, of course. For one thing, Hillgate has so much less to offer than London."
"I like the countryside," James said. "Fresh air and all that."
"Then you may work next to the window. Enough of our frivoling; I need to get you started."
James tried to look alert and willing. He hoped she would not make him do something dull, like putting the fabric room in order.
"You may not have noticed yet, but all the employees here develop a unique persona that contributes to the entire Evil Outfitters experience. Some of us stay in character all the time." Miss Muir nodded toward the doorway; James could just hear Mr. Pritchard, Dexarth, and Mr. Bones still talking. "I don't, myself, but when a customer shows up I'm ready to switch on at a moment's notice. So your first assignment is to begin thinking of a persona you'll be comfortable with, and design your work wardrobe accordingly."
James tried to school his delighted grin into something more sober. Miss Muir smiled back. James cleared his throat and said, "What sort of persona do you think would be appropriate for me?"
Miss Muir sat down on one of the stools by the worktable and crossed her long legs. "As Mr. Pritchard is so fond of saying, work from your strengths. You're a big man with a big voice." She hooked her hands over her knee and rocked back on her spine. "This will be good practice for you, really, even if it sounds mad at the moment. It's precisely the service we sell here. The fittings--" she waved a hand, to take in not only the room but the whole building, and the paddock of black horses outside, "--are simply aids. The real service a client pays for is the development of his own persona."
James must have looked confused, for Miss Muir went on, "Take the average customer as an example. He--or she, of course, but usually he--has pots of money and some sort of driving need to be important, or powerful, or feared." She shrugged elegantly. "So he comes here thinking he'll buy a few suits, have a forbidding mansion designed, and so forth, and that he'll be done. What we do is gently--or not so gently, in some cases--nudge him into the proper persona. Once he has it, it won't really matter what he wears or where he lives. See?"
"I think so."