Two pairs of eyebrows arched with unspoken reprimand when I arrived at the shop an hour past opening.
I answered Monin and Bora’s displeasure with the loaf of bread from my pack paired with butter I’d picked up from our neighbor. The annoyed looks of my mentors quickly turned into eye rolls of forgiveness.
Then I got to work.
I had only one appointment that day — an exit appointment just before lunch with the man who Delphi had advised me would be on time. She’d also said I had more work to do when I had thought I was done.
To see which of us was right, I pulled the client’s mannequin forward and gave it a thorough lookover. Then I pulled up the man’s portfolio on my work table’s magic mirror. But my brain didn’t want to read it again so I tried a different approach.
“Mirror, mirror off the wall,” I said, putting the mirror in charge. “Show me snapshots of Guest Paul. Make them random, make them quick; let’s see if I missed a trick.”
We didn’t have to rhyme when we made mirror requests, but it was more fun that way. And I swear the results were better.
There was no actual proof of that, though.
In response to my request, the mirror started building a collage of pictures. Each beat, a new picture showed. As more appeared, the previous pictures grew smaller and smaller until they created a tapestry of expanding background filled with colored, shrinking dots. This delivery and layout made it easier to spot trends in Paul’s expressions, attitudes, and color choices.
I’d gone with a midnight navy suit over a fitted t-shirt to mirror the styling of Paul’s desired peer group. It wasn’t a styling I favored, but all the sexy people were doing it on Instagram and the look did look casually elegant on Paul.
So I’d conceded that, in the name of like attracting like, Paul needed to fit in before he stood out.
But had that been the right call? Was he ready to step up now?
I leaned back on my stool, putting more distance between me and the mirror as it flooded with images like a spring river filling a lake. In short order, the images began to dissolve into a new picture.
And that’s when I saw it.
“You were right, Delphi,” I said to the room. “I have more work to do!”
I hadn’t seen it before. Maybe I’d been distracted or uninspired. Whatever the case, I’d previously missed how attracted Paul was to jewel tones on women. With hundreds of dresses now the size of dots on a shared surface, the bold tones guided my eye through the collage as the main points of interest.
Paul was attracted to jewel tones, and women who wore them were attracted to him. Like attracting like. And, while I’d given a peer group a reason to let Paul past their velvet gates, I hadn’t given his dream woman a reason to cross a room to him.
But I could if I hurried.
For ideas on good options on how to do it, I focused my eyes just past the surface of the mirror, waited until a new focus came into view, then closed my eyes to see which shadows danced on my eyelids the longest.
This was my own personal technique for choosing where to focus first on a project. I reasoned that those things which left the greatest impression on the eye should be addressed first. From there, my job was to determine whether those loud visuals required maximizing or minimizing. I just followed best practices from there.
But first I had to open my eyes to see what my eyes found most interesting. And, this time, the common denominator seemed to be the colors pink and blue.
Huh. Never would have guessed that.
“Mirror, cease exercise,” I said. “Clear all images and display swatches of the pinks and blues I’m seeing right now.”
The lake of pictures disappeared and was replaced with gradients of vivid pinks and blues. I touched two of them.
“Remove every color but these two.”
When I focused on the two remaining colors and imagined Paul’s new suit, my mind remembered a silk fabric roll we had in storage with stripes of royal pinks and blues. It was such an oddly specific design that we’d had it for years—saved across all the overstock purges of the shop’s Fabric Library—and never used it.
That would change today.
It was time, and I saw what I needed to do as clearly as if it had already been done: I needed to replace the lining of the existing jacket with the royal stripes and dress Paul to a collared shirt — stylishly unbuttoned.
The fitted t-shirt had to go. It just had to.
What drape and collar goes best with stripes of royal pink and blue? I pondered, as I took the spiral stairs down to grab what I needed.
Our fabric library was extensive given that we kept at least one bolt of any bulk material we cleared out. We had threads from all eras and ages which gave us the ability to make or mend historical fashions with materials from their own time. The library was a passion project Monin and Bora had been working on longer than I’d been alive. And, when they’d been given a chance to move to Summit Peak, they’d made the transfer and building of their library non-negotiable for accepting residency.
Their demands had been granted.
Now Monin and Bora claimed it was the largest private collection of fabric and threads in the world. If they were exaggerating in that claim, I couldn’t imagine it was by much.
Our store was built on a cavern filled with a labyrinth of towers holding bolts and relics of attire from across time. Monin and Bora had a whole cataloging system for it, too, but I rarely used it. If I had seen an item before then I knew where to find it. I still had my “young” memory when it came to that.
As I wandered and climbed to the cavern where the royal stripes were stored, I considered all the fabrics I passed on my path. My eyes kept pausing on fabrics that would taper — not drape — on a torso, and other high-maintenance threads that would stiffen when starched.
I’d never realized it before, but the royal pinks and blues pretty much demanded to be paired with regal standards to retain their dignity. They could easily look childish if they slouched. And that was not a good look for a man.
I pictured Paul in my mind again to confirm he was physically fit enough to pull off the tapered shape that kept coming to mind. He was. Paul was what Bora liked to call Vogue-fit. That was the term she used to describe anyone who trained every part of their physique equally at a gym without having any speciality.
Up where we lived, you could often tell a person’s profession by their physique. Repeated labor carves itself into the body to the point that you can often spot a person’s trade from far away.
This was not true of those who came from the valleys. Rather than profession, it was often easier to discern a guest’s wealth or social caste from their posture. So, to ensure the bright stripes passed snuff in esteemed company, I needed to be more bold in creating a posture of wealth in the suit’s silhouette.
That meant a dress shirt … high collar … starched.
The stripes demanded it.
Man, Paul was going to need a maid by the time I was done with him because this was going to be a look.
I pulled fabrics as I went—hefting options for dress shirts along until I found a cart. I stacked the gathered bolts in it, left it to pick up on the way back, and got about the business of getting what I’d actually come for.
Time was ticking and it was time to start moving fast.
When I made my way back up to the workshop, Bora took one look at my load and shook her head. “Are you kidding? You have less than three hours.”
“Which is just what I need,” I replied, unloading the stacks. “Don’t worry. It’s just a shirt, a new lining, and some accents.”
“Uh-huh. And what are you imagining you’re going to do with that eye sore?” she grumbled, pointing to the bolt of royal-striped silk.
“That’s the new jacket lining,” before adding, “and the new vest, too.”
Apparently, I was making a vest now.
Bora opened her mouth as if to heckle my choice, then she seemed to reconsider. “Interesting. Proceed.”
So I did, working as fast as I could humanly manage.
The jacket lining was the top priority, followed by the shirt. By the time I made it to the vest, I had to go with the first options that came to mind. There was no room for second approaches if I wanted to finish on time.
I was sewing on the second-to-last button on the vest when I heard a heavy suitcase thumping its way up the shop stairs. Our shop had “luggage parking” outside, but valley people were always paranoid about theft even though no one stole anything in Summit Peak.
No one needed to.
Yet many guests were always afraid of theft, no matter how much their greeting orientation reassured them they didn’t need to be.
But we let them do what they felt they needed to. It was the law of the wild up here, and guests lived by the same rules we did. That mainly involved respecting the lives and work of others and not telling anyone else what to do.
So, if guests wanted to cling to their luggage, they could.
After the last clunk of tiny wheels cleared the top stair, my client entered the main room holding his cell phone out like he was giving a speech to Hamlet’s skull or playing an invisible trombone.
“I appreciate the enforced isolation you guys have here,” Paul said, eyes trained on his phone, “to a point. There has to be a way for me to get on Twitter.”
“Nope,” Bora said from the cutting table. “First signal is still at the train station at the base of the mountain. That hasn’t changed since the last time you were here.”
“Gah!” he groaned, shoving his phone in his pocket. “There is so much I need to do — ”
“In time,” Bora interrupted sagely. “But, for now, there is really only one thing to do.” She gestured to me as I got started on attaching the final shirt button. “Get fitted for your new suit.”
“Almost done!” I said cheerfully. “Do you want to change into the pants and shirt? We’ll fit them to you first.”
Paul grew still as he focused on the mannequin. “That’s my suit?”
“It is,” I replied, feeling quite proud of my work.
“Uh, no,” Paul said, giving the suit on the mannequin an unimpressed once-over. “Not happening. I’m looking to simplify life. I don’t wear anything that needs dry cleaning.” He stepped in closer, lording over me a bit. “We talked about this. I keep things simple.”
“Yes, but there’s a difference between simple and simplicity,” I replied, earning a grunt of agreement from Bora. “And, as you look to rise in the world, it’s fair to ask how is the world supposed to take a man seriously who can’t even maintain a crisp shirt?”
Paul scrunched his nose as he stepped forward to inspect the suit. “I’ll confess … this suit is a step up from suits I’ve — ”
He stopped talking when he unbuttoned the jacket and saw the lining. He then pointed to the design like it was an unsightly stain as he looked my way.
“Are you kidding me with this?” Paul asked with a deep frown. “Pink? You’re seriously telling me that after 21 days of hell on this mountain, you want to send me off wearing pink?”
“And blue,” I added, just in case blue was a color he couldn’t see. It wasn’t in his profile, but I never liked to assume. “Women who like these colors also like you. So I’m giving attracted women a reason to cross a room to you.”
Paul’s hand tested the fabric of the dress shirt on the mannequin before turning and correctly identifying the first shirt I’d made for him.
“That’s what I wanted,” he said, pointing to the soft tee.
“Yes,” I replied. “But if you wear that you will be unmemorable, which is the same as unexceptional. Yet to accomplish what you want to do next, you need to stand out to thrive. That’s just how natural selection works.”
My explanation must have been off-mark because, before Paul could answer, Monin swept in to guide the conversation.
“The collar Z has given you is actually quite interesting, historically,” he began, directing Paul’s attention to the crisp, white linen. “A version of this design was high fashion in the Roaring Twenties, which makes revisiting the style now — a century later — quite timely. You will definitely catch the notice of influential eyes wearing this. And you’ll see that Z has taken your casual sensibilities into consideration by omitting the signature collar buttons. Very casual-chic. Very unbothered.”
Paul shook his head, a lone finger drumming against his luggage handle in a show of restlessness. “Sorry, but you guys lost me with all this pink. I can’t go out in public looking like that. I’ll look like a clown.”
A clown? Had Paul ever seen a clown before?
“Look,” he grumbled. “I’ll take the pants and t-shirt I actually asked for, but the shirt and the jacket are a dumpster fire.” He made a show of glancing at his wristwatch. “Everything I’ve heard up here says I need to leave this town by high noon if I want to catch the last train out at sundown. That means I need to get going. Now. So let’s just skip the fitting and I’ll find my own jacket when I get to the city.”
Wow. This wasn’t going how I imagined it at all. I’d had clients push back on offerings, but never suggest that they belonged in the trash.
In my bafflement, the bounce of Paul’s knee and the drum of his finger pulled my attention again. It was unusual body language for someone leaving the mountain. We saw such restlessness all the time when they arrived, but days and weeks on the mountain tended to balance them out. By the time they left, they had typically worked out all their nervous energy, one way or another.
That’s when I realized Paul’s unusual tension had nothing to do with me or my suit. He was anxious, in general. Impatient. He flat-out wanted to leave.
Once my eyes opened to that, I saw all the other signs. Light sweat on his hairline. Condescending tone. Low eye contact. White-knuckled hand never leaving his rolling bag while his other came up every so often to rub the stress out of his neck.
It all pointed to one thing: Paul seemed to have found something on his journey and was trying to sneak it down a mountain in a rolling luggage bag.
“You’re right,” Bora said, interrupting my thoughts as she stepped in behind Paul. “It takes a healthy person about three hours to hike down to the train station. But people have been known to get lost or distracted along the way. It’s always smart to give yourself some extra time. Especially if you’re carrying a lot.”
Oh, yeah. Bora thought he was stealing, too.
Paul’s knee stopped bouncing at the comment, and the way he eyed Bora in warning for even daring to imply he was taking out more than he brought in had me questioning my decision to make him a reputable suit. Because the man in front of me suddenly did not seem like an inherently good guy.
So why had I felt compelled to make the new suit for him? It made no sense. I’d only done it because Delphi said I had more work to do, so did that mean Delphi was wrong for the first time ever?
Had there been no work left to do?
Had I wasted good nap time on a client who would opt to refuse free gifts so he could take a curse home like a stolen souvenir?
“Well, it looks like I’ll be carrying less than planned,” Paul complained like it was a burden. “But, all in all, I’m pretty okay with that.”
Bora signaled me. “Z, let’s pack up the slacks and t-shirt for Paul so he can make tonight’s train.”
I nodded, pulling my thoughts back to present duties and away from trying to wrap my brain around the fact that a thieving guest was snubbing some of my best work in exchange for pants and a t-shirt.
It was a bit crushing, to be honest. I hadn’t met many thieves in my life, but I’d imagined they had good taste. It seemed like they should know value when they saw it. How else could they be good at their jobs?
But, apparently, good taste was not a prerequisite.
“Will you go get the wrapping paper?” Bora asked.
“My pleasure,” I said with a bow, leaving to go grab the packing paper while pouting a bit.
I’d been dressing people for as long as I had a memory, and never had my work described as a “dumpster fire” or clown-like. Even as a child. Did Paul think I didn’t know what those things meant just because I lived on a mountain?
Because I did. And it hurt.
Monin and Bora spoke of their old dumpster in the city all the time. I’m not sure why but they’d had to lock their dumpster at night so that other people wouldn’t fill it up. But people who really wanted to use it would pick the locks and fill them while Monin and Bora slept. This resulted in what they called “The Dumpster Wars” — more than one of them ending with an actual fire.
And the thought of my suit burning in a dirty dumpster? I’d never had my work insulted in such a way and it had rare stirrings of anger bubbling up in me.
Let it bubble, I reminded myself, grabbing the packaging Bora had requested. Just don’t let it steam.
Then I took a few relaxing breaths and returned to the main room to find Paul tapping his foot like he’d been timing me.
Behind him, Monin sent me a look that basically asked, What did he steal?
I guess I’d been gone long enough that he thought I’d taken a look. I sent him a signal to say I didn’t know, and Bora was quick to step forward and take the wrapping paper from me.
“I’ll wrap your items for you,” she said to Paul. “Z can sometimes be slow.”
I was actually the fastest, but could be slow when I was distracted. And I was distracted sometimes. So Bora was using that to make an opening for me to duck out of sight and find out what was in the bag. Everyone in town would know soon enough, but Monin and Bora never liked being the last to know when they could just as easily be the first.
I handed Bora the wrapping paper and waited for her to start fussing over Paul before disappearing from the room again so I could close my eyes and do my special trick.
Everyone on the mountain had a trick nobody else could do. Mine was that I could look at futures like turning pages of a book.
It wasn’t really a helpful skill, more like a party trick people liked to see when they were a drink or two past sober. They’d drink, ask me to predict things, then laugh and drink some more.
Monin and Bora liked to use my trick when they’d misplaced something they needed to find or, in instances like this, where a guest was trying to smuggle things out.
Out of sight, I leaned against the wall between us, took a deep breath, and pictured a Book of Possibilities with Paul’s name on it. Then I opened the pages about a quarter of the way through. He was mostly a teenager there, so I flipped to about the 40% mark and couldn’t help but focus in when I saw several pages with versions of his life where he was wearing my suit.
He looked great!
Even better, my suit had served him well in attracting an ideal mate. The Paul I saw here looked a little older than he was now, and he had a full wardrobe with variations of my design. But the original still held strong.
Yet as fun as these pages were to see, it wasn’t a reality Paul was currently choosing. I needed to find the versions where he tried to conquer the world in slacks and t-shirts.
So I flipped back and back until images of the slacks and shirt came into view.
In this version of Paul’s pages, I saw him in a white-walled apartment filled with thousands of watches he was trying to sell on the Twitter.
But no orders were coming in.
His inventory wasn’t moving because he didn’t know how to sell. But rather than learning, he spent his days learning how to Photoshop bank statements he wished he had and posted those on the world’s web along with messages about how masculine and powerful he was.
It was all quite strange and he seemed quite unhappy.
Obviously, I wasn’t catching him at a highpoint in life in this particular possibility of the future.
In this version fo events, I saw Paul cross paths with the same mate he’d attracted on the pages where he’d been wearing my suit. This same woman spared him a bored look at a party, and never looked back any of the five times they crossed paths after that.
Paul still definitely saw her and wanted to make a move, but she made a point of not seeing him and ended up marrying a much older man who was a real estate developer.
And that was that.
So my instincts hadn’t been off there. My suit was good … although, I never saw Paul wearing the vest and going full three-piece on any of the pages. So, apparently, that had been unnecessary to make. And I could accept that. A three-piece suit had a certain formality to it that Paul wasn’t interested in personifying.
But that didn’t explain why wasn’t he taking the jacket. It was amazing, it was freely given, and there was quite literally no reason not to!
Resisting my desire to understand, I reminded myself why I’d peeked in Paul’s pages in the first place: to see what he had chosen to put in his bag before rolling it in here and accusing me of creating clown costumes and dumpster fires.
In my mind, I pushed all the pages aside where Paul left the shop with my suit. The only ones I kept open were those where he left with the wrapped package containing only the slacks and shirt.
Each page started out essentially the same, which meant I could choose any one of them and still find my answer.
“Have you ever been to Hawaii?” I heard Bora ask Paul in the periphery of my awareness in a tone that signaled we were moving into borrowed time. I needed to hurry.
“Ever visited their volcanos and seen those gnarly rocks?” she continued.
“Yeah,” Paul said, not interested.
I tuned them out. She was going to buy a minute or two telling him tales of tourists who took cursed lava rocks from the island. She believed in fair warnings and last chances. Monin came from the school of thought that people were taught right from wrong when they were children and they knew what they were doing.
As a child, I’d been allowed to warn guests by helping them seen consequences just a little ways off. Sometimes, it worked; sometimes, it didn’t. But it had always left my thoughts tangled and my dreams haunted. It was torture to see what bright possibilities awaited others if they chose one path, only to watch them choose others filled with errors and misery.
As an adult, I heeded the law of the wild and tried not to spend too much time in people’s pages of possibilities. I played my part and let everyone else play theirs. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t find out what was in Paul’s bag.
I just wanted to see what he had. Not everything that came after that.
So I followed every version of the pages where Paul left with the wrapped shirt and pants while carting along the same rolling bag. Whatever was inside must have been heavy because in no version did Paul try to lift it. It also seemed quick to get stuck on the dirt path as he made his way to a carriage. There, he’d had the foresight to stash a board, which he used to leverage the suitcase into the cargo hold all by himself before signaling the coachman he was ready to return to the valley.
I flipped quickly through pages of the trip down, waiting for the bag to become Paul’s focus again.
It took a while.
The man was quite cautious. It wasn’t until he’d made it down the mountain, caught the train, taken it to a farming village, and found lodging that he shut and locked the door behind him and opened the bag to check on his bounty.
Or, as Monin would say, Ruh-roh.
My eyes flew open as I bit my lip to keep silent.
Of all the things to steal, why choose dragon’s gold? Everyone knew it returned to its lair as soon as it was able! All it needed was to touch the ground long enough to start seeping into the arteries of the earth and ride them home.
Poof! Then it would be gone.
Stealing dragon’s gold was a tantamount fool’s errand. It was a test of merit, at best, and an earnest attempt to steal, at worst. Its curse of avarice hardened the heart of any who coveted it and filled their minds with obsessive, paranoid plans of how to possess and claim it.
Worse still, anyone who saw it, touched it, heard a tale about, or could physically smell gold would try to steal it from the thief, which would test the thief’s soul as to what he would do to keep it.
Things always ended badly … often with at least one person dead. Which was the very reason dragons guarded it! Humans made all sorts of messes when we fought over it.
Before Paul, I’d only ever heard stories of fools who tried to steal dragon’s gold. I’d never been in the middle of such a story myself. It felt unreal to realize I might be standing in the middle of a new bedtime story, starring Paul, that parents would tell their children in the hopes they would choose to be less dumb should their children happen across any dragon’s gold.
The good news? I was pretty sure, based on his Book of Possibilities, stealing the gold wouldn’t leave Paul dead. Based on his page count, I would expect him to live into his sixties or seventies.
But that was luck. Death was a common ending for others who did what he was doing.
Dragon’s gold was so lethal, in fact, that I actually felt a little superstitious handling any gold at all.
Yes, I knew regular gold wasn’t dragon’s gold. It was fine to handle or embed in a design or treat like any other material. But as soon as I caught sight of its metallic sheen, bedtime tales of dragon’s gold would fill my mind and fears of being tricked would creep in.
Because of this, I had yet to work with authentic yellow gold in any way.
White gold? Yes. All the time. Dragon’s gold was never white, so it was safe. Which was good because I much preferred white gold to silver. It was more elegant in every way. I might even use it for the moonstone cufflinks.
Moonstone and white gold, I wondered, suddenly questioning my judgment since the idea came from the same place that made me think I needed to make a vest for Paul.
A vest he would never wear in any version of reality.
Would my cufflinks hit the same note? Would the pairing be like marshmallows on white bread? No contrast? Too much of the same energy? Too feminine?
Or would it somehow work?
Later, I told myself. You can think about that later. Right now, you need to let Bora know it’s okay to stop talking about lava rocks.
I grabbed a roll of twine so as not to enter empty-handed, and returned to the main workroom.
Looking at Paul now, and seeing stressed veins at his temple and eyes wild with the need to get down off the mountain, I realized Erik had been right earlier that morning: the energy of the moonstones was not one every man could pull off.
Paul certainly couldn’t.
If he was wearing moonstones while hoarding dragon’s gold? Well, then, heaven help him! Because if Paul didn’t tear the moonstones off himself, someone else would rob him of them.
I’d been so confident earlier that my next client could embrace the attention of feminine energy, but now I wasn’t so sure. He’d have to be the kind of guy who could handle a hothead without getting his shirt dirty.
He’d have to be a total alpha. No ambiguity.
Which was why Erik had questioned my judgment. He worked with minerals every day so he had spotted the issue before I had.
“Earth to Z,” Monin said, snapping his fingers in front of my eyes.
Apparently, I’d zoned out because Paul’s back was to me as he made his disgruntled exit. His rolling bag was just about to have its first big kerthump down the stairs and I didn’t remember seeing him cross the room. But he had the package Bora had tied up for him under his arm, just like he had in all of the pages.
“I thought that jacket was meant for him,” I mused, sadder than I wanted to let on. “But he wouldn’t take it … not for anything. Why not?”
It just didn’t make sense.
Monin placed his hand on my shoulder. “You did your best for the client. You cannot help it if he doesn’t wish the best for himself.”
True. I’d learned that lesson before, but not like this.
“So what was it?” Bora pressed. “What does he have in the bag?”
“Oh,” I said, remembering they didn’t know yet. “He stole dragon’s gold.”
“Ruh-roh,” Monin said before adding a low whistle.
Bora grimaced. “I was wondering if that might be the case when stories of cursed rocks kept coming to mind.”
Monin let out a cynical chuckle. “I thought that might be the case when he had to teeter totter his bag up the stairs. It’s gotta weigh a couple hundred pounds. I’m surprised the handle held up.”
Bora shook her head as the suitcase dropped down the last few stairs. “Do you think he has any idea what he’s doing?”
“Of course, he doesn’t,” Monin grumbled. “No one’s that stupid.”
Bora tilted her head as if she disagreed. “Did you see him?”
“No one’s that dumb,” Monin said with more authority.
“Uh, recap!” Bora shot back. “Z just offered him the prototype of what could easily be fashion’s next it-suit, while I warned him with ominous tales of what happens to people who dare to steal rocks. And his response is to toss the free gifts and warnings aside in exchange for a carryon bag filled with dragon’s gold? What is that, if not textbook stupid?”
“Uh, it’s exactly the proof needed to show he doesn’t know what he’s doing!”
Knowing their “discussion” would only escalate from there, I tuned out Monin and Bora and turned my thoughts back to the cufflinks. I’d been planning on starting them immediately after Paul left, but now I felt so unsettled I didn’t know how to start … or even if I should.
Paul’s actions had left me confused. I’d never had anyone refuse my work before.
And his future could be so bright if he left the gold right where it was and took the suit instead. The curse wouldn’t activate until it passed to the other side of the main gate.
He still had a chance!
Yet I couldn’t help him.
“Hey,” Bora said, waving her hand in front of my face. Behind her, Monin recited his personal theory of how one could actually get rich with dragon’s gold if they were cunning. Both of us had heard it before, but that never stopped him from preaching.
When he got in this mode, you just had to not talk over him until he was done unless you wanted an actual argument with him.
“Break time,” Bora mouthed so as not to interrupt him. “Take a power nap. See you in an hour.”
She was right. The sun was out and it was lovely … and my brain had a lot to process.
I’d love to sleep on it.
“See you in an hour,” I mouthed back before going to find a nice roof I could take a break on.