On the stone walls, hoarfrost spread like white fungus. Griselda’s breath caused it to grow, not melting until March or April in some years. She would stand near the slate-grey rock and mist the surface, watching the crystals expand, miniature star bursts within her dim quarters.
With a fingernail, the only part of her kept clean, less to sully the queen’s mending, she would scrape designs into the ice-covered surface. The array of geometric whimsy would stun even the boorish guards whose job it was to keep her safe. Griselda was, after all, the best seamstress in the kingdom.
She flicked the grimy, frozen mold from her finger tip. “Safe from all but my own wicked thoughts.” And devious cleverness.
“Griselda, collect your witchcraft contrivances, the Queen requires a new gown for Lord Rhelmsly’s commencement.” Derkin, Griselda’s least favorite of the King’s drooling guards, rapped with weak knuckles, she was certain he was foppish, and finished with, “And cover your person this time, damn you.”
“The sight of sinful flesh too much for your chaste mind, Derkin?” Griselda retrieved her basket, she was ever ready for work that would free her from this horrid prison, and made sure to lift her skirts, a flash of flawless pale calf glowed in the torchlight when the guard entered.
“Curses, girl. I told you to cover thyself.” He looked away while the Queen’s dress-maid danced through the doorway.
“Ankles can be so devilishly sensuous, isn’t that right, Dervy?”
Griselda had had her fun and remained silent during the labyrinthine climb to her seamstress antechamber, one room removed from the Queen’s dressing room.
“You again?” The Queen’s foul mood snapped the curve from Griselda’s spine. “There were threads hanging like vines from the last gown you made for me. I told the king to be rid of you.”
Griselda’s lips, full and dry, begged to be licked, but she refrained from doing so. Nor did she glare her eyes nor flare her nostrils. Loose threads? More like loose bowels.
The Queen, plump to bulging, with thinning hair the color of dung, plucked at Griselda’s fraying chemise. “But I’m told you’re all there is. I need a new gown. Get to work.”
Griselda risked multiple glances about the room. “Pardon, my queen, the bolt of cloth?”
The Queen gestured feebly “It’s in the wardrobe, you silly girl.”
Griselda fetched the rich, crimson material, shot with silver and coal black silk and prepared a settee as her measuring station. From her basket she pulled a knotted string, and her pride and joy, a set of shears made by her father, well oiled and wrapped in a soft vellum sheet.
“There should be enough to make three fine gowns. But knowing you and your clumsiness, I’ll be lucky to get even one that’s worthy.”
Or just a bonnet to fit your fat head. “Yes, your grace,” Griselda said and set to work counting knots on the string pulled from armpit to palm, neck to kneecap. She marked the numbers on a stick figure she’d drawn in chalk on a plate-sized piece of slate.
“You’ll have this done by sundown in two days hence. Do you hear me?” The Queen had scarcely paid attention while Griselda ducked and stretched. But now that she looked down at the seamstresses basket and spied the slate image she fumed. “Thirty-nine at the waist? Liar! Do it again.”
“Sorry, ma’am, I mean, my queen. My mistake, twenty-nine is the correct count.”
“This may be the last dress you ever make, Griselda. You’d better live up to the rumors.”
Left alone, Griselda fingered the elegant cloth. Such extravagance was worth a lifetime of toil by a maid such as she. She unwound yards of it and wrapped it around her shoulders. Even the smell of it, mace and something deeper, spoke wealth and power. She held it to the window; so tightly woven as to pass no light. Her dungeon etchings came to mind, in particular, one shaped like a tall, thin diamond.
She called to the handmaids who tittered in the next room. “Willomina,” she said to one, “I have the Queen’s permission to request what I need from the King’s servants. You’re familiar with the huntsmen, are you not?”
Griselda smiled. “Good. Now here is what I need…”
When the supplies were delivered, Griselda quickly fabricated a model of her diamond design. “Quit bickering you two,” she said to the queen’s handmaids. “You both need to master this technique.” Griselda had them practice until their fingers flickered like spider’s legs. “Good. Now be off, I need to finish. And not a word of this to the Queen.”
On the second evening, Griselda presented the finished gown. The Queen’s preoccupation with some scuttlebutt regarding Lady Rhelmsly and a stable boy, kept her attention away from the gown’s fitting.
“It’ll have to do, won’t it,” the Queen remarked in the polished bronze mirror.
The celebration commenced.
“Absolutely breathtaking, my Queen.” Lord Rhelmsly bowed to brush his lips to the queen’s wrist. As his eyes roamed the waves of blood-red material, exquisitely sewn so as to hide every seam, he noticed a regiment of circular disks which seem to march up the center of the queen’s dress. Still holding her hand he pulled her closer, his eyes focusing at the spot just below her breast.
“Ahem, my Lord.” Rhelmsly’s livery servant, there to provide names and hold refreshments, tried to interrupt the man’s fascination with the queen’s chest.
“What on earth are those?” the Lord said, straightening. He released the queen’s hand and politely gestured at the woman’s clothing. “Tiny coins appear to be holding your entire ensemble together, as it were.”
The Queen looked down and, for the first time, noticed the construction of the gown. She turned to her steward and ground her teeth. “Fetch Griselda, at once!”
The Queen and Lord Rhelmsly shifted to the corner of the ballroom. Griselda, being manhandled by Derkin, was ushered through a secret door.
“What is the meaning of these?” The Queen tapped the lacquered, antler-cut disks that ran like black, flat pearls up her dress.
Griselda, her chin high, knew her design was flawless. “They’re butt-ons, they butt through small slits to hold your clothing on.”