A small bell on the door announces her arrival, and the tailor, Monsieur Bertin, looks up at her through brows as thick as brambles, and makes a sour face.
“I am closing,” he says curtly.
Addie ducks her head, the picture of discretion. “I am here on behalf of Madame Lautrec.”
It is a name plucked from the breeze, overheard on a handful of her walks, but it is the right answer. The tailor straightens, suddenly keen. “For the Lautrecs, anything.” He takes up a small pad, a charcoal pencil, and Addie’s own fingers twitch, a moment of grief, a longing to draw as she so often did.
“It is strange, though,” he is saying, shaking the stiffness from his hands, “that she would send a lady’s maid in place of her valet.”
“He’s ill,” Addie answers swiftly. She is learning to lie, to bend with the current of the conversation, follow its course. “So she sent her lady’s maid instead. Madame wishes to throw a dance, and is in need of a new dress.”
“But of course,” he says. “You have her measurements?”
He stares, waiting for her to produce a slip of paper.
“No,” she explains. “I have her measurements—they are the same as mine. That’s why she sent me.”
She thinks it is a rather clever lie, but the tailor only frowns, and turns toward a curtain at the back of the shop. “I will get my tape.”
She catches a brief glimpse of the room beyond, a dozen dress forms, a mountain of silks, before the curtain falls again. But as Bertin slips away, so does she, vanishing between the dress forms and the rolls of muslin and cotton propped against the wall. It is not her first visit to the shop, and she has learned well its crevices and crooks, all the corners large enough to hide in. Addie folds into one such space, and by the time Bertin returns to the front of the shop, the tape in one hand, he has forgotten all about Madame Lautrec and her peculiar maid.
It is stuffy among the rolls of cloth, and she’s grateful when she hears the rattle of the bell, the shuffling sound of Bertin closing up his shop. He will go upstairs, to the room he keeps above, will have some soup, and soak his aching hands, and go to bed before it is full night. She waits, letting the quiet settle around her, waits until she can hear the groan of his steps overhead.
And then she is free to wander, and peruse.
A weak gray light seeps through the front window as she crosses the shop, pulls aside the heavy curtain, and steps through.
The fading light slides in through a single window, just enough to see by. Along the back wall there are cloaks, half-finished, and she makes a mental note to return when summer gives way to fall, and the cold sweeps through. But her focus falls on the center of the room, where a dozen dress forms stand like dancers taking up their marks, their narrow waists wrapped in shades of green and gray, a navy gown piped white, another pale blue with yellow trim.
Addie smiles, and casts the bonnet off onto a table, shaking loose her hair.
She runs her hand over skeins of patterned silk and richly dyed cotton, savoring the textures of linen and twill. Touches the boning of the corsets, the bustles at the hips, imagining herself in each. She passes the muslin and wool, simple and sturdy, lingers instead on worsted pleats and layered satin, finer than anything she saw back home.
Home—it is a hard word to let go of, even now, when there is nothing left to bind her to it.
She plucks at the stays of a bodice, the blue of summer, and stops, breath held, when she catches movement out of the corner of her eye. But it is only a mirror, leaning against the wall. She turns, studies herself in the silvered surface, as if she were a portrait of someone else, though the truth is, she looks entirely herself.
These last two years have felt like ten, and yet, they do not show. She should have long been whittled down to skin and bone, hardened, hewn, but her face is just as full as it was the summer she left home. Her skin, unlined by time and trial, untouched in any way, save for the familiar freckles on the smooth palette of her cheeks. Only her eyes mark the change—an edge of shadow threaded through the brown and gold.
Addie blinks, forces her gaze away from herself, and the dresses.
Across the room, a trio of dark shapes—men’s forms, in trousers and waistcoats and jackets. In the low light, their headless forms seem alive, leaning into one another as they study her. She considers the cut of their clothes, the absence of bone stays or bustled skirts, and thinks, not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, how much simpler it would be to be a man, how easily they move through the world, and at such little cost.
And then, she is reaching for the nearest form, sliding off its coat. Unfastening the buttons down its front. There is a strange intimacy to the undressing, and she enjoys it all the more for the fact that the man beneath her fingers is not real, and therefore cannot grope, or paw, or push.
She frees herself from the laces of her own dress, and finds her way into the trousers, fastening them below her knee. She pulls on the tunic and buttons the waistcoat, shrugs the striped coat over her shoulders, fastens the lace cravat at her throat.
She feels safe in the armor of their fashion, but when she turns to the mirror, her spirits sink. Her chest is too full, her waist too narrow, her hips flaring to fill the trousers in the wrong place. The jacket helps, a little, but nothing can disguise her face. The bow of her lips, the line of her cheek, the smoothness of her brow, all too soft and round to pass for anything but female.
She takes up a pair of shears, tries to trim the loose coil of her hair to her shoulders, but seconds later, it is back, the locks on the floor swept away by some invisible hand. No mark made, even on herself. She finds a pin and fastens the light brown waves back in the style she has seen men wear, plucks a tricorne hat from one of the forms and rests it above her brow.
At a distance, perhaps; at a passing glance, perhaps; at night, perhaps, when the darkness is thick enough to smudge the details; but even by lamplight, the illusion does not hold.
The men in Paris are soft, even pretty, but they are still men.
She sighs, and casts off the disguise, and passes the next hour trying on dress after dress, already longing for the freedom of those trousers, the stayless comfort of that tunic. But the dresses are fine, and lush. Her favorite among them is a lovely green and white—but it isn’t finished yet. The collar and hem lie open, waiting for lace. She’ll have to check back in a week or two, hope that she catches the dress before it’s gone, wrapped in paper and sent on to the home of some baroness.
In the end, Addie chooses a dark sapphire dress, its edges trimmed in gray. It reminds her of a storm at night, the clouds blotting out the sky. The silk kisses her skin, the fabric crisp and new and utterly unblemished. It is too fine for her needs, a dress for banquets, for balls, but she does not care. And if it draws strange looks, what of it? They will forget before they have the chance to gossip.
Addie leaves her own dress draped around the naked form, does not bother with the bonnet, lifted from a line of clothes that morning. She slips back through the curtain and across the shop, skirts rustling around her, finds the spare key Bertin keeps in the table’s top drawer, and unlocks the door, careful to still the bell with her fingers. She pulls the door shut behind her, crouching to slip the iron key back through the gap beneath the door, then rises and turns, only to collide with a man standing on the street.