Story no. 45. I have been working with wool a LOT in the last week.
As always, illustration to follow.
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The woman was tall, rawboned, with striking red-brown hair pulled into a thick plait. She wore a dress of the spectacular cloth Dominguez had come to the mountains looking for. It glowed in the sunlight glancing down the tiles of the roof, with the same deep sheen and subtle patterns as the delicate shawl which had made its way to the court. Unlike the shawl, it was tattered around the seams and hems, clearly a garment that had been worn long and often.
She stood with her back to Dominguez. Every other minute she threw her right arm up into the air, letting a spindle of dark wood drop from her fingertips, whirling. The thread that kept it from hitting the ground was so fine it was barely visible in the late sun. Before his eyes could do more than trace the glimmer of fiber, she snatched the spindle out of the air and winding thread around it furiously.
Here, then, was the master artisan he sought.
“Hail, lady,” he said.
She didn’t turn but sent the spindle gyrating through the air again.
“Lady! I would speak with you.”
The winding-up followed the spinning-down as though he had remained silent.
His cousin maintained any number of querulous, irritable craftsmen in his retinue: potters and metalworkers and painters and leathermen. They’d snub anyone they thought they could get away with snubbing. Very few snubbed Dominguez.
It was perhaps for this reason that he didn’t immediately take offense at this woman’s extreme rudeness. It was rather novel.
He reached forward and grasped her elbow.
This prompted a reaction, though not the reaction he had been seeking. She jerked away and lurched to one side, almost falling to the ground. Her thread broke, and the spindle clattered to the ground and rolled away from her. The distaff tucked under her other arm started to fall too, before she clamped her elbow down on its length.
“What,” she said angrily, already scrambling after her thread. “How many times—” She stopped and looked up at him. “I don’t know you.” This last sounded like an accusation. Her eyes flipped down again as her hand closed on the spindle.
“I am Santi Dominguez,” he said. “I own the Cali estate. Angel’s mother is my mother’s sister.” He said this in a pleasantly warning tone, the one that made his horse stop pulling at the reins and his dogs cower. People didn’t like when he called his cousin by his first name; someone who was on such familiar terms with the king made them nervous.
But again, the woman didn’t notice that he was talking to her. She had the end of the snapped thread between her thumb and forefinger and was inspecting it closely.
Irritated, he snapped his fingers. She kept turning the thread over and over, the rest of her body perfectly still.
Dominguez, starting to understand, waved his hand in a slow arc through her peripheral vision. She jerked and glanced up at him, her face coloring. “What do you want?”
“I want,” he said slowly, enunciating, noting how her eyes tracked immediately to his mouth, “to find the person who made a certain very fine shawl—”
“Don’t do that,” she interrupted, her voice a little too loud.
“Don’t exaggerate how you speak. It makes it harder for me.”
“Can you hear me at all?” he asked.
She scowled and looked away from him.
After a moment, he crouched down on the floor beside her and tapped the end of the spindle with his finger, waiting until her eyes slid over to his face. “Do you work only in wool?”
“I have goats too,” she said, then lowered her voice when she read from his expression. “They’re Angora crosses. They’ve got very soft fleece.”
“Will you take works on commission?”
“No.” She looked down, this time with a defiant jolt.
Dominguez lifted his hand to her neck and drew it along her jaw until his fingers lifted her chin. She did not, as he half-expected, bite him. Her eyes were hazel.
“Will you take a commission for the king?” he said.
She didn’t speak for a long while, but stared at him, her jaw clenched. Finally he dropped his hand and stood. When he turned to the gate where he had entered the courtyard, she spoke.
“The sheep are mine. There are twenty-one of them. No one will look after them except me. I go out with them, and I come in with them. Today they’re in the near field, but they can’t graze there more than once a week. I can only spin on whatever day I get the near field and in the evenings, and it will be months before I’ve got enough to weave something as large as that shawl. And after—”
Dominguez had pivoted to face her during this speech. He held up a hand, and she stopped speaking at once, narrowing her eyes at him.
“Angel is not an unreasonable man,” he said. “It’s only that he would like something beautiful for the birth of his first child. This is in five months.” He saw the way her face twisted up and knew that wasn’t enough time. “Have you not finished anything else like the shawl?”
“No. Well. Maybe.”
He thought she might refuse just on principle, but after a minute she got to her feet, tucking both spindle and distaff tightly under her arm, and beckoned for him to follow.
She didn’t live in the courtyard house, but down the slope a little bit, in a ramshackle outbuilding that had been retrofitted with a boiler and a new roof. She gestured for him to stay outside, but he followed her through the low door, ducking his head.
Inside it was dark. A bulky object covered in a drape drew his eye to one corner, and he wondered if this was her loom. Livestock shelters in this part of the country were built with the merest slits for windows, and to weather-proof these further someone had tacked fabric over the openings—not cotton, he realized, as his fingers brushed over the closest one, but the finest of wool. The walls and floor were covered in paneling pieced together from scraps of wood. In the corner a low bedstead stood, ropes supporting a visibly sagging mattress. A waist-high stone wall ran across interior, separating the little finished room from the rest of the shelter, where the floor was still stony and dusty with hay. The whole enclosure smelled strongly of sheep.
She set her things on a table pushed up against the wall, then went to the bed and knelt beside it. When she caught sight of him, a startle jerked her shoulders. He supposed she couldn’t have heard his footsteps on the creaking wood. Perhaps her world altogether was one of abrupt surprises, things that were suddenly at arms’-length without warning.
She looked at him, then at the bed, then at him, her eyebrows folding the skin between them into a line of worry or concern or contemplation. It was hard to read her face in the dim light. He leaned against the doorway, careless, even insouciant, but the worry-line did not smooth away.
“You should wait outside,” she said sharply.
“I’m fine where I am, thank you,” Dominguez said. She squinted at his mouth and pursed her lips, then shrugged and scowled.
She bent forward, feeling beneath the bed for a minute, before extracting a box. “Out,” she repeated. “You can’t see it in here.”
Dominguez paused for a minute, weighing whether and how quickly he wanted to comply. She approached him slowly, holding the box in front of her, glaring.
“What is your name?”
She stopped just before the front edge of the box shoved into his gut.
“What is your name?” he repeated.
“You have to move. I can’t get by you.”
“You don’t need my name.”
“I gave you mine. It’s only polite.”
He wasn’t sure if she had understood that last bit, but after a minute she shifted back on her heels and sighed. “It’s Lia.”
Dominguez stepped back through the doorway, and Lia came after, blinking at the low red sun as she emerged. She sat on a bench propped against the wall and set the box on her knees. In the light, its dark color resolved into wood grain, a curious pattern cut into the lid and sides. She flipped up the lid and delicately extracted a piece of fabric.
It was very small, barely large enough to cover his palm. For all that, it rippled with a depth of color that he wouldn’t have believed possible, if he hadn’t already seen the shawl that Jacinta had brought to the court. That piece had been done in reds and blues, but this tiny square was in greens and yellows. The pattern was one of interlocking diamonds and sprigs of greenery, visible as an ever-so-slightly paler relief. He stroked the cloth. It was so soft and fine that it barely felt like there was a barrier between his finger and Lia’s palm.
There were other squares in the box, mostly of undyed wool of various hues, woven into a variety of subtle patterns. A few others were solid jewel tones, and two had shining transitions from one color to another. Dominguez flipped through them one by one, slightly dizzied by the details of their ornamentation.
There was a notebook and silver-type picture at the bottom of the box, but Lia closed the lid before he could look more closely at either.
“This is what I have,” she said stiffly, her voice again a little too loud for how close he was standing. “That’s all.”
Dominguez wondered how many gifts of cloth she had made to the other people living on this mountain. “How much do you want for this one?” he asked, picking up the corner of the first green square she had shown him. He found he was watching her mouth as carefully as she watched his.
“They’re not—they’re samples. You can’t buy them. They’re not good for anything. I’ll give one to you.”
He raised his eyebrows.
He raised them higher. “Lady—Lia—these are exquisite. Do you think I can just take them?” He named a price, one that could fill her box in silver.
“What?” She sounded bewildered. He started to repeat what he had just said, shaping his lips more carefully, but her eyes weren’t following at all. Rather, she was staring at the fabric in her hand.
The crunch of gravel behind him made Dominguez half-turn toward the girl who came down the path. She was maybe eleven, her dark hair in a long braid down her back. After bobbing a curtsy to Dominguez, her hands fell into a waterfall of gestures. She repeated these impatiently until Lia realized she was being addressed and turned to face her. Lia responded with a curt, one-handed sign; the girl laughed and skipped back toward the house.
“Maybe I should learn to speak like that,” he said, but Lia wasn’t looking at him. He touched the top of the box, and she met his eyes. He could already see how one might grow very quiet indeed in her company.
“There is a man,” he started, “on my estate. He runs a flock over the highest part of the mountain that still has grass on it. He has expounded at great length to my brother about the many qualities of his sheep.” He paused, allowing a little smile to play over his mouth. The line had come back between Lia’s eyes, but it seemed to be a thoughtful expression rather than a worried one. “His father supplied the king’s mill with wool, and his uncles still do. It is not as fine as what you make, but it is very, very fine. If I can take some of your—your samples—to the king, will you let me introduce you to him? You might have much to say to each other.”
Lia pulled on one ear, then cupped her hand over it. “I doubt he will speak to me at all.”
“He will if I tell him to,” he said with great force, letting his smile widen.
Dominguez left with three beautiful, tiny pieces of fabric, wrapped in a length of equally fine white wool, and a resolution to come back to the mountains very soon.