Chapter One


Introducing a roguish pair of rotten rascals…
and a good deed goes horribly wrong

“Wretched thing!” Mr Thrums shoved at the wheelbarrow. Its front wheel rammed into a crack in the pavement.

A distant clock chimed ten. I tried not to worry that we still hadn’t reached the Grand Pavilion.

“Let me.” I hauled at the barrow until the wheel ran freely. “And don’t worry about the time, sir. That clock’s always fast.”

“Thank you, Mina.” He straightened, wincing. “You go ahead and deal with the city custodians.” He tottered over to a bench, puffing. “I—need—a moment. Off you go as well, Barley, lad. I’ll join you when I’ve caught my breath.”

The boy looked startled. He was seven years old, half my age. He’d only been with us a few months at Mr Thrums’ tailor shop.

“All right.” I glanced at Mr Thrums’ scarlet face. “But I think Barley should stay with you. I’ll take the outfits.”

Barley made a grab for the two brocade waistcoats.

“Don’t crush them!” I didn’t dislike Barley, not really, but I kept losing my temper and finding myself snapping at him.


“Never mind. Run!” Mr Thrums mopped his brow with a faded handkerchief.

With the bundle under my arm, I pelted across the square and past the stocks. I risked a quick glance at the sorry people tied to the wooden frame, surrounded by rotten vegetables. I recognised the greengrocer and his wife, even though their faces were bruised and swollen. Everyone knew it was risky to insist that our custodians paid up, but times were hard. I worried about Mr Thrums and his business difficulties. I hoped he wouldn’t end up on the stocks himself. Usually, people weren’t there for long. Their families usually paid a big fine to get them released, but it was still a horrible punishment. It smelled awful.

I hurried past a boarded-up door. It used to be the entrance to a fine spa where the rich folk took the waters. I could still see its tiled fountain and mineral parlours, almost as grand as the Grand Pavilion itself. Now the cracked tiles and empty rooms looked rather sad, as if they’d forgotten what they were there for.

Mudwells used to be quite the place, or so they said. The most sought-after town on the island of Sulisia. Fresh water bubbled up and was turned into spas and people came from all around—and spent lots of money at the smart hotels.

In fact, our city used to be called Midwells. The trouble was, really sick people started to turn up and didn’t recover. Many even died, which was most unfashionable. The city tried to keep the thermal pools clean, but they ran out of money. Slimy green plants started to grow there… the mud crept in—and stayed. And so it became “Mudwells”.

Ahead was the pavilion, its onion-shaped towers, now grey and streaked, disappearing into heavy clouds. Panting, I hurried past a line of fraying flags that plinked at their poles. Each one featured a faded Mortescue crest, two white swans intertwined, with large black letter “M” above. Woody cooking smells poured out of the kitchens—reminding everyone who couldn’t afford a decent meal that the staff was preparing a fine banquet.

I came to the tradesmen’s entrance. I pushed open the glass doors and jangled the porter’s bell. The grandfather clock that stood nearby said half-past two. I knew that clock wasn’t working either—like most things in Mudwells. Still, it must have been after ten. I fretted until a steward emerged, dressed in purple livery with worn piping (I couldn’t help but notice). He ran a dirty nail down the entries in the diary and glared at me.

“We’re here for the final costume fitting.” I showed him our business card.

“Thrums Esquire?” His lips pursed. “Gentlemen’s Outfitter. You don’t look like a gentlemen’s outfitter.”

You don’t look like a gentleman, I thought, but feigned politeness. “I am Miss Claramina Dart, his apprentice.” I showed him the waistcoats. “We’ve made garments for tomorrow’s ball. The city custodians are most anxious to look their best.”

The porter raised an eyebrow then led me up a marble staircase to double doors, labelled “The Ballroom”. He stopped and turned to me. “Be quick. Other visitors arriving. And then there’s the signing of the peace treaty and the banquet. Not every day Mudwells hosts a party of politicians from our neighbours in Barroquia.”

I nodded like a dutiful servant. With a grunt, he rapped his knuckle on the door. “The outfitter, your worships. Bit later than promised.” He sniffed and stepped aside.

I’d never met our city leaders before, but I bobbed my best curtsey. As I waited for instruction, I sneaked a look around and jumped at the sight of hundreds of images of me, a thin dark-haired girl looking rather drab in my simple grey frock and dusty black boots. As I adjusted my pinned up, wayward curls, I could see myself reflected in different angles in giant mirrors running the full length of the long room. Sunlight bounced off the chandeliers, bristling with beeswax candles that cast sparkling gems of light on the floors, ceiling and walls.

Dazzled, I bumped against one of a score of glass tables. It was crammed with crystal vases and they all began to wobble. Blistering bodkins, I thought. I’m as much a stumble-clump as Barley. I flung out an arm to steady it and the tinkling stopped.

In the middle of the room stood our two custodians with their backs to me. They fidgeted with their cuffs as a stocky, square-faced man pointed at a huge parchment, its edges weighted down by flowers in crystal vases. I stifled a sneeze brought on by the sickly scent of hyacinths drifting in my direction.
“Finally, this is where the mechanism will be.” The stocky man tapped at some ink drawings. He was dapper in his expensive blue jacket with fine top-stitching. He wore his silver hair sleeked back, like a young man about town, but the lines in his cheeks were cruel. His thin lips were bluish grey. “Right here. Hidden from view, of course.”

“Yes, yes.” The two custodians, who were of equal build, drifted away from the table, preening at their reflections.

I gulped when I saw them. It really was impossible to tell them apart. Dandy and Dinmont Mortescue were twins, as alike as two matching buttons.

Beyond us, a row of plank-polishers shuffled along in velvet slippers. “Mexx” we called them. Blank mirror-eyed creatures, they were, with painted china faces, clockwork movements, and nary a word spoken. I couldn’t understand why rich people seemed to like them. Their limbs were made out of canvas, filled with levers and pulleys and padded out with straw, and they just stood around the parlours of the wealthy, holding trays of sweetmeats or doing menial jobs. But I suppose, it was just another way of showing off, especially when the city was so overcrowded with people looking for work. No wonder the infamous Mortescue twins had so many of them.

The stocky man sighed. “Incidentally, sirs, my latest—,” he glanced in my direction, and lowered his voice, “invention, has saved you enough money to pay your armies. They are owed six month’s wages, I believe?”

“Dandy, dear brother?” said one twin, ignoring the visitor.

“Yes, Dinmont pet?” replied his brother.

“Am I not looking trimmer today?”

“Indeed, Dandy. Almost as wasp-waisted as myself.”

Dinmont scowled, and I realised they weren’t exactly identical, for Dinmont’s expressions twisted the left side of his face, while the other half was fixed. Dandy smirked, and I saw that it was the right side that moved. No wonder they were called the The Skews. I stared at their silver periwigs, smooth skin and slim profiles. Very slim profiles.

Spillikins! I busied myself with the parcels to cover up my dismay. The waistcoats we had made simply would not fit. When he’d measured up the royal duo not so long ago, they were plumper. Much plumper. Our beautiful waistcoats were going to be far too big. Poor Mr Thrums. The stocks loomed for sure.

The silver-haired man tapped his foot on the floor. “Perhaps I should return tomorrow to discuss the details.” His voice was tight. He rolled up his plans, and made a great show of tying them up—rather noisily—with tape. “If you think it—fitting.”

“Fitting! Ha. What a quicksilver quip. Thank you, Smalt,” said the custodians, as one, and waved him away as though he were a persistent bee at a garden party.

Horatio Smalt. Even I’d heard of him. He was the city’s Master Engineer, the brains behind the custodianship, some said. I watched him through lowered eyes, and saw the cold eyes flicker as he tucked the plans under his arm. A medal glinted on his chest. Bowing briefly, he left, his fancy shoes clicking across the wooden floor. The line of plank-polishers parted briefly, then flowed back. From outside I heard the squeak of the wheelbarrow and the bell jangle. Mr Thrums and Barley were on their way.

“Well, let us see the garments, girl.” Dandy turned to me. “I trust your master has kept his promise. We don’t like traders who break their word, do we?”

I edged forwards, holding out my parcels. Like spoilt spaniels fighting for a biscuit, the Mortescue twins snatched them from my hands. I held my breath, trying not to think of what had happened to the last outfitter. After he’d refused to make uniforms for the whole Sulisian army—for free!—he’d been stitched into a sack and clanged up in gaol for a week before being sent to the stocks. The Skews were imaginative about handing out punishments.

Dandy was shaking out the gold brocade waistcoat with opal buttons. He slipped it on and batted at the folds. “It’s too big,” he whined. “All over. See? It’s all flippy-flappy and draggy-droopy. What a botched job!”

“Don’t expect to be paid now!” His brother smirked.

“What will all the courtiers from Barroquia think of us in Mudwells dressed in those? We’ll never be able to hold up our heads again!”

There was a movement and Mr Thrums scurried in, followed by Barley. I shook my head at them, thinking fast. “With this latest style,” I said, keeping my voice steady, “we always need a final adjustment. To give them the tight-fitting finesse you require.” I even managed a smile.

Dandy held up his arms in resignation. As I popped in a few pins, my hands shook, and one went right through his shirt, I froze, expecting a cry of pain—and a cuff about my ears—but the pin hit something tough. A rib? How strange. But I heard a faint creak as he moved. Suddenly, I knew why they were so thin. The vain creatures were wearing corsets! An idea struck me. I coughed. “When shall we deliver the final fitted items, good sirs?”

“You mean, they’ll still be ready for the ball tomorrow?”


“We must look our finest to impress the people of Barroquia. After all, why would they form a union with us if we look like country bumpkins, eh?”

“Quite so.” I replied automatically, not really understanding the politics.

Their eyes narrowed. I curtseyed again and handed the clothes to Barley. Mr Thrums stood there, his mouth half-open. “Expect our delivery first thing in the morning. Good day to you,” I announced, and after the usual curtseys and such like, hurried my boss and his assistant out of the room.


“It’s impossible!” gasped my master, leaning against a wall in the courtyard a few minutes later. “How did I get the size so wrong? It’ll take days to re-stitch everything. Days! I’m ruined.”

“If only we had a shrinkerising machine.” Barley looked anxious.

“Indeed.” Mr Thrums sighed. “But we mustn’t start thinking about what we haven’t got. That’s a slippery, frippery slope.”

“An enlarging device might be useful when it comes to adjustments for some of our more portly ladies.” I patted his arm in my most encouraging fashion. “I hate it when people try to cheat us, Mr Thrums.”

“I know, my dear.” He put on a brave smile.

We clattered out of the pavilion, past a tall bell tower with a clock that had the wrong time, and headed home. A sorry little trio, we were. An old man, a skinny boy and little seamstress, I mean, tailor’s apprentice, pushing our wobbly wheelbarrow past all the fashionable houses.

“No. I can’t do this any more.” My master staggered through the door to his little shop in Pulteney Mews and through to the cosy back room. He gazed at his collection of knick-knacks and cameo pictures attached to ribbons hanging on the walls. “I think I shall retire and live in Barroquia. The north of Sulisia is beautiful, and the capital is a fine city, still.”

“They say the streets are made of alabaster.” I stoked up the fire, trying to picture clean, white pavements.

“The candelabras are made of diamonds.” Barley’s little face lit up. “And the railings are all silver, and…”

“Yes, yes,” Mr Thrums cut him off with a deep sigh. “All right for them. They have all those wealthy mines. All we have is mud. Oh, this town isn’t what it was, when the spas were clean. Once the wells got clogged up with that awful watergreen plant, all the nice people went away. I blame the Mortescues.”

“They are horrible,” I agreed.

“If only their sister Dorinda hadn’t disappeared. It was all very peculiar.”

“I know.” Everyone had heard the stories. How Lady Dorinda, the elder sister of the Mortescues, had been accused of stealing some family treasures. Mr Thrums said he didn’t believe it for one minute. Before she could be arrested, she fled. No one knew where she was, even if she were still alive. I often wondered if a loyal family had offered to hide her. If so, she would be a prisoner of fate, condemned to live her life out of sight, because of her greedy brothers. I could imagine a dark-haired lady pacing the empty rooms, flicking a mother-of-pearl fan open and shut in distress.

Mr Thrums sighed. “The place is going to rack and ruin.”

“Don’t be a goose.” I tried to disguise the panic in my voice. “It’s not that bad.” I had no relatives, no home. I’d been lucky to get a position at the tailor’s. If Mr Thrums shut up shop, where would I go? And I suppose Barley would be homeless, too. We really were in hot water. “Hot water!” I shouted.

“Listen. Wash the waistcoats in boiling water! They’ll shrink beautifully. I’ll press them dry with a hot iron, and they’ll be the daintiest waistcoats in town. Everyone will want them. I’ll set to work right away.”

Barley stood in the corner of the shop, fidgeting. “Can I help?”

“No, no,” I said, not wanting to let the boy loose on the precious waistcoats. This was going to take some skill and clever timing. He was so young, even if Mr Thrums trusted him with cutting out some of the simpler clothes. I sniffed. I’d been with the master for years, and I’d only just been allowed to use the scissors myself. Not that I was jealous, of course.

“I know!” Barley’s freckled face brightened. “I’ll buy Mr Thrums some chocolate to cheer him up.”

“What a thoughtful boy you are, Barley Spindle.” Mr Thrums sank into his favourite armchair. “And a bottle of spa water. I know you don’t like the smell, but it calms my frayed old nerves.”

I took a silver bawbee from the cash box and chased Barley out while I dealt with our mechanical servant. Like I said, I didn’t like Mexx one bit, but ours was a nice establishment, and we had several wealthy clients. Mr Thrums had forked out for a female version, just to keep up appearances, but it was a cheaper model, with a keyhole in the middle of its back, just below the shoulder blades, and rough wool for hair.

Some folks bought fancier models that looked more “human”, with wigs made of real hair. The locks were smaller and hidden at the side of their neck, covered by their silky tresses. Somehow, the thought of this made me shudder.

I located the right key and inserted it into a slot in its back. We only had a few keys, because we only needed it to do basic tasks. Besides, each key had tiny jewels embedded on the shaft, so they were expensive. Woe betide a servant who mislaid one!

As I wound it up, I thought that at least its ceramic hands could cope with scalding water. Like most modern Mexx, ours was what they called a Mimixx-Mexx. To make it work, you mimed the movements, and then it just copied them. I didn’t really understand how, but Mr Thrums said it was to do with the mirror balls they had for eyes that captured your reflection.

So, I filled up a gallimaufrey pot from the kettle and acted out how to plunge the waistcoats inside. Six key turns would keep it working for the right number of minutes.

I noted the time. Five o’clock. A cold blast of air wafted under the door, and I shivered. A cup of hot chocolate would be most welcome. Barley might like one too when he got back. He’d be cold. I sighed and vowed to try and be nicer to the lad. After all, it wasn’t his fault if he was the apple of Mr Thrums’ eye. He always meant well.

Mr Thrums fell asleep and began to snore. After twenty minutes of pacing, I got the tongs and removed the waistcoats from the pot. I placed them on a towel, and held out the tape measure. Perfect! I stoked the fire, tested the iron and began to smooth out the seams. It was fiddly work, what with all the fancy trimmings. My arms ached, but I kept going until they were done.

The candle fizzled down and I started. The sun had set and it was late. Where was Barley?

Silly little blunderhead. He must have got lost. I glanced at Mr Thrums, who had fallen asleep with his favourite ornament in his hands. It was an old-fashioned sailing ship, placed impossibly inside a glass bottle. I loved the ship, too, and would often find myself staring at, imagining myself at sea, far away… I’d never been anywhere but Mudwells.

I shook my head, placed the bottle back on the mantelpiece and put a blanket over my master’s thin knees. I switched off the Mexx by taking out the key in its back and locked it back in the cupboard, trying to ignore what I thought was an evil glint as the shiny spheres continued to swivel in the eye sockets. (I just didn’t trust the things.) Grabbing my shawl, I let myself out quietly. There was nothing for it. I was going to have find Barley myself.

A chill wind tugged at my skirts and I drew my shawl tight. I pushed my way down the narrow street, jumping over the runnels of ooze.

During the day, the streets were filled with noisy hawkers, peddlers, thieves, beggars, runaways, all clawing for a living. Now, there were just a few stragglers like myself. A bunch of young men loitered round the tavern. Oh, no. I recognised them from the backstreet school I used to attend.

“Teeny weeny Mina!” One jeered at me, his voice like salt in a cut.

Yes, I’m small for my age, but so what? “Shove off, you great oaf.”

I hurried past and jumped when a crone grabbed my elbow. “Crampers!” she hissed, gesturing down an alley. “Coming this way, looking for runaways—or traitors.” She cackled and fixed me with her good eye. The other was milky white and seemed to look over my shoulder.

Crampers were bad news. They were named after one Master Bertold Flugelcramper, a cruel man who hated the streets being littered with stray people so much that he paid thugs to round them up. There was no time to run and hide, so I nodded and held my purse out, to prove I was a person of means. Keeping my chin up, I made for the chocolate emporium. She scuttled back to her hovel and went inside, banging the door.

I hastened past the workhouse, trying not to picture all the poor creatures inside, lying on flea-ridden straw and fighting over the watery gruel. This particular establishment was for young orphans. I knew because I’d seen inside when Mr Thrums and I went to find an assistant and ended up choosing Barley.

A groan sounded, followed by jeering. I speeded up. I had now reached the gaol, and its evil smell filled my nostrils. A grim bouquet of scrawny wrists waved at one of the window. The place was filled—to overflowing—and I’m too polite to say what overflowed. Before you wonder why people ended up there, you don’t know how hard it was to get by in Mudwells. If you couldn’t fend for yourself, that’s where you ended up. Thrown into gaol by the Crampers. Anyone who tried to run away to another island risked having their throat slit by the pirates that plagued our seas.

“Oi!” A man in full brass-buttoned uniformed appeared from a murky alley and shoved me against a brick wall as he went past, clanking his lantern. “Out the way, mop-squeezer!”

I didn’t like being mistaken for a servant, I can tell you. Of course, I had to work for my living, but I was a proper apprentice, a job I’d earned fair and square when my folks had died of the fever. Still, I didn’t want any trouble, so I moved aside, glaring at his fat bottom as he waddled down the street.

Ahead, a small boy moved in the shadows. Another Cramper barrelled up from the opposite direction, blowing a whistle. “Get him!” The two of them closed in, their grey cloaks flapping like the wings of jackdaws. The boy staggered against the wall and cried out. He was holding his left arm by the elbow.


He looked up at me, and in the lantern light, I could see blood streaking his hand. I rushed over and helped him up. “You’re hurt. What happened?”

Barley wiped his nose on his other sleeve. I didn’t have the heart to tell him off this time. “Got robbed. S-sorry. They cut my arm.”

I took his other hand. It was frozen. “Don’t be silly. It’s all right. Let’s get you home. If it’s bad, I can stitch it. I’ve done it before.”

He nodded, biting his lip.

“Not so fast!” One of the Crampers strode over. “Forget the workhouse, you beggar. Prison for you!” One of them threw something at his feet. “Pick that up, scum-a-lugs!” It was a hunk of bread.

“Don’t!” I cried to Barley. “It’s a trick!” He bent down. I groaned.

“Bleeding thief!” The Crampers moved in, grinning. “Steal our bread, would yer? Now we got yer—red-handed!”

“Bread-handed!” scoffed the other, and they both laughed.

That was enough for me. I trod on the fat Cramper’s cloak hem as he moved and he fell flat on his chubby face into the filthy gutter. Barley stared at me, eyes red-rimmed. The other grabbed the lad’s bad arm and he whimpered.

What happened next was a blur.

I felt a rough hand on my collar, and I skidded on the slimy cobbles. I went down like a bag of soggy flour, my head striking the kerb. Bells rang. Whistles blew. Loud voices boomed and faded like waves on shingle. Any thoughts of saving Barley, fetching chocolate, sorting the waistcoats or rescuing poor Mr Thrums vanished. A sickly smell filled my nostrils as I sank into blackness as deep as the darkness in a candle-snuffed room.


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