Stories of fashion got me thinking . . . and writing fiction for the first time in years. That's one of the many dangers of pulling Invisible Cities off the shelf—it ought to be in the back cover copy for that book, like a surgeon general's warning.
From Certain of the Chronicles, by Levi Stahl (2006)
In the later years of the Jade Emperor’s reign, his armies discovered and subjugated a mountainous land familiar from legend for its intricate works of embroidery. The people who dwelled in that land dressed in nothing but the most extravagantly decorated fabrics. To those who understood the customs of the land, the mere choice of pieces of clothing, and the particulars of its decoration, revealed the story of the wearer and his family, their achievements and position. To those who did not understand that language, the embroidery was simply art, captivating, like the shy smile of a woman one has not yet met.
On their return to the capital, the Emperor’s top generals brought him the finest examples of that artistry. The ornate capes, robes, dresses, and hats that the generals presented were decorated with fluttering birds’ wings, sinuous tendrils of flowering vines, indescribably powerful fish, quick with life, swimming in pristine alpine lakes.
Hidden behind their opaque screens, the Emperor’s advisors anticipated his nonchalant response. Reduced as he was in his waning years, he felt a constant need of variety and surprise in the forms of extravagance that were brought to him. He had worn beautiful clothing before. He had seen fashions come and go. Skilled as they were, these creations did not impress him. He waved away the generals, his own silks fluttering, bidding them bother him no more with such trifles. They shuffled disconsolate from the room and exhausted their wrath on their blameless adjutants.
But the generals, unwittingly, left behind them a surprise. In their place stood a young man, wrapped several times round in a gold—no, mustard—no, plum robe, his unlined face the only part of him visible above its folds. It was unclear, even to the elite guards, how he had reached the inner chamber.
He spoke. His dialect was rough, uncultured. The habitues of the court could barely comprehend him. “Your Imperial Majesty was wrong to reject the offered works. They are the finest fruits of a culture far older and more sophisticated than the one that has placed you on the throne of heaven. Were there gods, they would rebuke you. But Your Imperial Majesty’s blindness will be forgiven—because I wear what the Emperor desires.”
Hearing the word "wrong," the Court Executioner slid his sword silently from its scabbard. But at the smallest of signals—a puff of breath—from the Emperor, he stopped. The Court Executioner froze. His blade glinted mercilessly in the warm, fading evening light.