Pomp and Perspicacity, Chapter 4

Fanny finished up her planning for the party. The date was set, the plans in place. Even the napkins, hateful bastards that they were, had cooperated, and she had chosen her colors and design for every detail. She had hoped this would soothe her worries, but everything being done only served to drive her mind towards the one problem she could no solve. Angry Kings, obstinate nephews, rebellious Dukes…these things were easy. A cute young painter in a strange otherworldly crypt was not. She tried to lay down on her bed, but her mind went off like cannons on a man-o-war in the night, flashing bright as day for brief seconds with new thoughts and worries.

Sometimes, being an Egyptian dog-woman was not fun. Fanny would get so fixated on things nowadays. Sleep was impossible. She flew out of bed and tied an apron around her waist. She went back into the hallway and began scrubbing the floor. The servants never did it right. She had done lots of cleaning during her years. When she had been marooned in the Hellish Penal Colony of Ottraya, she had been forced to clean floors in order to keep from being tossed into a giant pit of poisonous spiders by the crazed and evil Health Officials.

She had always been hands on, but she learned an appreciation for the work there. A clean floor, a clean house, and organized cupboard, had always been her solace in times of stress. The work helped calm her. Now that she was one of these desert wolves, all her fussiness had been multiplied by a thousand.

The floor was sudsy clean in no time, clean as can be. She let out a satisfied sigh, then remembered poor John. Was L’Ever enough? Should she perhaps send some more forces? Her mind worked on this point, and she thought of Lord Rushworth. He really should be doing more to secure his ward.

The boy had a point about improving his standing, as much as she disliked admitting it. It would soften the King’s objections. But if he had money and power, would he still want an old woman, albeit one in a pretty young sand dog form? She reasoned that he would, for he was honest, and had let his feelings be well known. But even if he didn’t die, what would that awful place do to so innocent and good a soul? She feared he may become bitter, jaded. Broken. What if, she thought with horror, what if he began to drink…

She couldn’t bear watching him become another Lord DeBoerg. No. She had to save him. She had to help him.

So that left the questions of the upcoming party. There was still much work to be done.

“My Lady…” Nicolette said with surprise, cinching her robe. “It is the small hours! Have you slept?”

“I don’t need sleep.”

“Yes you do! You must go to bed, My Lady.”

“No,” Fanny snapped. “I must clean, must clean. There’s dirt here. Dirt everywhere. Filthy grime…” she let out an exasperated bark. “Why did the damned house get so dirty after I changed into an Anubis?!”

Nicolette paused a moment. “Fanny, what’s happened?”

Fanny stopped, with a sigh. “I received a letter from John.”

“I didn’t hear a rider come.”

Fanny resumed scrubbing at a stubborn black mark from a careless servant’s boot. “Nor did I. Not the way this messenger travels,” she said.

“What did he say? Is he alright?”

“He’s trying to make something of himself,” Lady DeBoerg said.

“Isn’t that good?”

“I am proud that he is so brave and dutiful,” she said. “But I cannot help him in this Crypt. It’s the one place I can’t help him.”

“You sent Captain L’Ever,” Nicolette said.

“It’s not enough,” Fanny said. “I know my body is young again, but I still have old age in my bones. I feel things in them. I feel the danger of that place, acutely. I’d have rather he asked my help to leave, but he has come to see it as a quest he must fulfill. Just as I feared.”

“He’s doing it for you, you mean?”

Fanny let out a whine. “I can’t be the cause of that young man’s death. I can’t…” she stopped, tossing down her brush with a great splash of suds. “Ohh, these damn spots! They won’t come out. I’ll replace the board. Fetch the hammer…”

Nicolette put her arms around her mistress. “My Lady…” she said quietly.

Fanny heaved a great sigh, and slumped her shoulders. “I’m very tired, Nicolette. I’m an old woman, and I’m tired, and I’m a young woman, and I’m in love,” she said. “And I’m an Anubis, and I’m goddamned crazy!”

“Let’s get you to bed,” Nicolette said, helping her to her feet. “Don’t worry about this, I’ll clean up.”

Fanny nodded. “Thank you, Nicolette,” she said.

Nicolette helped her into bed, and Fanny felt her age again. This didn’t happen often, only when there was nothing for her to do, and problems that needed to be solved. Her mind, once racing and full of anxieties, now began to slow, and the looming cloudiness of sleep filled her brain. She fell into a deep sleep.

The weeks passed at Rosella Manor. Fanny put in place her plans and arranged the party, hearing only scant news from the Darkest Dungeon. No more letters came from there, but she wrote one every day, and after she sealed and pressed it with her signet, she would kiss it with her lipstick. It was impolitic, but she no longer cared. She sent them, and prayed, prayed for her dashing young artist.

The Rushworths were more than pleased to set up the party, and through a meticulous scan of the social calendar Fanny had managed to secure almost all of the Peers that she had invited. The most important people would all be in attendance. Martin responded, saying he would bring Miss Woodeville with him. Fanny sent back a curt note, but she was pleased by his defiance. She would work her ruin. The swarthy actor Mneister was onboard, already prepared for his part.

Time passed, and the day of the Coming Out Party for the two Alessas drew near. And with it, came the unwelcome news that the coal miners were striking, for better working conditions, better pay, and better medical care for their many maladies. The issue became the overwhelming topic of conversation in Loudon, as the steam engines that had become so critical to fueling the Anglars economy began to go hungry. More and more was required from abroad.

The miners had barricaded themselves within the mines, having somehow stockpiled enough supplies to last for some time period. No one quite was sure for how long they could hold, no one except Fanny, at least. She had purchased supplies enough for two months, though she was certain three or four weeks would suffice for her negotiations.

By the night of the party, everything was ready to make her move.

* * *

Patrick and Albert traveled in a tottering carriage behind their father’s. Albert fanned himself as Patrick stared out the window sullenly. Albert snorted. He hated when Patrick got into these dark moods. Not because he was concerned about his brother’s well-being, but because it tended to drag down their revels.

Albert tended to complain a bit more, and more loudly, than Patrick did, but Patrick took insults and offences in deeply. He was more introspective and brooding in his complaints. To be honest, there was plenty to brood about, Albert mused. Neither was thrilled with their situation, but Albert always found it slightly easier to forget himself in comforts. He privately told himself that he was a creature of the world, while Patrick was a creature of its shadows.

“Well, at least our debts are erased,” Albert said, trying to lift his brother’s spirits if only to have someone to talk to.

Patrick said nothing, staring out of the carriage with his jaw clenched. “Cut off…” he growled to himself. “Dependent upon Father, forced to remain at home, night after night. Cursed with sobriety. We are being punished for the only noble deed that we have ever done.”

“We didn’t know it was a noble deed at the time,” Albert said. “And I was terrified that we screwed up and hurt Alessa. I am so relieved that she is alright. Well, both of her.”

“I am also, but we didn’t intend to hurt her, and Uncle Anacletus assured us that we wouldn’t,” Patrick said. “We did what we do best: we gambled. And we hit a jackpot.”

Albert flinched. “Our bookmakers disagreed.”

“Yes, well…that is taken care of,” Patrick said, rubbing his shoulder where the truncheon had hit. “We have suffered enough. Father should drop this ridiculous punishment. Both Alessas are happy, and Mother and Father are charmed by the two of them.”

Albert smiled. “It did work out, didn’t it?”

“Yes. So why are we punished, then?”

“Because Father detests our gambling,” Albert explained. “Father wants the world to be predictable. Ordered. In Father’s world, gamblers are supposed to lose. The only thing he hates more than a losing gambler is a winning one.”

“Truth…” Patrick said, in a rare moment of agreeing with his brother’s insight. “Well, to hell with him, and his damned sense of justice. I am a gambler. If we are limited in our funds, it behooves us to increase what we have through games of chance.”

Albert smiled. “Now that sounds fun. Not that there will be much call for it, tonight.” He shuddered as he saw Rosella Manor looming in the distance, like some vampire’s castle. “Lady DeBoerg’s party will be like the Masque of the Red Death, but without a merciful visit by the Grim Reaper.”

“The King will be there, tonight,” Patrick said.

Albert rolled his eyes. “Well, if I get the chance to drink, at least I shan’t worry about looking like the biggest jackass,” he said.

“I’m curious why we are doing a second Coming Out Party,” Patrick said

“DeBoerg is a battle-axe, that’s why,” Albert answered. “So wrapped up in what’s proper that she wants Alessa to have a better party because Uncle Anacletus split into four. But I suspect it is less altruistic than that: Alessa is a curiosity for her, and the rest of the blues bloods in the country. Our sister is the first time a girl split into two. She’s a conversation piece for them.”

“Yes…” Patrick said, slowly. “Perhaps that is it. Funny how Father chastises us for using Alessa for our own ends, when he does the same. He’d tie Alessa to an altar and stab her in sacrifice if a member of the Royal Family asked him to do it.”

“You should mention that to him,” Albert replied.

Patrick laughed without mirth. “He’s ready to stab both of us as it is.”

The carriage tottered up to the front entrance and stopped with a lurch. The horses grunted, and the whole cabin shook. Both brothers quickly egressed, and stretched their legs and breathed in the crisp air. Lord and Lady Rushworth, Maria and both Alessas were exiting from their own carriage. Though they had arrived earlier, it always took women longer to do things, even after they became phantasms and strange beast-females.

Both Alessa’s were visions of beauty, exiting with held hands. They wore dresses forged from blue dewdrops, looking like fey creatures of the forest. They were able to leave their plantly body for extended periods, but liked to stay in contact with each other when doing so. The two of them were so close to being one person that they sometimes referred to themselves in the singular, still. Yet the split had created a friendship, and the two complimented each other so well.

Maria wore a dress of scales which was shimmering and prismatic, and carried a trident with her. Her husband was still at sea, and Maria was planning to disembark to see him soon. Albert and Patrick both would miss her, for she served to advocate for them with their father, and blunt his anger.

The Lady Rushworth wore a gown which was part plate, part chain, and part eveningwear. She carried a smallsword at her side, an elegant, thin blade with which she was quite expert.

Father approached Patrick and Albert, his sword-cane in his hand. He pointed the gemmed top end at them like a cudgel.

“Behave, you two,” he said, gruffly, menacing then with his cane. “You are both on probation. If there is so much as one misstep, I will send you both to Ottraya to manage our vegemite cannery there.”

Albert flinched. Patrick, who always liked vegemite, remained stoic, but understood the threat. The party entered into the lit ballroom, and Albert prepared himself for a night without alcohol. As he stared back down the driveway in despair, he saw the carriage of Aunt Norris pulling to a stop. He shuddered.

This was going to be a night of hell.

* * *

“Are you feeling alright?” Fanny asked Nicolette after the latter sneezed. She stopped a moment to bow and greet Lord and Lady Morrison as they walked in, moving a little so that Lady Morrison’s tentacles did not smack into her foot. Behind them, a throng of guests entered with a gust of warm wind from outside. The night beyond was glorious, and Fanny half-regretted not doing an outdoor soiree in the backyard. Still, with rain so likely…

“I’m fine,” Nicolette replied, sniffling. “It’s all these flowers. The pollen makes my nose plugged.”

Fanny said a curse to herself. The ballroom did look amazing; it was lit brightly by candles and lamps, with deep red carpets and shiny hard oak floors. Fanny had her pianoforte moved into the ballroom, between the twin staircases, in the perfect sport for the two girls to sing and play.

The whole ballroom was decorated with beautiful cyan cornflowers, which went so well on the warm summer evening. But next ball, these flowers would be off the list. She couldn’t have her courtesan sniffling all the time, for it would excite comment from the jealous, and the nitpicky. “Well, go back into the kitchen and tell Chef Bolton to have more scallops cooked – they seem quite popular. And make sure he keeps the noise down.”

Nicolette nodded, and went off and through the side door into the ballroom kitchen. Chef Bolton was arguably the finest Chef in Anglars, but his methods could be somewhat odd. His staff of apprentices were organized into red and blue teams, and all were competing to take a spot in the King’s kitchen. Every week Bolton would eliminate one of them from consideration. His theatrics were often entertaining, but tonight Fanny did not want any inopportune distractions to retard her plans.

The Rushworths had arrived early, and when they had come, Fanny set up the Alessas for their grand debut. They would make their entrance after the King’s arrival (so as not to upstage him), coming down the long staircases and settling in at the bottom to perform a song. Both sang and played interchangeably, and tremendously well, but it was decided that Dark Alessa would play the pianoforte while Light Alessa sang. They would perform His Majesty’s favorite song, the unofficial anthem of the nation: “Hooray for Anglars, Fuck DeTerre.”

The entire Rushworth clan was present: the fiery lizard mother, the fish-based sister, the insufferable aunt, and the two rakish brothers bringing up the rear looking like men marching to a prison bathhouse. The last two reminded Fanny of Lord DeBoerg in their way, but while they were men of low moral character, they did not possess his cruelty, and so she did not loathe them. They also feared her, which Lord DeBoerg never did, and that made her less disposed to hate them.

Fanny looked over the throng entering into her ballroom the same way a raptor watches a herd, looking for a straggler showing weakness. The guests, some of the most powerful people in Anglars, were rigidly punctual, and terrified of being late. For anyone arriving after the appointed time would be singled out by Fanny for abuse. The one person who could be late was the King, and even he would have to have good reasons to be more than a few minutes late.

Fanny watched, making sure that the glasses of wine were poured, the punch remained heated, and the small finger foods kept on circulating on trays. Being a noblewoman was like juggling ignited torches. It was necessary to know what each was doing, even if you could not see them. To know which was in hand, and make sure a rash movement didn’t burn yourself or anyone else. A single misstep could collapse all, and cause a flaming meds. One needed to rely on instinct, but be able to adjust and move based upon the unexpected.

Fanny had done this juggle for years, had mastered and perfected it. She could handle all of this in her sleep. But now there was the complication of John. The sweet, innocent artist who occupied her thoughts more and more, and the impediments to her rightful claiming of him. She should have just taken him back with her to Rosella, the night of the party, and fucked him in her carriage. What would Barnabus had done, if she had greeted him in a dressing gown, with her young lover present? A fait accompli, and no amount of rage from the King or Barnabus would have changed that. She hardly could have been censured for ruining plans of which she was ignorant.

Instead, she had let her need for perfection nearly ruin everything. But that was not for consideration, not now. Guilt was something a true Lady must never let paralyze her. Everything – the Monarchy, John, Martin, the striking miners – needed her to stay as sharp as a razor. To juggle torches, one must burn more intensely than they do.

She watched as Duke Cronides entered with a few of his retainers. He bowed to her, and she curtsied, then he continued inside after a few polite words. A grim man, the Duke was not one for smiling, but now he seemed less happy than usual. Fanny was pleased. The coal strike had affected his mood, and the Duke stared forward with pursed lips. The King would be here tonight, as Fanny had convinced him that to stay away would be weakness, and she would judge what the Duke did when the King entered. Would he stare with covetous desire? Jealousy? Anger? Any indication that the Duke sought to rise above his already lofty station

The Duke was quickly outfitted with drink, but aloof, standing with his two men, both possessing the same military bearing and grim countenance of their master. Cronides’ saber hung at his side, a mute testament to his fearsome reputation as a swordsman and sailor. Fanny mused that, in the truest analysis, Duke Cronides had more traditionally Kingly virtues than Richard did. He was brave, dashing, rugged, and stoic. Richard was none of these things, and he was inferior to Cronides in all but one respect: he was not morose.

The Duke may have been fit to rule the underworld of Fettan myth, but he could not rule the living. A Kingdom took a man willing to be happy, willing to work with others, willing to engage in levity. A man who made those around him feel relaxed. Richard’s greatest skill was to disarm people with his nature. Though every bit as dangerous as a bright pink frog in a dense green jungle, Richard had the ability to act so harmless that people forgot his rank.

It was for this reason – and Richard’s blood relation to her – that Fanny would never support Cronides in any bid to take the throne. But was he attempting something so reckless? Fanny had her doubts. The night would reveal it, and at any rate, she held the advantage over him. The calamity in coal strangled the country, including the Duke’s own hidden aspirations.

Fanny touched the letter from the Reverend Fairchild, and smiled. The workers had put their total faith in her, and given her a pledge that they would return to work on her command. She knew she would be able to address their issues, for Parliament would be called upon to act when faced with the prospect of people freezing through the winter. But the thing had to be done perfectly, to maximize her advantage.

Almost apropos to her thoughts, Barnabus arrived. He emerged into the ballroom with dark circles under his eyes. His complexion was ashen pale, with a bit seafoam green tinting his cheeks. He looked miserable, and Fanny’s tail wagged back and forth like a threshing farmer. Barnabus had been in charge of the coal mine negotiations when they had suddenly turned so sour, and now the most powerful men in the Kingdom were convinced that he had cocked it all up. Parliament was furious, the King even more so. Worst of all was the newspapers. Even the ones that Fanny didn’t own had been merciless, and had only stoked the rage of the King and Parliament. Though summer now, the cold weather would be upon them soon. Force was unlikely to work, with the miners occupying the entrances to the mines, which left the unsalient option of actually giving peasants what they want. Barnabus was well and truly screwed, although Fanny had to admit that his attempts to get coal from overseas had been spirited. He was her most clever nephew, after all.

Perhaps even more interesting than the miserable Barnabus was the peculiar Human woman on his arm. She was tall and large framed, in a black dress with many frills done in the modern style, elegant and cultured. Fanny frowned as she saw her. She was, by all appearances, quite handsome, but something about her seemed…off…to Fanny. The gems around her neck, however, were exquisite emeralds, and so wealthy that Fanny guessed that she had to be among the royalty of the island of Eyre. A Princess had landed in Loudon yesterday, she heard, though she had not recognized the name. Then again, there were so many Princesses among the ruling clan of Eyre that it was hard to say which one this was.

Despite her wealth and beauty, the Princess was quite odd, and Fanny might have given her more scrutiny, but she was preoccupied with other matters, like the sweet taste of Barnabus’ misery. She was still smarting from his connivance of a few weeks earlier , and while she planned to deliver him from his anguish tonight, she was happy to let him roast on the spit for a little while longer.

“Why Barnabus…” Fanny said as he approached and bowed. “You look so distressed.”

Barnabus dabbed a pocket square against his forehead. “N-no, Aunt Frances,” the King’s majordomo lied. “Just tired from some…long nights.”

Fanny laughed as if politely, but in truth at his predicament. “Perhaps tonight you can relax, listen to some beautiful music and enjoy some wine and dancing,” She said. “The King will be here.”

Doubtless Barnabus knew that, but hearing the words made him totter on his feet, and for a moment he looked like he might be sick. Fanny grinned. She turned to look at Barnabus’ exotic companion before he could make an answer. “Will you introduce me to your companion?”

A smile spread across Barnabus’ lips. “This is Princess Helen of Clan Ochrana, from Eyre. She arrived yesterday, a stopover before she continues to DeTerre.”

Lady DeBoerg bowed politely. “Ah, Princess Helen, I had heard that you arrived in Loudon. Welcome to Anglars.”

“I thank you, My Lady. I enjoy it here very much, for everyone has been so nice. Lord Barnabus has been very kind to me…” she leaned over and kissed Barnabus on the cheek, which made his pale face flush. For a moment he seemed to forget his anxieties, but Fanny knew that it was lust, not love, which motivated her perverted nephew.

“I hope you do not mind. We are very demonstrative in my country,” the tall Princess Ochrana explained.

“It is not my place to criticize the compliments paid by a princess to her escort,” Fanny said with a smile, though privately she scorned both this weird bimbo and her debased, horny nephew. “Enjoy the party,” she said.

She watched the two move off, and rolled her eyes as Barnabus reached down and cupped the Princess’ ass. Their inevitable coupling would be sinful and politically embarrassing, but if he did bed her, Fanny mused, it might be useful if the need arose to lean upon Eyre.

There were a few other nobles that Fanny received graciously, and behind this throng she saw Martin enter. He had the Anthropophagus, the Woodeville bitch, hanging from his arm. Fanny had never seen her before, and yet she hated her on sight. She had short dark black hair, and a thin build. She wore a black dress, of similar appearance to the Princess Helen’s, though of a decidedly plainer composition and without the ornate emerald stones around her neck.

“Bitch,” Fanny growled aloud, to her own surprise. She was nearly baring her teeth, possessed by instinct and emotion so strong that even her formidable mind struggled to handle them. Amazing, she thought. She had expected, based upon the reports of her post monsterized peers, to have an increased libido, and an enhanced desire for young men (namely John), but she was caught off guard by this visceral reaction. With a great amount of willpower, she managed to suppress her growling and bared teeth, and comport herself as a proper sand doggie should.

Even so, she found herself balling her paw into a fist (or as close to a fist as her paw got) and kneading the air with her claws. As an old woman, Lady DeBoerg doubtless would have judged Miss Woodeville harshly when they met. After all, it had been an abstract, reasoned distrust which had motivated her dislike, and she had always had a good eye for reading people. But now, as an Anubis, she was filled with an intense, primal loathing for this smiling hussy. It was the same overpowering instinct that a mother wolf might feel when a poisonous snake was slithering toward her cub.

Martin smiled at his dear Aunt as he approached, and Fanny wanted to shout at him that he was in danger. After all, he was arm-in-arm with that diabolical creature. Oh, her sweet baby boy! It was as painful as a man watching his beloved daughter being groped by a fat, sweaty spidernon. Fanny fought the urge to leap forward, unlink them, and push Woodeville clean out of the ballroom, then grab her by the ear and toss her into the fountain outside.

But as she wrestled with these thoughts, the couple appeared before her. “Aunt Fran,” Martin said, smiling just as he would when he was a mud-covered youth, and he had excitedly brought her a new gecko to inspect. “This is Anna Woodeville.”

The young strumpet bowed, smiling and crinkling her stupid, stupid face. “A pleasure, Your Ladyship. I’ve so wanted to meet you. Martin speaks very highly of you,” she said. She hugged Martin’s arm, clearly in a calculated effort to make Fanny enraged. Martin beamed, half-embracing his prostitute. But he was watching Fanny, she knew it. He was eager to divine her true feelings.

Fanny took a deep breath as she calculated her next move. Candlesticks were out of reach here, sadly. The Basket was an option, but poisoning one person at a party was tricky enough. Plus Martin would probably suspect something if his Betrothed collapsed face-first into the punch bowl. Instead, Fanny chose the diplomatic route. Mneister was her weapon. He would be the trap that she would spring

“Miss Woodeville, I’ve heard so much about you,” Fanny said, with a smile that might have frozen still water. It was important not to seem too accommodating, lest Martin begin to suspect a trap. “Doubtless Martin has informed you that my blessing will only be given to the woman whom I feel is suitable for him.”

Anna Woodeville’s blue eyes brightened. “He has told me, Your Ladyship, I endeavor to prove myself to be a girl of virtue.”

Fanny narrowed her eyes. Even if her nose had failed her, and her desert wolf instincts were gone, she knew that was not what a girl of virtue would say. And yet, she bowed her head. “We must talk later. I am so, so curious to hear something of your history.”

Anna Woodeville laughed, her eyes betraying several other emotions. “I look forward to it, My Lady,” she lied.

“Well, let’s go drop off our coats,” Martin said. “I look forward to hearing the Rushworth girls play. I hear they are amazing.”

“They are perhaps the best in the country,” Fanny agreed.

“Then this shall be a fine Coming Out, indeed,” Martin said. He bowed to his Aunt as Woodeville curtsied, and her nephew escorted his companion to the cloakroom.

The coats were not particularly necessary on this warm night, although one never was certain when rain might come. Fanny sighed as she recalled the wonderful moment in the cloakroom at Sunderland. For a moment, she thought in horror that perhaps Martin and Miss Woodeville would disappear into the cloakroom for their own tryst. That wouldn’t do at all.

She was about to flag down Nicolette to go fetch a bucket of water, when Martin returned to her alone. Miss Woodeville was near Barnabus and his nightly companion, conversing with Princess Ochrana. Her lecherous nephew drank in the young strumpet’s form with his lustful eyes. Though curling her lip in disgust, this was a good development. If Barnabus bedded Woodeville, that served Fanny’s purpose just fine. But it was apparent that he would have competition, for an older gentleman in Barssan military dress and wearing a monocle, stared at the Castratrix as well. Fanny stared at this man as he watched Miss Woodeville, and smiled.

“Well?” Martin began, breaking her free from her musings.

Fanny feigned ignorance. “Well, what, nephew?”

“Well, now that you’ve met her…how badly do you disapprove of Anna?” He asked with such a vulnerable sweetness that Fanny wished that Woodeville had not been so obviously repulsive.

“I have seen nothing to change my opinion of a future union between you and this woman, Nephew,” Fanny said in a deliberate tone. She paused, pretending to be recalcitrant to speak. “But…she makes a good first impression, I’ll grant you,” she said hurriedly.

Martin smiled, and Fanny felt a small pang of guilt for her dishonesty to him, but it was necessary to continue her plan. Mneister would prove her out. Yes, Mneister. She smiled. She had already seen him in his disguise at the party, and it was a good one.

“So…” Martin said. “The party seems to be going well. Where are the girls of the hour?”

“Upstairs. I shall have them enter after the King, coming down the stairs,” Fanny said. “They’ll cut impressive figures. Then they shall sing Richard’s favorite song.”

Martin laughed. “Hooray for Anglars, Fuck DeTerre?”

“It is a fine sentiment, if nothing else,” Fanny said.

“True, though I think that lately Richard would have the lyrics changed to Fuck Cronides,” Martin said with a wry smile.

“Is he still on about the Duke?” Fanny asked.

“And nothing else,” Martin said with a sigh. “Though I see the Duke is here, so His Majesty may decide to take a break from his rants when he arrives. I assume he will be late?”

“Appropriately. He will be here soon, however,” Fanny said.

“Ah, good,” Martin replied. “I haven’t seen His Majesty in a few weeks, as I have been at Ixley.”

“He’ll have his new barouche to discuss,” Fanny said, raising her eyebrows with a smile.

Martin laughed. “Did he get another new one? He does tend to get crazy about them. Fortunately, he doesn’t have that Neptunian carriage from the Continent…”

Fanny smiled at Martin, whose face twisted in horror.

“No…”

“It arrived for him this morning on a ship. Gilded gold, with embossed seahorses…”

“You didn’t…” Martin said.

“Yes,” Fanny replied proudly. “I bought him the Barouche.”

“Aunt Fran!” Martin said, as if she had pinched his nipple. His eyes darted nervously. “He’ll be talking to me about the damned thing all night.”

Fanny feigned surprise. “Oh?” She asked.

“Yes! You know that!” Martin exclaimed. “I won’t get a moment’s peace…” he stared at her. “Is that why you did it?”

“What are you talking about?” Fanny asked.

“Oh don’t play dumb, Aunt. You are planning to keep me and Anna separated tonight, as I will be too busy having my ear chatted off by Richard.”

“Ridiculous,” Fanny said with conviction, though he was 100 percent correct. “What good would separating you for one night do?”

Martin narrowed his eyes and stared at her sideways. “I’m not sure. But whatever your scheme is, it won’t work…” he leaned in close to Fanny. “I plan to eat food off of her plate, and drink from her cup.”

“Why Martin…” Fanny said with a small smile. “You do wound me with such an accusation. I swear that I have no intention to murder her.”

Certainly not now, she thought to herself.

“I’ll be watching tonight,” Martin said as he retreated to join his Fiancé. “You had better not harm her, Aunt Fran, or I’ll…I don’t know what I’ll do.”

“Worry about nothing,” Fanny said. “She is my guest, and under my protection.”

Martin was gone, and Fanny received more guests graciously. People mixed and mingled, and the ballroom was full of the rabble of conversation and laughter. H’orderves cycled through the crowd on plates, and Fanny took occasion to seize one of the passing scallops. She bit in, enjoying the pop of seafood and the taste of the sear. Chef Bolton had, as always, managed to get perfect scallops out of his kitchen. The party was, so far, a success. The King would arrive, then the Alessas would sing, then there would be some time for mingling, then dinner in the great hall, and finally some dancing. Everything was on schedule.

* * *

The King arrived at last, and to great fanfare, with a crier and trumpets announcing his presence. Richard could fill out his royal role sometimes with the greatest dignity and regal grace, and tonight was one of those nights. The King entered with his guards, men bearing his White Hart sigil upon their chests. The Queen was on his arm, a tiny woman who had monsterized into a timid deergirl who was so pure that people often mistook her for a unicorn. Richard was stoic. His presence here was key, for Fanny would use his mere proximity to her advantage when she approached Cronides tonight.

Fanny looked to the Duke, now, hoping to read his feeling for his liege. Cronides was looking upon the King with a preoccupied expression, still troubled within his own thoughts.

The Queen was a nervous creature, and as she walked past Barnabus and his date, she shuddered and pulled away, her ears back as she sniffed them both. Fanny frowned. She was easily spooked, but Fanny did have to agree the Eyre Princess was unusual, though how precisely was hard to say…

At any rate, the King walked past his advisor and his companion. The King and Queen settled in to a spot near the leftmost stairs. And Bogsley attended to them both with a tray of wine.

The King took a wine glass for his Queen, and then himself, then looked to Fanny and raised his glass with a smile. Fanny signaled, and the doors atop the stairs opened. The two Alessas entered the ballroom through them.

* * *

It was undeniable that Albert and Patrick were both rakes, both men of low character, but it can be said that their degeneracy had never extended to thinking lustfully of their own sisters. In fact, neither of them gave their sisters much thought at all, in the same way that a pig does not sniff for a truffle in his own mudhole.

But as Patrick watched his now-doubled younger sisters descend the twin staircases, he was struck by a sincere appreciation for their beauty. Not in any crass aspect, but in the same way he would appreciate a still lake, or a starry night sky. His younger sisters were beautiful. By the noises and whispering in the crowds, it was clear that everyone present agreed.

The two Alessa’s glided down the stairs, walking on opposite sides in perfect synchrony of movement, smiling as their eyes scanned the crowd, until they rested upon the face they wished to see, the young Baronet Pross. Patrick could not tell the boy’s reaction, but he could guess it. Where Alessa had always been nervous and meek, the Light and Dark Alessa both had profound confidence which stemmed from each other. The Alarune twins settled in near the Anubis dowager’s pianoforte at the bottom of the stairs, with the light Alessa sitting atop it while her sister positioned herself in front of the keys. The Dark Alessa began to play, and music flowed like water from her fingers. The notes from the piano had a music like the rustling of leaves in the wind. Patrick saw Lady DeBoerg, shutting her eyes and innocently swaying her head a little with the music as her tail wagged. To his great horror, he realized that the severe dowager was adorable. He quickly shook his head free of the thought.

After the notes rose from the pianoforte for a minute, Light Alessa chimed in and began to sing, in her clear voice, beginning with the words that all Anglars loved to hear: Fuck DeTerre.

She proceeded to sing about the degeneracy of DeTerre, their lack of hygiene, the high number of bicorns among their population, the effeminacy of the DeTerran King, and the incalculable evil of Cardinal DePlessis.

The eyes of Light Alessa found their way to the young Baronet Pross again, whom Patrick could now see. He was dressed in Cavalier style, looking very dashing. Light Alessa smiled at him, her cheeks glowing rosy red. The Baronet quailed, eyes wide, and turned even redder. Patrick had always known the Baronet to be a quiet, sensitive boy, very much a counterpart to Alessa. Her change had overwhelmed him. When the Dark Alessa raised her face and smiled at him in the same was as the Light Alessa, the boy needed to steady himself upon the arm of his brother.

Though none quite experienced the song like the Baronet, all were delighted by the Alessas’ rendition of the King’s favorite song, for it indulged in the national pastime of hating DeTerre. Bah, DeTerre, Patrick thought. Those losers who just barely won half of the last eighteen wars over the thimble-sized port of Aquila. People looked about at each other gaily, reveling in the mockery of the most hated and stinky rude foreigners who could ever be imagined.

The song, of course, could not stay forever on the negative. The next verses were about the wonderful nature of Anglars, and its superiority to DeTerre: the beer was warmer, the desserts boiled longer in bags, the women’s asses firmer and sweeter smelling. Light Alessa sang with such stirring vigor about the stoicism of the noble people on the rainy and foggy island of Anglars, that all eyes welled, and there were more than a few sniffles.

The King himself was moved by the song, subtly resting his hand on his heart as the music overtook his soul. He clutched his doe wife around the waist, and she leaned against him, shutting her eyes and smiling. Richard was many things, Patrick thought, but he was lucky in love above all. The Queen was a sweetheart.

His two sisters finished their number with a rousing call for Anglars to beat all DeTerrans to death, which made the whole ballroom applaud loudly. Watching his little sisters, and watching how the crowd had reacted to songs he had heard her sing and music he had heard her play, for the first time, he appreciated her (or them).

He thought back to that moment when he had given her the potion, and how, trembling, she had shut her eyes and drank it. He realized in that moment the desperation that had been in her heart, the reckless impulse that she had taken, out of dread of being less than what the family wanted. But there had been a true bravery in it, a courage that he knew that he himself did not possess. She had risked it all to fulfill her duty.

Patrick thought of how little he had cared about what she was risking. He cared about the money. He thought for a moment of if his gamble had failed. Terror touched his heart, as if he had suddenly been dropped into chest-high freezing water, and with it came the bitter ripples of shame. This beautiful creature, split in two, may have been just as easily cut in half. He had risked her.

Wide-eyed, Patrick looked to Albert. Perhaps it was the fact that they were both sober, but these two worldly rakes understood each other in a single gaze.

“Albert…” Patrick whispered.

“I know, brother,” Albert said, his eyes red. “I know.”

* * *

The Princess Ochrana, who was standing near to Fanny (Fanny having moved through the crowd during the performance to be nearer to the Royal Party), clapped loudly and enthusiastically when the two Alessas finished their song.

“The Alessas play beautifully,” the princess said, leaning in near to Fanny’s ear. She sniffled and wiped her eyes. “They are very pretty girls, indeed. That young Baronet is a lucky man, I say!”

“Yes,” Fanny agreed. “They are most accomplished.”

The King politely clapped for them, and the whole court joined in. None of it was false. The pride on the faces of Lord and Lady Rushworth was well-deserved, Fanny thought to herself.

Fanny herself clapped with polite reserve. The applause for the Alessas was loud and sustained, and the two girls were grinning from ear to ear. Young Baronet Pross was clapping for them with the most enthusiasm, and judging by his pants, he was ready to clap both of the Rushworth twins in a far more vigorous way. Maria ran up to her sisters and embraced them both, proud of their stirring performance. Even the two rakish brothers appeared moved.

Fanny could not help but feel genuinely pleased with herself. Despite all of her ulterior motives for this party, she did in fact want to showcase these two talented girls. The Rushworths were as good a noble family as any. It was with a pang of sadness that Fanny thought about John, the one member who was missing. Oh, John. Off in the Darkness, facing terrors beyond fathoming, because of the actions of his idiot cousins and the capricious nature of the Lord Rushworth. Fanny watched as Lord Rushworth applauded and enjoyed himself, and she felt the stirrings of anger.

For while the Rushworths enjoyed finery and comfort, John did not. She felt her aristocratic, judgmental side beginning to assert itself, particularly the part that wanted to get John’s manhood in its clutches. John, at the Darkest Manor, was subordinated to rolls of the dice beyond Fanny’s control, but she could influence how many dice he had. She moved to engage in her plan.

Lord Rushworth made his way to the side table to pour himself some punch, and Fanny approached him.

“Ah, Your Ladyship! I was just about to come find you. I must give you thanks for your kindness to my daughters,” Lord Rushworth said with a smile as Fanny drew near to him. He ladled some of the dark red punch into one glass, and then grasped up a second and repeated. “It has been a most wonderful event.”

“Your daughters deserve it. They are accomplished girls. You have done well with them,” Fanny replied.

The two nobles stared at the young Alessas. The twins were seated on a small couch with the Baronet Pross between them. He was holding both their hands, his face comatose with happiness as they both jabbered into opposite ears with excited sweet nothings.

“They look very happy,” Fanny said. “And the Baronet is a decent young man.”

“He is. Although he dresses in the cavalier style like that yellow-wearing rake. I swear, our young people are too romanticized by that insane Ochre Hellebore.”

“He is the most puzzling nuisance of this age,” Fanny agreed, thinking on the sword wielding cavalier who fought so valiantly -and yet do stupidly- against the Crown. “But enough about him. I am happy for your daughters in their love.”

Lord Rushworth smiled, and bowed. “You honor us with your kindness. We are very proud of them both.”

“So you have come to accept the transformation of your daughter, then?” Fanny asked.

Lord Rushworth laughed “I didn’t want to admit it, Your Ladyship,” he began. “But in truth, she is happier than I have ever seen her. The light, and the dark of her, I mean. I would hate to lose either of them, now.”

“Is this a recent change of heart?” Fanny asked. “It was my understanding that you were quite outraged.”

“In the first moments I was scared, but when I saw how happy the Alessas were, I knew I could not merge them back together again. But I had to put on a big act. For appearances, you understand. So my sons would learn.”

“Is that why they look so glum, and…sober?” Fanny asked.

Lord Rushworth grunted. “I have allowed them champagne and punch for tonight, but no more than that. Alessa is pleased in spite of them, not because of them,” he replied. “Their sin is in so casually risking their own sister’s safety.”

“She was entrusted to their care, you would say, and they risked her needlessly?” Fanny asked.

“Yes, yes, precisely. Her mother and I were away, and they were her stewards,” Lord Rushworth shuddered. “Now I tremble at the thought of it. I’ve put them on a strict regimen of exercise and Puritan lecture.”

Fanny crinkled her nose. “That sounds awfully low Church…”

“No, no, Your Ladyship. I assure you we do not extend that far. But I have them reading good sermons about what woeful sinners they are, and how they must suspend their whoring and hellraising for God to spare their worthless souls.”

“That is admirable. I hope that you do not judge them too harshly,” Fanny said. She narrowed her eyes, and prepared to land her blow. “After all, in this, they take after their father.”

Anyone else daring to compare Lord Rushworth to his sons, save of a member of the Royal House, would have faced his drawn sword. Although even had she believed that he might drawn his weapon, it wouldn’t have dissuaded Lady DeBoerg in the least from delivering her admonishment.

“Whatever do you mean, Your Ladyship?” Lord Rushworth asked, more shocked than infuriated. “Have I reason to give offense?”

“Where is John Purchase, Lord Rushworth?” Fanny asked in a voice seemingly bereft of emotion.

Had he more experience with Lady DeBoerg, Lord Rushworth might have realized what such a flat tone from the formidable dowager truly meant. Instead, Lord Rushworth frowned. “My Poor Relation? He is staying with my brother Anacletus, helping him beneath the family crypt.”

“Looking for a cure for Alessa’s condition?”

“Well…” Lord Rushworth said. “Why not?”

“My servants called on him at Sunderland, you know,” Fanny said.

“Oh yes, about his portrait. Had I known, I wouldn’t have dispatched him to Darkest Manor, I assure you.”

“Our appointment has been postponed. Indefinitely,” Fanny said, no longer able to contain a growl.

“If there is need of a portrait, I can suggest several good painters,” Lord Rushworth said. “There is Benedetto-“

“Do you honestly believe you know more better painters than I do?” Fanny snapped.

Lord Rushworth could not help but recoil, as if she had nipped at his hand. He spilled a bit of punch onto the wooden floors in the process. “I-I did not mean to imply that. But only to suggest a replacement.”

“I don’t want a replacement. I want John Purchase to paint my portrait. I want him to come visit me. You callously risked his life, for appearances,” Lady DeBoerg said. She drew herself up. “Lord Rushworth, I have always liked you. You are a decent enough man. But in your treatment of your so-called, ‘poor relation’, you have upset my plans, and upset me.”

Fanny snatched Lord Rushworth’s pocket square from his suit pocket, dropped it on the punch stain, and used her foot to wipe it. Lord Rushworth stared at her in shock, unable to process this act, or how his young relative could in any way, shape, or form, be a major factor in the plans of a woman who was an adult during his own childhood. “Your Ladyship, I do not understand-“

“I will make it very, very plain, Archibald: if John Purchase does not return from the Crypt unharmed, I will destroy you. I will tear down every stone of Sunderland with you inside it, and peasants will find your rotting, rat eaten corpse as they use the fragments of your ancestral home to make the pens for pigs.”

Lord Rushworth’s mouth opened in horror. “I-I’ll summon him back-“

“If it were that simple, Lord Rushworth, I would do it. But John believes that he must aid your insane brother in his mad quest. Heaven preserve us from whatever Anacletus is doing, but John has now committed his honor to it. To you men, losing your honor is like losing your phallus, and so I cannot recall him without injuring him. But I fear for John, in that place where lepers disappear.”

“Then he must be kept alive…” Lord Rushworth said.

“You are a shrewd man, Lord Rushworth,” Lady DeBoerg said icily. “He is your ward, and you are responsible for his care. I have sent my agents there to help him, but it behooves you to see that he is safe, as well. You have always been an efficient servant of the Crown; I trust you to be efficient as a patron to your relative, as well.”

Lord Rushworth nodded, shock and horror replaced by this call to action. “I shall set out on the morrow, Your Ladyship.”

Fanny smiled. “That is all I can ask, for now,” she said. “In the meantime, enjoy your daughters’ night; they are truly lovely girls.”

As Lord Rushworth beat a hasty retreat toward his wife and eldest daughter – the level-headed, competent members of his family- Fanny’s nostrils flared. Every little bit would help, of course. She smacked her lips and stared with lidded eyes towards her spy. Her boys needed to be protected, both her surrogate son and her future husband.

* * *
Patrick and Albert typically did not care much when their father was distressed. This was less a lack of empathy than simply the contempt of familiarity, for Lord Rushworth was almost always harried for some reason or another, as was to be expected in the life of a Parliament back bencher. And yet, the look upon his face was graver and more serious than when he would return home from the Commons. In this case, the parts of Albert and Patrick which made them loving sons responded, and they went to their father’s side.

“I must go to Darkest Manor,” Lord Rushworth was explaining to his wife as they approached. “Lady DeBoerg wants John to paint her portrait. She is displeased that he is not available now.”

“Let me come with you,” Desiree said, her flames igniting.

Lord Rushworth shook his head, and put a hand to her face. “No. You must remain at Sunderland, to handle affairs there. Be at ease, my flaming blade, for I do not intend to risk my life in the Crypts, or partake of the queer knowledge which ruined my brother. I just wish to make sure that Anacletus does not risk John foolishly.”

“Our John?” Desiree asked with surprise. “I guess Lady DeBoerg is quite taken by his artistry.”

Maria laughed. “Yes, I’m sure that she is interested in his brush,” she said.

“Nonsense!” Aunt Norris exclaimed. “A woman as distinguished as Lady DeBoerg would not lower herself with a commoner like John.”

“He’s not a commoner, Aunt Norris,” Maria corrected, patiently.

“Maria, shush,” Lord Rushworth said with a frown. “Lady DeBoerg is a Peer of the Realm. Whatever her reason, she has charged me with it, and so once I take you back to Sunderland, my Lady, I shall head to Darkest Manor.”

“I declare, this is quite vexing!” Aunt Norris replied. “The two of them played Bridge together, but I see no reason why our Poor Relation should rate so highly in Lady DeBoerg’s notice. His play was not all that good. Couldn’t we hire Benedetto to paint his portrait?”

“It’s immaterial, Deirdre,” Lord Rushworth answered. “The woman could want hot tea on the sun, and the world must scramble for it. The woman wants John safe, and so I make sure that he is.”

“Well, what can she possibly do?” Aunt Norris asked.

Lord Rushworth took a deep breath as he recalled Lady DeBoerg’s exact words. ‘Destroy’ was not a word which an aristocratic woman used lightly, certainly not one with so many words at her disposal. “She made clear she would be displeased,” Lord Rushworth replied.

“Bah!” Aunt Norris declared. She rolled up her sleeves – or, at least, went through the motions of it. “I’ll speak to her about this.”

“I think that is unwise-” Lord Rushworth began.

“Nonsense. I’ll get this matter all set…” Aunt Norris announced. Before she could be stopped, the crazed widow thundered off toward the Anubis. Patrick rubbed his eyes as he watched her disappear into the throng. Had he cared, he might have advised her against doing such a thing, but he didn’t. He instead sipped his wine. A thought entered his mind as numbness took him, and he leaned over to his brother.

“We should volunteer to go with Father,” he said.

Albert swallowed with a loud gulp. “The Crypt? But brother, it is dangerous…”

“Risk has never dissuaded us,” Patrick said. “There is a time where a gambler’s vices become virtues, and that time is now. Father will appreciate our bravery.”

“But Patrick, I’m a coward,” Albert replied.

“Coward? We’ve both fought in duels before,” Patrick said.

“And shat ourselves during them.”

“It’s an even chance that he sends us, by my reckoning,” Patrick explained. “We offer, and he refuses, but respects us. Imagine the dividends then.”

“And if he agrees?”

“Then we go to the Crypt. Now Albert, are you telling me you’ve never wondered about the place?”

“What boy doesn’t?'” Albert asked sarcastically. “I’d be fine with reading a book on it, honestly. And you know how I detest seeing letters of any kind.”

Patrick leaned in, and used the three words that he knew would work.

“There’s money there.”

Albert’s eyebrows raised, and he recalled the stories. A fortune in gold, jewels, gems, and fish. My God, the fish…

He was easily sold on the mission at that point. Albert had spent enough money in his life to know how nice it was to have, and a separate pile of riches that father could not interdict had a great amount of appeal to him. Enough, even, to overpower the risks.

“Alright,” Albert said, downing the rest of his champagne. “Let’s do it.”

“Father, Albert and I will come with you,” Patrick said. Albert nodded eagerly, with a smile. “We want to help set things right.”

Lord Rushworth looked at them both coolly. He remembered Lady DeBoerg’s admonishment, and felt a pang of guilt – not the first time he felt it as he beheld his sons. He wondered what speech in Parliament, what court case he argued, was the critical one that he should have missed, that put his boys on their wild path of dissolution. But now, he saw an earnestness in their eyes, a desire, a hope. Yes, they wanted to get back in his good graces so that they could drink. He knew that. But that was something. There was meaning there.

Lord Rushworth smiled. He took both of his boys into an embrace – the first time he had done so since they were as tall as he was. “We’ll set out, the three of us!” He exclaimed, clapping his hands on their shoulders. “We’ll get to the Crypt at Darkest Manor, find John and Anacletus, and make sure we keep our Poor Relation safe…”

Lord Rushworth stopped. Albert wasn’t quite sure what had caused him to turn his head, but he had felt it, too. The was a preternatural silence coming from his right, from the direction that Aunt Norris had marched off in to confront Lady DeBoerg. It was as if the whole world in that quarter had gasped at once.

All watched as Aunt Norris returned. She walked on unsteady legs, eyes wide and vacant, as if she had been shelled by enemy artillery for weeks without end. Her skin was pale, and her body trembling.

“Deirdre?” Lord Rushworth asked, taking her pale arm. He motioned to Albert, who took her other side. Her thin arm was quaking, the lingering effects of the adrenal flight response. “Are you alright?”

She shook her head from side to side, still trembling. Concerned, Desire went over to her with a glass of water, which Aunt Norris took, as Maria stepped in to relieve Albert of his hold on Aunt Norris’ arm. With a shaking hand, and while Desiree and Maria steadied her on either side, she drank with feverish gulps.

“N-never have I heard someone talk to me like that,” Aunt Norris said, her eyes wide with fright.

“What did she say?” Albert blurted out.

Aunt Norris shuddered. “Horrible things.” She looked at Lord and Lady Rushworth. “I was a fool not to see it; she’s in love with John.”

“What?” Patrick asked.

“She told you that?” Lady Rushworth asked.

“Not in words,” Aunt Norris said. “But I saw a look in her eyes, a look of murder. I saw it once with Nishka, old Yorgi Popov’s bear, do you remember it, Desiree?”

Desiree nodded.

“Yorgi took a bear cub from Nishka, once, and she nearly mauled him. She was afraid that Yorgi would hurt her cubs. I remember watching it from outside the cage. The look in her eyes, the fury…I never could forget it. That was the look in Lady DeBoerg’s eyes. I remember it.”

“Maybe he’s her secret son!” Albert exclaimed. The only acknowledgment of his statement was the sound of his father slapping his forehead.

“I have to get him back,” Aunt Norris said. “I have to go with you, Archibald. I have to make sure that it is done right.” she looked up with terror at the others. “She…she will destroy us all.”

Aunt Norris’ talk very nearly convinced Albert that perhaps he should back out of his suggestion to volunteer, but Patrick stepped forward, undaunted, and he saw such a look of pride in his father’s eye – and a single, shimmering tear – that he decided that he would merely nod stoically to the many flatteries that Patrick offered. They were successful in winning father’s respect, and having it, Albert realized how deeply he had missed it.

Albert downed his flute of white wine. It was not his favorite drink, but it was alcohol, and after his long fast the taste was agreeable. At the very least Patrick’s gambit had assured that their father would relax his Puritan impulses, and so Albert found comfort in the fermented grapes of the night, consigning the headache to the terror of the journey to Darkest Manor.

The decision of Aunt Norris to attend – though we well know that John would discourage such move – meant little to Albert and Patrick. Neither could precisely understand what the old woman thought she could do at the Darkest Manor, but then Aunt Norris was apt to think she needed to be everywhere while not really doing much when she go there. While she often could not be bothered with the problems of others, when they threatened to affect her she found considerable focus and a need to excessively micro manage. Both mother and Maria were not going to be in attendance, and Albert lamented that, because both of them were good with weapons and level headed in most situations.

Albert was considering all of this when he saw a most peculiar fellow, following closely behind a maiden in a black dress. The girl seemingly wanted nothing to do with him, and looked somewhat annoyed. He recalled that he had seen the young maiden on the arm of one of the Royal Family.

“Look, Patrick,” Albert said, elbowing his brother at the scene. “What do you make of that figure?”

Patrick turned, and tilted his head. An honest-to-goodness Barssan Count was making the rounds of the party. The man looked to be about sixty, with a trimmed moustache and dark eyes. The left side of his uniform was covered in ribbons of various colors and polished metals, with golden epaulets.

“That must be Count Orstauf,” Patrick said. “He’s the one who started leasing DeMontgrief’s hotel in Loudon this month.”

“Oh, that chap!” Albert said. “He’s a proper lusty fellow. He sounds like a pistol, rightly!”

Albert remembered hearing the details about Orstauf’s arrival in Anglars. Aunt Norris always stayed up on all the gossip from Loudon, and it was impossible not to hear her, sometimes. Count Orstauf was one of the wealthiest aristocrats in Barssan. Supposedly he was very, very eager to remarry after the death of his wife, one Lotte Orstauf, and had resettled here for the time being to get away from old memories.

“He is purchasing Nodding Hill, I hear,” Patrick said.

“Nodding Hill?” Albert said, impressed. “Well, he’ll turn the head of every girl in Anglars with that as his residence in the country.”

“He seems most interested in that brunette,” Patrick said.

Albert laughed. “She does not appear to be reciprocating,” he replies.

Patrick smiled. “She is foolish. He is a bit old, but still virile…” He blinked twice as he looked at the girl, and gasped. He recognized her. For a moment he tried to place exactly from where, but as she turned back and smiled politely at the Count, he recognized her. He looked to Albert. “Albert…”

Albert had seen it, also. He stared with his mouth open in amazement. “What is she doing here?”

“I’m not sure,” Patrick said. He looked around nervously. “We should probably hide the fact that we recognize her.”

“Why? Anyone who would know would have to be aware of her…history,” Albert said.

Patrick rubbed his chin. “That’s a fair point. Still, I think we should keep this close to our chests: nobles don’t like when you name their girlfriend as a whore.”

“Agreed,” Albert replied. He watched as Count Orstauf gave up his pursuit of the so-called maiden, and went to pour himself some of the alcohol intensified punch.

“Let’s go talk to this old man,” Patrick said. “He seems the most lively person here.”

Albert nodded, then smiled to himself. “Perhaps he may fund a ‘business venture’?” He asked.

Patrick smiled in response, and the two men eagerly went to meet the foreign aristocrat.

* * *

“Who was that?” Nicolette asked.

“What?” Fanny asked, slightly exasperated. Her focus was on Duke Cronides, who was standing with the two men of his entourage, both wearing navy blue uniforms like their Duke. Cronides was one of the beast seamen in the Navy, a man who was as good a sailor as Captain L’Ever, and with the aristocratic bearing to make himself a true merchant prince. She was still assessing him, still trying to ruminate to herself on if this man that she had known for decades was a traitor or not.

Cronides could very well seize the trade routes and use his money and influence in the House of Nobles to dethrone the King. And yet, that made no sense. There was too much risk involved, and even if he would succeed in three chances out of four, for a man of prudence like Duke Cronides, the odds of failure were too high.

“The woman you just so casually destroyed,” Nicolette said. “Who was it?”

“What woman?” Fanny snapped, more with irritation at the disruption of her thoughts than at Nicolette. As the words registered, she inhaled. “Oh right, her. That is Deirdre Norris, one of John’s relatives. Pay her no mind. She’s unimportant.”

“You put the fear of God into her,” Nicolette said.

“Well, you should have heard the nonsense she was blathering,” Fanny said. She squinted as she looked at the Duke. “John isn’t worth disrupting the Rushworth household over, John is fine where he is, just get Benedetto to do my portrait. And all while I was marshalling my thoughts. So I snapped a little.”

Nicolette sniffled and rubbed her nose, still battling the Cornflower pollen. “A little? You made the King’s guard put hands to their swords.”

“Good. They should be alert,” Fanny said. “Now, I must confront the Duke…”

* * *

Court Orstauf and the brothers Rushworth got along fantastically. The Duke insisted on drinking with Albert and Patrick, and in a mood of merriment from their free imbibement, their tongues became loose. There were many bawdy jokes and loud laughs, as this Barssan Colonel was eager for raucous banter and quite fluent in English.

“We saw you talking to that brunette earlier, Herr Orstauf,” Albert said. They clinked together their glasses and drank.

“Ah,” Orstauf began. His accent was noticeable, but his speech was clear. He had the lyrical way of talking of an educated foreigner. “What a rare beauty; she has the same gentility of my Lotte, yet could not be more different. A shame she does not see it, yet, but I do not quit easily.”

Albert laughed. “In this case, I would.”

“Or,” Patrick added with a laugh, “Just ask her how much.”

The Count frowned, and looked over their faces. “I do not understand your meaning, sirs. Do you know something of this Lady?”

“Only that the ‘Lady’ you are interested in, is no lady at all,” Patrick replied.

“Perhaps not by blood, but she never claimed to be,” Orstauf replied. “In fact, I have heard she is a natural child. But to a man of my years and station, that is no obstacle.”

“I couldn’t say whether she is a bastard daughter or not,” Albert said with a laugh. “But she is a whore.”

Orstauf’s eyes widened. “Sir,” he began. “It is uncommon in my country to so besmirch a maiden’s honor.”

“Oh, believe me,” Patrick said, “it is here, as well. But that is no maiden, I assure you.”

“So you have said. Can you back up this calumny?”

“As well as a man can,” Patrick replied. He leaned in close. “I would normally not say this to anyone, but being as you are a gentleman of fortune, both my brother and I have availed ourselves of this prostitute’s services.”

Count Orstauf’s monocle fell from his eye. “A prostitute?!” He whispered hoarsely.

“And more. She has certain…distinguishing markings,” Patrick said. “Brands, you might say.”

Count Orstauf looked to Albert, who nodded in concurrence.

Count Orstauf tilted his head, and a only very practiced study of human faces would have seen the faintest trace of a smile on his face. “Tell me of these…markings,” he said, picking up a cigar from the table.

* * *

Fanny had finally managed to cleave Duke Leto Cronides off from the rest of the party. Once she had gotten his attention, it was not particularly hard to do so, for the Duke knew well the visual queues and signs from a fellow Peer who wished to have a discretionary honest discussion.

“Hello, Your Excellency,” Fanny said with a curtsey when they were alone.

Leto frowned, but returned her compliment with a reverent nod of the head. “You greeted me earlier. Your Ladyship honors me too much, I think,” he said.

“Oh? But it is the talk of the salons, my dear Duke,” Fanny replied. “They are all a-buzz about your new ironclad fleet, and its innovative new sound tracking system. Who knew the screeching bat held such insight into the high seas!”

The Duke shifted, and darted his eyes. “I’m afraid that I don’t know what you are talking about…”

“Leto, please do not squander your time, or mine; I know everything,” she said, watching his surprise. She leaned in. “As does the King.”

The Duke’s eyes widened, and reflexively he looked back at the King. Richard’s eyes were fixed on him with evident hostility, wondering what the conversation was. The Duke was visibly disturbed by this, and yet he cleared his throat. “And why should the King be concerned? I am breaking no laws.”

“It is true there is no law, but then there has been no such concept as a sound device for tracking ships. But then why hide it? Why not share with your King,” Fanny countered. She leaned in even closer, and whispered quietly: “Do you want the throne? Is that your goal, as the King fears?”

There were times that Fanny had wished she had become one of those mamono gifted in reading minds. Such a skill would be eternally useful in situations like this, though she always reminded herself that Dog ears were better. She could only rely upon the Duke’s expression, and her decades of experience at reading people. With her years of listening to liars spin their stories, Lady DeBoerg read the Duke immediately. There was no lie in him as he shook his head vigorously.

“My goal is not the Crown,” Cronides said with a dismissive handwave, though his hand was shaking. “My goal is…personal.”

Fanny folded her arms. He wasn’t lying, but he was concealing something. “You would do better to confide in me,” she said. “You are building a fleet, and it is a threat to the Crown. You know that it is. You need an ally, now, and I am willing to listen.”

Cronides looked about. Though they were withdrawn from the other guests, it was still far too close to them for his liking. Fanny, however, remained where she was, arms still folded, awaiting his response. He let out a long sigh.

“Very well. The Empress Katarina,” Cronides whispered. “You are aware of her fate?”

Fanny nodded, recalling the rumors of a torrid, scandalous love affair between the Peer of the Realm and the widowed mother of the Tsar of Oylskia. Rumors which, it would seem by the tenderness and hurt in his voice, were true. “She died two years ago, as I recall,” Fanny said.

“That is inaccurate,” the Duke replied. “Her ship was caught in a storm, and she was lost at sea. Like you, I believed for many years that she had perished in the storm. But about a year ago, a man came to me. A very strange man, a magi, who called himself Anacletus, Lord of Darkest Manor.”

Fanny raised an eyebrow, but betrayed no other sign of surprise. “I see. And what did he say?”

“He said that through his divinations, he had determined that the Empress Katarina was alive. He claims that the storm did not cause her disappearance. Her change did.”

“Her change to a monster woman? Is she some kind of aquatic creature, then?” Fanny asked with a shrug. “There are certainly enough of them. Why would she be gone for so long?”

“Anacletus claims that she is half a beast, confused, and at the bottom of the ocean,” Cronides said. “He cannot tell her precise location, only the region that she is in. She is very formidable, and…sacred. That makes her dangerous. It was he who provided me with the sound system. He said it would help me find her, by measuring the depth of the ocean.”

“Did the magi want anything in return?”

Cronides grunted. “Money,” he said. “Lots of it. I have taken several loans to purchase his technology and build my fleet.”

“That raises a good question: why build an entire fleet?”

“There is a large area to cover,” Cronides said. “And she is at depths that are hard for even aquatic monster women to traverse.”

“But armed vessels, as well? Come now, Cronides. You’ve come this far. Tell me the rest.”

“Viklas, her son, who is the Tsar…is aware that his mother is alive,” Cronides said. “Anacletus went to him, first, to seek money. I do not quite understand how; the wizard has some means of mystical or scientific travel. He found the Tsar less than eager to get his mother back. Viklas does not want her to be found.”

Fanny nodded. Katarina had been a formidable woman, with many allies at court. Doubtless the precocious Viklas and his advisors found her absence useful. The country missed her, however; without her moderation, Viklas had embarked on a spending spree of such extravagance and decadence that it made the Lords of DeTerre blush.

Still, that was not a matter for an nobleman of Anglars. “You know better than this. Sending a fleet may precipitate a war between us and Oylskia,” Fanny said. “The corn syrup trade would be imperiled.”

“I understand the risks, Lady DeBoerg. But if Karey…” he stopped, and composed himself. “…If the Empress is still alive, I must find her. She is alone and frightened. It tortures me at night to know it. Heaven and hell will not stop me from going to her.”

There was a time when such statements would have struck her as silly maudlin sentiment. She would have argued that a war would mean the mass disruption of thousands of lives, all so one man could fulfill his already politically untenable relationship. She would have admonished him, and forced him to give up his little scheme.

But now, with love in her heart, she could not condemn him for his passion. But nor could she let the Kingdom be embroiled in a silly war with the largest empire on the planet.

She put her paw on his arm. It was a subtle gesture, but as he looked from it into her eyes, he saw her sympathy and her understanding.

“Do nothing until you hear from me,” Fanny commanded. “Continue your research, and building your fleet. But give me the schematics for your sound device. The King will be at ease once he has it.”

Cronides face was stone. “The technology has cost me a great deal,” he said. “And if the King has my sound technology, I will have no leverage to pursue my campaign. I must refuse.”

Fanny smiled. She produced the folded paper from between her pretty, light brown breasts.

“I think you may find powering your steam ships to be difficult, what with the strike,” Fanny said with a smile as she handed him the paper.

Cronides took the paper it with a furrowed brow, and she watched with satisfaction as his eyes widened. He stared up at her.

“The strike?” He stammered, amazed. “You?”

“I am merely a trusted intermediary,” Fanny lied. “The strike in your mine, and all the others, can go away when I have the plans.”

“And I suppose there are other demands that I must agree to, as well?”

“I will push for the State to conscript the miners into the militia. This will give them pay and care, and remove the need or risk of a future strike. But you must give the plans for your sound device to me. For you can just as easily be excluded from any deal.”

Duke Cronides nodded. “I’ll have my man bring them to you, tomorrow,” he said. He sighed grimly. “What am I to do about the Tsar? Once the King has the tech, Oylskia and everyone else will have it in short order. My advantage will be lost.”

“That can be handled,” Fanny said. It was not a lie, she told herself. It was a promise. She would help him, somehow. Fanny’s reach was not long enough to go into Oylskia, but she had some other ideas. She again touched Cronides’ arm. “Be at ease. I will help you, I promise.”

Duke Cronides sighed. He did not seem too relieved, but he nonetheless politely bowed. “Remember,” he said carefully. “That the Empress is your age. But for the grace of God, it may have been you trapped under the black ocean.”

“I will not forget it,” Fanny said. “We will recover her.”

The Duke walked away, and addressed one of his men. She knew what the conversation was about. It pained her to make Cronides so grim (or grimmer), but the fact was, while the sound detection technology was indeed a great advantage, with the advent of flying monster women it was not the silver bullet that it might have been in the past age. His campaign would have led to war, and a war that was not one-sided.

Fanny gave the matter a good amount of thought, and decided that she’d need to find some leverage over the Tsar. She was not entirely without resources that could be used, although Viklas was both more willful than Richard and considerably more sovereign. Well, not every problem can be solved in an evening, she thought, and there were others that could be resolved now. She narrowed her eyes as she scanned the party for her beleaguered nephew.

Barnabus was standing at the cold fireplace, resting against it, staring into his drinks glass. His companion for the evening, the Eyrian Princess, was laughing and joking with the King and Queen, who seemed quite taken with her. By body language one could tell that Barnabus was terrified of the King berating him. He would sigh every so often, and shut his eyes, as the events of the strike played over and over in his head.

He did nothing when Fanny approached him. “We should talk,” she said. “About your recent…difficulties.”

Barnabus grunted, and looked at the cold hearth and the pile of black ash. “Please nag me some other time, my esteemed Aunt.”

Fanny pulled the scroll out of her dress. “I wasn’t planning to nag. I was planning to help you.”

Barnabus laughed, but it was mirthless. “I’m sure. Help me by handing me the dagger that I use to cut open my stomach and pull out my intestines.”

“Nothing so grotesque, nephew. I happen to have been contacted as an intermediary by a certain vicar who knows the leadership of the miner’s guild. They have prepared a list of requests. You’ll find they are all reasonable, and inexpensive. They will agree to be conscripted into the militia, and receive soldier’s benefits.”

Barnabus’ eyes widened. The sight of his salvation made his face brighten, and he reached for the document like a starving man reaching for water. Fanny took great pleasure in pulling it out of his reach.

“But as it so happens, the miners trust me. They don’t believe that you are a good faith negotiator. Now I may allay their fears, but such a thing would be quite impossible for me to do convincingly, if I were sent overseas to DeTerre…”

Barnabus understood, and began stammering. “I-I-I…I quite agree. I always have. Your place is here, with us, in this Kingdom. It’s Richard, he’s the one set on this, thanks to this business with Cronides…”

Fanny smiled to herself, as she thought of the plans to the sonic listening device which would soon be hers. “I shall have to handle that somehow,” she said. “But you must pledge that you will back me when I next discuss my marriage with him. Richard places such faith in your counsel, and rightly so. But you must go further, and counsel him to let me marry Jonathan Purchase.”

“That will be…difficult to justify,” Barnabus said. “But I am sure that good arguments can be found.”

She handed Barnabus the letter, and he seized it and read with a widening smile.

“I thought you would see reason,” Fanny said. “Keep in mind that if you want credit for the negotiation of the settlement, letters can also be revealed showing the extent of my involvement, and, if you’ll permit me to be indelicate, how the miners truly loathe you. That could be embarrassing, of course.”

“Oh yes, yes,” Barnabus agreed eagerly. He looked to the Princess. “But you know that you can rely on me, Aunt Frances. I have found love myself, recently, and I am turning over a new leaf.”

Fanny smiled. She knew that he had both not turned over a new leaf nor found love. He would exploit this Princess to the best of his ability, then cast her aside. Although, Fanny noted, the foreign Princess seemed more than able to handle herself. She was, in fact, quite tall for a Human woman, and her manner was very strange. Staring at her was like staring at a mirage, as if something about her was ephemeral. Fanny wondered if perhaps she was a Monster Girl of some kind.

At any rate, the strange Princess was not important for now. Despite her odd appearance, she was behaving with decorum. While Fanny knew that Barnabus would soon return to form, his cooperation in this matter was assured, as she had evidence of his failure to negotiate.

“Good,” Fanny said, smiling. She handed him the document. “Then you should go back to your companion.”

“I shall. And have no fears on matters with your dear friend, Aunt Frances,” Barnabus said. “They shall be well taken care of, I assure you.”

Fanny watched Barnabus depart, and her tail wagged happily. A good extortion always left both parties so much happier. Her nephew’s skin was full of color again, and he had a spring in his step which she only saw when he was winning. He grasped the Princess by the elbow, and the two of them retreated into an obscure corner of the room. Something about seeing the two of them together disquieted Fanny. There truly was something…odd…about this Princess. She sniffed the air in the direction of the couple, crinkling her nose as she took in the scent. Yes, something was odd…

“My Lady,” Nicolette said, sniffling. “How fare thee?”

Fanny shook herself free of the thought. She turned to her servant, and smiled, putting a paw to her shoulder. “We have done well so far.”

“The torches have all been caught?” Nicolette asked.

“Not quite,” Fanny said. There was the matter of Miss Anna Woodeville, which was turning out to be the hardest problem. Woodeville had given Mneister the cold shoulder all night. The little hussy was so calculating. She had been alone enough to get herself into trouble, Fanny had purchased the King a new barouche, knowing that Richard would want to gush about his new barouche to someone, and Martin was the nearest man for the job. She had watched as Martin, half a hostage, was stuck with the King, who continued jabbering on excitedly about the stupid golden seahorses on the sides.

But the little hussy had not capitalized on being alone, at all. She had watched after Martin expectantly, and ignored the many suitors who called on her. There were many men who were hoping to receive some modicum of her attention (and not by coincidence, since Fanny had invited some of the most wealthy bachelors and notorious lechers in the country). And yet Miss Woodeville gave them no attention, politely nodding as she ran her finger on the tip of her glass and watched after Martin.

As she looked over at the Count, who was talking to the Rushworth brothers, she realized that her plan had failed. Miss Woodeville was staring with wistful eyes at Martin. The sight was so fundamentally dishonest to Fanny that, against good sense, she charged off toward the maiden to confront her. It was less a formed plan than a frontal assault, and though Fanny desired to leap upon Anna Woodeville and beat her senseless, she demurred to her more rational nature.

“Your Ladyship…” Miss Woodeville began with a polite smile as she drew near.

“Alright girl,” Fanny snarled, her fangs bared. Her tone was enough to draw a few stares of shock from onlookers, who then quickly looked away. “What’s your game?”

Miss Woodeville stared at her with big, brown eyes. “My game?”

“Don’t play dumb,” Fanny replied, her own eyes narrowing. “Are you seriously rejecting an aristocratic Count just for the remote chance of being Queen? You must realize that Martin is eighth in line to the throne, and will most likely not be King.”

“A Count? I-I don’t understand…” Miss Woodeville said, her voice affecting distress awfully well. Fanny, however, was having none of it.

“Count Orstauf. You caught his eye. He’s wealthy, powerful, and handsome. Why not even a look in his direction?”

“Count Orstauf…a look? Your Ladyship, I have no idea what you are talking about,” Miss Woodeville exclaimed.

“Or can it be…can it be you saw through him? You recognize him, perhaps?” Fanny pressed on.

Anna’s eyes widened. “I don’t know what to say to you, Lady DeBoerg,” Anna replied. “You have taken an intense disliking to me, when all I have ever done is return the affections that your grand-nephew has shown to me. I love him.”

The last three words were like tossing blood into piranha filled waters. Fanny put a paw into Miss Woodeville’s face. “Don’t you dare touch him, you, you-“

The maiden was not intimidated, and responded with uncharacteristic calm and frankness. “With respect, Your Ladyship,” she said, brushing aside Fanny’s paw. “It is not your opinion which matters to me. It is his.”

Fanny’s paw returned to in front of her face with a sudden violence, and this time the girl recoiled in fear. “Clearly you determined Count Orstauf was not who he claimed to be,” Fanny said at last, ignoring the maiden’s statement. “I swear to you that before the night is out, I’ll have all your secrets.”

Anna’s nostrils flared, and for a moment, it was as if a wall came down, and Fanny saw rage – and fear. “I have no secrets, Lady DeBoerg,” she said, recovering quickly. “And I warn you; if you continue to recriminate me without proof, you will only estrange yourself from your nephew, who loves you dearly.”

“No doubt you would aid in such an estrangement,” Lady DeBoerg growled.

“If there is a break, Your Ladyship,” Miss Woodeville said in a very calm tone. “It will be entirely from your own actions.”

Martin had managed to extricate himself from the King, and made his way over to his Aunt and his fiancée. As he looked into his lover’s eyes, and then into his Aunt’s, he knew what had transpired. His look became dejected, and he let out a deep sigh. Fanny hated to see this anguish. She whined a little under her breath, then steadied herself.

“Anna, the evening is young, but why don’t we get ready to leave?” Martin said, his eyes fixed on Fanny. Fanny stared back, imperious as ever.

“The King will miss you,” Fanny admonished.

“I’ve made my excuses,” Martin snapped. “He understands.”

“Very well, Martin,” Anna said, bowing her head. “I’ll just go and have some water first? I…I think I need to have some.”

“That’s fine,” Martin replied, still staring at Fanny.

As Anna moved off, Martin drew in closer to his Aunt. “I had hoped you would be a Human, for once,” Martin said, shaking with indignation. “But there is no pity in you, no sentiment. To you, everything is all about family, power, and respectability.”

“This goes beyond that. She is unsuitable,” Fanny said.

Martin shuddered for a moment, processing the word. “How?” He asked. “She’s been a perfect Lady tonight.”

“That is debatable. But I must go by my instincts.”

“Instincts?” Martin asked.

“There is a look to her,” Fanny said. “Something lingers behind her eyes. I see a viper staring back at me, something poisonous. A traitor. She lusts for gold, or power, or…something. Martin…” she cast sideways glances. “I don’t want you to be hurt…”

Martin narrowed his eyes, and when Fanny saw his manner shift, she realized that she had made a mistake. Despite his protestations, she was strongest when she argued from aristocracy and propriety. Reason had been the fire with which she tempered him throughout his life, not sentiment. So now, when she argued from her heart, as a woman, that was when her nephew could suddenly find his true steel, inoculated by masculine pride against feminine intuition.

“I am hurt, Aunt Fran. I’m hurt because my fiancé is not welcome with the woman who was, for all intents and purposes, my mother. But perhaps…” he stopped, grasping at what he was about to say. “Perhaps we should both remember that you are not, in fact, my mother.”

Fanny felt as if a knife had been thrust into her stomach, twisted, and brought up through her ribs and into her heart. She wanted to scream in his face, hug him and tearfully beg his forgiveness, and bludgeon that bitch Woodeville to death all at once. God, she thought, these dog emotions were so counterproductive.

“You are being hysterical,” she said in as flat a tone as she was able. “I have never claimed to be your mother, for she is dead. I am your Aunt, and I have to watch over you in her name. And I would do her -and you- a disservice by letting you invite ruin upon yourself with a lesser Lord’s bastard daughter.”

This pivot succeeded in numbing his indignation, but not obliterating it. “I will not be convinced by this. You have stated reservations due to her birth and heritage, but you have no meaningful indictment of her character or her nature save for your natural propensity to hate everyone. I know her better, and I know that she is a pure maiden.”

“You see her through your pants,” Fanny responded. “It obscures your clarity. And in the end, it is immaterial how pure she is: she is poor, and brings nothing to the family. You are a member of the royal house. You will break off with this harlot, and choose one of the nice, pretty unicorn girls.”

“Your speech would be frightening, but for once your plan has backfired. I have spoken to Richard, and he thinks Miss Woodeville is a fine woman, and blesses the union. You cannot object publicly without provoking him. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be collecting our coats. I think it is time that we leave,” Martin said. He walked past her, towards the cloak room.

Fanny snorted. Insolent little shit. Why couldn’t people just do as they were told? Beyond this, a real panic was setting in. Most of her goals for the night were fulfilled; the Rushworths would commit to John’s safety, the Civil War had been averted (or was on its way to being averted), the miners would have a better deal as conscripts than as near-slaves. Everything, save this, had gone so well.

She eyed Miss Woodeville, who had retreated a good distance and was sipping her water. The young girl looked after Martin with a look of concern as he stormed off, but as Fanny’s perceptive eyes stared at the girl, as she sniffed the air, she suddenly caught the glimpse of it – a trace of a smile, the faintest glimmer of a gleam. That split second revealed everything to the seasoned Anubis. Calculation.

Even if the King had not drunkenly blessed the union, and Fanny could disinherit Martin, it was a toothless threat. Fanny would live for decades more since her body was so young, and at any rate if she had children with John, they would divide the estate. But Martin had considerable money on his own, and a claim on the Royal Throne. Even if there was an estrangement, a gold digger like Woodeville would still do extremely well for herself. Not the wealthiest Lady in the Kingdom, but a member of the upper nobility. That look, that gleam, showed Fanny what the girl was truly about.

Her assessment of Woodeville was entirely correct, but what did that mean, exactly? The strumpet had an ulterior motive, but what was it? The Throne? Was she a spy for a foreign power? Some agitator or anarchist? What was her angle?

Miss Woodeville certainly played her part well. It had only been the briefest of flashes, the most subtle of clues, as well as Fanny’s own overwhelming monster woman instincts, which had convinced her that she was false. No matter. It was time to speak to Mneister.

She signaled to him, and ‘Count’ Orstauf approached her with the practiced gait of a Barssan. Fanny had to admit that in a crowd he fooled even her. Mneister knew his craft well.

“Gute Nacht, Lady Frances,” the Count said with a bow.

“No success, then?” Fanny asked.

“She is an actress, and a good one,” Mneister said, confirming her suspicions. “I think she recognized me. But she pretended that she did not, which is in and of itself a strange thing.”

“Indeed,” Fanny said. “But you seem happy, nonetheless.”

“Because I have information,” Mneister said with a grin. “I heard something interesting from the Rushworth brothers.”

Fanny tilted her head, confused. “About Mister Purchase, surely?”

Mneister’s lip curled. “About Miss Woodeville. Or rather, Miss Milley Tanner,” he said. His eyes darted. “She’s a prostitute from Dulsany.”

Fanny almost howled with manic delight. “The Lord’s bastard became a bawdy girl?”

“She would aspire to be his bastard. Her parents were shit slingers. Her father was hanged for rape, her mother is a maniac in an asylum. She has been selling herself for years. She may have convinced Lord Woodeville she was his natural child, but she is most assuredly not.”

Fanny’s eyes widened, and she almost kissed Mneister on the mouth. “Are you certain?”

“The fat one laughed when I had said she was a maiden, and they told me the whole story,” Mneister said, rubbing his monocle. “They may be drunkards, but they are both quite certain it is her. Both brothers have had her.”

“Will they testify to this?” Fanny asked, excitedly.

“There is no need. They say she is branded on the left shoulder with the King’s Brand. She stole jewelry from a corpse about to be buried in a cemetery, and was whipped and branded for it.”

Fanny’s heart skipped. Proof. Martin would know that she was right, and then he would acknowledge her rightness and obey him. He would marry a pretty unicorn aristocrat who would never raise her voice to him and let him rest his head in her lap. Her tail wagged furiously, of its own accord. “Thank you, Mneister,” she said. “You will be well compensated for your services tonight. Please, go and mingle; see if there is any other data you can tease out from this crowd.”

“Glad I could be of service, Your Ladyship,” Mneister said with a smile. He nodded, retaining his character as a Count to all foreign observers, and drifted off into the party.

Fanny thought for a moment on the best course of action. Woodeville and Martin were getting their coats, but as the night was so warm, they were carrying them. Time was of the essence to reveal her before she left. Frantically, Lady DeBoerg waved Nicolette over to her.

“Milady?” Nicolette asked with a bow as she arrived.

“Nicolette,” Fanny whispered, so excited she could barely talk. “Mneister has… Hurry! She is over there, in the dark dress, go and take down her left shoulder. There is a thief’s brand there. Hurry!”

Nicolette stared at Fanny with wide eyes, sniffling. “M-my Lady?”

“Quickly, Nicolette,” Fanny said. “Before she leaves!”

Nicolette moved forward. She walked briskly through the crowd, on-task like a bloodhound towards her target. Fanny, realized, to her horror, that it was toward the wrong person. Nicolette was heading for the tall Princess whom Barnabus had brought, who was in a similar dress, as both Barnabus and his Princess were walking outside to presumably take a stroll in the nice air.

Fanny called out vainly, but Nicolette was steeled in her purpose, deaf to all sounds save the voice in her head which pressed her onward. And with a plugged nose, she would not get the scent of her quarry, and know her mistake. The charge had been sounded, the army unleashed. The egg could not be unscrambled. Fanny winced as she prepared for the international incident to come.

Nicolette reached over to the Princess’ black dress, put her paw to her shoulder, dug in her claws, and ripped her dress down with a loud tearing which reverberated through the ballroom louder than it should have.

“Aha!” Nicolette screamed. “Be revealed, thief!”

There was a loud cry, but not a maiden’s, and as the ‘Princess’ turned, Fanny saw the gleam of a metal plate underneath the frilly dress. She gasped, as the entire assemblage turned in mute shock to stare at this imposter among them.

The tearing of the dress had seemingly broken some spell, or enchantment. The princess was, Fanny suddenly saw, very masculine and broad-framed. On closer examination, the princess’ face had stubble, and a lantern jaw. Clearly this was a master of disguise to rival Mneister, for this rugged man had appeared as though he were a petite and callow maiden until his dress was ripped. He produced a long, cavalier’s hat from…somewhere, complete with the distinctively long yellow feather that was unmistakable. Fanny pointed at him with her trembling paw.

“The Ochre Hellebore!” Fanny exclaimed, recognizing his yellow plume.

“Ha ha!” The flamboyantly dressed man announced in a booming voice. He ripped off the remnants of his disguise with one motion, then rested his hands on his hips -near his ridiculously long rapier, which had somehow been concealed beneath his dress. “Indeed, lass, ’tis I, the Ochre Hellebore, avenger of the True King.”

The crowd gasped. A woman shrieked, and Count Orstauf, in a testament to his method acting, took off his monocle, wiped it, and put it back in his eye. The King sputtered, retreating against the wall, as the crowd faded away beyond the range of the fearsome madman’s gay blade.

But none were so affected as Barnabus. “No!” Barnabus cried out, eyes bulging in horror, as he backed away from his one-time romantic companion. He reached up, and touched his still lipstick-stained lips with trembling fingers. “I…I…”

“Yes, you kissed me, Lord Barnabus, with your tongue. That means you are a homosexual!” The Ochre Hellebore said loudly. He tilted his head back, and laughed, with his hands on his belt. “Ha ha ha ha ha! The Ochre Hellebore wins again. I have fooled you all; I am not Helen Ochrana, from Eyre. There is no such place, I made it up!”

“No you didn’t, you twit,” Fanny yelled. “It’s a real place.”

The Ochre Hellebore spun to face her. His smile remained frozen, but his eyes searched. “…it is?” He asked.

“It’s forty miles off the western coast. You are the biggest idiot in Anglars. If you couldn’t fight like fifty men, you’d be a laughing stock.”

“Ah, but I CAN,” The Ochre Hellebore exclaimed. “And the True King shall be restored!”

“Get him!” Barnabus screamed, pointing his shaking, lipstick covered finger at the flamboyant warrior. “Seize him!”

Two soldiers entered, swords drawn, emblazoned with the White Hart of the King. The Ochre Hellebore drew his own rapier with another sharp laugh, and steel met steel.

It was over quickly, for the Ochre Hellebore was as adept at sword fighting as he was at romancing a King’s majordomo. With two swift slices, the two soldiers retreated, their belts shredded, holding up their pants as they raced from the room.

“Ha ha ha ha,” The Ochre Hellebore laughed, tilting back his head again. “Imagine, running away after a simple depantsing.”

“Someone, please, kill him!” Barnabus screamed.

The Ochre Hellebore swooped up Miss Woodeville in his arms, hefting her over his shoulder. The young strumpet reacted with a cry of alarm, and distressed, Martin bounded forward to seize her. The Ochre Hellebore, however, swung about with his sword, slashing the air, and forcing Martin to step back to avoid the sharp tip.

Martin was unarmed, and with clenched teeth and hurled invectives, he looked to dart in to rescue the captive Woodeville. The Ochre Hellebore may have pressed his advantage against the unarmed young man, but Duke Cronides, who was armed with his saber, stepped forward, and the steely-eyed Duke was not a lightly taken foe. Despite his shorter weapon he proved a fearsome counter, and with other troops approaching from the outside,

“Hey, hey!” Fanny shouted as the swordsman rushed towards the steps. “Put her down this instant! I need to expose her!”

The Ochre Hellebore did not respond, but raced up the side steps of the rotunda. He may have made it to the exit, but a gaggle of Men of the White Hart burst through the double doors, swords raised. The Ochre Hellebore turned back down the stairs, still hefting the hapless Woodeville.

More men burst in from the patio, and soon, the swashbuckler was surrounded on all sides.

“Now, now we have him,” Barnabus announced to the King, who ventured forth with renewed vigor as he saw the number of soldiers increase.

The Ochre Hellebore grasped the velvet rope which held up the chandelier, and taking Woodeville, still wide-eyed, under the waist, he jumped off.

“Ha HA!” He announced, as he kicked off on the rope. He swung down, kicking over a group of swordsmen who fell in a heap, like men who were trained to take falls. The pair swung over the heads of the amazed guests, over Fanny’s own head as she looked up, and landed at the double doors to the outside. The Ochre Hellebore and his unwitting hostage departed into the night, towards a carriage which was racing up the drive.

“After them!” Barnabus shouted.

The guards mounted up on horses, and to Fanny’s horror, she saw Martin going off with them, now holding a pistol and dagger. Her heart in her throat, she raised her paw.

“Martin!” She called out. “Get back here this instant! You have no business-“

Martin did not answer, or even acknowledge her words. He was a-horse and riding at the front of the pack, taking off after the stage coach, which was moving with the greatest speed. The Ochre Hellebore always fought harder than any man, and his escape was swifter than any horse.

Fanny sighed. First John, then Martin. All the men she cared about were disappearing on foolish quests.

“Nicolette…” Fanny said with a sigh as her Kobold assistant returned with her ears flat. “I meant the other person in the black dress.”

Nicolette sniffled. “I am sorry, My Lady.”

“Well, we inadvertently stopped the Ochre Hellebore from whatever he had planned,” Fanny said. She swallowed.

“I wonder what that was,” Nicolette said.

Fanny shrugged. “The Ochre Hellebore was endeavoring to get Barnabus alone with him,” she said. “Maybe to kill him, maybe to kidnap him. Maybe to just hit him with a pie. The Ochre Hellebore is not very bright.”

“He has absconded with Miss Woodeville,” Nicolette said.

“In keeping with his dumb ideas,” Fanny said, although to be fair he had no idea who he was grabbing. “I do wish we could have revealed her. Instead Martin may do something impulsive. Oh, that awful Ochre Hellebore could kill him!”

Fanny sighed. She looked over at the two Alessas, who were both clinging to Baronet Pross like spooked cats to a stair post.

“Well girls,” Fanny shouted across the ballroom. “Let’s hope that third time’s a charm on Coming Out Parties.”

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6 thoughts on “Pomp and Perspicacity, Chapter 4

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