Iolanthe Dechantagne pursed her lips and narrowed her unique aquamarine eyes at the man in front of her who seemed to wilt in her gaze. They were in one of the back bedrooms of the Dechantagne house at Number One, Avenue Dragon. Occupying an entire city block and sitting four stories high, the house had dozens of bedrooms, so many that Iolanthe was sure she hadn’t visited them all. She had been in this one though, many times. Not recently. So many rooms made the house expensive to heat and to care for, and right now Iolanthe needed her money for things other than taking care of a too large house. She had ordered all the rooms in the back two thirds of the building closed off, the furniture covered and the other contents sold or stored. But this room was untouched. The dust-covered furniture was still home to dust covered personal items: brush, razor, strop, journal, war medals, shotgun.
“Well?” she said, ice clinging to the consonants and a cold wind blowing through the vowel sound. The servant actually shivered.
“I didn’t think you meant this room,” said the man.
“And why would that be?”
“This is the Master’s room. I mean it was his room. I mean I thought…”
“My brother is master of this house now. And you are not paid to think.” Iolanthe could feel the presence of Zeah Korlann, her head butler, just behind her right shoulder, but she didn’t acknowledge him. “I said I wanted all of these rooms closed off, and that includes this one. Cover the furniture and sell the other things, and if you can’t sell them, burn them.”
The man nodded shakily. Iolanthe turned on her heel. Zeah was standing just far enough to the side that he wouldn’t have to move if she walked directly back out of the room. He was a tall, dignified man with clear, intelligent eyes and hair that was a bit more salt than pepper. He had served the Dechantagne family since before Iolanthe was born, and his family had served them since the time of Iolanthe’s great-great grandfather. He stood completely straight, his right hand resting on the shoulder of a boy of thirteen or fourteen. Iolanthe raised one eyebrow.
“Um.” Zeah cleared his throat. “Young Saba here needs to be assigned a position in the house.”
“He is engaged in his studies, yes? I believe I pay for a tutor, do I not?”
“Yuh… yes. But Saba had his fourteenth birthday some time ago. It is time for him to work in the afternoons, after finishing with Master Lockley.”
“Do you have an opinion?”
“I wuh… was thinking assistant porter.”
“Very well.” Iolanthe took three steps towards the door, then stopped and turned around. “What did he receive for his birthday?”
“You guh… gave him a very nice puh… puh… pair of pants.”
“Perfect,” she said.
“Muh… Miss?” said Zeah, leaving the boy where he was and stepping forward. He stood looking at her as if measuring whether he should continue.
“Yes?” she asked at last.
“Might you not want to keep suh… some items of a more puh… puh… personal nature?”
“Nothing of my father’s is of interest to me or my brothers. He was a disgrace to the family name and the sooner I can forget about him the better. Wastrel. Coward.” She pressed her lips together to say the other word. How she wanted to say it. Murderer. But the word stayed in her mouth. She stared at Zeah, daring him to ask something else.
“Yuh… yes Miss.”
It took a full ten minutes to walk to the front of the house, that portion which was in use, and once there it took far too long to reach her boudoir. She had to detour around the hallway where workmen were busy installing an elevator. It was the last of many improvements that Iolanthe had made to the house in the past two years.
Yuah was waiting in the boudoir. Yuah was Iolanthe’s dressing maid, as well as being Zeah’s daughter. Two years younger than Iolanthe, Yuah had grown up with her and her brothers. There was a time that Iolanthe had thought of the younger woman as a sister. Without a word, she turned and shrugged off her jacket, which Yuah caught and immediately placed on a hanger. Then she was back to unbutton Iolanthe’s day dress and help her remove it. This was followed by the large rear bustle made vital by modern fashion and then the Prudence Plus fairy bust form corset. And for the first time all day, Iolanthe was able to take a deep breath.
“I won’t need you for a few hours,” she said, as Yuah draped her day gown over her shoulders. “You may retire.”
“Thank you, Miss.”
“I’m going to write Augie. Do you want me to send him your regards?”
As Yuah left the room, Iolanthe sat down at the small desk in the corner and pulled out a sheet of her personal stationary and her fountain pen. In her best hand she wrote her letter.
I read with interest your description of Birmisia. It sounds like just the type of place for our enterprise. I was especially interested in the fact that there are as yet no other parties intent on establishing a colony there. It is distant, but that may very well end up being an advantage. Terrence has put forth Cartonia as a possibility, but with your experience in Birmisia, we will have first hand information and expertise. Continue to learn all you can. You know what we need. I don’t have to tell you. In any case, I have a meeting with the Prime Minister later in the week and hope to begin negotiations.
On a personal note, Terrence arrived yesterday. He looks as well as can be expected. Yuah sends her regards. As always, return with your shield or on it.
* * * * *
Yuah Korlann arrived in the servants dining hall just a moment after her father and Saba. Half a dozen kitchen workers under the supervision of the head cook, Mrs. Colbshallow scurried around preparing for the luncheon. Mrs. Colbshallow had been the head cook since Yuah was a little girl. She was a wonder in the kitchen. She was also Saba’s mother and she gave him a big squeeze as she passed by.
“There’s my handsome boy,” she said.
“Mother!” he whined back.
“Are you looking for something to eat, dear?” Mrs. Colbshallow asked Yuah.
“Yes, I’d better eat while I have the chance. You know how she is.”
“Don’t get cheeky,” said her father.
“I’ll get you a nice plate,” the head cook replied, waving over one of the kitchen staff. “You know I think you need to put on a bit of weight. You can’t catch a man if you’re all skin and bones.”
“Don’t worry about that,” said Yuah, sitting down across the table from Saba. “I’m not likely to run into a man around here, and if I did, no man is going to be interested in me.”
Saba’s adoring gaze, which Yuah chose to ignore, said as plainly as words that he thought he was interested and he thought no other man worthy of the position. But it was her father who spoke.
“You’re far too young to worry about a man. Why, you’re barely twenty.”
“I’m twenty three, Papa. Another two years and I’ll be an old maid.”
“Nonsense,” said Mrs. Colbshallow, setting down in front of Yuah a plate with a large sandwich atop a tremendous pile of golden chips. “You’re still young and you can find a man easily enough, if um… well, are you determined that he be of your faith?”
“Of course she is,” said Zeah.
“As long as he has all his parts, I don’t care if he worships apple trees and sacrifices chickens when the moon is full. It’s not as if I’ve been to shrine in years myself.”
Zeah and Yuah belonged to the minority Zaeri religion, a faith that had once been the dominant belief all across Sumir, while Mrs. Colbshallow and her son, and most of the other staff were Kafirites. Kafira Kristos who had lived and died two thousand years before, had been a Zaeri Imam, but her followers had broken away from the main faith upon her death and supposed resurrection. Now millions worshipped her as the Holy Savior and the daughter of God and those ethnic Zur who remained true to their faith and the few converts to the Zaeri religion were the subjects in most places of animosity, prejudice, and discrimination. At least they were in most places outside the Dechantagne home. Miss Dechantagne would brook none of that.
“Excuse me,” said a voice from the doorway. Everyone in the room turned to see Master Terrence leaning nonchalantly against the doorframe. None of the staff were sure just how long he had been standing there. “Mrs. C, could I get one of those sandwiches? I’m really not in the mood to sit through one of Iolanthe’s luncheons.”
Mrs. Colbshallow had the plate in his hands almost before he finished speaking, and though he hadn’t asked for one, she pressed a chilly bottle of beer into his other hand.
“Thanks,” he said, turning and walking out of the servant’s hall. Nobody noticed Yuah giving him just the same sort of look that she had been receiving from young Saba just a few minutes before.