She was reclining across a Mirsannan divan. She wore a long, flowing silk gown that completely covered her charms, though on the wall directly above her was a photograph of her and her mother reclining on the same piece of furniture—both nude. She reached up to rub her long, exposed neck. Then she ran her hand over her head, her blond tresses about the same length as his own red hair.
“Of course not,” she smiled. “I want you to be here. These girls today are my oldest and dearest friends and they’ll want to see you. Afterwards you can run along so that they can all tell me how jealous they are.”
“What about yesterday?”
“That was different. It was more of an obligation. I know that Graham’s sister will see me with you sooner or later, but I didn’t want to throw it in her face the moment I got back.”
“It’s been a long time,” he said. “He’s been gone a long time.”
“Almost four years, but when I see Gaylene, it’s like it was yesterday. Not like now—now it feels like it was eons ago. It’s a kind of magic, you know.”
“So I’m invited?”
“You’re more than invited. How did they say it when you were in the navy? You’re requested and required. You can skip out tomorrow if you like. The same girls will be back again, along with some others. But you have to be here the day after. The governor and her family are coming.”
“Oh, yes. You’re living in sin with a very important mucky-muck.”
“Should I dress?” he asked.
“We always dress for tea in this house—unless we don’t.”
He stared at her for a moment, and then shrugged his shoulders and left the room. Senta knew he was going upstairs to dress. He had been given over for his own use one of the thirty rooms in the three-story mansion, but he had spent both nights in Senta’s bed. Looking up at the clock, she decided that she should dress too.
Climbing the stairs still causes a pain in her chest where she had been shot, but it was the only time now that she thought about it. At the top of the sweeping staircase, she waved her hand, magically summoning her lizzie dressing maid. The deep olive reptilian appeared from a room at the end of the hall and met her as she stepped into her boudoir.
One of only three servants in the house as of yet, Aggie was new. Cheery the butler, and Thonass the maid had worked for Senta for years and had taken care of the house while she was away. Thonass had given Aggie the recommendation. They were from the same family—or what passed for family among the lizzies.
“Something pretty today,” she told the reptilian. “Bring me my yellow and white striped day dress.”
The dress was a traditional one. Cut for a medium-sized bustle, the skirt was vertically lined with broad yellow and white stripes while the bodice was a solid yellow with puffy frills of lace around the high neck and at the end of each long sleeve. She topped off the ensemble with yellow emeralds dangling from her pierced ears. She slipped a ring on her right hand that featured a yellow garnet. It was practically worthless, but she had purchased it in Bangdorf because she thought it was pretty.
“Nice,” said the dressing maid.
“I was just thinking the same thing,” said Baxter, stepping into the room. He was sharp in his grey suit. He was always sharp.
“Thank you, kind sir,” she said with a curtsey. “Shall we go down?”
Suddenly the baby began fussing from her crib in the next room.
“I’ll be down in a minute,” said Baxter, following her cries.
“Hmm,” she murmured, observing him. Then she turned to the dressing maid. “I’m going down to set up. Tell Thonass to find me.”
In the dining room, Senta found the table set with the everyday china, but the food for the afternoon tea filled several wooden crates stacked nearby. Having no one to cook and no one really to serve, she had ordered the tea catered from Café Etta.
“Uuthanum,” she said and the food began flying out of the crates, soaring around the room, and landing on the appropriate plates and serving platters. A spice cake was coming into a landing in the center of the table with Thonass stepped into the room.
“Take this envelope,” said Senta, retrieving the stated item from the lamp table along the wall. “Deliver it to the employment agency at the Department of Lizzie Affairs. It is a list of the other servants I shall need.”
“Yess,” said the lizzie.
As Thonass was going out, Cheery was coming in.
“Guests,” he said.
“Bring them on into the dining room please.”
The reptilian stepped out and came back a few seconds later leading three young women.
“Senta!” squealed Hero Markham, rushing forward and wrapping her arms around the sorceress’s waist. “I’ve missed you so much! Look at your hair. You look like a boy.”
“Well it’s good to be appreciated. You look wonderful. How’s the baby?”
“She’s beautiful too,” said Gabrielle Bassett from behind Hero. She looks just like her mother.
Taller than Hero, though still shorter than Senta, Gabrielle was radiantly beautiful with sparkling blue eyes and ash brown hair. Behind her stood the third young woman. Dutty Morris was attractive but not pretty. Though her widely spaced eyes gave her a kind of blank expression, she was witty and kind.
“Hello, Gabby,” said Senta, disentangling herself from Hero and giving the other two girls quick kisses on the cheek. “Hi Dutty. Thanks for coming yesterday.”
“It was my pleasure,” said Dutty. “And I didn’t give away any of your secrets either.”
“What secrets?” asked Gabby and Hero at the same time.
“Let’s sit down,” said Senta. “I don’t want the food to go bad. I didn’t expect the weather to be this warm.”
The four women took seats on either side of the table. Neither Gabby nor Dutty gave any sign that they had noticed them, but Hero kept looking toward a fifth place setting at the table’s head, next to which sat a high chair.
“So why did she get invited yesterday?” asked Gabby, pointing at Dutty. “Hero’s your oldest friend, and I’m a much better conversationalist than this one.”
“I will concede both those points,” said Senta. “But I had tea with Gaylene and she and Dutty are about as close as you can get.”
“I’ve think I’ve just been insulted,” said Dutty.
“You have been, twice,” said Gabby. “So you wanted her here because Gaylene hates you?”
“She doesn’t hate her,” said Dutty “It’s just a complicated relationship.”
“You see?” said Senta. “She’s like the minister of state.”
“Never mind that,” said Hero, pointing to the empty seat. “What’s this then?”
“She has a man,” said Dutty, and then slapped her hand over her mouth. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t help it. I haven’t seen him though, but I did smell his aftershave on her yesterday.”