Purple and white streamers covered the walls and large arrangements of aster and anemone flowers were everywhere. High up on the wall across from the entrance was a very large number 52, made of the latter.
Iolanthe looked around at almost everyone she knew. Some were turning toward the lizzie servants who were passing out dinks, but most were watching her. She could see Yuah and Gladys just at the left edge of her field of view.
“Thank you, everyone,” she said. “Please drink and eat and enjoy yourselves.” Turning and fixing a stern look at Yuah, she asked, “Whose idea was this?”
“It was Maria’s, of course,” said Gladys, nodding toward the far end of the room. “She is the lady of the house.”
Iolanthe spotted Maria standing next to Augie, who was filling his plate from a wide variety of finger foods laid out on a long banquet table. They were the center of a little group that included Zoantheria, the Stephenson boys, and a number of others in their age group. Iolanthe strode quickly across the room. She could sense Yuah and her partner in crime following.
“Maria,” Iolanthe snapped. “What is the meaning of all this?”
“Well, it is your birthday, Auntie. Such an event calls for a celebration. I thought you would like it.”
“I don’t like it,” said Iolanthe. “I love it. Come and give me a hug.”
The two of them embraced and then kissed each other on the cheek.
“You are such a dear girl, really more of a daughter than a niece.”
“I feel the same way,” said Maria, “though I shall continue to call you Auntie. Otherwise it would be confusing. Isn’t that right, Mother?” she asked Yuah.
Yuah turned and started for the room exit, only to be intercepted by her father and his wife. Gladys stared through her wire-framed glasses at Maria for a long moment before turning and following.
“The food is really excellent, Auntie,” said Augie. “My wife will be happy to prepare a plate for you.”
“I shall eat in a bit, thank you, Augustus. Right now, I have some people to visit with.”
“Oh, our musicians are ready!” cried Maria, hurrying to the southeast corner of the great room, where even now the members of a string quartet were taking their places.
Iolanthe turned and walked in the other direction toward a group that included her secretary Mrs. Wardlaw.
Zoantheria slid over and pressed herself against Augie’s side. She picked up a tiny pasty from his plate and fed it to him.
“You’re Auntie seems pleased with the party.”
“I had my doubts,” he said, “but apparently Maria knew her mind on the subject after all.”
“Are you excited about your baby?”
“Yes, of course. It’s still some months away.”
“And are you excited about seeing your sister?”
“Not in the same way.” He smiled. “I have to admit that I’m quite chuffed about Earthworm coming home. She’s been away too long.”
“You two were very close.”
“Closer than any brother and sister I’ve ever known. A product, no doubt, of our being so close in age. It will be good very to see her.”
Across the room, Iolanthe was finishing the small talk she had been engaged in with Mrs. Wardlaw and turned to see Yuah trying to disengage from her father so that she could leave the room. She was about to follow her and force her to stay, when a hand on her shoulder stopped her. She turned to find Senta in a green evening gown.
“Lovely party. I admire the way you’ve embraced your years.”
“Senta. This is perfect timing. My sister-in-law is trying to sneak out. Can you make her stay?”
“I could, but I like her… much more than I like you.”
“How about Gladys?” asked Iolanthe. “How do you feel about her?”
“Oh, Miss Molly?” smirked the sorceress. “I could definitely play with her a bit. I suppose if Yuah gets caught in the crossfire, no real harm.” She pointed toward the two women, who by this time had reached the exit. “Uuthanum.”
Iolanthe watched as the two women stepped out the north entrance, only to immediately reenter the room from the east entrance, a good fifty feet away. Yuah turned around immediately only to reappear again at the on the north side of the room. Gladys apparently figured it out first and entered the room from where she was, to meet Yuah in the ballroom’s center.
The two consulted, casting sideways glances toward where Iolanthe still stood with Senta. Then they stepped toward the food tables and began talking with Zoey. The dragon in human form glanced toward the sorceress and then shook her head.
“Trying to get her to dispel my magic?” said Senta. “I think not. I think not.”
As the musicians began to play, Iolanthe and Senta were joined by Maria.
“Hello, Senta. I’m so glad you were able to be here.”
“I wouldn’t have missed it.”
“How was it, Auntie? I’m sorry about advertising your age, but she did insist on it.”
“That’s all right,” said Iolanthe. “It’s not as if it was a state secret. Thank you for letting me in on their little plan to humiliate me.”
“You know it was that Gladys, really,” said Maria.
“Perhaps,” said Iolanthe. “Don’t you worry about it. Come. Let’s go talk with the Stephensons.”