15 August, 1867, Thursday
Lady Katherine’s townhouse
Dorset Square, London
A little past noon
The doublings were gathered around the table in the parlor, a delectable smattering of cakes and tea laid out for them. His face suitable composed and his fond smile removed, Dionyius started into the room and was stopped dead in his tracks. The wrap, Catherine was sitting there in her daywrap as if she were—. He felt his head begin to swim and reached for the doorframe to steady himself and summon the strength to scold her.
"My lady," the hobbit said, pointedly shifting his gaze from Catherine to Josephine, pointedly washing his eyes across Ezekiel without registering his existence. "Madame has been done a disservice. I think she wishes now to begin the learning of her cover story. Fiction, alas, is so much more demanding then fact." The hobbit stepped aside, as the ladies exited in a flurry of sleep clothes and middle class frumpery. Turning to close the door to the drawing room behind them, the spins around again, and smiles embarrassedly at Ezekiel. "Monsieur Drake, you startle me. I did not see you come in by another route. Your timing is impeccable. You nearly had the misfortune of seeing Mademoiselle unready for company."
Josephine followed in Katherine’s footsteps past the first floor and entered the hushed privacy of the second. The bedrooms would be here, if the townhouse followed convention, and she took in the details as she went. The ground floor had been finished in opulent wood paneling and oil paintings, with huge vases of flowers on occasional tables and jewel-toned Persian carpets underfoot. There were mementoes from foreign travels on display liberally sprinkled amongst the artwork, running the gamut from stuffed trophies from hunting trips to exotic weapons from aboriginal lands. Josephine recognized several paintings in the Pre-Raphaelite manner and thought the figures in them looked remarkably Eldren. Landscapes and still lifes made up the rest of the collection. Everything was arranged to show off the wealth and cultured tastes of the Fleming household, unequivocally meant to impress.
The first floor with the dining room and drawing room was likewise opulent but in a more subtle way, with the intent to facilitate genteel conversation rather than to impress and stimulate the senses. Materials and colors reflected that choice, though nothing Josephine saw was one whit less expensive or tasteful than
anything on the main floor.
It was the second floor where the difference was the most marked. Again, elegance and exquisite taste reigned, but in an even more restrained manner. Here the inhabitants would withdraw for the day to relax and shed all the petty concerns inflicted by living to gain respite and strength for the morrow. As such, everything was geared toward comfort, with a significant serving of sensuality in the silk pile of the carpets, the muted satin papering the walls, the soft gleam of polished wood and the bright accents of crystal, ormolu, and porcelain. Bowls of potpourri scented the air with vanilla and orange blossom and despite the hour being just past high noon, the light was muted, tamed by the double layer of sheers draping the windows at either end of the hall.
Attention to detail was meticulous, right down to the most ubiquitous item, Josephine noticed, as Katherine put her hand to the latch and opened her bedroom door. Nothing squeaked or clacked, everything operated with silent and well-oiled efficiency. She crossed the threshold in her friend’s footsteps, closed the door, and turned to regard the room.
The room was decorated in forest greens and burgundies, deep roses, blues, and ivory. From the draperies on the windows to the hangings on the large mahogany bed, the patterns on the materials around the room were either covered in cabbage roses, ferns, and wild flowers or the birds that would play among them. All the colors were the colors of the forests and meadows, and the carvings on the furniture followed that motif. The spray of flowers which decorated one of the marble-topped tables was carefully arranged in a way that bespoke of disorder, as if the blooms had been randomly picked from a meadow and overgrown garden. Two swords hung by the doorway, crossed over a coat of arms, but there was no dust on them and they were hung lower than if they were merely the presentation of family pride. A careful perusal of the artwork showed that Katherine had a penchant for nature and animals, horses and embroidery. A small draped table near the window was decorated with a crystal decanter of water and glasses and a comfortable chair sat nearby as if it were common for the lady to have refreshment while looking outside. The matching chair was nearby, but not present at the table. Katherine smiled sheepishly and shrugged. "It is not much. But there should be room if you wish that a bed be brought in for you."
Josephine took everything in with one intense sweep of the room, noting the entrances and exits and inwardly approving of the swords over the door.
"Is it customary to have a personal maid sleeping in the same room with her mistress? I confess I am not that well-versed with convention to know."
Josephine moved further into the room, touching things here and there with a fingertip as she went.
"No, but you are not a conventional lady," Katherine replied, shedding her wrap and then taking off her shirt and pantaloons. She then went to where her underthings lay on the bed.
Katherine shimmied into the second layer of underthings, using the busk to fasten her corset in place with a grunt. "I suppose it could be laced tighter," she announced regretfully. "But I'm a bit more into comfort. Could you help me with the bustle and then get the blue day dress. I suppose that we're leaving the house today for something and Neecy would want me dressed appropriately."
Josephine’s years of frantic backstage costume changes had worn away any body prudery, as did the close quarters she and the troupe occupied while on the road. The sight of Katherine walking practically naked in her presence didn’t faze her a bit. Instead, Josephine quickly catalogued the details and filed them away for future reference and habit had her going through her mental inventory of William’s costume collection as if Katherine were a member of his troupe. Beatrice’s frock from the finale, she thought. Maybe Petruccio’s Kate. Although the Eldren woman certainly had a much nicer temper than Shakespeare’s shrew. At Katherine’s request for assistance, Josephine nodded and went to the wardrobe and opened it up.
“Of course,” she said, looking inside and pulling out the dress in question. “It’s lovely. I just hope that our excursion to Miss Dashwood’s proves less hazardous to your wardrobe than our more recent outings have been.”
Katherine grinned. "Well that is a much tougher dress. That's why I wanted it." She waited for the dress and then went through the contortions necessary to get it on, buttoned and smoothed and the folds shaken into place.
Josephine buttoned the last button and twitched the bustle back into place, then moved to inspect Katherine's front. Bodice and basque were perfectly aligned, the drapery of the overskirt and underskirt falling exactly as it should.
"It is a good choice, mistress." Josephine eyed the material and nodded. "Twill is sturdier than lawn would be. Will you take a parasol with you? The sun is quite up."
The answering sigh was deep. "Yes. That is a wonderful idea. I cannot get freckled, at least more than I managed when I was young. Could you do my hair or shall I call my regular maid? The curl irons should already be heating on the firegrate."
“I can do your hair if you don’t mind something simple,” Josephine said. “William preferred to use wigs for elaborate coiffures. If that cannot suit, I shall call your maid up if you’d rather.”
"No, I prefer simple." She went to her dressing table and held up a bristle hairbrush. "She usually uses the pearl combs with this dress and if we just wet the bangs on my forehead, they will curl on their own." Settling onto the velvet seat, she waited in front of the mirror. "Would it be wrong if we left a few long curls in the back? Having it all piled on my head just seems too oppressive for today. There is so much of it. I think I envy those women who need hair pieces."
Josephine took up the brush with a quirk of a grin.
"And those ladies would envy you your freedom from their lack. It is the way of the world: the hair is always prettier on someone else's head." So saying, Josephine took the lustrous mass of Katherine's hair in one hand and starting at the ends, worked her way slowly up to the woman's scalp. Her strokes with the brush were firm and assured, her grip on Katherine's hair gentle yet deftly guarding against pulling and yanking from the snarls. "Yours is really lovely," Josephine said after a few minutes, admiring the play of light on the auburn strands. "Your father must be very proud of the figure you cut in it."
"It's his hair," Katherine answered with a smile. "Well, maybe the darker shade of red is partly my mother's doing. Father's is a bit brighter." She had always enjoyed having her hair brushed. Maybe it reminded her of what she might had shared with her mother had she not died. But she had always enjoyed the process. "Red hair is a curse among the Eldren," she volunteered after a few moments of contentment. "I'm supposed to be drawn to and quite talented in the Dark Arts."
"I don't believe it," she added quickly, not wanting the brushing to stop. Eldren had always been uneasy around her; hopefully humans didn't secretly share the superstition.
"Ah," Josephine said. She smiled at Katherine's reflection in the mirror. "Among humans, red hair has the reputation for being fiery, passionate, amorous, and flighty. And stubborn. As for brown hair," Josephine twitched her brows and shoulders in an eloquent shrug. "It counts for nothing much. Blonde is preferred, or ravenswing black. By those standards, I'm as plain as dirt."
"No!" Katherine exclaimed, turning her head to look at her. "You're beautiful! And strong and resourceful. And brave!"
The brush paused in Katherine's hair and resumed its steady rhythm a beat later. Josephine breathed against the sudden stab of ... what? guilt? gratitude? that Katherine's sudden staunch support had inflicted. Knowing the woman's eyes were on her, Josephine forced herself to meet Katherine's gaze in the mirror and told her the truth.
"I never really thought of myself as beautiful. I've had to be so many other things that I couldn't afford the distraction." She stopped herself from saying the words, being merely decorative would cost me. It was an insult to smart and brave and resourceful beautiful women everywhere. Josephine wasn't blind to her strengths or her weaknesses and she knew that the past decade had honed her in a way that a conventional life could never have, and so honesty forced her to admit:
"I will allow I've had to be strong and resourceful and I try to be as brave as possible. But beautiful? I am afraid that I don't quite follow you. It is certainly not a word that polite society would apply to someone like myself. My background would preclude it and it certainly has placed demands on me that have made such accolades irrelevant. Not that I am belittling your opinion, my lady. Far from it. I am merely trying to explain my position and, I must admit, my surprise that you would find me thus."
She would have tilted her head, but it would have made Josephine's job harder. "You are quite lovely, Josephine. If you do not believe yourself beautiful, then so be it. But I won't let you see yourself as anything less than lovely." As the brush continued down her hair, she was silent, studying the other woman's face in the mirror. It was lovely and quite determined and Josephine radiated a sense of confidence that most women would envy. It made what she had felt downstairs all the more strange. Katherine pressed her lips together for a moment, finding the words, and then stated softly, "I apologize for the offense that Ezekiel gave you. I assume that I can take that responsibility now. It is so unlike him to have done such a thing, but I can only say that we are all short on sleep and beg your indulgence."
Again the brush faltered and again Josephine recovered.
"The fault was mine." Josephine said to Katherine in the mirror. "Our talk had turned to swordplay and training and I quite inadvertently put him in an awkward position, one that I would normally have avoided had I better control of my enthusiasm to learn. It would have been unseemly for him to tutor me. He is your fiancé and his position is a delicate one. He gave me to understand that he must be vigilant against the slightest suggestion of impropriety. The merest hint of scandal would be sufficient to force him to withdraw his suit to marry you and both your happiness would be quite ruined."
Josephine ceased brushing and cast her eyes down, then up again.
"I was upset, Katherine, because I had not fully considered that possibility and like a thoughtless greedy child I had forced Mr. Drake to tell me in bald terms the limits of our association. It made him look churlish and ungentlemanly and he so clearly is neither of these things by choice or nature. My indiscretion lessened him and I was ashamed. That is why you found me in the hall. The offense was mine and I could scarce allow myself to remain in his company."
Katherine flushed and alien beauty of her Eldren eyes was overcome by the feline coldness they could portray. "The limits?" she asked softly, after far too long a moment. "I don't understand. You are friends. What limits would there be? How would your friendship endanger us both?" She forced a smile, but the mirror gave lie to its sincerity.
Josephine saw the change shifting behind Katherine's expression and a grue ran down her spine. Katherine had never seemed so foreign and other than that instant. It was rather like unexpectedly finding a cobra in one's lingerie drawer, demanding caution and respect at once, and Josephine instinctively went on guard.
Steady on. Breathe. Think.
"He said...." Josephine closed her eyes and called up the conversation from memory, and recited:
"'I would have no problem teaching the fine art of swordsmanship to a woman, should she be willing. However, you have caught me in a rough spot. The condition of the engagement (and of Sir John) requires no impropriety in the eyes of England. And as you well know, England's sight is not confined to the isle, but stretches across the channel. If there is a way to do this without risking what has suddenly become quite precious to me, then I will help, for it would serve our cause.'"
Josephine opened her eyes.
"You must understand, he did not repudiate me. I put him in a position to refuse what he normally would not have, given his Chartist convictions. I made him aware of the restrictions imposed on him and furthermore, made him disappoint a friend because of it. I had put him in an untenable position as a gentleman by forcing him to remind me of the strictures that bind him, little though he liked it.
"He went on to say, 'If you think me so weak as to be blown over by a stiff breeze or to be offended by a simple, well-meaning request, then perhaps you would prefer to abandon what friendship has begun to form. On the other hand, perhaps I do not wish to end a friendship with a woman whom Katherine is quite fond of and whom I am enjoying the company of. Time, Madam Arceneaux. It is on the side of Katherine and myself and it is on your side as well. At least in this matter.'
"And as I told him, 'It matters not what I think. In matters of scandal, perception is everything and just or not, the court of public opinion holds sway. I am more grateful than I can express that you regard me worthy of your friendship, Mr. Drake, and I hope you shall continue to do so. I confess I am unaccustomed to more than the nobility, sir, but to many things that you and Lady Katherine take for granted. There are more rules and regulations between men and women here than I have had to observe for some time and I fear I will stumble again before I can adjust to the new order. Pray do not allow friendship to stand in the way of reminding me of it.'
"So you see, it was as I said--part misunderstanding, part truth, but the fault is still mine. In all fairness, I cannot fault his logic. The only way we could pursue training is if we could ensure a practice space completely secured from unwanted witnesses. I do not know how that can be achieved while we are on the road."
She knew that her eyes were glittering, the metallic colour pronounced in the way that she had only seen in her father's eyes against others and not herself. She took a calming breath. Josephine was trying to keep from impropriety; she had no designs on Ezekiel other than his skill and time. The older woman was much more aware of the rules and restrictions than she. Instead of blindly stumbling forth after innocently asking for instruction as she herself would have done, the poor thing had recognized what society would have seen. Josephine and Ezekiel showed wisdom that she was still too young to accept, an awareness of the rules that Katherine had had the ease of having Neecy distill for her. Maybe she could offer the instruction that she had promised Ezekiel to Josephine instead. She was overwhelmed with a rush of pride and love for Ezekiel's strength of character and his love for her. Quite precious Josephine had said. She smiled and her face and eyes finally relaxed. "You have quite the memory, Josephine. I've seen it twice now. I wish that I had it." Her cheeks colored lightly. "You are my friend. I have no right to question you or your motives. What is between you and Ezekiel is between you both, not me and I should not make either of you report to me. He is a man, sans reproache, and I fear that my love of him has jaded my vision. Forgive me." She looked at her lap in shame. "I could teach you weapons. . .downstairs. I dance with blades down there. It is why the servants aren't to be found currently and won't be back for another hour."
A puzzle piece slid into place with a near audible click! in Josephine's head, even as relief at having dodged the bullet made her knees weak. Knowing Katherine's eyes were on her and feeling her own conscience's keen needling for withholding the rest of her conversation with Ezekiel, Josephine went to her knees before Katherine and pressed her forehead to the other woman's lap.
"Thank you for understanding. Not many would have the honesty and magnanimity to do so," Josephine said fervently, completely without falsehood or guile. She truly was grateful and relieved. As for the rest of the conversation, that portion that nearly undid her—Do not fear the word love, Madame Arceneaux. It is one of the great human emotions and a true gift from the divine...—that was a matter Katherine had consigned to remain between Josephine and Ezekiel, and Josephine resolved to have it remain that way. It was advice, she firmly told herself, nothing more. Now get up and do your job.
Taking a deep breath, Josephine schooled her expression to reveal nothing but gratitude and rose.
"If you could find a way to teach me, Lady Katherine, I would be most grateful and keen to learn. Thank you for this.” She set the brush down on the vanity and lifted the glorious mass of red hair in her hands, holding it up and gauging the line of Katherine’s cheekbones and chin. “Would you prefer a French Twist? I can let the excess hang below it as you wished earlier. It would strain your scalp less yet still cover your neck as modesty demands and frame your face becomingly besides."
"That would be lovely. I defer to your expertise." She gave Josephine a weak but warm smile. As the moments passed, she was feeling more and more guilty about her suspicions. The woman had prostrated herself in her lap. She would have to watch herself lest she permanently insult the woman. There would be no forgiveness then and Ezekiel would be quite upset with her. She cast her eyes down to her lap and was silent for a while.
Working with Katherine's hair settled Josephine, smoothing the last of the jagged edges off her nerves. She'd done her share of hairdressing with William's crew and just for a moment, she was back in the costume wagon, setting Elsie's hair for her role. Memory served, habit helped, and Josephine deftly devised the style she'd described. Katherine's hair had a fair amount of wave to it and fell becomingly from the twist just as Josephine suspected it would.
"We can dispense with the irons, I think. It's a crime, really, to fry your hair. It really is." She leaned down and put her chin on Katherine's shoulder, and smiled at their faces in the mirror. "You look wonderful. Ezekiel would have to be blind not to notice you. Now, let's set your fringe."
The picture in the mirror was disorienting for a moment, a two-headed creature of the forests, with eyes that were haunted by different realities. And though she was aware that her people were held in awe by the humans, she was more used to being shunned by her own race. The idea that Ezekiel would want her rather than one of his own peoples was still a wonderful and surprising idea that made her giddy with happiness to consider. She studied the other woman's face with her rounded ears and rounded eyes with their rounded pupils and wondered if she saw things differently with different shades. Would Ezekiel have chosen her had circumstances not dictated otherwise? She feared to ask him lest the answer be "yes." Her heart skipped a beat as her mouth opened and she asked what came unbidden from her mouth, allowing her insecurity to take form in words. "Does Ezekiel really love me or is he in love with the idea of me?" She regretted the words as soon as they were spoken, as if a taboo had been broken and the demon released forth would destroy her.
There was no anticipating it, no time to shield herself. Katherine's question lanced through her and Josephine shut her eyes and grit her teeth and bore it, knowing her expression would tell Katherine everything she'd refused to acknowledge. There was no hiding how she felt about Ezekiel now, no hope of putting an acceptable face on it. With a deep breath, Josephine gave Katherine's shoulders a squeeze, straightened, and turned away.
"He does," she said softly to the general air of the room, unable to look Katherine in the eye as she spoke. "He might be, in addition to loving the reality of you. There really was no chance of any other outcome."
"Josephine?" An eyebrow quirked with confused concern but the face underneath was transformed with joy as it turned from the mirror to look at her. "You mean it? Truly?”
The joy and the hope in Katherine’s voice made Josephine want to weep. Truth refused denial, justice demanded affirmation, and friendship required nothing less than both. Josephine bowed her head and acknowledged it.
“Yes,” she said. She shoved her loss away in a box, locked it up tight, and faced Katherine. “I do.”
She swept Josephine up in her arms, hugging her with mad exuberance. "Oh!" she cried out, spinning with her. She released her and then plopped ungracefully back onto the seat with a laugh. "We will find a place wherever we are so that we may practice swords, Josephine. I think that we will need to have our skill well honed for what is to come and I may learn teaching you what I have learned from Sadif. And we will both learn from Ezekiel even if we have to have Neecy watch us in horror; he can still chaperone us!" She turned to Josephine. "I suppose that we should hurry and not keep them waiting."
Josephine froze when Katherine grabbed her up in that exuberant hug, twitching into a fighter's response before common sense caught up with her. So she let herself be spun and managed a reciprocal smile to Katherine's laugh. The pain of her confession still lingered, biting and deep, but Josephine had herself in hand now and ably moved forward. They had important things to do and the day was not getting any younger ... or their quarry any closer.
"I look forward to it, my lady. Thank you for that." Josephine took up an atomizer of water and poised it over Katherine's bangs. "And yes, let's not keep them waiting. Close your eyes."
Josephine gave the woman's hair a good squirt and picked up the comb.
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