Chapter 2

“I daresay my daughter charmed Queen Charlotte,” a proud Countess of Hartvale announced to a desperate Oliver, who had been listening to her rambling for a solid fifteen minutes, and wanted nothing more than to crawl under a table and pretend to be dead.

His mother had abandoned him with her friends, so she could socialise and reassure the ton on her health and mental state. Rumours had been running rampant, which was to be expected, considering the excuse the Duke had come up with for his wife’s long absence had been less than stellar. “Migraines” did not justify several years of total absence. The truth, however, was best kept private.

The Duchess had fallen prey to melancholy. There had been no rhyme nor reason to it: over the course of two months, with no significant life events nor medical trouble that could have effected her mind, she had gone from a cheerful socialite to a husk of herself. Hollowness had stolen her, and kept her a prisoner for years.

Now, she was back.

Unfortunately, her son was expected to keep attending all the events where he had gone “in her stead”. Once upon a time, his parents had taken pity on him, and he had been allowed to wallow in anxiety at home. Oliver was happy for her, he was, but he would have preferred to be happy for her from the comfort of his cat-inhabited library. At least, the nobles he was forced to interact with were too fascinated by the sound of their own voice to notice he was petrified. Provided he nodded and mumbled a “quite, quite” whenever they paused to breathe, they were satisfied.

“I will introduce you, of course,” the countess went on. “I don’t think you have been introduced yet.”

“Qui—” Oliver caught himself. “No, I don’t believe we have. I would be delighted.”

“She is taking some air with my sister. Please wait here. I’ll fetch them.”

She sashayed away. Oliver breathed out in relief. That had been harrowing. Maybe, if he stood really still, people would mistake him for a coat-hanger and leave him alone until the countess’ return. Just in case, he scooted closer to the curtains. The move placed him right next to a herd of peacocks: fresh Eton escapees dressed like fashion plates, trying to elevate themselves by putting others down. They snickered, chuckled and whispered all matters of gossip, until new prey got their attention.

“Oh boy! Tipsyphone is here. Let’s give her wide berth, lest she wobbles into us.”

Oliver‘s eyes snapped to the man. That’s still going on? He knew some remembered the moniker, but he had assumed that the tormenting had died down. But the gossiping brats didn‘t look a day older than eighteen. They hadn’t been anywhere near the parties where the bullying was taking place! When had they heard of that nickname? Worse, why did they think it was the most acceptable of all jokes?

He took a step forward, ready to dish out a verbal assassination. Then he stopped. Fear had caught up with him and locked up his muscles. He felt faint.

They are kids, Oliver, get over yourself.

He was pathetic. Five teenagers who would have ran off with their tails between their legs if confronted by a future duke, and he couldn’t even muster the strength to open his mouth. Instead, his heart raced, his skin grew clammy, and he could barely breathe.

Why can’t you do it? You worthless coward.

He tried. He tried, he tried, he tried. But every attempt to speak left him overwhelmed, and failure led to frustration, until he felt tears sting his eyes. And he bloody couldn’t weep in public. So, instead of doing the right thing, something a six year old could likely have managed, he retreated to the balcony, and there he remained.

He could still hear the young men.

“Have you heard that she passed out drunk at Ravenford’s ball, last year?”

“For real? My sister went, she didn’t say anything.”

“I heard it from my aunt, who heard it from her friends. She advised me to stay the hell away from Miss Lane, not to be stained by association.”

“She didn’t go, though,” a somewhat nicer boy chimed in. “My mother was there. If there had been something to talk about, we would never have heard the end of it at home.”

“Forget Tipsyphone. Who’s the cute one with her?”

Oliver, who had his back turned to the door and was wiping his eyes as discreetly as possible, paused at that. Maybe Tisiphone had come with a friend, but the likeliest possibility was that her sister was attending her first ball (that Oliver knew about). He breathed in, composed himself, and inched closer to the balcony door. If he stayed back, he could see inside yet remain unnoticed.

The newcomer was indeed Miss Margaret, and she had the room‘s undivided attention. While the scandal-hungry crowd had undoubtedly turned to the Lane sisters hoping for some drama from the eldest, young Margaret, quite simply, drew the eye. Her buttercup yellow dress stood out next to Tisiphone’s dull green one. The teenage girl was prettier, smiled more, and had a fae-like quality to her. That, no doubt, she had inherited from her mother, but she had been luckier with the overall result.

She was also a child, and Oliver had no particular reason to be curious about her, so his attention strayed immediately to Tisiphone.

There was no smile on her face, no innocent sense of wonder. She bore a faraway look, blank and unconcerned. Rather than take in the crowd, she examined the ceiling, or rather stared through it. If she was aware of people gossiping about her, it did not show.

Oliver watched her follow her mother and sister across the room.

If you can’t defend her reputation, at least improve it by asking her to dance. Make yourself useful, for once.

Miss Margaret was already being introduced to eligible gentlemen (or, rather, eligible gentlemen were begging their mothers for introductions instead of dodging them). The dowager viscountess watched it all happen with benevolent grace. And Tisiphone… Nobody paid Tisiphone any attention. She could as well have been invisible.

Alright. Three dozen steps. One sentence. You have done it before.

Oliver started walking.

Tisiphone could hear the laughter the second she entered Lady Lydia‘s ballroom. She caught two hushed “Tipsyphone”, and resolved to die of thirst at some point in the evening. She knew from experience that apple juice would be mistaken for white wine. No. She would not touch any glass, goblet, bowl nor bottle tonight. And no food. There would be no accusations of gluttony. She would stand to the side with the old ladies, and discuss embroidery techniques. She couldn’t embroider to save her life, but she knew the entire vocabulary. She had read several books on the art form.

She had carefully chosen her dress: it was as plain as gowns came, and made for a perfect contrast with Margaret’s yellow one (which Emmeline had bought at great expense, dire financial straits be damned, so her daughter could feel pretty at her first real ball). It worked! Young men were gravitating to Margaret, and Emmeline was sinking her claws into the gross, creepy old men who wanted to try their luck with a seventeen year old debutante. Strangely, as soon as a widow their age showed an interest in them, they scampered.

Emmeline had been crystal clear about older men, from the day they had hit puberty: “When a man attempts to woo a woman much younger than him, it means that women his age want nothing to do with him, always for good reason,” she had told them. “Avoid them at all costs!”

While (thanks to a fiercely protective mother) she had never been plagued by predatory older men, Tisiphone was an expert at avoiding a man at all costs. It was going to come in handy, because Bridgecombe was coming straight for her.

Caught by surprise, she stared at him from across the room. He stared at her from across the room. Never before had they made eye contact. It was bad. At that realisation, Tisiphone snapped out of her trapped doe impersonation.

“Ladies’ room,” she whispered to her mother before bolting. She swerved between the guests, squeezing herself between overly large and unfashionable skirts, violently gesturing gentlemen, and miserable servants just as desperate to navigate the room as she was.

She reached a door. She stepped into a crowded hallway. She… had no clue of where to find the ladies’ room.

No matter. Any room would do, as long as Bridgecombe was not in it.

She peeked back. He had followed her! Well, he’d better have stamina, because she would lose him, one way or another. She zigzagged through a thinning crowd, circling back through side rooms so she could pass behind the earl and, from there, dash to the opposite side of the manor.

While the east wing had not been closed to the guests, it was far from the main entertainment sources: the card games, billiards, smoking and such all took place in the west wing. The east wing had only attracted the elderly who favoured quiet conversation over standing in a stuffy ballroom, and the odd couple attempting to speak privately. Tisiphone followed the hallway to an entirely deserted drawing room. She promptly claimed it for herself, closing the door to discourage guests from coming in.

She sat down on a sofa — blue, like the carpet, the wallpaper, the stools, the curtains and the coffee table — and let out a deep sigh.

What does Bridgecombe want with me?

It was baffling. She should have been entirely beneath his notice. They belonged to entirely different circles of society. Maybe it was about her great-uncle‘s death? His father had send him to relay his condolences, during the funeral. Maybe he had been tasked with some other formality? But, then, wouldn’t Bridgecombe have gone for Emmeline?

She ran her hands over her face.

She ought to return to the ballroom and discuss the situation with her mother.

Bridgecombe was enough of an annoyance for her to have forgotten about the ton for a moment. The ton, much to her dismay, decided to remind her of its existence. There was whispering at the door.

“She‘s in here,” a girlish voice was saying. “I bet she’s blackout drunk.”

Giggles answered that assertion. Tisiphone groaned inwardly.

“That fast? Didn’t she arrive, what, twenty minutes ago?”

“I heard someone saw her sneak into the billiard room and snatch a bottle of whiskey.”

“No, no,” another girl whispered. “My brother told me she keeps a small flask of liquor in her stockings. And then she slips away to drink it.”

Several young ladies gasped. Tisiphone shook her head. She could have opened the door on them and asked them if they needed help, just to see their faces, but it would be pointless. Worse, it could turn into a scene. She looked around. The window was open on the backyard, which seemed quiet enough on this side of the house. She peeked out. Not a soul on the left, not a soul on the right. She could hear echoing voices and laughter from farther away. She would have preferred the silence of death, but there was no helping the situation. She was blessed to find such a quiet area during such a large party.

She collected her skirts and climbed out.

Oliver, when insisting people did not like him, tended to receive an immutable answer from his family: “You are being paranoid,” his father would say. And maybe his father was right most of the time. Who knew? Ollie could not read minds.

Tisiphone Lane fleeing from him, however, tended to indicate she did not hold him in high regard. He had gotten the hint.

As an expert at “fleeing” himself, he knew better than to force a confrontation. So, while he had followed her out of the ballroom and into a crowded hallway, he had stopped at that. Then, he had taken his crippling sense of unease and his diffuse guilt out for some fresh air, like one took a puppy on a walk. Like dogs, intrusive feelings did not like to leave your side, and they required constant attention. Poets compared their mental demons to “old friends” or “constant companions”, but Oliver felt that they were more the kind of presence that peed in your shoes, vomited in your bed, and chewed mercilessly on your insides.

Once outside, he had circled the manor, looking for a quiet place to compose himself. Thankfully, the party-goers crowded the front lawn and the entrances to the ballroom, leaving some areas undisturbed. Finding a lone bench swallowed by high hedges had proved surprisingly easy. A perfect spot to wallow in self-hatred.

Of course, Tisiphone Lane hated him. The stupid rumours had stuck. While he had not encouraged people to harass her, they had taken their initial cue from him, and he had not put his foot down to silence people.

Busy as he was hating himself, he nearly didn’t notice a grey stocking slip through a window. Then, he had to blink and rub his eyes to make sure he was not hallucinating. But no: the stocking came with a leg, a shoe, and a bit of green fabric, and then an entire Miss Tisiphone. She stumbled upon landing in the parterre that lined the wall, regained her balance just in time, then trotted to the closest tree. Hidden under its shade, she checked her surroundings for bystanders, then hurried to the rose garden.

Oliver watched her squeeze herself between the sculpted hedge of the rose parterre and the high hedge of the garden itself, which separated the grounds from the neighbouring estate. She crouched, disappearing behind the vegetation.

So that’s how she always vanishes!

Oliver had not expected someone else to hide in silly places to dodge people. It was his thing, it caused him no small amount of shame, and he believed other people were above such weird behaviour. Seeing Tisiphone use the same tricks made him feel… something. He was not certain what.

Forgetting to be miserable, he stood, careful not to make a sound, and stood on his tiptoes to catch a glimpse of the young woman. If he leaned to the left, he could see the top of her head. The hedge was not that high. She couldn’t possibly be sitting in a comfortable position, unless she had sacrificed her dress to unavoidable grass stains. He leaned a little more to the left.

“Woah,” he gasped when the gravel under his feet slid away, nearly sending him tumbling.

At the sound of his voice, Tisiphone peeked above the decorative hedge. Their eyes met.

Fricking hedge!” he thought he heard her swear before she tumbled back and hit the ground with a THUMP.

Oliver stared. And stared. And stared. When it became clear that she was making no efforts to get up, he started to worry. Maybe she had bashed her head on a decorative rock.

“Um, miss Tisiphone?” he called. There was no answer. Nervous, he inched closer to the rose bushes. “Miss Tisiphone, are you alright?”

He leaned over the bushes and hedge, to find Tisiphone in good health and glaring at him with murderous intent.

“Go. Away,” she snapped, from her prone position on the grass.

Why she was not getting up was a mystery. Maybe she just wanted to lie there and die of embarrassment, a feeling Oliver was well familiar with.

“Do you—” he started, only to be interrupted by someone calling his name. His mother was coming their way.

“Bridgecombe! Bridgecombe, there you are. I’ve been looking for you all over,” she announced. “I knew I would find you here…”

Oliver hastily joined her, so she would not witness Miss Tisiphone’s self-inflicted predicament. “I was just getting some fresh air.”

“We discussed this,” his mother countered, weary. “I know you loathe people, but more time around them will only do you good. And, on another note, it would not do to disrespect our hostess.”

“My apologies. It was awfully stuffy inside, I did not plan to be gone for long.”

“Wonderful. Well then, sweetheart, let us return to the party before my absence is noticed.”

Oliver braced himself. “Yes, mother, of course.”

“You have been in an awfully foul mood since we came home,” Margaret taunted, climbing on Tisiphone’s bed, which Tisiphone was already occupying.

She had been hoping to catch up on her reading before sleeping. So much for that.

“I am in a normal mood,” she stated. “I don’t see what you mean.”

“I mean that there are grass stains on the back of your dress, again, and that you vanished for a whole hour, again. Mama is worried. But I am curious.”

“I slipped in the grass and landed on my back. It still hurts, hence my lack of cheerfulness, but there’s nothing to be concerned about except faint bruises and second hand embarrassment.”

“I saw Bridgecombe go after you,” Margaret insisted. She gave her sister a prolonged look. “Did he do something to you?”

Watch me make a fool of myself and plant myself into vegetation again.

“No, I dodged him all evening. Not everything is about Bridgecombe.” She had to redirect that conversation posthaste. “How did it go for you? Did you get to enjoy the ball?”

“I filled my entire dance card, even with Mama swatting men away like flies. She has high requirements,” Margaret explained, eyes wide. “I was sure she’d offend someone.”

“Mother would not push away someone nice enough to dance with you. She was filtering out the creeps and the louts. If they get offended, well, they only have themselves to blame.”


“Realistic. Did Mother dance?”

“I… I don‘t think so? I was so busy, I couldn’t keep an eye on her.”

Tisiphone sighed. “A shame. I was hoping a nice gentleman would sweep her off her feet.”

“I’d have noticed that, I think.”

“That’s too bad. She deserves to have some fun.”

“Absolutely. I’ll see if I can sell us as a package deal, next time. Surely, all those charming young men have fathers.”

Tisiphone chuckled. “As long as you stick to the widowed. We’re not trying to get Mama into a scandal!”

Margaret blinked. “Right. Right, fathers would be wed. I forgot about that.”

Her sister burst out laughing. Meg’s plans tended to come with major flaws of the sort: she brought a lot of energy to the table, but no attention to detail whatsoever. For some reason — maybe because the absurdity had lifted the stress of the disastrous evening off her shoulders — Tisiphone found the whole thing hilarious.

“Can you imagine the looks on the wives?” she gasped, tears of laughter streaming down her cheeks. She was struggling to breathe. “Oh my goodness.”

“Come on, married men dance with friends all the time,” Margaret giggled. “Or parties would be quite boring.”

“I know, it’s just…” Tisiphone gasped for breath. “The idea…”

Emmeline Lane the vixen, tempting married men with her wanton wiles.

There was no way their mother could seduce a rich man to secure a home for them. She was too sweet, too anxious, and too reasonable for that kind of business. If she found a new husband, it would be slowly, through conversation and a genuine, heartfelt connection. Tisiphone loved her for being willing to try, and wished for her to find love again, but Emmeline’s efforts would not save them. Not in time. Thus, it was time for Tisiphone, the oldest daughter, to get over herself.

She would face Bridgecombe. There would be no more hiding in bushes and closets. She would be the perfect wingwoman for Emmeline and Margaret. She would be the most elegant, most polite, most respectable young lady in the ton and make a name for herself. One that wasn‘t “Tipsyphone”. And, her reputation restored, she would find a suitable match who would not mind having to provide for his wife’s relative, provided she could hold decent conversation about novels, mythology, and historical events.

Margaret waited for her to recover from her hilarity, then grew serious.

“The viscount was there, by the way,” she said.

“What? I did not see him.”

“No, he arrived a little after you scampered. But he left us alone, at least. He just kept giving me the weirdest looks.”

Tisiphone frowned. “What kind of look?”

“The ‘weird’ kind.”

“Meg, sweetheart, you‘ll have to elaborate. A ’mean‘ weird look? An ’angry‘ weird look? A ’puzzled’ weird look?”

Any of those would have been alarming.

“Just… Weird. Like he was surprised I was there?”

Her sister sighed, weary. “That could mean just about anything. Well. He can‘t mess up our lives more than he already did. Let’s just be coolly polite if he interacts with us, and take the high road.”

Anything else could be used against us. Tisiphone was so tired of the ton.

“That‘s what Mama said. I don’t see why we should play nice. I would help my family in their times of need.”

“I know you would. You are the most poorly named Megaera in the history of Megaeras.”

“You make a pretty terrible Tisiphone yourself.”

“I just haven’t found murderers to punish, yet. Maybe I should join the Bow Street Runners.”

“I’ll join with you, as long as the wages are decent.”

The reminder of their financial woes darkened both their moods. Tisiphone shook her head.

“It‘s getting late, Meg. I think we should both get some beauty rest. You’re sure to have callers tomorrow!”

Margaret giggled. “If only. We’ll see. Nobody quite stood out tonight, but maybe conversation will change that.”

“I’m crossing my fingers. Now, out, out. Give me my bed back.”

“Alright, alright, I’m out, out! Good night, Tisi.”

“Good night, Meg.”

Oliver had been summoned to his father’s study. Again.

Romuald of Bridgecombe, duke of Willingshire, was not an angry man. He was more of a patiently disappointed man. It came with being, as he put it, older than death and fond of life. He no longer saw the point in fits of emotion, whatever the emotion, as they brought much exhaustion and little results. Instead, he listened, waited, and reflected. It had served him well so far, but Oliver had often wished he could be yelled at, like any other child. It would have made him feel less guilty.

“Father. You asked to see me,” he muttered as he entered the large study lined with bookshelves, which smelled of old leather, wood wax and silent judgement. “Is anything the matter?”

Romuald removed his spectacles and rose from his seat behind an ancestral mahogany desk. He gestured at the sofas and coffee table. “Take a seat. We should talk.”

Oh no. A heart to heart.

Oliver braced himself, heart racing, and sat at the edge of the brown leather sofa. His father took the armchair facing him, and poured them both some tea from a steaming teapot that had been waiting for them.

“Here, have some,” Romuald offered, looking at his own cup. “I had Brunley try that box of herbs your uncle brought back from India.”

Oliver swallowed and nodded, taking his cup with jittery hands. He hated, hated, hated to disappoint his father.

“Your mother told me you had vanished from the ballroom, last night,” Romuald said. “Did anything happen?”

“Ah. Um. No, no, it was just the heat. I was taking some fresh air, I was about to return when Mother found me. I swear,” Ollie lied.

His father clicked his tongue. “I see.” He took a sip of tea, made faces at the taste, then tried again. “Peculiar flavour, but I’m sure it will grow on me. Oliver. This cannot go on. You know that.”

Oliver lowered his eyes, head, shoulders, and self-esteem.

“I have been trying.”

“I know. I know. And it is clear to me that you are struggling all the same. This won‘t do… I will not live forever. You need to be capable of assuming my duties once I’m gone.”

“Father! You’re only sixty-two!”

“Yes, well, there’s nothing like attending a funeral to remind you of your mortality. And even to obtain immortality… I am not getting any younger, and I tire of my duties. I will not be able to shoulder them alone for long. You will have to step up and assume at least part of them soon.”

Oliver acquiesced. He knew that. “I‘ve been working on the legal correspondence, and the accounting. I’m sure I can also—”

“For those, I can hire solicitors and accountants. Hell, I could handle them myself. Sitting down and reading is not what taxes me, Oliver. It is the trips, the socialising, and Parliament. As I cannot avoid the latter, I would like you to take over the rest.”

“I…” Oliver caught himself shaking his head. He stopped. “I can, I can surely… I mean…”

Romuald sighed and leaned back in his armchair. He closed his eyes. “I know you and your mother struggle with demons,” he said. “Heaven knows I would take them from you, were it in my power. But, just like your mother did those last few years, you will have to fight them yourself. Not on your own, mind you, but… Ultimately, she and I can only support you through your battle, like you supported her through her own.”

A lump had settled in Oliver‘s throat and threatened to suffocate him. He nodded, hands clenched on the fabric of his pants. Romuald was right, of course: he needed to do better, to face his fears, not to be an abject failure. And yet, he had barely managed to get through what little social interactions his mother absolutely needed a substitute for. He couldn’t imagine standing in for the duke, and to do it all the time.

“Do not be so panicked,” Romuald said. “We are not throwing you to the wolves on your own. I have recruited your cousin.”

Oliver froze. His body had already decided to lock up and unleash cold sweats, so he could hardly just react with normal interest. He tried to meet his father’s eyes. It took some effort.

“James,” Romuald clarified. “He is out of Eton, quite bored, and I managed to convince him that studying art in Paris could wait a few months. I happened to have your aunt on my side: she was afraid the boy would run into the arms of gambling and, well. Actual arms belonging to young ladies.”

That did sound a little extreme, even for James. While he was a bit of a dandy who flirted with every breath, he knew how to behave. Oliver raised his eyebrows.

“You know your aunt,” his father went on. “She was always overprotective. In any case, it’s been decided that he would attend the Royal Academy until age twenty-two, which conveniently leaves him free to tag along whenever you attend social gatherings. How does that sound?”

Oliver breathed out. James was everything he was not: extroverted, charming, cheeky, and popular. Whenever he joined a group, he instantly attracted everyone’s attention, which meant disappearing in his shadow had always been easy. Even as a young child, he had outshone Oliver, his own brothers and, occasionally, dukes and duchesses. Now aged twenty, he would likely be the diamond of the season. Well. That was usually a term for debutantes, not strapping young artists. In any case, James was the ideal companion.

“That sounds perfect, Father,” Ollie conceded. “We always got along. But isn’t it a lot to ask from him? Surely, he has his own social events to attend?”

“He is getting something in return. For a start, I’m paying for his enrolment at the Royal Academy. On top of that, while he provides you with exposure to people, you will provide him with exposure to people. For his art, I mean. His mother says it is unique. You will have to recommend it to people.”

“That sounds doable.”

“Wait until you see his works. You haven’t yet, have you?”

“No. I mean, I saw some sketches of his back when he was fourteen, but I expect he improved.”

“Let us just say promoting his artwork will be a perfect opportunity for you to improve your acting.”

Oliver winced. “It cannot be that bad.”

“I am not certain ‘bad’ is an adequate term. It is certainly ‘something’.”

That description was not that worrying: Romuald liked his art classical. James had likely strayed from the ‘religion and mythology’ themes. He could not possibly paint nudes, since Oliver would not have been made to promote lewd content. Maybe James ignored the laws of perspective, or drew really, really weird hands.

“Whatever it is, of course I‘ll praise it! He’s my cousin, Father. It’s only natural for me to help.”

“Perfect. That‘s settled, then. He’ll arrive in town later this week, just in time for you two to attend Earl Whitecove’s gala. Free your evening.”

Oliver swallowed. “Yes, Father.”

Tisiphone knew she had no skill whatsoever with a needle. She had yet to manage an even line of stitching. She had made perfectly functional, but nowhere near rectangular, handkerchiefs. Embroidery was a form of magic fairies had not blessed her with. And yet. Yet. Yet. Some things, she could only do herself, because suffering through the needlework was easier than explaining her intentions to better qualified people.

“Is that a… An egg?” Emmeline asked, looking at Tisiphone’s current work.

Her daughter had hoped to work on this project undisturbed, which was why she had settled in the dining room rather than the drawing room. Alas, having a small house and extroverted relatives meant that they would seek your company and find you with ease. Which was why, instead of taking her own needlework to a comfortable sofa in a bright room, Emmeline had brought her sewing supplies to the gigantic dining table, and sat down right next to Tisiphone. As heartwarming as it was to be loved and cared for, Tisiphone really regretted not having locked herself in her bedroom. Maybe she could still escape and do just that.

“No, Mother, I’m just practising something.”

“Your fabric is bunching together, sweetheart. You mustn‘t pull that hard on the string. Here, give me that glove, I’ll fix it.”

Tisiphone narrowed her eyes. “I am thankful for your help, Mama, but I need to learn to fix my own mistakes at some point.”

“Oh. Yes, why, of course.”

“I can always undo it all,” Tisiphone mumbled. “I’ll start over.”

She did just that, under her mother’s tortured gaze. When she started outlining her gardenia flower again, Emmeline started twitching and raising her hands to stop her at random intervals. It was quite disheartening. True, the flower outline looked like the edges of scrambled eggs. But it would do just fine. Nobody would look closely at the finished product.

“Mama, please, you are making me nervous.”

“I‘m sorry. I’ll, um. I’ll sit elsewhere.”

Emmeline pushed her sewing kit farther down the table. “Do you want some tea or snacks? I’ll call Farrah.”

The housekeeper, one of their two remaining servants, doubled as a maid, butler and cook. The three ladies of the house had long learned to make their own beds, dust their own shelves, and wash their own dishes, for no single person could handle such a workload. But Farrah still baked the best cookies, and she had made a fresh batch the previous day. So, Emmeline’s suggestion was tempting, but tea would come with cookies, and cookies would lure Margaret to the dining room faster than tuna would summon their cat.

“No, thank you.”

“Ah well. More cookies for me, then,” Emmeline said, ringing the bell.

Margaret materialised at the door. “Did I hear ‘cookies’?”

Tisiphone pursed her lips to hold in a sigh. So much for hiding in a quiet room. If she packed up now, Meg would know she was hiding something, and grow curious. Better to put the mauled glove away and start on a new piece. Tisiphone dug through her sewing box for a long abandoned handkerchief in need of finished initials, and tuned out her family as he looked for some thread matching a half-finished T’s colour.

She had nearly forgotten she had company when Meg picked up her glove and gave it a thorough look.

“Is that a gardenia?” she exclaimed.

Not only had the teenager teleported to Tisiphone’s side, Farrah had appeared in the room with a platter of cookies, biscuit and tea, and Emmeline was now back in her seat. Farrah was sitting next to her, as much of an old friend as an employee, after years with their family. With only her and a coachman as staff, nobody would gossip about it.

“It’s a white rose,” Tisiphone said. “Although I need to start over.”

“It doesn’t look much like a rose,” Meg hesitantly commented. “Rose petals form a tighter spiral and—”

“I can‘t draw, let alone embroider,” her sister sighed. “Which is why I gave up on it. I wanted the gloves to be a little fancier at no cost, that’s all, with the overabundance of white thread I have. But that was a doomed idea.”

“I could embroider roses for you!” Emmeline offered, putting down a gorgeous embroidered landscape. “I was getting bored of this piece anyway.”

“And there was mother of pearl rose buttons on my old, fluffy blue dress, remember it? I’ll find it in the attic!”

Tisiphone forced herself to smile. “No need to go through all that effort, I’m not that attached to the idea.”

“It’s no trouble, really!” her mother protested.

“It will take ten minutes at most!” Meg exclaimed.

“I could do it, miss,” Farrah offered. “I have done similar work before.”

It needs* to be gardenias,* Tisiphone nearly yelled. She gently shook her head. “No, thank you. Mama, Meg, Farrah. Didn‘t you two say you would add butterflies to Meg’s ball gown? Why don’t you work on that instead?”

Emmeline froze and acquiesced. They could not afford more than two new ball gowns for Margaret. She had inherited Tisiphone’s old dresses, but those had been out of fashion and had required a lot of alterations. The newest purchases, too, would need some generous touching up. A proper young lady could not be seen wearing the same dress too often.

“Let‘s work on that,” Emmeline conceded. We can’t start too early.

Meg sighed. “I suppose so. It’s just that I love the dress as it is. I can wait a few weeks to wear it again.”

Emmeline drummed her fingers on the table. “You‘ll still need something for the gala on Saturday. I’ll look through my closet. There might be something in there we can use.”

“I have several grass stained gowns that can be used,” Tisiphone pointed out. “I mean, pieces of them. Margaret is much smaller than I am — you are — and you should be able to piece an entire outfit together from what is usable. There’s pretty nice brocade in there, if I remember well.”

“Are you sure?” Meg exclaimed. “We can fix them for you!”

“You are also much thinner than I am. If we take out every grass strain, there won’t be enough skirts left for me to fit my, um, lower body.”

“You’re not fat!”

“I do have good childbearing hips, as they say, while you are as lithe and lovely as they come. I‘m sure you’ll join me in curviness as you age, but right now… Steal the dresses, Meg. It’s a waste to let them rot in a trunk.”

Margaret turned to their mother. “Should we?”

“If your sister insists,” Emmeline agreed. “Although I do wonder what Tisiphone plans to wear.”

“Leave me everything green and dark blue, it’s all I wear anyway. And I might snatch something from your old dresses in the attic. I saw quite a few lovely gowns back when we were dressing up with them as little girls.”

“They’ll be out of style, sweetheart.”

“Mama, as long as I love them, I couldn‘t care less. I’ll feel pretty all the same.”

“Alright, then. So! Why don‘t you two and Farrah go see what you can find, maybe start working on something, even? I’ll head to the kitchen and see what kind of meal I can come up with. Any preferences?”

Farrah stood, concerned. As long as it had been since her employers had begun to handle some chores, she still felt it was improper. “Miss! I‘ll handle dinner, you don’t have to do the cooking!”

Tisiphone smiled. “How to put it… I could help with the sewing, but then Mama is liable to faint at the result. You’d be doing me a huge favour trading places with me. Unless my cooking is that bad. Is it that bad?”

“No, Miss, you‘re getting quite good at it!” Farrah reassured her. “Some more practice, and you’ll be as good as I am.”

“Except for the cookies,” Meg chimed in.

Tisiphone grinned. “Only because I haven‘t managed to steal Farrah’s recipe yet.”

“It‘s my mother’s, miss Tisi,” Farrah teased. “I would have to adopt you.”

“Where do I sign up?”

“You ingrate!” Emmeline proclaimed, gesturing dramatically. “Oh, woe is me, such rejection from the flesh of my flesh.”

They all burst into laughter, with Meg wheezing out a “I would trade you for cookies, Mama”.

“They’re worth it,” their mother conceded.

Farrah puffed her chest a little. “That, they are!”

James‘ atelier was, for the most part, exactly what you expected from a young bachelor’s atelier. There were several easels, each of them with their own painting, be it finished or not. There were paintbrushes in pots, paint pots on the desk and table, drinking glasses used to clean the paintbrushes, drinking glasses once used to drink, and half-drank bottles of various drinks. A small bookshelf had once been used to store important books on art techniques: the books were still there, but the space in front of them had been claimed for more useful items, such as articulated mannequins, sets of pencils and pastels, piled up sketches and old rags stained with ink. Only one thing was amiss: the art.

It is something, alright…

“So,” Oliver said, trying to formulate his next question in a way that would not offend his cousin. “What, um, is that?”

By “that”, he meant the painting he was looking at. It was certainly artistic, in some way. Oliver was no expert on visual arts and was usually not in a position to cast judgement on it, but he felt that even specialists would be somewhat perplexed. The canvas he was looking at was covered in squares. Just squares. Brown squares of various shades, painted with ink, lined with white oil paint. They were more or less aligned, but not quite, and it made it hard to look at them.

“That,” James replied, quite proud of himself, “is ‘Flavours’. My last work.”

“Yes, I can tell, you wrote the title on it. But, what I mean is… What is it?”

James grinned, stepping to the side and gesturing at the piece. “That, Ollie, is tea. Fifty different blends, brewed at perfection, and filtered through the canvas. It is meant to represent, well, flavours.”

“Aaaallright.” Pretty certain he would not see the point of the creation any time soon, Oliver moved on to the next framed painting. That one only depicted a variety of small colour splotches, most of them brownish, with some yellow and pink. It didn’t seem to have any coherent structure. “And this one?”

“‘Spring’. But I have to start over,” James explained, frowning. “A lot of the colours turned brown with time, I‘ll have to refine the process.” At Oliver’s baffled look, he elaborated. “It’s crushed flower petals. The most common kinds of spring flowers. Buttercups, and so on.”


“I, um, see,” Oliver commented. He did not, as a matter of fact, “see”. Desperate to find one piece that could be presented to the regular art aficionado, he turned to the last framed artwork in the room. It was a blank canvas. At the centre, if you squinted, you could see a minuscule grey blob.

“Look closer,” James said.

His cousin did. Upon examination, the “blob” seemed to be an oil-painted grain of rice. “Is that rice?”



“So. This piece is called…” Once again, James gestured towards the piece, and more precisely its title. “It‘s named ’Starvation‘. It’s the representation of a general concept and feeling.”

Oliver pressed his hands to his lips. He breathed in. The extra air did not bring him enlightenment. “James,” he said. “James, James. We need to brainstorm.”

The aspiring young artist grinned. “Is something the matter?”

Ollie turned to him, eyes wide. “You are making statements.

“Why, yes, I am.”

“I cannot promote statements, James. We need to figure out a strategy for what I can tell people because, so far, the best I can come up with is ‘creative’ and ‘different’. No one in the ton wants ‘different’.” He paused. “Have you considered still-life paintings?”




“Naked young ladies?”

“Come on, conceptual artwork has a place.”

“On carpet, James. Can’t you at least paint some kind of plant with tea, instead of squares? It would appeal to people more.”

“And here I thought I could count on my family to encourage me. How hurtful you are.”

“I am not here to judge your talent nor your creativity, I am here to figure out how to sell your art to the ton. And, trust me… Actually, you don’t need to trust me, you know it full well, because this is you messing with art snobs… The ton will run away from this.”

“I for one think they would welcome some novelty. You just have to find the right angle!”

“I do not do angles! The only ‘angle’ I concern myself about is any stranger’s angle of vision, and how to stay out of it.”

“We’ll work on that.”

James seemed entirely too smug. It occurred to Oliver that he meant the promotion of his work to be difficult: James had no issue speaking up for himself and charming people. He was a natural at socialisation. He could get a statue to smile at him with a few witty words. This was practice. For Oliver. His cousin and his father had likely come up with that plan together. He groaned.

“Come on, let‘s discuss this in a more comfortable setting,” James said, patting his shoulder. “I need to stop using my chairs as extra shelves. My club is two streets away, let’s go!”

Ollie tensed at the mention of a club. His first instinct was to refuse, but he was supposed to work on that. So he waited, neither accepting nor rejecting the suggestion.

James wrapped his arm around his shoulders. “It‘s a small club. Barely any customers. You’ll like it.”

I won’t, Oliver thought. But they still went.

The place was indeed quite empty, but not as much as he would have liked: a dozen customers were spread across the room, in groups of three at most, some of which were talking quite loudly. It was still possible to sit well away from them, with smaller alcoves at the back, which was where James headed.

“Look at those wonderfully large tables,” he exclaimed. “And well lit. I come here to draw, it’s quite practical, and less lonely than the atelier.”

Oliver, who had never considered “less lonely” to be a perk of anything, ever, nodded. He sat down, nervous, and inspected his nails. He would have to order, which meant he had to decide on a drink that the place was likely to serve, without having to ask questions to the waiter. The place seemed lower class than what he was used to, and the bottles on the bar’s shelves were not from brands he recognized. Tea. The club was bound to serve tea. And any regular beverage. Why would you think they would not?

Meanwhile, James was making himself comfortable. He stretched, then waved at the bartender, who replied with a short wave of his own.

“I‘ll be with you in a second, Robinson. Who’s your friend?”

“My cousin, Bridgecombe. I figured I’d show him the finest establishment in London.”

“Flattery will not get you discounts, you know?” The bartender turned to Oliver. “Welcome, Lord Bridgecombe. I hope you’ll find the place to your liking.”

Ollie swallowed. “I am sure I will. P-pleased to meet you.”

With a growing anxiety, he watched the man leave his post and come to their table. Was he expecting a conversation? James certainly was trying to start some.

“There was no flattery involved. I gave him the plain truth!”

“I‘m sure you did. I’m Loxley,” the bartender introduced himself, turning to Oliver. “Fitzgeralt Loxley, founder of the Oak Barrel. We opened two years ago and are yet to acquire a significant clientele, but we pride ourselves on the quality of our, well, liquor and snacks. And that’s it for the selling pitch. Glad to see a new face around here.”

Oliver smiled. He knew he was expected to show some polite interest, to ask questions about the business, the ‘liquors and snacks’, and Loxley himself, but nothing came to mind. “Glad to discover this club,” he replied.

If the owner expected a longer response, he did not show it. “So, what will you be having?” he asked. When James opened his mouth, he nodded at him. “Yes, Robinson, you’ll have your cherry liquor and your coffee. What about you, Lord Bridgecombe? Might I interest you in—”

“Tea,” Ollie blurted out. “I, um. Tea will suffice. Thank you.”

“Alright. Anything else, my lord?”

“Not for me. And you?” Oliver asked James.

“No, no, Loxley knows me well. Thanks, Loxley.”

The man returned to the bar, leaving them to work on the much necessary brainstorming. James pulled out a notebook and a pencil, then leaned back in his chair. “So. What were your ideas? Keywords, feelings, compliments?”

“You could not even align the squares right. ‘Disturbing’, that’s my first keyword.”

“Admit I start over but use a ruler. There. Aligned squares. How would you sell that piece?”

“Ugh. ‘Novel’. ‘Unique’. ‘Everything but square’.”

“Oooh, wordplay! I like it,” James commented, writing all of that down.

“An artist thinking out of the box, focusing on the sheer emotion rather than trite details. Elicits curiosity and teases the mind. Makes you question the blah, blah, blah. I cannot do this.”

“I for one think you should work at an art gallery. Or maybe write pamphlets, something of the sort. You do nail the vapid puffing up of the advertised item.”

Ollie groaned. “This is not fair. Why would you want to make me lie to people?”

“There is no such thing as a false description of something subjective. Just be sincere. No, I‘m joking. Lie. You’re to become a duke someday. You‘ll have to lie through your teeth to royalty! I mean, I hear it’s recommended around Prinny.”

“You sure know how to cheer people up.”

“I am too honest to lie to you.”

“He says, as he lies to me.”

James laughed. Loxley arrived at that moment to serve their drinks, distracting Oliver from the conversation. As his cousin and the bartender chatted for a bit, his thoughts drifted. They came back in sharp focus when someone, two tables away, started complaining to his companion in an obnoxiously loud voice.

“I had to rent an apartment to stay in town,” he was saying. “Those three women are so entitled, it would be a pain to have to live with them. Even though I own their house, mind you.”

He sounded familiar. Oliver had heard that voice before, and recently at that. He kept listening, just so he could place the man.

“You can‘t imagine all they cost my father, over time. They milked him as best as they could, and he was too blind to see it. That harpy of a woman — my cousin’s wife, I mean — quickly figured out there was more to gain playing the helpless damsel than to try to rebuild a life. She could have remarried at any time. There were offers. Anyway! I gave them an ultimatum, with a quite generous deadline, and I expect them to vacate the place or to be made to leave.”


How disgraceful of the viscount to badmouth his relatives in public. Oliver also doubted the veracity of those claims. He had never heard any criticism of Emmeline Lane. While Miss Tisiphone was the topic of no small amount of awful rumours, her mother was known as a good-natured, somewhat clumsy woman who got along with about everyone. So what was this about?

James snapped him out of his thoughts by shoving his notebook in his hands. “I wrote down everything we discussed, right?”

Oliver looked down. Rather than a list of terrible selling points for artistic statements disguised as paintings, a single sentence was written on the page: “Are we spying?”.

What?” he gasped. He shook his head frantically.

James grinned. “Alright then. Loxley, do you have playing cards laying around? I’m of a mind to destroy my cousin at piquet.”

Not a minute later, he was proudly dealing the cards, while repeatedly tilting his head towards Russelby, whose ramblings hadn’t grown any quieter. He had moved on to the topic of Tisiphone herself.

“I can‘t believe she still shows herself in public, after so thoroughly ruining our family’s good name. And her mother allows it!”

“How old is she now?” Russelby‘s companion asked. “I feel like I’ve spent ten years hearing of her.”

“Twenty-one. Out for four years, not a match in sight. Nobody wants a drunkard,” the viscount sighed. “I have no idea what to do with her. The youngest, though. She has not caused scandals. Yet. I‘ll arrange a match for her before she can ruin her chances. She made a decent enough impression at her last outing, I received a few inquiries. I’m expecting yet another large expense to convince some poor sod to take her and the two cursed furies, but at least they’ll be done bleeding the family dry.”

“Good luck with that,” the other man snorted. “The eldest has quite the reputation. A fury indeed.”

“Her sister will get to blame her for her lack of options, then. She doesn‘t need to marry a gentleman, merely a man with enough income to support the tree of them. She can’t hope for a prince with a palace in London.”

They both laughed at that statement, while Oliver clenched his teeth and glared down at his cards. The new viscount was a piece of work, and he worried about young Margaret, who could expect to be coerced into a marriage she didn‘t want. The young lady didn’t look a day older than seventeen. Would she have the backbone to refuse, when her entire family’s safety lay in the balance?

Was she even aware that she was being discussed in this way, like cattle to be sold, by a distant relative that loathed her? Arranged marriages were the norm in the ton, but Miss Margaret could not count on her father’s caring judgement, and her mother was likely to be overruled. And she was perfectly lovely. She had every chance to make a great match, given suitable time to get to know her suitors and develop a real relationship. An “ultimatum” would rob her of that.

“Well! I wish you luck with your parasites,” Russelby‘s friend exclaimed, slapping his thighs and getting up from his chair. “My solicitor is going to bill me double if I do not show up. I’ll see you on Saturday!”

The viscount raised his glass. “Take care.”

As the “spying operation” was now complete, James abandoned his lukewarm attempt to fake a game of Piquet. He slammed his cards on the table. “I give up. Trust the French to invent the worst games. We should have war prisoners play this as torture.”

The entire room turned to them. There was some laughter, some glasses raised. Oliver, sweating bullets, quietly collected the cards and reordered them, getting the deck all nice and aligned before putting it back inside its box. He let James chat amicably about Waterloo with one of the other customers, and tried to make himself invisible. If he didn’t look their way, they would not ask for his opinion. Hopefully.

He was making himself look busy by sipping his tea when James’s conversation ended. He turned back to Ollie.

“Both men are gone,” he said. “So, who was the charming gentleman?”

“That was the new viscount of Russelby. His father recently passed. I’m afraid his family is rather worse off for the wear.”

“Do you know the ladies he was talking about?”

Oliver gawked at him. Having recently learned that Tisiphone Lane was the prime gossip topic for the ton, he was under the impression that everyone knew he was the starting point of the rumours. “It‘s… It’s a long story,” he replied, avoiding James’ eyes. “I do not know them personally, but I heard a lot about them.”

“I did hear some stories about Miss Tisiphone.”

“Yes, you would have. She had an unfortunate moment of clumsiness years ago, and it snowballed from there. But trust me when I say there is no truth to those rumours whatsoever.”

James mulled over it. “Worth paying closer attention to the whole situation with her cousin, then.”

“That… James, I have a favour to ask of you. How many respectable friends between the ages of seventeen and twenty do you have?”