Heartless (Parasol Protectorate #4)

Chapter 11

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“I find myself curious as to the activities of the lower orders. No insult intended, my dear Ivy, but even as the mistress of your own troupe, and clientele notwithstanding, you will have a certain amount of contact with less savory elements of London society. I would appreciate?.?.?.?information?.?.?.?with regards to these elements on occasion.”

Mrs. Tunstell was overcome with such joy upon hearing this that she was moved to dab at one eye with an embroidered handkerchief. “Why, Alexia, my dear, have you undertaken an interest in scandal mongering at last? Oh, it is too much. Too wonderful.”

Even prior to her marriage, Miss Ivy Hisselpenny’s social position had prevented her from attending events of high standing, while Miss Alexia Tarabotti had suffered under the yoke of just such events. As far as Ivy was concerned, this yielded up a poor quality and quantity of gossip. The Alexia of her girlhood had not been curious about the interpersonal relationships of others, let alone their dress and manners.

The handkerchief lowered and Ivy’s face became suffused with a naive cunning. “Is there anything in particular you wish me to look out for?”

“Why, Ivy!”

Mrs. Tunstell sipped her tea coquettishly.

Lady Maccon took the plunge. “As a matter of fact, there have been rumors of late with regards to a threat upon a certain peer of the realm. I cannot say more, but if you wouldn’t mind?”

“Well, I did hear Lord Blingchester’s carriage was to be decommissioned.”

“No, Ivy, not that kind of threat.”

“And the Duchess of Snodgrove’s chambermaid was so incensed recently that she indicated she might actually not affix her hat properly for the midsummer ball.”

“No, not quite that either. But this is all intriguing information. I should appreciate your continued conversation and company even after your evolved circumstances.”

Ivy closed her eyes and took a small breath. “Oh, Alexia, how kind of you. I did fear?.?.?.” She flipped open a fan and fluttered it in an excess of sentimental feeling. “I did fear that once Tunny and I launched this endeavor, you would be unwilling to continue the association. After all, I intend to perhaps take on some small roles myself. Tunny thinks I may have dramatic talent. Being seen to take tea with the wife of an actor is one thing, but taking tea with the actress herself is quite another.”

Lady Maccon shifted forward as much as possible and stretched out a hand to rest softly atop Mrs. Tunstell’s. “Ivy, I would never even consider it. Let us say no more on the subject.”

Ivy seemed to feel the time had come to move on to yet another pertinent bit of news. “I did have one other thing to relate to you, my dear Alexia. As you may have surmised, I have had to give over my position as assistant to Madame Lefoux. Of course, I shall miss the society of all those lovely hats, but I was there just the other evening when a very peculiar event occurred. Given your husband’s state, I immediately thought of you.”

“How very perspicacious.” Much to her own amazement, Lady Maccon had found that Mrs. Tunstell, a lady of little society and less apparent sense, often had the most surprising things to relate. Knowing well that the best encouragement was to say nothing, Alexia drank her tea and gave Ivy a dark-eyed look of interest.

“Well, you should never believe it, but I ran into a scepter in the street.”

“A scepter?.?.?.?what, like the queen’s?”

“Oh, no, you know what I mean. A ghost. Me, can you imagine? Right through it I went, all la-di-da. I could hardly countenance it. I was completely unnerved. After I had recovered my capacities, I realized the poor thing was a tad absent of good sense. Subsequent to much inane burbling, she did manage to articulate some information. She seemed peculiarly attracted to my parasol, which I was carrying at night only because my business with Madame Lefoux had taken longer than expected. Otherwise, you understand, I have always found your habit of toting daytime accessories at all hours highly esoteric. Never mind that. This ghost seemed peculiarly interested in my parasol. Kept asking about it. Wanted to know if it did anything, apart from shield me from the sun, of course. I informed her flat out that the only person I knew who boasted a parasol that extruded things was my dear friend Lady Maccon. You remember I saw yours emit when we were traveling in the north? Well, I told this to the ghost in no unceremonious terms, at which point she got most stimulated and asked as to your current whereabouts. Well, since she was a ghost and, as such, tethered within a shortened area of the location, I saw no reason not to relay your new address to her. It was all very odd. And she kept repeating the most peculiar turn of phrase, regarding a cephalopod.”

“Oh, indeed? What exactly did she say, Ivy?”

“ ‘The octopus is inequitable,’ or some such drivel.” Ivy looked as though she might continue her discussion, except at that moment she caught sight of Felicity through the open parlor door.

“Alexia, your sister appears to be most unbalanced. I am quite convinced I just observed her wearing a lemon-yellow knit shawl. With a fringe. Going out into public. I cannot countenance it.”

Lady Maccon closed her eyes and shook her head. “Never mind that now, Ivy.”

“Convinced, I tell you. How remarkable.”

“Anything more about the ghost, Ivy?”

“I think it might have had something to do with the OBO.”

This comment brought Alexia up short. “What did you just say?”

“The Order of the Brass Octopus—you must have heard of it.”

Lady Maccon blinked in shock and put her hand to her stomach where the infant-inconvenience kicked out in surprise as well. “Of course I have heard of it, Ivy. The question is, how have you?”

“Oh, Alexia, I have been working for Madame Lefoux for positively ages. She has been traveling overmuch of late, and her appearance can be very distracting, but I am not so unobservant as all that. I am well aware that when she is in town, she undertakes fewer hat-orientated activities than hat-focused ones. She runs an underground contrivance chamber as I understand it.”

“She told you?”

“Not exactly. If Madame Lefoux prefers to keep things a secret, who am I to gainsay her? But I did look inside some of those hatboxes of hers, and they do not always contain hats. I did inquire as to the specifics, and Madame Lefoux assured me it was better if I not become involved. However, Alexia, I wouldn’t want you to think me ignorant. Tunny and I do talk about such things, and I have eyes enough in my head to observe, even if I do not always understand.”

“I apologize for doubting you, Ivy.”

Ivy looked wistful. “Perhaps one day you, too, will take me into your confidence.”

“Oh, Ivy, I—”

Ivy held up a hand. “When you are quite ready, of course.”

Alexia sighed. “Speaking of which, you must excuse me. This news about the ghost, it is of no little importance. I must consult my husband’s Beta immediately.”

Ivy looked about. “But it is daylight.”

“Sometimes even werewolves are awake during the day. When the situation demands it. Conall is asleep, so Professor Lyall is probably awake and at his duties.”

“Is a cephalopod so dire as all that?”

“I am afraid it might be. If you would excuse me, Ivy?”

“Of course.”

“I shall inform Floote about the little matter of my patronage. He will set you up right and proper with the necessary pecuniary advance.”

Ivy grabbed at Lady Maccon’s hand as she passed. “Oh, thank you, Alexia.”

Alexia was as good as her word, going immediately to Floote and issuing him with instructions. Then, in the interest of economy and perhaps saving herself a trip to BUR, she casually asked, “Is there a local OBO chapter in this area? I understand it is quite the secret society but thought perhaps you might know.”

Floote gave her a meditative look. “Yes, madam, a block over. I noticed the marking just after you began visiting with Lord Akeldama.”

“Marking, Floote?”

“Yes, madam. There is a brass octopus on the door handle. Number eighty-eight.”

CHAPTER FIVE

The Lair of the Octopus

Number 88 was not a very impressive domicile. In fact, it was one of the least elegant in the neighborhood. While its immediate neighbors were nothing when compared to Lord Akeldama’s abode, they still put their very best brick forward. They acknowledged, in an entirely unspoken way, that they were denizens of the most fashionable residential area in London and that architecture and grounds should earn this accolade. Number eighty-eight was altogether shabby by comparison. Its paint was not exactly peeling, but it was faded, and its garden was overgrown with herbs gone to seed and lettuces that had bolted.

Scientists, thought Alexia as she made her way up the front steps and pulled the bell rope. She wore her worst dress, altered to compensate for her stomach and made of a worsted fabric somewhere between dishwater brown and green. She couldn’t remember why she’d originally purchased the poor sad thing—probably to upset her mother. She had even borrowed one of Felicity’s ugly shawls, despite the fact that the day was too warm for such a conceit. With the addition of a full white mob cap and a very humble expression, she looked every inch the housekeeper she wished to portray.

The butler who answered her knock seemed to feel the same, for he did not even question her status. His demeanor was one of pedantic pleasantness, exacerbated by a round jolliness customarily encountered among bakers or butchers not butlers. He sported a stout neck and a head of wildly bushy white hair that called to mind nothing so much as a cauliflower.

“Good afternoon,” said Alexia, bobbing a curtsy. “I heard your establishment was in need of new staff, and I have come to inquire about the position.”

The butler looked her up and down, pursing his lips. “We did lose our cook several weeks ago. We have been doing fine with a temporary, and we certainly don’t wish to take on someone in your condition. You can understand that.” It was said kindly, but most firmly, and meant to discourage.

Alexia stiffened her spine. “Oh, yes, sir. My lying-in shouldn’t be a day over a fortnight, and I do make the best calf’s-feet jelly you will ever taste.” Alexia took a gamble with that. The butler looked like the kind of man who liked jelly, his shape being of the jelly inclination already.

She was right. His squinty eyes lit with pleasure. “Oh, well, if that is the case. Have you references?”

“The very best, from Lady Maccon herself, sir.”

“Indeed? How comprehensive is your knowledge of herbs and spices? Our gentlemen residents, you understand, are mostly bachelors. Their table requirements are simple, but their extracurricular requests can be a tad esoteric.”

Alexia pretended shock.

The butler made haste to correct any miscommunication. “Oh, no, no, nothing like that. They simply may ask for quantities of dried herbs for their experiments. They are all men of intellect.”

“Ah. As to that, my knowledge is unequaled by any I have ever met before or since.” Alexia was rather enjoying bragging about things about which she knew absolutely nothing.

“I should find that very hard to believe. Our previous cook was a renowned expert in the medicinal arts. However, do come in, Mrs.?.?.?.??”

Alexia scrabbled for a name, then came up with the best she could at short notice. “Floote. Mrs. Floote.”

This butler didn’t seem to know her butler, for his expression did not alter at the improbability of such a pairing as Floote and Alexia. He merely ushered her inside and led her down and into the kitchen.

It was like no kitchen Alexia had ever seen. Not that she had spent much time in kitchens, but she felt she was at least familiar with the general expectations of such a utilitarian room. This one was pristinely clean and boasted not only the requisite number of pots and pans, but also steam devices, one or two massive measuring buckets, and what looked like glass jars filled with specimen samples lining the counters. It resembled the combination of a bottling factory, a brewery, and Madame Lefoux’s contrivance chamber.

Alexia made no attempt to disguise her astonishment—any normal housekeeper would be as surprised as she upon seeing such a strange cooking arena. “My goodness, what a peculiar arrangement of furnishings and utensils.”

They were alone in the kitchen, and it was just that time of the afternoon when most household staff had a brief moment to satisfy their own concerns before the tea was called for.

“Ah, yes, our previous cook had some interest in other endeavors apart from meal preparation. She was a kind of intellectual herself, if you would allow such a thing in a female. My employers sometimes encourage aberrant behavior.”

Alexia, having spent a goodly number of years immersed in books and having attended many Royal Society presentations, not to mention her intimacy with Madame Lefoux, could indeed allow such things in females, but in her current guise forbore to say so. Instead, she looked around in silence. Only to notice a prevalence of octopuses. They were positively everywhere, stamped onto jar lids and labels, etched into the handles of iron skillets, engraved onto the sides of copper pots, and even pressed into the top of a vat of soap set out to harden on a sideboard.

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