"And so I speak unto thee, my followers, and tell you this; in secret, thou must work to spread doubt and disbelief among the followers of the religions of the world. Whisper unto the ears of the learned, and teach them to ask really hard-to-answer questions which push the limits of dogma. Spread malicious lies about the clergy, if thou canst not find inconvenient truths to blackmail them with. And above all, act to cast down the festival of the Silver Pentacle. Let its name not be spoken in its holy time! Let its icons not be shown to children! Let the old wicked festivals of the darkness and of the cold times re-emerge. Thus I command thee! Go forth and do my bidding!"
– Athe, speaking to his cultists
"Hello?" A tentative knock roused Louise from her torment of paperwork. It was entering its third agonising day, and she was beginning to suspect that Gnarl might have been sneaking extra bits of paper into her 'to do' pile when she took toilet breaks. "Are you busy?"
"Of course not, your highness," Louise said, putting her quill down and working her hand. "Please, come in."
"Oh, very nice," Henrietta said, shuffling through the door. "So this is, what? Your scribing-things office?"
Louise looked over at Princess Henrietta, and swallowed. "Um. What are you wearing? Under that dressing gown, I mean? Is that one of Jessica's… things?"
Henrietta smoothed down her black shirt, emblazoned with burning runes. "This? Yes, it is. And I'm not entirely sure what it is. She was taking my measurements and then I needed to… uh, go to relieve myself, but we didn't want to have to put all my skirts back on, so she went and found some clothes of hers which she said had shrunk and didn't fit her anymore." Henrietta lowered her voice. "I think it's more she… uh, was a little wide for them," she said, with a hint of giggle. "But they certainly are a bit tight in some ways," she said, pointing.
Louise followed her finger. The burning runes were, now she looked closer, somewhat stretched.
"It'd probably be like a tent on you," Henrietta said. "Jessica has narrower shoulders than me and that makes it tight around the chest too."
Louise coughed. "I see," she mumbled. "So… uh. Is it going well? I would have seen more of you, but the day before yesterday I spent the evening," Louise blushed, "well, I got a little carried away reading a new book I purchased on lightning magic, and yesterday evening I had to go enslave a tribe of goblins which Gnarl reported were moving through the outer edges of the swamp." She glowered. "It was not how I planned to spend the evening."
"Oh my! All that time, tromping around through foulness. Were there many frogs?"
"Far too many," Louise said glumly. "But enough about that. How is Jessica?"
"Oh yes, she's a very nice girl," Henrietta said happily. "We're getting on well."
The evil overlady of vile darkness relaxed slightly. She had worried that Henrietta's innate righteousness might rankle with Jessica's likewise innate mild depravity.
"Well, she's taken my measurements and we've agreed on a first draft design," Henrietta continued, "so she let me out to go to the toilets and have something to eat, while she works at it. And then I thought I'd go find you instead. Have you lunched?" She looked at Louise assessingly, taking in the bags under her eyes. "Or breakfasted, for that matter?"
Louise winced. "I have it delivered here when I'm working like this," she admitted. She waved her hand over the tray on her desk. "I still have some things leftover; please, feel free."
Henrietta's hand went to her mouth. "My goodness!" she said. "Louise Françoise, you are working so hard at this!" she said, moving in to hoover up the last remnants of the food. "And how do you get grapes in winter?"
"Uh… I think they come from Abyssal hothouses. Apparently they have ways of growing southern crops all year around." Probably by burning damned souls, Louise didn't say. She didn't know that for sure, and they were very good grapes. "As I said, feel free," she said, somewhat late as Henrietta had already stripped the stem bare. "I have… yuck," she said expressively, gesturing over the mounds of paper which lay before her.
Henrietta picked up one of the envelopes from the top of the 'in' pile, and slit it open with her thumbnail. After chewing firmly and swallowing, she coughed, and said, "So what's this, then?"
"Oh, goodness knows," Louise said, sighing and holding her head in her hands. "The letters started coming as soon as I announced that I'd kidnapped you, and since the journals came out… well, they haven't stopped. It's dreadful! How many of them do I need to say 'no, I'm not going to go and talk to you and tell you all sorts of things about my plans and my goals and… and what kind of armour I wear and things like that'… how many times do I need to say that? I don't want to talk to crowds in hell! Especially not so their nasty journal writers can write down everything I say? What possible reason could they have for doing that, I ask you? They're clearly up to something!"
"Breathe, Louise Françoise," Henrietta said, frowning as she read the letter.
Louise remembered to breathe, the redness in her face fading. It then re-appeared somewhat as she realised she was being dreadfully rude by using Princess Henrietta as a person to vent all her anger and frustration at her day-to-day life on. She was acting in a truly shocking manner! "I am dreadfully sorry to be ranting like this to you," she apologised hastily.
Henrietta sighed. "Louise Françoise," she said, "why do you appear to be turning down all these chances to impress and intimidate the damned souls of the Abyss? Look at this! You are most cordially invited to a personal one on one interview with the editor of Kolasipolitan, to be drawn and give you a chance to spread your word through the Abyss. Surely that is worth doing? After all, the Council is frightfully strong, no?"
"I'll deal with it myself," Louise said. "Without having to talk to them."
"Jessica said that it is a very reputable journal," Henrietta said.
"Jessica says many things," Louise retorted. "She probably really meant 'refutable', anyway."
"But this just appears to be the Infernal equivalent of royal pronouncements," Henrietta said. "Or, indeed, the messages that your own dear parents convey to those who owe loyalty to them. This would be, by my admittedly limited understanding, a customary part of your role as a wicked overlady."
Louise failed to find an answer to that, and settled for crossing her arms. "Well… well I don't have to the things I don't want to, and that's that," she said, tossing her hair back. The matter settled, she went back to her paperwork, sulking.
"She's doing what?" Jessica exploded. It was more than just a metaphor; the shadowy wings tearing out of her back providing a rather literal component to the description.
Henrietta leaned back, away from the rapidly demonising figure before her. "She's…" she sniffed, eyes reddening, "she's not wanting to go to do the… I c-can't remember the words, but we were talking about it when we… we…" Henrietta started to cry, "when we read all those journals…"
"Argh! That girl! How… how dare she!" Jessica began to smoulder, heat radiating off her. There was a ripping noise as her shirt split at the seams, revealing a well-muscled, broad, masculine chest, and her boots tore open to reveal hooves. "Doesn't she know what she's doing? I told her! I told her!" Jessica gave a luxuriant and alluring glare at Henrietta. "I told you, too, but you're not being stupid about it! Which is something that's not… not fucking stupid! Argh!" she bellowed deeply.
"I tried to talk to her," Henrietta blubbered, "but she… she… she shrugged me off and didn'twanttotalk!"
"… wait." Jessica raised a gnarled, clawed finger. "Time out. This is weird. I'll just get back to shouting at Lou in a moment, but why are you crying and… you know, not trying to tear all my clothes off?"
"I… I l-look at you," Henrietta blubbered, "and all I c-c-can think of is my poor sw-sweet prince! And how they killed him!"
Jessica raised a devilishly handsome eyebrow. "True love. Wow. Huh. Never encountered that sort of thing before, but I've heard of the tales." She shifted awkwardly. "Look… uh," she dug through her pockets, "would you like to borrow a hanky?"
Henrietta took the offered rag, and blew her nose. "I… I…" she managed, and broke down again.
Jessica rubbed the back of her neck, looking very embarrassed and also gorgeous in a sensitive way as a man confident enough in himself to show weakness. "Wow. Um. Awkward. And there's no way I'm going to have it out with Louise looking like this, because we'll just end up… uh, well, I'll have to run away, and she's probably learned some kind of binding magic or something so that might cause problems. Look, uh, I'll just go lock myself in my bathroom and calm down, and then shave off this goatee, and we'll try to talk about this calmly."
There was a honking noise as Henrietta tried to clear her nose, and failed.
Half an hour later, Jessica emerged with some small bits of paper stuck to her chin. "Feeling better?" she asked. "Less heartbroken that your one true love is gone and that you'll never love another man and stuff like that?"
Henrietta nodded mutely.
"Okay. Let's try this again. And… uh, tell me if I'm starting to make you sad." Jessica sighed, stretching out. "I worry about Lou," she said frankly. "She's gifted, but she's so inexperienced, even after a year. She's a prodigy at dark magic, scheming, and controlling her kinda-small legion, but she just doesn't get the social side of things. Like, I've tried to hint to her that she should go to more parties and publicise her things more, but she's this strange mix of brash and cautious which… well, she doesn't get the wrong way of doing things. And doesn't want to learn. You know her better; how can I help her?"
Henrietta wrapped the blanket closer around herself. "She's my oldest friend," she said. "My only friend, too, if I'm to be quite honest. I mean, I had other playmates as a child, but most of the others… well, you could tell that they were just playing with me because their parents told them they had to be nice to the crown princess. I think she was lonely, too. She was always happy to see me, and never wanted to leave. Especially as she got older and the other royal playmates made fun of her behind her back. Of course, I had the nursemaids spank them for that, but then they stopped playing with me. And my mother told me I was being rude by protecting my friend, can you believe that?"
"Aww, man, that sucks. I know just how that feels," Jessica said, her shoulders slumping. "Guess things are just as bad up in the topworld, too. I was always the half-blood as a kid. Which is totally not fair, for your information, because lots of succubae are half-bloods, but people don't call them that as long as they're girls!"
"Huh. I suppose I'd never thought of it like that," Henrietta said. "But Louise Françoise… well." She rolled her shoulders. "She was always quite shy and quiet, and very protective of her friends. She's got quite a temper, and as she got older, I got the feeling that around other people she got to relying on her temper to make people take her seriously, because… well, come on. Have you seen her? I would not have pinned her as someone to stomp around in steel."
"She's adorable," Jessica said, grinning. "So cute!"
"Yes. She's petite, slight, and pretty," Henrietta agreed. She sighed. "Prettier than me. She's slender and doesn't have blocky shoulders and fat calves. I put on muscle at a snap which means my dresses never sit quite right, and I've got big bones on top of that. Louise Françoise takes after her mother, and the duchess de la Vallière is the most elegant woman I've ever seen." She shuddered. "Scary, though. She moves like a tiger. One of the kings of Ind sent one as a gift to my mother, you know. They're beautiful animals, but scary."
"She worries about her mother," Jessica said, shaking her head. "Which is entirely sensible, because no one wants the Heavy Wind after them, but it's more than that. She has pictures of her up in her planning room, and I've talked with her sister and… well, I think she loves her. And is scared of her."
"Her sister?" Henrietta asked, frowning. "Excuse me? Is Eleanore involved in this too? Well, I wouldn't put it past her. I've heard some tales of what she gets up to in Amstreldamme, and… well, I have to say, she sounds like a dangerous woman."
"Nah, I was talking about Catt," Jessica said, standing up and pouring herself another drink. "Want one?"
"Thank you very much," Henrietta said. "Cattleya's involved in this? Well, that is a surprise. I've met her a few times, but she's sickly. She can't even go out of the house. I would say it is jolly irresponsible for Louise to have involved her in that. But no, now that you mention it, Louise did mention that in passing yesterday. She said she was in Bruxelles at the moment."
"Yeah," Jessica said, passing her the glass, "you should probably talk to Lou about that. Or Catt herself when she gets back." She sat back up on the chair, crossing her legs. "So, anyway, thanks for that. I want to help Lou, because I like her, but… well, you've seen what I'm like. I was raised by Dad in the Abyss; I don't really know how you upsiders live, so I don't really know where she's coming from when she says a lot of things. Like, I have no fucking idea why she's so bloody repressed about everything? I could put her in some amazing dresses, but she just refuses anything that doesn't cover her up!"
Henrietta blushed at the profanity, and then broke into giggles. "That's most likely because of her family," she said, when she had got herself under control. "The thing you must remember about the de la Vallière family is that they are by bloodline and deed perhaps the most wicked and depraved family in all of Tristain… nay, possibly in all of Halkeginia. Their trick as a family has always been that they're fanatically royalist, and so my ancestors have always ignored their little habits because they always paid their taxes – and are fanatically rich – and have saved the kingdom several times. Or… uh, have joined in those little hobbies if they were some of my less reputable ancestors."
She paused and tilted her head. "Admittedly, the things they did to the people threatening it is not suitable material for any well-bred ladies to be talking about – unless they are of the de la Vallière family, at least – but previous kings and queens always preferred to have a thoroughly nasty family like that on their side. Just look at her paternal grandparents; her grandfather once put down a peasant revolt which had killed the local lord and was marching on Ghent by using blood magic to force the peasants to murder each other in their sleep, and her grandmother – or so I heard – sacrificed babies to keep her youth and poisoned traitors to the crown on the orders of my grandfather. Or possibly the other way around, I forget.
"But Louise's father was a disgrace to the family, and ran away and joined the Manticore Knights. He met her mother there, and the thing about the two of them is that they're Heroes, despite the bloodline. From some of the things Louise has said, I think they've been scared that she or her sisters might turn out like their ancestors."
Jessica snorted. "Hah. Pretty grounded fears, it seems. But she's just not bad enough at being Evil… or least, the wrong kind of wrong," Henrietta went slightly cross-eyed as she tried to decode that sentence, but Jessica continued anyway, "which means she needs help! And lots of it!"
"Well, she is a friend," Henrietta said slowly, "and she did get me out of that awful, awful jail my wretched mother shut me in, so I suppose I should help her somewhat. I am a princess, after all, and I have my honour. And part of that is making the Council suffer for the scurrilous lies they spread about me! How dare they!"
"Wow. So you and your prince never… you know?"
"I remain a pure virgin of the royal blood of Brimir!" Henrietta declared triumphantly, putting her hands on her hips. "We were very careful to make sure of that. It would have been very wrong for us to act in such an inappropriate way as to make love before we were married!"
"And as a princess, I am expected to deal with subordinates and handle the nobility, so I have been trained for certain things she has not. Before he died, my father was very clear that any well-bred princess should know how to handle a treasury and understand trade and the production of goods, defend herself against bandits, speak in public, avoid poisoned confectionary, fight in duels against evil sorcerous witch-kings, dance without causing a scandal, not get her best friend bitten by snakes, have an understanding of decoration which can be applied to all sorts of things, and many other minor skills like that." Henrietta squared her jaw. "And my mother, who is stupid and weak, never countermanded the orders which set up my lessons."
Jessica tapped her fingers against her teeth. "Hmm. Yes. A plan appears. She's sort of shy and doesn't like speaking. You're trained for it. You're her friend and willing to act in her worst interests. So clearly we need you to dress up as her and carry out her public speaking for her!" Jessica declared loudly, pumping her fist in the air.
There was a silence, as the two girls mentally compared Henrietta's figure to Louise, and the improbability that Henrietta could ever manage to fit into Louise's plate armour.
"Yeah, that was a rubbish idea," Jessica said, speaking for both of them. "Like, garbage-tier. Total crap. I have no idea what I was thinking. Or even if I was thinking at all. Got anything better?"
The sun was already setting when Cattleya arrived back, a clog-wearing redheaded and very pale commoner thrown over one shoulder. "I am exhausted!" she declared, putting her burden down. "You know, I've been up all day!" She patted the commoner on the shoulder. "There you go, Hellene! I told you we'd get back!"
Louise looked up from her unceasing piles of paperwork. She was sure that the pile had got larger last time she had gone to the toilet. She was planning to ask some very sharp questions of Gnarl, but he was nowhere to be seen.
She was beginning to think that he was lurking somewhere invisibly.
However, at the moment, she had rather more pressing and relevant concerns. Like the fact that her sister had just barged through her door and had several crudely patched holes in her clothes.
"Are you all right?" she asked, voice rising.
"Oh, fine, fine," Cattleya said cheerfully. "Mustn't grumble. Well, I got stabbed a few times and shot a bit and some dreadfully rude person set me on fire, but don't worry! The fire went out when I threw myself in a well while screaming. My clothes are more damaged than I am, though. Well, now. I was sort of slightly a mess at the time, but I fixed all the flesh I lost and managed to even regrow my hand! And trust me, I was a teeny bit concerned I couldn't do that!"
Louise was not notably calmed by those comments.
"You didn't tell me you were injured!" she said. "Oh, Cattleya! I thought you just… went a little over the top, but… you could have died!"
"Un-died. Or re-died. I'm not sure what…"
"Now is not the time!" Louise almost shrieked. "You could have been burned up in the sun or… you could have just ended up as ash! Why didn't you call for help? I… I would have come right for you!" Louise slumped down. "I should have come anyway. I should have been there to get you back, rather than be… be stuck with this stupid useless paperwork! It's… it's all my fault and… and to think I shouted at you, too!"
Cattleya swept up, enveloping her in a room-temperature hug. "There, there," she said. "I was happy to have a chance to be out and about, you know? Yes, I got hurt, but I got better! And I met some really nice people! Oooh, oooh, I have so much to tell you!"
There was a slow knock at the door, and Louise welcomed the distraction. "Come in," she called out.
Slowly, Cattleya's maid, opened the door. "Oh, Mistress Cattleya!" she said. "I'm so glad to see that you're back and… and you're hurt! You were meant to stop her getting hurt!" she told Louise accusingly.
Having the help talk to her in such a manner was quite a surprise for Louise, and she was not entirely sure how to respond to it. "Um," she said.
"Oh, Anne," Cattleya said, drifting over to pat her on the head. "I've missed you! And don't worry! I'm not hurt, just my clothes!"
"But you look all hurt and…"
"Not anymore! Oh! By the way, this is Helene! I met her on the way back and she'll also be joining my service! Helene, this is Anne! She's been my servant for years and years. Anne, please go show Helene around. And I will be cross with you if you aren't friends!"
Louise crossed her arms, and waited for the older women to leave the room. "Catt," she asked, sternly, "how much of her blood have you drunken? Because I notice she looks very pale. Almost as pale as you."
Cattleya sucked in a breath. "… well, just a teeny tiny bit. But! But, but but, before you get angry, that's just something that happens when I feed on someone and want to help them! I can't help it! And it wears off in time! And they're both sweet and Anne has been my maid for years and Helene was very enthusiastic and also she got shot by those rude men before I sort of killed them all a little bit, and I had to sew her back up and clean the wound and… well, there was all that blood going to waste! And… well, she was very hurt, so I had to go find someone to help! I had to!"
"I understand," Louise said softly, offering Cattleya a seat. "Are you sure you're fine now?"
"Oh, yes yes. And, well, you know that dreadful, dreadful man, the Vicomte de Announ?"
"No." Louise looked around. "I'd offer you wine, but… well, you don't drink wine."
"He really is shocking!"
"… where are you going with this, Cattleya?"
"I sort of broke into his house, just a teeny bit when I was looking for help. Well, I mean, I tapped at a door until someone said 'come in', which meant I was invited in and could do whatever I wanted. And well, one thing led to another, and – you know his wife is very young and she hates him? She can't stand him! Well, she was being very friendly and let me stay for the day and got a healer for Helene, because she wanted anyone to talk to at all!"
"… I don't get where this is going. So you befriended a lonely noblewoman? I suppose that's better than you breaking in and killing people, but what's the point?"
"Well, some of the things she told me… he's a big supporter of the Council! Apparently, they've just recently started work on a brand new munitions factory close to Amstreldamme! With the latest in modern manufacturing equipment! She reads his papers, you know, when he's not around. Poor girl."
Louise blinked. That was actually very useful information indeed. "Thank you, Catt, that's very useful, and…"
"Also, he got a teeny weeny itty bitty bit fatally mauled to death by a giant wolf when he was out riding late at night!"
"Catt. Did you tell the wolf to attack him?" Louise asked suspiciously.
"No! No, I did not tell any wolf to attack him!" Cattleya said indignantly. "Louise! To say such a thing. Well, anyway, when his wife was grief-stricken – she said she was very sad, and even said 'sob sob', you know! – she let a few things slip. Did you know, there's a cabal of well-educated young women with boorish husbands who meet up occasionally and talk about the current state of affairs in Tristain? They're very opposed to the policies of the Council! Well, the recently widowed vicomtesse de Announ invited me to join! And she said she'll even get them to overlook how I'm a vampire and so can't pledge my soul to the dark god they worship!"
Louise let out a long, slow breath. "You did all of that in… a couple of days? How?"
"Um. It just sort of happened," Cattleya said, looking sheepish in a long-canined and thus not very sheep-like way.
"Cattleya," Louise said slowly, "not only did you kill several dozen people, you also joined a secret demon-worshipping…"
"Dark god worshipping," Cattleya corrected her.
"Is there a difference?"
"Apparently, yes," her sister said earnestly. "I'm not sure myself. I think our theology tutors were jolly remiss in not covering the whole evil side of the religious spectrum."
Louise balled her fists. "I don't want you joining a secret cult of noblewomen worshiping a dark god!" she snapped. "What would mother and father say?"
"It's fine," Cattleya said reassuringly. "I know you're worried for my soul, Louise, which is just adorably sweet of you, but don't worry! Because I'm a vampire, I can't sell it! Joke's on them!"
"Anyway, they mostly worship Athe the Doubter and the syzygy Femin-Anark, and I got on fairly well with Athe when I met him at that super-awesome party we went to at the Cabal Awards. Me and him are," Cattleya said, "like, totally tight." She tried to cross her fingers, which took a few seconds of concentration, and held them up proudly.
"… what does that even mean?"
"I don't know," Cattleya admitted. "Jessica said you and her were 'like, totally tight,' though. So I believe it means we get on well. I think we did, anyway. I've exchanged a few letters with him on the topic of anatomy!" She smiled. "He said some of my observations on the skeletal structure of winged horses were very astute! He's really smart and he thinks I'm clever!"
"I think," Louise said, trying not to think about the fact that her sister was exchanging letters with a dark god, writing about the mutilated equines she kept… uh,somewhere in the tower, "as a general principle, we should avoid using words Jessica uses if we don't know what they mean." She paused. "Or possibly if we think we know what they mean, but she seems to be using them in a completely different way to how we'd use them."
She sat back in her chair, tapping her fingers together, and took a deep breath. "Firstly, Cattleya, I would like to tell you that your maids are your responsibility and thus you are to keep them from… you know, spying on us or anything like that. Honestly, I am not very happy you let them in here when I was not wearing my helmet. Not very happy at all."
"… oops. I didn't think of that."
"Secondly," Louise continued mercilessly, "I would like the full story of everything you found out from the vicomtesse de Anoun and her husband's papers and whatever, including information on the cult. This is important information, and I do believe that our next major plan may be to destroy those places that the Council is building."
"Oh yes! And they're also planning to move against father! I should have mentioned that earlier!"
It was a painful process getting everything from Cattleya, mainly due to her remarkable capacity to go off on tangents. Several exhausting hours later, though, Louise felt that she had everything. She worked her hand, which was cramping up after filling several pages with neat cursive notes on what her sister had seen.
She didn't like the cult Cattleya had joined. Not one bit. Not only was it blasphemous and wicked, but it was the wrong sort of blasphemous and wicked. Even before she had become a technically evil overlady trying to crush certain bits of Halkegninia beneath her goblinoid hordes, she had felt that that kind of overt evil was – well, it was more respectable. Yes, she might have unleashed foul-smelling and moronic goblins on people, but by and large, the people she attacked had a chance to defend themselves.
Admittedly, mostly because she hadn't found a way to stop the minions from accidentally alerting their enemies, but the point remained. It was fair in a way. Not like treacherous wicked cults. They worked from the inside and were generally much more evil and sinister in a much worse way than she was.
So she should probably take full advantage of them before turning on them and wiping them out, and do all of that before she became publically good again. Cutting out a malignant sickness like those worshippers of Athe had to be the right thing to do, right? And she even had an agent on the inside. Louise smiled to herself softly. Now, to embarrass the Council by destroying their things before they even… got… started…
The smile became a groan and Louise let her head sink into her hands as a sudden realisation hit her. "Cattleya?" she asked her sister, who was on her way out.
"The wolf that killed the vicomte de Announ? You know, the man who was killed by a giant wolf? The man whose wife who worships a dark god and you befriended?"
"The one who you said quite clearly that you didn't tell any wolf to kill him?"
"Yep! That one!"
"… were you the wolf?"
Her older sister paused at the door, and opened her mouth. And closed it again. She drew a hesitant breath. "I wasn't not the wolf!" she tried.
"What? His wife asked me to! What happened to Monsieur Manners? And," Cattleya added, jabbing her finger at her sister, "for your information, I did exactly what you told me to! I didn't drink his blood at all! I spat it all out! Even when I tore out his throat! So you can't shout at me for that! So there!"
She ducked behind the door and slammed it shut just in time to avoid the ballistic teacup.
The heavily singed jester bounced down the stairs to the kitchen area, and collapsed into a steaming pile of blackened flesh. He pulled himself to his feet, swaying, and choked out, "… of maidens," before falling over again.
"Huh," said the red-skinned Choppit, the minion head chef by virtue of the fact that he had the head of the previous chef strapped to his hat. "Looks like overlady in mood today." He didn't need to specify that it was a bad mood. The overlady didn't have many other kinds. "Guttem! Go kick jester a few times. It are un-hi-jean-ic for him to lie around on floor, and if overlady see him there, she give another shoutiness about hi-jean. Worse than normal if she in mood."
"When she not in mood?"
"She very angry with oversister. But is you wanting another lecture about hi-jean?"
"No! It are all long words which are making no sense, and threats to set us on fire, which are making lots of sense! And now she has lightning so even reds no are safe!"
"Throw jester down hole. Then he hi-jean problem of someone else."
The genius of the minion head chef was widely appreciated, and the jester was thrown down through a hole in the floor.
"Now!" Choppit said, rolling up the sleeves which he had looted from a jacket specifically so he had sleeves he could roll up, "we is making dinner for overlady and princess tonight! So! What is the ideas for what they is gonna be eating?"
A minion cleared his throat. "Ahem," Maxy said unnecessarily. "I is here from overlady to tell you that you is going to be making…" and that was about as far as he got before being thrown down the same pit as the hapless jester.
"Glork!" Choppit shouted. "That no was jester! That was Maxy! He are Maggat's henchminion! Maggat are gonna be not happy with us!"
"Was you sure 'bout that?" Glork said. "He are playing music and telling poey-tree. Don't that make him jester?"
"No, because he not called jester, stoopid," Choppit said, emphasising his word with a kitchen knife. "Now we is going to be in real trouble."
"Oh, really~" said a singsong voice, accompanied by the scraping of knives. "Because I is thinking you is already in trouble for breakin' the chain of command and not listening to orders from overlady."
Choppit swallowed. "Um. Fettid. It are not very hi-jean-ic for you to be in kitchen… wait, no, no no no I can expl-urk."
"Don't worry! I is bringing Scyl with me so no one will double-die! Only die twice or more!"
And dinner was late.
Dinner was late.
"I have had an utterly horrid day," Louise said, massaging her temples with her fingers, her eyes drifting shut. In a breach of protocol, she was not sitting at the head of the table. It was very impractical to do that when one's table was rather too large for just two people. Instead, she and Henrietta had agreed that if they sat on opposite sides of the table, then they could declare where Louise was to be the head, and in addition not have to shout to communicate. "Utterly and completely wretched."
"Oh my," Henrietta said, looking around hungrily. Louise was momentarily worried by that, until she remembered that this wasn't Cattleya, and so continued along the same vein of complaint.
"Deeply and truly terrible. I am falling asleep where I sit here."
"Goodness gracious," Henrietta said, rising to her feet and stepping around the shorter side of the table to stand beside her friend.
Louise felt that Henrietta was perhaps not being the most cooperative. She did not particularly care at this point. "I have been cramped up in a room trying to handle paperwork. I am still exhausted from capturing goblins last night. I have been getting stupid letters from the stupid Abyss all day. I didn't have lunch properly. Gnarl is being vaguely insubordinate at me. I still can't get my stupid minion hive working. My sister is… argh! My sister is…" she slumped forwards, before jolting upright again.
"Your sister is?" Henrietta continued. Reaching out, she squeezed Louise's shoulder. "Dear me. You're working so hard, and all for me."
Louise blushed pinkly. "It's nothing, really, it's nothing! And as for Cattleya... we will talk about this tomorrow, now that she's back! I can't deal with having to explain what's up with her to you right now!" Louise said, getting louder. "Her and her blasted maids! And now I have a dratted letter from Emperor Lee and I can't face him trying to… to blasted well kill me again! Does he think I enjoy it or something? What is he, stupid?"
"Emperor Lee?" Henrietta asked, tilting her head.
"Oh, he's the emperor of Cathay," Louise said, a trifle carelessly. "We met at a party and then he sent me his interpreter's head. Which was just…"
Henrietta's hand was at her mouth. "My goodness, Louise Françoise!" she said, the shock clear in her voice. "The emperor of Cathay himself sent you the head of a trusted servant? Well, I hope you sent him something nice in response!"
Louise had not sent him anything, and said so.
"Louise Françoise! That's dreadfully rude," Henrietta chided her, taking her by the shoulders and turning her around. "Yes, sometimes other monarchs are wicked, but there's such thing as manners. Otherwise, they might invade. Decency and civility is the coin of politics. What did he ask you to do?"
"Oh. Um, he wanted me to go as his guest of honour to some grand performance in the Abyss?" she said, her voice turning that into a question when she really didn't mean it that way. "And then dine with him?"
"And how old is he? What does he look like?"
"Maybe a year or so older than me. And… uh, he has dark hair and…"
"Is he handsome?"
Louise spluttered, and managed to turn a brighter shade of red, which took some doing.
"Louise Françoise!" Henrietta stated, leaning over her with all the regal dignity she could muster. "You are not turning this down! He is the Emperor of Cathay as well as a hellish blight upon the world and you will treat him with the utmost respect!" She paused. "Well, I tell a lie. But you will treat him with enough respect that he does not hold grudges!"
Louise swallowed, staring up at Henrietta. She was blushing like a schoolgirl and felt dreadfully, horribly ashamed. She could feel her eyes welling up, and her vision blurring, but she tried to fight it off. She wouldn't cry! She wouldn't. She wasn't some child who started blubbering at a moment's notice! She was a dark overlady!
Who was about to cry.
"You will dine with the Cathayan emperor in the Abyss, and that's that! And while you're there, you will talk to several tactfully chosen journals, and you will be drawn in your armour in them! And Jessica and I will accompany you, because she needs to do some shopping and I have not been kidnapped from my mother's prison to spend my time in your much more comfortable and pleasant, thank you very much, jail! Not when I can provide you with assistance! As your prisoner, I of course can't make you do this, but as your princess, I am ordering you to do that!"
Louise stood up to her full height, which was still sadly somewhat below Henrietta's, and thus the well-reasoned and arrogant retort she had been about to make was completely forgotten. That might have been for the best, but she wasn't thinking of such things at this point.
"Fine!" she said. "Fine! I'll go! I'll… I'll do it!" Her eyes were burning and she could see their glow on Henrietta's face, and she only hoped it was hiding the tears. "I'm… I saved you and now you're bullying me and… and…" she turned on her heel and stormed out.
"Oh my," Gnarl said, smiling faintly to himself as he wandered through, snacking on mushrooms. "Oh deary deary me."
"Is there something you wish to say?" Henrietta snapped, turning pink herself.
"I have the feeling that you will be a most enjoyable addition to this humble Tower," the old goblin said, bowing. "You really are a dreadful little girl, aren't you? The very worst kind of princess, in my opinion. Most of them are just soppy and pathetic and pine away hoping for their true love to come save them – which he usually fails to do when he's been boiled alive in hot oil and some adorable little minion is wearing his helmet– but…"
"But my true love is dead," Henrietta said, eyes narrowing, "and I am going to do my jolly best to help Louise Françoise deal with the murderous swine who betrayed him. I could sit around moping, or I could roll up my sleeves and help her stoke the hot oil, and make sure she doesn't slack off. And then she can darn well go conquer Albion, or at the very least pin down that wretched Cromwell man while I bash his head in with a mace!"
"Oh, you are a treat." Gnarl said happily. "And don't worry about the overlady. Even now, she's probably telling herself that you were right, and rationalising that at least it'll get her away from the mysteriously unending joys of bureaucracy." He shook his head. "She doesn't appreciate it properly," he said, voice tinged with melancholy.
Red-eyed, Louise stared at herself in the mirror and blotted at her face with a handkerchief. Away from Henrietta, away from the hot-blooded emotions, cold rationality told her that her princess was probably right.
She just didn't want to do this.
"Well," she said, squaring her jaw, "at least I can make Gnarl finish the paperwork when I'm away."