Part 1: The New Help
In the first week of March five separate and unrelated disasters befell your family. They all occurred at your grand ducal estate in the foothills of the Alps above the capital and only city in your tiny enclave of the Grand Duchy of Lichtenbourg, and each time they involved ‘the help’.
The first event and the one which seemed to precipitate a further avalanche of bad-luck was when the steward, a dangerous and imposing man who up until now had bullied both the rest of the staff and the ducal family itself, broke a priceless Qing vase which had been in your family for generations. Despite protesting his innocence, his guilt was clear – and your mother, a similarly dangerous and imposing individual herself, was forced to terminate his employment, although he was provided with a very cold reference.
The disasters continued. The next day your gardener, usually so studiously careful with his maintenance of the grounds, was found to have cut off the heads of your father the Duke’s favourite Juliet roses. His sympathy with the pro-independence rebels in your South American colony of Mirandia had always been common knowledge and he had once been heard to muttered certain treasonous remarks under his breath after he was scolded by your father for some less-than-stellar topiary work on the grand driveway’s flamingos. And so the gardener was given his marching orders.
The next event affected you personally, but it was less a disaster and more a stroke of good fortune. French has never been your best subject, and in an attempt to remove your thick Lichtenbourger accent and replace it with the proper Académie française pronunciation, your parents had hired a tutor. But one day he missed your scheduled lesson and was discovered wandering the grounds, dead-drunk. You’d never much enjoyed his boring lessons, the miasma of old tobacco and musk floating around him and his readiness to slap your hands with the riding crop he inexplicably carried with him everywhere, and so you don’t shed any tears when he, too, was sent on his way.
The subsequent disaster was the most dramatic and public by far – but thankfully the final one. The New Spring Ball. The cook, usually so fastidious in his selection of local ingredients, served foie gras well-past its use-by date. The resultant widespread gastro-intestinal distress and your parents’ calamitous social embarrassment led to his swift termination.
Your mother the Duchess was livid by this stage and with her usual imperiousness she declared that since all the disasters have centred around male members of staff they would be replaced with women. Your father, with his readiness to acquiesce to your mother’s opinions and an equally keen appreciation for feminine excellence, was not at all averse to the idea.
But it seemed that the usual supply of staff has dried up – an unheard-of situation – with only a single applicant for each vacant position. But as Fortune would have it the applicants were all women and all proved to have not only superb references but also impressive skills, although they did perhaps lack the sophistication your mother would have preferred.
Take the tall fiery-haired woman named Pyrrha who applied for the position of steward, for example. She was graceful and impeccably dressed and exuded, with her shock of red hair and her tall physique and her imposing but beautiful features, the aura of one with whom no nonsense would be tolerated. But during her interview, while she was enthusiastically explaining her philosophy of leadership to your mother, the bright technicolour inking of a tattoo slipped from beneath one elegantly laced cuff.
The gardener, too – Maki was her name – a slim, tanned girl of Japanese ancestry with dark eyes and the hint of dark roots in her short platinum-white hair – she was a diamond, but certainly a rough one. Her language gave – how did your mother put it? – certain suspicions of a habitual saltiness just barely kept under check. But she greatly impressed your father with her excellent topiary skills – her test flamingo was, he said, the very model of the national bird’s nobility and grace – and, since plants are famously inured to rough sailor-talk, she would, your father decided, do very well indeed.
Now, the new head chef, Chloe! Her test souffle, that notorious dish which has been the nemesis of cooks for hundreds of years, proved utterly delicious and her risotto was creamy and exquisite. You and your father were given the job of sample her food – your mother having always been more concerned with how impressive the dishes the kitchen produced looked than how they tasted – and it put everything the previous chef cooked to shame. But the chef herself! Blonde and pretty and overgenerously voluptuous in the hips, derrière and bust, she proved to be also rather – well, ‘hands-on’ in her managerial style, especially with the young, attractive, male wait-staff. Her green eyes, large and liquid, were especially coquettish and as she left the interview she winked at you!
“Better not mention that to your mother,” your father said with a sly wink of his own. But you both agreed that Chloe was a most excellent choice for the job.
Lastly, your new tutor. Lydia. The tallest and most mature of the new staff, of indefinite age – surely the less-gentle side of forty? – but with a timeless elegant beauty (pale skin, blue eyes, copper-auburn hair and exquisitely long legs), highlighted rather than hidden by her bookish half-rim glasses and her dark pants-suit. Your mother very much approved of her, as well – no doubt she saw reflected in Lydia a strength and intellectualism not unlike her own. Also, Mdm. Lydia’s French – like her German and English and Latin and Greek and Romansk – proved to be parfait.
And so, with the addition of these four unusual women to the staff, the memory of the disasters quickly faded and the future looked as bright as the endless blue mountain skies of the Duchy itself.
You’re late for your first lesson with Lydia – lateness had never really been an issue with your old tutor, since he’d always been far later than you had been – and when you finally arrive Mdm. Lydia fixes you with her sharp blue eyes, sighs a sigh of disappointment which leaves you squirming in guilt – and then makes you write a thousand-word composition in French on the importance of punctuality for a future duke.
After you hand it to her, she sweeps a red pen from her blouse pocket and flicks it up and down over your work.
“Now really, your excellency – did your prior tutor teach you nothing? It appears as though you can barely conjugate any of the irregular verbs correctly. And your misuse of the passé composé!” Again that sigh. “However…” She lifts her blue eyes over her glasses and smiles, a sudden, brilliant smile that melts the frostiness of her eyes and makes your heart skip a beat, so pretty and unexpected is the sight. “Your style is not at all inelegant. We can work with this, no?” And then she is all business again and has you reciting, conjugating and declining up and down until you’re perfect.
Under the new staff your home prospers as much as your French does. The grounds are impeccable, even if Maki the gardener is sometimes spotted smoking a cigar behind the tool-shed and on occasion heard under her breath to call dandelions which refuse to be pulled out ‘m—f–ers’ and branches just out of reach of pruning ‘total ass–s’.
“Well, at least she’s trying to be discrete,” you father says.
But you’re soon given reason to doubt this ‘discretion’ of Maki’s. A few days later you’re taking your afternoon constitutional in the mansion’s expansive wisteria gardens. The sweet fragrance hangs thick in the air amid the shady trellises and your mind wanders to Lydia, to that elegant perfume which wafts from her whenever she leans over you to check your work. But your reverie is suddenly broken by a sharp and pungent scent that slits through the flowers’ perfume like a knife, replacing your beautiful vision of Lydia with a horrible flashback to your tobacco-smoke-steeped previous tutor. You shudder and vaguely through your tearing eyes you discern the shape of Maki leaning against the little gardener’s shed. Her face is shaded but a single red flicker deepens and then a cloud of smoke spills away from her. You receive it full in the face and start coughing.
“Oh,” says Maki, her cigar in her fingers as she steps out of the shade. “It’s you, ‘your excellency’. Sorry.”
The pause between her greeting and your title is a tenth of a heartbeat and punctuated by the replacement of her cigar in her mouth, and you feel deep disrespect lurking beneath it. But you have no time to get annoyed – Maki is suddenly sprinting at you, swift as a flickering shadow, a hunting knife appearing in her hand. She stabs it towards your face and you yelp in terror, but the blade passes half an inch from your ear.
Shocked, you watch as Maki fastidiously wipes the knife on her shorts then lifts her gaze to yours. Her dark eyes flicker to your feet and when you look down you stumble back in alarm. For lying on the grass, cut in half yet still buzzing malevolently, is a hawk-wasp – two inches long with a stinger half that again, the most infamous venomous insect in all of Lichtenbourg.
Maki chuckles behind her cigar. “My knife-work give you a bit of a scare, huh? Sorry. But it’s better than getting stung by one of those bad-boys.”
It definitely is. You remember the size your cousin’s head swelled after he’d been stung by one at a garden party and you shudder.
Maki walks to you and plants a booted foot straight down on the hawk-wasp, silencing its buzzing forever. Then she stands there, looking you up and down.
She’s taller than you, bronze-skinned where her shorts and top don’t cover her skin, which is an awful lot of it, you think. And even through the lingering haze of cigar smoke you can smell the sharp saltiness of her perspiration.
Maki fixes you with her dark eyes. “Hey, since you owe me one for saving your ass, let’s not be talking about my little smoko-break to mum and dad, right?”
You nod. Her strong animal scent is all you can think of and you don’t even notice her disrespectful reference to your parents.
“Alright then!” She stretches her arms up and grunts and you notice as her top lifts up that not every part of her is tanned – in fact, her stomach, with its charming belly-button, is pale, the colour of snow on gold. “F-k!! It really is hot as balls today, ain’t it?”
You’re still looking when you feel her eyes on you and you look up to see her smirking.
“Heh. Caught you looking, little duke. Or is it dukeling?” She takes a drag of her cigar. “Maybe ‘duckling’ suits you better, since you’re so f-king small and cute. What do you think?”
Maki leaves you no chance to reply, stubbing out her cigar against the shed and folding her knife closed. “Well, those m—f–king dandelions aren’t going to dig themselves out, are they? Ciao.”
And with that you’re left staring at her as she walks away, whistling.
Small and cute? Duckling?
You don’t know whether to be insulted or flattered.
This disturbing encounter with Maki notwithstanding, life proves good, although you quickly find yourself snowed-under with French assessments. Lydia is strict but fair – and whenever you show some improvement, the smile of girlish delight which sparks across her usually serious face makes it more than worthwhile. And she reads you poetry, as well – her gorgeous voice and glances sending subtle frissons along your limbs as you sit on the couch beside her with your hands clasped in your lap – romantic poetry, the sort you’d never thought to read before. Your favourite is Les roses de Sâadi by Desbordes-Valmore:
J’ai voulu ce matin te rapporter des roses;
Mais j’en avais tant pris dans mes ceintures closes
Que les noeuds trop serrés n’ont pu les contenir.
Les noeuds ont éclaté. Les roses envolées
Dans le vent, à la mer s’en sont toutes allées.
Elles ont suivi l’eau pour ne plus revenir.
La vague en a paru rouge et comme enflammée.
Ce soir, ma robe encore en est toute embaumée . . .
Respires-en sur moi l’odorant souvenir.
Perhaps it is a little risqué and makes you sit all the more awkwardly as she reads to you, but you know it’s not something your parents need to know about or concern themselves with.
Chloe, also, continues to be rather hands on with the wait-staff, and there is an incident with the young sous-chef – but your father says it’s all just a misunderstanding and that some physical direction is no doubt necessary after all the bad-habits the kitchen staff learned from the old head-chef.
But an incident a day later makes you question your father’s conclusions. You’re walking through the dining room early in the morning on the way to the gardens to practice your rapier skills when Chloe bursts out of the kitchens, a whirlwind of buxom blonde excitement. She grabs your hand and gasps: “Your excellency! Your excellency! Can I have a moment of your time?”
You babble something in response which makes no sense to you but which Chloe takes as a yes and drags you into the kitchens. You’ve only been inside them a few times, mostly with your father when making an inspection – and on those occasions it was always full of staff bustling around, stock pots bubbling and the incessant clatter of food-preparation. But today there’s only a single pot on the heat and it’s to this that Chloe hurries you. A rich scent of beef wafts from it straight into your face.
She lets go of your hand and turns to smile at you, somewhat apologetically. “I’m sorry, your excellency, but I have a small favour to ask of you. I’d like your opinion of this bouillon I’m working on.” She sighs. “I think it might be missing something, but I’m not sure.”
You tell her that it smells amazing. Chloe’s bright round face beams even brighter at your words and she claps her hands with a childish delight.
“Oh, you’re always so kind, your excellency! But the smell is one thing – you really should taste it first before you give your official dukely opinion.”
Dukely opinion. Flattered, you step closer and peer into the stock pot. Not only does it smell great, but the bouillon is the deepest brown you’ve ever seen.
Chloe manoeuvrs her hips next to yours to look over your shoulder and the soft gold of her bangs flick across your cheek. You’re suddenly aware of all of her curvy, fragrant self. There’s a scent, even more delicious that that of the bouillon, the gorgeous spicy and rich natural feminine scent of a woman. Is it her skin, her hair, her breath, or some wonderful mixture of them all? You can’t decide but your heart skips a beat.
She sighs again. “Yes, it looks very much as it should, but please! Just a little taste and your honest opinion.” She grabs a ladle and swiftly dips it into the broth. It comes forth with a clear and gorgeous liquid pooled in the cup and Chloe, smiling, lifts it to her mouth and tests its temperature.
“I don’t want to burn those pretty lips of yours,” she murmurs and without delay she presses the ladle to your lips.
Your senses are overwhelmed with the savoury scent, now right beneath your nose, and you open your mouth. The liquid spills into your mouth, silky and thick and exquisitely delicious.
Chloe watches for your expression, her own uncharacteristically serious. But your excited murmurs at how delicious it is bring back that explosion of bright, white-teethed delight.
You swallow and tell her that it’s absolutely perfect and that it doesn’t need anything at all. Chloe’s eyes narrow and her bright smile darkens for a split second, like a cloud slipping across the sun, but then she yelps with delight, throws the ladle aside with a clatter and hugs you.
“Oh, you’re too kind, your excellency!” Chloe cries, squeezing you to her overgenerous body.
You gasp that you’re just giving your honest opinion, but it’s hard to speak with the air pushed out of your lungs and Chloe’s large warm breasts pressing against you. Even through the chef’s whites you can feel ever curve of her.
Chloe seems to suddenly realise what’s she doing and releases you, her face falling. “Oh, your excellency! I – I’m so sorry. I was just so happy when-“
With delicious air now spilling back into your lungs you find your voice and tell her that there’s nothing at all to apologise about.
Chloe, mollified, grabs your hand. “Oh, you really are such a kind boy.” And then she drops her green eyes. “That’s kind of why I wanted to do something special for you. I know you love boeuf Bourguignon – this stock is for it.” She lifts her molten green eyes and squeezes your hand more tightly. “I’m so glad you approve!”
You stand there together for several heartbeats but it feels like an eternity, a glorious happy eternity under the rays of this beautiful blonde woman’s smile and shining green eyes. But then you both hear, clear over the bubbling of the stock pot, the sound of footsteps, the familiar clomping gait of your father. Chloe quickly lets go of your hands and motions with her eyes to the side door used for deliveries. You scramble away and push open the door, but before you pass through you glance back. Chloe is there, watching you, and again that wink! Your mouth still tasting that delicious bouillon, all the more delicious from Chloe’s indirect-kiss, you flee into the sunshine of the garden, bright, but like shadow compared to the radiance of the beautiful blonde chef.
Last of all, your new steward Pyrrha – perhaps she is a bit too strict with the maids and has made them cry on more than one occasion, but after a week they’re all at her beck and call, looking up to her with liquid eyes like besotted schoolgirls. Your home is utterly spotless and the vases never go a single day without fresh flowers. But you often feel Pyrrha’s eyes on you and turn to see her pretty face marred with a disapproving frown -or perhaps you just happen to be in the way of some improperly hung painting or an undusted-bannister. Nevertheless, her look always fills you with guilt, as though she can see clear as day your shamefully disorderly thoughts, and you can’t help but be reminded somewhat of the stern orderliness of your mother.
But a strange encounter soon qualifies your initial impression of her.
Every morning, very early in the morning, it’s traditional for the Duchess of Lichtenbourg to conduct an inspection of the maid staff and your mother usually requires you also to be present. That day, stifling a yawn which, had it exploded forth, would have earned you a long speech about manners and dukely decorum, and envying your father who’s likely still asleep in bed, you keep step with your mother’s brisk walk. You sometimes wonder if your family of three really needs so many maid staff, but your mother, you know, would likely say something about the requirement for appearances to be maintained. The mansion does have about a hundred different rooms, some of which you’ve visited only once and likely some you’ve never visited at all, so there’s a lot of dusting to be done. And so the two of you are already mid-battleline of the housemaids when your mother suddenly stops dead and in your sleepiness you almost run into her.
You look up at the poor maid who has brought your mother’s inspection to an abrupt halt.
“Really,” you mother tuts. “Is this how we think a uniform should be worn? Such slovenliness? Is this the sort of appearance we think is appropriate to maintain the honour of the…”
And so forth. You have no idea what your mother has decided to draw attention to, for the poor girl’s uniform looks to be worn exactly the same as the other two dozen housemaids you’ve already passed by. But you suspect there’s nothing wrong with the uniform at all and your mother has merely taken it upon herself to take out some frustration or other on the girl.
Your mother strides away, leaving the girl standing there, still stock still, but with tears rolling down her pink cheeks. You stop and quickly take hold of her hand and pat it. The maid gasps softly in surprise, but replies to the smile you give her with a nod and a brave smile of her own.
Your mother is already two feet away from you so you quickly but unobtrusively catch up with her. Soon you reach the end of the line and your mother has a quick word with Pyrrha about being stricter with regards to the staff’s uniform. Pyrrha nods respectfully, but when your mother passes she glances at you, but this time, instead of the usual stare of disapproval, she smiles and pats you on the head.
Your mother suddenly turns around and in alarm you hurry after her. But the memory of that warm and surprisingly gentle and unexpected head-pat haunts the rest of your day.
* * *
“Yes,” says your father that night at dinner. “I think they shall all work out splendidly.” He tucks heartily into the Filet de boeuf rôti en croûte de champignons Chloe has prepared for your evening meal.
Your mother, never one to ever agree with your father on anything, merely dabs her mouth with her napkin, gives the slightest of nods and turns to you. “You’ve barely touched your food. Is everything alright?”
You know your mother must be in the most excellent of moods given that she seldom asks you anything of the sort. You shake your head. The truth is you’ve been thinking about what happened with Chloe – the sauce you’re eating has obviously used the bouillon you tasted with her – and you can’t help but remember Pyrrha’s head-pat and the way Maki called you “duckling”. But perhaps foremost in your mind is your next French lesson. Lydia has promised to read one of Baudelaire’s Pièces condamnées – his poems banned from publication – and the thought is most distracting.
“No doubt worrying about your latest assignment,” said your mother, reading your mind with that dangerously accurate penetration she has. “That new tutor does seem to be working out well. You really do need to take your studies more seriously! You well know that it’s only two months until the Midsummer dinner, and of course she will be there.”
You almost choke on your steak. Oh god. Her. The only ‘she’ who would be referred to by the bare italicised pronoun by your mother is the crown princess of the Principality of San Monorra, the Prinzessin Annmarie-Franciska Saxe-Holstein-Castell. Your beloved. Your intended. That strange young woman who – well, your mother refers to her as having a ‘strong character’, but if she wasn’t a princess no doubt she would just be called weird. Your parents have always thought of her as your perfect match – similar in age and from an ancient and monied family with a very sound portfolio of investments (your mother’s investigators had weighed everything up, including the Swiss Bank accounts, to the very Rubel). They’re well aware, of course, of her horse fixation, but they know nothing of her true obsession.
You once spent an extremely alarming half-hour speaking with her at the inauguration of the French Premier – she had looked you up and down like she was sizing up the purchase of a studhorse, murmuring all the time. She was not unlovely – but how could that make up for her dead, doll-like eyes, her harsh lips and her incessant talk about bloodlines and genealogies.
“You know of course,” she told you, her soft but relentless voice somehow easily heard over the sound of the raucous fanfare. “That any son we had would, given a few timely deaths, be legally and by bloodline the rightful heir to the Holy Roman Empire.”
Timely deaths. She always speaks like that. Of course, she and your mother get along very well indeed. And you suspect that if the Prinzessin mentioned this plan to give her a future Roman Emperor as a grandchild she would be extremely pleased.
At the moment, however, your mother is less than pleased, and her dinnertime airing of grievances continues: “… and yet your French is still an embarrassment, despite your tutor’s excellent attention to discipline, and…” She quickly warms to the subject of your being a general source of disappointment to her and you pray that something, anything, will save you from one of her rants.
And then – a miracle! Your father yawns.
Your mother stops, mid-complaint, and glares at him, ready to level him with similar recriminations – apple not falling far from tree, etc. etc. – but then an even more incredible thing happens.
Your mother herself yawns!
Stunned, you stare at her, as does your father, stifling another yawn of his own.
And then your mother yawns again – again! And she nods her head. Nods!
There’s a click of a finger and sudden movement from every corner of the room. You turn to see Pyrrha at the head of the table, and around her the orderly bustle of the wait staff.
“Do hurry up,” she murmurs with that soft but authoritative air she has, “Their excellencies are clearly finished with the meal and are ready for bed.” A flick of her red hair and a sharp stare and the chambermaids waiting at the side of the dining room hurry forward with nervous energy.
“Yes,” murmurs your father. “Yes, I am rather tired.”
“Of course you are,” your mother mutters, but sleep weighs her words down. “After all of that wine that you… that you drank…”
Pyrrha is suddenly beside you. “No doubt you are ready to retire for the evening yourself, your excellency?” Her hazel eyes fix yours and you’re aware of the heat of her body, the clean, unscented soap fragrance of her body.
You gulp and nod. You really hadn’t been hungry and any excuse to escape from one of your mother’s rants is more than welcome. You stand up, bid goodnight to your bleary-eyed parents, and suddenly there’s a waiter pushing in your chair and a chambermaid leading you to your room.
Ah. As you climb the main stairs you think over Lydia’s assignment – and Lydia herself. Your mother was not wrong that she’s single-handedly rescued you from your appallingly rustic French. You conjugate demeurer over and over in your head, a different person with each step you take. There’s enough time before your usual bath in which to finish that assignment off and hopefully coax one of those incredible girlish smiles of praise from her.
The maid opens the door and you step into twilight. Something seems wrong with the lights and you’re about to turn and call on the maid when you see Lydia sitting on your bed in the dusky orange light of candles arranged on your study desk.
You don’t recognise her at first. Gone are her half-moon glasses and her pencil-skirt. Instead she’s wearing a red dress which shimmers like flowing lava under the flickering candlelight, and what the material doesn’t cover, which is a large area indeed, her bare skin shines like copper.
“Oh, you’re here,” she murmurs. She pats the bed beside her. “It seems you have taken my lesson about punctuality to heart. Very good.”
You stand there and stare for a moment as the door is closed softly behind you with a click. Heart racing, you awkwardly take a spot beside her, as close as you dare.
“Why so unusually reserved?” she asks. “Are you surprised, perhaps? Did you forget that I promised to read you some Baudelaire if you did well in your last assignment?” She inclines her elegant head towards your desk. “It’s sitting there, marked for you to read later at your leisure. An excellent piece of work. And so now…” She leans past you, the expanse of her bared neck and cleavage brushing against your back as she retrieves a small palm-sized book from your side table. “I shall keep my side of the bargain.”
She licks a finger and finds her place in the book, parts her glistening lips to speak, but then abruptly stops and closes the book.
“But wait. This is all wrong. One does not read – or appreciate – Baudelaire without a glass of wine.” She reaches down beside the bed and retrieves two glasses and a bottle. “Borrowed from your father’s excellent cellars.” She winks. “Oh, it’s not stealing since you’re the heir – and you don’t mind if we indulge ourselves a little, surely?”
You shake your head. Your parents never let you drink wine, despite you being old enough. Your mother claims you don’t have the self-discipline to control yourself if you have too much, always with a sharp glance at your father.
Lydia pops the cork and pours you two glasses. “Well,” she says, lifting her glass to yours. “Shall we make a toast, then?”
You take the wine and glance away from Lydia’s pale blue eyes which are staring at you rather intently.
“No!” she says, with some force. “You must always look into the eyes of the one with whom you are sharing a toast. Otherwise, you will curse yourself with seven years of bad sex.”
Seven years of bad sex? Seven years of sex doesn’t sound terrible at all, even bad sex. But you do as Lydia says and, swallowing, keep in contact with her own, pale blue eyes.
“There,” she says. “Formidable!” And you clink your glasses together.
Your eyes remain locked as you sample the wine. It’s hot and fiery and sweet and delicious and you drink a generous mouthful. Lydia, you notice, touches her lips but lightly to the red liquid. Probably she’s a bit weak with wine.
As you take your glass away from your lips she does the same, and at no time does her gaze slip from yours.
“Mmmm,” she says. “You have done very well. You drink like a man.” She places her own glass on the side-table. “Please, if you wish to have more, do not let me stop you.”
You take another drink, ‘drinking like a man’ as Lydia calls it. You feel a little dizziness after you swallow this equally delicious mouthful, but it quickly passes.
You shyly glance at Lydia and as expected she is still looking at you.
“Perhaps,” she asks. “The wine has made you sleepy?”
You shake your head. No, if anything the wine has kindled a fire in your veins. Lydia, her beautiful porcelain features, her graceful white neck and plunging décolletage are as intoxicating as the wine is. Emboldened, you move yourself closer. She invited you here tonight for a reason, of course. You know you should bravely accept her challenge – for that’s obviously what all this is. You want to show her that it’s not just drinking you do like a man.
But Lydia, despite her earlier flirtatiousness, turns suddenly coy. She quickly takes up the bottle of wine and refreshes your glass.
“Some more, perhaps?”
You shake your head, but Lydia’s eyes flash with disappointment and you accept the proffered glass and drain it.
Again a wave of dizziness strikes you and leaves you feeling a bit light headed. Well, this is the most wine you’ve drunk at once, after all.
Lydia stares at you. “Still you feel nothing?”
Well, you’re definitely feeling something. You blush. So she wants you to make the first move. You put your hand on hers and she stares at it. Her skin is warm to the touch and you want to feel more of it.
But suddenly the door to your room flies open. You tear your hand from Lydia’s and leap to your feet, expecting one of your mother’s pet maids who so often spy on you – or, horror of horrors! – your mother herself. But it’s the chef, Chloe!
Hands on her wide hips she stands in the doorway and stares at the two of you. Then she turns to Lydia.
“What’s taking so long?” she asks. “Give him the wine. Pyrrha’s waiting!”
Lydia’s face is distraught. “But he’s drunk two glasses already!”
Chloe looks taken aback, but then she grins. “You just haven’t given him enough,” she says with a sigh. She picks up the bottle, brings it to her mouth and takes a long swig.
It’s your turn to be amazed, but Chloe takes the bottle away, grabs your shoulders and plants her wine-slick lips against yours.
Shocked, you open your mouth and Chloe’s tongue, sweet and thick with wine, slips into yours – and with it comes a flood of the liquor she’s holding in her mouth. You almost choke but you have no other choice than to swallow.
You fall against your bookcase, gasping, and Chloe cocks a hip and grins. “Now that’s how you do it!” She glances back at Lydia. “You always were a prude, Lydia. You should have left this up to me.”
Lydia is horrified. “But the drug!”
Chloe chuckles. “I’m totally immune. The trick is taking a tiny dose over a long time.”
A drug? A horrible realisation strikes you, then. You fight off the rising fog in your head and struggle to your feet.
The smile slides from Chloe’s face and she and Lydia exchange anxious looks, but they make no move as you edge away from them, just watch you intently.
“Any moment now,” says Chloe.
But whatever they’re expecting to happen doesn’t and you make it to your desk.
“Oh, la vache!” gasps Lydia. “He must have the constitution of a stallion!”
“A big-hearted stallion,” says Chloe with a whistle. “There were enough doses for the whole family in that bottle!”
The cottony feeling in your head has grown thicker now and it takes all your concentration to slide the top drawer out, but you manage it just as the door, still ajar, flies open a second time and Maki sprints into the room.
“Thank f—k!” she swears. “I thought for certain you guys must have got shanked by some guards we missed.” She glances at you, then at Chloe and Lydia. “What the hell are you doing? Pyrrha’s pissed off!”
“He’s drunk enough for three people,” says Chloe. “Maybe it’s a family immunity?”
“Family immunity nothing,” says Maki. “Mom and pop were sacks of potatoes while I was tying them up.”
Tying them up?
Maki slips a knife out of her jacket, the same blade she used to kill the hawk-wasp before. “This is taking forever. Look, let’s just deal with duckling here the old-school way and get going.” She turns the knife absent-mindedly over in her hands. “I’ll be careful. I won’t scratch up the merchandise much.”
You were hesitating before, thinking that this might be some weird prank or a mistake or even some twisted test of your mother’s. But now your hand finds the grip of the handgun hidden in the drawer and you draw it out.
All three women look at you at once – Lydia, still on the bed with Chloe standing beside her and Maki who’s closest to you. The ‘gardener’, if that’s indeed what she is, watches you as you raise the gun and point it at her.
“Stay back!” you cry, but your voice is muffled by the strange dizziness rapidly filling your mind and body.
Maki chuckles. “Well, looks like the duckling’s got himself a handgun. That’s a pretty big weapon for such a cute little guy. Here, give it to your big-sister Maki before you hurt yourself.” She takes a few steps towards you.
All those hours of training your father insisted on pay off. Even through the murk of the drug pouring through you, you raise the gun and fire.
There’s a loud noise but it’s muffled and seems far away. Maki stops dead, fear and surprise on her face. The portrait of your great-grandmother, hanging on the wall just beside her, swings once, a bullet hole right in the centre, and then falls to the floor.
Your heart skips a beat. You weren’t trying to hit Maki and luckily your hand was steady enough to pull it off.
“Shit,” Maki breathes. She quickly composes herself and stretches her hands out, the knife in one palm. “Okay, okay. Let’s not do anything rash here, your excellency.”
Her dark eyes flick to a spot behind you. You don’t turn around. It’s the oldest trick in the book. Distracted, she’d be on you in a moment.
And so you’re shocked when the gun is kicked from your hand from behind. You swing around to see Pyrrha there, one elegant stockinged leg ending its downswing. Then she’s on you before you can blink and she chops one hand down onto where your neck meets your shoulder. You slump straight down, but Pyrrha is there to catch you.
“Sorry,” she murmurs. “But we’ve got to move. Now.”
She swings you with surprising strength over her shoulder. Your vision is a blur, now, whether from the drug’s effect or from her blow, but you can still make out the other three women snapping to attention. Lydia pulls a rifle from under your bed while Chloe draws a gun from her voluminous cleavage.
“Come on!” shouts Pyrrha. And then you’re being quickly carried down the stairs, jogging up and down as she jumps every second step with the others close behind. You look up groggily to see your mother and father along with the other staff tied up in the under the opposite stairs. They’re not moving.
You struggle, but Pyrrha slaps your butt. “Stop that,” she says. “They’re fine, just out cold. Better worry about your own skin.”
She’s halfway across the hallway when you’re enveloped by an explosion of shattering glass. Pyrrha flings you to the floor and you lie there, stunned, as you watch her and Lydia push over the hallway table seconds before the sound of automatic gunfire begins.
“Shit,” swears Maki, sliding in beside you and shouting at Pyrrha over the gunfire. “We miss someone?”
Pyrrha shakes her head and the other two women turn to you.
There’s no one else. Your security force has never had automatic weapons. Then a terrible realisation grips you.
No. It can’t be.
But then an all-too familiar voice removes all doubt.
“Cease fire!” it shouts with imperious feminine command.
You squirm forward to look around the edge of the table, needing to see her to really believe it. Even through the haze of the drug there’s no mistaking her, standing tall and blonde in a red cocktail dress with a MP5 machine pistol at her side, flanked by half a dozen soldiers in full tactical gear. She gazes contemptuously across the destroyed hall.
“I am the Prinzessin Annmarie-Franciska Saxe-Holstein-Castell and you have my property. Hand him over at once!”
Maki grins at you. “That your girlfriend?”
You don’t really know what to say to that.
“Or else what?” Pyrrha shouts back.
The answer is a hail of gunfire which tears through the hall. In a panic you look back at your parents and the others, tied up and still comatose. Shreds of the bannister rain about them.
“Stop!” you cry out.
“Seems the Prinzessin doesn’t really care about her future in-laws,” murmurs Pyrrha.
You try to crawl out from behind the table even though moving is like trying to push your arms and legs through a universe of molasses, but Maki grabs you by the belt.
“Don’t worry duckling,” she says. “I’ve got this. Your girl looks like the monologuing type.” Maki raises her head and shouts, her voice loud even over the gunfire. “What’s with the fancy get-up, Prinzessin? You usually wear a cocktail dress to a fire fight?”
Annemarie waves her hand and the gunfire stops. “I was otherwise socially engaged when my agents reported your presence to me.” She sneers. “Quite an elaborate plan. The rebels must be offering you a lot of money. That’s all you mercenaries care for, isn’t it?”
The rebels? They’re going to hand you over to them? Through your daze you find one final tiny reserve of energy and jerk out of Maki’s grip. You’re squirming from behind the table when you see the bay windows to the left of Annemarie shatter. Then the wall buckles inwards and explodes in a cloud of mortar, glass and shattered brick. Annemarie and her soldiers vanish in the grey-white billow and you see the headlights of your parent’s Rolls-Royce Phantom, now a dented wreck, through the haze.
The driver’s door flies open and Chloe is there, gesturing wildly. You feel Pyrrha lift you up onto her back and dash across the shattered remnants of the hallway. You’re unceremoniously tossed on the backseat while Chloe is already pulling car away.
Everything which happens next is a blur as you finally succumb to the drug. There’s the screech of tires, the shouting of the ‘maids’, the constant staccato of gunfire, the whipping of helicopter blades and bright lights slipping across your vision until finally total darkness draws its wings over your eyes.