It is a truth universally acknowledged that there is little that can set abuzz the gossip mill of any town, village, or household so much as the news of the letting of a manor that resides within the next 10 miles.
It should be no surprise then that there is no shortage of buzz when news begins to trickle through the streets of Salem that the windows of Fort Salem, the manor house on the hill, have been opened, and the manor staff seen within industriously preparing for a long awaited arrival.
In the estates of every noble family across the county, whispered conversations about the possibility of an occupant for the Fort are in full swing by midday. At the lakefront, the Bellweather estate is no different.
Tally Craven presses her ear to the office door of one Claude Bellweather, as close as she can without getting trampled by Abigail and Raelle as they attempt to do the same. With her mother inside and the door closed, Abigail had insisted that there could be but one topic of conversation on the agenda, and they should get to hear it.
“There can only be one reason that anyone would be preparing Fort Salem, surely we can ask any maid or stable boy worth their salt and get our answer once and for all,” Raelle Collar whispers, crouched at the bottom of their trio, blonde hair half done, “and we would be able to get on with tea.”
“Don’t tell me you’ve grown a sense of propriety overnight, Collar, it doesn’t suit you,” Abigail retorts, squinting through the keyhole. “We both know my parents are sparing at best with information that might be of actual interest to us.”
Tally and Raelle share a look, but have to concede the point.
If rumour was to be believed, then the new master of the house would be sickeningly wealthy, owning half of Massachusetts and, much more importantly, be the most eligible bachelor for miles around. All three girls were to make their debut into society in a week’s time, finally allowed to begin the courtship process that they had watched Abigail’s cousins experience, with much jealousy, for themselves.
Whoever the lord of Fort Salem was to be concerned them all.
“Do we know for certain that someone is coming? What if they’re just airing the place?” Tally asks, twisting the hem of her dress in her hand anxiously. Getting her hopes up for nothing would be unbearable, and she could not afford to take any more dashed hopes in this regard. This debutante season is her ticket out of the dark pall that has fallen on her house, and she will not be wasting it on flights of fancy.
“M said that they were removing the dust coverings - unless they are hoping to get a dusting of summer pollen on the soft furnishings, I should think someone is coming,” Abigail pats her shoulder, and then shushes them both, eyes going wide with excitement as inside, her mother’s voice rises just slightly in incredulity.
“...true then?...not in many years…how interesting the season will be with…”
Tally can’t say what tips her off; perhaps it is a creak in the floorboards, or a draft as Petra’s dress swirls around her ankles, but she knows that the door is about to be opened. With a strength that surprises even herself, she pulls her dearest friends up and away just a little down the hall in time to see the doorknob turn.
“We shall have to see to it with haste, lest anyone get any ideas about where we stand on this issue,” Petra swoops into the hall with Mr. Bellweather on her heels, nodding sedately in agreement.
Unlike many High Atlantic noble families, in the Bellweather house it was Petra and not Claude who ran their affairs - her word law within the walls for all beneath her roof. Abigail finds it in turns insufferable and admirable. Tally can’t help but be envious of the freedom it must afford her, to rule her own life without question.
She looks them over with a shrewd eye, and Tally finds herself straightening her posture, giving a delicately polite curtsey while kicking Raelle in the shin until she does the same.
“Good afternoon Mrs. Bellweather, Mr. Bellweather. I hope we’re not intruding - Raelle and I were just telling Abigail about Fort Salem, have you heard the news?” Tally smiles innocently, vying for information, and from the raised brow she receives in return, not quite as subtly as she had hoped.
Claude snorts, shaking his head. “Abigail, you will have to help your friends to master the art of subtlety if they are to get anywhere with your mother.” Pulling a shining silver pocket watch from the breast of his coat, he clicks his tongue, turning to his wife with a frown. “If you are to make it as one of the first, we will have to call for the horses now.”
“I’m sure our darling daughter and her friends can make some use of themselves in that regard,” Petra says, brushing lint off the sleeves of her dress, her voice brooking no argument, “and perhaps if they are quick I might be persuaded to part with some credible information about Fort Salem.”
Abigail’s face lights up, but she quickly disguises it with an obliging nod, grabbing Tally and Raelle by the wrists without a word and rushing down the hall and out towards the stables before her mother can change her mind.
Only once they are out of earshot of the house do the girls allow themselves to squeal and laugh in delight; if Petra Bellweather offered information to you, you could be assured it was the most up to date and truthful that could be found - she just seemed to get to the truth of things more easily than others.
The trio race to the stables arm in arm through muddy fields of bright grass, and Tally doesn’t even mind the little mud-soaking her hem is receiving right now in service of speed.
“That was very good timing Tal, you certainly have a way about you, that touch of fae; I’m sure all the handsome bachelors will swoon to have such a knowing wife,” Raelle teases, laughing at Tally’s blush.
Since they were children it has been a little joke between them; that they three were touched by the fae, as some eccentrics believed, not witches, and that is why Tally’s senses are so keen, why Abigail can predict the weather, and why Raelle can soothe any ill. They also insist that it is why Tally, with her pale complexion and long copper hair, is so beautiful. She would sooner believe the first than the second.
“I’m more impressed that you didn’t snap in half dragging the two of us with you - your frame is even slighter than I remember in that dress,” Abigail adds, poking her ribs fondly.
Tally swats her hand away with a laugh, waving to the stable hand and watching him scramble to position to receive orders. “I’ve had enough practice dragging the two of you away from places we shouldn’t have been to be sure I will be able to do it until we all are far too old for mischief.”
Abigail leans on the fence posts surrounding the stable yard and sighs, like she is utterly bored with the whole endeavour and hasn’t been skipping down the fields.
“Porter, my mother has requested that the horses be prepared as swiftly as possible,” Abigail fixes a steely gaze onto the ruddy faced lad, and in this moment Tally can see the family resemblance between the two Bellweather women so vividly. “I am requesting that it be swifter than that. An urgent matter is to take Mrs. Bellweather into town, so see to it that I am not disappointed.”
It is an intimidating speech, and though the effect is somewhat tempered by the mud splattered hem of her plainest day dress, Abigail has a leader’s aura, and Porter is one of many in the staff that follow her directives as closely as they do her mothers’. He nods vigorously and turns at a jog to begin working as soon as possible.
“Efficient. Now which of you is going to carry me back up?” Raelle smirks at them both, and all three burst into giggles, half running, skirts flying, to get back to the house.
The Bellweather matriarch is waiting for them, pulling on her riding gloves at the front steps and not looking up when they skid to a stop in front of her. “I trust that the horses are on their way as we speak?”
Abigail inclines her head, careful to comport herself as her mother would want to ensure their success. Tally could swear that there is a small smile curling the corner of Petra’s mouth when she does.
“Very well, seeing as there will be much gossip about it and it does concern this family, I will tell you.”
Tally holds her breath, hanging on every careful word with the attention of a child to a beloved bedtime story.
“It is true, Fort Salem is to be filled once more,” Petra begins, the serious timbre of her voice commanding total silence, “but it is no stranger who will be residing in those hallowed halls. On the contrary in fact, this will be a homecoming for the youngest Alder to the ancestral seat of the Alder’s. General Alder returns victorious from the front in France after many years on the continent.”
The girls share a thrilled glance; years on the continent meant culture, a worldly sort, and a war hero as well? This General Alder only rose in their estimations with each word.
Abigail chews her lip for a moment, knowing her mother the way that she did, that there is more to this particular tale. “You say this concerns Bellweathers in particular?”
And there is the smile, pride for her daughter shining in Petra’s face. “It concerns us because the General is the last in a line of incredibly powerful and influential High Atlantic witches.”
Tally feels her jaw drop in unison with her sisters.
“And her reputation precedes her,” Petra smirks - she may well continue speaking but Tally cannot hear her over the thunderous clamour in her chest.
Abigail would be disappointed, she knows, and feels a kernel of sorrow for her sister’s removal from the running in what will surely be a very interesting courting race. Raelle prefers the fairer sex, and always has - so to her this must be very welcome news indeed. But it is Tally herself that is garnering curious looks on both sides, because for her, it is all up in the air.
Both her sisters had some youthful trysts and heartaches to show for their days in the schoolhouse and harvesting fields, but Tally had none to speak of. Not from lack of options, but lack of opportunities- her youth has been spent taking care of her own mother’s nervous conditions; she had no hours to spare for handholding. It left her somehow unmoored now, on the verge of her debut to society and without a clear understanding of herself.
Could she love a witch, a woman? Could General Alder be the answer to her many prayers?
It doesn’t rain once the entire crossing, and even after that, when she is alone again with just the horse between her thighs and her memories to fill the hours, it remains unseasonably dry. That is one of the many boons of solitary travel through unmapped land - the freedom to use her gifts for weather working without fear. The forests she cuts through are different than the ones on the continent, somehow familiar and yet alien and vast as she makes her way towards the last home her family had been content in.
General Sarah Alder maintains a tight grip on the reins when the last mile marker for Salem passes, the town appearing on the horizon as she slows Bill to a trot to observe for a while the comings and goings of a village that she only barely recalled, over which, by blood and rights, she was to Lord. As if the seat had always been meant for her, and not Hannah, as if Fort Salem would not be haunted by the ghost of the young woman that had been raised to occupy it and felled before she could take her place.
Sarah hears the echoes of Hannah’s muffled screams every night, her once gentle voice raw with fear and anguish as she was carted to her death like an animal before Sarah’s eyes. Those terrible sounds are part of a chorus nowadays - all the horrors and glory of war after war playing out in her memories. The bleakness of life on the front, where even to win meant losing too many. Never herself though.
She could risk her life over and over, and somehow after everything, she is still here, the last of her line. One of life’s cruel ironies, that the only Alder that ever sought death’s scythe is the only one that was denied it.
Bill chuffs, the trend of her thoughts enough to set any beast ill at ease. She steadies him with a decisive pat, and picks out the looming silhouette of Fort Salem, standing staunchly against the hill above the town and feels her chest tighten.
The grand alder trees, where Hannah had first showed her ability as a fixer, where her parents had gotten married, still lined the courtyard, coming into their summer bloom. This house had been a refuge for her family once, a safe haven the likes of which they had never managed to replicate in the old country, falling one by one to the scourge of ignorance and hatred that lay in wait in the heart of every man. In truth, that more than anything else had spurred Sarah to return here when the war concluded, despite the many valid arguments against the notion.
If she could not be content, then she would settle for safe and alone with the ghosts of memory the manor kept for her. At least that might fill some of the hollowness for a while, the dreams might not reverberate through her mind quite so violently if her isolation was cushioned by the echoes of a life long gone, and a family that had loved her to their graves.
She rides on.
Alder cuts through fields and farmland rather than riding through town - the thought of it, the eyes and whispers and salutes, had turned her stomach. It roiled still as the long drive of Fort Salem flew by beneath Bill’s hooves until Sarah slows him to a stop in the courtyard and stares in mute wonder at the lavish house that held her ancestral seat.
It is as sprawling as it is in her memories, stone steps leading to heavy mahogany doors, the building stretching long into separate wings. The stone is so well kept it almost looks white, giving the place a distinguished air, and through massive windows, Sarah can see lamps lit in anticipation of her arrival, which can mean only one thing.
“Lord Alder, welcome back,” Anacostia Quartermaine appears from around the corner, a familiar smile affixed to her face.
“Must we do that? If anything it would be General, but I am surprised to hear such from your mouth. It has only been 20 years - I still recall your impetuous phase,” Sarah retorts smirkingly, pleased when Anacostia’s eyes go fond at the reference to their shared history.
Sarah remembers her as a child, eager to please and unfailingly loyal to her, a duckling of a girl near 10 years her junior that she had willingly kept in her care while their fathers attended to whatever affairs a quartermaster and their employer might have. When Hannah was kept indoors with tutors and governesses, Sarah would not be left alone for long, a young Anacostia seeking her out, longing for the knowledge and connection of a sister, a mother figure for herself. When the Alders had left she would have been only 12, and devastated by the loss of the only ‘mother’ she had known.
Time had only made those youthful features sharper, the quickness in Anacostia’s eyes just the same as it had been when she was a child, but there has been suffering too, the bite of grief too familiar for Sarah to miss. If Anacostia was quartermaster of Fort Salem, then they both were orphans in the world.
“General it is then, formally speaking,” Anacostia says, gesturing for Sarah to follow her up the steps, “I almost didn’t believe it when I received your letter. Are you to deploy again - or might I tell Iza that she can be easy and show herself?”
Sarah huffs a laugh. Izadora was closer in age to Sarah, an eccentric even by witch standards, and one of the few people Sarah had ever considered a friend. She had invited Sarah to stay in Salem with her when Mr. Alder had decided to return to the old country, fearing the unknown.
Izadora had warned her that death would be a constant companion when she left, and she had been right. Neither woman was pleased by the fact - and though Izadora has always been fascinated with death, she never sought it in the way Sarah did by joining the militia.
Sarah’s constant deployment was a source of contention - even in the few letters they had exchanged in the decades since Sarah had left Salem, Izadora reminded her that flirting with death on whatever frontline would serve justice and would have her was tempting fate in a manner that she could not support.
“I am quite finished with fronts, if you can find it in yourself to believe such a thing, so Izadora need not avoid my company unless she has decided that she is too fine for whiskey,” she said, breath suddenly catching as the door opens and she is greeted for the first time in near 20 years, with the splendour of Fort Salem.
This is a place that only very infrequently made an appearance in her dreams, her subconscious determined to punish her rather than delight her as dwelling for some time in the memories of Fort Salem might have. Long bright hallways, marble floors cushioned by thick rugs, elaborate portraits on every gilded wall. It could not be farther from the barracks and foxholes that she had become accustomed to of late.
Anacostia allows the moment to hold, the bittersweet nostalgia for what might have been clear as anything - not on Sarah’s sharp featured face, but in the fathomless depths of her blue eyes searching for something and finding it, hanging in pride of place over the grand staircase.
The last portrait the Alder family had ever commissioned before they were sundered, all hale, hearty, and whole in the drawing room together. Her father standing tall and proud at the back of the trio of dark haired Alder women, mother seated smiling between two adoring daughters with the softness of childhood still rounding Sarah and Hannah’s cheeks. Her feet travel of their own accord towards the image.
“How strange,” Sarah mutters, reaching out a shaking hand to brush the frame, “I had forgotten.”
“Forgotten?” Anacostia’s brow furrows with concern. The Sarah Alder she knew did not suffer from a forgetful nature - had instilled that same spirit in her during her youth.
“The curve of their smiles. It has been some time since I could call them forth like this in my mind.”
Her mind seemed capable only of conjuring her family in their entirety as she had seen them last; drowned, burned, hanged. It is reluctantly that she withdraws her hand and regains her composure - the picture of a conquering General again in her uniform, dwarfed by the unblinking faces in the painting smiling down upon her.
Anacostia makes no answer - what can be said of grief’s cruelty to Sarah Alder, who has for near half her life known no respite from the emotion, that would lessen its sting?
They are interrupted by the patter of several sets of soft shoes on carpet, their source singular even in the recesses of Sarah’s memory. The black turning of her thoughts is lost on the wind as she eyes Anacostia, who is determinedly not allowing a grin to crease her face.
“They are not ,” Sarah breathes, disbelieving her own ears for the first time in many years.
Seven women, elderly now to a one, but spry for all that, outfitted in staff uniforms and bright with excitement, step into the hallway below. The Biddies that had nurtured Sarah through her childhood, standing once more to serve the Alder family.
Only then does Anacostia allow a cheshire cat grin to form. “They insisted. Seems you inspire loyalty amongst more than just your foot soldiers, General.”
“Tally, make haste! This is no time for crises of personality an—” Abigail cuts herself off, turning from the vanity to Raelle and her fistfuls of ribbon, “the blue Rae, it compliments all your best features,” she says on a laugh “and you’ll need all the help you can get in that get up. Did your father know you were to be in trousers tonight?”
In the week since the arrival of one General Alder to Fort Salem, the entire town has been in a dither - between the preparation for tonight’s debutante ball and the turning of the gossip mill, there has been little time to spare for having a crisis of self. The General has been a ghost to almost all, not leaving the walls of the Fort once since she rode in, which had only led to more speculation from the lay people of Salem about her.
Tally couldn’t go to the market without hearing a new tidbit - that the General must be hideously disfigured from the war and that was why she didn’t leave, that she had fallen ill to something they whispered was called the Alder Curse, that she was taciturn, unforgiving, bloodthirsty, prideful, all manner of horrible traits.
What she is, above all of the chatter, is intriguing.
Petra Bellweather had visited Fort Salem twice since the General had returned, and both times been unforthcoming about what business she had been seeing to there - though not for lack of trying on Abigail’s part. The little that she would divulge, and that was very little indeed, Tally had memorised. General Alder is, according to Petra, as rigid as any who has ever been raised to lead, with a serious demeanour and sharp tongue. For Raelle, this scuppered any inkling of a match being made between herself and Alder - two razor sharp tongues do not good bedfellows make.
Tally has not been so quick to dismiss the notion. Petra’s account of the General leaves much to be desired, that much is sure, but it is not a full account. Turning it over in her mind during idle minutes, Tally had reached the conclusion that, if she was in Alder’s position, she too would not be overly friendly with the string of High Atlantic busy bodies that sought audience with her on what were likely some of the most exhausting days of her settling in.
Even if Petra was correct in her assessment, Tally could take a tongue lashing unlike any other, having been subject to many a tirade by May Craven over the years. If the only faults to be found with General Alder were that she is dour and proud, Tally can’t say she blames her, and she certainly can’t afford to turn her nose up at a very eligible prospect the way her sisters can.
The Craven name is nothing to be sniffed at, certainly they had wealth and some status as merchants on this coast, but in Salem, to be noble is to be of a High Atlantic line - generational wealth and prestige could not be bought and sold like the goods on her father’s schooners. Her dowry would be generous, but a pittance compared to Abigail’s, and likely far less than Raelle’s too.
Her father’s business kept him in the city, eyes glued to the horizon and May’s nerves kept her abed more often than not, so Tally had prepared herself for the ball, and had very gratefully accepted Raelle’s invitation to go as part of her family - though they three would be a unit, entering the ball each eligible suitor was announced with their family; naturally the Bellweathers had to stand alone.
She has become accustomed to having to make her own arrangements for such occasions - and though it may be lacking humility to say so, she has gotten rather proficient at it. She had a set of new dresses made for this season, and the gown she wears tonight is one of the finest. In delicate lilac silk, the gown shimmers like starlight when she moves, short sleeves just a suggestion of sheer lace that trims the bodice, dipping low to expose the swell of her bosom. When she joins Raelle and Abigail in her boudoir to grab a decent ribbon, they both stare appreciatively.
“Well, at least we can rest assured that if the good General has eyes in her head Tally could be engaged by the end of the week,” Raelle teases. Abigail takes her in and begins rummaging intently through the pile of ribbons for the perfect accompaniment. She finds it in an ivory flourish that matches the elbow length gloves Tally has to complete her ensemble.
With practiced hands, Abigail offers the length of it to Raelle, who has the most delicate hand for bows among them and has tied every ribbon any of them have ever worn. It is the work of moments, to loop it around Tally’s waist and draw it tight.
Tally can’t help but flush with pleasure when Raelle pulls her in front of the mirror to admire her handiwork. The trio stands resplendent, Abigail in the perfect shade of pale pink, Raelle in navy trousers and suit coat.
“Every eye will be on us tonight, so let’s all keep our heads - this is just an evening to get acquainted with our options. Nothing serious, nothing scandalous, and nothing without consulting one of your sisters first, agreed?” Abigail holds her hands out, both pinkies outstretched and they meet each other’s gaze, linking their pinky fingers and pressing their foreheads together.
“Agreed,” Tally echoes in unison, the thrill of an evening of dancing and conversation thick in the air.
As is tradition, the first ball of the debutante season is held in the halls of the Imperatrix, a heel of a woman, but a dab hand at ensuring well matched pairs found their way to each other over the course of the season. Every eligible noble receives an invitation to this, before the more exclusive selections were made for the private balls that would unfold over the summer months in the homes of any High Atlantic with a child out in society. Abigail’s family would hold the second to last of the season; usually a formality to announce the engagement of whichever blossoming Bellweather had spent the season out.
They arrive and step out of the carriage still laughing at Edwin Collar’s tale of his own debut, and how he had stumbled into the arms of Willa, Raelle’s late mother, and been smitten instantly. They had married for love, and had been blessed with Raelle not long after. It is lovely, Tally thinks, how much love there still is in Edwin for a woman that has been gone since Raelle was only a child barely off her apron strings.
If she was free to choose where she liked, and not so that she might have the best chance of escaping her home for good, she would choose someone who spoke of her the way Edwin speaks of Willa.
“Are you quite sure I am not imposing?” Tally asks as they join the small queue of attendees waiting to be introduced at the top of the stairs that leads down into a well furnished ballroom already busy with people and music.
Raelle grips her gloved hand tightly. “Never been more sure, right Pa?”
“Precisely right Rae, I’m proud to present you both to the wolves. Let us hope your own Willa’s can be found without as much embarrassment as I endured. Or maybe exactly that amount - I deserve to have some entertainment this evening too after all.” He rubs his hands together gleefully at Raelle’s answering groan.
Tally steels herself as their party steps into the candelabra light, eyes finding Abigail in the crowd and holding fast to her encouraging smile when the valet reads their names aloud.
“Presenting Miss Tally Craven, and Miss Raelle Collar, daughter of Edwin Collar.”
She dips low into a perfect curtsey, head bowed slightly, and when she raises it she feels her cheeks flush again to find a great number of eyes turned on their party with interest.
“We have their attention, time to make good use of it,” Raelle whispers, allowing Edwin to lead them both down into the fray.
The orchestra is already playing lively tunes, and the dancefloor is dotted with couples getting to know one another, learning the steps of a very different dance than the one their feet are performing. Skirts swirl in the glow of the chandeliers, and trays of wine are carried about by staff in fine livery as they make their way across the floor.
First on the agenda is reconvening with Abigail; her parents would be making introductions to suitable prospects all night, and all three could benefit from the social connections those introductions could provide. If Tally is also hoping that Petra will be inclined to introduce them to the elusive General Alder before anyone else has the opportunity to be introduced, well that is for the Goddess to judge.
“Why must we attend this? I am well past the point of debut, and even if that were not the case, I am not in want of a wife - something I thought was made very clear by my lack of one,” Sarah sighs tightly, rigid in her dress uniform. All around the room her biddies gave quiet nods of agreement, the tension in Sarah’s spine enough to convince the women that this torture need not be borne.
Izadora rolls her eyes, thrusting a glass of whiskey into Sarah’s hand. “You know the reasons. For all her gossip and sly manipulations, in this, Bellweather is right. You needn’t go with the intention to do any courting, but to be absent would be to slight the society, and to look as if you are not engaging a worse one.”
“I understand that,” Sarah sips the whiskey, trying to settle her rattling nerves before they could send shakes through her entire body, “I am not overly fond of…”
Izadora raises a brow, silent, waiting for Sarah to divulge the source of her waspish mood - because they may have been separated by oceans, but she knows Sarah Alder, and her moods are not often mercurial without good reason.
“Crowds,” she bites out, her teeth and tongue betraying her mind, “I am not overly fond of crowds.”
Crowds were dangerous, always just a few stray words away from being whipped up into a frenzy, becoming a mob that kills a young woman in her prime for the crime of her nature, or an army at the other side of a wall of musket balls and bayonets.
“War will do that to a person. If it was not necessary I would not ask it of you, I am not overly fond of the demands of the season myself.” Izadora straightens the medals affixed to Sarah’s jacket. “What can I do to ease your way?”
It is a sweet gesture, a kindness that Sarah is having to learn to accept again, and not question the reasons behind it. “Another whiskey wouldn’t go amiss,” Sarah admits, the low burn of it in her throat a comfort, and the dulling of her instincts by its effects would likely be the only way she will survive the night.
“Easily arranged.” Iza smiles wryly, and Sarah finds herself returning it. Perhaps with the company of an old friend, the ball will not be as unfathomably nerve wracking as she envisions it to be.
Another benefit of friendship with Izadora is the seemingly boundless knowledge of the secret entrances to the noble houses; attending was one thing she had to do for propriety’s sake, but getting announced was absolutely not on the agenda. Thusly, they found themselves in the bowels of the Imperatrix’s manor, the sounds of merriment and music drifting from the ballroom acting as an informal guide to Iza’s very formal one.
“Should I be more concerned by your encyclopaedic knowledge of the layout of the country homes of Salem’s elite, or the macabre sojourn you insisted we make through the mausoleum that was, I’m beginning to realise, entirely unnecessary?” Sarah whispers as they slink down a shadowy hallway.
They had polished off another two glasses of very fine whiskey before embarking on this expedition, and though they are going with stealth and no small amount of grace, Sarah feels loose limbed and somewhere in the realm of unconcerned by the noise of a hundred people congregated in a confined space. Not calm, but closer than she might otherwise have been.
“Did you not find it invigorating?” she asks, and Sarah half wishes she was not being genuine with the question, but knows in her bones that she is.
“Invigorating is not the word I would use, no.” Izadora snorts a delighted laugh, and narrows her eyes before pointing confidently to a seemingly random panel in a series of wood panelled walls.
“That should bring us into a little enclave inside.” There is no room for scepticism - everything she has suggested up to this point has been spot on, but Sarah is still shocked when they step through and out into a curtained corner of the ballroom.
“If I did not know you to be of the blood I would accuse you of witchcraft for this alone,” Sarah mutters, blinking in the cacophony of colour, music, and voices that fill this space. There are people everywhere, blushing maidens and bumbling bachelors being introduced by their dozens, the more brazen already swirling on the dancefloor. It is hot, the air heavy with perfumes, and Sarah longs to be anywhere but here - a dark part of her suggests that even the frontlines were better, more suited to her than this place.
Izadora snags two glasses of sweet wine from a passing waiter, surveying the room as best she can. “Shall we?”
Sarah drains the glass in one long sip.
They draw eyes, of course, but none that have the gall to attempt an introduction, until a familiar face spots their duo from afar. Sarah sighs, straightening her posture and drawing herself up to her full height, putting herself a head above most of the other women in the room to stand at parade rest with a look of calculated disinterest.
Petra Bellweather swoops over with her husband and a young woman who can only be her daughter, the resemblance uncanny, at her side. “General Alder, you might remember my husband, Claude, and might I introduce you to Abigail, our daughter.”
Sarah offers a nod of acknowledgment to Claude - she does vaguely remember him as a quiet, focused sort. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance I’m sure, Miss Bellweather. Congratulations on your debut, I’m sure it will be a fruitful season,” she offers cordially to the girl, who seems utterly fascinated by something over Sarah’s shoulder. Her father has to nudge her gently to get her attention.
“No no General, the pleasure is mine, truly. I hope you have a fruitful season too, though I would hazard a guess that it must be difficult to turn your head after so long spent on the continent,” Abigail says levelly, and Sarah does have to respect someone who makes an attempt to get straight to the point. That it has Petra’s teeth gritted is an added treat.
She doesn’t deign to answer, arching a brow such that Petra feels the need to step in, her social graces affronted, and in doing so, playing right into Sarah's hands. It has been a while since she has had a chance to bandy wits with someone, and Petra Bellweather is a perfect candidate. The hold Sarah has on her sharp tongue is never more tenuous than when her lips are loosened with whiskey and wine, and she really did not appreciate being forced to attend. Izadora is already pointedly admiring the decor, a knowing smirk that threatens to break into a laugh at the slightest provocation on her lips.
“How are you finding your triumphant return to Fort Salem, General? I’m sure it is much changed from your youth.” Petra asks, an edge of reprimand directed at her daughter clear from the moue of her mouth even though it is smiling politely.
“Would we call the decimation of my line and the hollow victory of another bloody war triumphant, Bellweather? If only I had known ,” Sarah quips acerbically, placing a hand to her chest in faux sincerity that has Izadora shaking with the force of not laughing in anyone’s face, “I might have thrown a parade on my return. Perhaps next time.”
The shock on their faces at the casual manner in which she has reproached Petra would have been enough to sustain her through the rest of this sham of an evening, but Sarah finds herself nearly as shocked to hear the muffled laughter coming from her back.
She turns, curiosity piqued - anyone that is in this room and is brave enough to outright laugh in the faces of the Bellweather family is worth getting to know - and is met with a sight she very much had not anticipated.
The laughter is coming from a young woman, likely no older than the Bellweather daughter, with fiery red hair falling in artful tresses along the dainty lines of her collarbones, shimmering in a silk dress that drapes artfully along her curves, the natural flush of laughter lighting up enormous brown eyes that meet hers as if they are in on the joke, and not strangers.
It is… pleasant, to be looked at like that.
The gentle lilt of her laughter rings in Sarah’s ears even after it has trailed off, and the woman seems to realise what has transpired, those eyes getting somehow wider in her apology.
“I- I am- I should not have been- my apologies,” she pulls her stuttering together, shoulders going back, “for intruding. It was tactless of me to overhear a private...conversation.” The apology is most definitely for the benefit of the family at Sarah’s back, but she would be remiss in her duties if she allowed one of her tenants to suffer the wrath of Petra Bellweather when she could help it.
“No need to apologise, the error is mine; it seems the drier edges of my humour are lost on an American audience - that would have killed in Perpignan,” She offers with a wry grin, pointedly ignoring Izadora’s eyebrows disappearing beneath her fringe. “General Sarah Alder, a pleasure to make your acquaintance…?”
“Tally. Tally Craven.”