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Silks & Scourges

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Exploring her father’s house is akin to visiting a museum to the life that Tally might have had; with the sunlight ever-streaming through unshuttered windows, and an enormous portrait of her childhood self smiling down upon their efforts to let the waist out on a dress belonging to Pen, her third day in Boston has thus far been equal parts weal and woe. 

There has been no news of her father’s ship coming into port, and every passing minute sets an itch beneath her skin at the thought of Buttonwood lurking in the city, waiting just as surely as she is for any whisper of his arrival. Similarly, there is no doubt that her letter has reached Abigail and Raelle either this morning or the one before it, and the reedy thrum of anxiety plucks at her beneath every breath. Would they despise her for undertaking this journey alone, forgoing a goodbye? Would they even deign to read it? She cannot help but wonder, with her teeth worrying her lip, if they still might do as she has requested, and take care of the woman who broke her heart. Tally is a maelstrom of emotion held back by the thinnest veneer of propriety, and no matter how diligently she applies herself to rising above it all, the feelings linger, as if waiting for that last thread to snap. The sensation of eyes being on her at all times in this parlour is certainly not helping matters.

 

“Do you not find it even mildly disconcerting,” Tally posits, threading a needle with great focus, “to be observed so by an unmoving gaze?” It is a well wrought piece that watches them, to be sure, displaying Tally herself as a child no more than five years old with enormous dark eyes and a gently curling smile, seated in what she assumes to be her father’s study. She does not recall sitting for it, nor any mention being made of the piece in any of the letters that had been exchanged between the Craven households over these past years. 

Penelope blinks, as if the thought has never even occurred to her, and shakes her head. “Not at all! Young Tally here has been rather a constant companion of mine, I consider her my close friend, ” Pen says brightly, seemingly perfectly content with such a lot in life, to have one’s sole companion take the form of a painting of a stranger… Tally may have been an oft lonely figure in Salem, but she always had her sisters to rely on and confide in. When their fathers went on extended journeys across oceans and took meetings in far flung towns, Penelope was left alone in a house which, she had admitted to Tally last night, she has been all but forbidden from leaving without a chaperone. All her life it seems, Pen has been desperate for companionship; perhaps she would be as sweet to any respectable young lady that appeared on the doorstep, but she has taken to Tally like a duck to water, and Tally finds herself feeling similarly about the young girl. 

 

They are, in their way, rather like kindred spirits, and Tally for one is grateful to have a friend in this city that still seems so vast and unwelcoming. Penelope, she has come to discover over long hours spent discussing their lives while Tally has been recuperating in this strange environment, is a remarkably attentive listener, and for all her lack of years and experience, an astute provider of advice. She only hopes to provide a similar service for the girl where she can, settling into the role of older sister with an ease she had not anticipated feeling.  It is pleasant, building a true friendship with Pen, and offers a change of pace from the turmoil of the past weeks that have weighed so heavily on Tally’s heart. To be distracted, even momentarily, from the ache of loss so profound it steals the very breath from her lungs, is a boon she will be forever grateful for. Tally has, over the last few days, regaled Penelope with tales of her life in Salem, the handfasting season, her sisters, and of course, the entirety of the Sarah debacle - though she has been careful to only reveal that which a civilian might readily know, and nothing of the gifts from the Goddess that have defined so much of her life. Dancing around the issue of the provenance of her injuries was an exercise in omission she would not care to repeat.

 

“Tally?” Pen asks again, and Tally inwardly chides herself for her inattention;  she had not even heard the original query, and endeavours to recover herself promptly with a wry apologetic grin. 

“My apologies, I find myself miles away with the birds - could I trouble you to repeat yourself?” She replies.

Pen, for her part, acquiesces without any disparagement, ever eager to be heard and appreciated.

 “I only inquired after the state of your thoughts; you seem preoccupied again this afternoon,”  Penelope notes not unkindly, “I am sure your letter has been well received by your sisters. If you hold them in such high esteem as I have gathered, then you should have no doubts at all.”

 

“I do not doubt them per say, it is rather more that I begin to doubt myself. I asked a great deal of them in those pages, to forgive and to forgo their natures by offering kindness where they likely do not believe it is deserved,” Tally explains, sitting back in her chair with a sigh. 

 

“I do not know that I believe kindness should be doled out on a basis of who is deserving and who is not - but why fret over acts beyond your control?” Penelope shrugs, tying off her stitch, “Perhaps this is a natural consequence of caring for your General, to worry thusly over a potential unkindness even after her own treatment of you has left much to be desired.”

 

“That it has,” Tally agrees on a huffed breath. Natural consequence or no, Tally knows she should not care, should not allow such thoughts to vex her so - Sarah had been resolute, and Tally would do well to forget about the woman entirely. As is the way of such things, however, it is not half as easily done as it is said.  

 

“You care a great deal for her, do you not?” 

 

There is no doubt, not even a half moment in which Tally contemplates saying differently. She has learned, after everything, that denying her heart will not make it beat otherwise. Broken though it is, just this bare mention of Sarah has it thumping in ¾ time. “I do,” She says quietly, “though I am not sure it is wise to.”

 

“And I cannot fathom anyone knowing you in the manner she has and not caring for you in return…” Penelope trails off with a disbelieving shake of her head that has her curls bouncing wildly around her. “Do you ever wish that you did not?”

 

“That I did not what?”

 

“Hold a candle for your General Alder.” The question is born of genuine curiosity, Tally is certain, but that does not negate the way it carves into her heart.

 

“Oh. You will perhaps think me a fool, and an incomparable sap besides, but, no. Before Sarah, I did not even know I could feel as I do for her. In spite of the myriad ways in which it would ease the pain of this, and all of the trouble it has caused, I would not undo it. Not for anything.” The most painful part of all is that it is true. At night, though she will never speak of it aloud, Tally can still feel the heat of Sarah against her, the soft insistence of her lips against Tally’s own. Sarah Alder is burned into her skin, her soul, and Tally is so angry with her for putting them both into misery of the acutest kind and still she yearns, aches , for her. Though Sarah herself may regret having kissed her, Tally cannot. 

 

Her thoughts must play out across her face, because Pen is observing her with eyes bright with unshed tears of intermingled envy and compassion. “I hope one day someone cares for me the way you care for her,” Penelope sniffs, and Tally is compelled to pull the girl into her arms in a tight embrace that is gratefully returned. 

 

“When you are old enough to marry, Pen, I am certain the person you choose will hold you in even higher esteem,” Tally assures her in soft tones. Even spending a handful of days together, Tally can say with absolute certainty that she has never met someone with as gentle a spirit and kind a heart as Penelope Silver. Wherever her heart desires to go will surely be worthy of such a gift.

 

“I am not so sure of that. My father does not set much stock in my prospects - I am no great beauty, nor do I possess some exceptional talent in the art of homemaking, and am fit only for marriage by arrangement,” Penelope says, quietly matter of fact in her speech, as if she has heard all of it so often that she now believes it to be true.

 

Tally pulls back, holding her at arm’s length, utterly dumbfounded to hear such a defamation of character to come from the girl’s own mouth. “Pen!” she cries, incredulous.

 

“I have not had occasion to learn beyond what my father saw fit to teach me, and he knows little about what a young woman must accomplish to compensate for a lack of beauty,” she replies by way of explanation, which only serves to baffle Tally even further.

 

“What lack of beauty?! You are as pretty as any of the girls I have known, and far more intelligent than a great deal of them. What ever gave you the idea that there is a single thing about you that would be undesirable?” Tally is affronted on her behalf; that these ideas had ever been presented at all, and by her own family no less, suggests that they are even more alike than Tally knew. She wishes that in this they did not have quite so much in common.

 

Penelope grows furtive, casting her eyes about the parlour with suspicion. Tally finds herself doing the same reflexively, though they have yet to be disturbed for anything other than regular meals the entirety of Tally’s stay. Once she has satisfied whatever niggling suspicion that stayed her tongue, she leans in close, voice dropping to a whisper. “My affliction. My mother suffered from the same, though father only discovered as much after they were already wed, and when he realised she had passed it on to me…” Pen shrugs, cheeks flushing with embarrassment.

 

“I have seen no evidence of any such affliction. You do not have to reveal your secrets to me Pen, nor anyone else for that matter,” Tally says firmly, making sure that Penelope meets and holds her gaze, “But know that I truly believe that any suitor would be lucky to have you.”

 

The words seem to hearten Penelope some, and Tally is struck by how terribly young she is to be so burdened by the words of her father. How could any parent look upon a girl as gentle as that and seek to hurt what little burgeoning self esteem she might possess? There is a difference between instilling a decorous level of humility in a child and demolishing any semblance of regard they will ever have for their own virtues, and Mr. Silver has, intentionally or otherwise, created a world where the latter is all his daughter knows. Perhaps uncharitably, Tally wonders if Silver might have taken notes on the subject from her own mother’s dubious attempts at raising her. 

 

“You would keep a secret, if I asked it of you, right, Tally?” Penelope asks slowly, stepping out of the loose hold Tally has had around her shoulders.

 

“Of course.”

 

She nods, more to herself than Tally it seems, fidgeting with the spool of thread, an air of curious recklessness growing by the second. “And it would not change the way that you see me? Even if it is frightful to behold?”

 

“You will be the same old Pen to me; rest assured that there is no affliction that you could possess that would change my good opinion of you,” Tally answers, trying to project a calm that might balance the suddenly frenetic energy of the young girl before her, though she has no real notion of what to expect. 

With that assurance, Penelope breathes deeply, mustering courage to reveal her ‘affliction’, and Tally waits with features schooled to mild indifference - it would not do to react poorly and further damage Pen’s opinion of herself. 

 

That resolution very nearly goes out the window immediately when, rather than revealing a prisoner’s tattoo, or pustules, or webbed feet or something of that nature, Penelope opens her mouth as if she is about to sing , only to be interrupted by the unmistakable sound of horses hooves; a carriage drawing up to the premises. 

 

While this is, of course, the very incident that Tally has been waiting for, and the reason for her flight from Salem, knowing that she will imminently be meeting her father for the first time in nearly a decade and a half is a rather daunting prospect. It dawns on her suddenly, the gravity of this moment, and sends her stomach churning and her thoughts spiraling.  The matter of Penelope’s ‘affliction’ cannot be resolved under these conditions, when they both are poised to make a run for it to avoid facing their respective fathers, but Tally takes her hand, squeezing it briefly. “We will speak more on this later, but, Pen,” Tally smiles conspiratorially “I think you will find that we are very much alike in this area as well. You do not have an affliction, you have a gift like your mother before you and hers before her, all the way back to the first mothers.”

 

“Wait, I can scarcely believe it - you too have—” Penelope’s eyes widen and she is fixed to the spot in astonishment. They do not have a moment to discuss it further, because the knock on their haven’s door comes quick and curt, and with it, Mrs Kohlson, the housekeeper. “Come now ladies, I am sure your fathers would appreciate a warm welcome,” she suggests, holding the door for the two young women. Tally’s stomach is all aflutter with nerves; what reception can she expect from a man that has not seen her in so many years, and has not written to her for almost a third of them? She can only hope that her being here will come as a pleasant surprise, and not a shocking upset to him - though even if she had thought to send word before her arrival, he would not have been present to receive it. Still, she finds herself fussing with her skirts to make sure the pleats fall just so, tucking her hair away from her face as they sweep from the room. 

 

She hears him before they are even in the foyer, the deep bass of his laughter carrying through front doors thrown wide in anticipation of the master of the house’s return. It is a sound that, though she had all but forgotten the tone of it, is so achingly familiar that her heart clenches just to hear it again. A hand slips in hers, and Penelope squeezes reassuringly. “All will be put to rights, have faith - if he is anything less than perfectly delighted to see you we shall concoct a plan to make it so.”

 

Tally nods, not trusting herself to speak as they round the corner. The valet is already hard at work maneuvering luggage from the carriage to the entryway with the footmen. It is a busy scene, and for a moment Tally wonders if her father has truly arrived at all, if she had somehow imagined the sound of his voice and Mrs Kohlson had been misinformed. 

 

And then, there he is. Stepping out from the other side of the carriage, his red hair shot through with silver now beneath his hat, his familiar moustache curling over an easy smile, broad shoulders, suit coat, and bright green eyes that skip over her quickly and then widen and return to take her in. William Craven, noble merchant, sailor of the high seas, the elusive father of one Tally Craven, stares as if a ghostly apparition has appeared before him, bracing himself with one hand against the carriage. His change in demeanour is so abrupt that his companion, a man Tally can only assume to be Mr Silver, nearly stumbles over his frozen feet as he disembarks. “Whatever is the matter William? Everything appears to rights, the house still stands, and we are a great deal richer for having settled that business with the French.” Silver grouses, brushing dust from the shoulders of his jacket. 

 

William’s staring does not abate, and Tally of a season ago might have shriveled beneath his gaze, but now she only straightens and waits for whatever judgment he will make. 

 

“Talia? Surely you cannot be my Talia,” he breathes, disbelief ringing  in his every word, and takes one shaking step closer and then another. “My god, you are a woman already,” William murmurs, eyes gleaming as he closes the distance between them until he is standing before her and drinking her in, “I scarcely dare to believe the truth of my own eyes. You are here. I did not think I would live to see the day.” 

 

That last gives Tally pause; he is the one who had halted in his correspondence, why then would he be so assured that they would never meet again? No matter, she must get her business dealt with before it is too late to do so. “I was uncertain of my welcome, and I would not wish to burden you unnecessarily but as you may know, I have reached one and twenty and am now out in society for my first season—” Tally babbles at pace, but her father reacts as if she has struck him, cutting sharply across.

 

“Uncertain of your welcome? You did not wish to burden me? Whatever are you talking about?” He asks, seeming genuinely aggrieved by the implication of her words.

 

Tally blinks confusedly back at him. “Well, I assumed when you no longer replied to any of my letters that you were no longer interested in, for lack of a more eloquent turn of phrase, me.” 

 

William gapes at her, utterly dumbfounded. “I stopped responding to your letters? I have sent tens of letters and received not so much as a whisper in reply to a single one!”

 

“What?” Tally can hear the blood rushing in her ears like a river breaching its banks. “I haven’t received a letter from you in near six years.”

 

Six years!?” He cries, “I have sent letters to you from all over the world, and you have had none since…”

 

“My fifteenth birthday,” Tally replies lamely. She had read those words so many times, searching for any sign of malcontent or dismissal that might result in the ceasing of writing, and never found any that satisfied. Which would be perfectly sensical if her father had, in fact, continued writing.

 

William puts his head in his hands, and for all that he is a broad man, the gesture makes him appear small and delicate in a manner that Tally did not expect. To be fair, she did not expect any of this. “Talia, my dear girl, I thought you simply did not care to hear from me, that you had drifted away from your parents as all young ladies do; your mother repeatedly implied as much in her correspondence.”

 

Tally could cry. Of course. Why she had not suspected May Craven of foul trickery she does not know - perhaps her nature is too kind to think so low of someone who is supposed to care for her. May had sought to keep them apart, to isolate Tally in that house and keep her there forever, believing that neither one of her parents truly cared for her as they should. By running interference and intercepting letters on both ends, denouncing her father to Tally’s face, and lying to him about Tally in her own letters, her mother had all but ensured that neither party would risk appearing before the other, believing they would be turned away. “I believe we both have been deceived, cruelly deceived by my mother,” she explains, still reeling.

 

William’s countenance darkens considerably, but he does not linger within anger’s clutch for long. Rather, after a few moments, he simply raises his head to once more meet Tally’s gaze, and grasps her elbow in his hand. “If you believed me to be at best indifferent towards you, then it must have taken enormous courage to come to Boston,” he smiles, “I hope you know that I am, to the fullness of my heart, so delighted that you’ve come. I have missed you a great deal, my sweet girl.” He holds out his arms to her and Tally falls into the offered embrace like she is a child again, the safety and warmth of her father’s arms just as potent as it had been when her greatest hurts were scuffed knees and pulled hair. How she has longed to know that there is someone for whom her existence was not a burden to be borne but a blessing to be enjoyed!

 

They part, and Tally sees Penelope grinning widely at the display of familial affection from behind her father’s back. “We have so much to discuss, I am sorry we will not be dining alone this evening,” William sighs, but Tally has nothing to hide from Pen, and while Mr Silver is something of an unknown quantity, if he works so closely with her own father then there is likely little he is not privy to anyway. 

 

“Penelope and I have made fast friends, it is no burden to me to spend time together.”

 

William shakes his head, and Silver takes this opportunity to interject. “Actually I’m afraid there is another member to join our partly just shortly Miss Craven; he is the son of a client of mine and helped us out of a tight spot with our carriage this morning. Charming young fellow, and to thank him for his assistance, your father saw fit to extend a dinner invitation to him - I do believe that is him riding up now.” 

 

Sure enough, at the bottom of the drive a horse and rider have appeared, trotting confidently down the lengthy path towards the house. “Mrs Kohlson assured me that dinner will be prompt and delicious - we will spruce ourselves up and by the time all are finished dressing, dinner will be served,” William says mildly, glancing ever so quickly at Silver with an expression that Tally does not quite catch, “Only once we have greeted our guest, of course.” 

 

“Of course,” the girls echo, stepping to the side to allow their fathers to greet this kind almost-stranger first. Except, he is not an almost-stranger at all. No, he is perhaps as far from it as it is possible to be, and Tally feels her stomach drop as Gerit Buttonwood approaches looking insufferably smug. 

When their fathers step away to greet him, Tally pulls Pen into whispering distance. “That is him,” she whispers frantically, “the man I spoke of! Buttonwood!”

Understanding dawns in Penelope’s eyes. “Oh, that villain! He dogs your every step - perhaps you may pretend not to know who he—”

 

“Why, Miss Craven! I did not know you were so well acquainted with each other,” Silver exclaims, clasping Buttonwood on the shoulder, “How fortunate that he came across us this morning, is it not?” That puts paid to that strategy.

 

Tally would happily spit in the man’s eye, but would never bring disrepute on her father’s house in that manner, and so musters up a grimace of a polite smile though she seethes. “Yes,” she agrees tightly, “how lucky.” 

 

“We’ll away and prepare for dinner if you’ll excuse us gentlemen,” Penelope smiles and curtseys for all she’s worth, and Tally does the same, though she does shoot a nervous glance to her father, who frowns confusedly when he catches sight of it, and then she is gone, pulled gently by Penelope towards her bedroom away from that most wicked of men. 

 

If Buttonwood is clever, he will wait for the company to be finished their meal, and then speak to her father in private before asking for the room and her hand. That gives Tally only a very short window in which to try to communicate why he cannot be allowed to marry her, all while not bringing disrepute on her family by being indecorous to a welcomed guest. He will deny all of her words anyway, and who between them will be believed? The daughter who has appeared out of nowhere and whom is unknown to most anyone? Or the son of a valuable client - which only makes the match more enticing? She will have to be subtle, and mind her tongue, all while stemming the urge to skewer him with her salad fork. This dinner could not become more uncomfortable if it tried. 

 


 

Sarah paces back and forth in front of the window of Nicte’s sitting room, muttering under her breath like she is an animal in a menagerie, prowling and watching the street outside. 

 

“Why did I allow you to stay my hand last night?” Sarah spits, not bothering to even look behind her - the sight of Nicte sitting placidly in her armchair would only serve to stoke the fire of her anger. 

 

Nicte sighs audibly. “Because one of us has a network of local informants on which they can rely for accurate information about the boy’s whereabouts, just not at four in the morning, and the other would have gone haring off out into the night without any notion of where they were going at all,” She drones, folding papers into animal shapes to pass the time, “I will give you three guesses as to who is who.” 

 

Sarah whips round, glaring at an unphased Nicte. “I would have already found the treacherous wretch if I had gone then!” She exclaims, “He could have secured her father’s permission and held the damned ceremony in the time your informants have taken to do the bare minimum!” 

 

“So this is what it is like,” Nicte says appraisingly, and when she offers no further explanation Sarah is tempted to knock her from her insipid chair. 

 

“What what is like?”

 

“What it is like to be loved by Sarah Alder,” Nicte replies mildly, though it makes Sarah herself wince uncomfortably. She had thought they had long since gotten past that awkward period when, for a short while during their service together, they had fancied themselves in love - or rather more that Nicte had fancied herself in love with Sarah, and Sarah had been so unraveled by the fresh loss of her family that she had let far too much go unchecked. It had been an uncomfortable time for both of them, and when Nicte’s leg had to go, it was almost a relief that they could separate without having to explain their reasons to any other. Nicte had gone to Boston, and Sarah had found the next regiment on the march that would take a foreign legion soldier aboard. 

“Oh, do not look at me like that, all maudlin;” Nicte laughs,  “I have long since moved past all that - I know better than to think it would have ended in anything other than abject misery for us both. I merely mean to say that it is enlightening to see just how different this is from what I remembered of our early acquaintance, that is all.”

 

It is different. How could it not be, when Tally had come into her life and made roses bloom from the scorched earth of her heart? Not that Sarah will be admitting as much to anyone, not before she can say for certain that any such declaration would be welcome after all of the hurt she has caused both Tally and herself. Those hurts will take time to heal - Sarah is well aware of that fact and absolutely willing to do whatsoever Tally might require of her to reach that place - but right now they do not have time. “Yes, well. It will not matter how different it is if we cannot stop Buttonwood, will it?” 

 

“Right you are, General. I suppose it would behoove me to mention the informant scurrying towards the door then?” 

 

Sarah does not wait long enough even to turn back and glance out the window; she is out of the room and ripping the front door open in moments, frightening a little squeak out of the young lad in question. In his little cap and shorts, he could be a silent, invisible presence in all sorts of places he ought not to be, Sarah is sure. “Well?” She barks at him, but receives no answer. 

 

“They’ve been trained a great deal better than that, Sarah, Goddess above,” Nicte grumbles emerging from the sitting room at last. She smiles at the boy, obviously a familiar face to her, and beckons him in. He skirts around Sarah’s legs and trots up to Nicte, pulling a tightly folded square of parchment out of his mouth and handing it over. Nicte unfolds it quickly, eyes scanning the missive within even as she gestures to Sarah with one hand. “Pay the lad Sarah, a shilling, mind - you frightened the daylights out of young Paul with all your storming about the place.” She rolls her eyes, but fumbles for a shilling to give him regardless. Coin in hand, he smiles the gap toothed grin of a child who has just had a very successful payday fall into his lap, and scuttles off without a word. 

 

Only once he is gone does Nicte allow any reaction to what she has read to slip through the mask of indifference, slowly lowering the page and fixing Sarah with a nervous look that has Sarah’s stomach roiling. “It appears as though Buttonwood has been spotted. At the Craven residence.”

 

Sarah takes a deep breath. And then another. Buttonwood is already enacting his scheme, and once more Tally must suffer the consequences for her failings.“If I had not been such a fool… I curse myself now, thinking of what difference those hours and days might have made.” What now are they to do? Sarah has no connection to Mr Craven, no reason to go calling, and yet they must be admitted to the building one way or another so Sarah can beg forgiveness from Tally, and if she happens to tear Buttonwood’s arrogant conniving head from his shoulders, so be it. It would not be the first instance in which she has had to destroy a man and while it usually was reserved for fields of battle in times of war, she is willing to make an exception. It is at this moment that the solution, hamfisted though it is, comes to her. 

 

“Nicte, do you maintain your uniform?” She asks, the spontaneous question taking her companion by surprise. 

 

“I do,” Nicte replies slowly, brow sceptical, “though I admit I am struggling to make the connection between the state of my uniform and the fact that the Craven house is— oh you are not seriously going to do that, are you?” 

 

I am not,” Sarah hedges. “ We , however, most certainly are.”



“Goddess protect me from the ridiculousness of Sarah Alder on a mission,” Nicte hisses under her breath for only Sarah to hear as they are led most expediently down the halls of a stately home belonging to one Craven, W.

 It is not Sarah’s fault that none of the staff have knowledge of the terms of the Quartering Act that had been used by the British as a tool against their own nation. She may or may not have made a few adjustments to the wording to justify the request to be given succour in the Craven household. Either way, their act must have been a convincing one to get them as far as this, and as Sarah is not truly wanting for shelter or food, it is essentially a harmless falsehood that will benefit the larger good that is ridding the earth, and Tally, of a parasite. “This is no time to be having second thoughts, Nicte. We will be on our way as soon as I have spoken to her. Hold fast.”

 

The house itself is well kept if a touch cold, Sarah notes as they are led deeper into the place, lacking in the personal touches or history that so often mark the great houses of noble lines. If one were to put the question to a High Atlantic, they would point to that very difference as a sign of the separation between nouveau riche and nobility.  Tally had mentioned her father’s merchantry off handedly over the course of the season, but Sarah finds herself impressed by the grandeur of the place compared with the modesty of the daughter that came of it. To the eye, Mr Craven must be earning upwards of four thousand a year - if he keeps both the house in Salem and this in staff and silks then he must trade in a lucrative business indeed. 

 

Perhaps it is some heretofore unremarkable byproduct of spending time in the company of Izadora, and her penchant for the architecture of manors, that alerts Sarah to the possibility that they are being brought not to the staff dining table, but the actual dining room. Where Tally is. Right this second. Completely unaware that Sarah is coming. The repurposed square of Tally’s ball gown, her favour marked with Alder leaves and bloodshed, that rests over Sarah’s heart has never felt so heavy as it does now that the housekeeper is striding through a door ahead of them. “Goddess protect us both,” Sarah mutters under her breath, eyes trained on the woman’s back as she disappears from view. This is not anything close to the plan she had made, so far from it in fact that she is left without anything to go off of at all; if they are admitted to this room, Sarah has no idea of what will happen.

 

“A Sergeant Batan, and a General Alder, sir,” Sarah can just barely hear Mrs Kohlson’s lilting voice beyond the heavy wooden doors. The clatter of delft hitting the table at the mere mention of her name, however, comes through with a remarkable degree of clarity. She wonders which of their forks it was that was loosed, and whether it bodes well or ill for the evening either way. If she could have chosen a manner in which to be reunited with Tally, joining her for dinner with her father and Buttonwood partway through the first course would not have ranked highly on the list of her preference. Originally, she had hoped to hide away in the staff quarters and only reveal herself when she could be certain that Tally was unaccompanied, so they might speak without the shackles of proper society to bind their tongues. Now, they would not have a moment to even look at the other without the watchful eyes of others attending. 

 

Standing out in this corridor, not knowing what is being spoken of beyond those doors, Sarah feels the rising tide of her nerves threatening to break the dam of her control. Had their positions been reversed, Sarah can imagine that it would be a most uncomfortable thing, to be confronted with the woman that has spurned you, like a mockery is being made of one’s feelings when in fact the opposite is true. Would Tally find her sudden presence to be an intrusion, detestable and cowardly? Moreover, would she be right to think that? It is true, after all, that for two whole days Sarah had not once asked the question that could have brought her to Boston that much sooner, nor did she make a grand gesture of apology and affection by storming straight here on arrival and knocking at windows like Romeo in fair Verona. Has she made the coward’s choice yet again? 

 

A stiff elbow to the ribs knocks her back into the moment. “Consider bucking up, would you? You at least have some connection to the proceedings, and I must rely on your paltry interpersonal skills tonight so if this crisis could be postponed until later I would be ever so grateful,” Nicte punctuates the elbowing with a tight smile that Sarah returns humourlessly through gritted teeth. 

 

“And if she does not wish to see me, what then will either of us do?” Sarah whispers forcefully through the pasted on smile.

 

“Then we drink our fill, lure the boy into the nearest ditch, and be done with it before breakfast,” she rejoinders with a wave of her hand as if that would dismiss any lingering fear or doubt from Sarah’s mind, “but as you are the tactician between us - I am willing to hear alternatives.” She does not get a chance to level a response to it, because the door is creaking open and Sarah is rising to stand at her full height, ramrod straight posture projecting a confidence that she is absolutely not feeling. 

 

“Mr Craven welcomes you both to join their number,” Mrs Kohlson says with a nod, holding the door open for their grand entrance. Sarah has never pretended to be someone with a great love of social occasions - that reticence is one of the aspects of her personality that Tally had found so intriguing at their first meeting. She has never before felt as off kilter and anxious for an event as she does crossing the threshold into this dining room, with her stomach in knots and her heart rabbiting against her ribs. 

 

Seated around a large table, at which two more places are hastily being laid by scullery maids, a man with the same red hair Sarah has come to adore rises politely, and his move is followed by a brunette man she does not know, and slowly, by Buttonwood. She is not sure what to do with the gesture; so often her position has trumped her gender that it seems strange to be acknowledged as a woman before anything else, and she stands awkwardly with Nicte at her side for a moment in silence, not quite daring to look at the seats that are still full. “We thank you for your hospitality Mr. Craven, please, be seated, we do not require such attentions be paid at all,” Sarah nods her appreciation at the Craven patriarch before nudging Nicte forward to take their places at the other end of the table. 

“You are most welcome; I am William Craven,” Tally’s father, William, smiles warmly and when he does so the resemblance to Tally is so strong Sarah is of half a mind to look away, “and my compatriots here are Mr Blanton Silver, his daughter Penelope, and young Gerit Buttonwood. It seems you are already acquainted with my own daughter, Talia, and need no introductions there.” 

 

Talia? She has not heard anyone refer to Miss Craven as anything other than Tally since she arrived at the beginning of the season near three months ago now. It is a beautiful name, but dour where Tally is joyful and dark where she is light. 

Nicte slides into the seat next to Tally leaving Sarah no choice but to take the only other available option - directly across from her. Conversations pick back up around them, but Tally does not speak.

 

Sarah cannot bring herself to meet whatever truths might be writ large in Tally’s eyes, could not bear to witness the moue of distaste or the snarl of hatred on that most adored face. If all of this has been for naught, and Tally has given up entirely on Sarah, she does not want to discover this at the dining table. That would be too much to bear. It is difficult to know where to direct her attention if not there; it is the place her eyes always desire to linger, never drinking their fill of the sight of her in motion or repose. The decision is somewhat made for her by the slight girl seated to her left. “General Alder, what brings you to Boston?” Miss Silver asks brightly, only to be shot a severe look by her father.

 

“Penelope.” He need say nothing else, because in an instant the girl is facing away from her, focusing intently on her plate. Something about the unwarranted discipline puts Sarah’s back up; she does not suffer rats nor bullies kindly, and Blanton Silver is undoubtedly the latter. Her own father would have been repulsed by such an interaction between a father and daughter, Sarah is sure. 

 

“I have some business to attend to,” Sarah replies gently, attempting to draw the girl back out of her shell, “and I had hoped to be afforded the opportunity to see an old friend once again.” 

 

At the acknowledgment, Penelope brightens considerably, and though she does not lose the tension that her father’s reproach was intended to create, she does turn just slightly toward Sarah again. “How interesting - do you intend to remain in town for long?” 

 

Sarah does not miss the way Penelope’s eyes slide over to Tally for a flash. “I hope to have the bulk of my business attended to by the morning, but if that is not possible then I will stay for as long as it takes to make it so.” 

 

“I am a man of business myself, General. Tell me, what business does an army general have in this city? I mean no offense,” Mr Craven adds, palms out facing, “It is only that I feel most assuredly that our paths in business would have crossed prior to this, do you not agree?” 

 

All eyes turn to her now that their host has engaged, and Nicte’s enjoyment of every uncomfortable moment is palpable in the smile that curls around her fork. Humorous though it may be, she cannot reasonably say that she has come to grovel at his daughter’s feet. “Miss Craven has made mention of your pursuits as a merchant before, yes, and that is precisely why I do not believe our paths would have crossed. I…” She pauses, considering. Tally is one of the most insightful people she has ever met, and has always had a knack for reading Sarah. Perhaps there is still a possibility to speak the truth to her ears alone. “When I completed my service, I returned to the ancestral seat and land of my house and all the tenants living therein, so I suppose my business is the usual sort of any Lord. As to what particular business I have in this city… I am looking to fill Fort Salem. The place has felt unbearably empty of late, and Boston called to me.” 

 

William accepts this answer readily. “It is a city of great craftsmen and interesting wares, I am sure whatever you seek will find it’s way to your hands.” Though he and Silver strike up a conversation about crafts in the area, Sarah’s ears are drawn inevitably to the sound of one voice, and one voice alone.

 

“Sergeant Batan,” Tally says carefully, “it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

 

Though she cannot bring herself to meet Tally’s eye, Sarah cannot say the same of Nicte, who is grinning rakishly at the young woman for all she is worth. “Oh no Miss Craven, the pleasure is all mine; and please, feel free to call me Nicte,” Nicte demures, twinkling with an easy charisma that slides into place like a second skin, and Sarah knows by the patter of her speech that she is going to be subjected to listening to her flirting. She clenches her fist hard in her lap, and says nothing.

 

“All right, Nicte then. I did not realise Sa- the General had a dear friend in the area, I am surprised that I have not yet seen you in Salem,” Tally replies, equally lightly, but there is much being said that is not outright being spoken. A question and judgement baked into the benign statement with all the practiced ease of a woman used to having to speak with vultures.

 

Nicte’s delight reads easily on her face; she is possessed of such happy manners that it is a wonder she ever liked Sarah at all. “Sharp as a whip and with such beauty? I understand our mutual friend a great deal better now than I did only a handful of hours ago. As to your question, you have not yet seen me in Salem because I do not like to stray too far from my own doctor; in the event that anything were to happen to my leg I would rather receive competent care,” she knocks on the leg for emphasis, the wood singing its reply. That last, if it is the truth,  is news to Sarah. 

 

“Do you think we could not provide such care in Salem?” Tally’s affront at the besmirching of the good name of her home only serves to entice Nicte further.

 

“Why, are you offering?” Nicte purrs, and this is where Sarah draws the line. It is the work of moments to knock her cutlery to the ground where it clatters accusingly. “Excuse me for a moment,” she grins, and as soon as she is under the table, Sarah is joining her.

 

“Nicte.” Sarah levels her an unimpressed glare. It is aggravating in the extreme that her tactics are so blatant, but more annoying again that they are working so well.

“You have impeccable taste Sarah I will grant you that much, I could wax poetic about each dimple,” Nicte whispers back, and Sarah does not know if it is worse if she is being genuine or false. Either way, it rankles, stirring something very much like jealousy in the pit of her stomach.

“Do you recall our reason for being here? Because there is something incongruous about that knowledge and the words coming from your mouth,” Sarah bites back. Nicte is not meant to be flirting with Tally, she is meant to be intimidating Buttonwood. 

Nicte only laughs, and grins her most wicked grin. “Oh come now, you cannot blame a girl for trying, can you?” 

“Funnily enough, I can!”

Her eyes roll towards heaven, but she nods her agreement. “I will stop,” Nicte whispers pointedly, “but if you do not look at her, I will be forced to.”

 With a huff, Sarah straightens back up in her seat, offering a tight smile to young Penelope. “Her fork was just out of reach from that side of the table,” She explains lamely. Penelope, to her credit, does her damnedest to hide her amusement. 

 

Silver catches her eye, gesticulating wildly with his own cutlery. “Buttonwood here is also a Salemite, have you been introduced at all?” He presses Sarah, a smarmy grin on his face. 

If looking at Tally is difficult, then looking at Buttonwood with anything other than outward malice is nearly impossible. Sarah grits her teeth tightly, reigning in a glare fit to fell empires. “Only briefly but I am sure we will get to know each other better over the course of the evening,” she threatens, all teeth and hatred. Buttonwood had sold them out. Tally and Izadora could have died horrible deaths, and here he is sitting at her father’s dinner table. Audacious does not begin to cover it.

“I dare say we shall,” He volleys back, looking as if butter wouldn't melt in his traitor mouth, and Sarah has to put all of her effort into not leaping the table and throttling him. She does not speak for the rest of the meal. 

 

When dinner is ended, they transition into the adjoining parlour for a nightcap and a more casual atmosphere before they will separate, with the men going to smoke their pipes or play cards, and the women to do the same but without the pressure to perform. The room is well furnished with thick armchairs and soft carpet underfoot, with one wall seemingly entirely made of glass that looks out into the coming night over the grounds. Tally, Penelope, and Nicte hole up in a quiet corner, chattering lowly about Goddess only knows what, and Sarah tries not to observe them so closely when Nicte shoos her off for the third time. In the opposite corner, Buttonwood and Silver sit packing their pipes together, and she’d rather eat glass than join them. Sarah lingers by the bar cart instead, and contemplates what she is going to say to Tally should the opportunity present itself. When William leans quietly against the wall on the far side of the small glass cart, Sarah does not say a word, though the longer the silence continues the more her patience wanes - for there is no doubt in her mind that there is a motive behind such an approach. 

 

“General, I find myself in the unique position of bowing to your superior knowledge of my daughter of late,” William says, swirling the brandy in his glass absentmindedly with focus entirely on the back of Tally’s head. It is flustering to be called out so boldly - how much does he know? 

“In what manner do you mean, Mr Craven?” 

That grabs his attention, and he turns to peer at Sarah with a raised brow. “Only that you have been in Salem and are acquainted- why, should there be some other manner I need be made aware of?” 

“No, not as such,” Sarah’s relief that he does not yet know the truth, for if he did she would surely be out on her ear, loosens her tongue. “We have spent time together over the course of the handfasting season, yes - it is a taxing time for those of us who are not quite so adept at performing the social mores demanded by High Atlantic society. Miss Craven has been an excellent companion in that regard.”

“And what would you say of her temperament, her… overall satisfaction with her life?” He asks mildly, though any person with half an ear could sense the import he placed in this question and its answer. 

It intrigues Sarah immensely. “Why do you ask?”

“I do not know.” The glass rolls back and forth between his palms. “There is a sadness, I think, that I have sensed around her. An unease, perhaps. I wonder if it is to be expected, meeting again after such a long time, or if she has been suffering, in my absence. I wish to know her, again,” he shrugs.

It occurs to Sarah that, contrary to witch tradition, Tally might have found herself inheriting the magical legacy of her father’s insight rather than her mother’s gift - yet another area in which she is exceptional. Sarah’s gaze falls on the glimmer of her copper hair visible over the chair back, and she swallows around the lump that has grown in her throat.“ Your daughter is one of the most confounding creatures I have ever known. There has been suffering, yes, but she carries it with such grace that it would not interfere with her demeanour much at all. She is bright, generous, courageous, and far more capable than most would give her credit for. You should be proud, she is a credit to your line.”

“I am proud, endlessly. But is she happy?”

 The acrid curl of shame burns Sarah’s throat. Is Tally happy? Had Sarah done anything at all except wreck happiness wherever she went? This time she would put all of her efforts into making Tally happy - whatever that looked like. This time things would be different. If the opportunity presents itself, Sarah would seize it with both hands. 

“I do not pretend to know, not with any great degree of certainty, but I hope that she will be happy. I am sure that rekindling your relationship will do wonders for that happiness.” 

Williams brow furrows, and his gaze turns appraising, as if he has finally understood some unspoken signal that Sarah has unwittingly given.“You are not at all what you first appear to be, General Alder,” he says slowly, and Sarah cannot help the huff of laughter that leaves her.

“Your daughter said much the same.”

 

Craven chuckles lowly at that.“That does not surprise me, she has a knack for seeing beneath the surface of people. Even as a child it felt as if she would look at someone and just… know their character. That is what I am most afraid of,” He sighs, “that she will look and find me lacking - more so than I already am.” 

His honesty is surprising in the extreme to Sarah, but not unwelcome - she has experienced this very phenomenon after all. She is intimately aware of what it is to be found lacking by Tally Craven, and to still receive the glow of her steady friendship and care in spite of that.

“If I know her at all, I would say that one of her most remarkable gifts is her ability to accept and appreciate the flaws of others, even those they do not themselves appreciate. If she has decided to care about you, then there is no use in fighting, nor worrying.” He nods, and they sit in thoughtful silence for a long while, each contemplating their connection to a girl that never looks back.

“Could I trouble you for one other opinion?” William breaks the silence, taking a casual sip of his brandy.

“Of course,” Sarah answers mildly, though she must wonder at what more they could have to speak of - outside of Tally there is nothing really to connect them that she is aware of.

“Mr Buttonwood,” He begins seriously, fiddling idly with his moustache, “He has made his intentions known to me over the course of the evening, and while Blanton is chomping at the bit to see the match, I find myself…less enthused.”

Sarah bites back the urge to crush the glass in her hand knowing that shrew has already made moves to wreck Tally’s life. “My honest opinion?”

Now she has his full attention. “Yes. Though the Buttonwoods are customers of ours, make no mistake; I am not swayed by money nor influence, but by character,” William explains quietly, turning to face her more fully. Sarah nods; she has no reason to doubt his word, and knowing what she does of Tally, she oddly feels that the man is worthy of trusting. Additionally, if the plan to turn the little cretin to ash goes awry, at least this way it is far less likely that Tally will be forced into a loveless marriage with him. 

“Then I will say this; I would not trust that man to shine my boots, and to entrust him with Tally would be to make a deadly mistake. If you care at all about her happiness, do not allow him near her.” Sarah tries to impress all of the seriousness of the situation, the vehemence of her hatred, and desire to see Tally unharmed, into those words. She watches Mr Craven's eyes flick to Buttonwood and narrow just slightly before coming back to her.

“Thank you for your honesty, General. It has been most enlightening.” He raises a gentle toast with his glass, which Sarah mimics, the seed of hopeful relief blooming in her stomach. He will not let them marry. Tally is safe.

“Thank you for having the good sense to heed it, Mr Craven.” Sarah knocks back the rest of her brandy, relishing the warmth it brings to her chest. She cannot help the way her eyes seek Tally out, watching her slip from the room with Nicte and Penelope. 

“She is quite something, my daughter, is she not?” William asks, something amused in his tone, to which Sarah pays no mind.

“Yes, she is.”

He pushes away from the wall, bowing slightly to Sarah. “Well. I will bid you goodnight, General. I promised Blanton I would join him for cards at least ten minutes ago.”

“Enjoy the rest of your evening, and thank you again for opening your home to myself and Sergeant Batan.” Sarah bows in return, and they part ways, with William joining the men around a card table, and Sarah moving to follow wherever the others disappeared to. 

 

She spills into the hallway, trying to decide what method of searching the great house she might employ, only to look down to the end of the corridor and see the figures of Nicte and Penelope silhouetted in the moonlight streaming through the door they attend. Upon spotting Sarah approaching, Nicte stretches and grins, her teeth glinting in the dark.

“No time like the present, come Miss Silver, let us find a painting to admire or a wall to watch dry or some such,” Nicte says half jokingly. They meet in the middle of the hallway, and Sarah is stopped by a firm hand on her shoulder. “She is in the garden, Penelope here rather cleverly asked for lavender to help with restful sleep - and Sarah?” Gone is all the humour from moments ago; Nicte’s demeanour turns deadly serious.

“Yes?”

“You will not get another chance at this. Hurt her again, and she will be lost to you forever, so I will ask this only once. Are you sure?”

Sarah swallows, and nods once sharply. “As the tide.” 

Like breaking a spell, Nicte’s easy grin returns to her face and she swots Sarah’s arm with a roll of her eyes.

“Right then you utter fool, save your pretties for her, go on, go!” Sarah hurries onwards and out into the balmy summer night, chuckling at Nicte’s grumbling behind her. “Fool of a woman, Goddess above.”

 

The garden is fragrant with the scent of lavender, the July night almost musical with cicadas and night birds singing, and with a clear velvet sky, Sarah is guided by moonlight to where Tally bends in the flowers, picking the most beautiful sprigs. Sarah’s heart thunders in her chest, and she goes to her as if drawn by gravity itself. 

“Oh!” Tally gasps, stumbling slightly at the sight of her, and Sarah winces even as she catches her elbow to steady her. 

“I don’t mean to startle you, my apologies, I thought you might have heard my approach.”

Tally moves back, only a step or two, but enough so that Sarah is no longer touching her, a pained expression on her ever honest face.“So you can see me. I was beginning to wonder if I had faded from view entirely.” 

Sarah grimaces, and shakes her head. That is not what she had intended at all. “No, never. It is only that I could not bear to look at you and know that you despise me, though you would have every reason to.”

Tally does not refute the assertion, she only wraps her arms around herself like they might protect her from whatever hurt Sarah is about to wreak on her. Her dark eyes bore into Sarah’s own, and for all that she is dressed up in uniform, Sarah feels armourless.

“Why have you come here, Sarah? Why say all that you have said, and then show up out of the blue with a stranger at my father’s door?” Tally cries, doleful, and Sarah hates that she is the cause of it. Tally deserves to hear an apology, and Sarah means to make good on her promise.

“Primarily to apologize to you. I have been such an ass, I can scarcely believe you’re willing to speak to me. You have done nothing but treat me with the utmost care and respect, far beyond anything I might have envisioned, and all I have done is push you away time and again. You were right,” Sarah admits, to which Tally frowns confusedly.

“About?” 

“About me. I am a coward. I am prideful, and refuse to ask for help even when Goddess knows I am in need of it. I can be stubborn, and taciturn, and resistant to change. I am built of fear, guilt, anger. And I am sorry. You came this close to giving your life in place of mine, and I punished you for the privilege. I…” She can feel the sting of tears at the corners of her eyes, and blinks them away as best she can, laughing mirthlessly. “Beyond sorry, I will regret my cowardice when it comes to you for the rest of my days.”

Tally is moved by her speech, Sarah knows; it is clear in the way her hard gaze softens and the tilt of her head. She does not know when she became so adept at interpreting Tally’s minutest gestures, only that she hopes to be afforded the time and proximity to learn them all. “You came all the way to Boston to tell me that? A letter would not have sufficed?” Tally asks, shaking her head with just a hint of the fondness that Sarah has missed.

“Perhaps, but that is not the limit of what I wish to say to you.” Sarah shuffles her feet, suddenly anxious in the extreme. 

“Alright then,” Tally replies, curious, “say your piece.”

 

“That night, I could not bring myself to say any of the words you were demanding to sever our connection. It is true that I am a coward, but I do not wish to be anymore. When it became clear to me that you were gone where I could not find you I knew then that there could not be another day where I allowed that to be true.” Sarah struggles to convey just how deeply Tally has affected her life. “I have spent so many years guided by fear and guilt that I allowed it to consume me, to cloud my judgment and rule my life. I have no excuse for the way I treated you that night, and I will spend as long as it takes, as long as you will allow me, trying to mend the trust I broke,” she adds fretfully, determined that the other woman understand.

“I appreciate the sentiment, I do, but you do not need to-” Tally begins placating her, but Sarah cuts across.

“You deserve that and more, Tally.”

 

“If I agree, will you stop apologising? I know you are sorry, and accept your apology.” Tally sighs forlornly, but dredges a kind smile onto her face, standing in a garden in Boston with a handful of lavender, and Sarah loves her. “I am sure that, in time, we can find a way to navigate a friendship out of the rubble.”

 

Sarah nods slowly, “If that is what you would prefer, then absolutely.”

 

“Is there an alternative?”

 

“Yes.” 

 

“Do you plan on sharing it?” Tally smiles, her dimples made more prominent for the missing of them, “Or shall I try to figure it out for myself?”

 

Sarah has perhaps never been more anxious in her living memory, and she has stormed palaces, infiltrated enemy trenches, and taken point in the vanguards of army battalions far outnumbered by the enemy.

“I cherish your friendship, Tally. Your company has been… you have been a bastion against the darkest of places in my head. And when I kissed you-”

“We do not need to speak of it, we can forget it ever happened I am sure,” Tally blurts out quickly. Even in the dark, Sarah can see how her cheeks flush with embarrassment. 

She takes a step closer into Tally’s space. “I do not want to forget. That is what I am trying to… this is rather more difficult than I thought. I do not want to forget it. I cannot.” She murmurs.

“Why?” Comes Tally’s whispered, hopeful, reply. 

Sarah thinks of promenades around gardens, of long conversations in the corners of every ballroom in Salem, of sunlight through a glasshouse, of handing and holding and dancing and wanting. Of Tally. And she smiles.

“Surely you must know. Surely you must know how I have loved you? Every moment of every day, I have loved you, and loved you, and loved you.”

 

“You told me to leave you.” Tally gasps out, fierce even at a whisper.

Sarah swallows. “I know.”

“You said that any other choice would be better, that I would forget about you.”

“I did.” She acknowledges.

“You loved me, and yet you would have let someone else court me. Why on earth would you do that?” And that is the crux of it all. Tally stares beseechingly into her soul, craving an answer that will make those words sensical.

“Because I am a fool. I thought more of your safety than your happiness, or even my own. A very wise old woman reminded me that to value one above the other is to forgo the best things this life has to offer us.”

A half smile crosses Tally’s lips. “Camille?”

“Camille.” 

“You hurt me more acutely than I have ever been hurt before in my life, you know.” It said in a flippant tone, but Sarah is well aware of the truth of it.

“It is my greatest regret, believe me. The last thing I ever desire to do is hurt you.”

Tally considers this for a moment, and Sarah can feel her pulse in her eyeballs. “And you love me?” She asks softly.

“I do. I love you. With all that I am, I love you, but I will understand if you do not feel the same.” It will be agonising, of course, but Sarah would understand. She is a difficult woman haunted by countless deeds and losses; not exactly a grand prospect. 

Tally steps closer, until the tops of their shoes are touching, and takes Sarah’s hand, tightly in her own.“Of course I feel the same, Sarah. There is not a person who has crossed my path in weeks who does not know that I am in love with you.”

 

Elation unlike anything she has ever known fills Sarah, she is a cup overflowing. Tally loves her still. She has not lost her. Tears blur her vision again, but their provenance could not be any farther from sadness. 

I did not know,” Sarah breathes, taking her other hand, and Tally’s smile rivals the moon for brightness.

“Well, you are a fool. But then again, so am I. What a pair we make,” Tally’s own eyes are gleaming with tears, even as she laughs.

“Tally?” Sarah murmurs, struck by how beautiful she is bathed in silver light and glowing with a love requited.

“Mmm?” 

“I love you.”

“Yes, I know,” Tally beams, even as she leans in, eyes closing,“Say it again.” 

Sarah meets her smiling mouth in a kiss that feels like a promise, like surrender, and in many ways, it is.

“I love you,” she kisses it into her lips, caressing her cheek, her jaw. “I love you,” Sarah repeats, and Tally’s breath stutters when Sarah’s hand grazes from her waist to her thigh, their kisses losing the edge of sweetness and rising in heat. “I love you,” Tally is pressed against her but it is not close enough, Sarah burns with love, with desire, Tally’s mouth lush and yielding against her own, and Sarah can hardly think except thoughts of ravishing her here in the fields and flowers. Some rational part of her remains a gentleman, however, and insists that Tally deserves much more than a tumble, and offers a stark reminder that they are in Tally’s father’s garden. It would not do to be caught out here stealing kisses like a thief in the night. She pulls back just inches, heart lurching when Tally’s eyes flutter open and her kiss drunk gaze is on Sarah again. If Sarah could witness the adoration in that look everyday, she will have lived well. Oh , she thinks, though it should feel as profound as it does in this moment, I will get to see her, love and be loved by her, every day. Sarah is not in want of a wife. She is in want of this wife, the life they could create together. She would be Tally’s wife.

“And I love you,” Tally hums delightedly, seemingly unaware of the epiphany that is throwing Sarah for a loop an inch away.

“Be my wife,” Sarah blurts, and Tally’s eyes go wide, one hand pressing over her shocked mouth, but she is still smiling, so Sarah presses on. “I would never be parted from you from this day on, dear heart, so I am asking; will you give me your hand? Will you keep my heart?” She asks, pulling the necklace that houses her army information medallion, and a ring entrusted to Hannah by their mother before her death,from beneath her collar. It is one of the few small trinkets she has of her family. It seems fitting, as she unclasps the necklace and slides the warm metal into Tally’s palm, to give to the woman who will become part of that family.

Sarah ,”  Tally breathes, staring awed at the loop of engraved gold in her hand,

“It belonged to my mother. An anniversary gift from my father, if I recall,” Sarah smiles at the memory it calls to her mind, the way her mother’s eyes had lit up with love, the kiss that had followed, Hannah’s grumbling. It is a happy memory, though this one gives it a run for its money.

“I cannot take this from you, it belongs in your hands,” Tally tries to return it, but Sarah curls her fingers gently around it, and holds them closed with her own hand.

“This has always been where it was meant to be. I will ask your father’s permission in the morning, unless I am misreading your answer?” Around them, fireflies begin to glow like falling stars.

 

Tally’s laugh is clear as a bell, pure joy made tangible, and she clutches the ring to her chest. “I would have married you the night we met. Make me your wife, Sarah Alder. That is everything I want to be.” 

What else is Sarah to do but kiss her? They are rather engrossed in the activity, which is only unfortunate in that it means neither woman pays their surroundings half enough attention to notice the approach until it is far too late to do aught about it. 

 

“You would dare sully the honour of a woman betrothed?!” Buttonwood growls, aghast as they part. Sarah pinches the bridge of her nose, doubly aggravated by the intrusion on the moment because it is him, of all people.

“If she is betrothed at all, Buttonwood, it would not be to you,” Sarah sighs. 

He gapes like a fish, beady eyes bulging as he stutters his affront.

I am the one who has asked her father for her hand. I am the one who has her mother’s permission,” he argues. Sarah rolls her eyes, and reaches into her coat, pulling Tally’s favour, skin-warm and blatant, from its place.

“Yet I am the one with her heart.” She is more than a little smug about that fact. 

“I will not stand for this! You have crossed the line this time Alder, make no mistake. I will have what is mine,” Buttonwood cries angrily, half spitting with rage. Sarah has had enough of the faux outrage, and the obsessive nature of his suit. 

“You draw such interesting lines, Buttonwood. For example,” Sarah drawls, a cat playing with her food, “What would you call it if a person were to sell information about a ball being held in Fort Salem, an invitation to said ball to be precise, to a group that are notoriously violent and dangerous, almost resulting in the death of the same woman you have churlishly claimed belongs to you? I myself would call that person a traitor, what do you think, Tally?” She asks, turning to await her answer.

“A traitor and a rat,” Tally spits, her gaze steely. 

“Well said. Now, do you wish to marry Buttonwood here?”

Her nose wrinkles terribly cutely at the suggestion. “I’d sooner marry Nicte.”

Sarah cannot even laugh - Nicte would probably say yes, and one competing suitor is quite enough for Sarah to deal with. “Do not say that where she might hear you, my love, or I fear we will fight for the honour of your heart.”

Buttonwood’s eyes light up.“I call for a duel.”

She had thought him clever, in a diabolical way, but evidently Buttonwood is just as stupid as his peers. A duel? Of all the ridiculous suggestions.“Goddess above, you cannot seriously be calling for a duel.”

 

“I am deadly serious Alder. We shall decide who is worthy of her hand as opposing suitors have always done it: in combat.” 

Tally looks genuinely alarmed at the prospect, and steps in between them. “Gerit. She has beaten you once before with very little effort, and that was at least a semi-sanctioned bout with rules to protect you from serious injury. Do not do this.” Sarah gloats inwardly at Tally’s confidence in her ability - completely justified confidence, but it is still pleasant to hear it.

Buttonwood’s lip lifts in a snarl of cruelty at this slight.“Either she duels me, or I spread the word that Tally Craven opens her legs for anyone with a heavy purse.”

The silence that falls in the wake of that grievous insult is palpable, reflected by the wildlife itself. Sarah feels the storm raging inside of her, the General persona coming to the fore as she rises to her full height and looks down her nose at this nothing , who dares to speak of Tally in this manner for the second time in her presence. He has just cosigned a death notice she has been itching to deliver on. “You will regret not accepting her kind offer of reprieve when the option was still available to you. I accept your challenge.” 

Tally grabs her arm tightly, worry creeping into her eyes. “Sarah…”

Sarah turns to her, gathering her in close, holding her cheek gently in her loving palm. “Nicte watched him sell that invitation to a Camarilla agent, Tally. He is the one to blame for what happened on the lawn, he would have seen you killed. There was no way tonight ended that did not include this lesson - I did not bring Nicte here to flirt with you. I am only surprised that he has volunteered for it,” Sarah explains lowly, for her ears only. 

“If I cannot dissuade you from this, then be careful, please. I have only just gotten you back,” Tally pleads, and Sarah is resolute.

“He could not keep me from you with an army at his beck and call. I will see the other side of it,” she promises, tucking a strand of silken hair behind Tally’s ear before turning back to face her opponent.

“Well? Let us get to it,” he demands, “I mean to get my rest so I am fully refreshed when Mr Craven grants me her hand.” 

She will not relish it, she is of sound mind, but Sarah knows that she will not regret killing him. “What weapon would you wield?”

Idiot that he is, he pulls two from a belt at his waist, holding both out to her.“Pistols. 12 paces.” He would fancy himself a cowboy.

Sarah takes the one that balances better in his hand for her own, checks the safety, flicks open the chamber, examines the bullets therein, and lightly polishes the barrel before clicking the chamber back into place.

“Then so be it. You will die as you lived; a worm in the dirt.” She might not relish it, but there is something darkly satisfying about watching his confidence falter in the face of her competence. “Come now, Buttonwood,” she beckons with a feral grin , “Back to back.”