Chapter 1: A haunted house with a picket fence
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.”
Chapter 2: Ignore signs of change no more, I come back, I am flawed
Of the many truths about General Alder that Petra failed to mention, chief among them must be this: She is handsome .
This is the prevailing thought that surfaces from the chaos of Tally’s mind when General Alder turns to look at her, blue eyes sparkling with mirth of her own.
It is arresting, to have the fullness of such visceral attention turned upon her with curiosity - a curiosity Tally readily returns, attempting to get the measure of the witch before her.
Tally can acknowledge that a countenance such as the General’s, with her strong jaw and sharp cheekbones, could easily be as prone to appearing displeased as anything else; a woman with distinguished features would have a reputation for being quick to anger whether it was true or not. There is a striking beauty to it though, as if she had been sculpted by a master, and Tally again has to wonder why there has been no mention made of this by anyone.
The epaulettes of her dress uniform emphasise the strength of her shoulders, and it’s starched lines and shining buttons lend themselves to creating a rather dashing silhouette. She looks every bit the war hero rumours, and the frankly alarming number of medals pinned to her chest, say she is.
“Then it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Craven,” General Alder sketches a small bow as Tally’s name rumbles from her lips. It has never sounded as pleasing to her ear before.
The General straightens, gesturing to a shorter woman at her side who is staring at Tally intently, like she is performing some sort of vivisection in her head. Tally would perhaps be more disconcerted by it if the woman was not also very clearly enjoying watching their conversation unfold. “I would be remiss not to also make introductions for Izadora, she is an old friend of my family.”
“Six months younger than the illustrious General Alder here, but I digress. Glad to make your acquaintance also Miss Craven, and yours too Miss Bellweather,” Izadora addresses Abigail and Tally is swiftly reminded of the circumstances that have led to this introduction, and how they were less than auspicious to put it mildly.
She had shown a remarkable lack of decorum by laughing, but the look on Mrs. Bellweather’s face had been so comical she could scarcely breathe. It was a fault of hers perhaps, that she is quick to laughter when she should by all rights be affronted for the pride of a family that have been nothing but generous and kind to her.
Abigail offers a smile to Izadora, and Tally catches her gaze, apology writ in her eyes, only to be baffled again when Abigail flashes a quick wink in her direction. “Izadora, I believe I have heard of you about town - I must introduce you to a friend of mine, Raelle Collar. I think you’ll find that the two of you have a great deal in common.”
As if summoned, Raelle and Edwin appear from the throng to stand at Tally’s side. “I hope that my ears burning is a result of the truly ridiculous number of men who can’t seem to fathom my lack of interest in the gender, and not any ill being spoken of me here,” Raelle quips, taking in the odd little scene playing out before her with a tilt of her head.
“Quite the opposite, I was just telling Izadora here that she should pick your brain about the more… forensic nature of your work,” Abigail replies, interest sparking in Izadora’s face at the careful choice of words - their message, though unspoken, clear; theirs was a party of witches.
This was Abigail in her element - in their youthful games and conquests she had always been their tactician, and if Tally didn’t know her as she does, this would seem completely innocent. However, she does know her sister, and the quick manipulation of this band of people to allow a degree of privacy for Tally to speak to the General is a sweet, if calculating, gesture.
Edwin and Raelle join Izadora and the Bellweather party, and between Edwin’s good humour and Raelle’s genuine interest in Izadora’s insights, the tension of Tally’s faux pas dissipates enough that she feels like she can breathe again without fear.
All the while, through the show of introductions, General Alder has been watching her, quietly assessing. Tally is quite determined to do the same.
“Tell me, Miss Craven, how are you finding the evening thus far? I recall my own debut was not quite as well appointed, the Imperatrix must have had the room reupholstered,” Alder says with a cynical twist to her lips.
Tally wonders for a moment if she should be polite, as etiquette would dictate, or honest, as the crystalline blue eyes boring into hers seem to be. Honesty had gotten her this far, after all.
“Truthfully I’m finding it all to be quite overwhelming - I did not realise how many people there would be,” Tally observes the carefully held posture of the General, deliberate stillness that could transform to flight at the drop of a hat, and there is a kinship of sorts there; neither one comfortable where they are. “That is to say, I am glad of the variety of potential suitors, but I do wish there were less so the hall was not as stifling - well appointed though it is.”
General Alder barks a laugh, and seems surprised as Tally herself is to hear it from her mouth. “Has anyone told you that you are remarkably disarming before, Craven?”
Tally is highly aware of the flush that spreads across her cheeks, and is only hoping that it can be blamed on the fluster and heat of the room, and not on the barely concealed startled delight with which the General is regarding her.
“Not that I am aware of, although I don’t tend to be well informed of the opinions of others,” that is to say, present company notwithstanding, Tally has not been part of a circle of friends that might divulge that information to her. In all likelihood, she is not thought of at all by her peers.
“Above it all?” Alder inquires without judgment. If there was to be anyone in Salem better versed in the art of indifference to the opinions of others than the General, Tally cannot imagine them.
It is slightly unfortunate that Tally herself is not also indifferent, and more so the people of Salem are indifferent towards her. She cannot besmirch them for that position - they do not know her, have had few chances to get to know her character outside of brief interactions in the marketplace.
There is a sense that if it were not for her sisters, she could disappear entirely and none would be the wiser. “Idle chatter about myself is not something I tend to seek out, when I have the time to spare I much prefer to make some use of it.”
The General considers this, hands disappearing behind her back. “And how do you make use of it?” she asks, sounding genuinely interested in a way that few ever have, at least to Tally’s ear.
“I’m rather fond of horses so if weather permits I ride, and if it doesn’t I might embroider, or play the piano forte, or read.” Tally smiles softly to herself thinking about Roheryn, the beautiful palomino that had been her father’s but had been left to her care in his absence. She has been a true companion for Tally whenever May sears her spirit, always gentle and easy, a balm for the unquiet soul.
Alder coughs, startling her from her reverie. “An accomplished young woman then.”
She shakes her head. “I hardly think so, compared to your accomplishments I’m sure mine must seem terribly mundane.” Would not everything about the quiet provincial life and concerns of the local people seem mundane to someone as travelled and world wise as the General?
A shadow passes across Alder’s face, just a brief flash of something that is tightly controlled thereafter, but Tally sees it, sees the way it tightens her jaw.
“Mundanity can be a blessing,” Alder murmurs, quietly assuring, and even in the midst of all the commotion of the party, Tally hears her, “I would not sell yourself so short.”
How strange it is to feel her heart tumble over in her chest at the idea that the General does not find her lacking. It makes Tally want to fidget, or step closer than propriety might allow and ask what it is about her that Alder is seeing that even her own mother does not. There has to be a line drawn, however, and overstepping the bounds of propriety must be it. If she is to find a spouse, there is no room for uncertainty about her reputation, no misstep she can afford to make in this arena.
“What of you General, how have you been filling your days since you’ve returned?” she asks instead. She does truly want to know.
General Alder sighs. “Mostly in meetings with staff getting up to date on the state of affairs and writing tedious letters to equally tedious people.”
Tally had quite forgotten that General Alder would also be Lord Alder, and expected to conduct a great deal of business even so soon after having arrived.
“I don’t envy you that I’ll admit,” Tally smiles apologetically,“and when you are not suffering through letters and meetings?”
Alder looks at her shrewdly, brow just barely furrowing at the question.“Why does that interest you?”
Tally blinks, surprised - why should it not interest her? How else would she gain insight into who General Alder is but by inquiring about the areas of her life that gave her pleasure? “I suppose I am trying to get a measure of your character.”
This is, seemingly, an unexpected answer. The General draws herself up to her full height, her demeanour shifting into one of severity. It would be a frightening shift, but Tally knows that there is pain that informs it from the storm in her eyes.
“Really? And what conclusion have you reached?” she drawls, lackadaisical in the practiced way that those previously wounded tend towards so readily, but her eyes are intent on Tally,
The reports Petra gave of the General line up much more readily with this version of the woman, on the offense, giving no quarter. Petra had seen it as innate sharpness and a serious nature, but Tally cannot help but wonder if it is not much more of a uniform that the General wears to protect herself. There is a softness to her that Tally can attest to, a good humour and kind nature that are tightly controlled - it would not do for an army General to be anything less than perfectly in control.
“None, so far, excepting that you are not half as stiff as you would have people believe.”
“What makes you so certain of that?” Alder quirks a dark brow over the eyes that give her away so readily.
“If I tell you I am afraid you might change it, and that would be such a tragedy,” Tally says through a quiet laugh, and though she can sense a desire to push further, Alder allows the comment to pass with a shake of her head.
“A keeper of secrets too? You are not at all how I thought you might be Miss Craven.”
Who knows what General Alder might have thought she would be like when she heard her laughter, what opinion of her had been formed by her improper behaviour before they had formally met? It is probably for the best that she does not know.
“The feeling is mutual, General.”
They lapse into silence, the ball continuing in full swing around them, Izadora charming the Bellweathers at the General’s back, but they are still orbiting the other even in the lull, it is comfortable when it should not be. Tally sees Alder’s eyes flick away, to something over her shoulder, and then rapidly back to her.
“What of your family - I see you’re accompanying Collar and Bellweather?” she breaks the silence, the question out of nowhere nearly catching Tally wrongfooted. Whatever Alder had seen had spurred her out of the natural flow of their conversation, and into something more formal, more stiff.
Tally much prefers the General she had been slowly getting to know.
“My father is a merchant and business keeps him in the city, and my mother is of a delicate disposition, so I am fortunate to have in them two dear sisters who will take me along,” Tally glances at her sisters, who seem to be entertaining Izadora greatly with tales of their work, and can’t help the smile that quirks her lips. They are without a doubt the two people she loves most in all the world.
When she turns her gaze back on the General, it is to find that tentative softness shining in her eyes, though they seem much farther away than they had before.
“To have sisters is a tremendous gift indeed,” Alder breathes tremulously, but with such conviction behind the words as to have them lance through Tally’s heart.
What is the likelihood that, prior to this moment, anyone has even thought to acknowledge what terrible grief there must be wrapped around Fort Salem for the General? Tally cannot imagine walking the halls of the Bellweather estate without Abigail’s exuberant voice spinning tales to fill them, or taking refuge at the Collar house if Raelle was not there to sing her worries away. General Alder is the last of her line, that unfathomable loss replicated through her whole family.
Those halls must echo so without them.
It is dancing on the boundary line of what is proper, but Tally cannot bring herself to care - what good is it to be proper rather than human in this moment? She crosses the distance between them and places a gloved hand lightly at General Alder’s elbow. “I am sorry for your losses, General. It must be difficult to come back to Fort Salem without them.”
For an instant, the General looks as though she has been struck, a little gasping intake of breath at the contact, and she closes her eyes briefly, nostrils flaring before swallowing hard and returning Tally’s gaze.
“Thank you, Craven,” she murmurs, stepping out of her grasp, eyes flicking to what Tally can only guess are the varying exits. “I should not keep you, it is an important evening - enjoy it. Good evening.” It is gruffly said, and in the work of moments she has stalked off, leaving Tally blinking bemusedly after her.
When she has gathered her wits enough to realise that standing alone in the middle of a ballroom is not the best way to be spending the evening, Tally slips back into her unit.
The party has expanded slightly, with the addition of the famed Imperatrix, and at her side a young man with dark hair and a bright, easy smile that Tally doesn’t recognise. She should be paying attention, making some semblance of an effort, but her mind lingers on General Alder, the contradictions of her.
It seems that the Imperatrix is just concluding a round of introductions, a glint of calculation in her eyes when they fall on Tally’s distracted form.
“… and this is Tally Craven. Miss Craven, Mister Gerit Buttonwood.” Tally snaps her focus back to the present company, offering Gerit Buttonwood a smile to match the one on his own face.
“Oh, yes, a pleasure to meet you Mr. Buttonwood.” Tally demures. She has a duty to fulfil to herself after all, to secure a good match, even if her thoughts are still filled with the witch who had fled her company, and how warm she had been beneath her hand.
The choice to flee rather than allow herself to fall apart in front of a near stranger seemed an obvious one in the moment. Besides which, Sarah had achieved the goal of the evening; the Imperatrix had witnessed her engaging in a formal conversation with a debutante; thus no slight could be said to have been made against the traditions of High Atlantic society. It is a success, to be sure, another victory won by the great Sarah Alder.
It is confusing then, that it does not feel quite as much like a victory from the corner, watching in shadow as a boy charms Craven, asks her to dance. Or rather, it feels more like a victory does when the celebrating is done and you must go to sleep, and lay there contemplating the terrible acts that have marked you victor.
This is what Craven is supposed to do, the aim of the evening being to meet compatible prospects. With how beautiful she is, a lilac in bloom, she will have no shortage of suitors - there are eyes following her in every corner of the room, even as she steps into the rows of dancers with someone else, they watch and wait for the chance to ask for the next.
Alder cannot blame them, watching the witch move like a ribbon through the steps of a reel, the eye cannot help but be drawn to her. There is a fluidity, a grace of movement that would be striking in a plainer woman, but Craven is far from plain, and the dance becomes something wondrous in her capable hands.
They had been warm, those hands, burning hot and so gentle on her elbow.
She had meant it when she called Craven disarming, and the young witch had only gotten more so as their conversation progressed - it has been a very long time since anyone has seen her as clearly as that, seen through the necessity of the guise of noble militia leader and to the frayed woman beneath it without her expressly deciding they could. It has been longer still since anyone outside of Fort Salem touched her without the intention to harm her.
It has left her unbalanced, the precision with which Craven had bypassed her carefully constructed armour, had found her to be more human than rumour and responded with compassion Sarah had not earned. Miss Craven treated her not as Lord or General, but as a person, and Sarah cannot reconcile it, at a loss - what does one do with sincerity such as that?
Izadora slips through the crowded ballroom with a lightness to her step, eyes seeking Sarah and finding her swiftly enough, tucked back into the curtained crevice from whence they had arrived.
“I am certain I will support it, but for what reason have you retired to the shadows?” Izadora asks brightly, leaning into the velvet fabric so that she too might be concealed.
“It seemed a prudent choice considering I have no intention of participating in this ball any further,” Sarah replies, voice clipped and eyes still following the dance.
Izadora’s brow furrows, and Sarah knows what she intends to say before she opens her mouth. Just because it is true does not mean she would like to hear it.
“I did find myself surprised that you had disappeared - young Miss Craven seemed more so. Did she do something to offend you?”
Sarah snorts - as if the young debutante who she had turned to in mirth after her perfectly impolite laughter had shaken the evening would then have done something to turn Alder’s nose.
“No, Miss Craven is a pillar of gentility.”
“Did you not find her conversation to be amiable? Or perhaps it is her manner that displeased?” Izadora asks in that straightforward manner of hers that others have always found disconcerting but has only ever endeared her to Sarah.
Her conversation, her countenance, all of Miss Craven had been alarmingly pleasing. Finding her displeasing would have been more sensical. Sarah shakes her head.
Izadora shrugs, looking up at Sarah with bafflement. For her part, Sarah is not returning her gaze, focus lost to the whirl of silken skirts and the flourish of dancers parting and meeting again. One dancer in particular held her attention.
“Well then, General, I am at a loss. You seemed to be enjoying her company immensely, and yet she has taken to the floor with the Buttonwood boy and you are snooping from a corner. Enlighten me.”
Sarah sighs, pinching the bridge of her nose. “The object of the evening was to show the Imperatrix that I am not thumbing my nose to the traditions of our society - and Miss Craven was a fine way to achieve that. Nothing more.”
She can lie to anyone, deceive them without question, almost without thought - sometimes deception of the few is necessary to protect the many; her years of war had taught her that. The one person she has not succeeded in deceiving, all her life, is herself. She knows that to say she was engaging with the girl solely to appease the imperatrix is a lie.
The truth, however, that she does not have a good answer for why she chose to spend more time with Tally Craven than was absolutely necessary, that having the Imperatix look on approvingly had made her skin crawl, is not something she is prepared to divulge, or explore further. Not even to herself.
“Then why do your eyes seek her out even now?” Izadora asks quietly.
Sarah does not know.
There is only a week between the first ball and the second event of the season; the Swythe Garden party, but Sarah is surprised to find herself playing host to an unwanted guest only two days beforehand.
The Imperatrix, arriving in obnoxious form as always, sits blythely across from Sarah’s desk, sipping tea from a delicate china cup. If Sarah had her way, the woman would not have been allowed in the door, let alone be drinking tea out of fine china. The biddies agreed in their silent way, lingering in the corners of Sarah’s office playing chess and darning the slashes that remained in her combat wear, meeting Sarah’s eyes with distaste clearly visible to her in their own. The support is appreciated now as it had been when she was a child.
Decorum dictates that she must grant an audience to the Imperatrix regardless of her personal opinion on the matter, and so General Alder finds herself very pointedly standing at the window that overlooks Salem town while the Imperatrix speaks at her.
“I must say, I was pleased to see you participating in the festivities - many in the society had been confident I would have to resort to browbeating or some other uncouth conversation,” she sips from the mug again, and Sarah envisions ripping her from the chair with her scourge to maintain some composure. “That you understand the need for a Lady of the Fort makes my job a much simpler one, General Alder.”
This is unexpected. “Let us assume for a moment that I didn’t understand what you are alluding to, because if I am correct in what I am gathering from your statement, I am not best pleased.” Sarah does not turn to face her, content to pretend as best as she can that the woman is simply not there, in a chair, bullying her way into Sarah’s personal affairs or lack thereof.
The Imperatrix scoffs, as if Sarah Alder is a child still to be scolded, and not Lord of half the state and a veteran of countless battlefields who could, with a breath, cleave her in twain. The notion becomes more alluring with each passing moment. “Come now, must we argue the minutiae of the matter? You know as well as I that the matter of the inheritance of Fort Salem is one that cannot be ignored.”
If Hannah had lived, this would never have fallen to her. Of course, if Hannah had lived, likely there would already be a gaggle of sweet-voiced heirs running around, and the issue of their line would not be so dire. It is also unfortunate that the man Hannah would have had those children with, the man to whom they would have belonged, is the same man that instigated the mob that executed her. His name, and his line, have been burned from the annals of history - of that Sarah has made sure. It changes nothing about the predicament in which she finds herself now.
“The inheritance of Fort Salem did not concern you, or anyone of the society when I was away on the front - the presence in town of a wealthy bachelor must be vexing in the extreme for you all.,” Sarah fumes, the temperature of the room dropping rapidly as she stares fixedly at the alder trees swaying in the wind. “Let me be abundantly clear; I will not have my hand forced on this matter - not by you, and not by any High Atlantic witch who presumes to know better than I.”
On this, she would hold firm. No one deserved that sentence - to be bound to her irreversibly. Everyone that she had ever loved had fallen to keep her safe - first her father, then her mother, then Hannah. To be an Alder was to die an untimely death protecting the youngest of the line, and any witch that was tied to her would suffer the same fate. She was destined to be alone, the Goddess herself had willed it so - there is safety in solitude. For herself as well as any other foolish enough to have designs upon her.
The clink of porcelain as the Imperatrix returns the cup to it’s saucer. “General, I am not trying to force your hand, I am trying to impress upon you the seriousness of your situation. When you die, heriless, there will be wars fought over the right to claim your estate - some of the High Atlantic witches would kill you as readily as they would invite you to their balls. This is a caution to you; if you do not decide the fate of this place, it will be decided by those who are left behind.”
Sarah digs her nails into her palm and physically bites her tongue to prevent herself from revealing just how affected she is by this. It stings all the more for the fact that the Imperatrix, insufferable though she is, has a point. The vultures were already circling, and they would tear the bricks from the walls, divide her birthright up until it was little more than dust, just to say that they were better than the neighbours.
She would have to condemn some poor soul to a terrible death at her side to protect the only true legacy of her family.
With a self-satisfied little harumph, the woman stands to leave, and Sarah lets her without acknowledgment - the gift of the last word a much more valuable currency than any dismissal. She watches her carriage roll off down the drive before she turns away from the window.
It is her duty to protect the legacy of her family, the hallowed halls that had been sacred to the Alder line for generations. She will have no choice but to make an offer to some poor witch who could have no idea the tragedy about to befall her in becoming Sarah’s Lady.
Would her Lady fall to fire or musket or the lake? The bite of steel, looking into the eyes of her killer? Or the noose, staring out at Sarah herself and screaming when the lever falls, as Hannah had?
The biddies quickly give up the charade of busywork when she simply stands there, as if frozen to the spot.
Moving is impossible. Sarah knows logically that she is still in possession of all the necessary appendages to do so, but she cannot make them obey, cannot unclench her fists, cannot stop her breath from quickening, nor her limbs from shaking. She is only glad that her treacherous body waited for the Imperatrix to be out of eyeshot to betray her so completely. It wouldn’t do for the news of her afflictions to get back to the vultures. They would brand her hysterical, and seize the estate while she still lived.
The room spins, and spins, perne in a gyre, and Sarah tries to focus on slowing the draw of her reedy breaths, but it is impossible when her heart is lashing itself at her ribs at such pace.
Concern colouring their glances, the biddies have a conversation that is lost on Sarah, all eye contact and minute gestures, and then Camille is shuffling towards her, lined face understanding.
“It’s alright child, it’s alright, be easy. We have you.” Camille murmurs softly, gathering Sarah into her arms. By far the most advanced in years, Camille is a head and shoulders shorter than the General, but Sarah clutches onto her, the burn of tears hot and shameful as she struggles to draw a breath that is not panicked.
These women had cared for her from her infancy, rearing her as much as her mother had. Back then, she would have readily fallen apart in their care without a second thought for the repercussions. She is ashamed to feel shameful doing so now.
“Breathe with me, you’re safe child. There is no danger here that can harm you, or any other within these walls. You’re home, and we are here with you. Breathe,” Camille speaks lowly, her voice rumbling through Sarah like thunder. The pressure of her embrace is grounding, and Sarah dimly registers, as she attempts to match the measured timing of her breathing, that the rest of her biddies have taken up a tune, humming familiar strains of music that she has not heard since her youth.
“I-is that...the,” Sarah gasps out, teeth chattering, “lu-lul-lulla… song.” It is frustrating to be brought low by something so innocuous as a conversation. After the dreams, or when the shooting brings hunters too close to the grounds, she could justify those unravelings much sooner.
Camille breathes in deeply, filling her lungs, and waits for Sarah to do the same before she releases it. “We have not forgotten many of the ways your family taught us, the songs and stories and traditions linger. The Alder legacy lives in each of us who swore to serve this family, as it lives on in you; Lady or no, heir or no.”
She is fierce in her conviction, and Sarah is reminded of the hundreds of her tears these women had wiped away, how it had felt so strongly like they could cure all her ills and heal all her hurts by force of will alone when she was a child. In this moment, she can feel it - their will, trying to heal the hurt that has seen her return to their care utterly transformed, and knows that they are not caring for the General, or the Lord of Fort Salem, but for the gentle girl who they had lost to the darkness of the world. Tucked into Camille's embrace, in the quilt of the biddie’s song, her mother’s lullaby, Sarah allows herself to fall apart.
Sobs wrack her frame, and Camille holds her steady, anchoring her to the earth. She has faced armies, and murders, mobs intent on wrenching her head from her neck. The terror inspired by even considering putting herself in a position to have what little of her blackened heart is still intact scorched out of her by the loss of another family member is just as potent. How much more devastation could her body hold without bursting? Sarah cannot see herself living through the grief of it again. She also cannot imagine living under the weight of the decision to do nothing to prevent the destruction of the Alder line that her family had died to see live on.
For the first time in many years, Sarah has absolutely no idea what she is going to do, and that shakes her to her core.
As the age old saying goes; drink iced coffee, panic attack.
Chapter 3: No one can be my woman (be my woman)
The morning of the Swythe’s garden party dawns with a soft breeze and sunshine that promises a perfect summer’s day behind the drawn curtains of the Craven house.
The morning of the Swythe’s garden party dawns with a soft breeze and sunshine that promises a perfect summer’s day behind the drawn curtains of the Craven house. Where the Bellweather estate is removed from the bustle of town by grandeur and geography, the Craven house is set intentionally at its outskirts, gates ever shut and curtains ever drawn as to be more easily avoided by any potential visitors.
Within, awake with the sun, Tally sits at a vanity and carefully pins her hair into place up and away from her neck - already cognizant of the heat. Smoothing her powder blue dress once more, she observes herself with a critical eye; she had opted for a more fitted style - the tailor had insisted that this was the height of fashion in Spain, and admiring it now Tally can see why, the garment hugs the natural curves of her body while still offering movement and maneuverability. It is light enough to allow for comfort being outdoors for a protracted period, and the small sleeve and dipping bodice displays the pearls around her neck to great advantage. With the addition of a straw bonnet and short gloves, it will make for a fine presentation.
This does not seem to register with her mother.
Despite bracing herself before tentatively knocking on the bedroom door, Tally is aware that the unforgiving manner of her mother’s address to her will be difficult, as it is wont to be on any occasion that takes Tally from the house. She is abed still, the dark claws of a lifelong melancholy that could neither be cured nor satisfied holding her there for great periods - particularly in the summer months, as if in protest to the natural joy of the season.
“I do not see the sense in you insisting on attending the society events as if any of those High Atlantics would look twice at someone like you,” May Craven sighs, barely sparing Tally a glance, “particularly if you cannot even hold yourself properly - stand up straight.”
If Tally could avoid these interactions, she would - but unfortunately, as her mother’s permission is required for her to be allowed to attend any events at all, she simply has to bear the constant barrage of slights. No matter how they weigh on her, resting in the pit of her stomach like lead, Tally keeps her composure when she is in her mother’s presence. To do otherwise would be to admit defeat, to allow May to draw her into the dark pit alongside her, and once she was down there, Tally knew it would be nigh on impossible to claw her way out again. She straightens her posture.
“How are you feeling this morning mama?” Tally asks, standing resolute at the foot of the bed. When she was a child she might have crossed the room, tried to open the curtains to banish the gloom, but she had learned her lesson eventually.
Her mother purses her lips, sniffing haughtily. “You know my nerves trouble me so, I suffer deeply, and now my only daughter intends to abandon me just as her lamentable father has. How you can stand to do this to your poor mother…”
This at least was not so terrible, the familiar complaints of her own sufferings and ill-usage at the hands of Tally and her father could not burn Tally any longer. May trails off, leaving a silence in her wake that neither woman moves to fill - truthfully Tally is unused to being expected to participate so early on in the proceedings. It is an ill omen to be sure when May Craven waits for her response rather than continuing her invective filled monologue.
Tally makes a distinct effort to divorce herself from this moment, to retreat into her mind, where any and everything is possible and she has already left this house with an amorphous someone who is kind to her. They don’t have to care for her beyond the care one has for any companion - she is not foolish enough to think love will find her - all she can wish for is someone who is kind. That would be enough.
“I would not be abandoning you mama,” Tally says carefully, keeping her words clear and her breathing even lest May spot any signs of weakness or deception, “It is a daughter’s duty to marry well and bring esteem to her family line.”
May scoffs, her eyes narrowing, and Tally knows in an instant that she has made a misstep somewhere. “ Duty ,” May spits, “has taken everything from our line and left me to shoulder the burden of continuing that line alone. Duty sent your aunts to their deaths in the militia, do not deign to speak of duty to me as if you could possibly understand the concept. I know to whom you were introduced last week.”
Tally wonders briefly which of the servants had spied for her mother, who they had spoken to and what had been said, but she cannot lay blame at their feet. They would have suffered May’s wrath much more acutely than Tally did for failing, because Tally had long since realised that nothing she did would be sufficient to negate her mother’s belief that Tally is a failure. Thus, she would fall on her sword, and hold no ill will to the spy - survival in the Craven house is a goal that makes great demands, and often involves stepping on the toes of others to avoid May’s ire falling on oneself.
“What of your duty to the memory of your aunts? Associating with that militia rat, you might as well spit on their graves yourself when it is people like her that drive good witches to an early grave.” May seethes against the pillows, her blonde curls fanning out around her, and now Tally feels the fear tingle across her skin, raising hairs and sending shivers down her spine.
Her mother’s Work is not at it’s full strength, but the rellinquising of control that is so evident in the whipping of wind around May’s head is not something Tally can ignore. Her mother seems indifferent to the growing vortex of wind, and Tally cannot be sure that she has even registered it’s existence. May is dangerous like this - to herself just as much as Tally.
She would not do what she is about to unless the circumstances demanded it. Tally tries to justify the overwhelming guilt that fills her gut when she sings, just one low note that resonates through the room and sends May to sleep. Instantly, the working dissipates, and Tally blinks back a wave of tears.
The sleep seeds were becoming a more frequent occurrence. There are only so many bruises and aches that she can justify Raelle fixing without answering any of her questions about how they had come to be - how could she say that her mother’s magic was so volatile that often she could not control it without also signing her life away to an asylum, or whatever the society equivalent of that would be?
Tally could not bring herself to do that to her mother. In spite of everything, perhaps foolishly, she still loved her.
“I will see you this evening mama, sleep well,” she murmurs, creeping back out of the room, stomach twisting painfully with guilt and sorrow as she shuts the door firmly behind her.
Out in the hall, directing it at no one in particular, but knowing that there can only be so many places for a spy of her mother’s to be stationed when Tally is summoned to her mother’s side, Tally speaks to no one. “I would appreciate it if, in future, you would consider refraining from mentioning anything to do with the militia or General Alder to my mother. Her frazzled nerves cannot handle the resulting furore.”
There is no response - which is to be expected, but Tally knows she was heard. She dabs any stray tears from her eyes and breathes deeply, settling her jangling nerves. She has a party to attend.
“Really, General? Need I remind you that you are meant to be at least outwardly presenting as an active participant in events, and not as an urchin?” Anacostia tuts, half smiling in spite of herself when Sarah levels a halfhearted glare at her.
The split lip and bruised cheek may be unbecoming of a woman of her station, but Sarah cannot bring herself to regret them.
It had been exhilarating, to stretch her muscles and fight hand to hand again - even if boxing in the dank basement of some local swindler is not quite the thrill of combat, it is something. The rush of each bout, of learning her opponents, perfecting her own form and using their supposition of her weakness against them, knocking man after man to the floor, quieted her racing thoughts.
Fighting is comfortable as a conversation with an old friend, and perhaps more comfortable than that for Sarah. The rules clear, the winners and the losers easily defined, the problem of an opponent solved with the knowledge and skills of a seasoned fighter. If all of her problems could be as easily solved as this, Sarah’s life would be much improved.
Unfortunately, there are very few situations in which her skill at hand to hand would solve her problems - no matter how deeply she might wish to unleash the fury of the storm on the Imperatrix. The boxing would have to suffice.
Having Anacostia disinfecting the cut on her lip with alcohol and a strip of clean muslin, and looking at her like she has perhaps lost the run of herself, is quite humorous - both women aware that the other is endlessly fond, even when outwardly being reproachful. She dabs another spot, and Sarah winces at the sting.
“If you’re determined to do that, might I suggest a more palatable vintage?” Sarah jokes, fighting a grin at the resultant eye roll.
“No whiskey before noon, mother, we agreed that to spare both of us our dignity after the first occasion. You might recall a certain incident with a sow?”
She does, vaguely, remember that incident.
“I stand firm that most of the blame belongs to Izadora - I was not the one who suggested we go for a sojourn through the fields in search of mushrooms,” Sarah remarks, “and Truffles is a delightful companion for her, so no harm done, but if you insist, daughter.”
Ana huffs a quiet laugh, and inclines her head - there is no denying that the piglet is something of a perfect fit for their eccentric friend. She finishes the task carefully and steps back, giving Sarah a chance to admire her handiwork in a small mirror.
The dried blood is gone, and the bruising hidden under a thin veneer of glamour; like a netting of work designed to resemble skin. “Try not to get into any other skirmishes today if you could, I don’t think those High Atlantic types will take too kindly to a brawl, particularly not at their precious garden party,” Anacostia snorts derisively - little orphan girls do not tend to receive invites to high society functions, and as such Ana had never attended any of the private events that hallmarked the debut into society.
She, rightly, thought them foolish exhibitions of wealth, all pomp and circumstance, and would tell any who would care to listen that they should not continue just because they are traditional. Sarah agreed. It was her reasoning, that a union should be based on love and compatibility rather than line, status, or wealth, that Sarah could not support so easily. Love and compatibility are not a guarantee, unquantifiable and fickle as judgments of the heart tend to be. No, it is much more sensical to use a union to consolidate power between lines - something measurable and easily delineated, something that cannot be used to hurt you.
“Are you quite certain that you cannot simply attend in my stead?” Sarah broaches, knowing that the response will be the same as it has been all week.
“You and I both know that I cannot. Besides, my father would turn in his grave if I left the estate unattended for something so frivolous,” Ana replies swiftly, and Sarah cannot argue with that. Her father had been one of the most fastidious men Sarah had ever met, taking his role as quartermaster deathly seriously. If the man hadn’t died of consumption, Sarah thinks he might have died the moment he had stopped being able to care for the estate. Anacostia does not hold the position in the same esteem, but it is a close thing.
“No harm in inquiring, I suppose. You can send my hateful, highly displeased at her absence, regards to Izadora, the traitor,” Sarah adds, stepping behind a screen to dress.
“I will, if I see her before you manage to - I do not expect she will be leaving her laboratory at an hour that will be reasonable for either one of us, and I do try so hard to avoid going in.”
She had no need for civilian clothing on the front, and so had been gratified to recently receive a hefty delivery from the seamstress of suitable attire. The biddies had thoroughly enjoyed giving their opinions on each garment as she tried them on for fit, as it had been their great pleasure to give input on what to purchase in the first place.
There had been a variety of styles and garments included, trousers and tailcoats, even a few gowns. The garden party called for light, breathable fabrics and as such Sarah dons a pair of fawn coloured trousers, a flowing linen shirt, and a navy double-breasted coat. With her hair plaited down her back, it is as close to uniform dress as she can achieve outside of her uniform; it is a comfortable compromise to ease her into the habit of dressing less like a soldier and more like a Lord.
Sarah steps out and Anacostia admires her from boot heel to collar. “Very well put together, I’m sure you will find yourself garnering a number of admirers. To whom have you been introduced?” She asks nonchalantly, but Sarah knows her well enough that the shrouded intrigue cannot slip past.
“The Bellweathers, Collars, and Craven.”
Anacostia shakes her head, smiling, and Sarah raises a quizzical brow. “Something amusing?” she asks, fixing the cuffs of her shirtsleeves.
Ana shrugs. “Not so much amusing, only that you have uncannily managed to be introduced only to witch households with daughters debuting, all practitioners - and powerful ones at that.”
Now that is a tidbit that Sarah would readily explore. The young miss Bellweather of course was bound to be a powerful blaster as generations of Bellweathers before her had been. The other two, however… “Are you acquainted with them then?” It wouldn’t do to appear overly interested, as she is not, overly.
“I helped to corral them some, back when they were small and inclined to adventuring on the grounds. They were a real nuisance, always getting into trouble, but I grew rather fond of them. Miss Craven in particular,” Sarah finds herself listening very intently when that name is mentioned, “I found to be a delight. At least I am assured now that you will not be left wanting for interesting conversation in the event that you refuse to make any new introductions.”
Sarah cannot decide whether she should be pleased at the evasion, or irritated by it. “Yes, well, we shall see. I had best be off, wouldn’t want my punctuality to be queried or I might never find a Lady for the Fort.” She says offhandedly, throwing it over her shoulder as she leaves, but pauses as she hears Ana heave a sigh.
Anacostia’s brow creases, and Sarah’s own mimics the expression - although more out of confusion at this response to her words than anything else.
“Would it be so awful if you did?” Ana asks softly, without expectation of a response, which is auspicious in the extreme, as Sarah cannot answer it.
The Swythes’ garden is resplendent - with shapely topiary and flowers blooming, every blade of grass at a uniform length. Their groundskeeper is renowned for their dedication to the craft, and loyalty to the Swythe family as no offer has ever tempted them to defect to another household. Tally can appreciate why they would host this event as she strolls through an archway of seemingly thornless roses with her unit at her side.
“Libba may be an uncharitable irritation of a girl, but even I can admit that she has put on a veritable display with this - did you happen across the dainty little flowers they have garnished with? All entirely edible, and grown here. I do believe she was put on this earth to test me,” Abigail rambles on as they emerge into the garden proper, where there are already tens of people milling around engrossed in conversation.
Tally allows her eyes to skim the crowd only once, seeking, and finding, a very welcome sight; a dark braid resting on strong shoulders at perfect parade rest across the garden a ways. General Alder appears to be alone, admiring one of the many intricately designed trees, and though it is only her back that Tally has to observe, she can see the tension held in her frame like a string pulled taut. It is distracting enough that Tally is taken completely aback when she collides with a child, and has to reach quickly to steady them lest they be sent flying.
“Oh! My deepest apologies, my mind was elsewhere and I did not see you coming along this path, are you hurt?” Tally asks frantically, gently releasing the girl once she is righted on her feet. She is still a child, but when she meets Tally’s eye it is with the knowing gaze of someone many years her senior, and Tally can feel the magic humming through her as clearly as she can feel the breeze against her cheeks. This stranger is certainly small but mighty.
The girl steps back only slightly to more fully engage with their party as a whole, a quizzical tilt to her head as she surveys them. “An accident, please, do not feel obligated to apologize.” She speaks with such formality that Tally has to fight not to goggle at her, the address so incongruous with the girl’s petite frame and the lemon drop dress that adorns her.
“Well, accident or no, the fault is mine and I will own to it. Are you certain you are not hurt?” She asks again, calmer now that there are no obvious signs of injury or ill temper.
Raelle steps forward unprompted, inclining her head in a polite nod. “I can help if you need it, I am proficient in that area.”
At this the girl smiles placidly, and shakes her head. “I am quite certain. My brother should be along shortly, perhaps he can convince you where I cannot.” That settled their plans - as if any could leave a child unattended without feeling dreadfully guilty.
“We can of course wait with you until he arrives, but proper introductions are in order if we are to be friends, no? I’m Abigail Bellweather,” Abigail says affably, gesturing to her sisters “this is Raelle Collar, and Tally Craven.”
The girl dips a little curtsey and over her head the trio share a look at how very adorable she is before she rises. “I am Khalida,” she says with a gravity that is somewhat out of place, but Tally is nearly certain that the earth beneath her feet rumbled its own greeting, “and this is my brother, Adil. We are of the Tarim.”
Khalida folds her arms, and the trio turn to see a man striding towards them all with a half grin on his handsome face. Tally does not have to turn to look at her sister to know that Abigail’s eyes have lit up.
“Khalida, you are supposed to be chaperoning for me, not the other way around - though I see you have made some new friends in my absence,” he speaks with an even tone, not the slightest hint of irritation or anger at what must be a regular occurrence. He too carries himself with the bearing of a person who has age and responsibility beyond their years - Tally would know - and yet he is quick to smile, to laughter.
“I am chaperoning for you. This is Abigail Bellweather, and her friends Raelle Collar, and Tally Craven; now you’re introduced and you can stop fretting over how to get an introduction.” Khalida is awfully blasé about the endeavour, but it turns Adil’s ears red and Abigail’s signature smirk could be seen from 80 paces.
“Khalida. That is not how any of this is supposed to work and you are well aware of that fact.” Adil censures her, but again it is without true anger - it is almost like a teacher trying to guide a wayward student towards a more productive path. He would be tested by Abigail’s bullheadedness certainly, but Tally is beginning to think he may be up to the task.
Khalida shrugs, unapologetic, and Abigail finally, taking mercy on the poor man, steps in. “I cannot fault her for taking the initiative to introduce us, Adil of the Tarim. It would have been a pity to spend the day fretting rather than getting to know one another, would it not?”
The two smile at one another, and Tally glances, thrilled, at Raelle to find her doing the same thing; they are clearly of a mind on this.
“Awjèzómé jìnà?” Khalida asks, the language spilling from her lips like song, ancient and powerful. Whatever she said takes Adil by surprise, his attention drawn back to her.
“Lúràí jìmò?” he retorts, and she nods just once. Adil blinks and turns back to Abigail, clearly confused and yet pleased. “Would you care to join my sister and I for a turn about the garden? In the spirit of getting to know one another.”
Abigail’s answering grin could have rivalled the sun for brightness. “That sounds lovely.”
Tally and Raelle watch them walk away, Khalida between them as a very diligent chaperone, and travel in the opposite direction. Though she had come to the event this morning, Tally had no doubt in her mind that Raelle’s thoughts and affections lay elsewhere, with the brunette assistant she had become acquainted with in Izadora’s laboratory.
“You are not obligated to accompany me Raelle, though Khalida is doing her due diligence, we are surrounded by chaperoning eyes. If you are of a mind to find Scylla, I would take no offence - it is not like I would be alone.” At least, not for very long. Mr. Buttonwood would appear eventually, and the General is still where Tally had first spotted her.
Raelle’s steps falter, considering the offer. “You’re sure? I want your honest answer, not the answer you think you should give me because I am restless.”
“I am sure. Go, do whatever strange experiments Izadora has you roped into. I will be perfectly content.”
With a grateful smile and a kiss on her cheek, Raelle rushes off, and Tally is alone once more. It feels less presumptuous, to join General Alder alone than with her unit, although it should be quite the opposite. Something about the manner of their conversation the other evening, perhaps the turn towards the personal, had made Tally wary of frightening the woman off with too many listening ears. She intends to apologize for straying towards such topics in the first place - it is an unconscious habit born of her knowing, this insight into people, but she should have tried to keep a better handle on it.
The tree Alder is admiring is a work of art of its own, designed to resemble a great bear of foliage, and Tally does not interrupt, merely stands and admires it herself from another angle - where the General could see and acknowledge she was present rather than startle her.
They are silent for a long moment, and just when Tally is beginning to wonder if perhaps she is the one who should speak, it is broken.
“Miss Craven,” Alder says, turning finally to face her, “how are you?”
Tally finds herself rather preoccupied with the General’s state of dress, the shirt collar accentuating her slender neck, fawn trousers hugging what, in the light of day appear to Tally’s eye at least, to be unfairly strong thighs. Always, she is drawn back to those eyes, like turbulent oceans in which she could drown. They have not been far from her thoughts since that first meeting.
“Quite well, and improving by the second, thank you General. I wanted to apologize for how our last conversation ended. I did not intend to drift towards topics that would make you uncomfortable, and I should have known better, particularly in such a setting as that,” Tally rambles, watching a flicker of surprise register on the General’s face.
“There is nothing to be forgiven, Craven,” Alder waves it off, like her apology is a physical thing she can sweep aside, “It was well meant, and my comfort is no one’s responsibility but my own - their deaths are old wounds, and referring to them is not a crime.”
The lack of importance the General places on her own emotional wellbeing is concerning, and it makes Tally’s stomach twist to hear the woman disregard so casually her own comfort, as if it does not matter at all. “It may not be my responsibility, but I assure you that I will take better care with you in future regardless.”
It is softly said, but with a fierce undercurrent that speaks to Miss Craven’s character; for all her elegant manners, there is a steel to her that is somewhat unexpected. The level of insight the young woman has is something Sarah knows she should be wary of - if Craven decided to divulge to people the truth of the great General Alder, it is highly probable that the vultures would make their move. That she has had every opportunity to do so, and has not, speaks volumes. It should not be able to affect her at all, but Sarah cannot help but be taken by the notion of her care.
“Are you vexed thusly by everyone you speak with, Craven?” she asks, delighting in the rose blush that dusts the other woman’s cheeks.
“Only the ones I would care to get to know better,” Tally retorts, “I would find it a great shame to lose out on the chance to know someone simply because I could not hold my tongue.”
“It is not your tongue I would be concerned about Miss Craven, but your expression. You give your thoughts away quite readily on your face.” With an inclination of her head and a raised brow, Sarah begins to meander further into the garden, inviting Craven to join her. It is an invitation the other witch accepts readily, and Sarah would prefer it if she was not so pleased by that fact.
Tally laughs brightly at her comment, and Sarah looks to the closest bush in lieu of the dimples that blossom as she does so. “A blessing and a curse - no one ever has reason to doubt my honesty.”
“I should think not,” Sarah huffs out a laugh of her own, more restrained than Craven’s, but a laugh nonetheless, and she can see the pleased curve that elicits even beneath the bonnet shading Craven from the sun.
They are quiet for a time, strolling together along a garden path that winds around the well tended beds, and it is startlingly comfortable. Only when their path crosses closely to other couples does Sarah become hyper aware of the carefully maintained distance between Craven and herself, a bead of anxiety lodging itself in her spine that passes when they do. Every so often, Sarah finds her eyes drawn back to the young woman keeping pace with her, the breeze swaying the skirt of her skylike dress, the string of pearls resting against her chest, hints of fiery hair pinned neatly beneath the straw bonnet atop her head.
If the goddess has made a more beautiful creature, Sarah has yet to come across them.
“Where are my manners - how are you this fine morning, General?” Miss Craven turns to face her and Sarah hopes desperately that she did not notice the speed at which her own head had turned to seem like she was not already watching.
She should perhaps have refrained from inviting the debutante to accompany her on this stroll, knowing that they are at cross purposes. Miss Craven is here to find a match, and Sarah to avoid one. It is disingenuous to allow Craven to waste her time with her, but Sarah is finding herself reluctant to let her go. That is a definite problem.
“I am well. These are some feats of gardening, are they not?” Sarah diverts attention away from herself, the notion that Craven could maybe read her a bit better than she would like lingering at the forefront of her mind.
Her companion nods amicably, reaching out to caress a vibrant roundleaf orchid. “Oh yes, the Swythes are blessed to have such a deft hand at the helm of their gardening staff. Though I confess I know little beyond flower language, it is quite lovely.” That last is bashfully said, and Sarah wonders idly what could make someone as well put together as Miss Craven be so unsure of her worth.
“I am more interested in exotic plant life myself, but I can certainly appreciate a skilled hand,” She commiserates, content to pause for as long as the other witch desires.
“Exotic plant life?” Craven whirls back to her, doe eyes bright with interest. How people are not struck dumb by such a look, Sarah cannot understand.
“I tend a greenhouse when I find the time to so do, and keep all manner of flowers and plants that I have come across on my travels.”
It is a simplification of the reality; that she has collected seeds and Seeds everywhere she has been, that all the destruction and horror might be cultivated into something living again by her hands. That the dead are not truly dead because their songs live on. It is a mindful process, one that she has hope still might soothe the unquiet dead that haunt her thoughts.
Understanding blooms across Miss Craven’s face, her countenance transformed by it, and Sarah feels it as though it is a physical thing, as if those hands gentle and warm find her elbow again. “That sounds wonderful, a novel way to keep memories of each place and the most beautiful parts of it alive.”
Time and again this witch disarms her, and it should by all rights make her uneasy, but instead Sarah feels something akin to relief. She does not have to explain herself, does not have to attempt to weave a delicate deception to protect her secrets. It is exceedingly pleasant.
“You are quick, Craven, I have had to explain at length my reasoning for this hobby to Izadora - though I do believe that is more to do with her disappointment at the lack of fungal variety.”
Craven glows from even that little morsel of praise. Sarah tears her eyes away, beginning their walk anew lest she be driven to distraction considering the implications of that particular realisation. Spotting the Imperatrix watching them keenly pushes her to adjust their trajectory to avoid the woman.
“I shouldn’t think she will be lacking for much longer, if Raelle is to continue working at her side.”
This much at least Sarah knows to be true - the little that she has managed to see of her friend since their introduction has been filled with ramblings about Collar and her potential. “She is tremendously pleased to have been introduced to Miss Collar, to the point that I have hardly seen her outside of her laboratory for days.”
“There is no harm in enjoying the novelty I suppose, though if it becomes too concerning I can always ask my sister to attend some crisis or other and draw Izadora out that way?” Craven suggests with conspiratorial mirth colouring her tone.
“If things become truly dire I will consider it, or I may have to set Truffles loose,” Sarah counters, matching the conspiratorial tone and quietly relishing the sparkle it lights in Craven’s eye to engage in this way. The General would never be party to idle amusement, but Sarah Alder has always had her father’s sense of humour.
That is maybe what has evoked such interest in her; that in Miss Craven’s company, she has no inclination to be anything but Sarah Alder. It is dangerous, the manner in which Craven has gotten under her skin.
“Feel free to send him my way if you do, I have been trying to convince Raelle to bring her two favourite lab assistants to meet the rest of us,” she laughs, and Sarah raises a quizzical brow.
“Truffles, naturally,” Craven says with a wry grin, “and a Miss Ramshorn she is quite taken with, though she insists that it is just a simple fancy anyone with eyes can see she is smitten. I would be terribly shocked if she did not begin courting her shortly.”
“How fortuitous,” she replies dryly.
Sarah knows that she cannot continue along this line of conversation, about courting and engagement. The trouble in which she now finds herself is entirely of her own making, because it is undeniable that she is partial to Craven - who would not be when the young woman is so perfectly charming? Never in her many years has someone stirred such feeling in Sarah, and she does not doubt that if she allowed it, she could love her as deeply as anyone has ever loved another.
Craven stills, gloved hands clasped at her back, eyes narrowing just slightly. Sarah comes to a stop of her own, and when she meets her eye, Craven sighs. “May I ask you a question that could be considered impertinent? I do not intend it to be, of course, I am just…”
“Curious?” Sarah prompts when her voice trails away into silence.
She nods. “Very much so, yes.”
Sarah is inclined to allow most anything to get the girl to stop looking at her so intently, like she can see through to her bones.
“You are free to ask, just as I am free not to answer - although I cannot forsee a question that you would conceive of that I would consider impertinent; I spent much of my time in trenches with soldiers. I have heard it all,” Sarah tries for levity, and Craven huffs a quiet laugh in acknowledgment.
“I will take that under advisement, although I should hope that you would tell me if I overstep the bounds of your comfort regardless.”
“I will tell you. Please, speak your mind.” Sarah steels herself for whatever terribly revealing question is bound to follow such forewarnings.
“You do not want to be here, do you? Nor at the ball last week.”
Unexpected. “What makes you think so?” It is true, to a degree - although not necessarily so in this moment, when it is just the two of them surrounded by carefully maintained hedgerows.
“You do - or rather your work; it roils around you like unquiet seas whenever we stray close to the Imperatrix, or most anyone else for that matter.” Craven says it matter of factly, as if that is an everyday occurrence, to be able to see the magic of witches around her. It is an astounding feat. Sarah is struck once more by the recollection of all the instances in the short time they have known each other in which Miss Craven has diminished her own worth.
“You can see work, even when it is not in use? That is very powerful knowing you have been gifted.” Sarah attempts to imbue her words with the appropriate degree of quiet awe such a revelation deserves. Anacostia had intimated that all three of these young witches were powerful, and if this is any indication Sarah can only imagine the aptitude of the others.
“Yes, well, it takes a great deal more intention to see latent work as opposed to active workings,” Craven flushes, seemingly shy to discuss her prowess, “but I can see it if I desire to, which is why I am so curious about your answer.”
Her answer? Sarah had practically forgotten there had been an inquiry in the first place, and had so hoped that Miss Craven would as well. She sighs, suddenly exhausted. “It is not that I do not want to be… I mean no offence when I say this, Miss Craven, I hope you will not think otherwise,”
The redhead stands tall and serious again, all traces of her earlier shyness disappearing. “I will extend to you the same humility you have afforded me, General, of course.” It is another kindness that she did not have to give, and offers willingly.
Sarah does not doubt that if she allowed it, she could love this young woman as deeply as anyone has ever loved another. But she cannot allow it, cannot condemn either of them to the awful fate that is attached to taking a place in Sarah Alder’s heart.
And so Sarah does the only thing she knows will prevent that from happening, that will protect them both; she tells the truth. Or at least, a version of it.
“I am wasting your time here Miss Craven. I do not wish to take a wife,” not one that makes her feel the way this woman does, like she is not made for misery when that is all she has known, “I am here mostly to appease the fickle sensibilities of High Atlantic society, and you are right, there is a degree to which I am made exceedingly uncomfortable by these events and yet I must attend.”
There is a pregnant silence after her pronouncement, and just when Sarah is convinced that she has aborted the danger of gaining or holding affection for one another, successfully ruining the afternoon, Craven looks up at her once more. “Okay.”
“Okay?” Sarah furrows her brow, utterly baffled.
“So you are not looking for a wife,” Craven shrugs. “Would you object to my company at these events, at least for a portion of them, anyway?” she inquires tentatively.
Every time she thinks she has found the ground beneath her feet again, Craven pulls the rug out from under her. “Does that not defeat the purpose of the season for you? I would not wish to stand in the way.”
“General, at the risk of sounding terribly prideful, I do have other prospects that I will be perfectly fine with, so if that is your only objection do not worry on that front.”
Sarah is well aware that there are a host of suitors desperate to get a moment of the girl’s attention. That is contributing greatly to her confusion - if not as a prospect, why on earth would Craven waste her time with her?
“Why then would you still seek my company?”
“Curiosity. You are an intriguing woman, and I should still like to get better acquainted with you, aside from which, if I could ease some of your discomfort while you are being made to attend, would it not be much more pleasant for us both?”
Sarah is at a loss to understand from whence a person such as this could have come - who instead of begrudging her for disappointed hopes and misspent hours would offer more of her time just for the sake of offering a friendly ear. She would never dare to ask such a thing of anyone, and Craven offered it without question because, for some unfathomable reason, she cares.
“You are a very singular witch, Miss Craven. Utterly confounding.”
“Oddly, coming from you that sounds an awful lot like a compliment,” Craven replies, a smile curling across her lips, and those dimples coming out in force.
Sarah is not going to look a gift horse in the mouth, particularly not when the mouth is as pleasant as this one. “It is meant to. I would of course be glad of your company if you can spare it.”
“Wonderful!” She cries, and catching someone's attention, waves over Sarah’s shoulder. Her smile softens to something almost apologetic in nature as she lowers her hand. “Alas, I should probably attend to Mr. Buttonwood before his attention is drawn by some other pretty thing. Until next time, General Alder.”
“Looking forward to it, Miss Craven,” she bows slightly and watches the young woman cross the garden to meet the Buttonwood boy, who smiles broadly at the sight of her and offers her his arm. There is a pause, between the offering and the taking, when Sarah could almost swear that she sees Craven turn her head back towards her before she does take the proffered elbow.
It is perfectly proper for a gentleman to take her hand on unsteady ground. Seeing it, however, knowing how her hands feel when offered freely, makes Sarah want to knock the Buttonwood boy into a bush.
And it is with a tremendous sinking feeling that Sarah realises she may be in very grave trouble indeed.
You didn't think it was going to be *that* easy, did you?
Awjèzómé jìnà? - Is she to join us?
Lúràí jìmò? - You would allow that?
Chapter 4: I fell in love with a war and nobody told me it ended
Tally is grateful, of course, to be in such a position, with suitors lining up for a chance to accompany her at a ball or walk with her through a garden. It is just that she is also… conflicted.
Despite General Alder’s assumption that to remain a steadfast figure at her side would repel other prospects, Tally is rather surprised to find that it has quite the opposite effect; the notion that someone like the General could be interested in someone like her seemingly enough to intrigue many eligible suitors. Being seen in the General’s company has enticed a host of High Atlantic bachelors; Buttonwood, Shellbark, Orsatti, Hearst, Garland, all vying for Tally’s favour. It is precisely what she has been dreaming her debut would entail - her options wide and beckoning with each new introduction.
It does not stand to reason then, that the exact thing that she had hoped for is now the source of a great deal of unease.
In her parlour, Abigail sighs heavily, dropping into a chaise with skirts billowing around her. “Let us not act too hastily on this matter - tell it again, Tal, that I might put my thoughts more fully towards a remedy.” In a chair of her own, Tally fusses at an embroidery hoop and avoids meeting her sister’s eye.
The two have been spending a great deal of time in one another’s company solely since Raelle has become acquainted with Izadora and her laboratory, and the mysterious witch that assists her therein. If Tally had have had her wits about her, she would have considered her words more carefully before she divulged her discomfort to Abigail - not for any want of a listening ear, a role Abigail played admirably, but for want of commiseration above actionable advice.
“There is nothing to explain, and certainly no action to be taken - hastily or otherwise,” Tally corrects, pulling needle through cloth with deft hands, “I am being ridiculous, I am pleased, of course, to have such attention. That is what I should be focused on.” It would be far simpler all together if she could do as easily as she can say.
Tally is grateful, of course, to be in such a position, with suitors lining up for a chance to accompany her at a ball or walk with her through a garden. It is just that she is also… conflicted.
Since they had made their agreement at the Swythe’s, Tally has developed an unspoken routine with Alder wherein, for the first half of any event they attend, they keep each other company - often talking but sometimes just in quiet contemplation, until such time as the General can reasonably disappear, and Tally convene with whichever suitor has kept the closest watch. It is, without question, Tally’s favourite part of these evenings, getting to spend time with the General - to Tally at least, she is endlessly fascinating, with a wry sense of humour and deeply intelligent mind she willingly shares, particularly around subjects that hold Tally’s interest, like witch history, modern and ancient languages, art and music.
Often she finds herself enraptured by a tale spun by Alder’s expert hand, and Tally understands how the woman became a leader, because even when she speaks of trivialities it is difficult not to be swept away by her. Tally has discovered that Alder is also an astute and insightful conversation partner, just as adept at listening as speaking, and she is genuinely interested in what Tally thinks or feels about any subject they discuss. It is novel.
More and more, Tally is finding it difficult to tear herself away from General Alder when the time comes to separate, finding her thoughts drifting back to their conversations when she is supposed to be engaging with whichever High Atlantic wishes to court her at that moment. General Alder does not want a wife, and Tally does not want to, cannot , forget that. Even if the only true semblance of connection she has felt all season, or ever if she is being honest, is when they are together. She likes a few of them well enough, the young men vying for her attention, Buttonwood and Shellbark would be suitable matches - and the Imperatrix had put Buttonwood into her path for a reason.
“Tally, you cannot be serious - a lack of affection for any of your prospects is not to be disregarded easily!” Abigail guffaws, rolling her dark eyes to heaven. “There is time yet to find someone that inspires a greater depth of feeling than what you have described - look at Adil and myself; if Khalida had not intervened I would likely be in the same position as you are. We will turn our attention to finding such a person for you at the ball tomorrow night, acting as your personal Khalidas.”
The mere thought of it, of having to feign interest in another self aggrandizing man who will drone on and on at her, and never once try to get to know her beyond what she might bring to his household as a wife, sets Tally’s stomach squirming. Logically she is aware that this is to be her life, and if she cannot find the strength to endure it then she will be trapped in her household forever, which is a far worse fate. She will simply have to choose one or other of the set she has and project a more amorous interest, perhaps acting as though there were unplumbed depths that she is only now getting to explore with them in order to assuage her sister’s concern. That is an endeavour that will take time, until the ball tomorrow at the very least, and Abigail’s concern will not be well kept until then. Tally wracks her brain for a solution, wishing that Raelle were here to assist, and just like that, she has her distraction.
“I don’t believe Raelle will be attending as her beau does not intend to either, and I do not wish to burden you with my petty troubles when you would be much better served spending the evening making Adil fall even more in love with you.”
Abigail narrows her eyes, giving Tally a shrewd look, and clambers to her feet, hand outstretched to Tally, who allows herself to be pulled to her feet as well. “Raelle is not attending? Let us see about that.”
In retrospect, Tally can acknowledge that she should have foreseen their destination quite a ways before Abigail called to Porter to stop the carriage at the gates of Fort Salem. Perhaps if her thoughts were not so consumed by her own worries she would have been able to intervene before the ridiculous plan was in motion, but alas, she finds herself half dragged to the eastern wall, in which they had discovered a hole during the escapades of their youth. Despite countless hours misspent on the grounds, the hole had never been sealed, a fact that they had taken as open invitation from Miss Quartermaine to return as they liked.
“This is perhaps the worst idea you have had to date, and that is saying something,” Tally whispers harshly, “if we are discovered it will be more than a tongue lashing to deal with - do you realise this will bring ill repute on all of us?” Particularly seeing as the majority of their peers have seen Tally in the General’s company at debutante events, and drawn their own (unfortunately) erroneous conclusions about the nature of their acquaintance. If anyone were to catch a glimpse of them sneaking in or out of the premises… it does not bear thinking about what battering their reputations would endure.
“Then you had better join me quickly,” Abigail replies, already dusting her knees off on the other side of the wall. Tally glances around the surrounding hillside, and, reassured that there are no watching eyes, crawls through the stonework after her.
Fort Salem is unchanged - the vastness and mystery it had always exuded as the backdrop for the games of their childhood just as prevalent now, although the draw Tally feels, like a mooring line from one of her father’s vessels is pulling her bodily towards the manor, is new. Perhaps the difference is that before it did not contain General Alder, her presence large enough to pervade the very bricks that composed it.
Skirting nervously behind copses of trees, they delve further into the grounds, Abigail leading the way as she tended to, until she comes to a sudden stop that Tally mimics instantly.
“Is someone coming? Why have we stopped?” Tally asks, eyes darting to and fro, but there is nothing to see but woodland.
Abigail turns, sheepish. “There is, maybe, a slight chance that I have misremembered the directions.”
Tally bites back an almighty sigh, pinching the bridge of her nose. Of course they would be lost. “We are both very lucky that I can See, otherwise there would be no end to the embarrassment of having to admit to the Lord of the Fort firstly that we have broken in, and secondly that we would like a guide.”
She focuses, calling to familiar magic signatures to guide them to their sister, and is gratified to see a winding thread of work snaking through the underbrush. “Come along then, before we really do get caught.”
Pleased as anything, Abigail follows along at her elbow, chattering away about a particularly difficult piece of weather work she has been trying to get to grips with while Tally follows the trail of light that her Knowing revealed to her. So focused is she, that the slowly emerging structure does not register at all until they are soundly within its shadow.
“Well,” Abigail blinks, voice low and awed, “I am not certain what I had envisioned when Rae spoke of a laboratory, but this was not even in the realm of possibility - you’re quite sure this is the place?”
Tally can only nod - this is where the work had led, but it is nothing like she had pictured either. Before them both is a clearing, and within it a glasshouse that even from a distance is imposing, lush with vegetation large enough to obscure the interior totally from view. Raelle had not been the most forthcoming about the laboratory, but the impression Tally had gotten was one of a starkly clinical space, which the domed glass structure certainly is not. It is, naturally, at this moment that a door opens, and an elderly woman steps out with a trowel in hand, spots them both just standing out in the open, and stares.
They stare back, frozen in place - as if they could deny that they were here or avoid detection if they stood still despite the fact that the grey haired woman is staring right at them.
“Devon, if the door is stuck you need only say so, do not injure yourself for something so easily remedied,” a voice that has only lately become so familiar Tally thinks she could pick it out in a crowd of hundreds says, laced with fondness and getting louder as the General herself appears in the doorway, “You can allow me to do that at least, I won’t tell if-- Oh. This is unexpected.”
All four of them regard each other in pin drop silence, Alder’s dark brow arching as she surveys them, and Tally ponders whether it would be better to die of embarrassment here or by the slow drifting into darkness that is sure to follow when her mother confines her to the house for the rest of her miserable life in punishment. Either way, her cheeks burn beneath the questioning gaze that seems to linger on her far more than her sister.
“We are terribly sorry, this is utterly unacceptab-” “Could you tell us where Miss Collar is?” Tally and Abigail speak over one another, but fall silent again at the General’s raised hand.
“Bellweather, if you are seeking Collar you should find her a click due east of here. I suggest you pursue that line of inquiry before I change my mind about allowing it,” Alder says, not even bothering to look as she does so, eyes still holding Tally prisoner to the moment. Abigail hesitates at her side, but ultimately she must obey; they are at the General’s mercy.
“Raelle and I will retrieve you soon, I swear it,” she murmurs, brushing as closely as she dares to Tally on her way. Her hurried footsteps crunching through the foliage fade into the sounds of birds chirping and the rush of water close by. Tally cannot think of anything she might say to better the situation, and so she says nothing, waiting on the judgment of the woman before her.
She hopes that this intrusion will not bring an end to the tentative friendship that has formed between them over these weeks, but could not honestly fault Alder for doing so in response to it. What a pity it would be, to be at odds with this witch whose company has been a bright spot in her days - to whom now would she speak that would allow her to speak her mind truly, to flex the full extent of her intelligence and enthusiasm? Saying nothing of the hurt Tally would feel knowing her own actions had condemned them both to suffer acutely.
Sarah watches as Miss Craven’s silence becomes a weapon of self flagellation, shoulders crumbling inward under Sarah’s watchful eyes, and furrows her brow. “Be easy, Craven,” she soothes as best she can, “I was simply alarmed to find you both here; I am not in the habit of having visitors.”
Which is true - any others that have visited since she has returned to her ancestral seat have been very much unwanted guests, she had entertained them out of a staunch sense of propriety and nothing more. Craven, on the other hand… it is surprising to see her here, of course, and Sarah knows she is supposed to be incensed by the intrusion, but it is rather difficult to be pleased and incensed in the same breath.
There is no denying that she is pleased to see Craven, as she always is; the lengthening encounters they have shared at the edges of dance halls and banquets and garden parties only serving to enamour her to the young woman. By all rights she should be furious, but all she can find it in herself to be is quietly satisfied.
“You are perfectly right to be alarmed, this is a most inconsiderate intrusion - we truly were seeking our sister, I do not know why we ended up on your doorstep when I was looking for her signature…” Craven babbles, dark eyes beseeching, and Sarah knows there can be no falsehoods hidden in their coffee depths from the pallor and flush of her skin, the thread of desperation in the timbre of her honey voice. Though the note about Craven's work is intriguing, to pursue it would be to prolong the suffering that the girl is enduring, and Sarah cannot allow that.
“I do not doubt you, Craven, allow me to put your mind at ease on that front at least. I am not angry, nor am I intending to chastise you for this. If anything,” Alder shuffles slightly, awkward now in the face of Craven’s contrition, “I am pleased to see you. I have been meaning to invite you here anyway.”
That admission has Devon turning to look at her with open interest, and though Sarah knows she will hear no end of it from the biddies, she does not have it in her to regret it. Not when Miss Craven’s bowed head rises to meet her eyes once more, dark eyes warming beneath long lashes, a bashful smile gracing her lips. It sends a thrill of enjoyment through Sarah, to be the cause of such a look.
A gentle nudge to her side from Devon is a startling reminder that she is supposed to do something other than stare at the young woman before her. Clearing her throat, Sarah gestures to the greenhouse at her back. “Would you care to join me a while?”
“If you do not think I would be intruding, then I would love to - it is all rather impressive from this vantage already,” Craven’s smile widens, dimples livening her features as Sarah holds the door widely to allow her ample room to slip through. Devon’s smirk as she crosses the threshold into this most private space is nearly audible and the withering glare Sarah levels at her when Miss Craven’s back is turned does nothing to stem it, though she does shuffle off deeper into the space. Sarah is confident that the other biddies are about to be given a very embellished version of events from Devon, and stifles a groan at the thought of what she will have to explain away later as a result.
The greenhouse is a respite, not oft used in Sarah’s youth, it is a space she could make her own without the spectre of memory dogging her every step - a place to cultivate the beauty from the dirt. It is slow, careful, contemplative work that has been consuming what free hours she can spare, and the resulting explosion of verdant plant life has transformed the place into something of a tropical paradise, an oasis of her own. It is proof that Sarah Alder’s hands are still capable of nurture just as they are capable of violence.
“General… this is…” Craven gapes, turning slowly as she is surrounded on all sides by greenery - jade vines and lady slippers hanging from the branches of palms, the reaching leaves of ferns and timber bamboo, and endless flowers from birds of paradise, hibiscus, frangipani, and impala lilies to orchids and irises, “this is beautiful . We are still in Salem, how can this be? When you spoke of a fondness for exotic plants I never could have imagined...”
Sarah watches her absorb the space, her bare fingers gently caressing dangling blooms, full lips parted in mute delight and wonder, and is filled with the sudden urge to touch , to compare the softness of petals and lips and skin. The urge in and of itself is not surprising - it has been her near constant companion ever since Miss Craven had held her elbow on their first meeting, only becoming more frequent as they have begun spending hours together. It is the potency of the urge that is shocking, so visceral that it has Sarah clenching her fists lest she find herself compelled any closer.
“I cannot claim all of the credit, I do have the advantage of my biddies’ assistance,” Sarah explains, removing her coat and hanging it on the peg affixed to the back of the door for want of something to do with her hands that is not wholly improper, “and the benefit of an… affinity for the elements.” She turns just in time to see Miss Craven’s glance skitter away, colour high on her cheeks - the glasshouse is humid by design, and surely Craven must be warm in the layers of slip and stays beneath her dress.
“Is that a benefit in a glasshouse? I do not know how wise it would be to invoke storms to aid tropical plant growth,” Craven inquires skeptically, following along at the sedate pace Sarah sets leading further into the vegetation, past the fountain and its lotus flowers.
“It would be very unwise indeed, but I am not invoking the storm, you see?” Sarah says with a small grin as they reach the plants she had been working on when Devon had disappeared. Lowly, she sings, layering seed sounds vocally and subvocally in a harmony with herself. This seed had been a gift from an indigenous group in the Andes. They were gone, now - so too were the men that had slaughtered them - but they lived on in song and memory, in the gentle misting of rain that falls from the puffed clouds no larger than those produced by a tobacco pipe that their seeds bring to life. The clouds hover and drift without much need for direction from Sarah, as long as they remain enclosed in this space, they will simply rain themselves out and in doing so water all of the hard to access plants.
The clouds drift of their own accord over Miss Craven’s head, playful, and dust her in a gossamer veneer of raindrops. Sarah opens her mouth to apologize, but is struck by the scene before her - the beaming smile that has lit up Craven’s face, her clouds dipping low to meet the hands beckoning them, and the beam of perfect sunlight that shines through the veil of dew drops on her skin. With it, Miss Craven is a kaleidoscope of colour, a rainbow brought to earth.
“I do not know how you ever leave this place,” Craven says on a breathless laugh, and right now Sarah can certainly see the appeal of such an idea, “and this working is incredible - how on earth did you find it?”
She considers her response for a moment - there is rarely a pleasant way to spin that story, and settles instead on vague allusion and a tight smile. “I brought home a great many things from the front.”
Understanding far beyond what that simple statement should have engendered seeps into those doe eyes, and a part of Sarah very desperately wants to run from the knowingness of it.
“A living memory,” she says softly, and it is not quite a question, but Sarah feels compelled to answer.
“A ghost, of sorts.” Every carefully maintained life in this glasshouse could be drawn back to deaths, some at her hand, some in defence of the lives of others, some senseless, needless losses to bigotry and hatred. Sarah cannot bring any of them back, but she can keep them alive in this way, can attempt to atone for how egregiously she has failed them all, can try to find peace of a sort.
“Are not ghosts just an echo of love, a souvenir of caring with nowhere else to go?” Miss Craven says gently, face softening into a melancholy smile, her attention on Sarah almost overwhelming in its care. It makes her chest ache, to be observed in this way.
Sarah huffs a mirthless laugh. “If that is true then I must be positively overflowing with it.”
It is an attempt at levity, at defusing the profound intimacy they have fallen into in the otherworldly surroundings - they are closer than she had realised, only an arm’s length between them, and Sarah cannot say for certain which of them had moved. Craven holds her gaze, steady where Sarah feels the earth must be moving beneath her feet.
“Love and grief both; you are better acquainted than most.”
How terrifying it is, to be seen so clearly.
“Great love and greater loss - such is the Alder way,” Sarah says wryly, and Craven is still looking at her, the profundity of the tragedy that it is to be an Alder hanging in the silence between them, but there is no pity in her countenance, only compassion.
Pity could be easily dismissed. Pity would allow Sarah some small dislike to hold onto, offer a place behind which she could hide the increasingly unruly feelings she has for the young woman.
“General, I--” Craven begins, taking a tentative step toward her, but the moment is shattered by a loud knock on the door that has both women leaping apart.
“Tally? I have Raelle, we should make haste home. Are you in there? Are you dead?” Abigail calls, her voice muffled by glass and vegetation, but it shakes Tally free from the thrall of being in this near sacred place of General Alder’s.
She knows she must be flushed, averting her gaze, suddenly struck by bashfulness. How had things become so intimate between them so quickly? If her sisters had not arrived when they did, Tally may have said something that she cannot, should not, even allow to cross her mind. It is a lucky escape, no matter how much it may feel like a missed opportunity. “I should…” Tally trails off, making a vague gesture toward the door.
In an instant, the General is the General again, snapping back to military stiffness where for a brief moment there had been tension of a different sort. “Of course, allow me to escort you all to the gate. It would not do for you to lose your way again.” She flashes a grin, and it is almost as if nothing has occurred, the dry humour that had drawn Tally to her in the first place out in force, only something has happened, and Tally doesn't yet know what to make of it.
Tally nods, not trusting her mouth to be capable of holding the turn of her thoughts, and follows Alder, transfixed on the line of her shoulders, the tapering of her waist beneath the thin shirt where it disappears beneath supple leather belt and trousers.
It is most inconvenient, to spend her entire youth becoming comfortable with the notion of marrying for security to whomever was the most tolerable, only to meet someone with whom she genuinely connects but is not in want of a wife. Now that she has felt it, that connection, it seems impossible to go on with some man for whom she feels nothing, and yet she must.
All of these feelings, the urge to splay a hand between those shoulder blades, to stay Alder’s movement so they might remain in this sanctuary for a while longer, cannot be indulged for a myriad of reasons, not least of which being that there is a distinct possibility that they are entirely one sided. General Alder was clear that she had no interest. Tally must remember that, even if she can still see the way Alder’s blue eyes had studied her keenly beneath the clouds like the image is burned into her eyelids.
At the door, Alder dons her coat again, the transformation complete, and holds it open once more for Tally to slip through. Her sisters shoot her nervous glances when Alder steps through as well, closing the door behind her, and Tally shakes her head with a reassuring smile. They are not in any trouble. She may be in quite a bit of trouble, but that is for her to spiral about at a more convenient moment.
Raelle, assured that there was to be no grovelling for mercy, offers a smile of her own, and nods to the General in greeting. “General Alder - my apologies for the intrusion, I will be more diligent in attending to my sisters in future so we might avoid any more incidents.”
Abigail looks briefly offended, brow furrowing and mouth sliding open to protest, but Tally delicately kicks her in the shin. This is not the time for squabbles. The young Bellweather grits her teeth into an approximation of a smile that is a little harrowing and nods.
“See that you are, you are all extremely lucky to have each other, and I cannot guarantee that the next time one of you gets lost on the grounds I will be around to direct you,” Alder says flatly, but Tally has to fight off a snicker at the serious manner in which Raelle and Abigail are taking what is clearly, at least to her ear, meant as a joke, “On that front, I will accompany you back to the gate expediently.”
“How generous,” Abigail mutters under her breath as the General sets off, and their party hustles along behind her. The route is much more straightforward than the one she and Abigail had taken originally - and involved a great deal less hiding behind tree trunks, which cuts the length of the journey considerably.
In what seems like no time at all, the main gate is looming into view, and the carriage parked in the shade of trees just outside it springs to life, Porter bringing it around to collect the unit. Although they cannot get lost from this point on, as it is a straight line, and there has been nothing at all in the way of conversation, Alder walks to the gate with them.
As Porter hops down from his post to hand Abigail into the carriage, there is a squeal, the thumping of multiple feet against pavement, and Tally turns just in time to witness a blurred shape zipping towards her before she is bowled over by it careening into her legs.
She braces for impact, squeezing her eyes shut, but it doesn’t come. Instead, there is a whuff of breath, and a strong arm wrapped around her waist, holding her suspended above the ground. She hopes very desperately that they cannot feel how her heart is beating against her ribs.
“Are you alright, Craven?” Tally opens her eyes to General Alder’s piercing blue mere inches away, laden with concern as they search her for any sign of injury. It makes her breath catch in her throat, so much so that she has to fight to respond.
“Yes, I’m fine, just a bit startled. That is the infamous Truffles I take it?” Tally inquires blythely, as though she is not now focused entirely on how warm Alder is, how blue her eyes are, and the apparent ease with which she is taking Tally’s weight - so much ease that she has yet to let go.
“The very same. Not the most auspicious first meeting, but I can assure you she is usually a delight.” Alder says laughingly. At their back, Raelle begins to coo at the piglet, and the spell is broken - Alder blinks down at Tally, and pulls her to her feet, stepping away to a proper distance as soon as she is settled.
A harried looking young woman who can be no one but Scylla Ramshorn emerges from the trees at a jog, waving something white in her fist.
Abigail squints out at her approaching figure from within the carriage. “Is she… surrendering?”
“Oh, Goddess.” Raelle murmurs, pinching the bridge of her nose with one hand, the other cradling Truffles to her chest. “She’s not surrendering.”
Tally peers as the lab assistant who has occupied so much of her sister’s time gets closer and closer, until she recognizes what is in her hand, and wheels around on Raelle. “Did you give her a favour without telling us?!”
Rae at least has the decency to look contrite, allowing Abigail to smack her shoulder indignantly. “Rae!”
“I think,” Alder mutters, just loud enough for Tally to hear her, “she may have given it without telling the recipient.”
Tally would love to give her sister the benefit of the doubt, except Scylla is upon them, flushed with exertion, pointing at the offending handkerchief. “You… cannot… seriously,” she pants, “have left this... behind, without giving me an... opportunity to... respond.”
Raelle blushes slightly, and shrugs. Scylla laughs, disbelief lacing her tone, and reaches into the pockets of her coat and emerging with a handkerchief of her own. “If you had not been in such a hurry, I would have given you that when you did not have Truffles in your arms, and without the audience,” she waves to Tally and Abigail, who wave back, “Not that I am not thrilled to meet you both, obviously.”
Tally is beaming as her sister takes the kerchief in her hand, smiling down at the fabric. This exchange marked their intent to court formally, and Tally could not be happier for Raelle.
Abigail, on the other hand, having reached the end of her tether for the day, sighs loudly.
“Yes, yes, we’re all thrilled, welcome to the family Miss Ramshorn, I’m sure we will get on swimmingly, but if I do not have this carriage back before afternoon tea I will not live to see another morning, so if we could.”
Truffles exchanges one set of arms for the other, and Porter hands Raelle into the carriage too. Tally makes to join her, and without a word, before Porter can do so, Alder steps forward and hands Tally into the carriage.
It is swiftly over, but the warm and callused grip is shocking; saving her from tumbling to the ground could be excused as a chivalrous reflex. Handing her into a carriage when Porter is attending to them is something else entirely, but before Tally can even thank her, Alder is stalking back down the drive, hands alternately curled into fists and flexing like she has only just realised they are a part of her body.
Tally sits back in her seat, mind racing, and finds her sisters staring at her in utter confusion. “What on earth was that, Tal?” Rae asks.
“I have absolutely no idea.”
They're so stupid guys, cannot be helped, dumb idiots falling in love, I just work here etc.
Chapter 5: But I don't like a Gold Rush
Her mind fixates on each incident through the day, from discovering the witches in her garden, to handing Craven into the carriage, trying to parse how her control could have slipped so thoroughly.
Sarah knows, as she makes a most expeditious retreat from the Bellweather carriage, that there can be no explanation for the way she has just handled Miss Craven - not one that will satisfy the other residents of the estate anyway. It had been an unconscious choice, to step forward and take Craven’s hand, already in motion before she could think the better of it, and over as soon as it began. Yet, the feeling of her hand tucked into Sarah’s own, lingers like woodsmoke in her senses. Soft skin, delicate fingers, the lines etched into her palm against Sarah’s callused one. She can feel it still, no flex of her hand enough to dislodge the phantom weight of Craven’s.
The journey down the drive is at once interminably long - the temptation to turn, to see if Craven’s eyes still linger immense - and terribly short.
There will be no avoiding the japes and jeers of the biddies who, goddess knows, have always taken great pleasure in gossiping. It would be easier to combat if Sarah herself didn’t find the habit so amusing, the usually silent presences coming to life with sharp wit and nigh on salacious humour. She could not begrudge those women any pleasure they enjoyed, not when each had pledged their remaining years in service to her. So, she must endure what ribbing they saw fit to dole out based on the yarn Devon spun for them.
It did not mean, however, that she must subject herself to it right away, she reasoned, slipping quietly through the front door of the manor. She pauses, listening intently, but Fort Salem is silent. A blessing, however slight, that suggests the biddies have yet to return from the glasshouse.
Sarah allows herself to take a breath, resting against the foyer wall in hopes of corralling her racing heart back under control. She could swear it had taken up the hummingbird beat that she had felt through Craven’s ribs when she stopped her fall, and thinking about that reality is not conducive to slowing it any.
Her mind fixates on each incident through the day, from discovering the witches in her garden, to handing Craven into the carriage, trying to parse how her control could have slipped so thoroughly. There had been a moment, just before Bellweather the younger had returned. Something charged, and unbelievably dangerous for the simple fact that Sarah could feel her resolve slipping away like water through her fingers in the face of Craven’s proximity.
Sarah cannot say with any degree of certainty that anything at all would have transpired; in all likelihood, Craven would have finished her sentence in her usual fashion, by seeing Sarah too well for her liking, and they would have continued on as before. Perhaps, if she decides to believe that with enough conviction, it will become the truth.
The honest truth, that the attraction between them is seemingly mutual, is a dire one.
Sarah Alder cannot take a wife. Not one that she cares for, and certainly not one that she could love. She will not be responsible for another life ending prematurely.
She cannot help but be drawn to Craven; she is charming, intelligent, and understands Sarah in a way very few ever have been able to. It does not help that she is also lovely, with those dark eyes and dimpled smile, rare is the occasion that she is far from Alder’s thoughts.
It is a conundrum: Sarah does not want to create false hope, as it would be needlessly cruel to string Miss Craven along - although the young woman is well aware of Sarah’s position on the matter - nor does she want to lose the genuinely delightful companionship they have cultivated either. What, then, is she to do?
Sarah contemplates this as she wanders towards her office. Distracted though her thoughts are, she should at least attempt to get some business taken care of today. Many of her missives of late have been concerned with the movements of enemies to witchkind, particularly those of the paramilitary group that styled themselves as a force to protect humanity through the eradication of witches; the Camarilla. Much like a blight to a garden, any sign of Camarilla requires decisive action to snuff them out before their poison can rot the entire region. The Alder’s had paid the ultimate price for the spread of Camarilla rot, thrice over in fact.
Sarah has done all she conceivably can to end them, but they are insidious, always on the hunt. As yet, she has not heard of any local enough to be of immediate concern, but it is only a matter of time, she knows, before they make an attempt on her life again. If it were not so vile, she would admire the tenacity required to pursue her for nearly a decade now, just to satisfy a singular aim of collecting the lives of an entire set, the whole Alder family murdered.
If Craven was to be associated with her, she would never again be safe, a target just as large as the one affixed to Sarah’s back would attach itself to her, the Camarilla sure to hunt her for sport, to kill her first for the sole purpose of torturing their most elusive quarry, and this Sarah could not abide.
Lost in thought, she very nearly jumps out of her skin to find the office already quite full. The General in her is all that keeps her from openly reacting, allows her to stroll in coolly, affecting the usual bored indifference that the prospect of more letters and ledgers has always created in her. She takes a seat behind her desk, lifting papers at random to give the appearance of being hard at work, and feels the tension ratchet up palpably in the silence as the seven women around the room attempt to hold back commentary on the day’s events.
For several minutes, she reads without taking in a single word, distracted completely by the occasional chittering of whispered conversations around her. She cannot maintain the facade for very long.
“All right,” she sighs, “Say what you must, all this tittering is burning in my ears.”
It is like a dam being broken, a flood of unintelligible jeering, everyone speaking over each other in rapid fire quips and laughter. Ethel, half-moon spectacles crooked across the bridge of her nose, is the first to manage to make herself heard above the masses.
“Who knew our little sapling was such a romantic ?” she trills, and Sarah rolls her eyes, exasperated but fond behind her pages.
Grace tuts, knocking her elbow into Ethel, “I personally found it all very charming - the rain clouds were perhaps a dash heavy handed,” she shrugs, eyes twinkling with mirth, “but overall a well executed wooing.”
Sarah gives up the pretense of working and puts down the papers entirely, an affronted look on her face. “There is no ‘wooing’.”
“Going by the way she regarded your shoulders when you removed your jacket, I dare say there is,” Devon interjects with a smirk, and Sarah knows that her ears will be glowing, the only obvious sign that she is affected at all by that statement, but one that these women are well aware of. Still, she glares at Devon, who returns her gaze without a hint of apology.
“You brought an intruder into your glasshouse and waxed poetic about the nature of love and grief , Sarah,” Fantine adds, and that is quite a bit more detail than they should have had, if Devon had truly left when Sarah had thought. Which, it is becoming increasingly clear, she absolutely did not.
“Good grief, you are incorrigible snoops, did you know?” Sarah grumbles, feeling every bit the sapling they had dubbed her when they chuckle heartily.
Angelie, the youngest among the biddies, shakes her head, gesturing at the rest of the biddies with a smile. “Have you known us to be otherwise?”
Sarah can acknowledge that they are consistent in this regard - two decades apart and they were still just as invested in the gossip and scandal that could be gleaned by a carefully listening ear going unnoticed.
Though she has been largely silent thus far, flipping through the pages of a book in an armchair by the fire, Camille catches Sarah’s eye, and flips another page with exaggerated nonchalance. “If you need assistance in this area, I would suggest recitations of poetry in future. I do not know many young ladies that want to be wooed with conversation about death, but perhaps your Craven is an exception.”
Sarah has barely got the time to be offended by the implication that she would need assistance if she wanted to woo Craven before she is struck dumb by the casual implication that Craven is hers . That line of thinking can only be maddening, because Sarah cannot put this woman in that position, even in her head, and so she scrambles for something, anything, to say in response.
“Can you imagine poetry spilling from my lips? I cannot imagine that Miss Craven would enjoy that either--”
“I can think of something Craven would thoroughly enjoy spilling from her lips, but it certainly isn’t poetry ,” Brigid whispers to Devon, just this side of too loudly, and the joking stops immediately, all eyes wide and trained on her.
“Brigid!” Camille chastens, and Sarah finds she is too shocked to react except to blink owlishly at the biddy in question.
Of course, Sarah knows nothing that is said inside this room will ever be repeated outside of it - except to Anacostia, or potentially Izadora, and they hardly counted - but it is still not often discussed so blithely, and never before have their more ribald comments been centred around an outsider. There is no mistaking what Brigid had been alluding to, and having Craven be the subject of that particular aside… Sarah is not quite sure what is expected of her in this situation. Mostly, she is trying very desperately not to allow the thought to blossom into an image.
“Too much?” Brigid asks tentatively, and the tension is broken, guffaws rending the air as the rest of the biddies relax again.
“A hair,” Sarah replies dryly, just as grateful for the reprieve as any of the others.
“My apologies,” Brigid smiles, face wrinkling up fondly, “we’re just pleased to see you engaged thusly--”
“Engaged?!” Izadora sweeps into her office without regard for the closed door, “If there has been another proposal of courting made today I will not be held responsible for my actions.”
Sarah rolls her eyes. “Izadora, no I am not occupied, please, come in, no need to knock,” she drones, as the witch in question folds herself neatly into the chair across from Sarah’s own, eyes bright with intrigue.
“What’s all this I hear about you sweeping young Miss Craven off her feet then?” Izadora queries, as direct as ever.
“What!?” “ No wooing ? You said there was no wooing!” “I was speaking in jest before but…” The biddies explode into chatter and accusation, and Sarah resigns herself to the headache that will inevitably follow her for the rest of the day.
“You have been gossiping with Miss Ramshorn, I take it.”
Izadora does not even have the decency to look contrite. “From the moment you turned your back, essentially yes - she had much to tell.”
“I cannot fathom why, the sweeping was no fault of mine. That blame lays firmly at your door actually,” Sarah adds, “If Truffles had better manners around guests I would not have had to catch Craven when your daughter bowled her over.”
At this, Izadora gives an affected little gasp, affronted by the implication. “Truffles is the very picture of civility, I don’t know why you would think otherwise,” she jokes, and Sarah huffs a laugh.
“ However ,” Izadora says archly, one eyebrow raised, and there is something about the manner in which she says it that makes Sarah very wary indeed, “I do not believe my daughter can be blamed for the handing of one Miss Craven into her carriage, now, can she, Sarah?”
It is less than ideal that Ramshorn had witnessed that particular lapse in judgment. “I assisted a friend, nothing more,” Sarah lies, the untruth curling around her tongue uncomfortably.
“Of course, of course. I did not realise you held her in this regard - she must be quite something to be dubbed friend by the great General Alder,” Izadora levels her with a look that speaks to the fact that both women are well aware of the poor attempt at deception, “Though I do wonder how well the title will withstand the tests of the season - tomorrow night is the Buttonwood Ball.”
The Buttonwood Ball. Of all possible events, it simply had to be that one. Sarah smiles blandly, refusing to betray any sign of discomfit. This would be a good opportunity, in a way, to push Miss Craven towards the man, and away from herself. She would do well to remember that resolution, when the urge to separate his hand from his wrist as he dances with Craven inevitably fills her every thought when Craven takes her leave of their customary conversation tomorrow night.
“I have withstood far more trying circumstances than this Iza, I will be perfectly fine. I will have a friend’s company, after all.”
“I am not saying this to be dismissive, but have you considered that you may, just may, be giving too much thought to this?” Raelle asks tentatively as she pulls on a vest. Abigail makes a noise of agreement - or what Tally assumes is agreement, but could just as likely be the punch of air being pushed out of her lungs by the tightening of her corset.
Tally herself has managed to get as far as her slip before spiraling thoughts had struck her incapable of dressing further. “I do not believe that I am, Rae - you were there! And now it is all I can think about when I am supposed to be thinking of Mr Buttonwood, is that not grounds enough to be vexed?”
They had gone over every detail of yesterday’s encounter with General Alder dozens of times, trying to parse definite meaning or intention, something that could settle Tally again, but could reach no reasonable consensus. The theory that her sisters’ were determined to latch onto, that the General was enamoured with Tally, did not help matters.
“Tally. There is no ‘supposed to’ in matters of the heart, and these feelings are not something you can worry out of being,” Abigail says, stern voice muffled by the skirts being pulled over her head. “Why are you so opposed to the idea? Clearly Alder has some degree of regard for you too or she would not have been so openly physical with you. This is a positive development, why not enjoy it?”
If it were as simple as that, Tally would of course be overjoyed by the events of the previous afternoon. They were not, at all, as simple as Abigail insisted. The one crucial flaw inherent in both Raelle and Abigail’s reasoning was the assumption that Alder’s regard for her, whatever it was, would sway her from her stance on marriage. It was one of the first things about the General that Tally had learned, that she had no intention of taking a wife. If she had changed her position on this, Tally would like to believe that she would be one of the first to know - they have spent hours enough together in conversation that if that were the case, it could have been discussed. It has not. Tally is perfectly fine with this.
Except, that equilibrium has been thrown off kilter, because Tally knows now. Knows what it is like to be held by her, the quiet strength of those arms, the burning warmth of her calloused palms. The way her own heart had threatened to beat out of her chest at the brushing of skin on skin. She had spent an undisclosable amount of time staring at that hand in the dark of her bedroom, as if it had been changed by the touch. It feels an awful lot like it has.
Such thoughts cannot be entertained, Tally is aware, without leading her down a path without a favourable outcome in sight. If she allows herself to fall any further, she will only be hurting herself - and Tally has lived too much under the blanket of her mother’s despair to be naive in that regard.
“You know as well as I do my reasoning, Abigail. This is not about what I might wish to be true, it is about what is true,” Tally sighs heavily, fussing over the dresses she has brought along, “And the truth of the matter is that I need to be married, and Mr Buttonwood will do the job fairly - he is a gentle sort, sweet in his way.” Buttonwood is jovial of temperament, and while he is self absorbed, Tally could get along with him well enough. Their conversation will never be intellectual, but neither will it be ill intentioned. He is a gentleman, a High Atlantic. She could do far worse.
Raelle comes around from the other side of the dressing room, a concerned furrow in her brow, and rests a hand on her elbow. “Does he make you happy?”
A contentious question. “ I can make my own happiness in this life, but I cannot make my own freedom,” Tally pastes a smile on her face, determined to reassure her sister of her own acceptance of the situation, “So. I must determine how best to go about achieving that, and he is the key.”
“What of your connection with General Alder, then? You are not a good liar, Tally, not to anyone who cares to look - and she is going to look,” Abigail interjects, and Tally turns so she does not have to look at them when she says this next out loud.
“I will have to keep my distance.”
They are silent for a moment, and Tally does not need to see them to know that they are staring at her in shock. This course of action is one she had hoped dearly to avoid, because it will be painful - General Alder is a dear friend, and excellent company. Everything that transpired yesterday only made clear that there is a connection between them, one that is dangerous for Tally’s heart. It is not something she wants to do, but Abigail has the right of her; she is not a good liar. If Alder questioned her about her affections, Tally would not be able to hide the truth, and she would lose her anyway. At least this way, Tally does not have to face that rejection on top of all the rest of it.
“Does that not seem a harsh punishment to enact when she has done nothing to deserve it?” Raelle asks, her tone laced with disbelief.
It is. “It is the only way I can think of to prevent greater heartache for us both. If I allow myself to fall any further into her, I am only setting myself on course for disappointment. Alder does not want a wife,” She stresses, finally turning to face them, allowing her expression to soften at the sight of their apprehension. “We knew going into this season that this would be the outcome for me; I do not have the luxury of time to waste.”
Wordlessly, she is gathered into a hug by her sisters, their melancholy acceptance of what must be done clear in the tightness of their grip around her. “We do not wish to see you get hurt, Tal. Even by your own choosing.”
Tally cannot see a way forward that does not hurt some part of her, but she keeps her silence, holding her sisters more tightly in lieu of responding.
They arrive to the ball fashionably late; in that they are quite late but look wonderful and must therefore be excused. The ballroom is bustling, packed to the rafters with guests, musicians, and staff. It should be an easy task, to get lost amongst the masses, avoiding the General as best she can.
Tally sets her sights on getting to Mr Buttonwood with as much haste as can be mustered while dodging through a crowd with four other people in tow as Abigail and Raelle have been accompanied by Scylla and Adil, and all are insisting that they stay together.
Five sets of eyes are better than one - particularly when that one is refusing to attempt to use her Knowing for fear that it might, as it did when she had gone searching for Raelle, lead her straight to the one person she could not go to. They move as a unit through the room, all seeking Mr Buttonwood in vain.
“This is his family’s ball, I do not understand where else he could possibly be if not here,” Abigail frowns when they reach the back of the room without finding hide nor hair of the man. Tally finds herself wondering the same thing, the inky slide of nerves creeping into her veins, when the balcony doors open, and a flushed and windswept Buttonwood walks in, shutting the door behind him, eyes scanning the crowd and alighting on her with an easy grin.
“Found him,” Raelle says, as they all watch him struggle through the crowded room in their direction, “though it seems it will be a while before he manages to make it over here. There is still time to change your mind.”
Tally shakes her head, and regrets the move almost instantly when her eyes find General Alder on the landing above, standing in the corner alone.
To an outsider’s eye, she would seem terribly intimidating, her face a blank mask as she sips from a glass of something dark and watches the revelry below.
Tally is not an outsider. She can see the nervous tension in Alder’s posture, the worry in the way she spins the stem of her glass between her fingers, confusion in the barest hint of a furrow in her brow, and above all, the loneliness that the picture as a whole, this giant of a woman dwarfed by the shadows of an empty landing, presents to those who know how to see her. And worse still; she knows that she is to blame for all of it.
No matter what choice she made, they would both suffer anyway. Despite the misery of witnessing the natural consequence of her avoidance, Tally has to believe that she is making the best of a terrible lot when she turns away from it, and faces instead the young man to whom she will be betrothed by the season’s end.
“Miss Craven,” he sketches a polite bow, that bright smile never leaving his face, “I’m so pleased you could attend, I was hoping we might get to spend more time together this evening. Would you join me for a dance, if your sisters could spare you, that is?”
He is charming, and the rest of the party regard him warmly when he holds out a hand to lead Tally to the floor. She takes it, smiling coyly, and allows herself to be led. His hand seems so unwieldy somehow in a way it had not previously, engulfing hers more than holding it, and Tally has to swallow the lump in her throat that has taken up residence since she had noticed the General was here alone.
“You have a beautiful home, Mr Buttonwood, it is exactly as you described it. Better, even,” Tally gushes, knowing it will puff his chest out with pride to hear her say it, that it will satisfy his need to speak at length about the tremendous circumstances of his inheritance, and thus she will not be required to speak again for a good twenty minutes. Perhaps she can collect herself during the dance.
Sure enough, as they join the rows of dancers, he is puffed and posturing like a bird. “It is humbling to think someday this will all belong to me. It takes a very particular woman to run a household as large as this one, but I have no doubt that you would be up to the task,” he winks as the reel begins, and they step together, turn, step apart, turn.
“Of course, while my father still lives my wife and I will have the Marblehead estate as our primary steadings, but you need not fret - the trip is only a half day’s ride from here so we will not be too far,” he prattles on.
Tally smiles and nods, wide eyed and pretty and silent; the perfect wife. She very deliberately keeps her eyes locked either on him, or on the floor beneath her feet when the dance calls for twirls.
Step, turn, step, turn, spin.
“Naturally, all ladies are accomplished at the art of home making…”
To some other, less aware young woman, this speech would be the stuff of dreams - he is all but confirming his intentions, and some of it could even be construed as complimentary. None of it has anything to do with Tally at all, or her character, but it is sweet, in its way.
Spin, step, turn, step, turn.
“I am sure you would be a fine mother, and with your beauty and my brains we are certain to have a very successful brood…”
As little as she might care for their father, Tally would love any child she may be blessed to have with every inch of her heart. She would be the mother she had always wished for; affectionate, understanding, and fiercely proud.
Turn, spin, step, turn, step.
“It is lucky this room holds so many, my mother insisted that we must invite all the noble houses to admire the estate now that it has been refurbished…”
Step, turn, step, turn, spin, hold.
Too soon, the reel is in its final strains, the assembled dancers bowing to their partners, and Tally is no exception. She is somewhat relieved that it is over; the dancefloor is very exposed, and Alder’s vantage point would have revealed her presence at a glance - there are very few that can boast of a head as fiery as hers in Salem.
“Oh, General Alder, it’s an honour to finally make your acquaintance.”
Tally has not really been listening to much of what Mr Buttonwood has been saying, but when the words General and Alder come out of his mouth, she focuses instantly, finding his eyes have gone to something, or more likely someone, over her left shoulder.
“The pleasure is mine, Mr Buttonwood, I assure you.” Tally would know that voice anywhere. She breathes deeply, and turns to face General Alder with as much detached-yet-friendly civility as she can muster when what she would truly like to do is hole up in some corner with the woman and just talk for the rest of the evening.
She is closer than Tally had assumed, standing to full military attention and wearing a sardonic grin that Mr Buttonwood clearly believes is genuine. Tally is almost embarrassed, knowing that Alder can likely tell that he does too. When she turns her blue-eyed gaze onto Tally, it is all she can do to stand upright, being faced with her hurt and confusion at close quarters.
“Could I steal Miss Craven for a moment or two? I have some business to discuss with her that simply can’t wait, and I believe I bumped into your parents by the door on the hunt for you,” Alder says smoothly, without missing a single beat, and Buttonwood does not stand a chance when she decides to turn on the charm.
“Please, I’m glad she will have company until I return,” he replies, bowing to them both, that same brainless smile on his face as he trots off, leaving Tally alone with Alder.
For a beat, they are silent, stewing in the conflicting feelings this moment has unearthed, and then, Alder looks at her, lost.
“Did I do something wrong, Craven?”
Is this what I had originally thought was going to happen with this chapter? No. Did I realise pretty far into it that I would have to cut it in half or have a wildly long one? Yes. Hope you enjoyed, sorry it's a little cliffhangery, nothing I could do, take it up with the owners, I just work here, etc.
Chapter 6: Faint of heart, don't call me back.
The young witch startles, laughing nervously, and now Sarah is absolutely certain that something is gravely wrong. “Perhaps we might speak elsewhere?” Craven suggests, still refusing to meet Sarah’s eye, and while she may not be as well versed as Izadora, Sarah knows of at least one place they could go to speak in confidence.
Something is awry. Sarah can feel it, like a breath on the back of her neck, tingling a warning that she has never once ignored, her battlefield instincts always to be obeyed as the true commander of her actions above all else. It is an instinct for subtle changes to her surroundings that had made her such an effective tactician, had kept her alive through war after war, battle after battle. Why she is experiencing it in a ballroom, if Sarah must hazard a guess, would likely have something to do with the notable absence of Miss Craven. Sarah has stood, alone and wondering what could have kept her, for longer than she would care to admit.
General Alder does not attend to the whims of anyone, nor does she tolerate a lack of punctuality. At least, under normal circumstances, she has not, and yet she finds herself overlooking the crowded room from the mezzanine, awaiting Craven. Somewhere in that thrumming crowd, the Imperatrix lingers, eagle eyed, a watchful force keen to report any slip up of propriety, but perhaps more so to tell tales of Sarah’s own lack of interest to the vultures that circle, desperate for control of Fort Salem even now.
It is disconcerting to be left waiting; Craven has never been late before - not since they have started their arrangement. In fact, Sarah is realising only now that the practice has ended, that they both had been in the habit of arriving among the first waves of guests. It is concerning, mildly, that Craven has yet to appear, and Sarah is on the verge of seeking the young woman elsewhere when she spots a flash of copper hair in the far reaches of the dance floor, with who can only be the Buttonwood boy snaking through the assembled guests towards her. That Craven has sought other company should not rankle - it is, after all, the exact outcome that Sarah has been trying to achieve in some way or another since she first clapped eyes on the woman. Yet, rankle it does.
Perhaps it is the lingering pangs of something that remain from their encounter the previous afternoon, but Sarah feels the clench in her chest at the sight of it most acutely. It is a harsh reminder that these feelings are hers and hers alone - why would Craven have avoided their meeting tonight if she was not somehow offended by Sarah’s lack of propriety yesterday? Twice over then, she has made a fool of herself - the first, by handing Craven into her carriage in the first place, and the second by waiting for the girl to appear before her as if nothing had occurred at all when clearly they are at odds. That is the last thing Sarah wants to be.
There could of course be other explanations for this avoidance, but the premier amongst them, that Craven had been waylaid by the Buttonwood boy, has been put paid to already by virtue of the fact that he had been fighting through the crowds to reach her. Sarah’s brow furrows as she mulls the issue over, trying not to stare too overtly at the quarry now twirling across the floor.
Her attention is drawn, just briefly, to another young lady that is vaguely familiar from weeks and events previous, one Miss Saint, as she closes a set of balcony doors furtively behind her, but Sarah does not dwell on her for long, eyes ever drawn back to Craven. She watches the ceaseless manner in which the boy speaks at her while they dance, never once waiting for acknowledgment, or opinion from Craven, watches the dimpleless smile that is pasted to her face as they move across the floor. Is this to be how they will spend the rest of this goddess forsaken season, she wonders, without any relief from the monotonous intrusions of others? Surely this cannot be allowed to continue without explanation - they have spoken at length before on all manner of subjects, why should Craven not offer her the opportunity to rectify whatever predicament Sarah had embarrassed herself into?
If anything, Sarah muses as she stalks downstairs, she is the one who should be aggrieved. Reneging on a standing agreement without so much as a by your leave is done in poor taste, and Craven, as the daughter of a businessman, would know this well. It is also a rather severe punishment for a slight as relatively private and harmless (though how harmless it truly was if it had sealed the girl irrevocably into her mind while also having this effect is to be debated) as Sarah taking her hand had been. She tries valiantly to hold onto this notion, but it slips from her head like silk off a table when Craven meets her eye in that inimitable way she has, blinking owlishly at her for a moment as the other dancers swirl around their stationary figures.
“Have I caused you some offense?” Sarah asks again, searching Craven’s wide eyed gaze for some hint as to the turning of her thoughts, “if I have, you must know it was not, nor would it ever be, my intention to do so. I have no reason to—”
Craven shakes her head, fiery tresses obscuring her pale face as she interrupts. “No, no you… you have done nothing of the sort,” she confesses, and Sarah’s brow furrows further at the note of pleading that threads through her speech. She will not meet Sarah’s eye as she speaks, and any relief Sarah might have felt at the reassurance that she has not caused a rift between them disappears.
“That is something of a relief, Craven, I would have been vexed indeed to have fostered any ill will with you,” Sarah adds, unconcerned for now with the fact that they are the two lone still points in a wave of dancers, “And yet, something perturbs you still.” That Miss Craven will not speak her mind openly as they have taken to doing? That does concern her.
Craven fidgets with the embroidery that adorns the waist of her pale daffodil gown, and Sarah cannot even appreciate her beauty as she usually would, the worry mounting with each second that ticks by without the flood of conversation that is so quintessentially Craven.
“Craven?” Sarah ventures, fighting the instinct to reach out that had gotten them into this predicament in the first place.
The young witch startles, laughing nervously, and now Sarah is absolutely certain that something is gravely wrong. “Perhaps we might speak elsewhere?” Craven suggests, still refusing to meet Sarah’s eye, and while she may not be as well versed as Izadora, Sarah knows of at least one place they could go to speak in confidence.
“Of course - if you are amiable, we could take the balcony? It will offer some degree of privacy if that is agreeable?”
Craven nods, and Sarah leads the way, utilising her height and aura of authority to great advantage to cut a path for them both through the party. She holds the door, beckoning Craven through ahead of her, and pointedly avoids looking for any eyes that may be watching with interest after them.
If Alder had been looking, perhaps she might have seen the stranger whose eyes widened in horrible recognition as she had passed, or noticed the pace at which he had left the ball, headed out into the night with purpose in his gait, as a result. Alas, she does not look, and closes the balcony door firmly behind herself, following Craven out to lean against the balustrade.
The night is warm and littered with stars, the moon shining silver light brightly enough that only half of the balcony is obscured by darkness. The gardens they overlook are in their summer bloom, and the sounds of music, though muffled by the doors, float through the air around them. In another circumstance, it would be terribly romantic.
“I owe you another apology, General. We did arrive much later than usual tonight, but I have no excuse,” Craven breaks the silence on a sigh, staring resolutely out into the night, her gloved hands gripping the banister tightly. “It seems I cannot go a single day without a misstep.”
That is not what Sarah had been expecting at all. “I will accept any explanation you see fit to give, but I do not demand one, Craven,” she says carefully, glancing at the younger witch in the corner of her eye, “and I certainly would not want to be the cause for such a defeated tone.”
Again, Craven shakes her head, huffing out a mirthless laugh. “That blame rests solely with me, General, do not doubt that.”
“I am a very proficient listener, if you would like to discuss it,” Sarah offers, attempting to project an air of earnest tranquility that she certainly is not experiencing.
“Perhaps I should…” Craven murmurs, “It cannot make things any worse.”
This, above all the rest of it, chills Sarah to her core. How awful must what ails Craven be for it to be affecting her thusly? She betrays none of this turmoil on her face, leaning one hip against the banisters and turning a quizzical brow towards Miss Craven, awaiting her leisure.
It is quiet for a long moment, the only sounds those of the party ongoing behind the doors at their backs, and the calls of nocturnal animals indulging in their nightly chorus.
Miss Craven breathes deeply, bolstering her nerve, and speaks, the words spilling out of her in a rush like a spigot has been pulled from a cask.
“I suppose the problem is, and I am aware that it will likely seem quite absurd, that I find I am having… feelings, of a romantic sort, and I cannot gauge whether they are reciprocated, or if I am in fact a complete and utter fool.”
Sarah blinks, allowing the words to wash over her in silence, to settle like lead in her gut. She has no right to the acid sting of loss that fills her veins to hear it; everything is happening as she had intended it to. Sarah should have been prepared for this, that Miss Craven would eventually fall for the Buttonwood boy. It is a natural conclusion - he is eligible, and seeks her out at each event with an agreeable smile and welcoming arms. The two of them must spend almost as much time in one another’s company as Sarah and Craven do, and Craven’s apparent distress during their dance must have stemmed from a nervous disposition about the depth of his feelings.
Sarah is the only fool here. No wonder Craven had not joined her this evening - she had gone straight to Buttonwood, and tried to ascertain if his feelings aligned with hers, and Sarah had interrupted them like some jealous churl. If she did not have such a tight grip on herself, Sarah knows the burning embarrassment she feels would be writ large across her face - as it is her ears are all but glowing, and she is suddenly incredibly grateful for the cover of darkness.
That Craven cares for the boy is a good thing. She deserves that, to care for and be cared for in return. It matters not one bit that her affections lie with him and not with Sarah. This is the way it is meant to be, Sarah chides herself, hoping that if she fosters the thought for long enough she might make it true. She needs it to be true.
“General? If I have caused you any discomfort I—” Craven says tentatively, finally, finally turning to face Sarah with a look of genuine concern.
“No, not at all. I was merely thinking…” Sarah wracks her brain for anything that is not an admission of her own mislaid emotion, and immediately regrets the decision to speak, “I should hold a ball at Fort Salem - I interrupted you tonight, allow me to make right my mistake.”
Miss Craven tilts her head, brow furrowing in confusion, and takes a breath as if she is about to inquire further when the balcony doors creak open.
“I am telling you I witnessed her exit myself, now stop fussing, mother hen or we will have to—” Collar spills out onto the balcony, Scylla, Bellweather the younger, and a prince of the Tarim in tow. Her face brightens into one of deep satisfaction as she gestures to her sister’s baffled visage. “As I said. Perfectly fine, aren’t you Tal?”
Miss Craven’s bafflement has yet to abate, but she offers a slow nod of agreement. “I believe so, yes. Is everything all right?”
Bellweather rolls her eyes at Collar and bites back a smile as she holds out a sheaf of white fabric that has been embroidered around each edge with vibrant colours in patterns that draw the eye. A favour. In an instant Craven is sweeping her sister into her arms, suffused with joy.
“Adil gave it to me a few minutes ago, and I wanted to share it with you first,” Bellweather admits with a grin that Craven returns.
“I am so pleased for you both! How exciting - your mother will be very pleased. Oh, we must celebrate properly! For all four of you, of course,” Craven gushes, utterly incapable of jealousy. Sarah cannot say the same of herself, unfortunately.
“We will celebrate when all three of us are settled and not a moment before, Tally, we agreed, and your time is coming.” Collar remarks, and for the first time since they have arrived into the balcony of her discontent, acknowledges Sarah’s presence with a hard look.
Sarah clears her throat quietly - she had already made the offer, and this was something she could give Craven, a gift of her own to lend towards finding for herself the happiness her sisters had. Even if it would be painful. “We had just begun discussing a private ball at Fort Salem,” Sarah offers, watching Bellweather and Collar’s eyes light up at the suggestion of Fort Salem.
“What a terrific notion, General, a ball at the Fort would be a most excellent occasion for the procurement of favours, would it not?” Bellweather the younger beams at her sisters.
Scylla smirks, a knowing look in her blue eyes. “I am sure Anacostia will be pleased to organize something spectacular, she has often extolled the virtues of a grand ball,” she says sardonically, but none of her compatriots acknowledge the facetious manner of her address. Sarah least of all - she is well aware of how this will be received, why give the girl her satisfaction?
In a move that Sarah can appreciate from a purely tactical standpoint, Craven is surrounded on either side by her sisters and shuffled back towards the door with in depth chattering about Adil’s favour and the circumstances of his presenting it. She watches their party go, the carefully leashed tension that held her together already cracking.
I t is only at the very last moment, as the doors are closing behind them, that Miss Craven looks back, doe eyes filled with apology and confusion, before the door snaps shut, and Sarah is left as she was always intended to be. Alone.
Tally allowed herself to be swept along by her sisters in something of a daze. She has never been more confused in her life than she is by that conversation with the General - Goddess knows what she is supposed to make of it. Obviously, General Alder offering to host a ball at Fort Salem had been an attempt to spare her the embarrassment of outright rejection - and Tally can appreciate that very much - but the way she had looked
in that split second before the doors had separated them all… if Tally did not know better, she would have called it agonised. Had she thought to in the moment, Tally would have used her Sight, examined the magical signature that halos the General at all times for some guidance as to her true feelings, but she had been too caught up in the whirl of joy for her dearest friends to think of it. It is perplexing even days later - why should Alder be so affected if she is the one who does not want Tally?
“Well, it’s official,” Abigail swans into the parlour with a vase full of peonies, a small note card in her other hand, “young Mr. Buttonwood must be proposing at Alder’s ball. He even knew to send them to the estate, that bodes well for the conversation he will have with your father.”
Tally gives a half smile, taking the card and eschewing the flowers for Abigail to display as she likes. Raelle leans over her shoulder skimming the note at speed. “Not the most verbose fellow, is he? ‘Please accept these as a token of my regard, your beauty far outstrips them?’ Is this what men believe women would most like to hear?”
All three laugh at that. Tally rolls her eyes, tucking the card into her skirts. “It is the thought that counts Rae, the gesture is the important thing more than the wording.” It is undeniably sweet. Tally wishes it made her heart flutter the way she supposes other girls’ might, to receive them, and at the prospect of her imminent engagement. “And we cannot know for certain that he will propose just because of these, Abs.”
Of course she is pleased that her chance to leave home is finally within her grasp. It is only that she cannot bring herself to be happy about it quite yet. It will take time, she knows, to overcome the complicated emotions that come with accepting Buttonwood’s suit when she is in… when she is preoccupied with another.
“The only reason he would have gotten a bouquet like this together is to show his intent - and the next opportunity happens to be Alder’s ball,” Abigail explains, setting the vase on the mantle, “We can make an educated guess as to what a man like him would think to do. A private ball attended almost exclusively by witch families? A more perfect setting for a proposal there has never been.”
Tally turns back to the pianoforte, gently taking up a tune again with Raelle perched on the bench beside her. She does appreciate what her sisters are trying to do by projecting so much enthusiasm at the notion of him, but it is pointless. Mr. Buttonwood is a good man, if self obsessed, and in time perhaps she could grow to care for him. She will have nothing but time to do it as his wife. This is a good thing. Even so, her stomach churns and her fingers whirl faster and faster over the ivories.
In the days since their conversation, Tally has oscillated between being glad that she had at least made some effort to express her feelings, one sided though they were, and wishing she had kept her thoughts to herself. At least if she had kept her silence, the possibility of returned affection could have remained shining in her heart, could have sustained her through what is to come. Now, she knows that there can be no one that will love her the way she once dreamed of. Mr.Buttonwood is incapable of loving anything but her beauty, because he does not know her mind or her heart, and that will fade in time. It is one thing to intellectualise about living in a loveless marriage, and quite another to know that it is all you can hope to expect. Accepting that if the General had no feelings for her, as the only person that has ever known her in the ways that matter, then it stands to reason that fundamentally she is unlovable, that May Craven was right.
That was the thought that plagued her, the fear that had dogged her every step since childhood. Tally had not even confided in her sisters the truth of what she had spoken of on that balcony, because to admit it is to admit once and for all that she is every inch the fool her mother always said that she was.
“I know you do not wish to hear it, but I would be remiss not to bring it for discussion,” Raelle says firmly, ignoring Abigail’s glare. “The other evening. I am not sure what exactly we interrupted, but I do know this; that woman was not looking at you with such intensity of feeling for nothing.”
Tally sighs, stopping her playing rather abruptly. There can be no moving forward if she does not allow herself to fall in their esteem.“Raelle, we have been so wrong about the nature of the General’s attachment- I… I told her.”
“Told her what?” Abigail queries, padding over to join them around the piano.
“That I had feelings, of a romantic nature that I could not be sure were reciprocated. And now she is holding an entire ball to avoid harsher methods of dismissal. It is a kindness I do not deserve.” Tally flushes with deep embarrassment at the memory - she did not often make herself so vulnerable with anyone outside of her unit.
Raelle’s brow sinks, face creasing as she tries to understand. “You told her that you feel all of these things… about her? Or just that you felt them?”
Abigail’s eyes widen as she whips her head towards Tally. “What was your exact verbiage, this is terribly important to know.”
“I… I believe what I said was something like ‘I am having feelings, of a romantic sort, and I cannot gauge whether they are reciprocated, or if I am in fact a fool’ ?” Tally’s statement becomes more of a question at the looks of disbelief on her sisters’ faces.
“Tally,” Raelle groans, pinching the bridge of her nose, “she believes that you were speaking of your feelings for Buttonwood , not her. That you were, as friends often do, confiding these feelings in her. No wonder she suggested the ball!”
Surely that cannot be the case, Tally tries to reassure herself as she mulls over everything that had been said that evening for the hundredth time.
“Much as I hate to admit it,” Abigail grimaces, “Rae is right.”
“Of course I am!” Raelle objects, and grabs Tally’s hand in hers, a gentle demand for her full attention that Tally willingly follows. “I know you have said time and again that how you feel has no bearing in this matter, but I believe it does. I saw Alder’s face when you were not looking, and that was not the look of someone who does not care for you.”
“What she is trying to say,” Abigail kneels on the carpet next to Raelle so they are all on a level, and takes her other hand, “is that if your feelings for her remain unchanged, you owe it to yourself to at least give her the opportunity to return them before accepting Buttonwood.”
Her mind is racing alongside her heart, faster with each word. Could they be right? “But what of—”
Raelle cuts across her in an instant. “People can change their position on a great many things for love. Allow yourself, and Alder, the chance to make a decision with all the information on the table. She might just surprise you.”
Tally can scarcely think, so muddled are her feelings. Alder had been very clear on her position, and Tally wants to respect that, but at the same time she cannot deny that there is something more intimate going on between them that has grown with every conversation in the corners of ballrooms and banquets, every quiet smile, the touch of her hand. The look of devastation Tally had seen in the moments before the balcony door closed, that she could not explain nor understand in the moment - could it truly be that Alder had thought she was the one being rejected? For two people who understand each other so deeply, they are at cross purposes a great deal.
For a moment, Tally allows her mind to drift towards thoughts she has been firmly denying space, thoughts of what a future where she is not only tolerated because she is beautiful, but loved because she is herself, could look like. It is a life she has never been foolish enough to hope for, but in the reaches of her heart, has coveted. If it is true, if Alder shares these feelings, then Tally has no choice but to take a chance. It is a terrifying thought, however, that she will have to confess without any guarantee of reciprocity.
“How on earth am I to have this conversation if we are surrounded by people? She is hardly going to be receptive to anything at all if we are in the midst of a crowd,” Tally frets, and Abigail squeezes the hand still clutched in hers.
“Don’t you worry about that, I’m sure I can orchestrate something on the night. All you need worry about is what you are to say, and looking so beautiful she can’t deny you.”
Raelle squeezes her other hand, smiling softly. “She won’t deny you, Tal. I know a woman in love when I see one.”
The basement of Mr. Warren’s homestead is a study in contrasts. The southern half is the picture of civility - all suitcoats and cigars. Sarah could not care less for the armchair gossip of the men who come to this club to gamble, squandering money they could much better spend elsewhere. Rare is the occasion that she can be found out there. If one was to be implored to find her, they should look to the North, behind the heavy wooden door that separates Warren’s business from prying eyes.
On more than one occasion, Sarah has been bruised and battered in the ring that occupied the latter half of this basement. Sometimes it is intentional, that she allows her opponent a chance to get a few hits in. It boosts morale amongst the other fighters, gives them false hope that they could maybe best her in the ring. Keeps them coming back for more. With the amount of battle money they have already afforded her after only two months in the county, Sarah could have afforded a very decent living. Of course, she has kept not a cent of it, opting instead to give where she can to those families that struggle to keep on. She does not fight for fortune, but to clear her mind, to maintain her skill. The former has been much more pressing of late.
Bare knuckle boxing is what Camille would deem a brute’s idea of pleasure, and Sarah can admit that she is not too far wrong; it is brutal. She watches serenely from what is to be her corner as a pair come to blows in the ring, fists flying. They lack finesse, but the assembled crowd brays for them, thunderous in their calls for uppercuts and heavy swings, for this man or that to win them their bet. Sarah is unfazed by any of it as she prepares for her own fight, the next on the listing.
While the men tend to fight bare chested, Mr Warren had stipulated that, as a condition of her admittance to the club, Sarah wear some covering as to not get any advantage. “I would not care less, you understand, but some of these lads are distractible enough as it is, and I do not wish to deal with disputes over something so ridiculous,” He had explained, and Sarah had snorted a laugh and agreed to it readily. At first she had not bothered to change from her everyday wear, fighting in coat and shirt as she had on the front. Now that she is a frequent fixture of the club, she has had the time to decide what the best costume might be, and had settled fairly quickly on a uniform of sorts. Tight britches, supple leather boots, and a wrapped chest. It is manoeuvrable, allowing for full extension of her arms, and cooler by far than any of the other options which is a blessing in the closeness of the ring.
Sarah has many reasons to attend today, not least of which is to avoid the preparations for the Goddess forsaken ball she is to host. More so than anything else, she would forget for a while that Miss Craven has populated her every thought, even appearing in her dreams, every night since the Buttonwood ball - and if she is candid with herself, for quite a number of weeks before that. She could forget for a time the yawning ache that knowing she has fallen for the witch, and would now be expected to watch, offer advice, and support her as she fell for someone far beneath her, had opened in Sarah’s soul.
It is unfair, to have these thoughts when she explicitly refused any chance of an intimate connection with Craven at the Swythe’s party. Worse still, to have them and still hold firm to the principle behind that refusal. It does not make it any less painful, to watch Craven fall into the arms of a man who will never even attempt to know her for the wonder that she is. Yet watch she must. Sarah’s mind has been a mess since that night on the balcony, and the only sure fire cure has always been to fight. Hence her attendance on an arbitrary Wednesday evening when her customary night of choice is a Saturday.
The telltale thud of a body against the floor draws her attention back into the ring, and she watches the man be dragged to his corner, water splashed in his face as the standard 30 seconds are counted down. To the surprise of many around the ring, he wobbles to his feet and stands once more at his side of the scratch, waiting for another round to be called.
Mr. Warren settles to Sarah’s left as the bell is ring and the fighting begins anew, thick moustache shuffling from one side to the other with the scrunch of his mouth.
“There should be just enough time to knock back a whiskey if you’re of a mind to tonight, General.”
Sarah nods appreciatively - Warren is the type of man Sarah can tolerate; quiet, to the point, observant when it is appropriate to be so and oblivious when it is not - and slips from the back room into the pseudo-parlour.
The contrast between the two is almost startling, the hum of polite conversation almost like silence compared with the ferocity of the betting. Sarah knows her way around by now, beelining for the bar cart to grab a tumbler of whiskey. Another positive trait of Warrens is his taste in liquor; nothing so fine as to require savouring, but still peaty and rich at the finish. One whiskey before the bout will not hinder her at all, indeed it is more like the striking of a match to light the fire in her stomach, and the routine is one she has become accustomed to. Clearly, so too has Mr.Warren.
No real attention is paid to her in here, the club members not roused for anything short of bloodshed, so Sarah lingers to drink the dram and attempt to focus. She finds herself stiffening bodily, however, when she hears a familiar voice. Seated amongst a band of equally witless peers, the Buttonwood boy chuckles, brandishing a tumbler of his own as he holds court by the fire.
“She is a pretty little fox, there is no denying that - certainly the best looking of the lot,” he smirks at his companions, “I simply couldn’t have her on the arm of any other. Imagine how it would look to my father if I did not claim the best looking one?”
With her back to their party, Sarah grits her teeth hard enough to feel it in her temple, and listens.
“I will say I was surprised that he would approve of her at all - pretty or no, she is no High Atlantic,” someone interjects, and murmurs of agreement sound all around.
Buttonwood scoffs, “Oh, I have that little problem sorted nicely, don’t you worry about that.”
“How so?” Another voice, curious, asks.
“Well,” Buttonwood’s voice lowers to the point where Sarah is straining to hear it, “I realised quite early on that the circumstances of Miss Craven’s birth were utterly unsuitable, but I could not allow someone with beauty to match mine to be with anyone else. She could be no one else’s, but I needed a High Atlantic wife, and so I found one.”
Blood pulses in Sarah’s ears, a percussive beat like a war drum building with her anger.
“Found one?” the curious voice echoes.
“You might recall Hilary Saint? She has been desperately in love with me since we were knee high, and it did not take much to convince her that I could return those affections. Very… physical , with her affections is my Hilary,” he simpers, “I spoke to her father, and we will marry in a few weeks out of State, she will tend house there, and I will return to have Miss Craven. I will have a High Atlantic heir, and be one half of the handsomest couple in Massachusetts.”
The glass in Sarah’s hand shatters in on itself at the pressure from her irate grasp. This boy is so much worse than she had first imagined - he is not the halfwit he appears to be at first glance, but a snake, cold and dangerous. This is the nightmare to whom she was to entrust the care of the most precious person she knows?
The group chuckles, slapping backs and clinking glasses, missing the sound entirely. “What does Miss Saint make of your grand plan?”
“Oh, I told her that Craven is as cracked as her mother is, and that I am merely making these gestures so the poor girl can experience something of normalcy. She thinks it chivalrous .”
They whoop and holler, celebrating his genius.
“You’re a dog, Buttonwood, but I can’t fault you for trying it. If my wife would not have me drawn and quartered for it, I would take a pass at Miss Craven myself - they say that red haired women are kissed by the devil and know his dance in the bedroom.”
The rage Sarah feels, unadulterated wrath and hatred, has only been known to her on a handful of other occasions. Three, to be precise. It courses through her, demanding blood, demanding vengeance and lightning, storm and fury be brought to bear on these wolves in sheep’s clothing. If she loosed her control just a little, Sarah knows she could liquify them all right here, would turn them to ash where they sat, if not for the overwhelming civilian presence, and two other salient facts; that the Alder name would be destroyed forever, and that Tally’s heart would be broken if she murdered this boy without explanation. Hearing him laugh about his vile plans like they are nothing, like the women he is toying with are nothing, may just tempt her to do it anyway, consequences be damned.
She is preparing to unleash a Seed as vast and terrible as any she has ever heard, when Mr.Warren steps into view, and it dies in her throat.
“General? You’re up.”
This is a Gerit Buttonwood hate account.
Chapter 7: Can I try again, and again, and again?
“Everything will work out the way it is meant to. Right.” Tally echoes, bolstering her resolve as best she can.
Get ready for a beating!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It does sometimes feel like the goddess is conspiring against her, Sarah muses, attempting to maintain a passive visage in the face of the divine fury that courses through her veins. In a manner of speaking, she has been blessed to be interrupted before she committed mass murder. While it would be perfectly justified in her opinion, it would be difficult to get past a jury of any standing whatsoever, and her satisfaction at having obliterated the Buttonwood boy would be short lived. In spite of how tempting it is, and it is tempting, she would only be creating new problems by scorching the traitorous letch from the face of the earth. Her fury will have to be satisfied through other means.
“General?” Warren repeats himself, and Sarah is reminded that there is a finite number of minutes she can reasonably spend here before the whole evening falls apart. With limited options, Sarah concentrates on what her feral heart is demanding at its core; revenge for the two women this boy and his conspirators would ruin for the sake of ego. She cannot kill them, but she can make them hurt.
Turning to Mr. Warren, Sarah offers a sharkish grin. “I will be but a moment longer. Tell me, Mr. Warren, would my opponent this evening be opposed to having a companion in the ring - I would of course be fighting alone, to keep things fair and reasonable.”
“Two against one? Are you quite certain General Alder? I do not foresee it being a problem, nor am I doubting your abilities, but who is this second to be?” Warren frowns.
Sarah rolls her shoulders back, stretching one arm and then the other across her torso, an unnerving calm having fallen over her in the moment that the idea had formed in her mind. “I am feeling like a challenge tonight, Mr. Warren. I have some unquiet thoughts I would like to work through in the ring, and twice the opposition is twice the opportunity to do so.”
“I will not stop you, but I will have to inform the spectators so they may place their bids correctly, and you might consider bringing this new challenger quickly so that the sport is not delayed.”
Sarah nods stiffly once, and Warren hurries back to the ring. This is her window, and Sarah takes it with both hands, near silently weaving work, lips moving and focus firmly on the lackeys of the Buttonwood boy.
“Say, Buttonwood, what about a wager between us before you are too occupied with your pretty girls to attend the club any longer?” The one at his right hand says conspiratorially, and Buttonwood grins, leaning in eagerly.
“You know I am fond of a wager, of what ilk?” He asks, and Sarah knows she has him in the palm of her hand.
“One round in the ring, this second, and whomever lasts longer is declared victor and receives $10 from the loser?” If he seems at all off, Buttonwood is too selfish to notice, particularly once such a handsome sum is mentioned.
“I hope you are prepared to explain to your wife where the money has gone when you lose, John,” Buttonwood laughs, the picture of confidence, and Sarah, or rather John , laughs heartily, sticking his hand out for Buttonwood to shake. Once the agreement is sealed, and Buttonwood rises from his seat, Sarah turns on her heel and slips back into the dark of the boxing hall.
A nod of acknowledgment from Mr. Warren confirms the match is to go ahead, and Sarah makes a show of her final preparations, stretching each limb with controlled movements that came to her muscles almost without conscious thought, focusing intently on grounding herself in her body. It is that, or gloating as Buttonwood swaggers into the room with his posse, the picture of unearned confidence, and Sarah does not want to give the game away. It will be all the more satisfying if he has no idea what awaits him.
Mr. Warren is quickly surrounded by the foolish louts, and though Sarah can read his confusion as they ask to have Buttonwood join the next fighters after she has already suggested it, he directs them to the opposite corner where the other opponent of the evening awaits; a Mr. Joseph Byron. Sarah has faced him once before in this arena, and had a very entertaining bout with him. She had beaten him handily, but he had been a terrific sport about it, and his return to fight her a second time spoke to a lack of the male fragility that plagued so many of her opponents.
“Fighters, to the scratch,” Warren calls, and Sarah hops easily over the barrier and onto the mat, taking her position on the far side of the scratch at the centre without fanfare or pageantry. The regular spectators know her prowess already, the fresh intake more interested in the decision to take on two at once, and whether that speaks of great ability or unearned confidence. Buttonwood clearly falls in with the latter. It is amusing, how the boy scoffs, seemingly unafraid opposite her when he should by rights be begging to be let out of the ring now. Mr. Byron is under no such illusions, inclining his head respectfully with eyes narrowed at her stillness.
One of the many benefits of clubs such as this one is the genuine commitment to secrecy - no business is spoken of outside of trusted company, no matter the state in which fighters leave the ring, the anonymity of the club's members is strictly kept by everyone allowed within its walls. Naturally, Sarah found out about it from Izadora, who once ‘attended’ a bout quite accidentally in pursuit of the floor plans of the Warrens’ home. Buttonwood has no reason to be afraid, nothing to go off of except rumours of her military service, and even those must seem overblown to someone with such little respect for others.
“You are aware of the rules I take it?” Warren asks gruffly, and Buttonwood smirks, tossing his coat and shirt out to his posse in the corner.
“Of course,” he says, “I am surprised they don’t exclude women from partaking - it does not seem very charitable to General Alder here to set her up so completely against two strapping young men.”
Sarah doesn’t react at all; she does not need to, not when Byron snorts so loudly it nearly overwhelms the sounds of the crowd. “Yes,” he chuckles, “it is the General who would require mercy in this ring. I will let you take first crack at her so, should pose no issues to a seasoned fighter like yourself,” Byron drawls, giving Sarah a significant look. It is tacit agreement that whatever she wreaks on the insolent boy will not be intervened upon by Byron, and Sarah allows just one side of her mouth to lift in reply. Much like an owl on the hunt, her focus stays with her prey.
“Right. Well, just in case: no butting, gouging, scratching, kicking, hitting while your opponent is down, holding the ropes, no using resin, stones or hard objects in the hands, and of course, no biting. Fight clean,” Warren entreats them, and backs out of the ring to grab the bell.
Sarah bows her head, the sound of the crowd barking their bets and taunts, the chiming of the bell all fading away to a dull muffled hum beneath the sound of her pulse in her ears, rising as she allows all of the affronted fury she has kept at bay for this moment to flood her senses.
How dare this creature, this nothing toy with the affections of any woman, but that it is Miss Craven on the other end of it, that he would defile her reputation and standing, that he would possess her rather than cherish her, he would break her heart without so much as a twinge of remorse. If Sarah had to hazard a guess, Buttonwood’s reputation, his image, is the sole joy of his life - why else would he be so quick to speak of his infidelities, his wealth, his prospects? There is only one thing that louts such as him would ever respond to, and that is humiliation. What could be more humiliating than being physically subjugated by her in front of his peers? Oh, how she would relish knocking this one down a peg or twelve.
The air ripples almost imperceptibly around her, and Sarah ducks a clumsy swing without ever having to raise her head. Buttonwood makes to strike out with his other hand, and this time Sarah catches it in her own, and uses the momentum and his surprise to whip him to the mat.
He flattens with a satisfying thud, and Sarah does not acknowledge him, adjusting her stance while he struggles to his feet. Byron, for his part, does not move to assist at all in either dispatching Sarah (unlikely) or righting the boy on his feet.
“So that is how we are to play it, eh General?” he says, and Sarah can see the glint of anger at being laid low by a woman who had not even had to look to do it in his eye, “I’ll not be taking it easy on you from now on.”
“I can assure you of the very same, Mr. Buttonwood,” Sarah smirks, and waits for him to return to the scratch, to cross it at pace as he tries to barrel her down, to be just close enough.
As soon as he is within her reach, she is moving, fists blurring with the speed and ferocity of her blows. The first, an upward palm to the base of the sternum, knocks the wind out of his lungs and sends him stumbling back, but Sarah is relentless, dogging his steps and raining heavy strikes down upon him. He stands no chance, and in any other circumstance Sarah would take pity on such a useless fighter, but he deserves nothing so generous or gentle from her. Not knowing what she does of his character.
The adrenaline courses through her body as she lands jab after jab, bullying him up against the ropes, each connection of her fist against his flesh feeding the beast in her chest that demands some sort of justice be done. It is the kind of ferocity that she has only allowed herself to unleash a handful of times before, and she relishes in it because, for once, no one has yet fallen victim to the terrible plots of men. This is a preemptive strike, and she intends to get the full extent of her displeasure across.
Once he is against the ropes, it is a matter of seconds. With her right fist, Sarah slams his jaw, grinning at the way it moves beneath her knuckles, and with the other hand, grabs the back of his curly head and holds it steady. Without a regret, she swings, pummeling uppercuts to his chin over and over until he goes limp , and the only thing holding him up is her hand in his hair. Then, and only then does she relent, dropping him like a rag into his corner to be tended to. He is bloodied, senseless, and likely missing teeth.
“Not so pretty now, are you?” Sarah mutters to herself, and the sounds of the world return to her ears, the crowd absolutely roaring because this is what they have all been hoping to see tonight, an almost reckless display of dominance of the craft. Nothing stokes the bloodthirst of the nobleman punter quite like witnessing the decimation of one of their own. In this case, Sarah is all too happy to oblige.
Satisfied that he will not soon be roused from his slumber, Sarah turns on her heel to face Mr. Byron, who is lounging at the opposite side of the ring. “Here I thought you might have forgotten about me,” he jokes, getting to his feet and into the proper stance.
Sarah shakes out her fists, ignoring the sting of her split knuckles and offers him a grin. “Don’t you fret, Mr. Byron, I believe I have gotten that out of my system,” she quips, and lunges.
Edwin Collar tries to maintain his composure, standing as statuesquely as one can when acting as a glorified dress form for one’s daughter and her friends. All for a worthy cause, of course, and one that he has repeatedly voiced his approval of, much to Tally’s mortification. It does not deter him half as much as she would like.
“You know, I sensed a connection between the two of you the first time I laid eyes on you at the Imperatrix’s. There was something—” Edwin rambles, arm held aloft while three industrious young ladies furiously embroider the dress they have been working on for the past two days. Tally had tried to convince her sisters that they had no need to bother him thusly with such a superfluous project, that one among their number could simply act as the form, but she had been summarily overruled. Hers was the most delicate hand at embroidery, Abigail’s the quickest, and Raelle’s sketches the most artistic. Given such a short timeframe to work with, all of their hands were needed to get the desired result, Scylla was working, Adil occupied with Khalida, and it is not as if Petra was a legitimate option. So, Edwin.
Tally tries not to fumble her stitch or stab the man when she cuts across him. “Mr. Collar, if you could try to give a warning before you speak next, the signal we discussed? I very nearly jabbed you that time,” she fusses, very aware of how painful that could be. It has been a nerve wracking few days, trying to gather her thoughts about the very real possibility that she will be either engaged, happy, or heartbroken by whatever comes to pass at Fort Salem.
“She is only protesting because she is far too modest for her own good,” Raelle laughs, and Abigail grunts in agreement, needles sliding through the satin at the waistband.
“Could she not have been named for something easier to embroider? Of all the foliage in the world it had to be alder,” she grouses, but it is halfhearted at best.
They have had this same disagreement time and again through the process of embroidering each flower and leaf - Abigail was the only one brave enough to attempt the alder cones over the leaves. “You could have simply gone for leaves like the rest of us Abs,” Tally reminds her, tying off another delicate apple blossom to begin another fern. Their work was subtle, all done in white thread on a white gown, only at the waistband and the hem, and small enough to be missed if one was not paying close attention. They had even added a few little buttonwood tree leaves, so as to seem impartial.
It had been Raelle’s idea, to make an overture in this way, one that could easily be missed or explained away if things did not go as Tally is hoping they might. It does not hurt that it adds a great deal of delicate beauty to the gown, which is made of simple white organza in the empire style.
“I could have, but I am yet to face a challenge and turn away from it; Bellweather’s do not shy away from difficult tasks,” Abigail retorts, “All I am saying is that it would have been advantageous for the General to be called something more straightforward, like Daisy. Or Rose.”
“I’ll be sure to tell her that you think so, after all, what good is the name that has carried her line forward for generations if it is a bit difficult to embroider its namesake on a dress?” Tally jokes, although she can see the reasoning for Abigail’s discontent. Everything else they have put into the little garden they have embroidered, carnations, lilac, gardenia, pansy and ivy, are much simpler to convey through thread work.
Raelle snorts a laugh. “Colour me unsurprised to find Tally defending the Alder name, you’re just hoping you will one day get to use it yourself.”
“Am I wrong?” She raises a knowing brow, and Tally flushes pink.
“…No, but we must temper our expectations a bit, don’t you think? We have no way to know what her answer will be - for all of our hoping, I may yet be a Buttonwood.” Tally has been trying to make her peace with all possible outcomes, and it would not be the worst thing, to be a Buttonwood. They were well respected in High Atlantic circles, and she would have a household of her own to tend, away from her mother. Gerit would be a husband her father would approve of, and likely her mother too, given enough time to rage at Tally’s escape. Certainly they would accept him much more readily than General Alder, which only endeared her more to Tally.
“Of course, and that would be a fine choice as well,” Abigail begins pragmatically as ever, only to be interrupted by Edwin. Tally had nearly forgotten he was present.
“But if the choice is between obligation and love, then there is no question which way you should fall dear, you deserve to have all the love and joy this life has to offer to you,” he smiles kindly, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder, as much of a parent to Tally as anyone has been, “Just like my Willa and I had. Or even like your sisters have found for themselves.”
Tally feels the welling of tears in her eyes, the blurring vision a sure fire sign that if she is not very careful, she will lose her composure entirely. One look at her sisters assures her that at least she is not the only one thus affected by his speech.
“Pa, please don’t be sweet to us right now or this will never be finished on time,” Raelle says fondly, “And I don’t think we can account for extra time to dry it if it is soaked with tears.”
“We really can’t,” Abigail sniffs “It would knock us so far off schedule, and all of my careful planning would be for naught.”
Tally has been trying to get the details of those plans out of her sisters for days, to no avail. It has come to the point where she is now suspicious that they intend to attach their names to whatever events unfold without ever having had any sort of plans in motion at all. Still, she trusts them with her life, and if the right thing to do is to keep their secrets, then she will respect that - grudgingly, at times, but respect it nonetheless.
“We couldn’t allow that; A Bellweather battle plan going unfulfilled? Never.”
In the end, they finish working precisely when Abigail intended them to, and release Edwin to prepare himself for the ball with a great deal of gratitude for his assistance. Their own preparations are lengthy and marked by intermittent bouts of anxiety from Tally as each step in the process brings her closer to what is arguably the most pivotal evening of her life. Abigail’s regimented schedule apparently includes slots for the soothing of those anxieties as well, because not once does she press anyone to make haste.
“You look incredible,” Tally smiles as her sisters stand together, waiting to welcome their beaus, “both of you, truly.” Raelle’s suit, trousers, vest, and all, is a stunning shade of green so dark it appears black at first glance, and the shirt beneath it a crisp white linen that accentuates the artistry of tailoring that adorns her. Abigail, as most of the other attendees in dresses would be, is also in white, a gorgeous silk gown with a silver ribbon that adds a flair of unearthly beauty.
“You could say the same of yourself, Tal,” Rae says with a wink, admiring their handiwork. The dress itself is of course beautifully made, the bodice almost Grecian in style, the chiffon flowing to just above the floor giving the appearance that Tally was floating, and their additions are delicate touches of beauty that arrest the eye. With her hair pinned away from her face with a pearl comb designed to resemble a spray of baby’s breath, falling in curls down her back, her gloves perfectly fitted around her elbows, and a tasteful application of rouge, Tally can appreciate that she is truly putting her best face forward tonight. For better or worse, she was going to make her feelings known.
There is something terrifying about that thought, but freeing too. If Alder did not love her, then she would accept her fate to live a life without love, and Buttonwood’s suit both. She lets out a heavy breath, trying to calm her nerves, and is soothed by two arms linking with hers as her sister’s squish her between them.
“Everything will work out the way it is meant to, Tal, I should know, I’ve scheduled it down to the minute,” Abigail nudges her gently with her hip, squeezing her arm reassuringly.
“Everything will work out the way it is meant to. Right.” Tally echoes, bolstering her resolve as best she can.
Fort Salem is all in a tizzy when Sarah returns, final preparations for the ball already well underway, and she does try to be a surreptitious as she can in hurrying from the open front doors to her chambers.
“Finished avoiding all useful engagements then, have you?” Anacostia calls out from her back, and Sarah grimaces. She had hoped to have a moment to hide the state of her fists before she would come across anyone who might notice. Apparently, it was not to be a simple evening in any aspect. She spins on her heel, hoping that her parade rest stance will come off as fluid and natural, and not at all like a ploy to hide sluggishly bleeding knuckles.
“I would never avoid useful engagements,” Sarah retorts with a wry grin, “Hence why I was not part of whatever nonsense has been going on here all week.”
Ana narrows her eyes shrewdly, and Sarah can almost see wheels turning behind them. Whatever it is those sharp eyes see, Anacostia is intelligent enough to keep it to herself - at least for the moment while they are surrounded by labourers setting up.
“Right. Would you care to discuss the plans for the evening and whatever pressing errand took you from the manor this afternoon while you dress?”
Sarah considers her options for a moment. Honestly, the prospect of having a second opinion on the mess that has fallen in her lap would be rather helpful, seeing as she is not quite sure what she should do about it now that murder is off the table. Unless of course Ana agrees that it is the appropriate solution. Sarah would happily put it directly back on the table at a moment's notice. “That would be acceptable, yes.”
Anacostia looks slightly taken aback. “I had prepared to argue my case for the necessity of such a discussion.” What she is not saying, that Sarah’s easy acquiescence has worried her, is apparent in the furrow of her brow.
“Would you prefer to argue? I can of course provide that experience for you if you feel unfulfilled by its absence.” Sarah throws over her shoulder, already walking away, and Ana huffs a mirthful laugh before following.
Sarah is only half surprised to find her chambers occupied already. “Iza, lovely, I will not have to explain everything twice.” Izadora turns away from the mirror, holding two gowns to her chest.
“Which of these better conveys ghostly wraith to you?” She asks as they close the door, “I feel that both naturally would suggest banshee, but I’m hoping for a little more… je ne sais quoi.”
“The one on the left,” Anacostia says, folding herself into a chair and fixing Sarah with one of her the best expectant looks, “Now. Which would you like to get out of the way first - my business, or yours?”
Sarah would rather not have to speak about any of this at all, would rather none of it be happening, but there is nothing to be done about that. She sighs, and opens her armoire to fetch her finest regalia; a dark navy blue with gold at the cuffs, epaulettes, and collar, gold buttons, red sash, and… “Who put my medals - actually, A better question, who knew where my medals were to put them on this?”
Izadora rolls her eyes at the affronted tone. “Sarah, are we here to discuss the perfectly reasonable decision to proudly wear accolades you earned, or are we here to discuss whatever it was that Anacostia was speaking about?”
Sarah glares at her old friend, but concedes the point. “Fine. You may as well start us off,” she says, stepping behind the dressing screen.
“Everything has been arranged, the musicians are setting up in the ballroom, and I took the liberty of opening a handful of other rooms - nothing private, the living room, a parlour or two,” Anacostia begins as Sarah shimmies out of her clothes, trying not to wince when they graze the raw skin of her fists. “The biddies have taken over instructing the servers, and the doormen and valets are versed in their roles - no one who does not present an invitation will be allowed inside.”
Sarah hums, sliding into her trousers. “Good, although the walls are warded, and as long as they stand whole as they have done these many years, no enemy of witch kind may enter here - invitation be damned.”
“If you have no questions, then that is the extent of my report.”
The expectant silence that follows hangs heavy in the air.
“At what stage in the proceedings should I address the elephant in the room?” Izadora chimes brightly from the other side of the screen, “Because this is all getting a tad ridiculous now - you are throwing a ball to… what, exactly? Convince yourself that you do not care for the Craven girl? Or to convince her that she does not care for you?”
“Neither,” Sarah grits out, glad for the relative solitude that the screen provides so they cannot see the contortions of her face as she tries to explain herself without finding herself just as angry as she had been a handful of hours ago. “Originally it was meant as an… appeasement of sorts. I had interrupted… it does not matter now. I had intended to provide Miss Craven and Mr. Buttonwood an opportune moment to formalise their courtship—”
“You what!?” Anacostia asks, shock lacing her tone.
Sarah sighs heavily, exhaustion suddenly settling over her. She has spent days struggling with that reality, the fact that she is the one who would be hurting herself in this, but so sure that it was the best thing to do for all of their sakes. How wrong she has been.
“My predicament is this; at the club this evening I was witness to a conversation during which Buttonwood admitted that he is intending to take two wives - the first to live out of state, and the second to be, namely, Miss Craven.”
There is a moment where that proclamation is being processed, and there is absolute silence. Then, there is uproar.
“That conniving little bastard! I have a mind to…” “How dare he do such a thing! And to Miss Craven, a nicer girl you couldn’t find—”
“I am aware, believe me, I am of the same mind. It was one of the most disgusting conversations I have ever been privy to,” Sarah growls remembering it, closing her buttons with a touch more force than is necessary. “Still, I am left in a difficult position now - I have already shown him what I think of him, but Miss Craven… loves the boy. Am I to break her heart in a crowded ballroom?” she asks, heart clenching at the thought of it, “or do I wait, knowing what I do, for a more appropriate setting?”
Sarah steps out from behind the screen, taking her hair down from its customary braid as she looks to her friends for advice. The query, and its broader implications, weighs heavy on them all.
“Funnily enough, I may be able to assist you in this,” Izadora mutters almost as if she is speaking to herself, “Scylla is attending tonight with Raelle Collar - I can have them get Miss Craven to you, away from all the hubbub. It will be a matter of timing it precisely so no one is aware of your absences… I will go and inform Scylla posthaste.” She makes to leave, but Anacostia stops her with a hand on her arm.
“Iz, you cannot tell Scylla the reason for this - no one else should be made aware of Buttonwood’s treachery before Craven herself is. This will be difficult enough as it is without having to confront her friends about their prior knowledge.”
“I am not completely without tact, Ana. Only mostly,” she winks, and if Sarah wasn’t mistaken, she could swear the colour rises in Anacostia’s cheeks. When Ana looks back, Sarah is fighting a losing battle with a smirk.
“Oh, don’t you start.”
“I said nothing,” Sarah grins, “why, is there something to say about Iz ?” The boot she has to dodge is a worthy price to pay.
If the majesty of Fort Salem is notable from its exterior, then its interior is utterly remarkable in a way that none of the other noble houses could ever dream of replicating. Every step reveals some new treasure to Tally’s eye, be it art or architecture, and she is not the only one experiencing a certain level of astonishment at the manor as they flow with the rest of the guests through the foyer and into a grand ballroom. Above the doors, a relief of the Alder family crest - a griffin’s head over three ermine crescents on a field of red - mounted over two scourges serves to remind any who might have forgotten to whom all of this splendour belongs.
As the most well versed in High Atlantic whims, Abigail’s running commentary on the quality of the marble, the origins of works of art, and the value of various others, only serves to add to Tally’s anxiety at the whole thing. Who is she to think she might be of interest to a woman who comes from all of this?
“None of that, I can almost feel you spiralling - there is no need to. If Alder wanted a High Atlantic, trust that she would have one,” Raelle murmurs under Abigail’s spiel, “But she has not even attempted to get to know a single person in town but you. You have nothing to fret about.”
Tally huffs a laugh. Her sisters know her better than she knows herself it seems. “If she wanted me she could have me already, but instead we are here with some harebrained scheme underway to give me a chance to confess and humiliate myself. I would say that is enough to be getting on with in terms of fretting.”
“It is not harebrained, it’s very well conceived I will have you know!” Abigail chimes in, taking a breath finally having run out of tidbits about the vast wealth on display in the room. “Harebrained would be the original plan, in which we would lock the two of you in a pantry or some such until you were forced by proximity to either fall deeply in love or kill each other.”
Tally looks at her sister, who seems deadly serious, in alarm. “Your first idea was to include murder?!” Abigail for her part merely shrugs.
“That was the worst case scenario - when I pitched it to Rae I imagined it would much more likely involve quite a lot of se—”
Raelle slaps a hand over Abigail’s mouth, smiling sweetly at a passing biddy.
“Oh goddess,” Tally groans, and knows her face is aflame, “must you?” The very last thing she needs to be concerned about right now is adding another layer to the struggle that will be having this conversation without losing the run of herself, and even thinking about this imaginary scenario Abigail has conjured of her and the General in a pantry somewhere… it’s enough to set her mind and heart racing.
Abigail just laughs, in true Bellweather fashion, and winks. “Would you prefer to think about your nerves, or what I suggested?” Tally’s silence is answer enough, and Abigail’s smugness as she rests her case and is joined by Adil is perhaps slightly justified.
Bounding up out of the crowd, Scylla beams as she meets them, taking Raelle’s elbow and whispering something to her that Tally deliberately ignores - with all the talk that has been going on in the last few minutes, she could be forgiven for not wanting to hear any more intimate details. She turns her attention instead to the ballroom as a whole, scanning the sea of white gowns and dark suit coats for bright blue eyes and a recognizable braid. Her eyes rove across the room, but neither make themselves apparent. What does, or rather who, is one Mr. Buttonwood, who catches her eyes as they pass, and begins to beeline for her. His gait is purposeful, if oddly strained, and Tally can only think of one reason for his sudden intention.
“Abs, Rae…” she says nervously, squeezing each of her sisters’ hands to get their attention as he closes in.
“Rae - plan b is now officially in motion, go.” With a sharp nod, Raelle and Scylla disappear into the crowd.
Tally smiles warmly as Mr. Buttonwood comes to a stop in front of her and sketches a stiff bow. “You are radiant as ever, Miss Craven,” he says with a grin that is likely intended to seem roguish.
“You flatter me, Mr. Buttonwood. How have you found Fort Salem, it is perfectly splendid, is it not?” She says, noting the twitch that curls his upper lip into a snarl for just a moment when she compliments the manor.
“Quite.” He has always had an obsession with the superiority of the Buttonwood estate, she reasons, so perhaps it is something of a sore spot. Tally goes to speak further, but before she can, his eyes widen and Tally’s soon follow, because his hand is reaching into his pocket, and emerging with a white square that has all eyes around them trained onto their interaction.
“Miss Craven. I have been meaning to offer you this favour, and all the things it entails, for many weeks. When we both received invitations to such a historied place, amongst such revered company, I knew tonight would be the perfect time to give it to you.”
Her stomach is in knots, blood thumping in her ears - this is not how the night was to go. She was supposed to have more time. “Mr. Buttonwood, I—” Tally stutters out with a tongue that does not want to cooperate, that was supposed to be telling General Alder that she loves her, only to find herself interrupted a second time.
“Do not feel rushed to give your answer,” Buttonwood smiles again, pressing the fabric into her palm, “I have yet to ask your father’s permission, but I intend to spend some time in the city on business in the coming days, and I will entreat him to give his consent to the matter at that time. Until then, you have my favour as a promise of good faith.”
Just like that, she can breathe again. Nothing is yet woven into her fate that cannot be changed. She has time, if very little of it.
“Thank you, Mr. Buttonwood - I will consider it a token of good faith until that time,” Tally says, remarkably steadily for a woman on the verge of a nervous fit, and curtsies low. It is at this moment that Scylla returns, without Raelle, nodding twice to Abigail, who smiles wide and guileless.
“Well, this is cause for celebration! They’re starting the dancing music any moment, let us join the dancers, what better way to mark the occasion?” She says, giving Tally a deliberate look, and though she has absolutely no idea what they are setting in motion, Tally looks to Mr. Buttonwood as if there is nothing more in the world that would please her.
“I don’t see why not,” he replies, and then they are moving to the dancefloor, where two distinct lines are forming, with the gowns on one side and suits on the other. At the far end of the line, Raelle is holding up her hands, fingers played wide, which is baffling in itself, but then Abigail is pushing her to become the centre of the row, and Tally is so dazed by everything that has been going on that she does not even think to question it.
When the music begins, Tally is surprised - this reel has one line of dancers moving from partner to partner while the other remains in place, and she turns to Abigail at her side to question it but she offers a near imperceptible shake of her head.
Tally moves through the steps without thought, meeting Buttonwood for a few bars and then moving down the line. Only once they are halfway through the dance does Abigail whisper some instruction. “When you reach the General,” they spin apart, and back again, “the music will end, everyone will be busy applauding the musicians; follow her.”
Tally twirls to the next man, smile pasted on her face. “How do you know she is who I will end with?” She asks breathlessly when Abigail is in earshot again.
“Rae. She read the sheet music, placed Alder very deliberately at the end, and then it was a matter of counting dancers and slotting you in correctly,” Abigail says matter of factly, as if that is not a completely deranged plan to pull off with any degree of success.
Tally cannot bring herself to speak, her shock at the genius of her sisters, and the imminent nature of the payoff enough to render her utterly speechless.
“Remember to breathe, and speak from the heart,” Abigail councils as she suddenly drops back and out of the line, and when Tally finishes the rotation of her spin, she is face to face with General Alder.
It is lucky that her body knows the steps, will continue through them even when she is so very distracted. No wonder she had not been able to find her in the crowd, she had been looking for a braid that was not present, because Alder’s hair is lush and flowing, a midnight waterfall, and that alone would be enough to have Tally’s undivided attention. The regalia, shining medals and sash, scourge clipped to her side over perfectly fitted coat and trousers, lights a fire low in her stomach, but it is the intensity of the gaze that holds her own that makes the moment feel suspended in time. There may as well be no one else in the room. In the world.
As soon as the final strains of music reach her ears, Sarah is moving, trusting that Craven will follow swiftly behind. She has to commend Collar and Ramshorn for implementing such a well considered plan under pressure - ensuring they two would end the reel as far from the musicians and as close to the servant’s door as possible is an elegant solution to a complex problem. Once they are through it, Sarah weaves through another that leads to the servant’s stairs, and ascends.
She can hear Craven’s hurried steps behind her, and tries to focus on the rhythm of their steps instead of the growing dread that is threatening to overwhelm her. She is no stranger to delivering difficult news, having written many a letter of condolence to the families of soldiers that fell under her command, but this is different. For one, she is going to be made look into the wide eyes of a young woman in the first blush of love and watch as the joy leaves them. Saying nothing of the fact that she cares so deeply for Craven she could scream. She wonders what they had said to convince their sister to come to her without question.
A stinging pain brings her from her thoughts, and Sarah realises that her fists have been clenched so tightly that she has split her knuckles open anew only because the seeping blood has stuck the fabric of her gloves to the wounds. Goddess, could she use a drink. The door that leads to her office opens without a creak at her hastily drawn sigil, and when it snicks closed behind Miss Craven, Sarah cannot bear to prolong the suffering of either one of them.
“ You cannot accept him,” Sarah commands as she spins to face Craven properly. There is silence for only a second, and Sarah takes the final moment of peace between them to admire her, to burn the image into her memory. She looks like an angel, the white dress and copper hair bathed in gold by the lamplight, and her gasp only dimly registers because she is suddenly in Sarah’s space, holding her bloodied hands in her own. In the seclusion of Sarah’s office, it feels incredibly intimate.
“What? What happened to your poor hands?” Craven replies, all her attention now on the bruised and battered hands that are revealed when Sarah peels the ruined gloves off and tosses them onto her desk. They are absolutely focusing on the wrong thing, and Sarah is near jumping out of her skin with the weight of unwanted knowledge.
“You cannot accept Buttonwood’s proposal.” This gets her attention, and the range of emotions that run across Craven’s face before settling on cautious curiosity could fill books.
“Why?” She asks tentatively, “Why shouldn’t I accept him?”
Sarah had been hoping that question would not come up. “…Because.”
This does startle a genuine laugh out of the girl, which will be something at least for Sarah to cling to when this goes the only way it possibly can; horribly. “I’m afraid I am going to need a little bit more to work with than because - because will not explain to my parents why I would reject a perfectly reasonable offer,” Craven frowns, and Sarah tries to think of a way she can explain this without her rage becoming too apparent. She might have expected to be thoroughly questioned, after all one of Miss Craven’s defining traits is her curiosity - it was naive to hope that would be negated by a single word from anyone. Especially when Sarah is telling her to refuse the man she loves. Despite the fact that he is awful.
Even trying to find polite terms by which to call him awful has the fury raging in her heart again. “Because he is a charlatan and a cad, and the way he speaks about you…”
“The way he speaks… to what are you referring; I did not think you two were well acquainted?” Craven’s confusion seems to only grow with every word out of Sarah’s mouth.
“We most definitely are not. I overheard a conversation at a club I attend.” This garners a raised brow, and Sarah realises her mistake far too late to amend it.
“You don’t attend any clubs in town, and I know only one at which Mr. Buttonwood would be seen. Please tell me that your hands are not injured thusly because you are in the basement of Mr. Warren's boxing with those brutes?”
Only briefly is Sarah surprised by Craven’s knowledge of the place - of course the Buttonwood boy would have loose lips about that too. “That is besides the point.”
“I suppose for the moment it is,” She agrees, and Sarah is momentarily relieved. “That conversation must have been egregious indeed if it is the only reason you would implore me to reject his suit. Tell me.”
“I do not think it is entirely necessary to know the particulars—” Sarah begins, only to be summarily cut off by the fierceness that comes over Craven’s face.
“And I do,” Craven retorts firmly, brooking no argument.
It has been some time since anyone has commanded Sarah to do anything, longer still since they could expect to remain standing after the attempt to command her. When Miss Craven demands the truth, she cannot bring herself to do anything but follow her command. Even though it will be terrible, and it is the last thing she wants to do. A light squeeze of her wrist reminds Sarah that Craven is still holding her hands. She tries to prepare for the inevitable wrenching away that will come when she tells her the truth.
“He has already made a proposal to Hilary Saint. He was bragging about his intention to take you both as wives, trophies. Saint, to provide a high Atlantic heir, and you… because he did not want anyone else to enjoy your beauty.” Sarah winces her way through the finish, the nauseous roil of her stomach worsening tenfold as she watches Craven understand what she has said.
“Oh.” It is one word, small, but somehow a glassy eyed Craven makes it encapsulate such a degree of emotion that it is like a scourge to Sarah’s chest. She should have just killed him.
“I could not in good conscience know this and keep it from you, though I am sorry to be the one that has to tell it. I am sorry that he is not the person any of us thought he was.” Those are maybe the truest words Sarah has ever spoken.
Craven, to her great credit, only sniffs, refusing to allow tears to fall. “No, no, it’s… you heard this at the boxing club?”
Sarah is so taken aback by the line of questioning she answers reflexively. “Yes.”
“The boxing club where you damaged your poor hands so?”
Sarah could kick herself. She truly has walked into that one under her own steam. Miss Craven is very adept at getting the truth out of her - which suddenly makes their position seem much more compromising.
“…Yes. I may have enacted my own small form of justice.” She does not say that she would have done more, would have done worse, would still do anything she asked of her, but the half smile that curls Craven’s mouth is proof enough that she did not have to say it for Craven to hear it. She knows her to her bones.
“Why? You did not have to do that for me.” Craven asks softly, dark eyes searching Sarah’s own, and Sarah knows that her pulse must be beating rapidly against the fingers still curled at her wrist. The safe thing to do is to stay silent, to take a step back, break the tension that has crept up on Sarah like a ghost.
She swallows hard. “I did.”
“But why? Why put yourself into danger, injure yourself, for honour that is not yours to uphold?” Craven implores her to speak, staring as if she can see into what remains of Sarah’s soul and does not find it lacking.
Why did she do that? Why has she done any of this? “Because I… you…” She cannot rend her heart into her mouth, because if she does this becomes real, and if it is real she cannot stop fate from ruining them both. But Craven is looking at her so tenderly, seeing her, and Sarah can barely withstand it when her gaze drops to her mouth and back again. She did not have to say it for Craven to hear it. She knows her to her bones.
“ Sarah .” It is one word, small, whispered.
“Goddess forgive me,” Sarah sends up a prayer that this time she will be wrong, that this time she can have this, because nothing could stop her from kissing Tally Craven with her name on her lips.
Her lips are petal soft against Sarah’s own, and the whine that Tally lets out as they meet sets Sarah alight. She cups her face in both hands, and kisses her soundly, pressing closer when Tally’s hands find their way into her hair. Tally leans bodily into her, demanding her kiss, her touch, and Sarah gives, would give her anything that she desires in this moment. Her mouth is like salvation, forgiveness, permission, and Sarah cannot get close enough. Rain pounds against the windows, and Sarah knows it is her doing, their doing, a storm crashing over Salem as the storm between them rages.
They should absolutely not be doing any of this, but it feels so much like a homecoming that Sarah cannot bring herself to care a jot about propriety. How could she when she is living through some of the most perfect minutes of her life? She is crowding Tally until her back is against something solid, Sarah doesn’t care what, all that matters is Tally’s stuttering breaths when Sarah is fully pressed against her. All that matters is how perfectly Tally fits against her, how sweetly her body sings when Sarah kisses her.
When the door swings open wildly, the moment shatters. Sarah jumps away to see Anacostia, face grim and eyes wide. She is afraid, and Sarah knows before the words are out of her mouth what they will be, has always known they would be coming. She should have expected this. In many ways, she had. There is no escaping the Alder blight, not for her.
“Sarah! They’re here,” Anacostia cries, “The Camarilla.”
Fate has already come to claim her prize.
I did tell you to get ready <3
Chapter 8: Well, the pleasure, the privilege is mine
When they come, teeming from the shadows to descend upon her, Sarah only gives herself a moment to wonder who hides behind the wrappings that conceal each Camarilla agent’s face before she lashes out with her scourge, and the fighting begins in earnest.
Be warned, this one is pretty different from what has come before, so tread carefully - it's the Camarilla.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Holding General Alder’s bloodied fists in her hands, Tally realises all at once just how blind she has been. About Mr. Buttonwood, about her own feelings, about everything. It is painful to hear the truth of Buttonwood’s character, and even more so to know how her own reputation will have been denigrated by his machinations, but still, there is the lingering sense of hope. Hope, because Alder is still allowing herself to be held, the truth of her injury - that she had likely boxed the object of her ire so thoroughly that he is still feeling the effects even after being fixed - rekindling the spark that Tally had reluctantly put aside when Alder had first taken control of their conversation.
What kind of woman would put themselves through such lengths as Alder must have done to get Gerit Buttonwood into a boxing ring for someone they did not have any feelings for?
“Why? You did not have to do that for me,” Tally says softly, unable to keep the side of her mouth from turning up in a half smile at how flustered Alder seems to be. Her pulse is racing beneath Tally’s fingers, and it is a reflex, to soothe along the pulse point of her wrist with delicate fingers.
Alder swallows heavily, blue eyes boring into Tally’s own. “I did,” she replies on a breath, achingly earnest, and Tally almost cannot bear to look at her, so tender is her gaze. In the quietude of this room, it seems so clear that they are of a mind, of a heart, but the very last thing she wants to do is be wrong about this. Of course Tally loves her, how could she do anything else; but would General Alder allow herself to love Tally in return, that is the true question.
“But why?” Tally asks, voice soft enough to keep the moment whole for them both just a while longer, “Why put yourself into danger, injure yourself, for honour that is not yours to uphold?” She does not say please, please tell me you love me, but from the manner in which Alder reacts, her honest face says it all for her.
“Because I…you…” Alder stutters, quietly desperate - and Tally knows. Knows in her bones that she is not wrong, not alone in feeling so much for the witch in front of her - how could she be, when Alder has let her in, has held her and heard her and sought every opportunity to be at her side? When she is looking at her as she is, with something akin to longing held in such tight control that if anyone else were to see it Tally is not confident they would understand that it was longing at all. Anyone else would not have the benefit of Seeing the way her magic caressed Tally’s hands where they held her, or the closeness to see the way her lips parted wordlessly, begging Tally to ask her, to break that control. It goes against every rule of etiquette and propriety she has ever known, but Goddess does Tally want to.
It is the most presumption Tally has ever allowed herself in her life - and if she has somehow reached the wrong conclusion, she can only hope that there will be forgiveness for the liberty she is about to take.
“ Sarah, ” she whispers, her name like a prayer on Tally’s lips, and she watches Sarah’s resolve crumble at the sound of it, blue eyes darkening, and she may say something else, but Tally cannot hear it over the whine that tears from her throat when Sarah kisses her.
Being kissed by Sarah Alder is like realising that she has been drowning her whole life and finally coming up for air. Any notion of nervousness disappears the moment Sarah touches her, and Tally wonders at how wanton she must seem, yet she cannot help but melt into her. There is so much wanting in her that could never be uttered aloud, but with her hands sunk into luscious locks, and her body arching into Sarah’s, Tally is quite certain that her meaning is clear to the witch pressing her against her bookshelves. She would have happily lived the rest of her days in that moment stretched long beyond all bounds of time, if not for the sudden chilling arrival of an enemy at the gates.
Anacostia Quartermaine is stony faced, her eyes flickering between the rain soaked window and Sarah, who snaps to attention with alarming swiftness, scourge already in her hand. Where Tally is still breathless and rosy cheeked, Sarah is the General, through and through. “How many?” Sarah barks, quick marching to her quartermaster’s side.
She had only briefly mentioned the Camarilla to Tally before, but from what she has inferred on her own, there is no greater nemesis of witches than the ones that have appeared tonight. The thought of their intent, here, at Fort Salem, on the one night in decades that it is nearly entirely filled with witches, sends a shiver down Tally’s spine.
“Two dozen, maybe more - I came to find you as soon as they crossed the secondary wardings.”
The two women share a loaded glance as Tally fights to get her wits about her. Sarah Alder had kissed her, and thanks to the return of her ancient enemy, that would be only the second most important news of the evening.
Alder’s brow furrows, shadow falling over her features. “This should not be possible - the boundary wall has long been warded against incursions such as this.”
Tally feels her stomach drop. “Would those wards be affected by, say, a small hole in the wall?” She interrupts tentatively, and when the two women whip around to look at her, it is all she can do not to shrink back away from the intensity of it.
“How small?” Sarah asks sharply.
She knows just by the way Anacostia bites back a curse that there is no use prevaricating. “Large enough for Abigail and I to crawl through it, a small enough man could likely do the same.”
Sarah’s jaw clenches, and for a moment Tally is so sure that she is about to live up to her reputation and give her the tongue lashing of a lifetime, but it doesn’t come. Instead, there is a hiss of a sigh, and then the General rounds on her quartermaster.
“Gather as many suitable practitioners as you can - Iza, Petra Bellweather, if Verger is sober her too - but be covert about it. The last thing we need is a half-cocked witchling to get tangled up in the fighting in a foolish attempt to escape,” she orders and Anacostia snaps to attention, “Any able fighter should assemble on the lawn with whatever weapons that can be scrounged up to aid us. If it is a fight the Camarilla are looking for, then it is a fight they will get.”
There is a layer of steel to her voice as she relays her orders that is so steady, so sure, that Tally feels her feet moving of their own accord to follow them.
“There are a handful of civilians amongst your guests tonight, General,” Anacostia adds, “what of them?”
Mr. Collar, Tally knows, is somewhere in the ballroom, and likely so too are many of the non magical parents and children of the noble houses - Alder, or more likely her biddies, had invited a swathe of people from around Salem to be here tonight. They would be in just as much if not more danger than anyone of the blood - without the power to call upon if, Goddess forbid, the Camarilla crossed their path.
Sarah pinches the bridge of her nose in frustrated silence.
“They will have to be kept far from any fighting - all the guests must be corralled into the ballroom and kept there until such time as I deem it safe or reasonable to do otherwise. We do not have the luxury of time to waste on this.”
“My sisters and I can handle the civilians - Mr Collar is one of them after all, I am sure we can deputize him to assist so that we can join the ranks aft—”
Sarah cuts her off with a piercing look. “Absolutely not. You will stay with the rest of the guests.” It is difficult to not feel affronted by the dismissal. After all, Sarah is the one who had spent all that time and energy convincing Tally of her strength, her value, only to completely disregard that when it would make the most sense to utilise it. Tally would love to argue her case, parts her lips to do so, but Sarah is already sweeping out of the room with Anacostia on her heels.
Alone, Tally allows herself just one moment to savour the ghost of Sarah’s kiss still buzzing on her lips, and huffs a quiet laugh. They would have to speak about it later tonight. For now, she must find her sisters and her courage both, because there is no earthly reason she can think of to obey an order that would keep a unit of witches as powerful as hers from protecting their people. After all, she had made a promise weeks ago to take better care with the General, and she intends to uphold it; if Alder is protecting all of them, who is protecting Sarah?
She is singular in her focus, despite the clamouring in her chest that has everything to do with one Tally Craven, on the task at hand. Removing the Camarilla blight from the hallowed grounds of her ancestral home would be the only outcome she would accept of this ill conceived attempt on her life and the lives of the others of the blood in Salem. How they had come to know the details of the ball is concerning, but it is a problem for another time - now is the time for lessons taught with storm and fury.
“Camille,” Sarah ducks her head into the servant’s stairwell where her biddies are bustling to and fro and calmly gestures the eldest of her biddies over, “it seems we have acquired some… unwanted guests. I must ask you to shore up the secret places of the fort - any entrance beyond the main hall will need to be sealed and watched. Do not open them unless you hear Menishé on the other side, and even then, exercise caution.”
Camille, though she pales as the instruction goes on, asks no questions, only tilts her head in acquiescence and gently squeezes Sarah’s arm before she hurries away whispering to the rest as she moves to do as she has been bid.
Sarah does not wait to see them carried out, knowing that they will be. Instead she rushes onward through the belly of Fort Salem, making use of the snaking service passages to move unseen and undisturbed, the silence, like the calm before a storm, a welcome companion.
In spite of the dire circumstances, she is not afraid - at least, not in the manner that many in her position would be. Part of Sarah has always been waiting for this day to come; she has anticipated some such incident since the loss of her sister. Certainly, there have been attempts on her life hundreds of times over the years, agents of the Camarilla as deeply entrenched in rival armies and even occasionally allied ones as Sarah herself could be. She is the one that has lived to tell the tale, every plot foiled, every enemy felled. Wars fought on countless battlefronts that have decimated battalions, she has walked away from. What good would fear do her? Maybe this time her army is not quite as well outfitted as they have been in battles past, but they are here, willing to fight, and they can call on the magic of the mother.
Huddled together awaiting her command on the steps of the Fort stand: Ana, Izadora, Petra Bellweather, Magda Verger, and Nessa Clary. It is not as many as she would have hoped for against a force at least four times the size of theirs, but it would have to suffice. She would make it suffice. “I trust Anacostia has informed each of you of what is at work here tonight,” Sarah says, the nods she receives in return solemn, “The Camarilla are no witch’s fable, and it will take significant action to subdue them. Each of you has been chosen for your abilities and your discretion - both will be crucial in the coming hours. I will ask only this; if I give a command, follow it. This is a fight that I have been engaged with to some degree for decades - I will do my utmost to ensure every one of you ends the night safely in your homes, but it will require your full cooperation.”
There is a beat of silence while each woman must come to terms with the ancillary of what she has said: that there is a world in which they do not make it off the grounds with their lives tonight. Ana and Izadora will always be at her side, this much Sarah knows beyond doubt, but the rest of them could just as easily refuse the call and rejoin their contemporaries inside. She would not blame them for doing so. Sarah can feel the hairs on her arms standing up, noting the way Clary’s back straightens as if she too can feel the enclosing net of the Camarilla. Petra Bellweather steps forward, resolve clear on her stern face.
“What would you have us do, General?”
Sarah takes point on the lawn with Petra and Magda flanking at the base of the steps, leaving Izadora, Clary, and Anacostia as the final line of defence on either side of the manor. Should it come to that, Sarah knows they will fight to the last to defend their home. She alone stands in the grass, silent, waiting for the first wave to come with her scourge held tightly in her grip. An eerie calm settles over the grounds as they wait.
When they come, teeming from the shadows to descend upon her, Sarah only gives herself a moment to wonder who hides behind the wrappings that conceal each Camarilla agent’s face before she lashes out with her scourge, and the fighting begins in earnest.
It is chaos. All battles are, the regimented lines of soldiers losing all finesse as soon as the first enemies are upon them, and this is not a war between enemy soldiers, but a fight to the death between would be witch killers and their quarry. The lawn heaves with Camarilla, swarming in the night and Sarah does not hesitate, whipping her scourge into the pack like a farmer pulling their scythe through wheat. The Camarilla advance with pikes and swords glinting in the moonlight, shrouded in black fabrics and soaking wet - they must have been caught by surprise in the storm - and as many as are stricken from the formation, more replace them, spots filling in much more rapidly than two dozen men should allow for.
She can hear the sounds of fighting at her back, Clary and Bellweather barking out strong wind strikes, the dull thunk of Ana’s crossbow bolts sinking into their targets, and the bumbling confusion of Camarilla men enthralled by Verger harshly silenced by the slice of Izadora’s favourite knife. They must be facing a force of at least four score, and Sarah knows that there is a limit to how much their defensive lines can take before exhaustion sets in and caution wanes enough to give their enemies an opportunity.
Wind strikes and scourge work, no matter how diligently Sarah has tried to make them, are simply not going to be enough. She can only hope that Tally has done as she asked, and keeps any who would not know their secret far from the windows. Still, she slashes and hacks, heart racing and sweat dripping down her face as she fends off as many as she can.
“Bellweather! Now!” She bellows over the cacophonous sounds of battle, and begins to sing.
Knowing is a gift, but as things stand Tally almost wishes she was not quite so proficient. Her entire body is screaming that something is wrong, warning of danger that has yet to pass but is closing in every second and it sets her teeth on edge as she races back into the ball where the feeling is so incongruous with the festivities she could laugh.
Tally does not waste time searching the crowded ballroom for her sisters, opening her eyes to the magical signatures that she knows so well and following them like a trail of breadcrumbs to the far corner. She supposes she must appear a little crazed, if the looks of deep concern that her sister’s pin her with is any indication.
“Tal? What happened, are you all right?” Raelle questions, rising to her feet.
She shakes her head, beckoning her sisters and their beaus to huddle closely. “Fort Salem is under attack - the Camarilla—”
“The Camarilla? Are they not a figment of the imagination of witch mothers determined to frighten their children into going to bed?” Scylla frowns, but at her side Adil has paled considerably, drawing a shaky breath.
“They are very real, and very dangerous. The Camarilla are the reason my people, or what remains of them after the attack, had to flee our home,” he intones seriously, and suddenly the gravity of the situation sits heavy on the shoulders of the five of them. “If they are here tonight then we are all in very grave danger indeed.”
Abigail’s hand slips into his, squeezing tightly, and Tally shudders to think what he must have lost already to have come to Salem with only his sister and a handful of Tarim. “There are at least twenty four on the grounds as we speak, and Sar- General Alder” Tally catches herself, noting the look that passes between her sisters at the slip, “asked that we corral the guests, particularly the civilians into the ballroom.”
Instantly Abigail is at work, gears turning behind her dark eyes. “We should draw the curtains, and get the band to play their liveliest tunes - if she is using work then at least we can attempt to disguise it,” Abigail suggests, ever the tactician, and Tally grimaces.
“She is not alone,” Tally rounds on Abigail, holding her gaze, “your mother is out there with her. Anacostia and Izadora too, a handful of others, but I do not believe it will be enough. It feels wrong, and I don’t think they are going to be able to keep them at bay without help.”
For all her flaws, Petra is the only real mother left between them. Izadora had quickly become a friend, and Scylla held her in the highest esteem - which meant so too did Raelle. Anacostia had nurtured them all in their youth. Sarah Alder is the first person Tally has ever loved. And now, they were all in mortal peril. Tally can see the decision being sealed on both of her sisters’ faces. There is no real choice but to protect the people they love. “We don’t have a lot of time.”
“Scyl, find my pa, and you three keep everyone inside, ok? We’ll be back before you know it,” Raelle assures her, planting a gentle kiss on her cheek.
“I intend to hold you to that, Collar,” Scylla sniffs, blue eyes glassy with unshed tears.
Adil says nothing, only smiles sadly and caresses Abigail’s cheek. He knows better than any of them what it means to face the Camarilla. “Be careful.”
“I will,” Abigail vows, pressing ever so gently into the touch before straightening up, their fearless leader once again. “Quickly, before Mr. Collar realises we’re gone.”
They scurry through the throngs of revellers as fast as they can, bursting out into the hallway and closing the doors with a resounding bang behind them. “Wait,” Tally calls as her sisters make for the foyer, staring up at the Alder crest, and the twin scourges mounted beneath it, “These would serve better in your hands than on the wall, don’t you think?”
Raelle’s brow climbs toward her hairline in surprise. “Are you seriously advocating for us to dismantle part of Fort Salem?” A swiftly placed elbow from Abigail when her words rattle Tally’s confidence sends a huff of breath from her lungs. “I agree, of course, I only thought your General might not look to kindly on the practice, no need to resort to violence so soon.”
Your General has Tally flushing pink from her ears to her chest, and Abigail’s eyes widening. “I know we are on something of a time constraint here, but we are perfectly capable of achieving two goals at once - care to share what has you glowing like a cattle brand?” She asks with a grin, all the while crouching down to lift an equally pleased Raelle into the air.
Tally groans, covering her eyes with her hand, but she can no sooner stop the sun from rising as stop the smile that wends its way across her face.
“It went as well as all that?” Raelle quips, deftly lifting the scourges from their mounts.
“Better. And worse,” Tally sighs gently remembering it as she helps lift Raelle down, “We shall have to discuss Buttonwood’s treachery fully when this is all over, but rest assured that she defended my honour diligently, and ruined it with her lips just as surely.” The squeals her sisters emit at that pronouncement could only be heard by hounds, and for a moment they can almost forget what horrors may await them beyond the doors of the manor and simply be.
The reprieve cannot last, as all good things surely must come to an end, and their joy is cut short by the sobering rumble of thunder overhead. The wrongness that Tally has felt since she had realised the threat facing them has not dissipated any, and in the wake of the storm brewing, grows sharper, demanding her attention. Raelle holds the two scourges out, uncertain, and Tally shakes her head.
“You both should take them. We all know my strengths lie elsewhere, I’m more likely to injure myself than anyone else with that. Besides,” Tally smiles shakily, pulling Abigail’s ribbon loose and looping it around her fists into a makeshift garrote, “it will be just like our games, I call their locations, we shear them in three, and if worst comes to worst, I’ll have my silk and you’ll have the scourges. There is no enemy alive that could defeat us if we’re together.” She rather hopes it comes across as more reassuring than she feels.
All three step in close, pressing their foreheads together. They do not need to do anything else, nor say a word to the others - loving each other is a fact of life, as tangible as the ground beneath their feet. They know it, just as they know that love is what sends them into the heat of battle tonight. In her head, Tally sends a prayer to the Goddess to protect her sisters, to bring them home safely, and can only hope it is heard and heeded as they break apart and raise their weapons.
The front door is guarded by a singular elderly woman in half moon spectacles, who tenses into a fighting stance only to smile at Tally knowingly when they step into the light. “The General was quite specific in her instructions; this door cannot be opened unless Méníshé is spoken.” As one, Tally and Abigail turn to Raelle.
The blonde rolls her eyes, but acquiesces - she is the most fluent by a great deal. “Khàsémé ámyè, pé ujìshówór.”
The woman nods once, seemingly satisfied, and draws a sigil on the wood that Tally recognises as one used to lock or unlock a door. “Take care to remember that phrase, or I cannot open the door for your return. Quickly, before the enemy can notice,” she urges them into action, one by one slipping out the door before it is sealed behind them.
They step out into chaos. Tally is wide eyed at the carnage being wrought on all sides. Rain falls in sheets from roiling dark clouds, soaking everyone to the bone in seconds. Lightning streaks down from the sky, illuminating the scene in harsh relief for just a few seconds at a time, but it is enough for Tally to get bearings of a sort. On either side of the steps, with Anacostia on the left firing a crossbow, and Izadora and a witch Tally does not recognize on the right, holding off a slew of men that must have broken through the first line of defence. Out on the lawn, surrounded by a growing pile of bodies, Petra, Sarah, and another dark haired witch are singing the lightning storm into being, blasting Camarilla into the air with the force of each impact and scorching the earth below. The air is ripe with the smell of burning and blood as each witch fights for their life - it is harrowing and humbling in equal measure.
“Anacostia first, and then to my mother,” Abigail commands, and Tally moves with her sisters, racing down the steps to offer assistance, as she catches Sight of a trio emerging from the dark attempting to flank Anacostia while her focus is on the enemies to her front.
“Windstrike, 7 o’clock!” Tally calls the shot, and they are still running, their mouths opening as one to blast the three Camarilla men to the ground. Before they can even blink, scourges bury themselves in their witch hating chests, as Raelle and Abigail hit their marks with cold efficiency. There is no time to contemplate what repercussions may befall them, because they are beset upon in seconds by Camarilla men.
Sarah had seldom spoken of battle in any great detail, but one thing she had neglected to mention is just how exhausting it becomes to fight so many. Every muscle burns from the exertion, her Knowing a constant alarm bell in her ears, and the rain is the only thing keeping her from overheating as she lands another series of sharp blows to the dwindling number of men that surround her unit.
“Come now witchling, why fight? We only want to make you sing a different tune!” One goads in the midst of the fighting, and Tally staggers back in revulsion at the mania in his smile, the only part of his face that she can see as he advances blade first.
There is not an aspect of the fighting that will not haunt her, Tally is sure, but the worst of all of it is the laughing, the way these hate filled men jeer and taunt and laugh as they try to kill the witches defending Fort Salem. She buffets him back with a quick seed, only to watch a bolt sink into his smiling mouth and protrude out the other side. He crumpled like a rag doll to the ground, and Tally shudders.
“Craven! All of you! You should have no part in this, it is far too dangerous, and General Alder specifically ordered you to stay-” Anacostia chastens, half yelling over the rain pounding the lawn and the clang of swords and scythes colliding as she looses another crossbow bolt, “within the relative safety of the ballroom, did she not?”
Tally does have the good grace to appear remorseful for the blatant disregard she has shown to that particular order. “My knowing would not allow it, I could sense that we were needed and so we came.” That uneasy feeling has not subsided yet, and Tally does not know what it could mean.
“Are you going to chastise us right now? Because I believe there are better uses of all of our energy,” Abigail chimes in, wiping blood from her cheek as the last man falls, “Like adding our voices to the storm chorus, for example. If you no longer need us here we are going to assist my mother.”
Anacostia hesitates, and a roar of fury bellows from the other side of the steps. They turn in time to watch Izadora’s puzzled face register the blade sticking out of her abdomen before she sinks to her knees, and the witch who had been fighting alongside her warbles a seed Tally has never heard before, the Camarilla around them clutching at their throats.
“ No ,” Anacostia whimpers, stumbling as her legs seemingly give out. Abigail catches her before she can collapse entirely, pulling her roughly to her feet.
“Rae,” Tally cries, horrified at the gurgling manner in which Izadora seems to be attempting to speak through blood, “Go.” In an instant Raelle is sprinting across the way, eyes already shining silver with her gift.
“She’ll fix her - Anacostia, you cannot lose focus now. We have to move; will you be able to hold the line?” Abigail asks firmly in that no nonsense way she has that Tally has always said marked her for leadership. Anacostia nods sharply, tearing her eyes away from their sister kneeling in the mud with her hands wrapped around the hilt of the sword. Her face hardens, and if Tally were a Camarilla man, she would be quaking in her boots at that look.
“I’ll hold it.”
The front line is terrifying in a whole new way, and they are not even truly at the front; Petra is the right flank several metres behind General Alder, and her immediate surroundings are piled high with Camarilla, some attempting to kill her in earnest and others half dead still clawing at her from the ground. Abigail does not wait to greet her mother, she simply opens her mouth and sings in perfect harmony, adding her power to the working that has called the storm to fight for them. Above both of the Bellweathers, Sarah’s voice rings through the night clear as a bell in chorus with theirs. Though to Tally’s mind it should not be possible, the sky gets darker still, and all the hairs on her body rise to attention before the lightning strikes in a chain, dazzling her with its luminance. Her ears ring with the force of each explosion, dampening sound almost entirely, and she is at a greater distance than anyone else. It is a devastating piece of work, demanding a monumental amount of power, and decimating the remaining ranks of the Camarilla, and through every strike Tally’s eyes are drawn to the witch that is behind it.
Sarah Alder is a sight to behold, magic incarnate, and still she is swinging her scourge like a woman possessed at the few enemies that still stand, that dare to advance towards her. She is magnificent, and she is spent. Tally can see it, the strain she has put on her magical core far beyond what is reasonable, the demands she has made of body and work both unimaginable for most anyone else. Her shoulders heave with every panting breath in the relative silence that falls when their seed is completed, and every muscle is quivering, but she fights on, lit up brilliantly by lightning of her own creation.
Without the light, Tally may not have seen him in time.
He rises like a shadow from the pile of slain Camarilla men at Sarah’s back, his dagger glinting in the lightning, determination in his gait. Tally’s Knowing is screaming at her, a fever pitch, and this, she understands finally, is what it has been warning her about all along. She runs, feet finding purchase in the rain drenched grass and mud, faster than she has ever moved in her life, because if she can barely hear what hope would Sarah have of hearing a warning? She shouts anyway, a wordless cry of a thing, but neither react.
Her heart is pounding in tandem with her feet as he raises the blade over his head, and swings downward, aiming for her heart.
There is no other choice she would have made, no regret, when Tally throws herself between the blade and the witch she loves. How could there be, when Sarah has done all of this to keep her, to keep them all, safe? What is this sacrifice compared to the countless ones Sarah has made? If Sarah will live, then it is worth the wound, Tally thinks, shivering cold all of a sudden. The would-be ender of the Alder line seems just as surprised as Tally herself is when a scourge tip buries itself in his temple. Swaying on her feet, Tally watches him buckle and fall into the dirt, and feels blessedly warm hands on her shoulders before she is spun around.
Battle weary, rain drenched, and bloodied though she is, Sarah is the most handsome woman Tally has ever laid eyes upon. Her hands are so warm, and a stable point where her head is spinning, Tally can’t help but melt into them. Looking up at Sarah, Tally knows her smile must be ridiculously besotted, but she cannot bring herself to care. “Sarah! I’m so pleased that you’re alright, you are terribly beautiful when you fight, did you know?”
It is a little disconcerting, not being able to hear her reply when Tally can see her lips are moving, and it looks quite important, at least her expression seems very… something. One of her hands cups Tally’s cheek, and it is a blazing fireplace on the coldest night of the year, absolutely perfect even though it is probably not the most hygienic right now. She keeps looking at something that is not her face, lips moving frantically, and Tally is nothing if not curious so she looks too. The handle sticking out of her chest does not help with the dizziness. Though it does explain the cold that has sunk into her bones.
“Oh,” Tally sighs through chattering teeth as her vision tunnels in. “How strange, I only feel you.” It is the last thing she feels, Sarah’s hand on her cheek, before everything slips away.
As the kids say, "Ruh Roh".
Khàsémé ámyè, pé ujìshówór: Let us help, we are not the enemy.
Chapter 9: You kissed me, just to kiss me, not to make me cry
“Tally Craven you are not allowed to die, not for me, do you hear me?” Sarah pants, but pushes onwards, leaping over charred corpses with as much grace as her worn frame can muster, “I owe you your life, Craven, do not make me come to the Goddess’ paradise and drag you back. This is not your time.”
If you're squeamish about blood, be advised, quite a bit of it in this one. We've reached the third act! You know what that means...
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The rain peters out to a light mist in the dark night that has enveloped the grounds of Fort Salem. Everything is burnt hair, wet wool, and the coppery tang of blood, the battle having finished only moments ago. The quiet rings in Alder’s ears, although perhaps it is the shock just as much as it is the sudden silence after blasts of lightning and rolling thunder came to bear upon the many enemies of Fort Salem. All but one. How gross an oversight that has turned out to be.
Tally is light as a dandelion puff in her hands, already drifting, and Sarah clenches her eyes shut in hopes that none of this is real, that she is dreaming of a battlefield far away, something so depraved that it could only be conjured up by her imagination - How could she be living in a world where Tally Craven throws herself in front of a blade so clearly meant for Sarah herself? She opens them again just as quickly to find that living nightmare still ongoing. The handle protrudes like some grotesque flagpole from Tally’s chest, blood spreading in a seemingly endless dark stain, and she is trying to speak, gargling words and smiling through bloodstained teeth.
“No no no, you should conserve your strength, please, you needn’t say a word, just keep your eyes on me, hm? Can you stay awake for me?” Sarah knows it must sound as though she is begging, and that would be because she is. She is begging this foolhardy, idiotic, selfless woman not to die. It does not seem like Tally is in any position to heed her.
Sarah cannot stop her hand from cradling a pale cheek, and the manner in which Tally leans into it, shaking bodily now, fills her with a level of dread unlike anything she has experienced these past years. Not since the loss of Hannah has such terrible pain lanced her heart. Sarah is no stranger to battlefield injuries and mortal wounds; without intervention, and soon, Tally will die in the mud. And it will be her fault.
“COLLAR!” She cries, desperation tearing the words from her throat, “COLLAR? I have you, Tally, you must keep your eyes open, ok? Do not fall asleep, please do not fall asleep. Just a short while longer.”
The blade, rising and falling shallowly with Tally’s rattling breaths, is an affront to all that is good in the world. The wrongness of it, the wretchedness, cannot be overblown, and Sarah finds that she cannot stop looking at it despite the nauseating guilt it engenders.
“Strange,” Tally croaks out, and Sarah bites back a pained wince when one of her hands flops close to the dagger protruding from her chest, brown eyes wide as she stares at it curiously, and then her gaze flits back to meet Sarah’s own, “Only feel you…”
Those dark eyes that have held her attention since their first meeting, that have known her better than almost anyone else, flutter.
Sarah howls, even as she is moving, curling one arm beneath Tally’s limp knees. In her white dress, held thusly, she makes a devastating simulacrum of a bride.
“COLLAR!” Sarah bellows, running, careful of jostling her precious cargo but utterly focused on the witch - she pays no heed to the terrain.
“Goddess protect,” a pained gasp from Bellweather as she realises what is happening, “Tally?”
Sarah cannot hope to hear her over the pounding of her feet hitting wet earth, nor over the choked litany of prayers she is reciting. There are still some shallow breaths, sluggish beats of a heart under terrible strain that she can feel through the thin fabric against her hand.
“Tally Craven you are not allowed to die, not for me, do you hear me?” Sarah pants, but pushes onwards, leaping over charred corpses with as much grace as her worn frame can muster, “I owe you your life, Craven, do not make me come to the Goddess’ paradise and drag you back. This is not your time.”
On her knees already at Izadora's side, Raelle Collar bleeds from a wound that does not belong to her, face contorted with pain and confusion. The sword clasped in Collar’s bloodstained fist is summarily tossed aside, and the sight of her oldest friend laying in the muck and earth is almost enough to have her stumble, but Sarah has made it this far without losing her grip completely. It would not do to lose what grasp she maintains quite yet, as to do that would be to accept that Tally’s life is not salvageable, and that is something she will not do.
The wound, closing slowly in Raelle’s stomach and Izadora’s alike, undulates strangely, its ragged edges knitting together as Sarah carefully lowers Tally to lay on the rain washed steps at her other side rather than the muddy alternative. The pallor that has fallen over her already porcelain pale skin is ghostly, and Sarah can only just barely see the movement of her breathing. “Tell me that you have yet got some reserves with which to save your sister’s life,” She implores the blonde, ever aware of the fast fading that follows wounds like the one Tally has sustained.
“General,” Collar gasps, pained through gritted teeth, even as she crawls to lay hands on her sister’s limp form. “There is something hindering my work - I will fix as much as I am capable of fixing, but I fear I do not...” she trails off.
Sarah nods sharply, terror and despair roiling in her eyes, glued as they are to the alien protrusion that may yet cost Tally her life. The only thought screaming through her mind is how it was meant for her. How she should be the one fighting for her life rather than Tally. “Let us hope that the Goddess is with us tonight.”
“You are going to have to assist me; when the moment comes, remove it.” Raelle begins her song, muttering lowly words that Sarah has not heard used in many years - hers is an ancient technique, one rarely used outside of native tribes. With softly glowing eyes, she weaves her work, and the sluggish flow of blood comes to an end. Having seen her fair share of battlefield fixings, Sarah knows intuitively the moment to grasp the handle of the blade. There is a degree of revulsion that is inherent with the act of pulling a weapon from the bounds of a comrade in arms - that is amplified tenfold by the nature of the witch laid out on the cold stone steps of her home.
Her wrists slip in the veritable lake of blood cooling on Tally’s chest, but Sarah pays that no mind, exhaling through the sickening pull as she removes the knife with as much care as she is capable of producing. The urge to toss the blade as far from Tally as possible is strong, however, when she raises her head to do so, it is to find the step quite surrounded by the other impromptu soldiers that had answered the call this night. They stand solemn, keeping vigil over the ritual that is being worked, and over a still unconscious Izadora. Ana has Izadora’s head cradled in her lap, and holds her jacket aloft to shield them both from the rain.
With a grunt, Collar tears her hands away, taking heaving gulps of breath into her lungs as the wound is shared with her. The gash in Tally’s chest knits back together, but her pallor remains, and though she is breathing with a great deal more ease than before, there is still a reedy shallowness to each inhale that sets Sarah’s teeth on edge. Izadora does not seem to be faring much better.
“Why are they not waking, Rae?” The younger Bellweather asks tentatively, placing a supportive hand on the fixer’s shoulder. It is a question Sarah too would very much like to have answered, but she had been taught not to ask such questions so soon after work of such scope has been conducted. Miss Collar has saved two lives tonight, and the depth of fortitude and power necessary to achieve such a feat is considerable. The poor witch is likely half delirious with exhaustion from overexerting herself, but still she attempts an explanation.
“Hold a moment, you will see for yourself,” Collar replies, sinking back onto the step on shaking limbs.
Sure enough, Sarah stares at the plane of pale skin still marked with wine dark blood, and bites back a curse when the veins below begin to resemble coal shoots. “Poison,” she is certain of it, though the pronouncement shocks gasps from the present company, it is not unlike the Camarilla to engage in such dishonourable acts. “We are not out of the woods yet then with either of them. Thank you, Miss Collar - you have given much of yourself to keep them both alive and I appreciate it, truly.”
To her credit, Miss Collar holds her coughing in to respond. “If they can be kept through the night, I can do more in the morning, I am fit for nothing else tonight.” She speaks as though there is glass in her throat, having pushed her work far beyond what she ever would have had to before.
Sarah steels her resolve. Exhausted though she is now that the fire of battle has left her entirely, there is no alternative: these women will live. “We will ensure they keep. I will see to it myself - but perhaps we would be better able to do so indoors?”
Anacostia is up in moments, sweeping Izadora into her arms, and Collar hobbles to her feet supported by Miss Bellweather. That leaves only one other order of business to be dealt with. “Petra, if you could assist Clary and Verger in the disposal of what remains of those brutes? It would not do for us to be discovered over an ill conceived Camarilla plot.”
Petra inclines her head deferentially and turns heel, Clary and Verger at her side, to begin the process. Sarah is quietly confident that between the three of them the signs that any fighting ever took place here will be as dust in the wind shortly. Good riddance. The world is better off for their loss, and Sarah cannot bring herself to feel otherwise.
The trudging of tired feet up the stone steps to the front door of the manor break her stupor, and Sarah realised that she has been left to care for Tally. It is a terrible honour to have been bestowed by her sisters - if not for her, Tally would be awake right now. Still, Sarah lifts her gently and makes for the warmth and comfort of her home. Now that the situation is not quite so dire, she lets the weight of Tally in her arms be something of a comfort - the steady rhythm of quiet breathing and a beating heart a relief after the previous fading.
It is disconcerting, of course, to watch veins blacken with slow poison, but Sarah knows that at least she can keep at bay with what little skill for fixing and energy she has remaining. Worse again to see, as they step into the light of lamps lit on the porch, is the brilliant blood soaked bodice of what had been a gorgeous white gown thrown into stark relief. What has her fighting to maintain some semblance of composure, however, is what has been so carefully embroidered into that same fabric.
Flowers and foliage, but amongst them Alder leaves and cones, subtle enough that without the change in hue, they could have gone utterly unnoticed. Tally had, in her own way, declared herself. To see such delicate work destroyed, sullied only because of an inexplicable intention to protect her... it does not bear thinking about. Not just yet.
“Pé ashónkà, Ethel - ilánèír,” Ana sighs as the doors inch open, and Ethel’s eyes widen behind her spectacles at the sight of their party, bloodied and drenched to a woman.
“Oh my, straight upstairs with you all - I will inform the others that the danger has passed,” she chivvies them all inside, leaving the door latches so that the others might come in when their business is done. The sound of music blares through the halls, and it is like a different world. Inside these walls, there was never any danger, no one would ever be any the wiser of what had been at stake. They would dance and drink the night away, ignorant and blissful while above their heads two witches would be fighting Camarilla poison, and a third coughing blood into her handkerchief from the lengths she had gone to to make it so they were alive to do so.
Ana looks to Sarah for further directions while Ethel scuttled off at a speed that would be shocking for someone with half her years. “Iza would perhaps benefit from the familiarity of the guest room to recover in, if you could show our younger guests to the far rooms?”
They part ways on the landing, with Anacostia leading Tally’s sisters to the east wing guest rooms, and Sarah taking to the west. She passes the double doors of the master bedroom, and instead opens the door of her own room. As the Lord of Fort Salem, Sarah is aware that there is an expectation of grandeur, and her residence as the sole master would naturally lend itself to living in the master suite - who would ever think that a room as magnificent as that would be left empty? Months ago, when she had first set foot back on this beloved soil, she had considered it, but the room was exactly as she had remembered it from the day the Alders had left, and she could not. That was a room belonging to memory, not to her.
For all the pomp and circumstance of Fort Salem at large, stepping into her chambers now with new eyes, Sarah can acknowledge that it is at odds. Her taste has always run simple, and this room is a reflection of that, outfitted with furniture of simple design but solid quality - two chairs, a long mirror, armoire, a dressing screen, and her bed. Laying Tally in her simple bed, safe for now, Sarah sinks into a chair and shakes.
The world comes to Tally in flashes of moments, scraps of time intermingled with dreams so totally that it is near impossible to determine which is which.
A wizened old woman with a kindly face slips dry cotton over her head, crooning a low lullaby.
The next time she wakes, Raelle is half collapsed at her side, dark tendrils wrapping around her face like pitch on a roof.
She is so cold, yet her skin burns at the slightest touch. When she wakes again, Abigail is pressing a cold towel to her forehead and murmuring words that Tally cannot quite catch. She drifts.
Always, she sees the glint of blades in the moonlight. Dark figures curl in the shadows, flicker in the fireplace, reach for her with wild smiles and wolves teeth. She wants to cry out, to move away, but she cannot seem to do anything but shiver, hot tears rolling into her hair and onto the pillows.
Abigail sits at her bedside reading aloud. The Camarilla leer and taunt from the corner. A bevy of elderly women clean her face and brush her hair with gentle hands. A ghostly Alder kisses her and takes the blade to her own heart then melts into nothingness. Raelle, brow furrowed in concentration. An enormous spider spins her into a silken cocoon. Doctor Hicks listens to her breathing. Petra stares at her from the doorway. Raelle again. Abigail. Anacostia. Edwin. Raelle. Her chest aches through it all.
When she does eventually wake from the fever dream, it is dark, the curtains drawn and fire burning low in the grate. The room is beautiful - dark wood panelling and simple features lending a coziness that is comforting even when Tally is not certain of where she is. In a chair in front of the fire, the woman that had caught her and Abigail at the greenhouse sits, knitting quietly. Tally vaguely recalls seeing her in this room before, with broth maybe? The memory is hazy, but the sense of calm caring the woman exudes is enough to embolden her to speak.
“How long?” Tally croaks, voice cracking with disuse.
“A handful of days, Miss Craven. It is just about to be Sunday - Camarilla poison is nothing to sniff at,” the woman replies, laying down her knitting to attend her, “I am glad to see you awake at last.”
Tally baulks. The guts of a week, gone to fever and illness.“Sunday?! Goddess protect… and what of the others, Miss…?”
“Just Devon will do fine, Miss Craven. As for the rest of your compatriots, all are well, and resting now. It has been a trying few days. How are you feeling?” Devon asks kindly, pouring water from a pitcher and handing it to her. Tally gratefully accepts, taking very civilised sips under her watchful eye.
She takes stock of herself, now that the burning is done, and is somewhat relieved to find there are few remaining ills to complain of. “I dare say I am almost well - aside from tiredness and a lack of strength comparable to that of a kitten. I’ll live yet,” she jokes, though it has the opposite of the desired effect, drawing a shadow and frown to Devon’s face.
“Through a great deal of effort and the blessings of the Goddess, yes, you will. It was terrible to witness suffering like that, Miss Craven. The biddies and I asked her blessings each day in the hope that you and Izadora would wake.”
That at least settles the ever changing cast of elderly women that she can half remember from snatches of wakefulness as being real. “Thank you, I know I must have been quite something to deal with through all that. I appreciate the care you took of me, all of you, truly.” She really does - though she has been bed bound, the grime of illness is barely present, and she, like this room, is clean and well kept. It is no small feat to come to in such a condition. Though the thought of how she might have gotten from the rain soaked gown and into the cotton shift that she is wearing now does bring a blush to her cheeks.
Devon smiles, round cheeks creasing her face up into a delightfully contagious grin. “No thanks required, Miss Craven. Even in the throes of illness you were sure to offer great compliments to us all.”
This revelation only darkens the flush. “Though I can’t recall them I am sure they were well meant.” Tally yawns, unable to stop herself.
Devon chuckles, taking the now empty mug back to rest with the pitcher. “I will inform the rest of the household that you are back to yourself in the morning. In the meantime, rest, recover. Sleep is healing, you know.”
Though she has spent the last four days doing just that, Tally cannot bring herself to argue - she is bone tired anyway. Devon gathers up her things and makes to leave when Tally is struck by a thought.
“Devon? My memory of things is confused by ghouls and spiders - was General Alder here, or did my imagination pull her from thin air?”
The biddy hesitates, shuffling her feet before she replies, and Tally almost does not need her to. “The General has been working tirelessly to ensure the criminal who betrayed the safety of the guests to her house is found, and unfortunately that has meant she has not been able to tend to you herself,” Devon monotones, as if this is something she has learned by rote, “but I will let her know that you are awake first thing, Miss Craven.”
Tally had nearly died, had spent the past four days delirious and laid up in her home, and Sarah had not visited even once? That hurts almost as much as the stabbing did. “Thank you, Devon. And good night.”
Despite the unease of their parting words, Tally sleeps the dreamless sleep of the exhausted, waking only when the door bursts open and her sisters slam through it, throwing themselves on top of her in an aggressive hug.
“You are never allowed to do that again, do you hear me Tally?” Abigail commands, voice muffled by the pillow her face is buried in.
“It’s good to have you back Tal, but I’m with Abigail: never again. I don’t care if it’s the president himself - no more throwing yourself into the line of fire,” Raelle agrees from the other side of her head.
Tally returns the hug with fervour. “I am very glad to see you both well too. Tell me everything that I missed.”
Her sisters launch into the tale of her missing days with gusto, interrupting each other nonstop to add colour to the story - and once they reach the days Tally spent in a feverish haze, they too make no mention of the General beyond what Devon had already revealed last night. Unlike Devon, they are not able to keep their opinions on that matter to themselves.
“Hardly anyone has seen her for more than a handful of minutes - not even Anacostia, and she has been glued to Izadora’s bedside,” Abigail says, shaking her head, “That woman needs to get her priorities in order.”
“At least that means she has been neglecting everyone, and not just you, that is something, surely?” Raelle tries to be bright and flippant, but it falls flat. That Sarah has been avoiding everyone does not bode well at all, and Tally has a creeping suspicion that the withdrawal, contrary to Raelle’s hopeful suggestion, has everything to do with her.
The instinct to defend the General is a strong one - it is what had gotten her into this position in the first place after all - but she refrains.
“Perhaps not your most reassuring speech Raelle, but definitely improving,” Tally responds in kind, even though she is rattled. Loyalty and care are two things Sarah values very highly - her feelings about the skirmish must be tumultuous and all consuming to overcome those core aspects of her personality. If even Izadora is not being attended to by Sarah, there must be something gravely amiss indeed. Her sisters will have no more insight into the state of Sarah’s thoughts than a garden gnome, however, so Tally quickly moves on. “No matter, what news from town?”
The question has her sisters blatantly avoiding meeting her eye. Tally sits up, openly concerned now. “I had thought there might be news from inside the ballroom to look forward to but now I am wary of the truth. What are you so reluctant to tell me?”
Rae winces, scratching the back of her neck awkwardly. “Well… there is the small matter, and really you should not concern yourself with it while you are still getting back your strength, but…”
“Buttonwood has gone to ask your father for his permission to marry you,” Abigail cuts in, blunt and to the point as she always is. Tally cannot believe her ears.
“We did not want to worry you when you have only just gotten back to us all but it is true. He left for Boston a little over a day ago now,” Raelle says apologetically.
A laugh bubbles up in Tally’s throat, and slips out, much to her chagrin. It is one of disbelief; That muttonhead has been pursuing his audacious plan to marry both her and Miss Saint? While she has been half dead from poison? It is just tone deaf enough that Tally can believe Buttonwood would do it. “That settles it - I must go after him.”
“Go after him? Tally, you very nearly died!” Raelle cries, incredulous, “Doctor Hicks prescribed bed rest, and it’s bed rest you’ll be getting. At least a day or two worth - for my sake if not your own.”
He is already halfway to Boston, and her father, by now. To delay is to give him a chance to work his way into her father’s good graces, and by extension into her hand in marriage. On the other hand, she is weaker than she has ever been, the malaise of illness slow to slough off. Tally is not so contrary as to ignore the demands of her body. “Fine. A day, two at most, and then I must go and prevent my father from agreeing to marry me off to that adulterous letch.”
Sarah knows she is being a coward of the highest degree when, a full day after hearing that Tally has come around, she still has not darkened her doorstep. Her biddies have even begun to show their disapproval of her decision openly when they bring news of her back after serving her lunch or offering her tea. Even in their silence, the disappointment rolls off them in waves. She has been holed up in her office for nearly a week now, barely leaving it beyond when she must. After that first night, when her biddies had sent her off to a hot bath and insisted they would care for Tally, she had not returned.
She does have business she is attending to while she’s here, correspondences to return and inquiries to make, but it should not preclude her from visiting Tally, who had fought, and taken a blade, on her behalf. No, that honour lies solely with Sarah herself. She had tempted fate, kissing Tally, allowing herself to fall the way she had for the Knower, and fate had been quick to remind her just how tenuous the peace her solitude provided truly is. It is a lesson she should not have needed to receive a fourth time, but receive it she had.
The image of Tally, bloodsoaked and utterly still in her arms, is plastered across her eyelids. Every blink is a reminder of just how close to getting another person she loved killed Sarah had come. She would not allow it to happen again.
“Miss Collar and Miss Bellweather have returned to the Bellweather estate,” Grace announces loudly as she returns and joins the rest of the biddies, “I suppose Miss Craven will be spending the evening in solitude. If only there were someone who might lift her spirits.” The remark is punctuated by a pointed glare in Sarah’s direction. In the scant few hours that she has been cogent, Tally has charmed her entire household. It would be remarkable to Sarah if she did not have firsthand experience of that self same charm working its magic on her. She cannot blame her biddies for falling just a little bit in love with the young woman; it is hard not to - Sarah had tried.
That does not mean that she is going to dignify such a comment with a response beyond the slow lifting of a dark brow over the letter Sarah is reading. Grace scoffs, muttering darkly as she sits. A shadow falls over the pages, and Sarah does look up then to see Camille standing with her hands firmly on her hips.
“She has repeatedly asked after you. Even at the height of her feverish ramblings, your name was a constant feature. Why, then, are you not at her side?” Camille asks, eyes narrowed as if that will help to reveal Sarah to her more clearly. “You love her, just as surely as she loves you, Sarah. Any fool can see that. I cannot fathom, then, what reason would be enough to warrant this behaviour.”
“Have you considered that my reasons are my own, and that I do not owe an explanation to you?” It is something she might have said to Camille as a child, to deflect away from her vulnerable underbelly and most personal truths, and Sarah takes no pride in trying it as a fully grown woman. What is an ounce more shame on top of what she is already crippled by?
Camille is not so easily deterred. “You do not owe me an explanation, but Miss Craven? Her you do owe, and an apology to boot.” She is right, of course, but that does not change the fact that Sarah is justifiably reluctant to have such a conversation with Tally.
As long as she is in this office, and Tally in her chambers, the fantasy holds. If she does not speak to her, then Sarah can stay for just a while longer in a world where she can keep Tally close, can keep her for herself.
“She will not remain here indefinitely, and mark my words, if you allow this silence to continue there will be more than one witch storming this office for answers,” Camille continues, unbothered by her lack of response, “You will be better served by speaking to her on your own terms, rather than those imposed by her sisters.”
It will be difficult enough to get through with Tally alone, having to engage with her sisters on the matter does not bear thinking about. Sarah sighs deeply, the weariness that has pervaded her heart since that dreaded night preying heavy on her mind. She cannot live in delusion forever. “I will speak with her as I know I must, and let us leave all discussion of the matter there.”
Sarah waits for the warm dark of evening, when she is certain that the only person still left in her chambers will be the one she is seeking. Still, she hesitates on the threshold.
“Come in,” Tally calls brightly from within, “I thought we had agreed there was no need to kno—” Sarah enters, falling into parade rest, and Tally’s surprise is palpable.
They fall into uneasy silence, neither one sure of the other, and though she tries to exude the calm control of her General persona, Sarah cannot stop her eyes from devouring the witch, rosy cheeked, brown eyes carefully assessing in the way Tally is wont to do, and very much alive in her bed. She is beautifully, vibrantly, alive. This is how Sarah wants to remember her.
“It is difficult to be angry with you for neglecting to visit when I am surrounded by pieces of you, you know,” Tally intones lightly, gesturing to the room around her with a wry smile, “Though I will say I much prefer seeing you for myself.”
Sarah huffs a mirthless laugh. “You should be angry. I owe you an apology.”
Tally sits up properly then, letting the quilt fall to her lap with an expectant smile. “I did not expect to receive one, but if you would like to offer an apology I would happily accept one - though you might consider doing so with less distance between us, for maximum efficacy.” She speaks as though they are both in on some grand joke, carefree in a way that Sarah has never been capable of.
“I wish to apologize for my behaviour,” Sarah declares without emotion, blank faced as she can manage, “I should not have kissed you, and I certainly should not have allowed you to be privy to the conversation about the Camarilla.”
Tally’s quiet gasp makes her stomach twist, but Sarah refuses to let it impact her delivery. She must do this. Tally will live, if it is the last thing Sarah achieves in this world, she will be made safe.
“I don’t understand - are you saying this because I disobeyed your instruction to remain with the guests? Surely that is not so great an offence as to warrant this insult to both of our intelligences,” she says, fire in her tone, “because you and I both know that kiss was not something to regret.”
Except that kiss, like Judas’ in the Christian texts, had sealed Tally’s fate in a way Sarah had never intended to. For a moment, it had been a beacon of hope for a future unmarred by the horrors that have dogged her family’s steps for as long as she can remember. And then Tally had nearly lost her life at the hands of the Camarilla. For Sarah. Just as her parents and sister had. No, she does not regret the kiss, so much as she regrets that she is herself. “I should not have done it, and apologize for leading you on in such a manner.”
“You cannot be serious! Leading me on? ” Tally practically spits and hisses at her, and there is the anger that should have greeted Sarah all along. This she can handle, fury and scorn is much safer than devotion. Yet, almost as soon as the anger has bubbled up, Tally is banking the flames of it, wheels clearly turning behind her narrowed eyes. “Could you truly care for me so little that you would deny me thusly?”
“ It is precisely because I care for you that I cannot be with you!” Sarah barks, offended at the implication, and Tally has managed it again, to see beyond what she is saying to the heart of what she means. “I will not survive it. Not again.”
The silence is heavy in the wake of her pronouncement, the fire crackling seems cacophonous now without the cover of their voices. Tally’s gaze softens to such a degree that Sarah cannot bear to look at her, to feel it boring into her skin is agony of the acutest kind.
“Do you wish me to say that I regret taking that blade for you? Because I cannot. I would die for you, Sarah Alder, and I will not apologize for that,” Tally breathes, soft and assured, “But Sarah, I would live for you too. Is that not enough?”
It would not be enough to sway the Camarilla, no matter how much either of them might hope it would.
Sarah clenches her eyes shut, and shakes her head. “I will not put you in danger just by being. I refuse to.”
“I… goddess above, Sarah, you are the one who told me not to accept Gerit’s proposal. You are the one who kissed m—”
“I know,” Sarah cuts across her, finally turning back to face the woman she almost killed with her love, “and I am also the one who placed a target on your back. None of your other prospects would put you in such peril.”
Tally sputters through half words, incredulous. “What, do you propose I knock on Mr Shellbark’s door and profess my undying love for him?”
Sarah cannot be anything but repulsed by the notion. “No! No, you should truly love whomever you decide to honour with your hand. Do not throw that ideal away.” Just because they cannot be together does not mean Tally should suffer through a loveless marriage.
“So you do not want me as your wife, but no other can have me?” Tally retorts, “Am I to spend all my days alone because you would make us both slaves to your fear?”
“My fear ? Look around you!” Sarah growls, suddenly furious, gesturing wildly at the sick bed that Tally has been kept in for days, “Look where caring has brought you. You could have died - not just in words, and it would have been on my hands, on my heart.” Sarah’s chest heaves with every breath, her fists clenched so tightly that the imprints of her nails will be visible in her palm for hours. She paces back and forth in front of the fireplace, and Tally makes no move to stop her.
“Yet here I am. Still counted amongst the living.” Tally murmurs, steady in the face of Sarah’s outburst. It would be maddening if Sarah did not love her for it.
“By no small feat, yes, you are, but so too are the Camarilla. Do you know how many people have been killed because they had the misfortune to care about me?” It is a higher number than Sarah ever would have wanted, and she will not be adding names to the list. There are too many ghosts haunting her as it is.
“Caring for you is one of the greatest gifts I have ever known. It is not a misfortune. Not to me. Even now.” Tally half smiles, a watery eyed little thing that is like a musket ball to the heart. Sarah hates that she is the reason for it, that her weakness has led them both here.
“You are young. You have a long life ahead of you,” Sarah smiles tiredly back at her, “There will be another before long, in this season or the next, and you will forget that you ever felt for me at all. Best of all you will live to experience everything that life has to offer you without fearing the shadows.” That is all she can wish for Tally, to live a full life.
“This world is a dangerous one for our kind, whether or not I am yours does not change that.”
They both know that is not quite true.
“I have been pursued like this my entire life - I am all that is left of the Alder line because of the Camarilla. My family loved me and laid down their lives to save mine, and the hunt will not stop until either I am dead or they are destroyed. The Camarilla will do anything to further that cause, and killing you to get to me is something I cannot allow to happen,” Sarah answers firmly, watching the challenge rise in Tally’s sweet face.
“And if I did not care about the Camarilla?”
In another life, Sarah might have laughed at that suggestion. As it is, she merely shakes her head fondly. “You are not so naive as that.”
Tally shrugs, and levels her with a certainty in her gaze, the set of her shoulders sure and unbending. “No, I am not. Nor am I a coward. I would rather spend a short life happy at your side than a long one miserable at any other’s.”
Every moment of this conversation has been painful, but that sears Sarah to her bones. How could Tally expect her to live with herself if she would let her die for something so paltry as Sarah herself? “Please. I am trying to give you your life, please do not make that more difficult than it already is.”
“Look me in the eye and tell me that you do not want me.”
That is enough to startle Sarah out of her melancholy. “Pardon?”
Tally perseveres. “Say it, mean it, and I will leave the issue alone.”
“You are being unfair.”
“ I am being unfair?” Tally scoffs, “You kiss me and then all but toss me aside and I am the one who is being unfair?”
“I am trying very desperately to keep you alive .” Why is that not enough? Should the lengths she is willing to go to protect that life not prove how highly she values it?
Tally hesitates for a moment, but ultimately must speak the truth as she sees it. “By breaking my heart?”
What agony, to be told so plainly how she must be injuring the woman she loves, even in service of that same love. They will both suffer before this is done, and Sarah can do aught but hope it will protect Tally in a way that she cannot. “Do you imagine that is something I want to do, that this is how I intended the season to unfold? I informed you at the season’s opening that I would not be taking a wife.”
It is a terrible thing to say, knowing as she does that it is only a half truth. Surely she did inform Tally of that at season’s open, but long has her opinion on the matter been otherwise. To act now as if those feelings were never present at all is beneath them both.
“You did, and if your feelings on the matter have not changed at all, then it should be the work of moments to end both of our suffering!” Tally cries, cheeks colouring with emotion, “Tell me. Tell me from the heart that you do not care for me, that you do not want me, that our kiss means nothing. Tell me, Sarah, so that I might rid my heart of love for you the way you seem to have managed so easily.”
Sarah stares at her, cheeks flushed, brown eyes beseeching, and wonders how it is that she is supposed to denounce her. It would be for the best, if she could bring herself to lie so baldly, to say that she holds no love, no care, for Tally. But she cannot. For all that she is severing their connection, she cannot deny its existence. “I… you need rest,” She mutters, bowing low before making for the door. “I will take my leave.”
One word, spoken quietly into the air at her back as she shuts the door behind her, rings in Sarah’s ears.
Say it with me now, Noble. Idiots.
“Pé ashónkà, Ethel - ilánèír": We're witches, Ethel, I promise.
Chapter 10: Anywhere I want, just not Home.
It's been a while! The words were not wording for me recently, so sorry about that - I hope you enjoy!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Coward.” The word rings out, harsh and savouring strongly of bitterness, but Tally cannot bring herself to care. Not when Sarah has proven it to be true - if only in matters of the heart. It is not that Tally does not understand her position; how could anyone fault the General for being so firm when her life has been a continuous struggle against the very forces that nearly took Tally’s life as well?
It is only that it seems callous, to disregard the sacrifices made by kin, and even Tally herself; All were made in the name of love, Tally is sure of it, and for Sarah to forsake that gift for fear of another loss is both infuriating and deeply, terribly, sad. Though she had not been able to outright deny that there is love between them, nor relinquish that hold on Tally, she all but swore never to pursue it. That refusal stings, leaving a hollow pit of aching despair and fury in its wake.
If Tally allows herself to, she knows that many hours could be spent raging, and subsequently crying, about the whole sorry affair. Unfortunately, she has business to attend to, and since Sarah has decided to be hardheaded, there is nothing material holding her here any longer. Her frailty, while inconvenient, is immaterial in the face of the rest of it, and though she had, perhaps, harboured idle thoughts during her recuperation of Sarah attending her, their conversations all devolving into passionate kisses like the one they had shared before everything had gone to pieces, now all she can really do is leave. To stay would be too painful, and it would leave the door open for Buttonwood to indoctrinate her father while she wallowed.
On shaking limbs, Tally hauls herself from the sickbed that she knows must belong to Sarah herself, and ties her hair back tightly. The one oversight, though they had not planned for a sudden exit, her sisters had made was the omitting of any of her clothes from the small bag of items they had left for her here. Though it would be some story for the neighbours if Tally were to emerge from Fort Salem after a week clad only in her nightclothes, she could not allow it. For one thing, she is about to be completely unattached and her reputation could not suffer such a blow when she is shortly to refuse a seemingly ideal match. The other, perhaps slightly more frustrating truth, is that even after all of the heartache Sarah has put her through tonight, she would rather die than tarnish her good name and standing.
Tally pads silently down corridors she has only vague memories of being in before, and hopes that her luck does not run out before she can reach her destination - getting caught by Sarah sneaking through the manor like a thief in the night would be incredibly embarrassing. Though she is unsure of her direction, Tally relies on the gift she has been given to guide her way to the heavy wooden door, behind which the low hum of voices abruptly stops as she knocks. A moment of anxious waiting spent half leaning against the frame is ended by the door opening inward to reveal the very women she has been seeking.
“Miss Craven!” Angelie remarks, surprise writ across her lined face, “Can we help you with something?” Inside, the other biddies regard her with varying degrees of frowning concern from their chairs, chatter and parlour games abandoned.
Tally offers a wan smile, stomach twisting into knots at the kindness of such a small but obvious show of care. “I very much hope so - I am sorry to disturb, of course, if you are occupied I would not want to interrupt and—”
“Why don’t you come in and take a seat, Miss Craven? I am sure that we can put whatever is bothering you to rights,” Camille beckons her in, and Tally goes willingly, sinking into the chintz with a shake of her head.
“I would not be so sure of that, and it is not why I have come to you in any case,” Tally sighs. “I wish to thank you, all of you, for the kindness you have shown me during my time here. Each of you is a true marvel, and I have been honoured to spend a few days in your company,” She says, swallowing the lump in her throat that rises as she meets the eyes of each woman in turn, “But I am leaving. Tonight. And I cannot go as I am.”
She might have anticipated the outcry that would elicit. “Tonight?!” “Miss Craven, whatever are you thinking?!” “You can barely stand without trembling!” Through it all, Camille is watching her with narrowed eyes, and when she raises a hand all the other biddies fall silent.
“May I inquire as to why you are so eager to go?” She asks calmly, and Tally digs her nails into the palm of her hand to stop herself from doing something completely mortifying, like breaking down in front of seven elderly women.
“I cannot stay where I am not wanted, Camille. Regardless of my feelings on the matter - my pride is not so diminished as to allow my lingering.”
It is not much being said, but the biddies are well versed in the art of subtle communications, and Tally knows by the pursing of her lips that Camille has the measure of events. “Rightly so, Miss Craven. If someone is too thick-skulled to appreciate your presence here, you should not feel bound to remain,” Camille says firmly, reaching across to squeeze Tally’s hand in hers, eyes kind. “Devon, Brigid, fetch a coat and her dress, would you?”
Tally has never been more grateful for the quiet efficiency of their collective than she is now - no questions are asked, though she knows they must be burning in all of their minds, and soon enough Brigid and Devon return with the garments. For her part at least, Brigid brandishes a long woolen coat with a grin and cedes the floor to Devon, who holds behind her back what Tally can only assume is the only item of clothing she had come here wearing.
“I must preface by saying that I did imagine we might have a bit more time to work on the more difficult areas,” Devon grumbles, “There is only so much I could do, and if you would prefer we could of course offer alternative clothing options.” Devon presents the gown to her gingerly, and Tally can see why; it is much changed since she saw it last. The hole left by the dagger has been sewn shut, the muddied hem cleared of grime. The bodice is the real focal point, stained as it is by varying shades of russet and maroon in spots that have proven more difficult to clean. No wonder Tally has been so weak - half her blood must have soaked this dress. It is sobering to see what remains of that bloody encounter, but Tally is fairly sure that the long coat will suffice to cover most of the damage long enough for her to return home.
“Thank you Devon, you’ve done an admirable job on it,” Tally says quietly, taking the dress in considering hands. All the hours they had spent embroidering, only for the gown to suffer such a quick death - for surely she would have to retire it immediately, good only for the task of getting her out of Fort Salem and not much else. It is still one of the most beautiful garments she has ever beheld, running her fingers gently over the alder leaves and other flowers, she cannot help the way her heart clenches in her chest. No matter what she does, where she goes, Sarah Alder has left an indelible mark on her heart that no amount of fear will erase. Tally shakes herself from her reverie and slips out of the nightgown and back into the dress with little fanfare. It is nothing these women have not seen before.
“Sincerely, I am in your debt for the kindness you have shown me over these past days, and I will not soon forget it,” Tally enthuses, meeting their eyes one by one, and taking their hands in hers as she makes her way around the room. “Do not be strangers, for I would greatly miss your company.”
They are all a touch misty eyed, partings being what they are, and Tally is under no illusions; when she leaves this place, she will be leaving their companionship too - their loyalty lies, as it must, with their General. She offers it anyway, because even two days of lucidity is enough to have endeared each of them into her heart, and it is true, she will miss them.
Ethel wipes the fog from her half moon spectacles, the last in the line of goodbyes. “We wish all the best things in the world for you Miss Craven, never doubt that,” she sniffs quietly.
“And I for you,” Tally replies with a smile though her lip is quivering, “I am only sorry that I could not find them here.” If she does not leave now, she is in real danger of overstaying her welcome by crying quite a lot, and so she gives a little bow, pulls the coat on, and makes for the door.
“I will accompany you,” Camille says quietly, coming up at her elbow, “At least to the front door.” Tally does not protest - she is to be alone soon enough. With one last wave, they take their leave, and Tally lets herself be led in the silent calm that Camille exudes, down corridors lined with priceless art and finishings before it occurs to her that there could be another reason for the escort besides kinship. She has barely taken a breath to inquire before Camille chuckles low. “I am not here to keep eyes on you. Although perhaps I should be, if you are considering it.”
Tally flushes at the sly look Camille shoots her as they round the stairs. “Well then, not that I do not appreciate the company, why have you joined me?”
“Because,” Camille sighs, the twinkle of mirth leaving her eye, “While I love and care for the General, and I do not yet know precisely what has been said to you, I am certain it is foolishness of the highest order. I wished to implore you not to think too poorly of her, though I know she has hurt you, and to ask that, however you may feel about her, you would still protect and maintain her confidence. For all her airs, she is a fragile thing.”
“Her confidence is in no danger from me, I will keep it as soundly as my own. I almost wish I could think poorly of her, it might be less painful than loving her,” Tally admits softly. If she had never met Sarah, she might have lived her whole life without knowing that she could feel so deeply for another person. She might have had a vacuous but superficially ideal marriage to a man she would tolerate, and nothing more. Indeed, a great many things would have been simpler if she had never been introduced to Sarah Alder, but Tally cannot bring herself to regret a moment of it.
Camille shakes her head, frustration being held back only by the grace and decorum required of her position. “If she is willing to let you slip through her fingers after I have words with her then she truly is a fool.”
“I am no better. Who but a fool would still hold love in their heart after such a rejection?” Tally huffs a mirthless laugh. The fire of anger that had spurred her out of bed has lessened considerably, and left only soot and ash in her mouth. On the threshold of Fort Salem, knowing that she cannot return, Tally’s thoughts are filled with memories of wondrous moments she has experienced here: rainclouds in the glasshouse, a hand into her carriage, the final strains of music dancing palm to palm, blue eyes burning into her soul, a kiss unlike anything she has ever known. Her every sense is yearning for Sarah, even still, because there is love between them that could not be denied even though Tally has been. It will remain like a ghost in the places Tally cannot, and part of her aches to know that she will be one more thing that haunts the Lord of Fort Salem. She cannot give a seed, like the beautiful places of Sarah’s memory, nor any Seed that Sarah would not already know, but there is something she can give, pointless though it may be at this juncture. “Camille, could I ask one more favour of you?”
Camille offers her a small smile. “If it is within my power to give, I shall.”
It is the work of moments, and then Tally is gone, a shadow in the dark of the night.
By the second day of barely concealed annoyance, Sarah comes to the conclusion that Tally must have told the biddies what they had spoken of when Sarah visited her sickbed. As another tea tray clatters just this side of too loudly against her desk, Sarah sighs, and lowers her pen. The biddies are situated in their usual attitudes around her office, but all are practically vibrating with restrained emotion.
“Either speak your piece or don’t, but taking your feelings out on the tableware will not end well for anyone,” She monotones, the weight of exhaustion and her own inadequacy heavy on her shoulders. There is a beat of dead silence as six sets of eyes turn expectantly to Camille in her armchair by the fire.
For her part, Camille does clearly aim for a diplomacy of speech that Sarah is well aware Brigid would not be capable of. “It has been two days, and not once have you asked after the welfare of Miss Craven.” As if Sarah is not aware of that, as if it is not an intentional attempt to stop herself from storming through that door and begging for forgiveness. “We know some of what has gone on, but perhaps everyone would be better served by hearing the truth of the matter from your own lips,” Camille suggests with a tilt of her head.
“The truth of the matter,” Sarah begins, knuckles white where she grips the arms of her chair, “Is that Miss Craven suffered a near fatal injury on my behalf, and I have ensured that cannot happen again. She may denounce me as a coward and a villain for it, but I will know she lives and that is a worthy price to pay.” She can feel their eyes on her, though she cannot bring herself to meet them.
“Oh, Sarah…” Camille sighs softly, “You cannot truly believe that this is a worthy price.”
For the first time in days, Sarah takes stock of herself, the dark bags beneath her eyes and the hollow empty feeling that has spread throughout her body. She has spent so much energy trying to forget how horrendous every step away from Tally has felt, how coward has rung in her ears ever since, how deep the well of loneliness and longing has become in the absence of hope. She has neglected herself, but worse than that, she has neglected the people closest to her. Without sleep, she has poured every moment into the search for a Camarilla informant that may never be found. The work is a refuge and a penance both, though Sarah is aware that her doggedness is spurred onward by guilt on two fronts; the first, that she had allowed herself to get involved with Tally, and the second, that she has hurt her so profoundly by denying her. The way Tally had looked at her, furious and betrayed, would haunt her for the rest of her life. Could any price, however, any burden, she reasoned, be too great if it kept Tally safe?
“I have no choice. If the decision is between her life and my comfort, then I will choose her. I will choose her without question, because I am the reason she is in danger in the first place,” Sarah says firmly, “If I had kept more strictly to my resolve not to engage with anyone, not to care , none of this would ever have happened. I cannot spare her heart, but I will spare her life.”
“Do you think condemning yourself to a life of suffering honours any of the sacrifices that have been made, not only by those that love you, but those that you have made yourself? What good does it do you to have this life if it is filled only with misery?” Camille lets out a heavy sigh, and rises to her feet, eyes softening as she gazes at the child she had raised and the woman she has become. “When you spoke to Miss Craven about this plan to martyr your heart for her safety, what was her reply?”
Though every word has been a blow to her already fragile stability, Sarah swallows the growing lump in her throat. “That she would rather spend a short happy life with me than a long and miserable life with any other. She does not know of what she speaks - it would be an unforgivable waste of a most precious life.”
Camille’s wizened hand grasps hers in a gesture of comfort so familiar yet foreign that it reignites the stinging tears in the corner of Sarah’s eye. Ever so gently, she presses on. “Was your father’s life a waste?”
The question makes bile rise in her throat. Her father, who had loved his daughters with the ferocity of the sun, had been quick to smile and quicker to laughter, had taught her how to fight hand to hand, had danced with her mother on the deck of the ship that ferried them all unwittingly to their doom. Had given his life in the hopes that they might live. “No,” she chokes out gruffly, tears welling and falling with abandon. “No.”
“But by your logic, it must have been? Even worse than Miss Craven - at least she has some Work in her, there is inherent danger in her being, but your father was a civilian,” Camille asks, ignoring the gasps it elicits from the women around her, “If he had not married your mother, he would have lived a long life. Was that not a waste?”
“Of course not,” Sarah bites out.
“Because he loved my mother, and she loved him,” Sarah clenches her eyes shut, knowing the truth of those words, and the point that Camille had led her to so skilfully. “Their life, their marriage, was the greatest blessing he ever received, and he made sure we all knew it.”
With gentle hands, Camille wipes the tears from Sarah’s cheeks.“They are not here to advise you, but I do believe that on this we would be of the same mind; A life of loving and being loved is never wasted, it is lived fully in the time that it is given,” she enthuses softly, and hummed agreements sound from around the room. It is overwhelming, the ease with which it seems that everyone but Sarah herself can accept the implications therein. There is nothing in the world that Sarah wants more than to give in to the yearning in her heart, but her mind is quick to bring fear to the fore again. It is all well and good to say these things now, but what water will the platitudes hold if the Camarilla succeed? Holding Tally’s near lifeless body once had been more than enough to demonstrate the terrifying possibility that would be a shadow at their backs every day.
“Losing her, having her blood on my hands…” Sarah shakes her head, “It would destroy me, Camille.”
“You would never blame your mother for the loss of your father, nor your sister, yet you insist on taking responsibility for an imagined future in which the same fate befalls Miss Craven - and if you forsake your love for her, then you have already lost her, Sarah,” Camille says, squeezing her hand, and Sarah knows she is right.
All her adult life, she has lugged the shackles of guilt over the deaths of her family around, letting her fear of more loss confine her heart; but she was barely an adult when they were killed. They had loved her, and died to protect her, but she had no hand, act, or part in any of it. The responsibility for every terrible moment that had torn at her soul ever since lay at the feet of the Camarilla, and no one else. They wanted her miserable and alone, the last of a dying line, and all this time, she has allowed it, has done their work for them. All this time she has spent, trying and failing to protect the lives of others, she had all but forgotten what the point of it all should have been; to seek the joy and love that had defined her childhood, and hold onto it - not punishing herself for events far beyond her control.
“I have made quite a hames of things, have I not?” She sniffs, thinking now of Tally, and the manner in which she had dismissed her before. She would be perfectly within her rights to tell Sarah to take a long hike off a short cliff and refuse to hear any apology she might hope to make.
“All are fools in love,” Devon chimes in with a great deal more cheer than has been heard in these rooms of late, “Even the great General Alder.” Her interjection opens the floodgates for chattering amongst the rest of the biddies, whose silence had been tense during Camille’s address.
“I’ll say - if I catch Anacostia and Izadora fumbling once more I will stop bringing their meals altogether. I knock! Why tell me to enter when neither one of you is in a fit state for that to occur? Fools the lot of you,” Fantine groans miserably, which only makes Brigid cackle all the more.
Sarah allows their chatter to wash over her, realising now how silent they had been in recent days, and how much she has missed. “Ana and Izadora? How long has that been going on?”
“At the least since Izadora has been awake and well enough to dally - not everyone is as determined to miscommunicate as yourself and Miss Craven,” Brigid quips, much to Sarah’s chagrin and the delight of the others, who laugh heartily at her expense. She does deserve that one - all she has done for months now is miscommunicate with Tally over and over again. It is half a miracle that they ever managed to kiss in the first place. It will be a much greater miracle if Tally will consider accepting her apology, and her heart.
“Yes, well. If I asked her forgiveness, do you think she would give it?” Sarah asks nervously, wiping the last remnants of tear tracks from her cheeks, “I have much I would say to her, things I did not say before and ought to have, if she would allow me - do you think she might?”
“We cannot know her mind,” Camille smiles wryly, shrugging, “You will simply have to do as lovers for centuries have done, and make a leap of faith.”
Tally had branded her a coward at their last parting, and in many ways she was right. Sarah would throw herself into war with reckless abandon, but in matters of the heart, she has been cowardly. That will end this day. Without a word, Sarah rises and strides from the room. She is well aware that her appearance at the current moment leaves something to be desired, but she cannot bring herself to care, not while her heart beats in her mouth because there is every chance that she has ruined this relationship beyond repair. Her welcome is not guaranteed by any means, and Sarah knows that any apology she makes will only offer some small amount of hope for another chance. Still, she owes it to Tally to offer her sincerest apologies, and to tell her, plainly, how deeply she has affected Sarah. That she has been afraid for so long she doesn’t know what it would be to live without it. That she loves her, and will love her to the end of her days. That there is no other she would ever want to be by her side. But first and foremost, an apology. Sarah steels herself, and knocks.
A moment passes. Silence. “Tally?” She calls lowly through the door. Another moment passes. No reply. Worry rises in Sarah like a shiver the longer the echoing silence stretches out. She knocks again, a touch more forcefully. “Tally? Please answer me, I know I have been a complete and utter fool, and you are under no obligation to protect my feelings, but at least let me know that you remain well?” When there is still no reply, Sarah whispers a prayer to the Goddess that Tally will forgive her this intrusion as well as all the other faults, and steps inside.
“Tally?” Sarah calls quietly, eyes searching every corner for a familiar flash of copper hair. She does not find one, nor any other trace of the woman, but her eyes are drawn to the crisply made bed, the heather grey of her quilt interrupted by a kerchief. Trepidatiously, Sarah crosses to get a clearer look; it has, after all, all the hallmarks of an intentionally left message, being that it is quite centrally placed on her bed. She has barely set her eyes upon it when she finds her feet frozen to their place, all sound disappearing but the rush of blood in her ears.
“Oh,” she breathes, not quite believing the truth of her own eyes, “ Oh .”
There, laying innocuously on the bed, is a square of white fabric, dotted in one corner with a faded maroon, and embroidered entirely down one edge with apple blossoms, lilacs, and alder leaves. A favour. Tally’s favour, left here even after the finality of their argument, and everything Sarah had said to try and sever their connection. When sound returns to her ears, she can hear the distinctive patter of her biddies’ feet in the hallway outside, and is grateful that they have given her this opportunity to collect herself.
“How long?” Sarah croaks, voice thick with emotion, “How long has this been here? How long has she been gone?”
“She came to us soon after your conversation,” Grace answers mildly, “And was gone that same night.”
Sarah turns, looking askance at them all - if they knew she had left, why did no one think to mention that fact to her? Before she can say a word, Edith raises a brow. “Had you asked after Miss Craven even once, we would have told you of her departure.”
It is a testament to the quality of the impression Tally had left on the biddies that they would maintain her privacy and conditions surrounding it, even from Sarah herself. “You don’t suppose she has left her favour here to say that she has given up on any last semblance of hope for us, do you?” The chorus of groans that question elicits is precisely what Sarah had been hoping for, and she laughs to herself, still in disbelief as she picks the favour up and places it reverently into her pocket.
“Have Bill readied at once,” Sarah commands, a smile growing irrepressibly at the corners of her mouth. “I must make a trip to town.”
Sarah rides at a pace that could be concerning, but she could not care less about the opinions of Salem’s gossiping circles when every hoof fall brings her closer to Tally. The Craven house is instantly recognisable for two reasons: Its closed gates and drawn curtains, and the somewhat shocking presence in the front garden of the curled blonde hair of one May Craven. Tally had always maintained that her mother was a complicated woman, who spent many of her days bedbound by a profound melancholy that was, at times, inclined to transform into bitterness and fury. She is flanked on either side by housekeeping staff, and Sarah does not even have time to dismount at the gate before May is at the other side and sneering up at her.
“Mrs Craven, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” Sarah begins politely, sliding from the saddle with practiced ease, “I have had the pleasure of getting to know your daughter these past weeks, and she has spoken of you often. I am Ge—”
“You can save your breath,” May scoffs, “I know exactly who you are, even if no one else in Salem can see you for the harbinger you are, I certainly do. I explicitly told her to steer clear of your poison - Yet another disappointment my daughter has laid at my feet.”
Though Tally had spoken some about her mother and the fraught nature of their relationship, it is still shocking to hear the vitriol in her mother’s voice when she speaks of her only daughter. That she dislikes Sarah is of little consequence - a great many people share the sentiment; Sarah is a standoffish army general, but Tally? Tally is all that is good, gentle and kind in the world. How anyone could find her disagreeable Sarah could not understand, but her own mother? It boggles the mind. She should leave well enough alone, but Sarah cannot let a slight like this go unremarked upon, not when it is Tally that has been slighted. “I cannot take umbrage at any of the accusations you have levelled at me, ma’am, but your daughter would be the pride of any family on the continent - she is perhaps as far from disappointment as it is possible to be.”
“You presume to know her better than I? I, who have borne and raised her these twenty odd years? Suffered all her faults and failures day in and day out?” May snorts derisively, “Please.”
It sets Sarah’s teeth on edge, but she would be here all day arguing the toss with May Craven if she is not careful. “Anyhow,” She says through gritted teeth, “I do not wish to keep you. Is Miss Craven home? I have some urgent business to discuss with her.” It is not even a deception; the nature of the business may not be what she is erstwhile implying, but that is between her, Tally, and the Goddess.
“If it is her hand you were after, you are far too late,” May crows, eyes gleeful and vindictive, as if she is able to see the way Sarah’s heart drops at her words. “I have given my blessing already some days ago to a fine young man by the name of Buttonwood.”
Her blood boils. Evidently the lesson Sarah had bestowed upon him with her fists had not cured him of his lechery, nor his idiocy. The audacity this man had, to ask for the hand of a woman who was languishing in her sickbed, and knowing full well that Sarah would eventually be informed.
Though her mother’s agreement is not nothing, it is not the binding contract that Tally’s father’s permission would be. Sarah holds that thought tightly lest she lose her reason.
“Be that as it may, is Tally available to speak with me for a few moments?” Sarah repeats her query, suddenly much less patient than she had been a few moments prior. The sinking feeling in her gut only intensifies with each moment that passes without Tally appearing. Surely the commotion would draw her from her chamber?
With a toss of her curls, May turns her back and stalks back to the front porch. “She is not, on account of the fact that she is not here. The wastrel has absconded, just like her damnable father.”
On the one hand, Sarah is glad that Tally has taken control of her freedom in this manner. On the other, she is at a loss; with no real information, Tally is lost to the wind and might remain as such for the rest of her days. She has no reason to reach out to Sarah again, not when all she has done of late is bring hardship and despair into her life. Sarah is too late. The only redeeming factor is that this way at least Tally will not find herself tied to the Buttonwood boy. She hopes the Goddess will protect her, wherever she finds herself, will keep her gentle and loving, and happy. Above all else, Sarah prays that Tally will be happy.
With a heavy heart, Sarah clambers back into the saddle. Bill chuffs quietly as they make their way out of town again. “I couldn’t agree more, Bill.” Sarah replies, “Tally should never be made to return to that house.”
She is in no rush to return to Fort Salem, or rather, she was not, but the sight of an all too familiar carriage trundling towards her as she crests the hill is enough to warrant a faster pace.
Porter slows to a rather elegant stop a handful of seconds before Bill manages to make it alongside the Bellweather carriage. The door swings forcefully open, and within, Scylla looking terribly confused, and Collar and Bellweather, glaring daggers out at her.
“Good morning?” Sarah ventures cautiously, uncertain of what it is she is to be scolded for, but knowing that a scolding is imminent.
Abigail scoffs incredulously. “Good morning?! Our most beloved sister has disappeared from your household in the dead of night without so much as a by your leave, and all you have to say for yourself is good morning ?”
Ah. So she has left them all in the dark. Sarah is not sure if this is comforting or concerning. “I myself was only informed about her departure this morning, my biddies were aware, but sworn to secrecy by your sister.”
“You truly are two of the world’s most frustrating people,” Collar mutters, rolling her eyes to heaven. She shifts in her seat, rummaging for something, and holds out a sheaf of folded papers, gesturing at Sarah to take it. Slowly, Sarah does, leaning down and plucking them from her outstretched hand. Scrawled across the back are their names, and Sarah knows it for what it is; a letter from Tally. These pages could hold the key to finding her. They tremble in Sarah’s iron grip.
Scylla, baffled, looks between the two parties; the righteous indignation of her companions, and the shocked paralysis of their quarry. She stares out at Sarah with a confused frown. “What on Earth did you do?”
The biddies are really seven single mom's who work two jobs, love their kid and never stop, with gentle hands and the heart of a fighter.
Also! Lyne Renee (Who plays Alder so incredibly) is doing a tree planting project, there's details in her Instagram bio or at https://trees-for-lyne.raisely.com/ if you're interested in getting involved
Chapter 11: I just wanted you to know, this is me trying.
My Dearest Sisters,
By the time you are reading this letter - and I hope you will be reading it, and have not decided that you are yet so angry with me that you will not - I shall have been gone for at least a few days. I am sorry that I did not say goodbye.
My abrupt departure was not part of the original plan, I know, and it was not a decision I made lightly - I would never ordinarily leave you both in such a manner. I am sure you must be wondering whatever it could be that would drive me to such extremes as this, and I suppose the answer is two fold.
The first is that Alder came to me, though not as I had hoped that she would, a handful of hours after you both had left for the evening. I may have been naïve, or perhaps I am just foolish and hopeful in
love, to think that what occurred in her office would lead to something more. Though she did not outright deny that there is mutual affection and care, she made herself quite clear. There will be nothing more between us. She is sure this is for the best - my safety is seemingly the crux of her argument for this separation, and no amount of my… I feel ashamed to write the word begging, but I am sure that is how it must have seemed to her and so I must. No amount of begging or reasoning was enough to persuade her to take the risk, not when the Camarilla are a constant threat. You are my sisters and I trust that you will not judge me too harshly for making such a colossal fool of myself, because I should be able to let go, and I will, but I do not think I could do that in Salem. Not when I would know that she is so close but utterly out of my reach. The short of it is that despite what I want, and what I do suspect she wants also, she has shut me out, and I am loath to face the rest of the season, and all that follows, without her. That is reason the first.
The second, which I am sure you both have guessed, is that in the absence of Alder, the situation in Boston regarding Gerit Buttonwood became quite dire. It would be one thing to refuse him on the grounds that I had another match lined up, that I could explain to my father. However, to refuse him without any other prospect? That decision would be taken from my hands if I let it, and the only way to prevent an agreement for my hand being made without my input was to leave, expeditiously, and hope to intercept my father before Buttonwood can speak his falsehoods. He had quite the head start, and thusly, once Alder had closed the door, I gathered some small provisions from my mother’s, saddled Roheryn, and left that very night. I have arrived just lately in Boston without much trouble and am writing to you against the walls of a stable where I have found a courier to deliver this at the earliest convenience.
Do not think me too soft - I am in turns so furious with Alder I could scream, and then filled with sorrow for all the terrible fear she holds closer than any person could ever be allowed. I wish I was sorry that she had ever come to Salem, but I am not. She has taught me a great deal about myself that I might never have discovered otherwise - the depth of the well of anger that seethes within me being one such lesson, but other, softer truths that are far too embarrassing to commit to the page too. I am somewhat perturbed by the circumstances in which I find myself - Boston seems such an unfriendly place that I am sure to miss the comforts of you both every moment - and knowing what I do now of Buttonwood’s character, I can only hope that my father will pay heed to what I have to say, or that Buttonwood shows his hand. It has been so long since I have heard from my father that I am unsure of my welcome in his house, but what choice do I have but to present myself to his tender mercies? I have affixed his address to the top of this letter, even so, in the hopes that even if you are rightly quite upset, you might still write, for I do not know as yet how long I might remain in Boston.
“Miss, we truly cannot wait - our party will be setting off posthaste,” The gruff voice of the courier breaks Tally’s train of thought, and nearly ends in a great splash of ink falling from the nib of her pen onto the letter she writes.
“I will be just a moment more, allow me to sign off or they will think me changed utterly already,” Tally replies, just a touch more pleadingly than she might otherwise have been.
He grunts affirmatively, and Tally hastens to finish the job.
I must sign off here, as my courier is anxious to ride, but know that I am always thinking of you, and consider you to be in good hands with Scylla and Adil until I can take up the mantle of your protector again. If you could, for me, try to keep tabs on Alder, would you? I am sure you have all sworn to hate her for toying with my affections, and I won’t begrudge you that, I only ask that an eye be kept when you can. She is, in many ways, far more lonely than anyone I have known, more lonely even than I in that great house on the hill, and I worry… well, I worry.
I do hope you will write back, and know that I am sending all my love for you both with this letter. Be good.
Quickly, Tally fans the page to dry the ink as best she can before folding and stuffing it into an envelope, scratching the Bellweather’s address onto the front as legibly as she can before sealing and handing it off to the waiting courier. He is gone in a matter of moments, and Tally gives Roheryn one last pat before allowing her to be stabled up. The stable is the first she had come across at the edge of Boston proper, and Tally does not relish the thought of venturing onward alone, though she knows she must.
Boston could not be more different from Salem; it is a bustling metropolis, the streets crowded and cacophonous with the sounds of industrious people hawking their wares, carriages and carts going to and fro amongst the sea of people, and the peel of horns from merchant ships arriving to harbour. It is nearly unrecognizable to Tally - the last time she had set foot in the place being almost fifteen years ago, when her father had launched his schooners for their maiden voyage. Great changes have been wrought on the very foundations of the place since, and while it might have been reasonably designated a town on her last visit, there is no doubt in her mind that this is a city now.
It is overwhelming, making her way as cautiously as she can to the last address from which she has received letters from her father, Turnpike Street. Though there is only one other person in Boston that might recognize her, she does her utmost to blend into crowds or shadow. Despite what Sarah seemed to think, she is not completely incapable of fending off the dangerous sorts of the world, and while they had left none alive that night on the lawn of Fort Salem, she is still, understandably, wary. The ride from Salem had been a punishing one made under cover of darkness and guided in no small part by her Sight, and if she had adjusted course a handful of times during the trip after feeling the presence of someone ill intentioned on her tail, that is simply a coincidence.
The slopes of Breed’s Hill, along which Turnpike Street is laid, brings into view the stately homes of the city - towering three story mansions owned by the wealthiest men in the harbour; Tufts, Adams, Breed, and, apparently, Craven. At least, so say the letters Tally has received, and she clings to those same pages in the face of her disbelief as she makes her way down the long drive towards an oblong three story brick mansion within which, ostensibly, her father resides. All the while, Tally has been stalwartly refusing to acknowledge her own waning strength, so fragile still after her injury that she ordinarily would not yet have been making any journey further than the one from her bed to perhaps a parlour. On the steps of her father’s house, without adrenaline or stubbornness to fuel her onward, and at the cusp of respite, the aches are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.
She does make an effort to straighten up when she knocks, and only when the door clicks open does it occur to her that she has fallen into the same parade rest stance that made Sarah so recognizable to her at a distance.
“I am waiting on a most diverting paper, that is why, Mrs Kohlson. It is just a door, I am not exactly invading France, and - oh,” A girl who cannot be more than seventeen stands in the doorway, her jovial face framed by a halo of chestnut curls, looking nearly as surprised as Tally herself must at who she is greeted by.
“Oh, I beg your pardon,” Tally begins, heart sinking in her chest, “I must have the wrong address, I do apologize for the disturbance.” Of course her father could have given her a false address, or perhaps he made some error in his penmanship, that meant she would be unable to find him if she ever did venture beyond her mother’s clutches. She turns to leave, only for the owl eyed girl to gasp in recognition at her retreating back.
“Wait! You’re the girl!” She says with a dawning understanding that Tally, completely confused, cannot claim to share as she spins back around. “The little girl in the portrait! It must be you,” the girl exclaims excitedly, shifting from foot to foot with a wide smile, “Your hair is truly as vibrant as they painted it to be, I did not think that possible.”
Tally, for her part, tries to find the connecting thread that would place this girl, or a portrait of herself, in the tapestry of her life and can do neither. “I am terribly sorry, but I must admit that I am quite at a loss; do we know each other? I have no recollection of a portrait of any sort being commissioned of myself.”
It is this that seems to bring out the etiquette lessons that have been buried in the girl’s enthusiasm. “We do not, but please, come in - you are in the right place if you seek the person I believe you must,” She offers, stepping back to allow Tally to cross the threshold, “I am Penelope Silver, Penny amongst friends, and my father has been doing business lately with yours - Mr. Craven, if I am correct?”
A surge of relief floods Tally. She is in the right place after all. She steps inside with a grateful, if strained, smile. “You are indeed. I am Tally Craven; it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Silver,” Tally offers politely, eyes taking in all that she can in the foyer. It is clean and bright, though a tad cold, lacking the soft furnishings that are so often the mark of a loving home maker. In this moment, half delirious from exhaustion, Tally sinks into a cushioned bench, and it is panacea. “Tell me, might you know where I could find my father? I have an urgent matter I must discuss with him.”
The girl - Penny - furrows her brow and winces apologetically. “He is with my father onboard The Spree ; they are not due to dock until the day after tomorrow at the earliest I am afraid.”
Tally squeezes her eyes shut, but that does little to stem the flow of hot tears that begin to fall. After all that she has suffered; the Camarilla blade, delirium, heartbreak, a nighttime flight, trekking through the city though she is barely fit to take a turn about a room, without a single moment’s rest, all to reach her father, only to be thwarted at the final hurdle? She cannot help the wave of frustrated exhaustion that pushes her to tears. Penny is clearly so flustered by the outburst that she becomes serious, dropping into the seat at Tally’s side and attempting to comfort a veritable stranger.
“Oh, no, you mustn’t cry - nothing can be so bad as all that.”
Tally sniffs, shaking her head forlornly. “It very much can.”
“Well, I know we have only just become formally acquainted, but I feel as if I have known you a long time - your father’s portrait of you has been a rather constant companion of mine - so if you would tell me what ails you, perhaps I could help,” Penny nudges her shoulder gently, holding a handkerchief out for Tally to take with a gentle smile, “I am an excellent listener.”
Sarah cannot believe what she is reading. “Buttonwood is already in Boston!? How long have you all been aware of this?” She cries, not quite able to bring herself to care about how ridiculous she must look, waving parchment around atop Bill.
Bellweather scoffs, quirking her brow in a challenge that reminds Sarah rather fiercely of Petra. “It would not have been so dire an issue if you had an ounce of the wherewithal you ought to! Our sister damn near gave her life for you, and this is how you treat her?”
“I did not ask her to do so!” Sarah snaps back with a growl unbefitting a woman of her station.
“She did not ask to care for you, and yet here we are, despite every reasonable argument against it, including that she did not ask it of us, ensuring that you are well informed of her safety,” Abigail rolls onward, seemingly oblivious to the spider-silk thin line she treads in addressing Sarah in such a manner, “but make no mistake - you have damaged the heart of a most beloved sister, and if she had not written so tenderly of her lingering regard for you, this trip would have had a very different purpose.”
“You speak on matters which are far beyond your comprehension, Bellweather,” Sarah spits through gritted teeth, “Do not assume that your connection to your sister will excuse insolence of this nature - regardless of mistakes I have made, I am still the Lord of Salem, and I will not suffer such disparagement.” Warranted though it may be.
Just as Abigail inhales, likely preparing to embark on another verbal tirade, Collar slaps a hand over her mouth. “You agree then, that you have made a mistake in this matter?” She inquires with a forced lightness of tone that Sarah can appreciate for the attempt to de-escalate the situation it most surely is.
All eyes look to Sarah intently, and she shakes her head. “A grave one indeed,” She sighs, “Which I had intended to fix, or at least attempt to, until Mrs Craven informed me that Tally had—”
Her eyes blowing wide, Miss Bellweather pulls her sister’s hand away from her mouth to interrupt. “Yes, all right Rae you have made your point quite clearly, thank you. You spoke to May Craven? Surely Tally had forewarned you against doing so; the woman despises the militia and you are the embodiment of that hatred,” Bellweather shudders, “Saying nothing of her less than stellar temperament - what could possibly drive you to that doorstep?”
Sarah knows that this is the moment where she might cut through some of the animosity that Tally’s sisters, as she rightly said herself in her letter, could not be begrudged for holding against her. Tally’s favour is secreted away in her breast pocket, as close to her heart as she could manage without a macabre sewing job. If she was of a mind to, presenting this token of Tally’s regard would likely smooth the way quite considerably, and yet, she makes no move to do so. It feels wrong to use Tally’s parting gift in such a manner, and Sarah did note that there was no mention made of it in her letter to her sisters; either due to regret for leaving it, or uncertainty about its reception. Regardless, Sarah does not wish to be the one who reveals the soft underbelly of their fragmented affection to Tally’s sisters.
“I sought an audience with Miss Craven, and naively assumed that she would have retired to her home. Had I any notion of Buttonwood’s whereabouts, rest assured that I would not have bothered,” Sarah replies glibly.
Scylla and Collar regard her with narrowed eyes, as if they have some preternatural sense that there is something else to that tale, but neither wants to reignite the flames of their argument.
“Well,” Abigail blusters, but the wind is somewhat gone from her sails, “You have a notion now. So.”
“I think what Abigail is trying to say is, now that you are aware of all that is going on, what do you propose to do about it?” Scylla chimes in, poking her head out from behind Collar, “Surely something so small as distance is not going to dissuade the great General Alder from making a sorely needed apology?”
Collar titters behind her hand at that, Bellweather openly. Sarah strains to recall at what point she had lost all semblance of control over her life, and can only come to the conclusion that it had likely begun the very moment Tally had first laughed her way into her attention. She sighs, but straightens in her saddle and glances once more at the letter. It is almost certainly too late to intercede in Buttonwood’s quest for Mr. Craven’s permission to wed Tally. There is still some hope that Tally herself has not become so jaded, or had her choices called into question so thoroughly that she has given in and accepted his suit. Sarah is rather counting on the girl’s innate stubbornness to hold for just a little while longer. At least until she can ask if Tally had meant to give her favour, and everything it symbolises, to her. And if she had meant it, did she mean it still?
“I intend to do as I had set out to do this morning. If she had gone to the moon, I would have devised a means to follow after - Boston is a mite closer,” Sarah responds, tightening her grip on the reins. With the wind at her back - and the wind would be at her back - she could make it to Boston by day’s end. “Let Ana know where I have gone, and that I will return as soon as I am able, but that she and Iza are to act as my stewards in my absence.”
“Wait a moment,” Abigail splutters, “Surely you are not leaving this second?!”
Sarah only offers a sharp grin, and in lieu of a reply, clicks her tongue at Bill. He moves around the back of their carriage carefully, and once she has her heading, canters back the way they had come, towards the south road that will lead them inevitably to Boston, and Tally.
Behind her, left in the dust, Raelle looks approvingly on, much to Abigail’s disgust. “Rae!” She cries, “We are sworn to be grudging and cold towards her!”
“That does not mean I cannot appreciate style, and you must admit that woman has it in spades; I mean, she has ridden off like a valiant knight without a single supply, and would have gone to the moon, with no guarantee that Tally will even take audience with her,” Raelle shrugs half apologetically while Scylla nods agreeably at her side, “It is all terribly romantic.”
That much, at least, Abigail cannot argue, as their trio watches the horse and its rider disappear from view.
Boston is bustling well into the night, with the dock welcoming new ships through the night, and the streets busy with carousers of all ilks spilling from taverns and inns. Sarah walks Bill into the city with no small amount of trepidation. It is far too late to be calling on the Craven household tonight, and yet she is wary of announcing herself to all and sundry by giving her name at any establishment; one could never be certain whose ears are listening, and whose palm could be greased for information. No, she could not take a risk as great as that, particularly after all that has unfolded in recent weeks - any Camarilla man could stumble off a schooner, make an attempt on her life, and abscond as a stowaway just as easily. Which leaves only one course of action, loath though she is to take it. It is a last resort, she reminds herself, squaring her shoulders.
“You cannot be serious,” Sergeant Nicte Batan groans despairingly at the sight of Sarah, standing on the only doorstep she has ever known to be in Boston. “Did we not agree that there would be letters of notice if we ever darkened each other’s doorstep?”
Sarah nods, knowing how this patter often plays out when it comes to Nicte. “We did.”
“And did we not also agree, that in the terribly unlikely event one or other of us did in fact show up totally unannounced, that we would not be empty handed, or could be turned away as a most ungracious guest, and even worse friend?” She spiels on, one hand on her hip like she is scolding a child but fighting the grin that wants to break across her face at the same moment.
“That we also did,” Sarah acknowledges, and pulls the bottle of whiskey she had bought en route from behind her back, “So it is lucky I do not come with nothing to offer, old friend.”
The offering and the moniker are well received, though Nicte being as she tends to, only rolls her eyes and steps aside to allow Sarah into the darkened halls of her home. “I trust you have Bill tied somewhere ridiculous in my garden?” Nicte sighs, closing the door softly behind her.
Sarah waits for the light of Nicte’s lamp to illuminate the space, only to find a rather delicately furnished home that seems so at odds with Nicte’s character she is utterly taken aback by it. Her pause makes Nicte snort, limping past her towards a half open door, her wooden leg clunking accusingly with each step. “Were you expecting wallpaper made of blades? Perhaps a shrine to my dear departed toes? An effigy of you that I curse every night?”
Sarah follows on behind her through the door to a room that opens up into a modest study. “I cannot say I was anticipating much of anything,” Sarah says lightly, “It was rather a last minute decision to come at all - I did not have much time to form any ideas on what decor you might prefer, although the ease with which you pulled the thought of an effigy of me that you curse from the ether is a bit concerning.”
Nicte does laugh at that, low and rumbling as it had been half a decade ago when they had fought side by side. “You exaggerate your own importance in my tale of woe still I see,” she says, crouching to stoke the embers of a fire back to life in the grate, “Now, are we to speak of whatever it is that has brought you here of all places, or shall I infer what best pleases me?”
“I have spent the past several weeks making a colossal fool of myself,” Sarah groans, folding into a chair, “you need not think I am unaware of that fact, once I am finished telling my sorry tale.”
Nicte raises her brow and sinks eagerly into a chair of her own. “As dire as that, is it? Then I am sure it will be a delightful nightcap.”
And so, Sarah explains all that has occurred in Salem these past months since her homecoming, from the opening of the season ball to the letter that had set her off on the frantic journey that had brought her to Boston, every heart clenching moment of her association with Tally, all without a single interruption from Nicte. “So you see, I was left with little choice but to rely on any lingering good will that exists between us tonight,” she concludes, sipping from the dram of whiskey that Nicte holds out to her.
“That is some tale, to be sure. I would make one amendment - you have your timeline slightly amiss. Buttonwood has been in town since Thursday,” Nicte frowns, considering, “and he has been known to me since at least the week prior to that ill fated ball.”
Mid drink, Sarah freezes, glass held in stasis against her parted lips. “The week prior? How did he become known to you?” She fights to maintain a semblance of calm gentility, but her ears are ringing.
“He was rather committed to being obnoxiously apparent - he loudly took some sort of meeting in a less than genteel drinking establishment I frequent from time to time. Some snivelly looking bald fellow with him, and if I recall they made a trade of some kind - a piece of parchment for some coins, nothing terribly exciting to me at the time,” Nicte grouses on, seemingly unaware of the puzzle she has solved, but Sarah is hyper aware of the connections pulling together to form an elaborate tapestry of malice and deceit.
Buttonwood is the one who had sold them out to the Camarilla. Had exchanged his invitation for a paltry sum, and the assurance of Sarah’s destruction. All for the sake of what? His own ego? Ego is the only thing driving his obsession with Tally - and that same obsession had nearly killed her. For that, he has sealed his fate.
“Nicte,” Sarah interrupts, steel in her voice so sharp that Nicte is silent in an instant, almost snapping to attention, “Where is he now?”
In the original plans for this fic (which we've deviated from so much that it is an entirely different story) Nicte was going to be the Wickham to Sarah's Darcy - but I prefer them as old war buddies :) All geography is from a painting called Boston Harbor and part of Charles Town with Bunker's Hill by George Heriot from June of 1815 - It was the only source I could find so all fudging of distances and streets is my own!
Chapter 12: Stay Soft, Get Eaten.
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.
Long time no see! Apologies for the wait, things have been... well you're alive in the world and reading this so you can guess how things have been :) anyway, have this jumbo chapter as a treat!
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.
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.
“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 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?”
“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?”
“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.
“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.”