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little dove

Chapter Text

The Liddell Estate was anything but quaint. Bought and constructed by Monsieur Liddell's grandparents in 1782 and finished in 1785, it was a staple of the time. Each and every Alabaman – and even some Mississippians – knew of the marvel. 

 

The entire plantation was a perfect square, divided into four segments. Its cotton field occupied three: the top-left sector, the top-right, and the bottom-right. Said to be the largest in the state, the land stretched across two thousand acres. A mammoth of a cotton gin occupied a vast expanse and cleaned over sixty pounds of fiber a day. Within the depths of cotton was a grange for the livestock and living spaces for the one hundred slaves. 

 

The bottom-left sector was populated by the garden belonging to Madame Liddell. Flowers from all around the world filled the massive maze of greenery. Thousands were wedding endowments, as well as donations from the local florists and gifts from visiting nobility. It was said that a small few were allowed inside on account of Madame Liddell's protectiveness.

 

In the center of the plot sat a grand three-story manor. Stone pillars were seemingly guarding the enormous windows and front sitting area. It was a spectacle of architecture in both its exterior and interior. Sweeping staircases, intricate designs etched into the plaster of the walls and ceilings, velvet curtains that reached six yards long, floorboards made of Peltogyne wood, and several more extravagant adornments decorated the seventeen rooms. 

 

The lineage of the Liddell family was almost as famous as their estate. Marietta, Oswald's wife, was the closest living kin to the late Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France – hence the significant amount of wealth and land, and an equally opulent husband. Her royal bloodline granted her a social circle that included the county's prominent selectmen and women, and a lovely assemblage of daughters.

 

And yet, four of the five – Marie, Annabelle, Pearl, and Tallulah – were no longer residents of the manor, for they were all wed to their suitors and lived on their own properties. Their absence left their childhood home quiet to some degree, with the exception of their youngest sibling, Birdie.

 

Grandmother Maria had once described Birdie best, having called her a "wet hen with too much gumption" on her thirteenth birthday when Birdie threw a fit. The seventy-year-old woman had snatched the brat by the ear and gave her a piece of her mind then. And despite bringing Birdie to ruddy tears, this hadn't stopped the her behavior. 

 

Now, at fifteen, Birdie was seen in the eyes of society as a woman who was ready to do things like gossip over bitter tea and knit pantaloons. There was a harrowing reality of an endless string of suitors that loomed over her. The last thing she wanted was to be married off to someone she barely knew, live in a humble one-story townhouse, and possibly die for the sake of birthing an heir. 

 

Birdie much preferred her life as it currently was. She had no worries or ambition, as she was expected to simply remain in the home and act like a proper lady of the South. Since her schooling was paused for the summer season, she enjoyed the freedom she was allowed so little of. A whole day could be spent gazing at the unlimited arrangement of plants in her mother's garden or pestering the hardworking servants. The only difference was that she grew older with each passing day, and yet none the wiser.

 

It was harmless tedium, but it was what Birdie knew best.

 

-

 

Then came the day when her mother suggested that she take piano lessons to pass the time. They lounged beside one another in the sunroom, their afternoon lemonade and sandwiches long forgotten. "Weren't you fussing about having nothing to do recently? This could be your much-needed avocation," Marietta said. "Knowing how to play such an instrument can be very fulfilling."

 

Birdie scoffed, "I refuse.”

 

"Oh, mon chéri, how come?"

 

“I have my reasons.”

 

“And they those reasons are...?”

 

"Because I would rather spend my days staring out the window before partaking in such a childish activity. Because piano lessons are for youngin's, not grown-ups. Because I refuse!"

 

Marietta visibly shrunk at the harsh words. But she pushed, "I'd hate to see the piano in the great hall go to waste. It was a gift from your père's Auntie Agatha before she passed. She would have loved to see you play."

 

"If you're so concerned with it withering away, then why don't you take lessons?"

 

"Well, how about we take them together? That way, we could learn—"

 

With a huff, Birdie rose from the couch. She found it foolish that her mother, at her ghastly age, would want to try to learn something so trivial alongside her youngest child. The thought itself was embarrassing enough to make her skin crawl. Next, she'd be asking to have a heart-to-heart with the lower class, for goodness sake.

 

She crossed the foyer to the main stairway. She heard Marietta, apparently desperate to extract more of a conversation, trailing behind her.

 

To her luck, one of the maids by the name of Dinah announced that there were two men at the door.

 

"Did they say who they were, Dinah?" her mother asked, having stopped in her tracks.

 

Dinah shook her head. “No, Madame Liddell. All they said was that they needed to speak with you an' Monsieur Liddell."

 

As though by cue, Oswald appeared from around the corner. His fingers were stained with ink, still wet after hours cooped up in his study. He removed his smudged, half-moon spectacles and inquired, "Who needs to speak with me?"

 

"Two men outside," Marietta provided.

 

"Well, let them in, Dinah. No use in letting them swelter out there."

 

"Yes, sir, Monsieur Liddell."

 

Birdie was curious to see who the visitors were and found herself slowing on the stairway.

 

She staggered at the sight of the pair; they were dressed in rags and caked in dirt. The first man was larger than his partner, both in stature and girth. His expression was blank as he fumbled with the bags in his hands. The second man was thin, but not gangly in the least, and carried himself with more prowess.

 

The second man lifted the brim of his top hat and bowed at the waist. "Madame Marietta Liddell, I presume?" he said. His voice was hauntingly tender, a shocking opposite to his appearance.

 

"Yes, I am. I am Madame Marietta Liddell. And this is my husband, Monsieur Oswald Liddell," said Marietta. Almost mechanically, she reached her hand forward for him to kiss.

 

He grasped her hand between his. His face split into a broad smile as he patted it. “Oh, Marietta, I'm ever so delighted to meet you at last!"

 

Before he could embrace her entirely, Oswald interjected, "If you’d beg my parden, gentlemen, but how do you know my wife?”

 

"Ah! How careless of me. I have overlooked the tale of my whereabouts – a tale that has been spread throughout the countries. I am Louis the seventeenth, son of former King Louis the sixteenth of France and Queen Marie Antoinette," the second man explained. "I am here with my loyal friend, Regulus Egerton, the Duke of Bilge– Ahem, Bridgewater, son of Francis—"

 

The man beside him grumbled, "How d'you do?”

 

"—to see my estranged great-niece, Marietta, in the flesh.”

 

Oswald and Marietta exchanged looks of complete surprise. It took them a moment for the words to fully sink in. Marietta spoke up first, stammering, "But Louis-Charles died years ago. From an illness, I was told. How could you possibly be—?"

 

"My darlin’ Marietta, have you not heard of the horrible legend that is the Lost Dauphin? Well, as you can see, it is not a legend. It is merely the truth. Why, I'd be loungin' on the throne as we speak had it not been for the upstart Corsican, who snaked me out of my own title."

 

Even so, Oswald‘s mouth was twisted in doubt. "You don't look like royalty. Or talk like one," he observed. "How can we be sure that you two aren't trying to swindle us?"

 

While Regulus began to chew on his lower lip, Louis-Charles paused and collected himself. "I understand your skepticism, Monsieur Liddell. I respect it. I would ask the same of someone who suddenly emerged in my foyer, speaking the things I speak. And I am more than happy to offer you proof of my claims.”

 

He dug through the insides of his torn coat and produced an emerald rivière from his pocket.

 

The jewels nestled within the chain glittered in the light. It was a beautiful piece of French craftsmanship. It was familiar too.

 

"This is the sole heirloom I possess from my mother, Marie Antoinette herself. It was a rivière she favored above all the rest," he bragged. "Now, Marietta, seeing as you are the only other living descendant of the former queen, I'm sure you recognize this?"

 

Sitting at the steps, Birdie was genuinely astonished by his ability to turn the tables on her unsuspecting mother.

 

There was a sort of cleverness in the man that could be dangerous if in the wrong situation. This was a man who could talk himself out of jail time with Sheriff Cunningham, or death with the Grim Reaper.

 

Marietta was an intelligent woman for her day and age, but she did not like being proven wrong. She gaped at the dangling rivière. Then she balked, "Why, of course, I recognize it! Ma mère – may God bless her soul – spoke of it often. Even showed me portraits of Queen Antoinette wearing it."

 

A satisfied smile crept onto Louis-Charles' lips, "Then you are convinced that I am your great-uncle?"

 

"Oh, how could I have doubted you? I'm so ashamed!" Marietta exclaimed. With that, she threw her arms around his shoulders and clutched him tightly. 

 

Louis-Charles gave a hearty laugh, relishing the attention, and returned the hug. "You have no idea how I've longed to see you, my sweet Marietta,” he hummed.

 

Once his wife released her great-uncle, the lord of the manor took a step forward and shook both of the men's hands. "Welcome, Louis-Charles. Welcome, Regulus. I believe an apology is in order—"

 

"Nonsense, nonsense! No such apologies are required. You were only doing what you thought was right, Monsieur Liddell," said Louis-Charles. He kept his hands clasped around Marietta's in an indication of endearment while he spoke. "I‘m sure I heard through the grapevine that you two have quite the family here. Isn’t it four beautiful daughters...?"

 

"Five. But alas, the four oldest are no longer live with us. You see, they're all married," Oswald clarified. "But our youngest, Birdie, is still here. Would you like to meet her?"

 

At the mention of her name, Birdie jumped and rushed up the rest of the steps. Evidently, she had more of a brain than both of her parents combined, and she had enough sense to avoid the pair of jackanapes. Being introduced to them was entirely out of the question.

 

"We would simply love to make her acquaintance. Wouldn't we, Regulus?"

 

"Uh-huh! I mean– yes, we sure would."

 

"Excellent." Oswald turned on his heel to face the stairway and zeroed in on his daughter, attempting to scamper out of view. "Birdie, come down here at once," he instructed.

 

Her fingers tightened around the railing. She hesitated for a moment and started her descent down the steps. Watching Louis-Charles and Regulus raise their eyes in her direction made her uneasy. She found herself frozen again when she stood within a few feet of the strangers. "Bonjour," Birdie grunted.

 

It was evident that Regulus wasn't nearly as interested in her as Louis-Charles. He resembled a coyote sizing up its prey – what with his enlarged pupils, heightened stance, drooling teeth. 

 

Birdie didn’t scare easily, but she felt goosepimples prickling along her arms as her long-lost relative licked his lips.

 

"Birdie, don't be rude. Introduce yourself properly," Marietta whispered in her ear.

 

Sighing, the girl took either side of her dress and dipped in a stiff curtsey, lowering her head. "How do you do? I'm Mademoiselle Birdie Liddell."

 

"How d'you do? I'm sure you overhead – but, as a provision – I am Louis-Charles the seventeenth, and this is Regulus. Come closer, little dove," Louis-Charles said and opened his arms in invitation.

 

She approached for an embrace similar to the one she saw him gift her mother. What she didn't expect was for Louis-Charles to sweep her off her feet, hold her by the thighs, and shower her with kisses. "Oh, Birdie! What a pretty little thing you've become. I could just eat you up," he cooed. He punctuated his last statement with a small nip behind her ear, hidden from her parents and Dinah.

 

As a child, Birdie was no stranger to cuddles with her father, but she couldn't help noticing a few fair differences between his and her great-great-uncle's:

 

Oswald's hug would be welcomed; Louis-Charles' was utterly unwanted.

 

Oswald's face would always be clean-shaven; the harsh stubble of Louis-Charles' scraped against her cheeks. 

 

Oswald's fingertips would never stray from the appropriate areas; Louis-Charles' squeezed at her hips and calves. 

 

Finished with his exhibition, he settled Birdie onto his left hipbone – much like a slave would with their own child during picking hours. His neck was red from his exertions. He claimed, "You ought to be proud of how lovely your darling girl is. Her beauty should be talked about from here to Pikesville!"

 

"You say that now, but you'll see how much of a spitfire our 'darling girl' can be!" Marietta snickered, although Birdie wasn't aware of the joke.

 

"Mother, I want to go to my room."

 

"Hooey, you have got to stay down here with us. I'd like it very much if we got more acquainted, my dear," said Louis-Charles.

 

"He is right, Birdie. You can spare a few moments locked in that cave you call a room and spend some quality time with your family," her mother agreed. "Louis-Charles is your great-great-uncle, you know. He traveled a long way to see us. The least you can do is talk to him for a little while."

 

"But—!"

 

"Now, shall we move to the parlor?" Marietta was already halfway across the foyer out of excitement.

 

"That's very kind of you, Marietta. Thank you. We appreciate your hospitality," Louis-Charles beamed. He adjusted Birdie on his hip and followed his newfound great-niece into the next room, with Regulus and Oswald in tow.

Chapter Text

When everyone took their seats on the plush couches and armchairs, Birdie squirmed in an effort to escape his hold, but was caught tighter around the middle. It was impossible for her to leave his lap.

 

She glared at his sweat-stained face and hissed low enough for Louis-Charles to hear, "You will unhand me at once!"

 

She was met with a tight-lipped smile and his equally quiet reply of, "Not a chance in Hell, sweetheart."

 

Birdie gasped at his response, seething at his gall to cuss in her presence. "Mother—!"

 

Louis-Charles interrupted, "Would you all like to hear of how Regulus and I scoured the country in search of you?"

 

"Oh, yes! That would be just wonderful."

 

The passing hours consisted of Louis-Charles, having taken a storyteller's role with ease, stringing one tall tale after another. He had Marietta and Oswald positively captivated.

 

Birdie showed little interest as he spoke of the luxuries on the East Coast. She yawned at the mention of savage natives camping in the mountains.

 

She was more focused on the fact that her great-great-uncle still had not let her get up from his hold, and that Marietta and Oswald were oblivious to her discomfort.

 

"My, my! Look at the time, Bridgewater. My poor great-niece and her family must be starved. I've been talking well past their supper time," Louis-Charles cried. He pointed at the towering grandfather clock, which displayed six thirty-seven.

 

His partner squinted hard, clearly unable to read it.

 

"Do not feel too guilty, Oncle. We have thoroughly enjoyed your stories," Marietta smiled and then called for the maid. "Dinah, please have supper ready for five instead of three tonight. I would like my great-uncle and his friend to join us. And fetch Lucy so she can show our guests to the washroom. They must be ready to jump out of their skins in this heat."

 

Louis-Charles opened his mouth to argue.

 

"Ah, ah! Come now, Oncle. Don't give me that look. It's no trouble at all. We would appreciate it greatly if you and Regulus stay for supper. I insist."

 

"Well, how could I say 'No' to a pretty face like yours?" he said and turned to Birdie. "Or yours?"

 

For once, Birdie bit down hard on her tongue. But this didn't stop her from rolling her eyes until they reached the back of her skull.

 

Though she would never admit it, her mother was enjoying Birdie's silence and was going to snag an opportunity to take advantage of it. Especially when she said, "On second thought, Birdie, you can show them. You should freshen yourself up as well. Go on now."

 

Birdie was close to pointing out how Marietta's dear great-uncle refused to let go of her, but – to her surprise – Louis-Charles loosened his arms around her waist. She hopped up without a second thought. Her eyes darted between the grinning man and her expectant parents. Defeated, she mumbled, "This way."

 

The two guests trailed behind as she trudged up the staircase to the third floor. Neither man made an attempt at conversation with Birdie, for it was a short walk before she wheeled around a corner to the nearest washroom. She stopped in front of their destination. "Right in there. You'll find everything you need," she said.

 

"Didn't your mère also tell you to freshen up?" Louis-Charles inquired.

 

"Yes, in my own washroom."

 

"Now that wouldn't be fair for us to make you walk all the way to your own washroom when there's a perfectly good one right here," he balked. "And we wouldn't mind sharing."

 

"We wouldn't?" said Regulus.

 

Birdie sneered, "As generous as that offer sounds, I would much rather use my own. I'm the only one with a private washroom. You understand, don't you?"

 

"Ah, yes. Ladies and their desired privacy. How could I neglect such an afflictin' detail?"

 

"Yes. Well, if you would excuse me," she said and started down the corridor, trying to shake the undeniable feeling of being watched.

 

-

 

The servants had set the expansive dining table for five plates. A sheer white tablecloth reached from one end to the other. Each dish, cup, and utensil was crafted from the most beautiful porcelain, glass, and metal. A heaping roast waited amongst bowls of cooked vegetables and pitchers filled with alcohol-infused juice.

 

Despite the present heat, candles gleamed orange in the darkened hall. The curtains were pulled back to reveal the sun slowly setting beyond the hills.

 

Having splashed handful after handful of water onto her glowing cheeks, Birdie felt a bit calmer, as she was fully prepared to have a bite to eat and bid farewell to Louis-Charles and Regulus afterward. She took a seat near the middle of the table. Oswald was sitting at the head with Marietta on the opposite. Their guests placed themselves directly across from Birdie.

 

She glanced at Louis-Charles, who was leering at her with his deep cocoa eyes. She saw that he had cleaned a substantial amount of dirt off his face, and his skin was no longer shining with sweat. For that, she was thankful because he didn't quite remind her of a brute anymore.

 

And yet, as he smiled at her, she couldn't help but feel a bubble of apprehension build in her stomach. She chalked it up to hunger.

 

"This meal looks mighty fine, Marietta. Fit for a king. You spoil me," Louis-Charles hummed.

 

Her mother giggled and encouraged them to take their share. Soon enough, the five of them were digging into their own plates, some more heavily than others. Birdie sipped her water while the adults sipped their whiskey. There was a comfortable silence that was occasionally interrupted by the sounds of gnashing teeth, utensils scraping against porcelain, and swallowing.

 

"So, Birdie, you must have plenty of leisure activities. Particularly in a manor such as this and in the midst of summer vacation. What do you like to do in your spare time?" Louis-Charles spoke up after gulping down his drink.

 

The young girl was almost struck dumb by his question. Not many people were curious about her interests; she was but a spoiled Southern belle with horrible manners – nothing more, nothing less.

 

She quickly steeled herself and answered, "I don't like to do anything."

 

"Birdie," Oswald said in warning.

 

Louis-Charles didn't appear deterred. The corners of his mouth twitched as though he was fighting a smile. "Come now. You truly don't find pleasure in anything?"

 

There was something in the way he phrased his words that made Birdie's skin itch. She growled, "I like to sit in the garden and look at the flowers."

 

"I was trying to convince her to enroll in piano lessons when you arrived, Oncle," Marietta interjected. "But she absolutely scorns the idea. She says that children are taught the piano, not 'grown-ups' like her. The girl is downright impossible. I think she finds joy in it. Being impossible, I mean."

 

Birdie attempted to ignore the conversation by slicing into her piece of roast with more force than needed. Ripping the meat off her fork, she gnashed her teeth and huffed.

 

"That's rather funny. I was given lessons on how to play the violin when I was about Birdie's age. Taught by the finest instructor of New Orleans for three years. I found that performing was a satisfying recreation for a boy of my background. I believe you would fancy the lessons as much as I did," said Louis-Charles.

 

Her resolve was slipping, and the entire table became aware of the firecracker that was ready to pop. Birdie dropped her utensils onto her plate, so vexed that she didn't hear the loud crash her display caused. "And I believe you should keep that nose of yours out of other people's business," she spat. "Especially if you happened to walk into their life just mere hours beforehand."

 

Cocking his head to one side, Louis-Charles continued to grin and raised his open palms in mock surrender. "I do apologize, Birdie. I am only trying to get to know you, my beloved great-great-niece, better. I thought that it would be possible to have shared enthusiasm for—"

 

"It would be wise to end any and all thoughts that involve you and I sharing anything more than a civil handshake!"

 

Marietta exclaimed, "Birdie Antonia!"

 

"I think it's past her bedtime," her father prompted.

 

"Oh, yes, that reminds me. Where are the two of you staying for the time being?"

 

The men looked at each other and then at her parents as though the answer was obvious. "Nowhere," Regulus grunted.

 

"What he means is–" Louis-Charles jumped. "– I had been so enveloped in meeting the last remaining family I have that I had not taken the prospect of a place to stay into consideration."

 

Marietta clutched her heart. She pushed, "Then I will have rooms arranged for you immediately! No relative of mine is going to spend their nights sleeping on the cold ground like a beggar."

 

"I agree. That wouldn't be in good conscience on our parts," said Oswald. "Dinah, can you have two rooms prepared for our guests? And bring their luggage as well. Oncle can have Pearl and Tallulah's old bedroom, and Regulus can have Marie and Annabelle's. As fast as you can, please."

 

"Of course, Monsieur Liddell."

 

Their guests jolted to a stand, all but ran to Marietta and Oswald, and grabbed their hands in thanks. "Oh, I am blessed to belong to a family as kind and giving as you! Oh, Marietta! Oh, Oswald! How could we ever repay you for your generosity?" Louis-Charles cried, practically on the verge of tears.

 

Halting the exchange of sentiments, Birdie leaped to her feet and knocked her chair backward. She screeched, "This is lunacy! Are you going to hand them the entire manor tomorrow? And the deed to the property the day after that?"

 

"Birdie, please. Have you no heart?" her mother choked.

 

Oswald, a generally peaceful man of God, pulled his napkin from his lap and slapped it onto the table. "Young lady, I want you to wish your uncle and Regulus 'Goodnight' and go to the nursery at once," he snarled like a dog.

 

"I would rather cut off my own tongue!"

 

She sprinted from the dining hall. After a brief scuttle up the two arched staircases, she made it to her bedroom and slammed the door shut, tuning out the sounds of her agitated parents and supposed great-great-uncle.

 

Birdie collapsed onto her mattress and vowed that she would raise Hell on earth for her parents, allowing those men to set foot on their estate.

Chapter Text

Sleep had arrived with ease.

 

Remaining in said sleep had been a struggle, for Birdie was tossing and turning, trying in vain to drown out her family's voices and quiet her own subconscious just long enough for dreams to overtake her.

 

Of the several swimming thoughts, however, the most bothersome one was that Louis-Charles – or whatever his real name was – was not her great-great-uncle.

 

After her fifth attempt, she finally gave up. She inhaled a big, watery breath while tears dripped down her nose, onto the thick duvet. She wiped them away with the back of her hand. "No use in fretting about it now," she mumbled to no one in particular.

 

When Birdie was eight or nine years old, she had treasured the morning more than any other time of the day. The air would have a refreshing crispness, yet to be stuffy and coarse. Mourning doves would pleasantly croon on her balcony. But amongst all the beauty she had seen in her short life, she was convinced that the sky would rule above everything; the vivid myriad of color, the feathery clouds dancing across, the murder of crows passing through, and the gleaming sun in the heart of it. It would remind her of Lucy's orange crème pie.

 

Birdie sighed. Memories only made her feel worse – worse than how Louis-Charles made her feel.

 

She didn't realize how long she lay with her legs dangling off the edge of the bed, glaring daggers at the ceiling until she heard her door creak open. Propping herself up by the elbows, she saw Athaliah peeking in.

 

Athaliah was the oldest maid in the Liddell manor. At ninety years old, she was Birdie's personal favorite by far. Her combination of a brusque attitude and a nurturing touch was a welcomed addition to Birdie's day-to-day life. "Good Lord, chil', how are you still layin' in bed? It's a quarter past eight o'clock," she squawked.

 

A headache from the previous night's exertions was thumping queasily in Birdie's temples. She rolled over onto her stomach and groaned, "Let me be, Athaliah. I had a terrible night."

 

"Come on now. It's a brand new day. Walk yourself on over to your washroom an' then get some breakfast. I need to change your sheets."

 

"Oh, all right." Birdie did as the maid said and dragged herself out of bed. She crossed the nursery to the adjoining washroom, her spirits steadily rising at the promise of a warm soak. Eager, Birdie entered and locked the door behind her.

 

Her enthusiasm was extinguished when she came face to face with Louis-Charles.

 

He was lounging quite comfortably in her tub. The near-overwhelming scent of soap surrounded him, and bubbles floated about in the air and piled in his lap like a white blanket. He appeared to be the epitome of relaxation. "Ah, bonjour, sweet Birdie!" he greeted.

 

Stuck in front of the door, gripping the knob and staring, she fell silent and entirely shut down in a way. Part of her wanted to run and find comfort in her mother's embrace at the sight of a man in her private washroom, and the other, colder part of her wanted to attack.

 

"What on God's green Earth are you doing here?" she spluttered through a hanging jaw, careful to keep her voice low so she didn't alarm Athaliah in the next room.

 

"My dear, is that any way to talk to family? Especially after your little performance last night?" he replied.

 

Birdie rushed forward, tromping as she did, and opened her mouth to hiss in response.

 

But then she stopped. She noticed how his face was now devoid of any stubble. And how his dark hair was sopping wet, flattened against his scalp, close to reaching the column of his throat. And how his tanned skin was glistening and turning pink. And how, if she stared hard enough, his abdomen had a patch of hair that led down below the water's surface.

 

Birdie blinked.

 

She had never seen a man without his shirt on in her fifteen years of life, in-person, up-close. Her father had made it a regularity to dress in a robe immediately after his daily soak to save his daughters from mortification. Even the slaves in the cotton field had worn their sweat-soaked garments in her presence.

 

She ignored the dizziness that began to grow in her belly and growled, "I will talk to you however I like while you are in my washroom. So I will ask again. What are you doing in here?"

 

Louis-Charles hummed to himself while he scrubbed her bar of lavender soap over his biceps. He was acting far too casual and content for her liking. "Seeing as your home has three washrooms, and two are currently in use, your magnanimous parents granted me permission to use yours," he supplied. "They assured me that you wouldn't mind."

 

"Oh, but I do! Very much!"

 

"Now, Birdie, try to be civil," he clicked his tongue. He cupped his right hand, splashed his left arm to wash away any excess suds, and repeated for the opposite arm. His carelessness left a puddle on the floorboards. Once he was finished, he rested the back of his head against the lip of the tub and sank further into the foam's depths.

 

"Be that as it may, you are more than welcome to join me. I'd be glad to help you."

 

She suddenly became aware of her nightgown. Even though the decorative cloth hid any instance of undress, Birdie felt utterly naked under Louis-Charles' fevered gaze. She curled into herself.

 

"I beg your pardon? I'm old enough to wash myself – thank you very much.”

 

"An' how old is that? In all of yesternight's excitement, your mère failed to mention your age."

 

"I turned fifteen this past March. Practically an adult."

 

"Fifteen," he echoed, pursing his lips. "My, my. We must be nearing the time of countless suitors and wedding arrangements. Am I correct?"

 

Birdie bristled, "No, I want nothing to do with any of that. Being carted off to man I barely know is hardly my idea of a life.”

 

"Is that so?" Louis-Charles goaded. He hooked an elbow over the brim and tucked his chin in his palm. He looked as though he were intently listening to her rant. A trace of a smile was apparent on his lips.

 

"Yes, it is. I would rather spend the rest of my days picking cotton."

 

"I see."

 

"And no one can make me change my mind."

 

There was a minute where he didn't answer. He only sized Birdie up and down, paying close attention to her breasts – which were accentuated in her poor attempt at covering them with crossed arms – and huffing. "We shall wait and see, I suppose," he said.

 

Her nerves were smothered in ice. She tried to look him in the eye but was distracted by the flush of his cheeks. Instead of confronting his vague statement, Birdie changed the subject, "Are you nearly finished? I would like to use my bathtub. Seeing as this is my washroom."

 

"Would you like me to finish?" Louis-Charles grinned wolfishly. He straightened himself against the side of the tub, creating sizable waves around his ribcage.

 

Still, he made no move to leave.

 

"I would like you to get out this instant!" Birdie seethed. She stomped her foot for emphasis.

 

"Well, if you insist," he said. Bracing his hands on the tub's brim, he pushed himself to a stand.

 

Birdie cried out, shielding her eyes and spinning on her bare heels. Her face burned red hot as the blood boiled to a summit.

 

She was relieved to have reacted quickly; the poor girl was half a second away from seeing a man in the nude. "How dare you!" she whimpered. "How dare you try to expose yourself to me. Just wait until Mother hears about this. She'll have you and your friend thrown out before you can say, 'Au revoir, mademoiselle'!"

 

A couple of splashes told Birdie that Louis-Charles was climbing out of the tub. He padded towards her vanity and dried himself off with her cotton towels. He chuckled, "I don't doubt that you would go scampering off to your mother. But I have a funny feeling she wouldn't believe a thing you say. Why, I reckon she'd easily take my word against yours."

 

She found herself rooted to the spot as Louis-Charles loomed behind her. He cupped her trembling shoulder. The sleeve of his robe was cold on her back, whereas his open palm sent a fiery blaze down her arm. She craned her neck to the side when he leaned in close. "Grown-ups, you know. Always taking the wrong sides," he purred, his voice eerily soothing.

 

Gently, he took the girl's chin between his fingers and forced her eyed to meet his. He continued, "Of course, you did barge in here, unannounced. And you've had every opportunity to leave, but you still choose to stay. Anyone would find that rather disturbing, don't you think? What would Monsieur and Madame Liddell say when I tell them you were spying on me in the bath?"

 

Birdie gasped, "That's not true—!"

 

"You and I both know that. But your parents may be harder to persuade. Are you sure you want to take that chance?" he challenged. His calloused thumb grazed her bottom lip.

 

She shook her head.

 

"Good girl. Smart too. I promise I won't tell if you don't."

 

"Ah– all right. I promise too," Birdie resigned. She was willing to say anything to make him stop stroking her like she were a cat. The heat of his touch bloomed and increased along her skin, spidering into an intense fog that seemed to cloud her mind. She felt lightheaded.

 

"What a good pet," Louis-Charles praised. He spun Birdie around. He yanked her front against his, despite her valiant efforts to wrangle herself out of his grasp. He steeled his grip, maintaining, "All that's left is to seal the deal. Now, give us a kiss."

 

"Let go of me!" she wailed. She swiped at his cheekbone and dug deep into the flesh. Red spewed and sprinkled her nightgown.

 

He howled, "Augh, you goddamned brat!"

 

Beaming triumphantly, Birdie ignored the skin and blood beneath her fingernails and drew back. Louis-Charles hunched forward, his face mauled and twisted in pain, and clutched at his injured jaw.

 

"I promise I won't tell if you don't, Oncle!" she sneered, running to the door that led to the outside corridor rather than her bedroom. She wrenched it wide open and escaped with not a moment to spare.

Chapter Text

Having escaped her washroom from Louis-Charles, Birdie was forced to settle with skipping her daily soak. It seemed like the right choice at the time, although she quickly realized that it would bring inevitable consequences. Beneath her bonnet, her hair began to stick out in all directions and curl from the morning's heat. A sheen of sweat was seen clear as day on her skin.

 

She felt absolutely revolting.

 

For once, Birdie was relieved to be sitting alone at the dining table. Her parents would have their petit déjeuner at eight o'clock each day, so she often found herself eating on her own regardless.

 

Digging into her eggs and square of cornbread with one hand, she scratched her perspiring underarms with the other. She scrunched her nose at a wetness pooling through her frock.

 

She considered sneaking a dip during her afternoon nap. No one with half a mind would dare disturb her then; the first and last time someone tried, they nearly got one of Birdie's prized music boxes to the face – even when it was to inform her of Grandmother Maria's untimely death.

 

Before she could devise a plan, the double doors swung open. In walked Marietta, clinging to Louis-Charles and chattering about which type of flowers thrive better in the winter compared to any other season, accompanied by Regulus. "You see, my spicebushes – they were an anniversary present. Our tenth, in fact. Anyways, they typically bloom mid-January. It takes them until early April to come to fruition," she rambled on.

 

As her mother laid a hand across her collarbone, adorned with the emerald rivière, Birdie's stomach dropped to her feet. A lump of guilt – and possibly the cornbread – sat thick in her throat. She knew that Marietta was gullible at fault, but to watch her blindly accept this man as her kin and don a piece of counterfeit jewelry was sickening.

 

Louis-Charles was clearly eating up every ounce of Marietta's attention. He slowed at the sight of Birdie. "That sure sounds fascinatin', Marietta. I'd love to visit your garden in the– Ah, Birdie! I wasn't expecting to see your lovely visage this early in the day. How did you sleep?"

 

"Jus' fine – thank you very much," she mumbled through a mouthful of egg yolk. She continued to chomp at her food and rub at her clothes, annoyed by his show of surprise.

 

"Bonjour, Birdie," her mother spoke. "Are we going to behave ourselves today?"

 

"Bonjour, Mother. I will let you know once I decide."

 

There was a distinct lesion on the left side of Louis-Charles' fac. She grinned at her handiwork. It had healed somewhat between now and their incident in her washroom. No longer was blood flowing steadily from the wound, but an ugly cut remained and would likely leave a scar in the future.

 

It was her turn to feign ignorance. "Oh, good heavens, Oncle! What happened to your cheek?" she gasped, widening her eyes and seizing her heart in alarm.

 

Reflexively, Louis-Charles touched the gash. He let the ghost of a scowl mar his features before training a mocking leer in its place. He chuckled, "It's nothing to worry yourself with, dearest. A bit of a slip whilst shaving is all."

 

"But I thought you sai—"

 

"I know what I said, Bridgewater," Louis-Charles interrupted. Then he smiled at his great-niece, "In spite of her overall nature, Marietta, you can't deny that Birdie can be a peach."

 

"When she feels like it, yes. More often than not, she reminds me of a lemon," Marietta acquiesced. She called Cordelia to have the table arranged for their guests and insisted on whipping up her special coffee crumble cakes. Despite her daughter's glare of protest, she assured, "I won't be a moment!"

 

Birdie observed, narrow-eyed, as Louis-Charles and Regulus situated themselves in front of her, much like the previous night. They were given the same portion of eggs and cornbread but were treated to hunks of pork as well. Mimicking beasts, they tore into their meal. Sounds of ripping skin were heard as they knifed their rations and plucked them into their mouths. Specks of juice rained onto the tablecloth.

 

She scoffed, "Were you two raised in the same pen?"

 

Both men stopped their slobbering and looked at her, almost at a complete loss for words. Though Regulus regained his composure first and growled, "That's funny comin' from you, you li'l—!"

 

"What is that supposed to mean, you disgusting—?"

 

"Ah, ah, ah! I believe Regulus is trying to say, dear Birdie, that you of all people shouldn't be waving a finger at our table manners," Louis-Charles intervened. He motioned to the corner of his curled lip.

 

Sure enough, Birdie felt a cluster of crumbs when she pawed at her mouth. She was quick to wipe any trace of food from her face. A blush crept down her neck as the men roared with laughter.

 

The obnoxious noise came to a halt the second she reached across the table and struck Louis-Charles' glass of orange juice. It went spilling onto his lap. "Ach!" he choked and jumped to his feet.

 

"Whoops! Silly me," Birdie jeered.

 

Upon hearing the commotion, Marietta and Cordelia rushed in. "What in the world is happening in here–? Oh, Oncle, your clothes!" she gasped. She hurried forward and examined the bright stain that covered most of his waistcoat and once-white trousers. "Birdie Antonia, what did you do?"

 

"I believe I was doing dear Oncle a favor. He looked positively wretched in those rags."

 

"Just you wait when your père hears about this. He'll have you locked in that nursery till you're old and gray.”

 

Linking her elbow with Louis-Charles', Marietta soothed, "Come, Oncle, we'll have Jonathan escort us into town. I know this wonderful little shop, Pascal's. There, they'll have you fitted in the finest garments from here to Tennessee!"

 

Louis-Charles chuckled and followed as she pulled him towards the double doors. "If you continue to spoil me, Marietta, I'll have no choice but to overstay my welcome," he said, patting her hand. He turned his head slightly to wink at Birdie.

 

"Nonsense. It's the least I can do to make up for my fiend of a daughter."

 

-

 

It was well past noon, and their guests had not yet returned from Pascal's Attire and Wares. In their absence, Birdie was reveling in the normalcy that she had grown so accustomed to. From meddling with the maids' duties to counting the shelves in the library, from admiring her mother's flowers to loafing on the porch swing.

 

She kicked her feet, lazily back and forth. Her eyelids started to flutter closed before a sudden clang made her sit upright. The noise came from the bottom-right sector of the cotton field and was succeeded by a band of angry hollering. A sandy-haired figure sprouted through the curtains of white and galloped towards the sitting area at great speed.

 

Birdie sighed. It was none other than Timothy Behlmer.

 

The Behlmer's, Ike and Geraldine, were farmers that mostly took care of livestock like cattle and goats, with some chickens. They had no workers or slaves to call their own. All they had was their only son, their pride and joy, Timothy. He was deemed a 'miracle baby' on account of following a slew of miscarriages and being born with half a heart.

 

But this rare defect didn't stop him from causing trouble in the neighborhood. Ten years old and already known for his skills in lock-picking and vandalism, Timothy was the thorn in everyone's side. This included the Liddell's – more specifically, Birdie.

 

He skidded to a stop at the bottom of their porch. Then he hopped up the staircase, ignoring how his bare feet left traces of dirt on the wood. "Hey, birdbrain, you wanna help a fella out?"

 

"Not particularly, no."

 

"Aw, but those apes are gonna tell yer papa I was nosin' around yer cotton again!"

 

"Well, were you?"

 

"That ain't important now," he muttered as he brushed some whisps of fiber off his sleeves. "Jus' tell 'im I was here with you the whole time, alright?"

 

Birdie barked a laugh, "No one would believe such a thing. Besides, I would rather—"

 

"You'd rather be seen wit' Lucifer 'imself. You've said before."

 

"—So, unless you want a warm bottom, I suggest you get on home before my père sees you."

 

The farm boy screwed his eyebrows together and pulled his lips into the nastiest of frowns. He said, "Jus' 'cause yer older an' smarter don't mean yer better than me."

 

"Oh, that's not why. I think I'm better than you 'cause I'm richer."

 

"Fine, birdbrain. I'll be seein' you.”

 

Timothy sulked down the steps. He picked up speed at the sound of frantic voices from the foyer, and was out of sight when Oswald treaded onto the porch.

 

"Where's he gone? Where's the boy gone this time?" he fumed. “Birdie, did you see Timothy Behlmer run by here?"

 

"Why, no, Father."

 

"Well, if you do see the boy, tell him that he is no longer welcome on our estate. He lost the privilege the moment he stepped foot in my cotton fields," Oswald grumbled. He plopped himself down beside Birdie and combed his fingers through her curls as though to calm his nerves. She keened at his affectionate touch.

 

She hummed, "It will be my pleasure."

 

"Hm, sweet girl." As he began to rock the swing, he maneuvered her head to rest on his shoulder.

 

The father-daughter pair sat, basking in the much sought-after silence. Birdie couldn't remember the last time she and Oswald had a bit to themselves. She had always fought her older sisters for his attention, but was drowned out by their much larger and louder forms. Even when all five of them married, she still struggled with his engrossing studies and work obligations.

 

She didn't want this moment to end.

 

"Oh, look, Birdie. Your mère has returned," Oswald said, moving away to welcome his wife back with a kiss. He didn't notice how Birdie pouted and crossed her arms or how she stared menacingly at Louis-Charles.

 

He shook the men's hands and voiced his admiration, "What marvelous suits. Marietta certainly has an eye for thread, and Pascal is no stranger to glamor."

 

Louis-Charles puffed like a peacock at the praise. There was no denying that his new ensemble was stunning. The dark jacket framed his shoulders and fit his waist, and his trousers hugged his middle admirably. His squeaky leather shoes tapped against the stone pathway.

 

He waved his gilded walking cane in the air. "Thank you, Oswald. Thank you. I feel positively gladdened by my niece's graciousness."

 

Regulus grunted, "Kind'uh tight under the arms."

 

"Birdie, doesn't Oncle look nice?" Marietta chirped. She had herself curled in Oswald's embrace, successfully taking Birdie's place.

 

"Pascal has really outdone himself this time, Mother. He somehow made Oncle look less like a frog and more like a toad. You know, there is a striking difference between the two. Toads aren't as slimy," said Birdie. She delighted at Louis-Charles visibly deflating.

 

"Alright, time for a nap, young lady. To the nursery," Oswald ordered.

 

"But—!"

 

"Now, Birdie."

 

Groaning, she sent Louis-Charles one last flower and stomped off the porch.

Chapter Text

The piano looked out of place. Shoved into a corner of the room, the instrument seemed to be a poor excuse for decor, with no actual direction or organization. A vase of fresh lilies sat on the lid.

 

Tricking Birdie was never considered an easy feat by those closest to her, but claiming that someone splattered paint all over the great hall had caught the girl's interest, and she had rushed to the room in question.

 

Having now realized the fib, Birdie fumed alongside Marietta in the pristine, paintless hall. Her chin was raised so high, so exaggerated, that she could no longer see over the length of her nose. "I think I'm experiencing what they call 'déjà vu,'" she said. "I distinctly remember telling you I am not learning to play this ridiculous thing."

 

Sympathy bled through her mother's beauty as she removed the vase and propped the lid of the piano open. She implored, "Please give it a try, mon amour. You may start to enjoy it. And Oncle has generously offered to—"

 

"I will not have anyone – especially that man – teach me."

 

"I am just about at my wit's end with your brickbatting. That man is part of your family whether you like it or not."

 

Sighing, Birdie hiked her skirts up and plunked herself down onto the wooden bench. Fighting was beginning to turn tiresome. Resignation seemed like the best option at the moment. "Very well. I don't see the harm in it. But then again, according to you, I don't see the harm in most things."

 

"I appreciate the honesty, ma fleur," Marietta beamed, which Birdie returned with a scowl. She ran an index finger across the keys and frowned at the noise. "Hm, it has been a while. I'll have to ask your père used to hire to tune it. It shouldn't be difficult to correct."

 

"If I must do this, I will teach myself. I'm certainly smart enough."

 

"Wonderful! You won't regret it, I assure you."

 

A thick textbook was planted in her lap. Though not old in any sense, it was evident that the book was loved by the previous owner. The pages were yellowed and limp from years of being turned, and the stitching was frayed. The faded letters of the title said, Grand Theoretical and Practical Piano-School for Systematic Instruction .

 

"For systematic instructions in all branches of piano-playing, from the first elements to the highest proficiency," Birdie quoted the subheader. She raised a questioning brow.

 

"It belonged to Antonia," was her clarification.

 

With a nod, Birdie set the book to the side and tested the keys for herself. The twang that echoed off wasn't necessarily offensive to the ear, although it wasn't right; she had attended many a concert to know the difference. "Leave me be, Mother," she ordered.

 

"Oh, if Auntie Agatha could see you now, she would be proud."

 

"Leave!"

 

She watched Marietta close the doors behind her, and almost didn't register the sound that followed. Locked in, that was what she was. An involuntary shudder shot through her spine.

 

Sparing a glance at the sheet on the music rack, she read, 'Sonata Pathétique, Op. 13' by Ludwig van Beethoven.

 

Birdie sneered, "Fitting."

 

The Liddell's had refused to have their children attend school with the locals. They had employed instructors at the manor instead. It had been a very rudimentary program, consisting only of reading and writing. The tutor, Mrs. Roberta Meadows, had taught all five girls, starting once Marie turned five years old.

 

As the children grew older, their education had expanded by only a little. Mathematics, which included arithmetic and multiplication tables, had been added to their daily agenda. American geography had been instituted at age twelve.

 

There had been a time where Tallulah ignited an interest in philosophy. But when she asked Mrs. Meadows to suggest an instructor specialized in the subject, she was told that "Philosophy is for lazy men who ask too many questions," or, in other words, "No student of mine is going to become a nonsensical dreamer."

 

Needless to say, philosophy had not become a part of their curriculum.

 

The years had passed with little to no issue. That was until Birdie had become a student. Her antagonism had pushed Mrs. Meadows close to abandoning her practice. From ignoring homework deadlines to deliberately writing in print instead of script, Birdie had established herself as Mrs. Meadows' worst-behaved pupil.

 

Conduct aside, Birdie had surprised everyone when she consistently received high marks on her examinations. Her scores had even rivaled her older sisters'.

 

Birdie was aware of her intelligence and intended to use it to her own advantage, notably in situations wherein she had the high ground. She knew the reason Marietta wanted her to learn the in's and out's of piano-playing, and it wasn't to improve her self-esteem or broaden her mind.

 

Antonia had played the piano.

 

Her grandparents on her mother's side had produced ten sons and a pair of twin daughters, Marietta and Antonia. Growing up on an estate much like the Liddell's had made for a pleasant upbringing. Every child had wanted for nothing.

 

If Marietta was the tar, then Antonia was the feathers, for they had been inseparable in spite of being absolute polar opposites. While Marietta welcomed the role of a quiet homemaker, Antonia, who always struggled with adhering to rules, rejected it.

 

Their brothers had been encouraged to leave the estate in order to find a willing bride. One by one, the boys had packed their belongings and started their lives outside of Alabama. Marietta and Antonia remained, waiting to be courted, with their ailing parents and servants.

 

On their fifteenth birthday, the twins had been enrolled in piano lessons. Antonia, in particular, had adapted quickly. She had claimed it was her nimble fingers that made her so skilled. "A bit o' bourbon helped too," she had added.

 

Soon, it was apparent that she had fallen in love with the instrument and wanted to revolve her entire life around it. This had caused her to experience an epiphany of sorts. She had been determined, against her family's wishes, to pursue a career in piano-playing. And she had done exactly that.

 

Antonia had toured across the states with a theater company, performing on Indianapolis stages and on riverboats in Jefferson City. She had been credited under the name of 'Juliet Miller' to spare her family of the embarrassment.

 

She had never taken a man's hand in marriage with all of her travel, citing that commitment, childbearing, and – in her words – "cuntin' monotony" were not ideal for a woman like her. Her heart had room exclusively for the piano and nothing else.

 

"Your aunt is a rare breed," Marietta had said.

 

"You mean like a horse?"

 

Her father had replied, "Precisely. She resembles one enough."

 

"Oswald!"

 

Tragedy had struck when Antonia died from malaria. She had contracted the disease through a mosquito bite and succumbed to it not long after. By the time the theater company had reached Huntsville, her skin was cold to the touch.

 

Birdie had been nine years old when she attended her aunt's funeral. Not a lot of people had been in attendance, except for Antonia's fellow musicians.

 

The fact that Marietta was unable to properly say her good-byes to her sister had tormented her. "She should have been home in bed, not in some wagon," Marietta had lamented before the coffin. She had to be pried away once it was time to bury the body.

 

Weeks had gone by, and then months. This new reality had looked so terrifying and different. The change had been hard to accept. Birdie had often felt stuck, with nowhere to go and no one to see.

 

In an attempt to control at least a smidgen of her life, she had tried to hold onto who she was. Nobody could take Birdie from Birdie – not the doctors, not the locals, not her parents' stories of who she was supposed to be.

 

She could do it, not for herself but for the sake of Antonia's legacy.