He watched as Annette dressed, filament fine stockings drawn on with protective gloves as the roughness of bare fingers would ladder the knit instantly, clipped to the garters of the girdle, beige tinted elastic panels containing and lifting her, smoothing the child worn belly, hoisting her breasts and pushing her ribs down. Like a woman of his class letting herself be seen with a bare face, as an unmarried man it was another mystery Annette had initiated him into, the hooks and straps that held the daughters, mothers and wives of great men ridged backed and tight around the abdomen, each point of restraint giving just enough that the body could move, but collaborating together to hold the woman up so no muscle could let itself rest untightened or sigh and shrug could excuse a slouch.
Phillip was down on the floor like a devout man in his chapel, knees on the thick, velvet napped red carpet with the yellow flowers, which covered most of the floor in her town house dressing room. The Harrington city residence was smaller than their country estate by necessity, but no less grand, lavish wealth packed into dozens of rooms so that even the servants lived in relative luxury. She and her husband drifted by each other, unfailingly pleasant but unconcerned with the inner workings of the other, like two battalions in the same army marching into different fronts. In the time the couple had spent together, Phillip had noted only three or four conversations of any length, the majority of which concerned themselves with their children and how the school was treating them.
After the cafe, there was a new, giddy edge to Annette, the same gleeful amorous intent he associated with her approach to him, but a more openly self doubting side, like she was considering her next move in some long ongoing competitive game. When the tall man had left she had not replaced her gloves, twisting them in her hands, tching and patting Adam on the arm, pushing her coffee over for him to finish.
“He has idea how inconvenient he is,” she’d shaken her head. “Do you know who that is, Adam?”
“No, my lady.” Phillip had replied. The man had a decade on either of them, a little young to be retired from the military, but any man who could boast a position in the armed service wore his uniform whenever he could. Even now, Phillip maintained a degree of bitterness that had never been an option for him.
“That, Adam, is Mikhail George Stanton-Venn, Under Secretary to the Lieutenant Governor Waterstone of the Colonial Administration,” she said the name of the man with a mixture of good natured exasperation and enjoyment. “And he comes and goes without a single thought to the trouble he’ll cause.”
“Yes, my lady.”
“How he intends for me to fit him into my commitments I have no idea. I’ve a good mind to neglect the man completely, and teach him some manners.”
Now, two nights later, Annette was taking special care with her dressing, skipping her usual tendency to trust her maid to select and correct any defects in her dress, choosing between several choices of slip before slithering one of clean white silk over head, so her silhouette was smoothed of the sharp corners and tight bands of her foundation layer, before allowing her maid to dress her hair into soft loops, blue and blond worked through with slashes of red, and paint her face and neck into its usual mask of cream white. She stepped into an evening dress of deep blue satin and the maid drew the zipper up from the small of her back to the high piped neckline. A hint of her collar bones and the bare pinch of skin between her long gloves and the hem of her sleeves was the only bit of Annette’s surrendered immodesty. Diamonds, liberated from the family collection for the evening, clasped tight on her earlobes and wrapped her neck and hair in big sparkling bands. She spent a full five minutes checking the seams on her gloves so they were lined up precisely.
“Wait up for me, darling,” she’d ruffled his hair and kissed his forehead with the odd wet sensation of her non-smudging lipstick. “I’ve decided to come home at a terribly unfashionable hour after the gala. You’ll have your books for company, but I like the idea of my pet gentleman staying up late into the night until I come back.”
After Annette left, Phillip went to his room and brought back a book he’d borrowed from the Harrington library. Small privileges came with his position, mindful of the eyes of the house guards he was allowed to see certain parts of the house at his own whim. The guards watched him without malice, well aware of the rules Annette had set for him, and ready to enforce them without particular sadism. Once, on his second night in the townhouse he’d blundered the wrong way, towards the downstairs staircase that terminated in the kitchen, and he’d felt a hand drop onto his shoulder and steer him around in the other direction. He’d cringed at the punishment he’d expected to follow, but the guard remained at his post, and didn’t even bother talking to him, as if his gesture was as natural as one of the servants nudging the cat back out of the family part of the house when it tried to slip through a half opened door.
A house pet was not quite how the servants treated him though, for anyone would pat a dog in passing without a second thought, but nobody bothered with courtesies or even a look unless directly told to interact with him. If Annette needed to summon him, it was “If you please sir, come this way,”, as respectful as if he were a guest, but if she had no need of him, to the maids and footmen he might as well have been a piece of mobile artwork; they laundered and pressed his clothing, refreshed his soap and shaving supplies and brought him meals, if he didn’t eat with Annette, but he was neither one of them, nor one of the family. His role was peculiar, like an impoverished tutor or governess, employed and thus apart from the family, but carrying the rank that regular servants, the kind who were raised into the life, would not dream to forward themselves in his presence.
Thus, alone as usual, Philip picked a warm spot on the bedroom floor near the heater and began his book from the middle, where he’d last left off. He’s picked a travel narrative from the colony, chosen for the glossy pictures on the dust jacket: wild boreal forests; young, jagged tooth mountains; and the long tusked natives and their stout, hide covered yurts. The author’s narration of the first, story deep snowfalls of winter displaced his awareness of his surroundings until reality intruded with excited loud speaking and music.
“… honouring our heroes, big and small. A gorgeous showcase of our culture’s proud capacity tonight, live from the New Royal Hall, completed just last year…”The sound of a newscaster’s fast but well enunciated speech blared from the dressing room. Jaunty drums and strings, a waltz with a martial flavour and clashing cymbals, blended into the announcers voice. “His highness will be presenting awards to the heroes of Nova Tanneberg for their brave defence…” Quick spices of poorly recorded combat noise, cut short before it was possible to make out what the paniced male voices were aggressively screaming over the gunfire, “And the court will honour the best among us for their courage and commitment to duty…”
One of the maids had switched on a view screen behind the big gilt edged mirror in Annete’s dressing room. Annette left the screens off unless she was using them to make a call with someone; she said she didn’t like the constant fluctuating volume and changing lights. He was consistently and strictly forbidden to touch any sort of screen or telephone, but if a maid felt it was acceptable to use the passive capacity of a house screen, Phillip could safely assume she did so without fear of correction.
Annette, her housekeepers and her butlers ran a well ordered household, and when she was not present discipline didn’t fall into disorder, but gently relaxed, the difference between soldiers snapped to attention in the presence of a superior and them going about their daily work. That was another thing Phillip got to witness from his position of irrelevance, the little pieces of quiet gossip, flirting between the much older senior footman and the teenage assistant to Annette’s hairstylist, and of course the little perks and comforts: the way the pink haired chamber maid, Maya, would take leftover cakes when she cleared away things after tea, or the contented smile of the lame legged butler, when he rested briefly against the wall, surveying the perfectly ordered rooms as if imagining he owned them. The maid in the dressing room had entered with a steamer, paying Phillip no mind as usual, but creating a complicated moral conundrum. He wasn’t supposed to watch or listen of his own initiation, but sometimes screens might be turned on in his presence. Some of this was beyond Annette’s control- if she took him onto a public street other people would leave screens on shop fronts patriotically cycling state channels and advertisements, but she’d never explicitly banned him from looking or listening to those either.
And he wanted to know about the outside world. For that, he felt guilty. Annette benevolently tolerated his little liberties; this book on the colony was not the first he’d borrowed, and she even seemed to enjoy listening to him retell what he’d read, however some things were as taboo as the scullion taking a seat in the parlour in one of the overstuffed, pale rose brocade chairs. When he was meditating on that, another maid trundled a cart loaded with pressed linens into the room and pushed her way into the dressing room to join the first servant.
With the door swung half open, from where he sat he could see the screen without really having to stretch. It panned over an audience of lavishly dressed people, the men mostly in dress uniforms or severe white ties with black suits, and the women in jewel tones for the married ladies and muted pastels for the unmarried. From time to time a spot of black hinted a widow, someone long enough into mourning she wasn’t allowed to match a bit of public fun with her display of grief. Phillip made the judgment that if he made no effort to try to see or hear beyond staying where he was, he wasn’t misbehaving.
“Emissaries from outside our empire look on,” the camera panned over the foreigners, diplomats and prestigious merchants in their broad range of skin tones and exotic outfits. “Eager to listen to His Highness explain the secrets of civilization.”
Phillip judged that the camera lingered a moment more than necessary on the flagrantly exposed bosoms of a pair of Hestian women, making the two maids purse up their faces in disapproval. “Hussi’an, more like!”
“Lord Harrington of the Royal Council of Advisors awards the first honour, posthumously upon Lt. Peter Lionel Zavylav, accepted by his father, Colonel Lionel Heartoak Zavylav.”
“That’s our master, “ one of the maids said excitedly. They watched and worked, while the awards were handed out, the laun’dry maid hanging up freshly washed night gowns and the first maid running her steamer over them, removing trace wrinkles from their temporary folding before sliding them along the extended rack so that the cavernous, mechanically aided closet could sort them away for safekeeping. The noise of the screen drowned out most of their quiet conversation between the servants but, the work was done before the broadcast ended and promptly one of them turned the screen off.
“I know I’m takin’ too lang, but I cawn’t ‘elp wantin’ to know. I’ve a brother ‘a Tannenberg an’ ‘e might’n be in the video.” That was the laundry maid, her words barely recognizable through her accent. “He got a’Brass Star, ‘e told me.”
“Alice Blessing, I know luv’” the other maid’s accent was more suppressed. “Mrs. Calum’ can’t ‘old… hold it ‘gainst you. It’s the home war.”
“Dun’ I know she will tha’, if she be able.” The laundry maid said morosely. “Back now, afore she frowns. She just say nobody ought to give an award to an NCO at such ‘a grand an’ fancy thing.”
“She’s just jockeying ‘cuz Mrs. Podgorni has her for tea on Tuesdays. They gave Tommy Donald the Royal Laurel, did’n they?”
At that point both women exited the dressing room, still talking in low voices. Phillip moved out of the path of the laundry cart, with more of a guilty scramble than he intended.
The laundry maid shook her head, still ignoring him, “Yes, an’ ‘e was blown ‘a smithereens. Least’away my Bobby is alive.”
“My Aleksei’s on the Far Front, small mercies,” The two women exited the room completely, leaving Phillip alone again. The longer they talked, the more their accent degraded together. “Least away, the sponsor will pay if ‘e don’t come back.”
Phillip thought nothing of the comparison of menfolk off in some location or another. When he was younger, before his family stopped their regular calls to his school and disappeared entirely, only to be replaced by the monthly, dutiful interjection of his uncle, Philip had assumed someday the toy soldiers and ships his father sent would become life sized accessories of his adulthood. The teachers at school were obedient in sharing the history; he was a warrior son of warriors, as just about every man born to the world could proudly trace back. Front fighting was more prestigious than Homeguard, not surprising given the comparative pay, though in recent months it seemed the survival of the latter was becoming more difficult than for the men doing the former.
Eventually, with the lights low, even the wild expense of the colonies wasn’t enough to hold him, and he waited in a half state, the tingling fatigue between sleep and awakeness, where nothing could be accomplished, but by force of will he kept true to Annette’s instructions and fought off sleep.
Annette was careful with her entrance of the house. At seven in the morning, even the relative seclusion of the fashionable neighbourhood wouldn’t stop her arrival from being noticed by a full dozen bystanders. For her, the defence of her conduct was, as always, the impeccable effort she put into maintaining all the trappings of respectable life, and of course the absolute horror people had for crossing her husband. Everyone took lovers, read inappropriate books, hoarded contraband and dodged taxes, and she could take her pet gentleman past charitable matrons without a single raised eyebrow, as long as he dressed and acted like some sort of flunkie, but let there be loud scene, a drunken arrival in disarray, a dress chosen too daringly or a public disagreement and people would look another time, and inevitably something would be found out of place. Little lapses were covered by their own etiquette, convalescence in a spa for a few months, a bit of bribery, either overtly by way of some donations or via a little social back scratching, or in worst case, a holiday until someone else reliably pulled the focus onto them and it was safe to emerge, but Annette did not want anything to interrupt the interesting parts of her life.
And so she kept her coat clasped tight over her evening dress, so that it was unnecessary to admit she was brazenly arriving home after seeing her lover. Her husband had left the gala at about the same time to go to his club, and from there, into the arms of one of his boys, perhaps the sweet faced young man with the dark hair, or the clever blonde who always seemed to extract a lavish present or a promise from him, and she had crept away under the expectation she would attend one of several of the little after parties hosted to stretch the fun of the evening until daylight.
Phillip was delightfully where she left him, a book, papers and a pen arrayed on the carpet, while the man was watching the gentle swing of the curtains, eyelids slowly raising and lowering against sleepiness. When she came in he got up a bit shakily, something between fear and a lifelong infusion in the importance of good manners kept him ready for her even when she knew he’d been awake for more than a cycle of a day, one that had begun the previous morning with his usual vigorous exercise.
“My poor Timmans,” she mentioned her senior ladies maid, “I had to send her home earlier because the late night brought on one of her sick headaches. I imagine she is recovering still. Come Adam, you will have to attend me.”
“Yes, My Lady,” Phillip paused for a moment, waiting for another cue while she unclasped her earrings. Among many things, Annette’s gloves were missing. Her hair, though still relatively immobile, has a slightly wanton touch of disarray and her skirts were crushed. Something about the bodice of her dress was a bit crooked.
At her gentle direction, Phillip unclasped the necklace from her neck and put it on her dressing table, and then worked his way down the hooks sealing up the back of her dress. When he sought out the side zipper he saw it had been closed up such that the zipper head bit a flap of the concealing fabric that normally covered the openable seam, pulling everything a touch off centre.
She yawned as she stepped out of the dress, and contagiously he had to copy her. He expected her slip to be crushed, simply by wearing it, but when he helped her out of that he saw that in the layer beneath, her stockings were reduced to cobwebs. The soap bubble thin knit was always only good for one wearing, but in order to wreck that degree of destruction it meant she’d been roughly stroked and touched all over, from slim ankle to soft, snow white thigh. Belaying that hypothesis where the pink marks, the kind left by an eager mouth, overtly telling him how Annette had spent at least part of her night.
Because it had pleased her in the past, Phillip kissed her wherever he exposed skin, the back of her neck as he unfastened her dress, the inside of her upper arm, and the swell of her hip. With his face pressed to her skin there was not just her own scent, the soap she liked and the refreshing cream she stroked into her skin, but a definite musk and leather smell. A man’s cologne, the kind favoured by older gentlemen.
A cloth dipped in the solvent that took off her makeup pulled the pigments off her face in a few gentle strokes, revealing that she was quite as tired as he was, pale and dark under the eye. She drank a glass of water, and then a second, and took him down into the bed with her after he helped her slide into one of the freshly washed and steamed night dresses from her closet.
“I’ll have three hours to refresh myself,” she murmured. “But then I must call my children and see how they are. But you may sleep, darling, until I want you again.”
He ended up sleeping half face down, shed of trousers but not his shirt or vest, with one arm thrown over her body. She had sleepily stroked his hair, smiling contentedly. “And after my babies have had a chance to see their mother, I will tell you about how my Mikhail amused me last night.”