Richard's Story: Part Seven

Entering New Government House, Richard encountered a clerk, then a functionary like himself, then Minister Holt, all with the same message: “Lord Rustilion’s secretary needs to see you.”

After delivering the message, Minister Holt wanted to discuss funds for Kingston College. It was nearly a half-hour before Richard escaped to his office.

Phillipa wasn’t there, but Lord Rustilion’s secretary was peering curiously into Carlisle’s crates. “Ah, Mr. St. Clair,” he said, straightening and smoothing his crisp cravat. “Lord Rustilion would you like to see you sometime today.”

“Now?”

“No, no. He’s with Minister Belemont—” the minister who represented the greatest number of districts in Kingston and Roesia, another aristocrat turned New Government man, but one who had abandoned his title. “This evening? 6:00?”

Richard nodded—at least he wouldn’t have to deal with tea—and the secretary wafted out, the crates no longer of interest.

Richard left the office, taking the closest stairs up to transverse the landing above the Chamber of Debate. This was the quickest way to reach Government Library since only a few of Government House’s floors connected directly. After the landing, he descended several steps, turned down the corridor towards the Department of Defense, and descended another four steps to enter Government Library.

Government Library was in the process of being refurbished. When New Government had taken over, the long, shabby room of dirt-streaked windows had been a warehouse of boxes and old tomes. Mr. Woodburn, the overworked librarian, bespectacled and stooping, was himself a library of all dead and past librarians. He had brought impressive order to the collections. Government Library was now two long lines of tables topped by red-shaded oil lamps. Books lined shelves under the high windows. Legal documents were held behind Mr. Woodburn’s square, unpretentious desk towards the front of the room.

Richard nodded to the librarian as he headed past to the third table on the left where Phillipa sat surrounded by flat boxes. Richard slid into the chair opposite. Phillipa looked up and smiled—an easy smile without shadows.

“Did the police help?” she said.

“I have a name. Any luck here?”

“I found deeds back to Lord Simon’s great-great-grandfather. Lord Simon actually inherited the property from his great-uncle, Trevellyn Fulks.”

Richard nodded, aware he wasn’t really listening. “If you’re done for the day—you could come with me to question the dealer.”

Again, that faint flush across her cheek bones. Had she reacted like this to him before? Likely not. Their kiss altered all the parameters. As he followed Phillipa to the front desk, he wondered, Am I standing too close to her, unnaturally far apart? Am I staring at her? Was he looking at her with the admiration he felt for her calm intelligence and gentle friendliness?

“Thank you, Mr. Woodburn. These were very helpful.”

Mr. Woodburn harrumphed. Phillipa lifted her coat from the rack and joined Richard on the steps. This time, after ascending four steps, they took a narrow single staircase down two flights to the south entrance. Hacks  loitered in the curving drive that emptied back into the main road. Richard and Phillipa snagged one.

“Mewlon Road, Trades,” Richard said.

“I’ll take you as far as Postilion,” the driver said. “Hacks can’t go much farther.”

Richard hesitated, glancing at Phillipa, who said, “Thank you” to the driver.

The hack started off. Richard, still hesitate, said, “I should have mentioned—this isn’t a very pleasant neighborhood.”

“I’ve been in worse.”

“Not on my orders.”

She smiled into her scarf. “The first thing I did for you was sketch the Trefuen property. There were squatters all over that land.”

Richard had known that. He just hadn’t thought about it. He said, “I’m sorry.”

“No. Richard.” She touched his arm. “Don’t start trying to protect me.”

“I’ve been protecting you from Lord Simon.”

“Oh.” Another flush. “I wondered. But you must know, there’s a reason I dress like a man. Lords and ministers expect their maids and cooks and laundresses to negotiate Kingston without trouble. A lady clerk, on the other hand, would be locked in her office.”

The higher the class, the greater the protection; the lower the class, the greater the freedom—or indifference. “I’d prefer indifference,” Aubrey had once told Richard. Apparently, Phillipa felt the same.

He said mildly, “A lady clerk would shock our ministers into the next century.”

“Brand-New Government,” she said, and he laughed. She continued, “I will have to visit Lord Simon’s eventually.”

“Not if I turned down the application.”

“Would you? Just to—” she flushed almost scarlet, swallowing the words. Richard heard them anyway: Just to keep me safe.

That might be one of his reasons. He said, “The house would cost more to restore than others of the same time period. It isn’t worth it.”

“Lord Simon scares the ministers. They might force you to reconsider.”

“He scares them, but I think they would pounce on an opportunity to thwart him.”

“So long as they have someone to blame.” Phillipa shook her head. She hardly ever sounded acerbic. Right now, her voice was level with distaste.

“Politics,” Richard said as the hack turned out of Shops into Trades. They passed the Great Market, the hack weaving between standing carts and wagons. The driver drew up outside a respectable haberdashery, likely graced by clerks and high-table servants.

Phillipa stepped down after Richard. He forebore to help her, but he did lift his brows when she paid the driver before Richard could. She shook her head at him and fell in place beside him, two city gents strolling the pavement.

They had done it before many times. They had talked about work, Kingston’s growth, passersby, even items for sale in the windows. Phillipa had once recommended a pair of gloves, which Richard had bought. Those languid conversations had been easy. Now, they walked in silence even though Richard wanted to point out the flower-sellers’ buckets of stocks, clearly grown in a hot-house. Only now he wanted to buy Phillipa a stem of the massed flowers. And city gents did not give bouquets to each other.

They turned off Postilion into Mewlon, moving into the darker streets of Trade—literally darker since the houses met overhead. The streets were still stone but more uneven. They were also far narrower. Richard and Phillipa had to step aside several times to let a cart pass. Richard pulled Phillipa back when a two-wheeled carriage dashed down the road towards Postilion. He wasn’t the only one to glower after the driver although a number of pedestrians also called out curses.

Phillipa laughed. Richard glanced down at him, and she raised her brows at him, as if to say, Isn’t this an adventure?

He took her hand, pulling it into the pocket of his greatcoat. They walked on. No one gave them a second glace.

He said, “What do you expect—of you and me? If anything?”

She said without raising her face, “I don’t expect an affair. You’re not like that--like our boss.”

“Does Lord Rustilion have a mistress?”

“Didn’t you know? Some widow who owns a pie shop, I think. Probably very nice. But you’re not—”

“Aristocracy.”

“Careless.” 

He studied the crimson tip of Phillipa’s ear. “A better man would give up the Cartwrights. Give up the job.”

“But the job is what makes you . . . you.”

What had brought Phillipa to him.

“Love isn’t about bizarre and purposeless sacrifices,” Phillipa said. “If we went and lived in a cottage on the coast somewhere, we would both be miserable.”

“If I’d met you before my engagement—”

“I know,” Phillipa said. “Is she—your fiancĂ©e—nice? Paul Gessup of Government Mapping says she’s a predator, but he can be very cynical.”

Her ears flared crimson again. Richard leaned over and pulled her hat over the ears’ tips. So Phillipa had asked about Gloria. Phillipa had pondered her competition long before the kiss.

He felt elated and depressed all at the same time.

“She’s awful,” he said, the first time he’d said it aloud to anyone. “Not that—I’m not trying to get pity. I’ll survive.”

She said softly, “I’m not the kind of person to have affairs either.”

“I know,” he said gently.

They walked on, Phillipa’s shoulder against his. Mewlon Road had few house numbers. Richard kept glancing up on the signs. This far into Trades (the road was now packed dirt), the buildings were mostly residential, but there were a few taverns, a few seamstress’s signs posted in upper windows. He finally spotted a dangling wooden board that needed repainting. But Richard could make out ‘Apothecary’ and ‘Potions.’

He and Phillipa turned into the door-less entranceway to find themselves at the bottom of a staircase. Richard loosened Phillipa’s hand and she went first up the rickety steps.

They debouched into a wide space, the entire upper floor. A pile of stained pallets occupied the far corner, spilling out to almost the center of the room. Heavy, green-tinted jars sat on low shelves in no apparent order. A low counter covered with bottles and scientific looking vessels ran across the wall under the street windows of cracked and rippled glass.

The room was empty. There was a bell near the staircase; Richard rang it once, twice. He and Phillipa stayed by the door. At the third ring, a thin man popped out a door leading, likely, to the back stairs. He neared them, wiping his hands first on a smock, then through his greasy hair.

“Hullo.”

“Are you Max?”

“Yes. You want to buy—a prettifying potion for the lady?”

“She doesn’t need—” Richard began at the same time that Phillipa gasped, “You know?”

Richard looked down at her in surprise. Since their kiss, he was amazed that the entire male population of Kingston didn’t know she was a woman.

“I’m not all that susceptible to Northern concoctions,” Max said with vague pride. “The masking scent is there but faint. Cologne, is it not?”

Richard said, “What is he talking about?”

“My father,” Phillipa said. “He dabbles in potions. He made one to hide my gender.”

“I know you’re a woman.”

“Oh, the cologne isn’t so strong,” Max said, puttering over to a jar. “If the lady wants a gentleman to know—” He shrugged. “If you’d like a stronger potion to replace the one you’ve been using—”

“Did you?” Richard said. “Want me to know?”

“I guess I must have. How long have you known?”

“I’m not sure—I can’t remember when I didn’t. By the time we finished Trefuen for sure.”

“You never objected.”

“I didn’t want to,” Richard said and watched Phillipa blush. He was beginning to enjoy her blushes.

Max said, “I have all the necessary ingredients.”

“Do you also have ingredients for love potions?” Richard said.

Max’s hands fell away from the jar. He peered at them over his shoulder, then frowned.

“Oh,” he said. “You’re that one—from Government House.”

“Yes,” Richard said without blinking. “I was the target.”

“You have to go see Lord Simon.”

“I’ve been to see Lord Simon.”

“I know, and he sent a message saying a government man would likely be coming around asking about love potions, and I was to send you to him.”

“He knew I’d be coming?”

“I’m the best potion-maker in Kingston,” Max said in a kind of whiny self-advertisement. “All you gent types come to me.”

“When did Lord Simon send a message?”

“Last night.”

“Damn him. Look,” Richard said, stepping forward, “I will pay you to give me the information.”

Max barely hesitated, then said with complete frankness. “He’s much more terrifying, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

Richard thought Phillipa choked on a laugh. “But I’m here,” Richard pointed out. “I could pay you now.”

Max eyed him, then turned and dashed across the room through the far door. The lock snicked on the other side. Richard gaped. He’d expected pleading self-pity, not a rapid exit.

It was just as well. Richard might not hit someone when he was in a calm frame of mind. Lord Simon’s machinations provoked deeper feelings.

“He’s neatly pinned me,” he said as Phillipa slipped up beside him. This time, she took his hand.

“I want to see this notorious house,” she said. “Will you take me?”