Monday, December 1, 2008

The Steel Dragon - Chapter 2 Excerpt

Iolanthe Dechantagne held onto the bedpost with both hands, while her dressing maid Yuah pulled with all her might on the lacings of Iolanthe’s new Prudence Plus Fairy bust form corset. When the two sets of lacing holes reached as close a proximity as they were likely to, Yuah jerked the lacings down, pulling them into the crimping holes, so that they would stay tight until she managed to tie them into one of her patented infallible knots. Only when this knot, immotile as any which anchored a battleship to a dock, was tied, did Iolanthe let out her breath. Though still able to fasten her own bustle around her waist, the beautiful young woman was now helpless to bend over and pull on her own stockings, so Yuah carefully rolled each of the expensive silk garments up a leg, fastening it at the top to the several suspenders hanging down from the corset. Then Iolanthe stepped into her shoes, which were alligator skin high-tops with four inch heels. The maid kneeled down once again, this time to fasten each shoe’s twenty four buttons, using a button hook.

“The white, pin-striped dress today?” asked Yuah.

“No. I wore that just last week.”

“The chantilly dress?”

“Yes, I think.”

Yuah brought over the dress. Yards of sheer black lace overlaid a pink silk base that was as smooth as lotion. The dressing maid helped Iolanthe put her arms through the sleeveless shoulders and then fastened the dress up behind her. Then she helped her on with the matching jacket. Though the dress was sleeveless and had a fairly low neckline, the jacket had long sleeves with puffs of black lace at the end, and fastened all the way up and around Iolanthe’s long, thin neck. The hat that went with this ensemble was a black straw boater, and like so much of Iolanthe’s hat collection, imitated a man’s style. But in addition to the black lace veil hanging down to below her neck all the way around, the top of this boater was decorated with a dozen pink and black flowers and a small, stuffed bird. She wore no rings on her fingers or ears, but draped a cameo necklace carefully across her bosom.

Iolanthe turned and looked at herself in the floor-length cheval glass. The cameo necklace, the hat, jacket, dress, shoes and stockings, and the Prudence Plus fairy bust form corset were only the finishing touches of a process which had taken the first two hours of the morning. A hot bath and shampoo had come first, followed by shaving her body (with straight razor), and then applying four different types of body lotion and body powder. Next was a careful facial, culminating in the retouching of her very thin, carefully arched brows. Styling her long auburn hair into a bun, and constructing small ringlets with a curling iron to frame her face, had next occupied her. Then she had donned her panties, her bloomers, her underbrassier, her brassier, and her camisole. Yuah had careful manicured her fingernails and pedicured her toes. Finally came rouge, eye shadow, mascara, and lipstick—just enough to look as though she didn’t need any and thus had worn none—painted on with the care and attention to detail of the finest portrait artist .

“You look beautiful, Miss.”

“Yes, I know.”

“Will there be anything else, Miss?”

“No.”

Yuah left and Iolanthe continued to stare at herself for several moments in the mirror. Once she had decided that everything was perfect, she hyperventilated for a minute, before leaving. Doing so allowed her to make it all the way down to the steam carriage without having to gasp for breath, despite the small inhalations allowed by the Prudence Plus fairy bust form corset, though doing so exacerbated the possibility of her fainting. Women frequently fainted in Brech. It was just part of the cost of fashion.

The house that the Dechantagne family owned in the Old City was a large, square, four story building occupying most of a city block. It was so large in fact, that two thirds of the rooms were unused, the furniture covered by white linen drop cloths, and the doors kept locked. Iolanthe had been tempted to sell the house, as she had much of the family’s other city properties, but then, finding a new place to live would have occupied far too much of her time, and she doubted that any place she found would have been appropriate for entertaining the class of people that she had needed to entertain during the past year. Since she had been essentially forced to keep it, she had spent considerable money modernizing the portions that she used. Houses built three hundred years before did not have the benefits of indoor plumbing, and there was no way that she would go without her bath tub, or for that matter, a modern flushing toilet. Stairs were fine as well, for making a grand entrance, but for the everyday up and down of three flights, an elevator was a must. Then there were the dumbwaiters, the gas lights, and the upgraded kitchen. The only thing that hadn’t needed to be improved were the servants’ quarters, which were more than adequate.

Iolanthe walked from her spacious boudoir, stepping through the bed chamber, which was to her mind three or four times too large to be kept at a comfortable temperature, and then out into the hallway. The hallway was lined with large and small framed mirrors, so that she could have admired herself many times on her way out, had she chosen to do so. She did not. At the end of the hallway, she entered the elevator which awaited her. She did not need to look at or address the young man of the household staff who controlled the elevator car. He knew what to do. Exiting the elevator on the ground floor, she walked through the spacious foyer, past the great sweeping staircase. She swept right on out the front door, not even needing to slow, as the head butler Zeah was there to open the door and hand her a parasol to match her outfit.

At the bottom of the steps, another young man of the household staff waited with the steam carriage running. He had already filled the tank with water and the fire box with coal, at least she assumed he had, and if he hadn’t there would be hell to pay. Placing her high-heeled foot upon the running board, she stepped up into the seat, taking half a moment to make sure that she didn’t squash her bustle as she sat down. Then releasing the brake with her right hand and stepping on the forward accelerator with her right foot, she zoomed away from the curb, sending a dozen pedestrians diving one way or the other.

Her first stop of the day was the telegraph office in the great plaza, just across from CafĂ© Carlo, where she frequently had a light luncheon or tea. It was a short drive, almost no time at all before she pushed the decelerator, pulled the brake, and came to a stop in front of the building that must have once been glassblower’s shop or a bakery or some such, since telegraphs had not been invented when the structures around the plaza had been built. Now that she thought about it, the wooden poles leading away from the telegraph office were somewhat unsightly among the ornate stone and marble buildings. The government had even made an attempt to make the gas streetlamps attractive. The telegraph poles were just oily looking wooden sticks. Still, she supposed they were necessary. Stepping down from the steam carriage, she walked around to the rear of the vehicle and turned the steam cock, so that nothing as unfortunate as a boiler explosion would bother her while she took care of business. Then she made her entrance into the telegraph office.

The office was dark, despite having a very large window in its front wall. All of the walls were paneled with a very dark wood and were completely unornamented except for six brass gas lantern sconces. Two large wooden desks sat at odds with one another. In front of each, sat two uncomfortable looking chairs, and behind each sat a man with a stiff white collar and a green visor. Iolanthe stood holding her unused parasol in her hands and her chin high in the air, until both men in green visors jumped from their seats, ran around the desks to pull out a chair for her.

“Miss Dechantagne!”

“Miss Dechantagne!”

She chose the chair held by the older of the two men. He was about fifty, slightly fat around the middle, and was wearing a cheap wedding ring. Both men returned to their positions behind their desks, the older, slightly fat man with a look of triumph upon his face, the younger man with a look of dejection.

“My telegrams?” she said.

“Of course, Miss Dechantagne.” He produced them from a rack at the back of the room as if he had been waiting for her entrance all day, which he probably had. There were five. She read each of them carefully.

Telegram One:
My Dear Miss Dechantagne.
Will visit city three days hence. Would very much like to meet you for tea. Anxiously await your reply.
Prof. Merced Calliere, University Ponte-a-Verne.

Telegram Two:
My Dearest Miss Dechantagne.
Found you as ever, delightful, at the Opera. I still say you have the loveliest eyes ever. Can’t stop thinking about them. Would love to have you for tea.
Jolon Bendrin

Telegram Three:
Sister.
Have found two wizards that may be of some use. Need six thousand marks to settle personal accounts. Also have a girl for you to meet. Get something for Yuah’s birthday.
Augie.

Telegram Four:
Miss.
Finished closing up the house. Local business attended to. Personal baggage to arrive in three days. Staff and details will follow in five days. Your directions followed.
Macy.

Telegram Five:
Iolanthe.
Mustering out before the twelfth. Hope plans are going well. Have a full company. Leaving the rest in your hands.
Terrence.

“Take down my replies, please,” said Iolanthe.

“To Professor Merced Calliere, University Ponte-a-Verne, Regencia. My Dear Professor. I anxiously await your visit. I am understandably excited to see the results of your work. I insist that you stay with us at the house. I will meet you at station myself. Of course, we will have tea together. Very sincerely, I. Dechantagne.

“To Mister Jolon Bendrin, Bentin, Cordwell. Mister Bendrin. Never contact me again. I do not accept invitations from men who think themselves entitled to take liberties. If your face is seen within my circle of acquaintances, and my brother does not shoot you, I will do so myself. Very sincerely, I Dechantagne.

“To Lieutenant Augustus Dechantagne, Bentin Cordwell. Augie. I am sending you five thousand marks to settle accounts, as I am sure you have exaggerated your needs by at least twenty percent. Leave the girl. I am well aware of your peccadilloes. Make sure not to leave any loose ends. Bring the wizards. If you see Jolon Bendrin while you are there, you may shoot him. Your Sister. I. Dechantagne.

“To Macy Godwin, Shopton, Mont Dechantagne. Good. I. Dechantagne.

“To Captain Terrence Dechantagne, Dorridgeville, Booth. I have secured munitions and equipment. Send your company directly to the ship. Expedite your return if possible. Your expertise is needed. Iolanthe.

“Do you have all of that?”

“Yes, Maam,” replied the telegraph operator. “You know, we can abbreviate these messages and save five pfennigs per word.”

Iolanthe gave him a withering look, until he dropped his eyes to the desktop.

“Grammar is so very important,” she said. “My man will be by to settle accounts.”
She stood up and started for the door. The younger man, who had been waiting across the room for just this moment, jumped up and rushed to the door so quickly, that he knocked over his own chair along the way. With a look of utmost triumph, he opened the door for her. She rewarded him with a nod of her head, and stepped outside. Turning the steam cock to its original position once again, she climbed back aboard the carriage and started once again on her way.

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