I’m not sure this counts as much as a teaser, but… Pink IX is in the process of getting a title! Currently, the flower front-runner seems to be the lily, since Emma wears white a lot, but that’s highly likely to change.
I’ve posted a chunk of the first chapter below. What flower would you choose?
“Alas!” she cried, “I spy a sail
Hard-by on the wine dark sea.
I know not what it is or bides,
But I fear it comes for me!”
The Perils of the Pulchritudinous Princess of the Azure Toes, Canto XII, 14-17.
“For, lo!” proclaimed Augustus Whittlesby, from his perch on top of a bench supported by two scowling sphinxes, “In Cytherea’s perfumed sleep/ Did she dream of the denizens of the dithery deep….
“Dithery? How can the deep be dithery?” A female voice, lightly accented, cut into Augustus’ stirring rendition of Canto XII of The Perils of the Pulchritudinous Princess of the Azure Toes.
Among the smattering of people who had left the dancing in the ballroom to admire, mock, gossip, or, in the case of an elderly dowager snoring in a chair by the far wall, nap, stood two young women.
One was tall and graceful, garbed simply but elegantly in a white dress that fell in the required classical lines from a pair of admirably shaped shoulders. Her pale brown hair was gathered in a simple twist, her only jewelry a golden locket strung on a ribbon of sky blue silk.
Jane Wooliston was, thought Augustus, all that was finest in womanly charm. He had said so quite frequently in verse, but it held true in prose as well. Not even his execrable effusions could mask her inestimable worth.
She wasn’t the one who had spoken.
It had been the other one. Next to her. Half a head down.
What Emma Delagardie lacked in height, she made up for by the exuberantly curled plumes that rose from her silver spangled headdress. The tall plumes jutted a good foot into the air, bouncing up and down—like great, annoying bouncing things. In Augustus’ annoyance, metaphor failed him. Her dress was white, but it wasn’t the white of innocent maidens and virtuous dreams. It was of silk, sinuous and shiny, overlain with some sort of shimmery stuff that sparkled when she moved, creating the sensation of a constant disturbance in the air around her.
Emma Delagardie was slight, fine-boned, and small-featured, the top of her head barely level with Miss Wooliston’s elegantly curved shoulder, but she took up far more room than her small stature would warrant.
“You might have the dire deep,” Mme Delagardie suggested, her American accent very much in evidence, “or the dreadful deep, but not dithery. It’s not even a proper word.”
“Your deep may be dire, but my deep is dithery. There is such a thing as poetic license, Mme Delagardie,” said Augustus grandly.
“License or laziness? Surely another word might serve your purpose better. The deep is a rather stationary thing.”
Who had appointed Emma Delagardie the Grand Inquisitor for Poetical Excellence, Greater Paris Branch? It had been a sad, sad day for France when her uncle had been appointed American Envoy to Paris and an even sadder one when she had decided to outlast his tenure and stay.
Perhaps America would like to take her back?
“The waves, Mme. Delagardie, maintain a constant flow, back and forth, just so.” Augustus used the flowy fabric of his sleeves to illustrate, rocked back and forth on the bench. “And on and on they go.”
With a hey nonny nonny and a ho ho ho.
Christ, he made himself sick sometimes. You’re doing it for England, old chap, he used to tell himself, but the for England bit had been rubbed bare over time, torn to shreds on the detritus of rhyme.
Oh, bugger. He was thinking in rhyme again. Was there no way to turn it off? To end the adjectives that infected his consciousness? That bedeviled his brain? That assaulted his….
Next time, Augustus promised himself. The next time he was recruited for a life of espionage, he was posing as a philosopher or a student of ancient languages, as someone staid and sober, someone who expressed himself in prose rather than verse and fourth rate verse, at that.
They had warned him of this, his mentors at the War Office. Choose your persona wisely, they had said. Over time, you might just become what you pretend to be. Augustus had scoffed at it at the time. Nineteen and fearless he had been then, confident of the power of both his sword and his pen. It had seemed like such a lark, a decade ago, to couch his reports to the War Office in poetry so bad that even the Ministry of Police wouldn’t want to read it. Even fanatical devotion only went so far. For the French surveillance officers, so far generally ended somewhere around the thirty ninth canto.
What a stroke of brilliance, a code no one could break—because there was no code. No count-ten-letters-and-subtract-one, no book of code words and phrases, no messy paper trails to trip one up, just the information itself couched in terms of purest absurdity, truth drowned in a sea of verbiage.
Sometimes, it felt like truth wasn’t the only one drowning. He had been doing this for too long; he felt the weariness of it to his very bones.
Augustus looked at Jane Wooliston, his buoy, his anchor, his island in a turbulent sea. Until she had arrived in Paris, he had been giving serious thought to throwing it all in.
Clasping his hands to his breast, Augustus looked meaningfully at Miss Wooliston. “What can one say about the sea? Oh, the sea! The inconstant sea! As indeterminate as a lady’s affections and as unfathomable as the female heart.”
Miss Wooliston hid her smile behind her fan. “Beautifully said, Monsieur Whittlesby, but I would urge you to credit our sex with somewhat more resolution of character than that.”
She managed to make her voice carry without seeming to try. What a lovely voice it was, too, a fine, clear contralto, neither too high nor too low.
Augustus clapped the back of his hand to his forehead, just managing not to gag on his own sleeve. They had played this game before, he and Miss Wooliston. “Resolute in cruelty! Obdurate in obsfuscation!”
“Ornate in ormolu?” It was the American again. Of course.
“Ormolu,” Augustus repeated. “Ormolu?”
Emma Delagardie gave a little bounce that made her silver spangles scintillate. “Just helping out. You are doing o’s, aren’t you? ”
Augustus would have loved to tell her exactly what she could do with her a’s, e’s and u’s—in prose—but he had spent years perfecting his pose of poetic otherworldliness. He wasn’t about to ruin it for one noisy chit from the Colonies. The former colonies, that was. If Emma Delagardie was a representative example, good riddance to them.
“If I may continue?” he said.
Emma Delagardie fluttered her fan. Augustus sneezed. The fan was made of feathers. Feathers with silver spangles. They had a long reach.
“Oh, do. Please do,” she said, far too enthusiastically for Augustus’ peace of mind. No one wanted to hear his poetry that badly. In fact, no one wanted to hear his poetry at all. This boded ill.
Augustus brooded. It wasn’t quite a brood of Byron caliber, but it passed muster. It had bloody well ought to. He had spent hours practicing. “My soul shies back! To flourish, the delicate blooms of poetry must be gently nurtured and watered from the well of an understanding spirit, not withered in the harsh glare of unfeeling criticism.”
“Do go on, Mr. Whittlesby,” said Miss Wooliston soothingly. “I assure you, we are all attention to hear how Cytherea comes about.”
“All thirty dithery cantos,” added her friend cheerfully.
Did she think it was easy to consistently perpetrate works of such poetic awfulness?
He could have told Emma Delagardie a thing or two about that. Years, it had taken, years of grueling practice and downright hard work. It was a hard balance to maintain, writing poetry dreadful enough to be laughable, but just credible enough to be believable.
Augustus rustled his roll of papers. “Shall I go on? Or need I fear the slings and arrows of outrageous interruptions?”
“We’ll be good,” promised Emma Delagardie, in a way that signaled anything but. “Mum as church mice.”
The church mice he had known had been rather noisy, actually, in the walls of the vicarage of his youth, but that was beside the point. He wasn’t going to let himself be drawn into yet another pointless argument.
“In that case….” Augustus made a show of scrolling down his page, searching his place. The gilded doors to the music room racketed open and someone skidded into the room, dressed inappropriately for an evening entertainment in boots with the mud of travel still on them. He was a young man, cheeks flushed, hair mussed, cravat askew. He was dressed in the glorified riding dress that the upper classes had made their common clothing, a tightly fitted coat over a bright waistcoat, tight pantaloons tucked into Hessian boots. The difference was, these clothes had obviously been used for riding, and recently.
A few of the ladies whispered and giggled behind their fans. The dowager made a snorting noise in her sleep and burrowed deeper into her chair.
What in the hell was Horace de Lilly doing here? As a very junior sort of agent, employed for the sole purpose of his aristocratic connections, de Lilly was meant to be at Saint Cloud, hanging about the fringes of Bonaparte’s semi-regal court, not in Paris, attending a ball at the Hotel de Balcourt.
This did not bode well.
With a wary eye on his young associate, Augustus returned to his poetry. “For in the lady’s youth was told/ A tale of prophecies ancient and old—”
Horace began to bounce on the balls of his feet, striving to be seen over Mme Delagardie’s plumes. He mouthed something.
Augustus frowned in his general direction. Raising his voice, he proclaimed, “That once in Triton’s court did dwell/ And ring a nasty watery knell,/ With a clangety clang and an awesome—”
“Yell?” suggested Emma Delagardie, in something that strove to be, but was not quite sotto voce. “Knell? Mell?”
If Augustus had been holding a book, he would have slammed it. Instead, he jammed the roll of poetry under his arm. “No more! My sensitive soul can endure no further interruptions! The muse has fled. The Graces have left the building.”
He jumped down off the settee, landing with a thump on the parquet floor and had the satisfaction of seeing Mme Delagardie take a step back. He had landed rather close to her feet, inadequately shod in Grecian sandals that showed off the diamond rings on her toes.
Augustus wafted a trembling hand in the air. “I beg you, good people! Do not attempt to follow! I must soothe myself and my muse in the only way available to one of my delicate temperament, with a spell of solitude and solitary reflection, making humble homage to the Muses in the hopes that they will once again heed my call after so brutal and rude a series of interruptions to their delicate endeavors.”
The excess fabric in his sleeves made a highly gratifying swishing noise as he swept towards the door.
As he passed de Lilly, he murmured, “In the study. Five minutes.”