For our third Pinkorama, Freya brings us “The Mark of the Midnight Manzapeep”, or “Stoat Iacta Est”.
We find ourselves at the very end of Pink XI, The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla, at a masked ball. Because, as we know, pretty much anything can happen at a masked ball. Will Lucien, Duke of Belliston, finally discover what happened to his parents all those years ago? Will Sally put those arrows in the quiver of her costume to good use? And was that a stoat that just went flying by?
No one expects a stoat attack….
And now over to Freya!
The broodingly glamorous Duke of Belliston looks askance at the sumptuous repast mysteriously set out in the folly.
A moment later, all is explained. It’s only Lord Henry Caldicott–kind Uncle Henry– offering Lucien a celebratory glass of champagne.
“I’m sure Miss Fitzhugh won’t mind you starting without her. . . .”
Sally appears dressed as Artemis! In her hand is a golden bow; in her quiver the intrepid Lady Florence Oblong is poised for action!
“Did you kill my father?”
Sally and Lucien strive to protect one another….
“Kill, Lady Florence!”
Inspired by the Fitzhugh family passion for unorthodox projectiles, Sally seizes the hefty stoat and flings her straight at Lord Henry’s head!
(NB: Our sincerest thanks to the tech team at Lady Euphemia McPhee’s private theatre for supplying us with this completely invisible length of fishing line. Dangling from the flyspace and attached to our prop stoat, it creates a flawless illusion of Lady Florence suspended in mid flight.)
Lady Florence flies through the air . . .
. . . and hits her target.
Huzzah, Lady Florence Oblong! And huzzah, Freya! That mini Uncle Henry with that mini champagne bottle is too adorably sinister for words. Of course, Sally is the absolute last word in avenging goddesses, as she should be. (Sally made me put in that last bit.)
Thank you, Freya, for bringing the one and only stoat attack in the whole Pink Carnation series so vividly to life!
Here, for your amusement, is the relevant scene from Pink XI, The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla:
Sally’s teeth dug into her lower lip. She looked to Lucien, her expression imploring. “He wanted us off on a wild goose chase, running after imaginary spies. But it was him along.”
“And you’ve come to rescue me.” Lucien didn’t know whether to laugh or weep or go down on one knee.
“It’s absurd,” said Uncle Henry firmly, and part of Lucien wanted to believe him, to believe that Sally was mistaken, that the man who had raised him couldn’t contemplate his death.
“Lucien?” said Sally, and he saw her arm start to quiver, just a little.
“Lucien,” said Uncle Henry sharply. “Lucien. Who are you going to believe? Your own uncle or the sister of a known idiot?”
Sally bristled. “Turnip is hardly an idiot.” She turned to Lucien. “He’s occasionally a little… literal. That’s all.”
Uncle Henry raised a brow. “Do you see what I mean?”
“Yes,” Lucien said slowly.
Sally’s arm faltered.
“What’s in the champagne, Uncle Henry?” Lucien demanded, his voice hard, and he saw relief blaze across Sally’s face, relief and an expression of joy so bright it made him dizzy. “Is it manzanilla extract? Or did you have the decency to at least choose something a little less painful?”
“You’re as mad as she is!” Looking from one to the other, Uncle Henry gave a gusty laugh. “Lucien! Do you really think I would do anything to hurt you?”
“Yes,” Sally answered for him.
Lucien kept his eyes trained on his uncle, on the man who had put him on his fist pony, the man who had taught him to use a gun.
It would have been easier had Uncle Henry leered or jeered, had he twirled his cloak, or suddenly developed a squint; instead, he looked and sounded just as he always had, the same frank voice, the same fond smile.
There was a pain in the pit of Lucien’s stomach, betrayal and confusion and a horrible fear he couldn’t quite name.
“Did you kill my father?”
Uncle Henry stood his ground. His hand slipped between the folds of his toga. “I loved your father.”
“Did you kill my father?” Lucien’s voice rang off the dome of the folly, clashing with the crystal of the glasses, waking the echoes in the still depths of the pool by which his parents had died.
Uncle Henry looked away. There were lines that Lucien had never noticed before at the corners of his mouth. “Your father treated me like a lap dog,” he said shortly. Lucien must have made some movement, because Uncle Henry looked up quickly, his expression bitter. “You think I didn’t know that that was what he called me? He made no secret of it. But I didn’t mind,” he added hastily. “We had our arrangement.”
Uncle Henry looked at Lucien, and there was a man that Lucien didn’t recognize there, behind his uncle’s eyes. “Your father was never meant to marry.”
As if from very far away, Lucien heard the whisper of Sally’s tunic against the floor, felt her hand on his arm, steadying him.
Without looking, he groped for her hand, grasping it like a life-line. “Have you always hated me?”
Uncle Henry looked at him in surprise. “I never hated you. You always were a good boy,” he said.
The words sounded like an elegy.
Sally tugged on Lucien’s arm, drawing him back with her. “I think it’s time for us to go.”
“Oh, no,” said Uncle Henry kindly. “I’m afraid you won’t be going anywhere at all.”
He drew his hand from the folds of his Roman costume, revealing a pistol that was anything but antique.
“You see, I have other plans for you.”
Sally grabbed for her bow, loosing her golden arrow.
It plunked harmlessly into the silver champagne cooler.
“Really, Miss Fitzhugh.” Lord Henry looked at her reproachfully. “There’s no need for such histrionics.”
“I would say that being murdered is every need,” retorted Sally indignantly.
“Murder is such a strong word,” said Lord Henry conversationally, his pistol trained on Sally’s chest with an easy competence that suggested that his aim might be somewhat better than Sally’s.
Sally knew she ought to have paid more attention to the archery at their archery lessons rather than hiding behind a tree with the latest Cosmopolitan Ladies’ Book.
“I’m sure this is all a misunderstanding,” Lucien said soothingly, moving carefully forward.
Sally, with a twist of the heart, realized exactly what he was trying to do. He was trying to step in front of her, to shield her with his body.
“Yes,” agreed Uncle Henry, moving to keep his pistol trained on Sally. “Miss Fitzhugh was never meant to be here. However,” he added, with a cheerfulness that Sally found highly unnerving, “this might just be even better. It will make a very affecting scene. The duke, having, in a fit of mania, poisoned his betrothed, slays himself in remorse. Shakespeare couldn’t do better.”
“I’ve never liked those plays where everyone dies in the end,” said Lucien. From the corner of her eye, Sally saw him flick his wrist, such a tiny movement that she thought she had imagined it, until he did it again.
“Yes, it clutters up the stage awfully.” Sally’s eyes met Lucien’s, and what she saw there warmed her to the core. Whatever happened, they were a team, working in concert.
She would just prefer to be a team in life, rather than death.
“Like Romeo and Juliet,” Sally said at random, edging slightly towards the right, as Lucien had indicated. “I’ve never understood why everyone loves that play so. The hero and heroine are annoying and the ending is depressing.”
Lord Henry swung the pistol in her direction. “Stop right there, Miss Fitzhugh.
Sally stopped. She opened her eyes wide. “You wouldn’t want to spoil your affecting scene by shooting me. Bullet holes are so uncouth.”
“At this point,” said Lord Henry, “I am prepared to take that risk.”
There was something in his expression that said he meant it.
“I imagine,” said Sally kindly, attempting to keep his attention away from Lucien, “that it must be very provoking to have quite so many of your plans go awry.”
“I understand that I have you to thank for that.” Lord Henry didn’t sound at all thankful.
Sally felt for an arrow in what she hoped was a subtle fashion. “One does what one can.”
“Not any longer,” said Lord Henry, and cocked his pistol. “I have a new plan. Duke shoots his betrothed and then shoots himself in a fit of remorse. It’s not as tidy as poison, but it will serve.”
“Let her go.” Lucien’s voice rang out from two yards to Sally’s left. He held up his empty hands. “Take me. That’s what you want. She’s nothing to do with anything.”
Lord Henry’s pistol swung away from Sally. “I might just,” said Lord Henry, and took aim.
There was no time to notch an arrow. Sally grabbed for the first thing she found in her quiver.
“Kill, Lady Florence!” Sally shouted, and flung the outraged stoat at Lord Henry’s head.
It worked rather better than Sally had expected. Lord Henry dropped to his knees, flinging up his arms to shield his head as ten pounds of furious fur and muscle landed on his shoulder, claws scrabbling for purchase in the fabric of his toga .
The pistol clattered to the ground, going off with an explosion that sent bits of metal and hot powder flying everywhere, filling the room with thick, black smoke.
Sally flung herself on the floor, only to be mashed to the ground by a heavy male form as Lucien flung himself on top of her.
“Face down!” he barked, holding out his arms to shield her from the stinging shrapnel.
“Umph,” said Sally, which, if she was thinking about it, translated a little to “I love you” and a lot to, “Ouch, you’re squishing me.”
An uncanny howl rose from Lord Henry, spiraling to a soprano shriek as Lady Florence bit down hard on the back of his neck.
In the middle of it all, there was the sound of feet pounding against the flagstones and shouting and jostling and someone yelling, “Sit on him! Sit on him! Before he gets away!” followed by an indignant, “Agnes! That was my foot!”
“Sorry,” said Agnes’s familiar voice.
“I say,” came Sally’s brother’s voice, sounding rather more cheerful than the situation warranted. “Are those puddings?”