girl_starfish (girl_starfish) wrote in fm_alchemist,

[fic] Happy Families 4/?

Hey! Sorry to deluge you guys with another fic on what seems to be a day of fics, but this is my last chance to get on a computer for a while (Travelling with my parents for a week and a half!). I haven't had as much time to think about this chapter as I would have liked, so if you see any typo's or glaring continuity errors, please let me know! Thank you.

Title: Happy Families 4/?
Author: girl_starfish
Illustrator: hime1999
Rating: PG 13, for implications and sordid secrets -- it's a murder mystery, what do you expect?
Genre: Mystery / Angst / Drama.
Spoilers: This is an AU, set vaguely in the 1920s and inspired by copious amounts of Agatha Christie and Episode 50. There is only one major spoiler, and it's character wise, not anything to do with the plot of the anime series.

“So then, Mr. Alphonse,” Hughes said, once the boy had been removed from Roy’s wardrobe and offered the comfortable chair by the door. “Why don’t you start by telling us why you had to hide in my closet?”

“None of the others would want me to talk to you,” Alphonse explained eagerly. “They all try to pretend it didn’t happen. But I know the truth.”

Roy found it very hard not to smile at his enthusiasm. Clearly, this was a great adventure for the boy. “And that relates to my wardrobe how?”

“Ed would be angry if he knew I was in here,” Alphonse said frankly. “He’s sort of funny about the whole thing. He thinks that we shouldn’t say anything about it to you.”

“Why would that be?”

“I don’t know. He never tells me anything any more.” The boy’s round face was uncharacteristically concerned. “I’m worried about him. He’s almost always quiet now --if they’d just leave, everything would be all right.”

“They being Dante and her son?”

“Just say my half-brother. It’s not like it’s a secret,” Alphonse’s tone was resentful. “Everything was fine before they came.”

“That sounds rather like a fairy-tale,” Hughes remarked lightly. “Cinderella-like -- complete with wicked stepmother and half-brother.”

“She’s not my step-mother,” Alphonse said. “And she won’t be. Father’s not going to marry her. I asked.”

“Really?” Roy couldn’t help but smile at the child’s straightforwardness. “And what did your father say to that?”

“He said I was talking nonsense,” Alphonse reported. “And that he intended to do nothing of the sort.” He frowned. “I hate her,” he admitted candidly. “I wish she would go away.”

“And you think,” Hughes suggested carefully, “that if she were found guilty of murder --”

“No, you’re wrong! It wasn’t her,” Alphonse said. “It was Envy.”

“Envy?” Roy hadn’t expected that. If Envy wanted to murder someone, it made more sense surely to focus on those that had stolen his place in his father’s family, his inheritance -- namely the two brothers. Why would he want to murder Mrs. Elric? Unless -- perhaps he thought that if she were out of the way, his mother might -- Roy’s thoughts were broken into by Alphonse’s quiet explanation.

“She was afraid of him. I don’t know why -- she wouldn’t tell me. But I was the last person to see her on the night that she died. I haven’t even told Edward this.” Alphonse looked gravely at them to make sure they understood the importance of this. “I was sleeping, I think and she woke me up. She had her nightdress on and a robe around her and she asked me where Ed was. Said she’d had a funny dream and wanted to check up on him.”

“And he wasn’t there?”

“He told me he couldn’t sleep, and wanted to walk in the gardens for a bit. He was allowed to then,” Alphonse explained. “And she sat on the end of my bed with her candle and we talked for a bit. I asked her about her dream but she wouldn’t tell me about it . . . all she did was make me promise to look after Ed. That worried me a little, because she and Father had argued that morning, and I was worried she might go away. And she said no, she had no intention of leaving. Then she asked how I felt about going to school with my brother.”

“Boarding school? I was under the impression that was impossible. Your brother’s health --”

“This was before he got sick,” Alphonse explained. He glared fiercely. “You know, I bet he’d be all right if they’d just stayed away.”

Roy coughed. Intolerable as Dante was, surely she couldn’t be held accountable for illness. “Go on. What else did she say?”

“Well -- that was it really. She kissed me goodnight, and went to the door. I asked her if she hated Envy. I did. She said --” He frowned, trying to get the memory straight. “She said she didn’t hate anyone. But she was afraid -- she was afraid of what he might do.” Alphonse straightened triumphantly. “So you see! It must have been him.”

Hughes coughed. “I’m afraid that’s not enough for a police trial, Alphonse.”

“But if you know he did it, you’ll be able to find proof, won’t you?”

“Alphonse,” Hughes put both his hands on the boy’s shoulders and looked at him squarely. “As of this moment, everyone who was in the house when your mother died three years ago is a suspect. While your evidence naturally puts events in a different light, as detectives, we must investigate objectively, leaving no stone unturned.” He paused dramatically. “Will you help us?”

Alphonse was captivated. “Of course!”

“Then I want you to tell me anything you can of the events of that day -- and not a word to your brother or anyone else, mind. This investigation is top secret.”

The boy nodded eagerly. “I won’t tell -- cross my heart and hope to die.”

“Excellent,” Hughes clapped his shoulder. “Why don’t you start with this argument that your parents had, then?”

“I don’t see what that has to do with it,” Alphonse said. “Anyway, I didn’t hear much. I wouldn’t know they argued at all except that the study window was open and we were outside.”


“Me and Ed. We were looking for our paraglider -- we were looking at hangliders at the time. We got these little metal soldiers for Christmas, and we’d made a sort of plane out of card-- the problem is, when we dropped it off the roof, it didn’t glide so much as dive. We were looking for the soldier when we heard them -- he must have fallen into the garden --”

“Quite understandable then,” Hughes said smoothly. “No need to explain further.”

Reassured he wasn’t going to be scolded for eavesdropping, Alphonse continued. “Anyway, they weren’t arguing so much as -- well, father was using his big heavy voice, the one you can’t argue with. He said ‘I really think you’re being ludicrous. There is no reason to suggest that he is anything but fond of the boys.’ And mother was very very quiet -- she always was when she was upset -- and well, we didn’t hear what she said exactly. But Father said ‘I’ll thank you to remember that I am master of this house. If you’re not happy with my arrangements, you’re welcome to leave.’ I was really upset then and wanted to go in and stop them but Edward dragged me away before I could. I don’t think she meant it though. I mean, she would never ever leave us.”

“She may have been unhappy,” Roy suggested. “I can’t imagine she liked having Envy here.”

“Oh, she didn’t mind Envy at first,” Alphonse explained. “But Dante was horrid. She kept harping on about how everything was wrong and really, the house could be so better kept.”

“What -- Dante was here while your mother --” Roy was startled. Surely even a scientific mind such as Holmenheim’s could see that bringing your former lover and your wife together under the same roof was not a recipe for comfort.

“She came by often to visit Envy,” Alphonse explained. “She took a house in the neighbourhood. It was close enough that she walked over here most afternoons. She said it was for her health but it was really because she was jealous.” He added, “My mother was much prettier than she was. Everybody thought so.”

Roy smirked. There would be no argument from him on that point.

“And did anything else happen that day?” Hughes pressed. “Anything unusual?”

“Well, no.” Alphonse considered. “Doctor Marcoh arrived later that morning, and my mother spent most of the rest of the day talking to him. Father was grumpy and yelled at Edward for taking a book out of his study. Dante was smug -- I think she was happy that my parents fought. She probably thought that it was about her. As if.” Alphonse snorted. “She has to have Lila tie her into her dresses, she’s so fat. And she has really awful breath. That’s why she uses so much perfume.”

“Indeed,” Roy remarked, managing only through supreme application of will to keep the smile from off his face. “And what was Envy doing while all this talk took place?”

“I don’t much remember,” Alphonse said. “Edward and I were talking about the argument. Edward said that we would probably be sent to a boarding school. I think he would have liked that except that Mother would have been here on her own. Oh, I remember now. Envy heard us talking about it. He wasn’t very pleased. He said it would be a waste of money to send the two of us to an expensive school. I really hate him. I know he broke the plane on purpose, but father always takes his side.”

“Your father seems very distracted by his work.”

“Is he? He’s always been that way.”

“Well, Alphonse, you’ve been very helpful.” Hughes patted his shoulder. “You should probably go now before you’re missed. Now, we’ll be sure and let you know if there’s anything you can do to help us but for now, just keep your eyes open for anything suspicious --”

He had Alphonse wrapped around his finger, Roy thought wryly. The boy would have done anything Hughes asked. Then again, boys of a certain age were crazy about certain things. In his case, it had been cars.

“Do you really think --” Alphonse was suddenly interrupted by the sound of breaking glass down the hall. “Ed!”

He was out the door and down the hall faster than Hughes and Roy could follow. By the time they reached the boy’s bedroom, Alphonse was hovering nervously in the doorway.

“What happened? Brother, are you all right?”

“Just had one of his turns.” It was Envy that answered. “I was passing and I heard the noise. For god’s sake, Alphonse, don’t come closer or you’ll cut yourself on the glass. Go fetch the housemaid or something.”

“It’s all right, Al,” Edward’s voice sounded unsteady. As Roy reached the doorway, he could see that the boy was pale, leaning heavily against Envy. As they watched, he regained his balance, putting as much distance between himself and his half-brother as he could with Envy still holding him. “I’m not hurt. You’d better go.” He was very carefully not looking at anyone.

Alphonse hesitated a moment longer before jogging down the corridor. “I’ll be back soon!”

Envy let go of Edward’s wrists, giving him a push toward one of the two twin beds that made up the room. “It’s all right, gentlemen,” he said. “As you can see, everything is perfectly under control.”

“Quite,” Hughes leaned back in the doorway with the attitude of someone who wasn’t budging. “And what exactly happened?”

Roy wanted to drag him out of the room. It was clear what had happened -- the hinting throughout dinner, Edward’s obvious embarrassment now. Really, the boy must feel awful -- and here was Maes, labouring the point --

“I was passing by and I heard a noise,” Envy explained airily. “Edward had taken ill. I got to him before he could really do anything serious, but the vase is a lost cause.”

The vase was now a sad puddle on the floor and a mess of splintered glass and flowers.

Edward cradled his wrist, sitting on the bed. “I suppose I knocked it over,” he said, slowly. “I don’t quite remember.” He was looking at the vase fragments.

“Brother! Izumi made us chocolate,” Alphonse re-entered the room carrying a tray. “And she’s going to tuck us in and everything --”

“Wait in the corridor, Alphonse,” the woman behind him nodded to Roy and Hughes in a way that was respectful but not overly deferential. She was wearing a worn dressing gown over frilly undergarments of some kind and appeared to be in her thirties. Another no-nonsense practical type -- really, Roy thought, were there any marriageable women in Lincolnshire? “I need to sweep up first.” She ushered the men out of the room firmly. “If you’ll excuse me gentlemen, you’ll only be in my way as I clean up.”

Roy and Hughes accompanied Envy down the corridor.

“Mrs. Curtis,” the young man explained carelessly. “She’s by way of our cook although she does most of the house keeping too. Rather a rum sort. She and her husband are Romanian, I believe. They came here two years ago. Old friends of the Professor’s.”

“Really,” Hughes said. “And as for what happened before?”

Envy paused at the head of the stairs. “Is it necessary to dwell on such painful things? Very well, if I must be blunt. Edward has . . . episodes in which he is not entirely himself. We’ve had doctors here, of course, specialists of all kinds and none of them have been able to offer a treatment -- you can imagine what a blow this was to Holmenheim.” There was a faintly satisfied note in his voice as he continued. “Up until then Edward was the perfect son -- took after Father in every thing.”

“When we reached the room,” Hughes continued, “I may be mistaken, but it looked to me very much like you were subduing the boy.”

Envy’s smile was wide. “During Edward’s spells, he is quite unware of his surroundings. It is necessary to restrain him, to prevent him from causing harm to himself. Regrettable, but necessary.”

Roy frowned but kept silent. Maes knew what he was doing, but . . . the composed young man in front of them sent chills down his spine.

“I wonder, how necessary is it?” Hughes asked, eyes narrowed. “There seems to be little love lost between you and your siblings --”

“Oh, we quarrel,” Envy said with another charming smile. “All brothers do.” He paused meaningfully before continuing lightly. “I can’t deny, Alphonse is fun to tease. He never fails to take the bait. But Edward -- Edward is entirely different. I know you gentleman will have difficulty believing it, but I would never let anyone harm Edward.” He nodded to them, turning to take the passage to the West Wing. “Goodnight, gentlemen.”

“The more I see of him, the less I like him,” Roy said in a low voice to Hughes once Envy was out of hearing distance. “Wouldn’t hurt the boy, indeed. Lying bully --”

“I’m not so sure,” Hughes said thoughtfully.

“What, you don’t think he’s telling the truth?” Roy protested. “You saw the bruise Edward has --”

“I saw,” Hughes agreed. “But all the same . . . I’m rather given to believe that he meant what he said. There’s a certain type that are like that, you know? All smug and giving you answers that are true enough, but mean quite a different thing. Smug because they’re so pleased by their own cleverness . . . I think, Roy, that we shall have to keep an eye on him.”

Roy nodded. No argument there.


The night passed without interest, but that was not to say the morning did. When Roy was ushered into the morning room by the housemaid, Lila, it was to find Hughes, leafing through The Times, and sipping a cup of tea.

“You’ve missed the rush completely,” his friend informed him. “Everyone else in this household has been up for hours.”

Roy snorted and helped himself to the tea. “In polite society, no one rises before ten. Such early activity is unnatural.”

“The early bird catches the worm,” Hughes smirked. “As it is, I’ve made plans.” He counted them off on his fingers. “Lady Dante has agreed to show me the surrounding countryside, and I’ll accompany her on her morning constitutional -- a good opportunity to find out what she really thinks of the darling boys and their dearly departed mother. Then, after lunch, the boys are going to show me the wreck that they’re working on, and I’m hoping to get Edward to warm to me a bit. Late afternoon, Holmenheim has kindly consented to give me a tour of his laboratory, and if all goes well --”

“Sounds like hell,” Roy said sourly. He was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a morning person. “Look, Maes, we have a problem.” He looked around to check that the housemaid wasn’t present then leaned across the table. “My airgun was taken out of my room.”

His friend was astonished. “What -- you mean --”

“Someone’s taken it.”

“And the revolver?”

Roy opened his jacket just slightly so that the holster was visible. “I’m not letting it out of my sight.”

Hughes nodded. “Very wise. This doesn’t bode well, old chap. How did it happen anyway? You’re so careful.”

“First thing I did when I unpacked was to put it safely out of sight in the closet. I don’t see how it could have happened. I didn’t notice anything was amiss until I went to oil it this morning --”

“Alphonse!” Hughes said. “He was in your closet last night -- it would be pretty hard to miss. I’ll have a word with him about it. If he didn’t see it, then it’s a pretty sure bet that it wasn’t there which means the only people who could have taken it were those that weren’t at dinner --”

“The staff,” Roy said slowly. “And what if Alphonse did see it?”

“Do I have to do all your thinking for you? If Alphonse did see it then whoever took it must have entered your room while you slept.”

Roy shivered. That thought did not rest easily with him. “And what if Alphonse took it?”

“I really doubt a child like that could smuggle your air gun out of the room under both our noses, old boy.” Hughes shrugged. “Now, until we know more let’s keep this matter to ourselves.”

Roy nodded grimly. “Anything of yours missing?”

“No. Well -- you know, I might go and check.”

The kitchen door swung open to admit the woman they’d encountered in the corridor the previous night. The bathrobe and frills had been replaced by a serviceable full length apron and a plain brown dress, and she wore a white cap attached to her thick ponytail. For all that, she did not look anything like a maid. Roy found himself wondering at the complete lack of servitude in her manner as she thunked a heavy tray down onto the table and announced “Breakfast.”

Some people were never intended to have a career as a domestic servant.

“Well, old boy I’ll see you later.” Hughes thumped him on the back, leaning in to whisper “Work your magic, Romeo.” He waggled his eyebrows encouragingly.

Roy wished there wasn’t a lady present; he could have quite happily shot Hughes at that point. “Rot in hell.”

“Pip pip.” Hughes waved goodbye cheerfully, sailing out the door. Roy sent a dark look after him, before turning to study his assignment. He got a rather unpleasant shock.

Mrs. Curtis was studying him just as intently and with all the hostility of a militant nation. “You’re a late riser, Colonel Roy Mustang.”

“So I’ve been told,” Roy said, with what he hoped was a charmingly boyish shrug. “It’s only one of my many bad habits.”

“You’re a bachelor?” From her tone, it was clear that fact only accounted for everything. “You need a good woman to put you into shape.”

“You’re offering?” Roy asked, somewhat dazed by the turn of the conversation.

She snorted. “Hardly. I’m a happily married woman.”

Happily married? Wait -- to the giant? Roy’s brain launched an immediate protest. That couldn’t be right! The giant was well -- a giant -- and this woman was only slightly shorter than Roy himself. How on earth did they --

On second thought, there were some mysteries never meant to be solved.

“Your breakfast is getting cold.”

“My apologies.” Roy hastily reached for the breakfast tray, somehow feeling like he was five years old. “This is a far cry from the kipper and toast I’m used to,” he joked, starting on the scrambled eggs. His plate was piled high with ham, sausage, egg, fried tomatoes -- it went on.

“The professor is a firm believer in a stout German breakfast,” the cook explained. “Good thing too. I don’t hold truck with the English rot you lot call food. Absolutely nothing to it.”

Roy saw an opportunity. “You’re from the continent then? What part?”

“None of your business.”

Well that was an over reaction. “I hope I did not offend,” Roy said carefully. “It was not my intention to pry --”

“I have grave difficulty believing that,” Mrs. Curtis observed. “All you and your friend have done since you arrived in this house has been to ask questions. What is your purpose?”

“I hardly think that’s a polite question,” Roy was alarmed. “You’re awfully impertinent for a Cook.”

“And you’re awfully cagey for a guest with nothing to hide,” Mrs. Curtis folded her arms. “If you don’t want me to let Holmenheim know about the gun you’re carrying in your jacket now, you had better answer my question.”

Roy loathed strong-willed women.

“If you must know,” he admitted reluctantly. “Hughes has some foolish notion that he can solve a murder that may or may not have happened three years ago and he’s dragged me into this mess so that he can have someone to amaze and provide applause.”

“A murder?” Clearly that wasn’t what this stern woman was expecting. “You mean you’re not -- well,” she said briskly, standing. “I imagine that this would be the late Mrs. Elric’s death you’re investigating then?”

Roy nodded. “You guess rightly. Tell me, is it that likely to have been murder?”

“Hers is the only violent death that took place in this community, and it took place three years ago. It wasn’t hard to guess that was what you meant.”

“Touche,” Roy admitted.

“I had considered the possibility of foul play,” the housekeeper admitted practically. “But only in passing -- she died a year before my husband and I took our posts here, so there was never any chance to confirm or deny the fact. All the same -- I’d be careful in your investigation. There are many secrets in this house.”

“You’re the second person to have said that,” Roy said. “What exactly do you mean?”

“Exactly what I said. There are so many secrets in this house it’s not a question of finding out who’s guilty -- it’s working out which person had the motive strong enough to overcome their morals.” Mrs. Curtis leaned back, counting off on her fingers in a very business like manner. “Tucker’s been on the brink of financial ruin for years -- he’s struggling to pay off his debtors even with the generous salary the Professor gives him. Shezcka’s a thoroughly English girl, but her brother is a Polish patriot who’s been missing since taking part in a protest in Russia two years ago. Either of them could be easily influenced.”

“I see. And if Mrs Elric suspected they had interfered with her husband’s research whether through blackmail or bribery . . .”

“Exactly.” Mrs Curtis’s dark eyes glittered. “Then there is the Professor’s circumstances.”

“Dante and Envy?”

“Ah, so you noticed that. No. The Professor’s sordid affairs are out of my line of work. I mean his research. It’s not common knowledge but Holmenheim had to leave Germany under very urgent circumstances. He was extradited from France, and only allowed into England on the condition that he make his research open to the English government -- and the English government alone.”

“You certainly know a lot about the affairs of this household.”

“I’m a housekeeper, it’s my business to know them.”

“True, though I hardly think that this level of detail is necessary. But then again -- you are hardly what I’d call an ordinary house-keeper.” Roy leaned over the table to face Izumi squarely. “I notice that though vocal on the secrets of the other members of this household you have yet to tell me anything about yourself and your equally extraodinary husband.”

She smiled. “That, Colonel Roy Mustang, is for me to know -- and for you and your friend to try and find out.”

Not an entirely unexpected answer, but her smile was as strong as he words and Roy found himself somewhat intrigued. “At least tell us where you were at the time of the murder?”

“My secrets have no bearing on that matter. You forget, Trisha died before my husband and I even came to this place. When the murder took place I rather imagine that the two of us were vacationing in the south of France.” She gave him an ironic bow. “Now, if you’re quite done with your interrogation I’d like to start the washing up.”

Roy let her go. Conversation with Mrs Curtis was rather like going one on one in a boxing ring. He needed some time to recover.

“Ah, the famous Mustang charm,” Hughes purred, sliding open the adjoining door to the drawing room. “You never fail to produce the goods, my friend.”

Roy was pleased that he managed to keep himself from displaying shock at Hughes’s sudden appearance. “I thought that went rather poorly, myself.”

“On the contrary, we now know some very important facts, foremost of which is the housekeeper herself. She gave away far more about herself than she intended to.” Hughes sounded very self-satisfied indeed as he leaned against the table beside Roy.

“Like the fact that she is even scarier than her monstrous husband?”

“That she is a woman of no ordinary intellect,” his friend said. “She’s wasted in the position of a housekeeper. Whatever her business in this house is, you can bet that she isn’t in it for the job.”

“And what news did your little expedition bring?” Roy turned back to his breakfast and set to work finishing it. He had the feeling he could do with the strength to get through what promised to be a torturous day.

Hughes’s tone was unexpectedly serious. “My pistol’s gone, and so have my knives. All I’ve got left is my shaving razor.”

Roy whistled. “So that means--”

“Someone deliberately went through our rooms last night.”

“We should --”

Hughes put a hand up. “Not a word to anyone, old boy. Trust me on this. I suspect --”

Lady Dante opened the door, clad in her walking dress. “Ah, Brigadier. There you are. Are you ready for our expedition?”

“As ready as I will ever be,” Hughes thumped Roy’s arm leaning in to whisper ‘Not a word!’ before going to offer his arm to Lady Dante.

“Nothing like a nice brisk tramp to start the day,” Dante approved. “You won’t join us, Mustang?”

“I must decline,” Roy said. “I’ll see you later.”

“Your loss.” Lady Dante dismissed him, leading Hughes towards the garden. “Did you see the article in yesterday’s Times about the state of public education? Most distressing I thought --”

As the Lady’s tones finally faded into the distrance, Roy breathed out a fervent sigh of relief. At last he could relax. He sipped the tea in front of him, grimacing as he realised that it had become cold. With all the interruptions his breakfast had undergone that was no surprise.

The door opened again, and the maid, Lila, entered. Her uniform was crisp and unlike Mrs Curtis she looked very becoming in it. A quiet girl, with large eyes, a rather delicate face somewhat like a gothic heroine of popular fiction, and now that she wasn’t being overshadowed by her alarming Mistress, Roy realised she was actually pretty.

“Good morning,” Roy greeted her. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”

She smiled. “I couldn’t help but notice that you’ve spent rather a long time on your breakfast.” She leaned over the table, giving Roy an interesting view of a rather ample bosom. “I’d be perfectly happy to heat things up for you . . . if you want.”


The linen closet was certainly not the first place Roy would have chosen for a rendez-vous, but time in the army had accustomed him to making do with what was at hand. If the closeness of the closet restricted more, ahem, interesting activities, that just meant more time was spent on simpler matters. Roy was a firm believer that you should at least know the woman’s name before you kissed her; Miss Lila White was from London, and was a most proficient kisser.

“That’s the 11 o’clock bell,” Lila said as a clock sounded further down the hall way. “I’ve got to get to the kitchen.”

“A pity,” Roy reluctantly let her go. “I was enjoying this interlude immensely.”

“As was I,” Lila gave him a sharp smile. Her mouth didn’t quite fit the fineness of the rest of her face. It was just a touch too wide, too pointed. “It makes a real difference to have a red-blooded man in the house, I must say.”

“You flatter me,” Roy helped her straighten her collar. “I’m an old man compared to your tender years. Mister Envy on the other hand is handsome and of your years --”

Lila’s laugh was hearteningly natural. “Mr. Envy? I rather think not.”

“Not your type?”

“Oh, he’s certainly good-looking.”

“Only good-looking?” Roy held the door open for her and she ducked under his arm with a smile. “I’ve seen the effect that Renaissance angel type has on women.” And Envy would not be out of place amidst a Botticelli or Last Supper scene -- Roy had to admit that no small part of his dislike for the young man stemmed from the fact that he was very attractive.

“Well, very good looking then. But all the same -- he thinks too much of himself, in my opinion.” Lila’s dislike was clear. “And he’s cheap. Very quick with a nice word or two when he wants something, but in a pinch? He’d just as soon as laugh in your face and slam the door.” Her lip curled. “He and his mother both -- they’re not real gentry. They have the money, but they have no class -- and I’m not even sure they have the money any more.”

Interesting. This torrent of venom had been building a while. Roy thought he could detect a familiar trace amongst the bitterness. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned--

“You’d certainly be in a position to know,” he said smoothly. “An intelligent young woman like yourself would pick up a lot.”

Lila was evidently receptive to flattery. Or perhaps she just wanted the chance to vent about her employers. “You wouldn’t believe half of what I could tell you about Dante and her brat. All her modern speeches and revolutionary actions? Her attempt to justify her own selfish actions. She can’t have Holmenheim because he’s married? She rejects Christian principles and demounces the church as reactionary. Please.” Lila snorted. “The real reason she left London society was that people were starting to notice that her brave new theories coincided remarkably with her own selfish wishes.”

“I have to admit a certain lack of surprise.”

“I thought you were a man of some intellect.”

Roy was not entirely certain he’d been complimented. “You were Dante’s maid before you came here, weren’t you?”

“Convenient, that, don’t you think? She fires all the staff and then convinces Holmenheim to hire me because god forbid she waits on herself. I do the same job as before only this time the Professor foots the bill.”

“How did she manage that?”

“Well, you can’t say that she’s not persistent. I think the Professor decided that paying my wages would be less painful than putting up with her complaints. In fact, my salary is slightly higher now -- and it’s paid regularly, which is more than I could say for the High and Mighty Lady.”

“Indeed.” Roy glanced at the clock in the hall. “I should let you go -- I wouldn’t want to cause trouble for you with Mrs. Curtis.”

“She’s a regular tyrant isn’t she? Still, she and her husband were the only ones to withstand Lady Dante. Oh, her ladyship was not pleased about that.” Lila’s grin was wide with venom. “I’d put up with any amount of bossiness from Mrs. Curtis just for the look Dante gets on her face whenever she’s around. She hates being defied.”

“I can imagine that. How did the redoubtable Curtis’s survive the exodus?”

Lila shrugged. “I’m not sure exactly. Dante pulled out all the stops, even accused Mrs. Curtis of stealing. Holmenheim just dismissed it and said that he knew Izumi was above such things. That went down real well.”

Roy could empathise with her satisfaction. “Still, strange that he would take the word of a domestic servant -- even one as fearsome as Mrs. Curtis -- over a friend he’s known many years.”

“I think he knew the Curtis’s before they came to England. It certainly seems like they have some sort of connection.”

“Surely not --”

“Oh, no fear of that!” Lila laughed. “Holmenheim is . . . well, if it wasn’t for his superfluity of sons, you’d think the man was entirely sexless. It amazes me that he managed to get a wife at all -- then again considering his taste in women . . . and Mrs. Curtis is only too happily married. I’m really glad I got permission to move to a room in the attic, it was getting hard to keep any food down.”

“They’re still at the nauseatingly cute newly wed-stage?” Roy knew that feeling only too well. “Hughes has been in that for five years now.”

“The Curtis’s have been married twice that. It’s disgusting.” Lila shuddered. “Happily married people should keep it to themselves. That’s not something the rest of the world wants to see.”

Roy was frozen by the thought of another five years of Hughes being cute. God no--

“Ah, I really have go,” Lila had spotted the hall clock, anxiously using the glass panel laid over the clock face to check her reflection. She patted her white cap back into place and turned to Roy. “Do I look mussed?”

Roy took her shoulders and pulled her into him before she could protest. He kissed her, lingering pleasantly over her lips before pulling back with a smug grin. “Now you do.”

“You army types are all the same,” Lila elbowed him without any real malice. “I might see you later.”

Roy watched her walk down the hall. She definitely knew how to fill a uniform -- and she knew it too. The way she walked -- she knew he was watching and was putting it on for his benefit. Ah, well -- she was no Josephine, and thank god for that! Too catty for him to even want to consider something long term, but amenable enough in the short term -- Roy turned around to return to his room and got the shock of his life.

A child of eight or so beamed up at him with impossibly large and innocent eyes from the middle of the corridor. She wore a large faded pinafore, with ribbons of matching colour tying off two long braids. How long she had been standing there Roy didn’t know.

Battle honed reflexes kicked in. “Ah, hello, Miss. I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.” Roy smiled in what he hoped was a charming way and knelt to her level. “What’s your name?”

She dimpled at him cutely. “You were kissing Lila. I saw.”

Roy’s charming smile froze in place.

The little girl took his hand. “Come on. I want to see Alexander and I can’t reach the gate by myself.”

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