A/N: Heya ppl, yeah i know, i know. I havent exactly been the industrious soul lately. This is my first update in how many months? well, law's kinda tough, and i'm kinda lazy so... u get the picture. Oh man, i've really missed writing. Now that i'm back on track, look forward to more additions to me in the future! And for those who have made the effort to come back and read the latest chapter after i've abandoned it for 6mths or more, thank you so SO much! Muacks to all!
Chapter 4:The Argument
It had started out rather fine, by the butler's estimation. Their dinner, that was. The best wine the cellars could come up with after twenty long years of hard and bitter war was chilling in the ice bucket, waiting for one of the many footmen to uncork and serve. He himself had personally directed the footmen to arrange everything to perfection.
Fresh flowers were brought in from the garden, their scent permeating the air, a dreamy, soothing aroma. This was a new species of hibiscus the head gardener had cultivated for just this occasion. It had taken him 2 months to come up with just the right combination to produce a species of pure white hibiscus with just the right amount of purple around the edges.
Checking in on the chef to ensure that everything was moving as planned, Jim the butler heaved a sigh. He was too old to oversea something as pressurizing as this. Even though the number of guests wasn't the issue here, the level of expectation was the same as hosting a ball. The Lady herself had entrusted him with the preparation of the first formal dinner she and her husband were having after the whole war business was over. Nothing must go wrong. She had conceded, somewhat stiffly, that her relationship with her husband had grown "distant" during the last few years of war and wanted this dinner to "allow them to get reacquainted".
Though, the word "distant" was of course, the understatement of the century, the butler thought. Everyone in the Lady's mansion knew that they hardly ever talked to each other anymore. Why, the Lady had to send a message to her husband inviting him down for dinner. Sending your husband a message? The old man thought, and shook his head. Youngsters nowadays had no sense of politesse.
But that aside, it was good that at least one of them was making an effort. They still slept in the same bed but everyone knew nothing went on between them at night. It was a big silent house, after all, and noises do tend to carry during the long hours of the dark.
The butler's head snapped up when one of the footmen who was carrying a very expensive vase stumbled over the carpet and nearly dropped it. The butler went red and his eyes bulged dangerously. The footman tottered for a moment before regaining his balance with a sigh. Jim advanced upon the poor soul, eyes flashing.
"You fool! That vase and its contents cost more than what you'd earn in a hundred years!" he nearly screamed out. Heaven forbid that anything should happen to spoil this event. Jim was a superstitious person and put great faith in bad omens. Should anything happen to mar this event, the Lady had already made it clear that his position in her household was on the line.
Fifteen minutes later, Jim stood on the sidelines as the Lady and the doctor made an appearance together. That was an auspicious sign, the butler thought, wiping his brow and hoping that his staff wouldn't let him down at a critical moment like this.
Another fifteen minutes passed and Jim let out his breath. Everything was going to be fine. Specially prepared appetizers were served, a new combination by the chef. The main course of the night was a procession of one masterpiece after another, the best work the chef had ever done since the war ended and relative peace claimed the land.
Of course, things were still in an uproar, with the usual famine and recession that befell any country after a war just took place. There were still lots of fighting and the occasional riot in the streets, people going hungry and people dying from one disease or another. Just be grateful that you have a job and that your family is well fed, Jim thought. The war had ended and no more sons were being forced from home to die on foreign soil for a cause that had nothing to do with them. He still gave thanks everyday that his youngest son hadn't been taken from him as his older two sons had. Both of them dead now, one being blown up to bits by a bomb and the other taking a headshot in some fight somewhere. Their bodies had been found and buried like so many other common soldiers were buried: in a large pit with the bodies of a hundred others. No nice little coffin and gravestone to mark his grave, just a rough wooden post with no names on it. A neighbor's son had passed the information on to them or else they never would have known.
It was probably not the best time to go there, the butler mused. The war was over for good this time. Everything would sort itself out in time, military rule would be abolished eventually and things would slowly go back to the way things were 20 years ago if one were to let it. It had to.
The Lady Faye-dra's laughter, full of genuine mirth echoed thru the room and reminded the butler of good things and sunshine. She was no longer the "Lady", but a woman who had emotions again. As bloodthirsty as they said she was, she certainly didn't look that. This evening, she looked like a woman in love.
The butler wondered cynically how long it would last, or if the lady had a different mask for each occasion. One never knew how the mind that killed a total of three thousand soldiers and a general worked.
"Ah, darling, a toast then to the good old days when we were young," the Lady was saying, her wine glass lifted in a salute.
The glasses clinked and they each took a sip.
The Lady leaned back, looked into her wine glass and smiled. "I can almost imagine what Mistress Keota would say should she see us now." Lady Faye-dra cleared her throat and put on a high pitched snobbish voice. "I always knew that Faye-dra would never be a proper lady. Why, she had to be in a horribly masculine profession before she earned the same title she would have had had she acted the least bit like a proper lady. But no, she had to climb trees and ride horses and shoot guns with that awful lad. He's a doctor now, you say? How simply demeaning. Those two were hooligans I tell you. They always were up to no good."
Dr. Lance's shoulders shook with mirth. "Oh yes, I remember her. I had the most incredible luck for her to be assigned as my arithmetic tutor."
"Well, at least you didn't have to be taught ladylike etiquette. Me? Lady-like? God, I couldn't even master the intricacy of the tea table." She did another round of mimicry in that god-awful high pitched voice that would have had the butler in laughing fits if he hadn't been thinking of his family being thrown out into the streets at that moment. "You pour the tea just so!" The Lady Faye-dra, General of the Great Army of CastHaven, sole victor of the Kalm War which had swept through four countries and conquered three, held an invisible teapot in her hand and began pouring. "Make sure you don't spill any or you won't get any supper," the General continued in the same sing song voice. "God, I hated that bitch."
Dr. Lance gave her an amused look. "She thought arithmetic a too sophisticated subject for a dirty little backwater boy. But of course, that was why she left the city in the first place: to educate the poor souls and improve their lives and do her part for the community." He tsked. "Thought herself some angel of mercy that one."
"I wonder whatever happened to her, do you know?" the Lady asked.
Dr. Lance shrugged his shoulders.
Were those padded? The butler thought, self consciously straightening his sagging shoulders. Were his own pair of shoulders ever as fine even when he was wearing royal livery, back in the time when he had been a mere footman who had served in the palace for 10 years before the palace ran out of funds paying for the blasted war and had to cut the number of staff working with them.
A moment of uncomfortable silence reigned over the dining room for a moment before the butler hastily motioned for the band of musicians to start playing, albeit softly.
And if the butler were to be asked to pinpoint a moment in their dinner that had sparked off their argument, the butler would have, without hesitation, pointed this moment as it. Talk of war never brought good memories unless one was a sadist and liked to dwell on thoughts of people dying.
The silence remained unbroken for a long time, each absorbed with his/her own thoughts. "Have you given any thought to that suggestion I proposed to you the other day about retaining all the soldiers and having them help with the repair works? That way you won't have a bunch of hungry payless men running around."
Lady Faye-dra said nothing for a moment. "It'll drain the coffers and whatever limited resources we have to pay that much men for work that they would do on their own. Its their houses that we'd be building. They'd do it on their own with no help from us if we leave them alone."
"And what use would the money be used for then? For this?" Dr. Lance waved his hands around at the opulence surrounding them. "Do you realize how many lives I would have saved in my hospital for the cost of this dinner alone? And you're planning that extravagant celebration for your promotion to general-ship or whatever you want to call it. The money could be better spent improving conditions in the lower quarters and building homes for the thousands who are now out there starving!" The doctor's vehemence brought the musicians to a standstill.
The Lady's mask was back on, the butler noted with a feeling of dread. The 'general' mask, the expressionless one that made her look 10 years older than she actually was. She dabbed her lips with her napkin with calm motions that had no urgency in them. She took the time to fold her napkin nicely before placing it next to her dessert plate, still untouched, a sweet confection of sago and honeydew on shaved ice. "Circumstances are different now. Appearances must be kept. What would all the dignitaries say if we do not hold a celebration in my honor? I deserve this. It is my right."
It was obvious that the doctor was reigning in his irritation. "Well your right had better be worth a few hundred lives then, because if you haven't noticed, people are out there dying as we speak. Dying of things we can do something about; famine and malnutrition mostly, some with the simple fevers that can kill if we don't get to them quickly enough, others of more severe problems but we can help them for once. This is something that we can prevent, something that we are actually capable of doing. We could do so much, so much; the dream that we had when we begun is within reach. We can save those people, Faye-dra!" The doctor was on his feet now. "Isn't that what you wanted when you began? Why are you hesitating now?"
She looked directly into his eyes and said, "What them makes them worthy of being saved? Have they done as much as I have?" In a cold voice that made the hairs on Jim's neck stand on end, she continued. "If they wanted things to change, they should have done something. Like I did. I made a change. I've sacrificed so much to reach where I am today and I am not going to let a few worthless people stand in my way. I am going to have that celebration. That is my final word on the matter." The silent 'and my word is law' needn't be verbalized. It was clear to everyone in the room.
Dr. Lance looked at her in incredulous disbelief for a moment. "I thought when you sent me the message; you really meant that we were going to pretend all those—" He cut short when he looked around and saw how many people were within earshot. "Things hadn't come between us. But I guess those things have grown to such a proportion that to ignore them would be impossible." He looked at her for a moment. "You have changed so much that—that I don't even recognize you anymore! Do you hear yourself? You would let countless people suffer so that you and a couple of other pigs can celebrate?" He threw her a disgusted look and stalked out. "I'm leaving."
A ripple of something ugly crossed the Lady's face as she stared at his retreating back. "You will not walk out on me like that!" It came out nearly a scream. It was the first time the butler had seen the exalted general lose control.
The doctor turned back and said, "Oh, and I suppose you're going to stop me. Well, let me tell you this. You have lost the right to tell me to do anything after what you just showed me you were capable off. You've lost it. I thought the war did funny things to you, and so far, I've put up with it, but I've had it. You're not human any longer. You've become so dark and twisted, you're starting to act like that general you've just overthrown. And I'm leaving no matter what you say. I'm leaving this house, I'm leaving you. The Faye-dra that I knew died a long time ago and it took me this long to realize that she no longer exists. There's nothing left for me here." And he turned on his heels and walked out from the dining room, went upstairs and started packing his bags.
The Lady Faye-dra didn't move, didn't say a word, her face ashen. "Leave me," she commanded, with a curt shake of her head and everyone filed out of the room. The butler, who was the last to leave, and who was about to close the doors behind him when he did, heard her soft whisper of despair, echoing through the huge dining room: "What have I done?"