On Thursday it was Mrs. Lana Milkshade’s turn to host the monthly dinner party. It wasn’t really, but poor Mrs. – excuse us, Ms. – Glory Nalus’ house was the latest of recent conflagrations, and she simply did not have the necessary living room to host the event. Mrs. Milkshade’s house also had a lovely view of the suburban areas where the elemental spirits were currently vying for control. The electricity and magma were mixing wonderfully with the pale yellow light of the air, especially in the mid-afternoon sun. So Mrs. Milkshade’s seemed a lovely alternative.
Mrs. Milkshade believed her house was simply superior to the rest of the mothers in town. It wasn’t because it was grandiose, not that at all. The grandiose houses were the first to go in this latest flare-up. Too many opportunities to detonate floors to rubble. It was instead a modest two-story affair of wood and stone, crafted by hand with the runes etched lovingly over the lattice to prevent evil spirits. Not extraordinary, but serviceable.
Rather, Mrs. Milkshade’s house was superior because of her garden. The elm trees laced through oak branches wonderfully, forming a canopy over the stone walkway and giving the lilies some much needed shade. In the backyard stood one apple tree, unobtrusive in its pastoral grace. Mrs. Milkshade loved picking the apples and enjoying the shade of the trees that gave her such comfort. Some days she never left her walkway, drinking a glass of apple cider, freshly pressed, and enjoying the sights.
Some may ask where Mr. Milkshade was during all this. Mr. Milkshade had been a terrible bore for thirteen years before doing the world the good of removing himself from it, and Mrs. Milkshade was all the more content. She was happier as an old – that is to say, an older, being just turned forty-five – maid than she ever had been married.
The Mrs. remained. Mrs. was a title of respect and command, and she had earned it in Candid. She attended the monthly town meetings without fail, and was kind enough to only win first place at the annual flower competition once every three years. The people of Candid knew that Mrs. Milkshade was a Mrs. through and through.
Mrs. Milkshade was sitting on that same stone walkway, enjoying a cordial as Ms. Glory started to walk up the drive. Her clothes smelled of ash and sulfur, but otherwise she was not the worse for wear. She did not want to keep the Mrs., in fact had demanded that Candid called her by her maiden name. The scandal had remained in the town for a long while, however. Imagine, a good dwarf man like Gregus Battlesmasher, running around with some succubus with her whatever hanging out for the world to see. Mrs. Milkshade could only feel a pang of sorrow for poor Glory, and when this latest of tragedies afflicted her, had done the courtesy of ignoring it completely.
“Mrs. Milkshade,” Glory said, standing on her tiptoes to peck the cheeks of the hostess. One showed proper respect to Mrs. Milkshade at all times. “I cannot tell you how grateful I am.”
“Tut, tut, Glory,” Mrs. Milkshade waved her hand towards a seat next to her. “It was my pleasure. How is Miss Wendt’s abode?”
“Unscathed,” Glory remarked. She looked down at the pitcher next to Mrs. Milkshade. “Would that be liquor?”
Mrs. Milkshade bit back a polite retort. Glory was settling back into single life, and was only two hundred. She wished to straddle flightiness and solidarity, a reed blowing in the wind whilst staying put. Allowances must be made.
“It is a lovely cherry cordial. Mrs. Eiri was kind enough to send some ahead of her for the dinner party.”
“Which Mrs. Eiri?” Glory asked. She took the offered seat, being careful to move it just a few inches back.
That was a conundrum. The two Daughters of the Pale Morning never had the decency to take their husbands’ names. Being a strong, independent woman was all well and good, but there was some inherent power in the sharing of a name in matrimony. Always take such power.
“Mereda,” Mrs. Milkshade said. “And she is most likely fetching Mrs. Srie Eiri.”
Glory nodded, sipping her cordial. She was thinking of the battle down the block. Currently the three O’Laney brothers were storming the Denton’s house for strategic positioning. And the rumor was that Harold Denton had been stockpiling enough wine to end this war in a drunken stupor once and for all, if it didn’t burn first.
Glory hoped the rumors were true. She was sleeping with Harold’s son and two of the O’Laney brothers, and was hoping at least two of the warriors would survive. They were always so sweet to her, bringing gifts to her door and never once asking after her deadbeat husband, may he burn in the fires of perdition where he was most likely heading.
“Is that the Eiri sisters?” Mrs. Milkshade asked. They had not yet turned around the corner, but Glory had learned that Mrs. Milkshade never was wrong in what she heard. Sure enough, there they were, the Eiri sisters, different shades of pale. Mereda was always a slight dream of a girl, the last trace of night in her hair a black shock against a white mass of curls falling around her shoulders. Srie was brighter, pinks and orange eyes always peeking out of her rich tangle of blonde hair. They were not hand in hand, but the smiles on their faces would always describe them as sisters.
They looked seventeen, and had been for the last thirty years that Mrs. Milkshade had known them. She never knew whether the daughters of the Pale Morning was a religion, or perhaps more literal. She never asked, that would be too rude.
Srie nestled next to Glory, sitting on the stone walkway. She smiled, looking up. “Did you know that your house is just the most wonderful orange right now? Burnt, with flashes of scarlet. And the blue! The blue just is soft in the center. It is just…”
Mereda kicked her sister in the foot, looking up at Mrs. Milkshade in apology. “Srie, they don’t want to know.”
“Sorry,” Srie said, not entirely understanding what she was apologizing for.
“May I have a cup of cordial?”
“Absolutely,” Mrs. Milkshade said. “Your sister was kind enough to bring it beforehand.”
“Thank you, Mereda,” Srie said. She smiled, sitting down again.
Glory looked at the sisters as they settled in to watch. “Mrs. Milkshade, how are you this day?”
“I am doing quite well, Glory,” Mrs. Milkshade remarked. “I was feeling quite peckish last night, but after a spot of beef, I felt right as the moon.”
Glory nodded. “You have had no problems then with travelling?” Glory never was too polite to not ask about diet, but she did her best to put a polite mask over her words.
“Candid is always so kind when they see me out on my business,” Mrs. Milkshade sipped the cherry cordial again. It truly was a tad too sweet, she preferred a touch of frost in the cherries before they were harvested. Gave the syrup a touch of night in the taste.
A bolt of lightning streaked towards the stone walkway, crashing right in front of the steps. Mrs. Milkshade arched an eyebrow, looking towards the source of the spell. A house across the street was being torn from its roots by a golem of magma. The inhabitants of the house were attempting to combat the beast with opposing elements, a deluge pouring out of the facilities while Francine Darlique let her staff gather energy for another blow.
Mrs. Milkshade cleared her throat.
The house stopped shaking. The golem, Francine Darlique and the inhabitants looked across the street. Mrs. Milkshade tapped her finger against the glass. Glory looked bored. Mereda rolled her eyes as Srie waved.
“Sorry, Mrs. Milkshade!” Francine called out. “We’ll try and keep it down.”
“Not a problem, Francine,” Mrs. Milkshade said. “But if you could make sure that you do not hit my property. I fear for my poor lilies, they are not as strong as they used to be.”
The golem burbled an apology.
“You’re all doing great!” Srie shouted out. “Have a fun war!”
Glory stared at the two Mrs. Eiri. The daughters of Pale Morning were usually ready to burst in the front door, but now they sat, watching with interest for something they most likely did not know. Something was calling for them. Mrs. Milkshade apparently decided it was best to let it take its course.
“Mereda, I have heard that your husband is attempting to negotiate a peace.” Glory took a sip of cordial.
“He was indeed,” Mereda said. “A glorious negotiation between the families. The Darlique mages and the Servants of the Burning Earth,”
“Better known as Norri’s brother’s wife, Jane Yaspin, and everyone she managed to get to worship lava,” Srie explained.
“And the Servants of the Burning Earth,” Mereda continued. “Were going to sit down with the town council, and the committee set up by my husband,”
“Who is absolutely lovely, by the way.” Glory wondered why Srie kept speaking. “Fredrick has been losing weight, and the fact that he was boiled this morning really has nothing to do with that.”
Mrs. Milkshade frowned, and stared at Mereda. The Mrs. Eiri stared ahead, watching the golem cool across the street. If she smiled a bit as the lightning burst the obsidian into gravel, Mrs. Milkshade supposed it was permissible and not too impolite.
“Right, I would like to welcome you all into my home to a wonderful dinner party.”
It really was a wonderful spread. Mrs. Milkshade prided herself on sparing no expense, no detail, all without sending out for a single pepper. The glasses were buffed herself, filled two-thirds with chilled water with a tea cup besides. Only one dish was cracked, the result of a particularly strong wind gust that blew through her kitchen before its caster realized their grave mistake. She reserved this for her own character. A spotless tablecloth, the candles remained unlit due to the early time, it was all perfectly adequate.
Mrs. Milkshade watched as the ladies filed in, looking at the spread with renewed interest. She did not give herself the luxury of a sigh of relief, but a small crook of the mouth did suffice. Her friends, her guests, were here without fail, and at the appointed time with five minutes for polite conversation they were at the table.
She nodded to the new widow Eiri. There were arrangements to be made.
“Is there anything we can do, Mereda?” Glory Nalus asked.
“No,” Mereda said. She took a drink of water, shaking her head. “Really, ladies, please do not bother yourselves. Fredrick most likely went the way he desired: screaming in agony for a path to peace.”
“Ah,” Srie said, holding a napkin up. “A legacy. We should all be so lucky.”
“Seems frightfully dangerous,” Ms. Nalus said. “Imagine if all of us went out there trying to be heroes.”
“Glory, don’t speak of such nonsense.” Mrs. Milkshade poured a glass of tea for widow Eiri, then for her sister and finally Glory herself. “It is not for a polite society to be involved in such petty squabbles.”
“Even if it is tearing the region apart.” Mereda agreed.
“But don’t we have a civic responsibility?” Glory pressed.
“To do what?” Mrs. Milkshade asked.
“To help Irene Olive.” Srie said.
Irene Olive? Mrs. Milkshade vaguely remembered her. The slight half-elf newlywed. Lovely herbal beer, if in need of a hint of midnight ragweed. She lived several blocks up, closer to the forest. Why was Srie bringing up Irene Olive, she was not invited to the dinner party.
“She’s hiding behind the apple tree.”
Mrs. Milkshade’s eye twitched before she stood up. Glory and Mereda were up and offering to help prepare the appetizers before she could even move towards the back door. The hostess thanked them and accepted the help. Poor Mereda needed something to do, and needed to not be alone. Mrs. Milkshade then turned towards the back door.
This was her place of residence. While there were visitors by every three days as polite society necessitated, they did not stay. There were no gentlemen callers, no salesman, and certainly no riff raff. She had worked diligently to keep her trees well maintained, and they helped mark her property off with both an open air and sense of ownership. And there was a certain boundary that one did not cross to keep Mrs. Milkshade in good graces. Mrs. Irene Olive had shattered it just now.
Mrs. Milkshade stepped out the backdoor, and surveyed for any damage. But despite an eye that could pick out a dandelion hiding in her fields of sunflowers, she could spot nothing out of place. The paths remained swept, there was not a flower bent, and even the elms on the other side of the property had all their twigs intact, which was quite remarkable given the lack of rain this month. It seemed like no one had been to the back to do anything but meticulous and spectacular gardening.
And yet there was Irene Olive’s toe. Sticking out from behind the apple tree where she tried in vain to hide from Mrs. Milkshade. Barefoot, the poor woman must have run without even a slipper on her feet, which was just too much. And she was so considerate to the garden. Mrs. Milkshade closed her eyes, breathed, and smiled. It was a bit expressive for her, but given the war she was engulfed in, allowances were made.
“Mrs. Olive,” Mrs. Milkshade began. “If you would prefer, Ms. Nalus and Mrs. Eiri are in the midst of preparing another spot for you for our little get-together. I would be delighted if you rested in a chair rather than my apple tree.”
Mrs. Milkshade returned to the house, and sat down. She did her best not to fume, and the lovely cheese and crackers with tea provided by Ms. Nalus and widow Eiri were so much help. She did not see the ears poke out first from behind the tree, tipped with ash and soot. Nor did she see the torn green dress, and the blonde hair that had been hastily bound up to avoid the fires.
Mrs. Olive was never close to Mrs. Milkshade’s level of sophistication. She let out a sigh, and a laugh, and a cry. She ran to the back door, being careful to keep the garden pristine. But she was elf enough that being proper was not a factor to field maintenance. It was simply a fact.
Mrs. Milkshade looked up as Irene Olive walked through the door. The quirk in her mouth returned. Perhaps with this she would fulfill her necessary good deeds for the week.
“Dear, try not to get ash on the set pieces, they are one of a kind.” Mrs. Milkshade murmured. “Srie, would you be so kind as to help Irene find the facilities and some respectable clothes? I believe I have several dresses that have returned to fashion that I simply will not fit into.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Milkshade.” Irene said. “I cannot begin to express,”
“Facilities.” Mrs. Milkshade took a sip of tea. “Now. We will wait, but not for long.”
Irene Olive returned to see Glory involved in a raucous debate between herself, Mereda and Mrs. Milkshade. The dress remained the same – Mrs. Milkshade was perhaps a bit generous in believing she had ever been so slight – but it had been washed a dried with efficiency, as was the dear’s hair.
“Much better, dear.” Mrs. Milkshade said, motioning to an open seat. “You look positively lovely.”
“I was going to say that!” Srie said. She jumped into a seat, looking on.
“What were you debating?”
“Involvement.” Glory said. “Whether or not it would be proper to involve ourselves in this conflict.”
“Which it isn’t.” Mrs. Milkshade said.
“But the possibilities…” Glory began.
“It isn’t.” Mrs. Milkshade said. “This is an internal blood feud that has to do with the Darliques and that insufferable woman up the block. The fact that they have amassed enough power to threaten the rest of the region is irrelevant. I will not be brought into this conflict simply because a Yaspin decided that this particular avatar deserved a war.”
“What about the Darliques?” Glory asked.
“Francine Darlique is a very capable woman, which is why Jane Yaspin despises her.” Mrs. Milkshade said. She stood up, absolutely furious. This was all well and good, and she was in need of a good debate to keep the blood flowing, but her meal was threatening to turn towards burnt!
“I will be back.” She murmured. “Mrs. Olive, I do apologize in advance, I did not take any dietary restrictions of yours into account. I do hope you enjoy a pork tenderloin with a raspberry reduction and saffron.”
“Did I also catch a hint of sweet potato for a dessert?” Irene asked.
Mrs. Milkshade stopped, and this time she did let a smile trace across her face. “Very good, Mrs. Olive. I added sweet potato to the crust of the tart to give it a hint of flavor.”
Mrs. Milkshade watched the pork tenderloin as she lifted it out of the fire pit. It was not always this civilized. Hours slaving away in a kitchen, just to turn your head for one second and have it burn right through your fingers. But a constant flame from a hired spell was well worth every penny. As she did the cooking, Mrs. Milkshade believed she could consider this still homemade.
“What about Fredrick?” Glory asked. “What if it were Mrs. Milkshade’s husband, or yours Srie?”
She continued, but Mrs. Milkshade was losing focus. Mr. Milkshade had done quite well being gone, as had Mr. Nalus. But Mr. Milkshade, that bore, that person who had tried in vain to make her not just respectable and polite but boring, she would not have it. She lived her life to the fullest, not through gallivanting off in sordid countries and even more sordid beds like Glory, but by being the best where she was. Right there in Candid, she was known. People knew not to cross her, without an inkling as to why.
Mrs. Milkshade had heard a nice boring tale. A woman comes up in nothing, in squalor. She is berated, belittled, made absolutely unknown for her entire childhood and much of her adult life. But she struggled and worked and suddenly she was pretty enough to catch the eye of the local princeling. Some foot binding rituals and a summoning circle to bind a fairy to her will, and soon the prince was falling in love with her over the size of her feet. She went on to live happily ever after in a palace that never made her stand up again. Apparently this is bliss.
Mrs. Milkshade picked up the tenderloin, and set it down on the dining room table. She engaged in small talk, her mind in several fascinating places. She was right in the dining room, engaging Irene in talking about the latest gossip on the war. Apparently someone had decided to involve the lower planes and summoned a demon to fight the Darliques, (“I bet you it was that no good Reginald Buxbottom!” Mereda said, finally losing her temper. “His mother never required him to wash before the community theater. Imagine summoning demons to a simple blood feud, what this town is coming to.”) And it was currently navigating Main Street and the tripwires within.
But Mrs. Milkshade was also thinking on that silly tale. She would never use such a practical summoning on something as silly as a prince. She would never be allowed to tend a garden as a princess, let alone take the time to make a raspberry reduction. Instead she would have had that hapless fairy set to work on a wardrobe that was slimming, not appearing to be slimming, and then tackle the geology underneath the garden to remove some rocks before she tore a hand open. Sensible magic.
And still Mrs. Milkshade was checking on that tart. She was trying a new recipe, and didn’t want it to disappoint. Her smile slipped. They would like it. Yes. Yes they would.
A man burst through the front door, sword and summoning stick in his hands. A blood-flecked beard covered a heavily scarred face, and he slumped to one knee. He was dressed in cloth and denim, torn and burnt.
Glory stood up, sticking her finger at the man. “Antonius Rascal Paxton!”
The man winced, and turned around. He put on his best apologetic face.
“How dare you come into Mrs. Lana Milkshade’s house in such a state!” Glory exclaimed.
“Sorry, Glory.” Antonius mumbled.
“Sorry, Ms. Nalus.” Antonius corrected.
Glory walked towards the soldier. “There is ash in your hair, your clothes are a mess, is that fresh blood on your sword?” It was not a question so much as a scream, as she had reached the young man and decided that the current decibel was not enough.
Antonius tried to make putting a sword behind his back as innocuous as possible.
“Don’t do that.” Glory chided. “You will drip on these carpets, and who is going to have to get the blood out of the carpet? Mrs. Milkshade?”
Antonius’ eyes widened, and flickered to Mrs. Milkshade. Mrs. Milkshade drank her tea. This was not something she needed to be personally involved in yet. And a lady did not make threats in her own home. It was proper, and more effective, if another did it for her.
“What do you have to say to her?” Mereda asked.
Antonius scuffed his boot. Or rather, he was about to until he realized he might ground something into the carpet, and fear for his life saved him. “I’m sorry I dragged a blood feud into your home, Mrs. Milkshade.”
“Apology accepted, young man.” Mrs. Milkshade stood up. Antonius took a step back, hand gripping his sword. An eyebrow went up, as if something was both amusing and gauche to the hostess.
“Now, Antonius,” Mrs. Milkshade smiled. “Would you like a piece of tart before you leave?”
“Yes, please.” Antonius murmured.
“Then I believe Srie will be kind enough to pull that delightful confection out of the kitchen, and I would be happy to slice,” She allowed herself just the slightest inflection on the l diphthong to watch the young man’s stomach churn, “you a piece.”
Antonius accepted the tart, and exclaimed that it was the most delectable piece of food that he had ever tasted, outside of his mother’s. Exempting one’s mother is acceptable and even required, though for all her skill in parenting, Mrs. Paxton truly could not bake to save her soul. This was actual fact. She lost it last week, thanks to that despicable Brenna Saxen’s Flaming Jubilee, and was currently searching for someone else’s soul.
While Mrs. Milkshade had to admit that her desserts would only rank seventh in the community bake sales (or higher, depending on the current death rate), she was pleased with the comment, and thanked the young man, who beat a hasty retreat out of the house and down the block towards the sounds of an ambush.
“Such a nice boy,” Srie said. “Mrs. Paxton should be proud.”
“Holds the sword with technique and conviction, and those manners!” Glory picked up some of the dishes with a smile in agreement. “Once he realized the error of his ways, he could not help but be polite.”
“Fear will do that to a young man.” Mereda pointed out.
Mrs. Milkshade waved her hand. “Tush and ravel, Mereda. The boy’s fear has little to do with his manners. Manners are built into our bones. In fear we may ascribe to politeness, but it is only through practice and poise that it is achieved.”
“And that is why there are too few men and too many boys,” Glory called out from the kitchen. “Not enough practice!”
“Do we need to hold a ball?” Mereda asked. “We could bring it up at the supplication hearing next week.”
The supplication hearing, oh dear. Mrs. Milkshade had completely forgotten about the premature planned surrender of the Darliques. This blood feud had been budgeted out months in advance on the social calendar, but already it was over budget. The Darliques were going to have to surrender early, or not even a production of Turner Vaughn Gnasp’s immortal classic Seven Spirits Sang Sweetly could raise enough money to prevent a deficit. As if they could even provide the necessary sacrifices of gold and goblin secretions this late in the year to procure the necessary rights.
“We are already in over our heads with this silly blood feud.” Mereda chided. “A ball would raise no revenue whatsoever.”
“We could make it a ransom ball,” Glory suggested. “Hold foreign dignitaries for funds. That would help us get back some of the funds from the war. And while they are here, they would instruct the young gentlemen in multicultural poise and elegance.”
“And where would we get such dignitaries at this time of year?” Mereda demanded.
That was true. Most dignitaries of note had either already been ransomed this year, or were awaiting negotiations patiently. Several had been kidnapped by villages enough times to have contracted villas for their personal use. At taxpayer expense of course.
Mrs. Milkshade turned towards Mrs. Olive. She had remained almost silent throughout dinner, and even now seemed to want to shrink into the wood paneling. She was an uninvited guest, but a guest she was. Mrs. Milkshade would not have a disappearance in plain sight.
“Mrs. Olive, what do you think of this current town squabble?”
Mrs. Olive looked like she wanted to disappear as Mrs. Milkshade continued. “Or, perhaps you wish that we talked more of stopping the bloodshed rather than the social calendar.”
The other ladies realized that Mrs. Olive had been entirely left out of the conversation. Glory reddened, while Mereda Eiri trailed off her in own thoughts. Srie Eiri leaned forward, suddenly very interested in what the woman had to say.
Mrs. Milkshade surmised that Mrs. Olive was quite typical for a half-elf. Irene Olive was not usually seen in town for a weekly dinner. Mrs. Milkshade doubted that this was an intentional snub. Half-elves were so often ostracized from polite society. Which was rather silly, when considered fully. There was an exotic quality to combining so diverse cultures as human and elf, or whatever else chose to breed with the elves.
“I just want the death to stop.” Irene said.
Mrs. Milkshade nodded, and gathered herself up. “Come along, ladies.” She made sure to pluck a hat off the rack, a nice little lavender shade that did accent her eyes so. Oh, and then the deep red with a wide brim for Mrs. Olive that just gave her a sense of life. Yes, that would make an impression.
“Please put this on, Mrs. Olive,” Mrs. Milkshade moved around the house, checking a mental list of necessary tasks for closing the house for the dinner party.
The guests moved about, tidying up the house with speed. The Eiri sisters made sure the living room was spotless while Glory finished wiping down the kitchen. They had no idea just where they were going, or why. But Mrs. Milkshade was the hostess, and an outing was just the thing to burn off such a lovely dinner.
Mrs. Olive stood in the center of the four ladies, trying to be unobtrusive. Mrs. Milkshade placed her hand on the half-elf. “Irene, if you would be so kind as to make sure the back garden is still in good order, and then meet us on the front walk.”
Mrs. Milkshade led the party out to the front door, and took one last look at the feud raging in the streets. It had been amusing while it lasted, but the war was starting to spill into her living room, and it obviously upset Mrs. Olive so. Even the new widow Eiri was putting on a brave face, and Mrs. Milkshade would not stand for that.
Still, the lava had always been such a relaxing sight while she had sipped an evening tea. And every once in a while a conjured flood did wonders for her garden. No, those were always interspersed with droughts that lasted for days. The weather was being used much too often as a weapon. It was time to end this.
Mrs. Milkshade stepped off her walk and nodded across the street. The battle had finally abated during dinner, and Francine Darlique and her boys were using the golem’s body parts to prop up part of the house. She did have to admire the resourcefulness.
“Mrs. Milkshade!” Francine dropped her staff, bowing. “How was your dinner party?”
“Interrupted by Antonius Paxton.” Mrs. Milkshade looked around. “Have you seen Jane Yaspin recently, or has her head been removed?”
“Jane is still puttering around the north end of town, holding it despite several tornadoes I sent her way.” Francine grinned, and Mrs. Milkshade noticed a few molars were missing. When this was over, Mrs. Milkshade made a note to find a dentist that was travelling. They could make a fortune, and deprive some tooth fairies from nesting in town.
“I wonder if you would join me and my party in stopping this squabble.” Mrs. Milkshade asked.
“But we were going to surrender next week,” Francine began, and stopped when she noticed a tick in Mrs. Milkshade’s mouth. “We didn’t want to surrender early to Jane Yaspin.”
“I have no intention of you surrendering at all, Francine.” Irene finally showed on the walk. Mrs. Milkshade nodded to her, and started walking up the street. “I said we are stopping this. And I have no care of who declares victory.”
That was a minor lie. Mrs. Milkshade was more than prepared to let Jane Yaspin squirm before giving her leave to surrender. This squabble was her fault, and it had upset her guests.
The walk through town was uneventful. The war being raged was fueled by passion and hostile differences that had no immediate answer. But the sight of Mrs. Milkshade caused the warriors to stop either to wave, or run towards a safer side of town.
Irene asked Mrs. Milkshade about this, and the hostess smiled. “The boys and girls know that I do not trifle lightly.” If there was going to be any more explanation it would have to be subliminal.
As they approached Jane Yaspin’s house, Srie stopped, and rolled her eyes. “Oh, tan sunrise!” She spat.
“Language, sister.” Mereda said.
“Jane Yaspin is taking this too literally, Merey,” Srie pointed, and the rest of the ladies did find themselves in agreement. Jane Yaspin had decided to raise a moat of lava around her two-story house. It bubbled and frothed, occasionally spouting up around the lone walkway towards the front door.
The burning rock was vibrant, and accentuated the obsidian walls nicely, casting a harsh glow that gave the impression of someone not to be messed with. Though it might have been more impressive if the Yaspins could raise enough obsidian to make more walls than a simple cottage. Presumably they still wanted visitors, but could not decide whether to be evil overlords of the melted stone, or prominent members of the community.
“You know why she did this,” Glory cast her hand over the lava. “She never could get a single daffodil to take root.”
Mrs. Milkshade whole-heartedly agreed, but let the others and Francine Darlique actually give voice to it. She was here for peace, not to comment on gardening choices, however misplaced their intentions were.
She stood at the foot of the walkway, ignoring the heat, and looked up to the window above the doorway. “Jane Yaspin, if you would be so kind and come out,” She smiled as sweetly as possible. “We have a little war to discuss.”
The window opened, and Jane Yaspin stuck her tiny little nose out. Speckled gray hair was cut close to her head, the ashes on her glasses seemed more a fashion statement than a result of hard work, and her portly figure did nothing but accentuate such. She stood there in a dress that flowed, actually flowed.
“Gods above and below,” Glory muttered, “Is she actually trying to wear lava?”
“So it would seem.” Mrs. Milkshade said.
Jane Yaspin leaned against the windowsill. “Lana,” she drawled. “How nice to have you drop by.”
Francine Darlique and the dinner partyers took a step back from Mrs. Milkshade. This was suddenly something that seemed hazardous to bystanders that came too close.
“Jane,” Mrs. Milkshade said, looking up at the woman. “Come down here now.”
“Or I make you.” Mrs. Milkshade smiled. “And then I would have enough regrets for us both.”
Jane Yaspin seemed caught. She was in a role, a role she obviously loved. Queen of the melted stone, fighting a war that made the ladies in bake sales stand up and take notice. And she must have even thought she looked ravishing in that dress, though the effect might have waned in the last three decades she had spent in married life. The men would be the first to say they would rather jump in her moat than walk through the front door. She thought herself powerful.
But this was Mrs. Milkshade. And Jane Yaspin had already made the mistake of calling her by her first name. Jane disappeared from the window.
“Francine,” Mrs. Milkshade plucked the hat from her head, and held it out to be grabbed by the Darlique. “If you would be so kind as to fetch two chairs.”
Francine grabbed the hat, and frowned. “Two?”
“Afterwards, if you would be kind enough to console the newly minted widow Eiri,” Mrs. Milkshade said, “and have one of your boys locate Mr. Olive. I am quite sure his wife would like to know if he survived the fire that obviously took their house.”
Francine conjured two chairs, and started to hurry off.
She turned back to see Mrs. Milkshade, reclined in the chair and sipping from a tea cup that had appeared from nothingness.
“If I find that the widow Eiri is such because of your side of this squabble, I will call on you next. Doubly so if Mr. Olive is only partially located.”
Francine bowed, and disappeared behind the dinner partyers.
Jane Yaspin’s front door burst open as she strode forth from the walkway. The burning rock bubbled and geysered around her. It was rather impressive, if overdone.
She reclined in the chair, looking over Mrs. Milkshade with contempt. The hostess in turn enjoyed her cup of Shaeryan Jade. The lava did make reheating a non-issue.
“So you have sided with the Darliques.” Jane sneered.
“I have sided with myself, Jane,” Mrs. Milkshade explained. “As I always have done.”
“Anything the Darliques have offered,” Jane started, and stopped with a wave of the hostess’ hand.
“The Darliques have offered me nothing, there is no ransom or leverage, and quite honestly there is nothing either of you have or have done that interests me personally.” She took another sip of a tea. “But you two have upset my guests, so I would like this little squabble to stop now.”
Yaspin leaned forward. “The Darliques are scheduled to surrender next week. Why not wait?”
“Surrendering next week will cost Candid,” Mrs. Milkshade paused, summarizing the losses of the last few weeks and taking a calculation. “Sixteen houses, finally divert the river, make any land outside of my property infertile for the next three years, and make our reputation synonymous with quaint backwards hicks for two generations.”
Mrs. Milkshade considered. “Ah, yes, and four dozen sons and daughters will have been killed. So rather the question is why don’t you surrender now?”
“Me? Surrender?” Jane laughed. “I’m winning.”
“No, you managed to slip the surrender into Mayor Brandt’s monthly address, most likely through your niece engaging in entirely too crude tactics.” The knowledge of such was given to Mrs. Milkshade by Tessa Marie Nancy, who always did gossip too much. “Francine Darlique was amenable to such because to challenge the mayor when he had been so kind in allowing your war seemed crass.”
The lava servant was shaking violently. The geysers that had previously been for show now spurted onto the walkway and out of the moat, carving holes into the streets and surrounding foliage. Such a loss of control belied a lack of ladylike demeanor.
“I was content to sit this out as well. It truly was none of my affair.” Mrs. Milkshade finished her tea. “But you truly are a petty little girl, and now I must step in, or I fear a month from now this house will be worshipping the stars as they fall from the sky on Candid.”
Jane Yaspin remained silent.
“Send word of your surrender within the hour,” Mrs. Milkshade stood up and turned to leave. “Or I will.”
“Tell me,” Jane Yaspin said. “Does being polite in all things forgive your absolute bitch tendencies?”
The lava froze, and retreated. Where bubbles and froth were a moment ago was solid rock. Rock that wished it could run. The house shuddered once, and collapsed in on itself. Jane Yaspin’s own dress toppled her to the ground as it solidified into a block of obsidian.
Mrs. Milkshade turned to the little woman. “That was unwise.”
Jane Yaspin scratched at the dress, to no avail. It had sealed her in as effectively as a tomb. Mrs. Milkshade tapped her foot against the dress. “If you had allied with a river, it might have made more fashion sense. But the rivers that could come to your beck and call know to fear me as well.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m Mrs. Milkshade,” the woman said, bending a gloved hand towards the little thing. “And I do not suffer slights.”
The partygoers did not know what conspired next between Mrs. Milkshade and the once-proud Jane Yaspin. But she sent word of her surrender within the hour. Her forces conceded the bake sale to the Darliques as well as exclusive rights to the third-floor of the library. As that contained the spells on music, the Darliques were more than content and did not pursue the matter further.
Jane Yaspin was last seen skulking out of town in a cloud of ash. She most likely wanted it to be a cloud of promise, on vengeance and brighter days for herself and her kin. It mostly brought coughs and chuckles.
Mrs. Milkshade returned to her porch, and waited. Candid was becoming more exciting. There was talk of a carriage road. And after this year, they might even have a chance to kidnap their own official for ransom.
All was turning out nice and proper.
copyright 2016 Jack Holder