March 22, 2023

Richard (excerpt)

Chapter 1


No one knew Richard St. Clair’s assistant was a woman—or so he’d assumed until someone fed him a love potion.

She—he—Phillip(a) Thewin—was a slim, tallish woman who topped Richard’s chin (though he suspected her black boots held lifts). She kept her dark red hair closely cropped, the ends tucked under a soft clerk’s cap. In the office, she occasionally stripped off her frock coat to lean over the tables in her vest and white shirt. Richard guessed that she wrapped her breasts. She couldn’t hide the slender curve of her shoulders or the subtle flare of her hips, though the frock coat covered her shape most of the time.

She made no other efforts to hide her sex. Her face was an oval with a straight nose and slight cleft in the chin. No pasted-on mustache. No false whiskers.

No one seemed to notice. Richard held a minor position in the Ministry of Planning and Urban Development, which oversaw the inspection and taxation of private land. He and Phillip(a) occupied a small office of many wooden cabinets, a few low-slung couches, and two large tables for maps and blueprints. The discreet sign on the door read: “Department for Historical Verifications.” Richard was responsible for determining whether certain houses (and land) should be labeled landmarks or torn down and plowed over.

Their department currently focused on properties in Roesia’s capital, Kingston (“Newville,” some ministers wanted to call it to honor the bloodless retirement of the royal family, but the name wouldn’t stick). Phillip(a) helped Richard with inspections and occasionally drafted parts of (exceptionally lengthy) documents for ministerial approval. She spent afternoons in New Government House’s library researching property documents or sat behind Richard in committee meetings, taking notes and handing him potential explanations to ministers’ queries.

No one looked at her twice; no one sniggered or whispered; no one winked or smirked at Richard. Did they truly see trousers, short hair, and a frock coat and reflexively think male?

Richard couldn’t remember when he’d realized Phillip(a) was a woman. He couldn’t remember ever not knowing. But surely in their initial meeting—?

He’d been in the middle of the Taggart Approval. At issue was the disposition of a collection of dumpy, ancient homesteads on bramble-infested land; the property’s entire historical value lay more in the homesteads’ foundations than their walls and interiors.

Richard had managed to convince the ministers to turn the land, buildings included over to the new archaeology department at Kingston Technical College (the Academy, that supposed bastion of all research and education in Roesia, poured scorn on the workmanlike aspects of new sciences such as archaeology).

In the middle of endless meetings and multiple inspections, sometimes aided, sometimes hampered by the overeager college heads, Phillip(a) appeared to locate blueprints, deliver messages, and proofread appeals.

I must have known.

Richard simply hadn’t cared.


Richard’s new appointment meant he could install his family—Mother, his younger siblings Aubrey and Andrew—in a house in Kingston’s Residence district. Mother was currently visiting friends in Roesia’s neighbor, Ennance, a city-state graced by luxuriant gardens, elegant edifices, and sophisticated gambling establishments; Aubrey was now married, but Andrew was home temporarily from Bailey College.

Richard’s new position also meant he could find a wife, and he had gotten engaged within a month of his appointment—too quickly.

Regrets are pointless. They accomplish nothing. Marriage was what a man in Richard’s situation did next, part of the package: post, property, proposal.

As he did most evenings of late, Richard sat in his house’s small yet tasteful dining room and listened to his fiancée, Gloria, lecture Andrew in her mild, remorseless way on the importance of maintaining a superior reputation “even at school.”

In a few minutes, Richard would divert her. He would mention that Lord Rustilion had complimented his latest report or that his inspections had brought him into contact with the Duke of Thairse. Like Richard, Gloria was a proponent of the new (non-royal) government. Like Richard, she tactfully honored aristocrats for their past service to the state. Unlike Richard, she reveled in her swelling acquaintances’ bloodlines.

“You never know when a miscalculated action will undermine your standing with others,” Gloria told Andrew, who was trying to pretend to be absorbed by his supper without being obviously rude. “You don’t want to become the object of wagging tongues.”

Gloria was a Cartwright, the beneficiary of a grandfather with an urge (and knack) for trade. The second and third Cartwright generations used their inheritance as a stepping stone to respectability: Gloria preened whenever another peer called on her. The moment Richard obtained his government post, she snatched him up.

Richard was, after all, a gentleman’s son. Father had been a liaison of sorts, holding a variety of minor posts on diplomatic missions. When he died abroad, the St. Clairs fell to lurking on the edges of high society, where they befriended the right kinds of people and appeared at the right kinds of events: mind-numbing attendance at garden parties, soirees, balls (costume and other), operas, chorals, promenades in the park.

“Your background and new position mean great things for us both,” Gloria assured Richard.

Richard supposed so. If some members of society muttered that not even the Cartwright fortune could explain that family’s recent and abrupt social advancement, who were the St. Clairs to cavil? All of them pandered to their betters: flattered, cajoled, sold themselves—even Mother, who relished the drama.

Gloria seemed to relish it too, though she lacked Mother’s verve and magnanimity. Mother got as much enjoyment from a footman who married his mistress as from a lady who made an unexpectedly good match. Gloria considered the first story distasteful and the second a testament to vulgar exhibitionism.

“We will be courted by good society,” Gloria told Richard the day he fulfilled her pointed expectation that he propose.

“The Widows & Orphans Association?” Richard said.

“Oh, you, always a joke,” Gloria said without laughing. “The best people are those who are best for us. Advantageous alliances got you to your current position.”

Richard let that piece of puffery pass while he shrugged inside his head. Social guilt got me my position. After his sister suffered a magical ordeal (in which high society patrons played a part), ministers scrambled to offer Richard the first available government post. Richard was sorry for his sister, but he was relieved to settle into a job where he could prove himself through work rather than small-talk.

His engagement was meant to stabilize his good fortune. Gloria seemed a suitable addition to the family: pragmatic, down-to-earth. And she wasn’t unattractive: a plump, tidy woman with a permanently good-natured expression. In truth, she was a tad humorless, a trifle single-minded, somewhat lacking in affection . . .

She’s nothing like Phillip(a). Richard brusquely shook his head. Years of praising incompetents, claiming friendship on the slightest of acquaintances, currying favor with vaguely corrupt officials, ignoring more kindly but less politically influential contacts—Richard could hardly claim he deserved someone as honest and good-natured as Phillip(a).

“The alliances you form now,” Gloria told Andrew, “will shape your life’s aspirations.”

Richard sighed softly, took a breath and spoke up: “Lord Rustilion complimented my latest report,” he said and gathered Gloria’s strident, confident attention to himself.

Chapter 2


The next morning at the office, Richard tried not to notice Phillip(a)’s soft, husky voice; her elegant long-fingered hands; her generous smile.

She said, “The Pellon and Lord Simon inspections are next on the docket.”

“Lord Simon’s mansion is as ruined as the man.”

“Truflian Architecture. His fantastical era.”

“Not Truflet’s best work. Why does the belief in fairies automatically entail a penchant for curlicues?”

“Visual improbabilities,” Phillip(a) said and grinned outright.

Richard tried to also ignore that grin.

“I have my weekly meeting with Lord Rustilion,” he said. “What are your plans?”

“I need to track down the deeds for Lord Simon’s house.”

“You won’t go there? We have the Pellon inspection this afternoon.”

Lord Simon was an aged rake and magician, still capable of producing scandal, definitely not safe. He would see through Phillip(a)’s disguise.

“No—Government Library.” Phillip(a) raised her eyebrows at Richard’s stony expression.

“Good. We’ll visit Lord Simon’s together,” he added, turning away.

It was a natural directive, not rooted in over-protectiveness. Not at all.

“Have a pleasant chin-wag with Lord Rustilion,” Phillip(a) said in a singing voice.

Richard had to laugh. His director, Lord Rustilion, held his office by virtue of his social position: an aristocrat, yet he supported New Government. He even defended Richard’s department. He simply didn’t see the necessity; Richard’s activities appeared to puzzle him.

“Is the Pellon property so important?” Lord Rustilion said, eyes roving about his office from desk to wall to door, anywhere but on Richard’s face.

“Perhaps. The Pellon family can’t afford to maintain it.”

Lord Rustilion pondered that statement.

He said doubtfully, “I guess the house is old.”

Richard said carefully, “Old doesn’t inevitably bestow historical worth.”


Lord Rustilion pushed over cream and sugar, and Richard prepared his obligatory cup of tea. Every meeting with Lord Rustilion involved tea. The ritual gave the man something to focus on when his questions faltered.

“So why evaluate it?”

“It does have ties to King Erick’s reign.”


“The land could possibly be transferred, in future, to the Commons Project.”

“Yes, yes. You, ah, have an interest there?”

“Sure,” Richard said.

The Commons Project—a proposal to set aside land for public agricultural use—was the latest burning issue in committee meetings. Whenever Richard got cornered by some overeager clerk or ambitious fellow functionary, the first question was always, “Are you involved in Com-P?” followed by confidential prattle: “George got asked to do a paper for Minister Fallon.” And: “Robert heard the latest update direct from Minister Belemont,” the head of the Commons Project and the Ministers’ Council.

Richard did a lot of “uh-huhhing” in these encounters.

He glanced now at his notes. “As for Lord Simon’s property—”

“That man is unstable,” Lord Rustilion said abruptly.

“Yes, yes, he is. But he has supporters among the ministers.”

“Hmmm.” This time, Lord Rustilion’s hmmm sounded disgruntled.

Lord Rustilion was a true New Government man. He retained his title almost absently, being otherwise utterly modern and forward thinking. Despite his blank moments, he was a preferable director to others in the ministry. Most of the time. Richard wished Lord Rustilion was quicker at comprehending potential complications, better at stimulating support for future projects.

“Lord Rustilion wants things to be simple,” Phillip(a) explained as she and Richard stood in a folly on the Pellon grounds, dressed in thick overcoats and tall hats.

The property had been landscaped by Peder Vaughn, a factor of slightly more import than the house’s age. Not much import—Vaughn had been a minor landscaper at best.

“He could make things simple,” Richard said. “It’s the paperwork that complicates our job.”

“The bureaucrats have been around longer than New Government.”

“Heaven help us.”

Phillip(a) laughed and turned to study the property’s flower gardens. Richard turned with her. The winter gardens, empty of flowers at this time of the year, were overgrown with shrubs. A solitary gardener wandered amongst distant compost heaps. The inability to maintain the gardens was one reason the Pellons hoped for a historical designation.

“Live in comfort for the rest of their lives,” Richard said, finishing the thought.

“The grounds would be open to the public.”

“The public would prefer the gardens be razed.”

“The Manderley Brothers would prefer the land be put up for sale.”

Richard shrugged.

“The ministers would go into ecstasies if the land ended up in Com-P,” Phillip(a) said coyly and winked.

How can anyone see her as anything but female?

“The Pellon property would make a lovely addition to the Antiquities Registry,” Gloria said at Mrs. Fertaff’s soiree that evening.

“It’s still under review,” Richard said.

“A formality.” Gloria flicked a dismissive hand.

Richard let the subject drop. Gloria despised even cheerful disagreement. Early in their engagement, he had tried to provoke her into arguments: Give me your reasons. I’ll give you mine.

Gloria had pursed her lips and spoken slightingly of “male manners.” (When Richard’s sister argued with her, Gloria sniffed about “a lack of proper decorum.” Andrew never tried to argue. Mother chattered over her.) Gloria’s pronouncements were exactly and precisely pronouncements.

“Pity the Pellons aren’t here. You could reassure them.”

Richard would never do such a thing—it would be inappropriate to inform a petitioner of a decision before Richard had even completed the initial inspection. The Pellons being absent, the issue was moot, so he ignored Gloria and intercepted Bertram Mells, a functionary in the Ministry of Public Works.

Bertram agreed with Richard that Kingston’s easement laws needed standardization. “You’ll be holding soirees of your own soon,” he added, glancing about the Fertaff’s salon.

Richard tried not to blanch. Attending tedious weeknight parties was the price for serving in the ministry. And it was an easy way to keep Gloria in an affable mood. She and her frozen-faced maid had fetched Richard in the Cartwright carriage that evening. He couldn’t yet afford one, and Gloria hated to arrive in a hired coach. She would be bringing a carriage with her to their marriage. Convenient, Richard reminded himself; it helped if he regularly reminded himself what he was gaining from marrying Gloria.

On the debit side were Gloria’s societal aspirations. Attending other people’s gatherings was unavoidable. Holding them oneself seemed excessive.

Bertram raised a brow at Richard’s lack of response. “The Mrs. will insist,” he said.

Gloria would. And she would be within her rights to expect Richard’s cooperation. How could he complain? This was the life he’d chosen when he pursued a government post, when he allowed Gloria to absorb him.

Bertram said, “The Cartwright Pater and Mater are riding their daughter’s, ah, train to gentility.”

“Gloria is the third generation,” Richard pointed out; more doors were naturally open to her.

“So many new acquaintances—” Bertram continued.

“She’s friendly,” Richard said, hoping he didn’t sound too defensive.

“Insatiable,” Bertram agreed.

Richard frowned. He might find Gloria’s social obsessions off-putting. But wasn’t that the point of marriage: divide the load, share the burden? He shouldn’t allow others to criticize his fiancée.

“Lord Rustilion,” Gloria cried before Richard could reprimand Bertram with a lame rebuke.

She had waylaid Richard’s boss. Bertram grinned broadly as Richard went to stand at Gloria’s shoulder.

“How you must appreciate Richard’s hard work,” Gloria pronounced, placing a deceptively light hand on her quarry’s arm.

Looking more somnolent than usual, Lord Rustilion grunted.

Gloria continued, “How fortunate I am to have a beau with so much potential.”

Lord Rustilion blinked and gave Richard an unexpectedly sharp glance. Richard gazed back, trying to not too obviously detach himself from Gloria’s effusiveness. Wasn’t this how St. Clairs got ahead? He could hardly claim that he was too virtuous to fawn over his superiors.

“We are lucky to have him,” Lord Rustilion said finally.

Gloria’s good-natured expression seemed to thicken and solidify as Lord Rustilion strolled away.

“It’s about time he recognized your abilities,” she said softly, her hand settling on Richard’s sleeve and agitating his glass of punch.

“I’ve only been in his department for five months.”

“Five months is long enough for a person’s value to reveal itself.”

“He admires my reports,” Richard said dryly.

Irony and other forms of wit bypassed Gloria.

“At least he doesn’t hold your sister against you.”

Richard frowned. His sister Aubrey had married a policeman, Mr. Charles Stowe—the Head of Police, in fact. Charles had helped Aubrey when she’d been bespelled over a year earlier. Richard liked the man. His calm temper made him impervious to even Gloria’s snubs.

Gloria had been outraged by the marriage. For a few days Richard had wondered if she would call off their engagement.

She didn’t. “You’re too good a catch,” Aubrey told Richard though Richard credited Gloria’s staying to her sense of worth: she could overcome any setback.

Aubrey herself was the complication. She’d married “down,” but her bespellment had made her someone to whom even Academy magicians showed deference. Gloria ought to remember that.

Richard said now, “Stevenson admires my sister.” Brian Stevenson was the Academy’s Acting Head.

Gloria stiffened, eyes at half-mast. Displeasure at Richard’s implied rebuke enveloped her in a cloud of pique.

“I don’t believe Lord Rustilion is a proponent of magical potions,” she said tightly.

Richard wasn’t either. His sister hadn’t asked to be bespelled.

Gloria’s bosom heaved. Still, Richard had social endorsement on his side as well as the current social backdrop of chattering nabobs; Gloria relaxed fractionally.

“What a kind brother you are.”

Richard nodded vaguely and forced himself to exchange innocuous greetings with fellow bureaucrats and deliver general compliments to posturing ministers. He set aside thoughts of Phillip(a)’s unselfconscious chuckle, her genuine pleasure in the work, and her willingness to let Richard be himself.

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