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Faint Heart, Fair Maiden

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Of course she'd always had a fondness for the soft things of the world, puppies that needed nursing with a rag and a bowl of milk, her mother's hair with its careful waves, the rabbit with the broken leg she'd found in a poacher's trap when she was nine. It was her father in her, perhaps. "My role - and it is a noble one, make no mistake - is not to tear down but to lend strength to what is weak and infirm!" he'd declaim, thumping the dinner table, as her cousin Hildebrand smiled awkwardly and tried with a total lack of success to look alert and intrigued, and Honoria herself merely sipped consommé and thought of the next day's sport.

And there was no way to see the other girl as anything but weak at first glance: the wide eyes, the trembling chin, the fluttering floral gown that made her look more like a china doll than any female over the age of ten should ever consider trying to look. She'd made the strategic error of turning for conversation to the youngest Mitford girl, in the evident hope she'd share interest in the books of Beatrix Potter; Decca had the poor lamb backed against an occasional table and was ranting about the elections in Spain. Honoria found herself being distracted from her own conversation to glance worriedly over her shoulder. Finally she gave in, smacked her interlocutor a playful blow to the arm in parting, and sallied over.

"It's Mary Bassett, isn't it?" she asked amiably. "Stephanie Byng's cousin? Oh, do shove off, Decc, can't you see she doesn't give a tinker's toss about a lot of miners in Asturias?"

"Oh...Madeline Bassett," said the rescued damsel. She did not, Honoria noticed, overexert herself in insisting Decca remain.

It was all a tumble of explanations, instead: of course it wasn't that Madeline didn't care, it was all quite fascinating of course, and she imagined quite important. It was only that she felt just the wee-est bit embarrassed, knowing as she did so little about the things people were talking about.

"No reason you should," said Honoria in generous tones, and waved over a waiter to refill the poor thing's glass. Not that she didn't appear to have had one or two already; probably the only way she'd been getting through the evening. Honoria wondered who on earth had turned her loose on this party to begin with.

"But I am going to be a politician's wife, you know. Dear Roderick tells me I needn't trouble myself with trying to understand these things. As though I hadn't been hostess at Totleigh Towers for years now. But then, he sees me as such an innocent, you know - so set aside from the world and bearing always about me a fragrance of lilies..."

"Roderick...? Roderick Spode? The Black Shorts' leader, Spode?" Honoria had the sudden and savage urge to go to her gun rack, which presently happened to be inconveniently located thirty-odd miles away. She made a mental resolution never to attend another political soirée without a deer rifle.

"Oh, yes. Of course, he's had to resign his active leadership of the Saviours of Britain, now that he's inherited as the seventh Earl of Sidcup. But he will keep going on about...and I thought perhaps if I understood his interests better I might...well, after all, I took an interest in newts for Gussie."


"But it's all so unpleasant, isn't it, politics? Of course newts are, too, all slimy and covered with ick. Not at all the sort of thing one wants in one's bathtub."

Honoria said she expected not, and was just on the point of asking to be remembered to Stiffy when she felt Madeline catch hold of her arm.

"Oh, don't go!" Honoria turned back, surprised, and Madeline ducked her golden head and smiled up through her eyelashes appealingly. "I know I'm just a silly, but...won't you stay a moment? I feel somehow as though we were meant to be friends, the two of us."

What else was there to do but stay? Honoria racked her brain for conversational topics that wouldn't make her feel like stalking evening dress-wearing big game. Remembering the other girl's comment about being hostess at her father's house, she asked after Lady Bassett and felt as though she'd shot her own foot a moment later, when the shine in the blue saucer-sized eyes got distinctly wobbly.

In confusion, Honoria mentioned her own mother's recent death. Madeline expressed her sympathies - some sort of horsefeathers about memories folded away with lavender in one's heart, but Honoria bit her lip a bit nonetheless, and took a rather large sip of champagne.

And from there it became surprisingly easy to piffle on about this and that. It shouldn't have been, for they hadn't much in common; Madeline hadn't read Shaw or Somerset Maugham, neglecting modern authors in favour of Winnie the Pooh and some sort of medieval-via-mid-Victorian romantic drivel. She didn't golf, played tennis "only a little" and, as far as could be discovered, didn't indulge in any other sport more strenuous than walking through her gardens talking to the flowers. (Honoria sincerely hoped her leg was being pulled, there.) But there was something insidious about even the points they disagreed on.

("I couldn't! I don't know how people can bear to hurt the darling wild creatures, so soft and shy..! If only I had not this terrible vitamin deficiency, never again should I allow to pass my lips another morsel of animal flesh! Flesh slain in anger..."

"For gosh sakes, you make it sound like Titus Andronicus! One doesn't go out in a pin-striped suit, shooting pheasant to settle vendettas. And you only hunt the strong ones, you know; there's no sport in bagging something puny or underweight...")

Besides, they knew many of the same people, and Madeline turned out to be full of odd gossip, once you got past her insistence that she couldn't dream of speaking ill of anyone she knew. They stumbled quite by chance upon the subject of Bertie Wooster, and a rich vein of conversation was opened up. Madeline was oddly insistent in asking when he and Honoria had been betrothed, and relieved to find it was before she'd met him in Cannes. She had some sort of idea that she was the love of the dear old fathead's life; Honoria forbore to comment. There had obviously been some sort of miscommunication; anyone who'd met herself and that pretentious ice-sculpture Florence Craye could tell you that Madeline wasn't at all the type upon whom Bertie was likely to get stuck, but one could also see that he wouldn't have been able to hurt the pretty little goof's feelings by saying so.

Eventually it seemed like the thing to do to ankle out to the balcony. Honoria handled navigation through the crowd, out through the glass doors with her new friend behind her. (She'd always liked giving directions, which was the whole reason she'd ever got engaged to Biffy Biffen, bless the idiot. Madeline had nearly inhaled a canapé giggling at Honoria's impression of her father and his screed against the collective sanity of her former fiances.)

The cooler air made her realize she'd managed to get a bit squiffy on all the champagne she'd been downing; the stars were at once rather sharp and bright and also a bit inclined to move around a fraction more than they usually did. She found herself in expansive mood, though, ready to make this swimmy-starred world a finer, nobler place. The flowers in the quiet garden below smelled rather topping, and out here they were away from all the stuffed shirts at the party, so obviously a good start on worldwide reformation had been made. In a proper sort of planet, she thought, she'd be able to change Madeline's dress for her, repin her hair so it didn't droop. Persuade her not to marry that superfatted fascist Sidcup...

"I think the moon has such sad eyes, don't you? As though she has a secret she can't tell, but must keep on smiling down just the same."

"Er," said Honoria, confused at the relapse of melancholy, and tried the effect of a few awkward pats on the fluttery floral-patterned shoulder. She remembered taking the rabbit from the trap all those years ago, how soft its fur had been, how it trembled in her arms as the gamekeeper set its leg.

"You're very kind," said Madeline, and to her own astonishment Honoria found herself blushing crimson at the admiration in the other girl's wide eyes. She looked away for a moment, and felt a soft touch on her wrist. "Especially after you've had such troubles with your Intended...eds." Without warning, Madeline produced a brilliant smile. "You do remind me of Hilda."

"Hilde...?" she asked, thinking of Tuppy. People did sometimes say they looked alike. She tried not to be distracted by the smile or the feeling of the small fingers circling her wrist.

"Oh, she was my very best and dearest friend at Roedean. She's had trouble with her own Intended, though the course of love did run smooth at last." Something, some sort of memory passed over her face before she smiled again, coy. "But you're prettier than Hilda."

"You were at Roedean?" asked Honoria, incredulous. She wasn't sure in the least what to make of the compliment, either, so it was almost a relief to be faced with the impossibility of this sentimental, fragile popsy at a school known for seven-hour lesson days and uncharitable Christian discipline.

Madeline nodded solemnly, taking a single final sip of champagne, her small pink tongue darting out a fraction to lick away an errant drop on the glass's edge. She set it down on a stone bench, and a second later she was reaching up with her other hand to touch Honoria's cheek. Her hand was warmer than might have been expected (if any of this had been expected, or even comprehensible), and to Honoria it felt as though her face was trying to correct the temperature by burning hotter even than before.

"Hilda's very strong, like you, and brave," said Madeline. "Are you brave?"

Honoria gawped at her. She hadn't the least notion what to say - something was turning in her chest, like tumblers falling. The click of the key was the petal-soft mouth pressed briefly, whisperingly against her own; the night unlocked and swung wide open. She stared as Madeline pulled slightly away, the corners of her mouth turning up. "I think you must be brave," she said, her breath whispering across Honoria's lips. "You came to rescue me, after all."

"You seemed to need looking after," she said shakily, as the other girl pressed up against her. The small of her back bumped against the balcony's rail, and she brought a hand up to tangle in Madeline's light curls. They smelled of lemon verbena and French cologne, and the scent made her, for what was certainly the first time in her life, rather swoony. "I like looking after...things. People. Giving directions, taking care..."

"I like being looked after," said Madeline. And kissed her harder the second time.