The following story was inspired by the image "Darby" by HarpyQueen.
By Greg Jordan
Darby MacDaniels woke and heard Lady Bracknell's servants in the hallway. Maids were hurrying about with trays of breakfast tea and foot boys were scrambling to deliver freshly polished boots and shoes. The manor's guests had yet to stir, but unlike the idle rich, Darby was an earlier riser. She crept to the window –her roommate, inventor Angelica “Angie” Black, had enjoyed a boisterous night—and peeked outside. Beyond the glass was a dewy spring morning. The lithe brunette was still snuggled in her bed, and Darby's whispered invitation to get up was greeted with a snort and profanity. Darby grinned and got dressed.
She had brought only her Cinderella costume and a couple of dresses along with her boots and little cosmetics case, but she made her limited luggage count. She went to the wardrobe and selected her new frock.
And such a frock! Darby couldn't believe she had let Her Imperial Highness the Princess Lavinia Cosmia Dracula talk her into letting controversial fashion designer and artist Amberly Berendson run up a dress especially for her.
The clever and daring Amberly, also known as the Harpy Queen for creating that threat to England and Empire, the harpy dress, went right to work. She looked at Darby's ruddy gold hair, her freckled face,and started sketching. Within two weeks, Darby took delivery and gaped at herself in the mirror. So lovely and so wicked!
Lady Bracknell was going to pop a valve when she saw the new frock, but Darby didn't care. She was going home on the noon train, anyway, so to hell with the bitch. She started to put on the dress, the lovely dress with white, brown and green that went with her hair so well. She put on the sun maiden tiara of scarlet enamel and brass, and the golden chains. They dangled from the fax-rubies pinned to her brown leather corset—right where her nipples should be. The corset gave her bosom a eye-catching lift.
Next she put on her stockings and the skirt, that green and white skirt that offered up her left leg. The left stocking had strategically placed openings offering a dainty peek of her calf. Finally, on went her fingerless gloves, boots and pretty spats with their ribbons and golden chains. She checked herself in the full length mirror and loved what she saw.
Oooo, don't you look scandalous, lassie! Darby told herself as she applied a bit of makeup. Buckling on the ammunition belt and the cartridge bag — military accessories being so fashionable —was the finishing touch. She stoked up her nerve, grabbed her gun case, and headed out the door. The resulting burst of sunlight got more curses and a cry for mercy out of Angie. Darby had asked Angie to play chaperone, but that was a lost cause.
Startled maids remembered to wish her good morning and a foot boy gaped. Darby winked at him and won a bashful blush when she asked for the quickest exit. The boy stammered out the best route and Darby prettily thanked him.
A dash down a busy servants' stairwell took Darby out of Lady Bracknell's palatial home. She guessed her parents' modest house outside Edinburgh would fit into Bracknell Manor's front hall. Actually finding herself in such a place was still awe inspiring. She never dreamed of stepping into a grand country home as anything other than a servant. Being an overworked actress had its advantages.
Mrs. Wilson, the range keeper's wife, was waiting outside. Her eyes widened at the sight of Darby's dress, but she held her peace. “Good morning, Miss MacDaniels, Lord Kzar asked me to serve as chaperone. Oh, his lordship is going to be a tad late; he had an urgent message from the Foreign Secretary, apparently.”
“Oh, that's all right!” Darby assured her. “It's a lovely morning!” The grandmotherly lady took up her station at Darby's side and led the way.
The country air was fresh and clean; none of London's odors contaminated it. Sunlight warmed Darby's fair skin as she chatted with her chaperon. Discreet signs pointed out brick paths leading to the lake, the gardens, the greenhouses, the stables and, finally, the shooting range. Darby guessed they had been planted for the benefit of the house guests. Like many grand estates built to impress, the place was practically a small city. Plenty of gardeners and others servants were out and busy already.
The gun range was like a garden, but with a military aura to it. An ornate hedge separated it from the manor, and the targets were arrayed against a hill. Darby guessed the rocky slope was rich with generations of lead shot. The hillside's surviving trees looked as if they belonged on a battlefield. Signs along the manicured field marked out distance. Targets ranged from bulls eyes clipped to wood and dented steel sheets to full-sized models of deer, bears, lions, tigers, soldiers, and warriors on horseback.
Pavilions had been erected to shelter shooters and elegant observers from the offending sun.
Long sturdy tables stood ready for gun cases and ammunition chests. Darby set her steel pistol case on a table and reached into her cartridge pouch for the key. Mrs. Wilson watched with undisguised curiosity.
“Miss MacDaniels!Good morning!” a man called. She recognized the voice; it wasn't the one she had been waiting to hear.
Oh, bugger all! She turned and spotted the gentleman coming her way. It was the Rt. Honorable Trelawney Hope, a rising statesman at the Foreign Office. Darby had read about Hope in the Society guides Oscar Wilde insisted his actors and actresses study.
Hope was elegant, tall and quite clean-cut. His gray morning suit was immaculate and his dark hair and mustache had been meticulously cultivated. His shining shoes were the result of a foot boy's vigor. Hope strode up to her and smiled as he beheld her new outfit. “My word, Miss MacDaniels, the sight of you is more invigorating than a cup of coffee! Your dress is, oh, quite pleasing.”
“Thank you, sir. It is a Miss Berendson original. And good morning to you,” she courteously replied.
Hope shot Mrs. Wilson a commanding look and gave her a silver coin. The old lady uttered a good morning and walked a distance away, but kept looking in their direction. With his unspoken order obeyed and his bribe accepted, Hope turned his charming self on Darby.
“I was taking a walk before breakfast and spotted you heading this way, Miss MacDaniels. I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your pantomime performance last night. I do not believe I have ever seen a more enchanting Cinderella.”
“Thank you, sir. Miss Billson makes quite a good handsome prince, doesn't she?” Darby remarked.
“She does indeed. Seeing her dressed like a man was quite enjoyable...”
You liked her legs all done up in leather and lace, didn't you? Darby told herself.
“But I am so glad to encounter you this morning,” Hope continued. “I have some information you might find very useful.”
“How very nice,” Darby diplomatically replied.
“I understand you are seeking a new flat, Miss MacDaniels.”
“I was, sir. I believe, yes, I've found a very suitable place,” Darby quickly informed him. “My friend, Miss Angeline Black, found it, I mean, really. It is a boarding house. One for professional women.”
“Ah, yes. And I am sure it is a very proper place, but in my experience, such establishments do not offer much in the way of privacy. Even if you have a bedchamber to yourself...”
“Oh, I would. A very nice bedroom, a combination bedroom and sitting room, really. I think it's so charming! I'll be very happy there...”
“Yes, yes, you would think so, my dear. But you would be forced to share amenities such as the kitchen and your bath. Truly, you would have no privacy at all. All your comings and goings would be on display for your fellow tenants, making you the subject of gossip. You would be subject to a landlady's rules, too; after all, you would be under another person's roof and not your own home.”
Darby busied herself with her pistol case; she applied the key and unlocked it. “I live with my Aunt Martha now, sir, at Baker Street, and have had no trouble. And I like having roommates. I get lonely otherwise.”
Hope stared and tried again; Darby was being rather thick. “But there is no reason why you could not have your very own flat, Miss MacDaniels. I happen to know an agent who offers very appealing and well furnished accommodations in fashionable neighborhoods. You could have your own bath, a spacious bedchamber, a parlor, and a wonderful little kitchen.”
Darby frowned. “Hmm, that sounds quite expensive, sir. Don't see how I could afford a flat like that!”
Hope sighed and stepped closer. “My dear Darby, it would not cost you a penny; of course, you would have a maid, too, to keep the place in order and cook for you. I know an agency that provides very efficient, and discreet, servants.” He edged even closer. “And loneliness would never be a problem, my sweet girl. Not at all. You would have many new friends.”
Darby grinned. “Let me show you something, Mr. Hope!” She popped open the steel gun case. Hope's eyes widened slightly; he was of the upper crust, and did not show his emotions lightly.
Nestled in crushed green velvet was a pistol fashioned from gleaming brass and leaded glass. Darby scooped it up and hefted it. “What do you think, sir? Isn't this lovely?”
“An aether gun? Good heavens! Wherever did you get that, my dear Darby?”
“Lord Edmund Kzar, sir. He gave it to me last night. He fabricated it especially for me!”
Hope had trouble processing what he was hearing. “Lord Kzar actually gave you a powerful weapon like that as a gift? How very inappropriate! Aether guns are notoriously unstable and should never be handled by a young lady; they are far too complicated for a woman. Remember what happened to the Aggressive? That experiment gone horribly wrong? She went down with all hands after her aether cannon exploded! Now, I must insist you put that pistol away at once and allow me to take custody of it. I will have a word with Lord Kzar...”
Darby thumbed the ignition switch just as Lord Kzar had instructed her. The pistol chirped like a cricket and started to hum. “Lord Kzar's design is perfectly safe, Mr. Hope. He assures me the power core is quite stable, and I have seen nothing to impeach his words.” Smoky green light filled the weapon's aether chamber. “I love how it glows! Of course, this is a show piece. The military models won't be quite so flashy! Or noisy!”
“Miss MacDaniels...” Hope commanded. “Deactivate that weapon immediately!”
Darby ignored him. “Oh, goodie, good! See how fast it charges? Lord Kzar showed me how shoot these! “
“Miss MacDaniels! I insist!...”
Darby chose a target. “Fire down the hole!” She took quick aim and squeezed the trigger. A bolt of emerald power flashed faster than the blink of an eye and drilled through a steel target! Sparks burst forth like fireworks on Guy Fawkes Day! Hope stared, his lips tight. Mrs. Wilson screamed. The aether gun had cut a smoking hole through a quarter inch of steel.
“Oh, ain't that jolly!” Darby exclaimed. She chose a new target. “See that wooden fellow there?”
“Miss MacDaniels...what you are doing is quite dangerous and most unbecoming a young lady...deactivate that pistol at once and hand it to me!...”
“Fire down the hole!” Emerald fire blasted down range. The wooden soldier was decapitated! Sparks showered the range! Fire started devouring the little left of the target. The wooden cranium bounced along the ground. Mrs. Wilson looked faint. Hope was horrified.
“Oooo, I love it when their heads come off!” Darby husked. The firing chamber hummed and filled with Christmas green. “Now watch this! Zappy Zap Zap!”
Darby fired repeatedly and blasted soldiers and fax cavalry with the most frightening ease. Sparks flew and metal melted.
“Miss MacDaniels! Cease this insanity at once!” Hope demanded.
The radiant weapon humming in her hand, Darby relaxed, hand on her hip, and gave Hope a mischievous look. “Sir, are there times when you want someone warm, cuddly and sweet to curl up with? Somebody who will show you the most unconditional affection?” she cooed.
Mrs. Wilson gasped at Darby's suggestion. Caught off guard, Hope rearranged his thoughts, then chuckled. “Well, if you put it that way, Miss MacDaniels, of course....”
“Then get a cat!”
The aristocrat's features hardened. His face reddened. “I see...very well, Miss MacDaniels. Good day to you.” He turned with military precision and departed, his posture ramrod stiff as he headed for the gates in the hedge. Just as he was about to leave the shooting range, he encountered another gentleman.
This man was tall, strongly built, and bald as a cobblestone. His complexion was slightly Mediterranean, and he was wearing a fine suit that struck Darby as exotic and eastern. Hope became even stiffer upon seeing the man.
“Lord Kzar. Good morning,” Hope managed to civilly say.
“Mr. Hope. A good morning to you,” the newcomer replied.
Oh, God...he's bloody gorgeous! Even his voice is gorgeous! Darby told herself, her heart picking up its pace. She thought of Roman generals and Egyptian pharaohs whenever she saw Lord Edmund Kzar, one of the world's foremost scientists.
Kzar arrived, and smiled as he bowed. “Good morning, Mrs. Wilson. Thank you so much for being our chaperone; it is very gracious of you.” Mrs. Wilson returned the smile and curtsied as Kzar turned his attention elsewhere. “And good morning, Miss MacDaniels. Getting in some practice?'
“Oh, yes, m'lord!” Darby replied. “I really should have waited, but I couldn't resist...”
Kzar took a pair of new goggles from his pocket. “You will need these, Miss MacDaniels, for safety's sake.”
“You are so kind, m'lord,” Darby said eagerly.
“And your new dress is lovely, Miss MacDaniels. An example of Miss Berendson's work, I believe? Heavens, it even goes with your new pistol.”
“Yes, it does, m'lord,” Darby agreed, frantically trying to find more words. “I might get her to do me a winter coat. Or maybe a cape. Mine's about to give up the ghost, I'm afraid.”
“I'm sure Miss Benderson could create a lovely winter cape for you, Miss MacDaniels. Now, allow me to show you how to modulate the power. You can, shall we say, 'feather' the output when the aether cell is on low power and stun any attacker. Even though a hit would inflict extreme pain, it would not be fatal.”
Darby was suddenly sorry Hope was gone. “Truly!”
“Yes. That will make you less hesitant to use it in the event of a true emergency.” Lord Kzar reached out carefully. “Now, to modulate the output, you do this...”
Girlish fantasies flashed through Darby's mind as their hands touched for an instant—how deliciously improper! Darby had the sly feeling Mrs. Wilson was about to be bribed again. She also wondered about her next Berendson dress.
Yes, a new winter cape...or a real banger of a wedding gown!
- End ?-