Gail Carriger

CHAPTER ONE

Wherein the Misses Loontwill Cope with Scandal in Their Midst

How much longer, Mama, must we tolerate this gross humiliation?”

Lady Alexia Maccon paused before entering the breakfast room. Cutting through the comfortable sounds of chinking teacups and scrunching toast shrilled her sister’s less-than-dulcet tones. In an unsurprising morning duet of well-practiced whining, Felicity’s voice was soon followed by Evylin’s.

“Yes, Mumsy darling, such a scandal under our roof. We really shouldn’t be expected to put up with it any longer.”

Felicity championed the cause once more. “This is ruining our chances”—crunch, crunch—“beyond all recuperation. It isn’t to be borne. It really isn’t.”

Alexia made a show of checking her appearance in the hall mirror, hoping to overhear more. Much to her consternation, the Loontwill’s new butler, Swilkins, came through with a tray of kippers. He gave her a disapproving glare that said much on his opinion of a young lady caught eavesdropping on her own family. Eavesdropping was, by rights, a butler’s proprietary art form.

“Good morning, Lady Maccon,” he said loudly enough for the family to hear even through their chatting and clattering, “you received several messages yesterday.” He handed Alexia two folded and sealed letters and then waited pointedly for her to precede him into the breakfast room.

“Yesterday! Yesterday! And why, pray tell, did you not give them to me yesterday?”

Swilkins did not reply.

Nasty bit of bother, this new butler. Alexia was finding that little was worse in life than existing in a state of hostility with one’s domestic staff.

Entering the breakfast room, Alexia actually flounced slightly in her annoyance and turned her ire upon those seated before her. “Good morning, dearest family.”

As she made her way to the only empty chair, four pairs of blue eyes watched her progress with an air of condemnation. Well, three pairs—the Right Honorable Squire Loontwill was entirely taken with the correct cracking of his soft-boiled egg. This involved the application of an ingenious little device, rather like a handheld sideways guillotine, that nipped the tip off the egg in perfect, chipless circularity. Thus happily engrossed, he did not bother to attend to the arrival of his stepdaughter.

Alexia poured herself a glass of barley water and took a piece of toast from the rack, no butter, trying to ignore the smoky smell of breakfast. It had once been her favorite meal; now it invariably curdled her stomach. So far, the infant-inconvenience—as she’d taken to thinking of it—was proving itself far more tiresome than one would have thought possible, considering it was years away from either speech or action.

Mrs. Loontwill looked with manifest approval at her daughter’s meager selection. “I shall be comforted,” she said to the table at large, “by the fact that our poor dear Alexia is practically wasting away for want of her husband’s affection. Such fine feelings of sentimentality.” She clearly perceived Alexia’s breakfast-starvation tactics as symptoms of a superior bout of wallowing.

Alexia gave her mother an annoyed glance and inflicted minor wrath upon her toast with the butter knife. Since the infant-inconvenience had added a small amount of weight to Alexia’s already substantial figure, she was several stone away from “wasting.” Nor was she of a personality inclined toward wallowing. In addition, she resented the fact that Lord Maccon might be thought to have anything whatsoever to do with the fact—aside from the obvious, of which her family was as yet unaware—that she was off her food. She opened her mouth to correct her mother in this regard, but Felicity interrupted her.

“Oh, Mama, I hardly think Alexia is the type to die of a broken heart.”

“Nor is she the type to be gastronomically