Empires of Smoke: Chapter 1
Part of me wanted to stay. To stay out here forever, leaning against the mausoleum door. It wasn’t because they were in there. They weren’t. I knew that much, unlike Mother. No, whatever memories of them remained were inside the manor. It was hard to say why I wanted to stay out here, in the cold, damp, misery that was the graveyard.
Perhaps I didn’t want to have to go back to the manor. It was just a vast emptiness without Father sitting by the fire smoking his pipe. Without Max in the greenhouse studying and taking care of his plants. Without the liveliness of their conversation at the dinner table. Max tried to explain the latest interesting thing he noticed, Mother talking about the latest gossip, Father and I debating politics.
Perhaps I simply didn’t want to have look at those vultures again. Uncle Frederick, Aunt Cecilia, and a lot of them. Scavengers all with the same story. We just want to support you and your mother. All the while plotting in the background. Mother wasn’t well mentally. All they needed was some way to get me out of the way. Then, they’d fight among themselves for Father’s fortune.
Perhaps going inside meant moving forward. It meant accepting something vastly different. Not just because they were gone. But because of all the responsibilities that were left to me. Because it meant facing a future permanently scarred. A future without my arm. A future I didn’t feel ready for, and one that I was pretty sure I would never be ready for. That is as long as I stayed out here, it wouldn’t come.
That wasn’t true though, and I knew it. That future was here, now. This was just running and hiding from it.
It had only been a few minutes. The pain in my stump had died down to a more reasonable level. My throat hurt from the scream. The cold and the damp had seeped through my dress. At least two of those things could be solved by a warm cup of wine.
A weary sigh escaped me. Straightening up, I slowly pulled the prosthetic fist away from the mausoleum. Where it had struck the marble, it had left a clear dent in the shape of the knuckles. No one else would notice it. Since no one else with their senses about them was going to be coming out here anytime soon.
People were far more likely to notice if the arm itself was damaged. So I checked it over as I started slowly back to the house. The digits were all still immaculate, their bronze sheen not tarnished in any way. None of the gears seemed so much as a fraction of an inch out of alignment.
The craftsmanship was little condolence to having lost my actual arm. Regardless of if it was the best prosthetic in the world, it was not my real arm. I would never be able to feel the grass through it. There would always be that little disconnect between it and myself. Every piece of clothing I would ever own would have to be altered to accommodate it.
Voices managed to reach me through the windows, blazing with light in the evening dim. The vultures circled through halls, inspecting their feast. It made my lips pull back in a snarl. Maybe a fraction of them truly deserved to be here. Enjoying our food and drink. Enjoying our house.
Yet they were here. Until the legal matters were settled and it was determined if Mother would recover her wits, they would continue to circle. Prodding and preening themselves as they waited to see what morsel they might get. None of it. As long as I live, none of them would get anything.
Forcing my face back into something that likely resembled a porcelain mask, I opened the side door. The sounds of the reception washed over me like a wave. A muted mix of conversation, the shuffling of people, and the clinking of glasses. After how quiet the house had been for the last two weeks, I should have been grateful for the noise.
The silence was much more preferable to this. Stepping into the house, warm air rushed past me before the door shut tight. The fireplaces were blazing, as the servants tried their best to chase off the chill of death. In a macabre sort of way, there was some humor to be found in the futility of it. The heat wasn’t going to fill the void of their dead master. Nor would it restore Mother to her senses and role as mistress of the house.
The only one left for that was me. It was a responsibility I had yet to properly take up. Grief had kept me from truly moving into my Father’s role as head of the household. Something that was going to have to change here and now.
I centered myself with a deep breath. On any other occasion, the scent would have been divine. The smell of wine and baked goods, cologne, and perfume. The smell of a party. It served to guide me toward where the vast majority of the guests were located. At least, until I rounded a corner and spotted her.
Aunt Cecilia was so unlike my mother, it seemed ridiculous that they were sisters. Where one was soft, the other was sharp. Where one was a little chubby, the other seemed like a walking skeleton. Where one had long black hair usually in a bun, and the other had a short bob of red curls. Where one was always dressed traditionally, the other only wore the newest fashions. Even at her own brother’s funeral, she had to wear something modern. A long black dress with fur at the edge of the sleeves, and a deep v-shaped neckline. Not that she had anything to show with it.
Rather than being with the rest of the guests, she was explaining a very elaborate drink order to one of the maids. As I walked by, it seemed for a moment that she was not going to notice me. The sound of my boots clicking against the tiles gave me away, however. She turned, brown eyes widening once they settled on me. One hand came up as if to flag me down. “Elaine, dear, would you wait a moment?” It took most of my willpower to not keep walking. For the sake of decorum, I turned to wait for her. Looking back to the maid, she raised a finger to point at the girl. Charlotte, that’s what her name was. “Go on now, I expect that drink to be exactly as I asked. Heaven knows the last two haven’t been.”
The corners of my lips fell slightly as she scurried off. What expensive and ridiculous concoction had she asked Charlotte to fetch for her? “Aunt, you have to give the servants some leeway. Between the… deaths, and having to hire replacements, some mistakes are to be expected. Especially when you ask for one of your city cocktails.”
She sighed, making a dramatic show of placing her hand against her chest. “I suppose dear, but I’m trying to deal with the death of my brother! How can I manage that when I can’t even get the drink I want?”
I stared down at her for several long moments. It had the desired effect, making her shift in unease before continuing. “Of course dear, what I’m going through can’t be anything compared to what you and your mother are dealing with. It’s remarkable how well you’re holding up everything considered. If I went through what you did, I’d almost definitely be in the same state as your Mother. Losing a husband and a son…”
No, you wouldn’t. It was an extremely uncharitable thought, but it was a true one. It was no secret that Aunt Cecilia’s relationship with her husband was non-existent. Instead of saying that, I refocused the conversation. “Perhaps the part of me that would have turned into a sobbing wreck burned away in the crash, hm?”
There was some morbid joy to be taken from seeing her reaction to that. Her eyes darted down to my prosthetic arm, beads of liquid still present on it from the damp outside. Then to my jaw, where the smallest fringe of my burn scars slipped past my neck.
She swallowed, fiddling with her hands. “Um. Yes, I suppose coming that close to death would change your outlook on things.”
Change my outlook? It was odd that she actually managed to get that close to the truth. Even if I had led her to the conclusion by the nose. “Someone has to take care of the estate. Mother’s… not in the state to do so. So that leaves me to handle affairs.”
“You don’t have to be strong, dear.” The seemingly genuine tone in her voice made me pause. In her eyes, I thought I saw some glimmer of sincerity. “You went through a lot, you deserve time to process and grieve just as much as your mother. You don’t have to force yourself to be strong for her. Your servants can survive just fine on their own. The estate can wait.” For a moment, it seemed like my view of Aunt Cecilia was wrong. Until she opened her mouth again. “Everyone in the family is willing to support you. If you’re absolutely insistent on affairs being handled, Uncle Frederick or I could reasonably handle those on your behalf.” “No.” The intensity of that single word made her stop. “Apologies, but… No. I am bent.” The prosthesis came up, its fingers curling into a fist. “I’m not broken. Father did not raise me to pass my responsibilities on to someone else. Once everything is in order, if I need some more time, I will take it. For now, I am fine.” “If you’re sure dear…” There was a very real sense of doubt in her voice. As if she expected me to break down sobbing at any moment like Mother.
“I am sure. Now, if that’s the only thing you wanted, I believe I should act the part of hostess.” It was just in time, as Charlotte was coming back with the drink. Sure enough, it looked like some monstrosity that could only be born from having one’s tastebuds destroyed.
“Charlotte, when you get the chance, have someone bring me a cup of fresh mulled wine. I’ll be in the main hall.” Not giving her time to respond, I left. Behind me, Cecilia was already questioning the girl about the exact contents of the drink. As if it were the most important thing in the world.
The mood inside the main hall was somber. Even with all the light coming from the fireplaces and the chandelier. Perhaps it was exactly because of the light. It illuminated the centerpiece of the room, a massive family portrait. Father, Max, Mother, and I sat before a seemingly black void. In reality, it had been a large drape meant to ensure we had proper lighting for the painter.
Quickly looking away, my eyes scanned over everything. Family friends, business acquaintances, and relatives both distant and near were spread out across the entire room. Clustered around coffee tables, fireplaces, and windows just chatting with one another. I’d practically met all of them during the visitation. I knew maybe fifteen of them really truly cared about what happened. The rest were just here because it was expected of them, or worse, were actively trying to gain from his death.
“Welcome back Elaine, get everything out of your system?” It was difficult not to glare as my head slowly turned toward the person who spoke.
Uncle Frederick, in comparison to Aunt Cecilia and my mother, was very similar to my father. They both had the same brown hair, kept cut close and greased back. They both had facial hair, though instead of the thin mustache my father preferred, he allowed his to grow into a full beard. They both had the same broad and tall build. The primary difference was that while my father had cultivated the image of gentility, my uncle cultivated an image of intimidation.
“Is a daughter and sister not allowed to say a few final words in private?” There was no way for me to keep the bite out of my voice. He just smiled and stood. Gesturing for me to take his seat.
“It’d be a cruel word if you weren’t allowed. I just wanted to make sure you weren’t too tired by everything. After all, a lot has happened. I wouldn’t blame you if you had acted like your mother.” The slight condescending tone in his voice made me grind my teeth.
“I’m fine. I assume you all wish to discuss a bit about the family business?” Gathered around the small coffee table were Father’s primary business partners. Now, they were my business partners.
“But of course, we just want to catch you up on what’ll be happening going forward.” Stepping towards the seat, I found myself thankful I inherited Father’s height. It meant I could look Frederick dead in the eye before I sat myself down.
“I know what’s going to be happening, it was pretty clear in the will.” He didn’t move to take a new seat after I sat down. Of course, he didn’t. The man wanted the chance to loom over me. “The will establishes what happened involving you and the household. It didn’t include what will be happening in the company itself.” He spoke as he moved slightly, to pull a cigar out. His hand moved to the back of the chair, brushing against one of my shoulders.
“We don’t want to keep you out of the loop, you see. Indomitable wouldn’t be where it is now without your father’s work.” One of the other business partners spoke up for the first time. “Yes,” Frederick cut him off “without Theo, we wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are now. I could have made literally no mistake in the business side of things, it wouldn’t have mattered without the products your father helped develop.” “There was never anyone as intelligent as Father.” That made him look at me. The shining metal of the prosthetic felt cold underneath my fingers as I rubbed it. The latest in high-end prosthetics, developed by Indomitable.
“I think he would have disagreed with you there.” A small puff of smoke rose into the air as he let go of a drag. “Oh, sure he was an academic genius, but he wasn’t cut out for business. He wouldn’t have sold anything if I hadn’t been there.”
“I’m sure he could have managed it without you.” A fair amount of bite slipped into my tone. Father would have probably done far better without Frederick's interference.
He chuckled after a moment. "I suppose he probably could have managed something."
The cigar was dropped into an ashtray, and a wine glass was picked up. "After all, he managed to raise two excellent children. That's the greater tragedy here. Not the death of an old man, but the child who could have surpassed him! Nonetheless, at least one of the children he spoke so highly of survived. His legacy will live on."
It surprised me to hear him talking like this. What was his goal? "Thank you Uncle, you're too kind."
"You're welcome, dear." He had this small smile on his face. That smile told me that he was about to do something.
"Everyone!" He flicked the wine glass, the fine crystal reverberating with a high-pitched sound. "My niece wishes to make an announcement."
… That rat bastard.