A Lady of Resources

Munich, the Prussian Empire

June 1894

“Of all the infernal instruments man ever made, the corset is the worst.” Lizzie de Maupassant struggled with the hooks on the front of the glossy brocade undergarment, which one had to wear in order to make everything that went on top of it hang properly. “Look at this, Maggie. It bends where it oughtn’t and pokes everywhere else.” She smashed the placket together, which only made the hooks she’d managed already pop apart. “Argh!”

Lizzie flung the wretched thing across the Lady’s room, where it landed on the windowsill like an exhausted accordion.

“Fits of temper won’t solve anything.” Her twin’s tone held no criticism, only reason. “Come on. Let me have a go.”

Maggie rescued the poor corset, bought new for the grand occasion of the graduation of Lady Claire Trevelyan, the girls’ guardian, from the University of Bavaria, and passed it about Lizzie’s chemise-and petticoat-clad form.

“I don’t miss the old lace-ups,” Lizzie said, feeling calmer as Maggie’s clever fingers made short work of the row of hooks, “but I’ll say this for them—they were more forgiving of a mort’s curves than these new ones. Even if it were made specially for me.”

“Don’t say mort.”

“Ent nobody here but us. We don’t have to be so careful about our diction and deportment—” She mimicked the squeaky tones of Mademoiselle Dupree, the mistress of their class by that name. “—when we’re on our own.”

“The Lady says that’s the test of a true lady—that she does the right thing even when nobody’s looking.”

“Aye, more’s the pity,” Lizzie sighed. “We might pass our exams, but we’ll never remember everything she probably knew by the time she was ten.”

The door opened and the Lady herself breezed in. “All who knew? Goodness, Lizzie, we’re to be in the ballroom in two hours and you’re not even dressed, to say nothing of your hair.”

Maggie patted the corset and released her. “Won’t be a tick, Lady.” The corset now lay obediently where it ought, hugging Lizzie’s waist into a satisfyingly narrow width, and flaring out over hips and bust, which possessed dimensions not quite so satisfying. The Lady said to give it time, that she herself had been eighteen before resigning herself to a sylph-like silhouette rather than the majestic curves fashion now favored. But if one didn’t have an idea of one’s silhouette by now, then the odds weren’t very good, were they?

“Darlings, now that you’re sixteen, you really must call me by my given name.”

The twins, having only the vaguest idea of their birth date, had chosen the first day of spring when they had to make it official, such details being necessary when they had arrived in Munich and begun their formal educations at the Lycee des Jeunes Filles. By this reckoning, they had turned sixteen three months ago, and upon their own graduation from the fifth form at the end of June, would be considered young ladies, permitted to call an unmarried woman by her first name.

Young ladies now … out in society two years from now. A whole other problem. Lizzie shoved it from her mind and gave the Lady a hug, marveling once again that she was nearly as tall as the young woman to whom she and Maggie owed their very lives.

“But you know why we call you that in private,” she said. “And it’s got nothing to do with age, innit?”

The Lady hugged her back. “Not one bit. I suppose that if you were to stop altogether, I’d quite go to pieces and fear you didn’t love me anymore.”

Maggie laughed at this impossibility. “If it hadn’t been for you, we wouldn’t be here. Wouldn’t have lived in the cottage and learned our letters and numbers.”

“Wouldn’t have gone to the Texican Territories or the Canadas,” Lizzie added. “Or come here.”

“Or been shot at, blown up, or starved nearly to death,” the Lady said ruefully. “I’m afraid my skills as a guardian have been tested rather sorely.”

“Nothing wrong with guarding our own selves,” Lizzie said stoutly. “And you, even, sometimes.”

Claire laughed at the reminder. “Too true. There has been many a time when I’ve been thankful we were all fighting on the same side. The affair of the Kaiser’s nephew, for instance.”

Maggie crinkled up her nose. “Frog-face, you mean.”

“Precisely. I don’t think his dignity has recovered from that fish-pond yet.”

“If he wouldn’t propose to ladies who can’t stand him, such things wouldn’t happen,” Lizzie said.

“Ever my practical girl.” Warm fingers touched her cheek, and Lizzie felt a surge of love