Before All Is Lost

Lady Henrietta Wickes was rich, pretty, and happy. Lord Benedict Wickes was rich, handsome, and evil. When Henrietta found out, she blindly ran. Now she's stuck in the cutthroat underbelly of society known as the Crease. Henrietta is rescued by the group called Temper Mints and finds refuge in the patchwork family of illegal magicians, mechanics, and thieves. Henrietta trades her social savvy for street smarts. Benedict plans to replace the aristocracy with a tyranny. Struggling with the ethics of law versus humanity, Henrietta must protect her new friends, fight off a new love interest, and save the country from her husband.


1. Behind Closed Doors

Anyone close enough to Lady Wickes could see the silver necklace glinting on her collarbone. She was descending the stairs, dressed up like a princess. And to her husband, she was a queen. She gave a smile, eyes on Lord Wickes. She was certainly pretty, with silvery eyes and copper hair that was piled into a curly mass on her head. She was dressed in a striking navy gown, her waist drawn up in a corset and accentuated with a wide skirt.

The guests considered the couple to be very well off. She young and pretty, he one of the most well-to-do in society. It even seemed that they were truely fond of one another. At one point, they had been caught scandelously meeting together, unchaperoned, in the lady's garden. Yes, they were well off indeed. The other women deftly made room for her bustling skirts and the dinner party began.

Lord Wickes took her hand, inclining slightly to brush his lips against her fingers.

"Henrietta." He said, softly. Although married, it was still improper to refer to one another by their first name in public, particularly at such a formal occasion.

"Benedict." She whispered back, eyes glinting. He grinned slightly, slipped a hand around her silken waist and began to dance.

Then Geneve came in.

She slipped out of the kitchen, skirts dripping water on the marble floors. Her drenched  hair was flyaway from its bun and her hands wrung in their nervous habit.

As conspicuously as a maid could among the grand upper class, she made her way to Lord Wickes.

"Lord, sir?" She asked, nervously. "Thersa someone here ta see ya, m'Lord."

"What's wrong, Geneve?" Henrietta asked, dropping one hand from her husband's shoulder to clasp the maid's.

"Hesa just a bit pushy'n mam." Geneve didn't look just as though she'd been 'pushy'n'-ed around. She looked more as though she'd had a knife pushed against her ribs. Her already pasty face was white, and her fashionable doe-eyes were wide as wells.

Henrietta looked at Benedict. Someone at the kitchen-door was hardly a thing to be upset about. But Geneve was in a mess if she'd felt she had to get Lord Wickes. And his brow was furrowed like it always was when thinking hard.

"Bene- My Lord?" She asked, timidly, now aware that others had noticed Geneve's impromptu interruption.

He gave her an easy smile that didn't affect his eyes. Hard eyes. Strong eyes. It comforted her, both the smile and the strength. But the lie behind the smile did not. "I'll go see what this is about. I'm sure it's just a 'pushy'n' beggar." His joke calmed the guests, and the resumed the talking and eating.

But Henrietta knew better. Benedict would not go to the door just for a beggar. He knew this... whoever it was.

Geneve lead Benedict to the kitchen, and Henrietta went to the door once they were gone. She pressed her ear to the wood.

"-ot to meet me here." Benedict's voice was a low growl. Henrietta frowned. She'd never heard that voice from her husband's mouth before.

"An emergency. Couldn't wait." The voice came in gasping breaths. "As you ca- ah! See..." Henrietta felt as though she could hear the man's wincing. What was going on?

The door flew open and Henrietta jumped back. Not before the handle snatched at her arm, however, and she gave a gasp.

Geneve's face went whiter. "M'lady! Isa sorry'n! Isa just comin out like m'lord said ta!" She stammered, taking Henrietta's hand apologetically.

Henrietta looked up, face flushed, to see her husband in the doorway. His face was almost angry. She felt as though she might begin to stammer like Geneve.

"What's the matter, dear?" He asked, taking her hand gently from the frantic Geneve.

"I'm sorry... I just- it seemed strange." She blinked, feeling foolish.

He smiled again, and she relaxed. "It's just a friend." He answered soothingly. "He's in need of some help, and we go back a ways." Benedict reached up to touch her cheek, then dropped his hand down beside her neck.

Emboldened by her husband's reaction to her eavesdropping, she went on.

"What was the emergency?"

Benedict's face hardened. "How much did you hear?" He withdrew his hand.

"Just a li- I didn't mean to... is he alright? He sounded hurt." She blurted out. Never again, she thought, will I muddle in my husband's affairs.

"Nocks is fine. I'll take care of everything." Benedict said. "Geneve, take Hettie upstairs and tend to her arm."

Face heated, she clutched at her arm as the two made their way through the group of guests who were gawking at the scene. Her neck tingled where Benedict had touched her.

"M'lady'sa be okay'n. Yeup, jus' fine. 'Etta'll be takin' care of right good'n... yeup. Yeup yeup." Geneve gabbled.

It wasn't until she was alone in her room, a bruise forming on her arm, when she realized that her necklace was gone.

* * * * *

Henrietta clutched at her throat. Had she not been stifled in her corset, she would have gasped. It was treacherous luck. Few nobles would consider picking up spare jewelry thievery, and no one would challenge them to it. After all.... possession is 99 percent on the law.

Though to be honest, it was worth only so much. Henrietta always wore silver instead of gold. Perhaps the other ladies would leave it be.

It had been Benedict's first gift to Henrietta, during one of their late-night garden visits. She smiled slightly at the thought. They'd been impulsive then. She frowned. Obviously, she was still impulsive.

Henrietta understood she'd displayed distrust to her husband. For that, she was ashamed. But the way Benedict had reacted certainly didn't make her trust him more.

Trust him more...

She stared at herself in the looking glass with shock. The earrings shed been holding clattered to the carpet. Henrietta's mind scrambled as though the scandalous thoughts had upset her whole mind.

Determinedly, she stood, as though firmly leaving her thoughts behind. Just as she whirled around, copper hair flying, Benedict opened the door.

Henrietta stood, frozen with shame and worry. What a horrid mess she'd made. And over what? An old friend of Benedict's, in need of help. Some help Henrietta had been. But.... why was he smiling?

"Good evening, love." Benedict said, stepping in. He closed the door behind him, and Henrietta stood stiffly, head raised, expecting... she didn't know what. "Oh, dear. There you are, giving me the Queen's Stare. I'm horribly sorry, love. I didn't mean to hurt your arm. Is it feeling better?" He took her arm in his hand.

"I don't-" She started. What was this? She'd eavesdropped on him, he'd been mad, and now... he wasn't? But she'd made a scene at the ball! and Geneve certainly didn't help.

Benedict sighed. "I can't expect you to forgive me right off. I acted a bit of a fool, didn't I?"

Then it dawned on Henrietta that her husband wasn't mad at her. He was concerned. In a warm rush of gratitude, her heart swelled and she stepped forward to hug him.

* * * * *

Benedict had sent the ball away. Those closest to them would have seen eh whole affair, and the more acute nobles would have pieced together what happened. The rest had been mollified with a story about a beggar who assaulted the door as Henrietta, being a good host and wonderful wife, was just nearing it.

Being savvy at navigating the intricate waters of noble life, Henrietta approved of the story. While the truth was hardly scandalous, it certainly wouldn't reflect well on their reputation.

The next morning, Henrietta was enduring another corset session with Geneve. The fashion device was confining, but she had been born and raised a noble. It was hardly a thing to neglect.

Girls who lived in the Crease wore their corsets loose. The very idea of fully tightening them was ludicrous. The Crease was the underbelly of society. Black markets, thieves and rogues, illegal magic Tempering and to be honest, the major source of mechanics for Brotagery. But it was lawless. Cruel. Might makes right. Girls there needed to be quick and limber, not attractive. Being pretty would only attract trouble anyways.

Geneve tied the last knot and stepped back, face red.

"All'sa set m'lady." She panted.

"Thank you, Geneve." Henrietta murmured. Her neck looked bare without the necklace. She touched her throat.

"Ya look lovely'n, m'lady." Geneve grinned, pushing her wirey red hair back. "Like a queen."

Iron colored eyes peered into the earnest blue ones. Geneve seemed to all but forgotten last night, and certainly wouldn't let anything she thought ruin the new day for her mistress. Henrietta's lips gave a ghost of a smile.

Henrietta stood up. "Pass me the green dress, Geneve. Green means a new start."

Geneve nodded sagely. "I'sa always new ya were a wise'n, m'lady. You'll be the prettiest lady at breakfast."

Henrietta laughed. "I'll be the only one there, unless my husband has been hiding something from me." She winced, imperceptibly, at the thought. Again she had showed mistrust.

But Geneve merely chortled, the unintended implication going over her head. "Aye, then he'll have somethin' to say'n to ya." The maid pulled a green morning dress from the wardrobe and began to help Lady Wickes into it.

"Geneve?" Henrietta said, stopping as she pulled up a lacy sleeve.

"Yesh'm?" Geneve asked around a mouthful of safety-pins.

"I- never mind me, Geneve." Henrietta said.

Henrietta came down the staircase. It was old and rich. The Wickes family family was one of the wealthiest in the country. Henrietta, however, had come from a relatively poor family, as far as nobles went.

Her parents had died when she was only five, and most of their possessions had burned in the fire. Henrietta had been sent to live with her Great Aunt Cythna, who was 'privately unconventional' as she loved to say.

"It takes sass and spunk to survive, Henri." She would grin devilishly. "Then it takes smarts and savvy to make it publicly."

Most ladies were raised to be just smart enough to excell socially, but Cythna made certain Henrietta's brains didn't go to rot.

"Marry for riches and love can take its own sweet time." Cythna advised. "That way you can be comfy and enjoy falling in love at the same time." Then she gave an unladylike like wink.

Cythna was delighted when at the ripe old age of sixteen, 'Henri' had fallen in love with the richest bachelor in the country. Of course, almost all the girlswere moony-eyed over the handsome Benedict. What was really special was how he returned her affection.

Henrietta walked into the breakfast room. Benedict looked up from his plate, a smile growing on his face.

"Good morning, love." He said.

He was a handsome man, to go along with his handsome wealth. He had a young build to his face, but you could see that he had to shave daily. He had dark eyes that could swiftly move from laughing mischievously to conducting serious business. Benedict’s dark hair was swept above his forehead, and he had light sideburns along his face. 

"Good morning." She smiled back, lifting her skirts to sit down. Out of habit, she reached up to finger her silver pendant. Henrietta frowned when she remembered it wasn't there.

"What's wrong?" He eyed her down-turned mouth and furrowed brow as his picked up his knife.

"Oh... my necklace went missing last night." She admitted.

"Benedict frowned sympathetically. "That's a soldering shame."

Henrietta smiled at his slang. Like Cythna, he came across as regal in public, but in private he didn't mind dropping airs a bit.

"It was a beautiful gift." She agreed.

"Perhaps we could get a Temperor to make a replacement." Benedict commented, eating a bite.

Emperors were magicians of a sort. Originally, they were called Temperaments. But when the heir of the throne became a Temperament, he was jokingly called the Temperor. The name stuck and soon spread to all Temperaments.

Temperors were vital to Seolofor. They tempered pure magic, diluting it so it could be bound into Mechanics. The term Mechanics covered a broad range of items. 'Standard Temperors' could make metal alloys that allowed magic to be infused into the metal. This was the technique that apprentices began with, and some never progressed past. However, others moved on to true Machinery. Machines run by a combination steam and magic that could do wonderful things. These Expert Temperors had to have the gifts of clock-makers, smiths, and, of course, Tempering. It was a precise art... too strong, or 'pure' of a magic and Mechanics broke down. Too little and the infusion process caused the Mechanics to 'snap' the magic... a sometimes fatal accident.

There were plenty of illegal Temperors to be found, ones with no license for magic. But it was rumored that they had secrets that others could only dream of, secrets passed down by years and years of experimenting and zealously guarded techniques.

"Temperor?" Henrietta asked. "Why a Temperor?"

Benedict blinked and then laughed, setting down his fork. "You didn't realize it was magical?" He looked at her amused.

Henrietta was shocked. "I hadn't the slightest!"

"Well, darling, I'm not so cheap so as to give you a necklace that was no more than a titanium medallion." Her husband chuckled. "It was infused with dragon magic, dear. Hence the titanium... it takes a strong metal to hold it."

It did indeed. Dragon magic was arguably the most powerful. Henrietta hadn't been schooled enough in Tempering magic to understand what Dragon magic meant, however.

"What did it do?" She said hesitantly, after a few more bites of egg. She hated to come across as stupid again.

"Oh, it was enchanted to make you love me for all eternity against your will." Benedict said flippantly.

Henrietta froze.

I’ve been living a lie my whole life? None of this is true? She thought. And how could he do that to anyone?! And then talk about it as though it were no more than a menu order.

Benedict laughed again. "Only jesting, my dear. No need to give me the Queen's Stare. It was a protection charm." He leaned forward and took her hand, smiling.

She relaxed. How much did it say that he had been trying to protect her before they were married. It warmed her heart.

All mistrust was gone. 

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