First, the Beaver and Henrik
The beaver was hard at work. The dam had still to begin working, and by now the winter tourists would be flooding into the Phrenneapsis House like so many droplets of water through the gappy dam.
Though across the half-frozen river from the winter cottage, the beaver could hear the shouts and smiles of the foolish visitors, tasted the thick hearth-smoke in the air along with the dead bodies of celandine flowers wafting through the mountain pass, watched as the younger and more foolish of the visitors’ children hobbled out onto the thin ice covering the first feet along the river’s edge.
A crash through the trees on his side of the water. The beaver at once halted the splintering of the slender ash sapling and crawled through the trees down toward the water, sliding out onto the ice and down into the seething, frothing riverwater. Head under, so that the people would not see him. Through the mash of ice and floe downriver toward his dam.
Henrik the young servant boy stood on the Phrenneapsis deck watching the beaver. His dark hair was long and covered his eyes like an impenetrable shield or mask. He stood barefooted on the snow-dusted wooden deck of the Phrenneapsis House as long as frostbite would let him, and then turned with a jerk as a lazy voice inside called out, “Henrik, will you come here?”
Henrik moved assuredly inside, walking confidently, asking, “Sir, a whiskey, perhaps?”
Second, the Beaver and Rhys
“Madam,” the strawberry-haired maid said in a breathy whisper, “the green?”
“No, Rhys, you stupid girl. The green clashes awfully with my brooch. I want the yellow.”
“The yellow is not back yet from the launderers, madam.”
“Well then get it from them, you stupid girl!”
“Rhys,” the white-haired raven-nosed lady called from her vanity once Rhys was halfway down the stairs, “Nevermind, the yellow clashes with my shoes. Get me the red.”
“Of course, madam.”
Rhys, the little red-haired Welsh girl, ran back up the stairs clutching her side.
“Rhys, what’s got into you?”
“Uh, uh, madam—er, it’s my side. My lungs, I mean. They’ve always been bad. Weak. Raspy.”
“Quiet. You think I care about your lungs?” the lady patted her hair in satisfaction then darted a look at Rhys in the mirror, her large eyes instantly narrow and dart-like. “Get on with it, girl. I want the red in two minutes.”
“Don’t call me ma’am, you daughter of a dung-shoveller. I am madam. Or milady.”
“Yes, madam. I apologize, madam.”
“Good. The red, now.”
The girl went and ran to the enormous barrel-chested mahogany wardrobe, rifling gingerly and quietly through the long, luxurious, expansive evening dresses. Regally, she pulled out a low-necked slim, swan-waisted crimson dress, beaded all over with butterflies of ruby and pearl.
Rhys brought it over to her mistress and helped pull it over her queen-like white ridged head. “Thank you, madam.”
“Obviously. Now, fasten the pearls on me and then run along.”
Rhys pinned the pearls together with trembling fingers, then, like her milady said, ran along out of the suite.
Fourth, the Beavers and Phrenneapsis
The Phrenneapsis Winter House was a luxurious manor of a winter cottage available for rent or buy to the righteously wealthy of Canada, a huge rambling brick-and-wood building with countless suites, servant’s rooms, ballrooms, dining rooms, and on and on. It opened in southern Nunavut in early September and closed in late April once the snow had begun to melt. The richest of the country brought their servants and their jewels and rented suites to dance the night away on the wood-and-brass decks overlooking the frosty Croker River. The beavers and the disgustingly rich shared the icy views of south Nunavut in late winter, feasted on the fresh salmon and carp, and breathed the free sharp-cold air running down the mountain passes and through the lungs.
Fifth, Rhys and Henrik
Rhys ran out onto the shabbier of the large decks over the river; the servants’ and management’s deck. She draped her trembling hands over the rail and tried to calm the thudding in her sides. The frost-coated elms and ash trees across the cracking river stood shimmering in the late-evening sunlight, shining like a mirror of beauty. Her throat was hot and tight. She swallowed.
Three quick thuds on the dense wood. She jumped. “Oh—I’m sorry,” came a voice behind Rhys as she whirled round.
It was a skinny dark-haired servant boy. Henrik, as he introduced himself.
“Do you work here?” she asked him. He came and stood next to her by the railing, not looking at her, but at the beaver working across the river.
“For the House? No. I’m the junior manservant to Lord Henri Kurt of the Gerngavich estate in the Yukon. You?”
“Oh,” she said. “Well, I’m the maid for the Lady Eylsa.—Of Farstate, in Quebec.”
“Ah, French royalty then.”
She laughed. “Yes. And acts like it, too.”
He smiled, then pointed at the beaver. “See that?”
“Yes. I know. The Lady keeps a dozen of them running around her mansion. They tend gnaw through her golden vanity table-legs.”
He laughed. “So you do not like your mistress much?”
Rhys looked at him curiously. She barely knew him, but trusted him already. He had the demeanor of someone you might trust with your life.
“No,” she admitted finally, under her breath.
“Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for you, I cannot sympathize.”
She laughed, like gentle ice cream-cart bells crashing together. “No?”
“No. Lord Kurt is younger than your lady, surely, and kind as an older brother.”
“You are lucky then. If only I’d hired myself to a kinder lady I might be happier. She cares nothing for me.”
Henrik turned and looked at her. “I am sorry,” he said, and meant it truthfully.
Sixth, Lady Eylsa and Lord Kurt
The lady looped her arm through the brown-bearded man’s elbow as he walked her to her suite. “Shall I find you maid for you, ma’am?”
She looked at him archly.
“Yes, please, Henri.”
“Where might she be?”
Eylsa waved her hand delicately, dismissively, “Outside, perhaps.”
He found them together, talking, a few feet away on the railing, looking out at the beaver cutting trees. He smiled before announcing himself.
“Henrik? Ah, you’re with the little lady. Madam, your mistress is waiting.”
She dipped a curtsey to him, “Thank you, sir,” and then Rhys looked at Henrik, “Goodbye, friend.”
Shaking her head, she left them both, walking with a small skip back to the irate raven-lady Eylsa of Farstate in Quebec. Strangely, her sides did not ache and her breathing was not laborious in the least.