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Mermaids in New Orleans Opening Excerpt

19 Jun
I wrote the first chapter from a New Orleans perspective. I leave the world building for later on (I received feedback that there was too much too soon in the London version). In this version, they have not yet discovered the existence of mermaids.

New Orleans, 1860
Chapter 1
As soon as Heloise entered the drawing room, all went quiet; the family rarely conversed in her presence and when they did, it concerned trivial matters or polite enquiries. But this time, they had asked for her especially and Heloise wondered why. She stole a quick glance at Mrs. Wilder but her expression was as impenetrable as always.

“You rang, madam?” Heloise said in a soft French accent.
Marianne Wilder, a sallow, thin person of forty, inclined her head. “As you might know, we are hosting a soiree tonight.”

Heloise bit her lower lip. She certainly did; she’d spent many hours polishing the silverwork and dusting the carpets for the occasion.

“Mr. Lark has made a historical discovery and means to introduce it to the world from our home. This is a great honor for us and it is of the utmost importance that he leaves this house with a favourable impression. Is that understood?” Mrs. Wilder demanded.

Heloise whispered in the affirmative, her dark lashes fluttering at the prospect.
Mrs. Wilder scrutinized the girl’s face; her sun-kissed complexion, brown eyes and the black curls that slipped from her colourful turban. Heloise took a deep breath, her hands clasped in comfort and Marianne caught a glimpse of her bosom in the tight, cream dress.

“We must find you something else to wear. This would be highly inappropriate.”

Mrs. Wilder eyed her daughter, Sophie – a plain girl of eighteen with a wide jaw and a predilection to pink garments with an abundance of ribbons; Sophie did not listen to the conversation but engaged in needlework. Mr. Wilder, by contrast, read the newspaper.

Marianne sighed. “For tonight, you can wear Catherine’s uniform.”

And, with a glance of disapprobation at the turban, she added: “And you will wear a servant’s cap. That is all. Leave us.”

That did not leave much room for discussion. Heloise wanted to speak out and beg the lady to leave her heritage untouched. But that would not aid her suit. I could be dismissed and then where will I go? Back to the plantation? To the French Quarter like my sister? Never! I would rather beg on the streets than sell my body to strangers.

Heloise nodded, curtsied and left the room. Once the door closed behind her, she balled her fists and muttered under her breath. As the only Creole slave girl in the house, no one would understand or judge. It brought her solitude as well as loneliness. When Heloise returned to the kitchen, Sarah rushed to her side to learn what had been discussed.

“So, what did the family want from you?” she asked.

Sarah could rarely contain her curiosity and sought excitement above all else. They had become fast friends since Heloise joined the household a month ago; however, they had little in common besides their profession and interest in literature.

“They want me to wear Catherine’s uniform. They deem my own dress ‘inappropriate’. I can’t wear my turban either.”

Sarah chuckled; her green eyes sparkled when she laughed. “They want that Mr. Lark to marry Sophie. I heard the missus say so myself. They probably think that your attire would draw too much attention – although they still want you to be there to show Mr. Lark how generous and open-minded they are.”

Heloise washed some dishes. “Why? What sort of man is Mr. Lark?”

“He’s a politician – rumored to be the next governor or something. His party believes in equality – even for slaves.”

Although Heloise had no interest in politics, she hoped he would prevail so her kind could soon live life as they saw fit. If she were a free woman, she would seek employment aboard one of those passenger airships. Travel had always eluded her but she found it of great interest. She wished to go to Europe; to visit Paris, the birthplace of her ancestors.

“Would you like to try on the uniform?” Sarah teased and elbowed her.

The uniform fitted her rather well; the two ladies were similar in size and build but as Heloise peeked into the mirror, she scarcely recognized the person staring back at her. She looked almost American, though rather tanned for a Southern belle. A well-travelled woman or an Italian immigrant perhaps.

The rest of the day was spent preparing the house for the rich and powerful of New Orleans. For Heloise, it would be her first social event. She knew little of etiquette and refinement but she often watched Sophie as she descended the staircase looking very grand and fine. Heloise stood in front of the mirror and emulated a few gestures she had observed. Her hands moved with grace and for a moment, she felt like a débutante.

“The first guests will soon be here. We’re expected downstairs,” Sarah warned her and off they went. 

The servants gathered at the front door, ready to take a coat or hat. When the doorbell rang, Heloise swallowed but it was simply an old lady. Many guests flocked to the house and Heloise began to feel secure.

“Mr. Lark!” Mrs. Wilder exclaimed and a tall, blonde gentleman approached her. His bow was deep and respectful; he straightened his back and gestured at the door.

“I have brought a friend – a man of great importance to what I am about to impart tonight,” he said and a man entered.

“Mrs. Wilder, allow me to introduce you to the most feared bounty hunter in the New World, Captain Gabriel Faulkner of Neptune Sorrow, the greatest ship in the Seven Skies.”