Prelude - April 1798
The courier, puffing and dripping with rain, brought the papers at five minutes past midnight. For Sir Alaric Fitzwilliam, master of spies, the delivery meant a long night of work got even longer.
The damp leather of the correspondence bag smelled of horse and tobacco. Sitting down at the desk in his study, Sir Alaric pulled out the bag’s contents: one letter wrapped around a second. He unfolded the outer page first. The thick paper was expensive, obviously from Lord Bedford’s own stock.
A single line of writing: It is as you suspected.
The Hellfire League had returned. This was grave news.
As Sir Alaric fingered the edge of the page, rain spattered against the windows with a forlorn sound. Stillness hung over London’s soaking streets.
The second letter lay on the desk before him. The seal was red, stamped with the outline of a moth. Despite his experience, despite his own considerable power, Sir Alaric felt a tremor of fear. The seal confirmed the League was active. They used the moth as their signature.
The League cannot win this war. I am the Master. I will fight them. He picked up the letter. The wax seal, already lifted from the paper by Bedford’s knife, crumbled as he unfolded the page. Scarlet specks of wax sprinkled the desk and the white of his cuffs.
Sir Alaric pulled his candle closer. It did little to dispel the heavy shadows that blurred the cluttered corners of the room. The only comforting touch was the light snoring of Lady, the greyhound sprawled on the carpet before the fire.
She was the one creature who saw all of his secret faces. His role as the Master was but the first. He was also a member of the Circle, a handful of ancient families who carried the gift of magic in their blood. That heritage gave him a frightening perspective on the letter Bedford had intercepted:
The French are agreeable to our price for assistance with the Irish plan. We will draw down the darkness. Send the word to meet in the usual place at the time of the Lion.
Draw down the darkness. It was the blackest of the League’s canon of foul sorceries. The time of the Lion, when the sun was in Leo, was high summer. It was a good, dry time of year for the French to mount a military invasion.
It is beyond what I dreaded. Sir Alaric sat a moment, swallowing down his anxiety. Fear garners nothing. Action gains results.
He flipped the paper over. Who wrote this letter? To whom was it written? There was neither salutation nor signature. Bedford did not indicate whether or not he knew the identity of the author.
There was good reason for caution. The Circle had its hidden malcontents, those that privately pursued unscrupulous aims. They formed the Hellfire League. No one was certain who made up its ranks, and they were dangerous foes.
The Master pondered, listening to the rain on the window. If he was reading the message right, the League had just agreed to help the French attack England. That was treason.
And, the best thing he could do was let the plot unfold. When the Hellfire League gathered, there would be a unique opportunity to capture all of its elusive members. The question was how. The Circle--the ones he knew could be trusted--would not be able to accomplish the task alone. Gifted though they were, most were not warriors. They had none of the skills necessary to smoke out a conclave of villains.
The Master leaned his elbows on the desk, resting his chin in his hands. Not many men, even amongst his spies, would survive a confrontation with the League. Even subtle Lord Bedford was not enough of a fighter. The right agent would have to be both clever and deadly.
By the time the hands of the gold-mounted clock in the entrance reached midnight, Redfern would be triumphant or dead. He had work to do, and his quarry would likely object.
Nights like this--fraught with daring and intrigue--came far too often. In the last five years, he had been shipwrecked, pursued by both French and Austrian armies, and frozen in the icy wastelands of Canada. By comparison, an evening at London’s fashionable Apollonian Rooms was soft work. Nevertheless, the cold breath of treachery might whisper through even the dullest social occasion.
One can but hope, or my night is wasted, he thought, full of weary resignation as the footman took his card with a courteous nod. An impeccably-dressed gentleman of fashion, Redfern would easily gain entry. The cut of his coat hid the garrote, the pistol, and both knives. It paid to hire a good tailor. The footman read the card and bowed slightly. The son of an earl and the grandson of the cantankerous Marquess of Bavington, Redfern was welcome everywhere that mattered.
Redfern approached the top of the marble stairs that swept into the rooms. The décor was elegant, with ivory silk draperies and gold sconces. Despite the cool night, the women were dressed in filmy gowns à la Grecque. It was said the finest gowns were so sheer a lady could draw them through her wedding band. Being of manly and mortal flesh, he hoped the style would linger.
At least two hundred members of England’s aristocracy filled the rooms, their numbers fleshed out by wealthy merchants and the usual smattering of hangers-on. They were the cream of London, hot with discussion about the corn markets, the upcoming elections, and that French General Bonaparte. What these men said mattered. Many had the ear of the king, or at least that of the dissolute heir apparent.
That morning, Redfern had received a coded--and rather vague--letter ordering him to this elegant gathering. Sir Alaric required his presence and his expertise. Somewhere in the throng of wine-swilling, pastry-crunching ton lurked a traitor. The Master had questions of an urgent nature for this turncoat.
And which one will it be? Redfern wondered, looking out over the crowd. In an hour, he would meet with the spymaster and, like a relentless hound, he would be set upon the traitor’s scent. Weariness settled over his heart. He was good at his work, but he did not relish it. He was a spy of necessity, his half of a bargain to save his family from ruin.
“Nicholas Saville, Viscount Redfern.”
So announced, he descended the stairs, recognizing a duke here, a marchioness over there. Making his way to an ornately carved archway, he allowed the undertow of the crowd to pull him along. Before he met the Master, he would have a look around, learn who of interest was here and, just as significantly, who was absent. To the right was a salon dotted with gaming tables, and he turned in that direction. Where there was money, there was power. Where there was power, there were villains.
Someone passed by, brushing close. With a fighter’s instincts, Redfern drew back, his eyes widening, muscles tight, but the man merely walked on.
Lord Bedford, he thought. He had met him before, but long ago, probably in some gaming hell both would like to forget. Curiosity piqued, Redfern followed the man for a few steps, watching him disappear into a room set with card tables.
Redfern stopped in the doorway, his hand on the frame. Bedford paused to talk to someone, a red-haired man Redfern did not know. There was nothing remarkable in their expressions, so he marked the incident for later consideration. There were other claims on his attention.
Somewhere, there was a traitor. One by one, he searched the tables, looking for something, someone out of place. A gesture or a posture would give away his quarry. He would know it as surely as a musician could pick out a sour note. That certain sensitivity, that nose for a lie, was his gift.
“I don’t recall seeing your name on the guest list.”
Redfern felt himself go still at the sound of her voice. Very slowly, he took his hand from the doorframe and turned. His body felt sluggish, as if his mind were moving faster than the physical world around him.
“Hello, Helen,” he said, feeling every nerve in his skin grow white hot. This was a meeting he both craved and dreaded.
Helen Barrett was as tall as he, but slight, elf-like. When Redfern first met her, he had been attending Oxford with her brother and she had been a pretty school girl ten years their junior. Now a woman in her early twenties, Helen was stunning. She wore one of the Grecian-style gowns, the sheer drapery caught at the waist with a belt of twisted gold. The soft fabric seemed to melt into her flesh, leaving little to his imagination.
“I heard rumors that you were alive. I heard rumors that you were dead. I did not know which to believe.” She tilted her head slightly to one side, looking him up and down.
“Helen,” he said again, pulling breath back into his lungs. Here, now, was the worst possible time to meet her. He was surrounded by danger, enmeshed in espionage.
“I’m glad you remember my name,” she replied, her voice thick with sudden emotion. She stopped, clearing her throat. “And, apparently, you recall my face. I thought perhaps one or both had slipped your mind. It has been three years since I last saw you. That is a long time.”
Redfern took a few steps away from the doorway, toward an alcove sheltered by a potted orange tree. Helen followed, her movements slow and automatic.
“I was detained abroad,” he said. “You know that. I had business interests to look after.”
“And this business took three years?” Her eyes, the soft gray of old silver, were wide and bright. Redfern reached for her arm, but she pulled back, her expression growing distant, as if her soul were in retreat.
“Please, Helen,” he said softly. There had been no safe way to put in a letter that he was a spy, only that he must make journey after journey, always with the hope he would return soon to England. “I need to explain so much, but not here. This is a terrible night for such a discussion.”
“Nicholas, what do you want of me? Do you want me to wait yet again?” She pressed her lips together. “No. I am done waiting.”
He had made a mistake. Something in her tone made him push all other matters from his mind. The fate of nations could wait a quarter hour. His voice dropped yet lower, careful of eavesdroppers. “I want you as my wife.”
“So you said. When, precisely, is this supposed union to take place? I would have liked some hint of it--perhaps in a Christmas letter--perhaps Christmas of last year, or the year before that. I’ve lost track of how long I have been . . .” she hesitated, as if searching her thoughts, “. . . pining. Pining. Such a strange word, as if I were a tree.” She closed her eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m so . . . I do not mean to sound shrewish. I . . .”
“Oh, my love,” he said, forcing down a smile. Even in her distress, there was something of her imaginative spirit. “I wrote as often as I could.”
“So you did, with great wit and elegance. You were most decidedly in your element. Your enjoyment in a turn of phrase, a descriptive passage, was abundantly clear. I began to think you had more use for me as a correspondent than as a lover.” Helen looked away, the clear, strong lines of her face as still as a portrait carved in ivory. “Your punctuation was impeccable.”
Redfern reached out again, picking up her hand. He could feel her quick, faint pulse. “My last letter received no answer. Your reply was lost.”
A flush crept over her cheeks. “There was no answer.”
He had thought to raise her fingers to his lips. Instead, he let her hand slide from his grasp. “Why not?”
She turned those dark silver eyes on him. “There would always be another delay, another reason to stay abroad. It was clear you were never coming back.”
Redfern flushed. “Not so clear as that. You see--I am here.”
“How long have you been in London?”
“A week only.”
“A week, and not one of your celebrated letters. Not a visit. Not a card.” She smiled and lifted her shoulder in a delicate, ironic shrug. “What am I to think? Your devotion has curdled like last Sunday’s milk.”
“I have duties awaiting me here.” His excuse limped even in his own ears.
“Am I not a duty? Believe me, I was waiting.”
Redfern frowned, frustrated by her words and manner. And yet, it was true, circumstances had been unfair to her. He would atone, however she liked. All he wanted was to feast on her--first with his eyes, and then with every other faculty.
“Tell me, Nicholas,” she asked softly, “when do I receive the same attention as a duty?”
He took a step closer. “You have always received my consideration. I love you.”
She put the flat of her hands on his chest to stop him. “I grow old and wither under the cold blast of your consideration.”
“There were dragons to slay, my dear.”
Her angry eyes were the color of hot smoke. Redfern watched the flush of temper rise up her throat to her cheeks. His own chest ached with wanting her, and wanting to shake her. If she would only wait until we are alone! he thought. I will explain it all. But which secrets would be safe to tell? Perhaps none.
“If not a dragon,” she said in a low, tight voice, “there was a hydra; if not a hydra, a hippogriff. You wrote time and again to say you would come once you had done this or that. Yet you always found one more reason to linger. You shamed me with your absence. You broke me with waiting.”
There was something she did not say, some subtle message that shot a bolt of panic through his gut. Reaching out again, he caught her by the shoulders. She stiffened, but still he brushed his lips against hers, the merest suggestion of a kiss. True, it was uninvited and, yes, utterly inappropriate in such a setting. He did not care. He was losing her.
He could feel the catch of her breath against his lips as she stifled her first response. For the briefest moment, he felt the soft, scented brush of her cheek, the velvet of her lips, hot and tender. Her mouth was sweet, as if she had been eating strawberries. He began to ache in places almost forgotten. There were other women in the broad world, but only one Helen. He cared only for her.
Falling close behind the first kiss, his second probed deeper, his tongue finding the edge of her teeth. Finally, she responded, her own kiss drawing him in. Like a call to his deepest instincts, her sigh filled him with fire.
“I love you,” he said. “I’m here now, and I love you.”
He felt her hands stiffen against him. Pushing him back, Helen looked into his face, her eyes round with shock and desire. The air between them felt thick, magnetic, and fraught with misfortune.
“Do you not feel my love?” he asked softly. “Is there shame in my caress?”
Helen blinked, and tears blurred her lashes. Redfern reached forward to brush them away, but she turned her face away, shrugging him off.
“I am back; here, you see me, you feel me,” he protested, his voice rising.
“Hush!” She touched his mouth with her fingers, the touch of her nails against his skin provocative. “It is too late. You have left too often. There is nothing you can say that will make me believe you will stay.”
“Helen, you are unjust!”
“Unjust? I thought you were oceans away, yet here you are in your best finery, just in time for the meal.”
“There are reasons . . .”
“I release you.” Her voice was barely audible.
“Nicholas, farewell.” Her hand fell away, leaving him without the touch of her flesh.
She took a step backward, the tendrils of her golden hair swinging against her neck. “I’m going to marry someone else. Someone who hates to travel.” The tears on her face reflected the candles like some strange, quicksilver mask. She turned, and was gone.
He was stunned, an utter numbness flowing over him. A long moment passed before he could close his mouth and swallow thickly. A sudden, deep lassitude overtook him. He knew the night could only grow worse, and Helen had just stolen his nerve.Top of Page
December 27, 2008