Midweek and a Short Story

I have a massive to-do list looming over my head, so instead of tackling that I sat down and wrote a short story.

But! Before we get to that, I do have the pre-order link for The Stranger, a horror anthology due out October 2nd that will include my standalone prequel to The Half Killed, “With My Own Eyes.”

Now, the short story.

It’s another entry into the files of That Victorian-era Werewolf/Gaslamp Fantasy Story I Need To Sit Down and Write. (I keep saying “this fall,” but this fall is almost here, so… hmph.)

So read, enjoy, and be warned that it’s a longer one, nearly 6k words. Just so you know.

An Only Pawn An Only Pawn
A flick, a brief push of air as the folded note cuts a path towards the tabletop, and there is the name and particulars of the person I am to kill, written in a cramped, blotted scrawl.

A confession, Reader: I have never killed another person. No matter that I unfold the paper carelessly, that I read the words forged on the surface of the vellum as if I were scanning the details of a shopping list; inside of me there is a great tremor of something—fear, perhaps—that what I have been appointed to do will mark an event from which I can never recover.

“There’s no concern over whether or not the death should appear natural.” The man across the table from me—Edwards, is his name, as if he were a valet come to decry the muddy state of my boots—brushes his knuckles across his jaw before pausing to bite at the edge of a ragged fingernail. Nothing else about him is ragged: his coat and trousers are immaculately tailored, if a bit nondescript. It’s not our purpose to garner attention here, in a middling tavern that treads a delicate line between the upper echelons of London society and the filthier holes of drink and gaming.  

“So a slit throat and all will be well, hmm?” I look at the paper again, at the name that loops its way across the upper corner of the page.

Lady Ariadne Drummond.

“She is perceived as a threat to the Queen, to our nation’s very security.” Edwards raises one pale eyebrow, the movement incongruous with the enormity of his words. “I don’t care if you remove her head and stick it on a pike along the road to Hammersmith, as long as her demise is not traced back to the palace.”

I fold the note and tuck it into the pocket of my waistcoat. A line appears between Edwards’ eyes, and I suspect he wants me to crumble the paper and toss it into the nearest fireplace. Though if he was worried about leaving a trail of evidence behind him, perhaps he should have thought twice before dipping his quill in an inkpot.

“Very well,” he says, and gives his jacket a peremptory tug before he slides forward in his seat, unfolding himself like another piece of furniture set aside for use in the taproom. “I’ll expect to hear from you when the task is completed.” He fishes around in his pocket and tosses a few coins on the table, though he hadn’t deigned to drink anything on the menu. “Oh, and Mr. Muir? One final thing.” He steps nearer to the table, his slight form blocking out the light from the fireplace and the dozens of other candles, casting a shadow and forcing me to tip my chin back at an uncomfortable angle to view him properly. Which is his intention, I assume.

“Yes, Edwards?”

The line again appears between his eyes, the only indication that he does not care for the flippancy of my tone. “No matter how you choose to dispatch her, if you could be so good as to prevent her death from appearing as if it were at the hands of… one such as you, we would be forever in your debt.”

One such as you… I smile, the corners of my mouth pulling back, ensuring a display of gleaming incisors and canines that taper to a shining point. “Which must beg the question of why you bothered to ask me in the first place.”

Edwards draws in a deep breath, nostrils flaring, an attempt at asserting dominance over the situation. “Should you succeed, Mr. Muir, then there will be no need to comment on your affliction. But should you fail in your endeavor, then do not think we will hesitate for a single minute to attribute the havoc to the actions of a lone, raving werewolf, one who will see himself locked back into the prison cell from which we just saved you.”

I lean back, but simply to reach out an arm towards the table and the tankard I’ve gone and abandoned, still half-filled with ale. I take a sip. And then another, while I watch him shift restlessly from one foot to the other as I drink. “You could save yourself the trouble and tell them I’m originally from Perth. That should destroy any standing I might have achieved since journeying south.”

He says nothing to this, merely adjusts the brim of his hat—I dare not mistake it for a farewell of any kind—and turns on his heel before working his way through the maze of tables, his shoulders rising against the miasma of smoke and body odor and the breath of a dozen inebriated individuals before he ducks his head and slips out the door. Once he is gone, I lean forward, my elbows finding purchase on the tabletop while I cradle the drink between my hands. Lady Ariadne Drummond, I repeat under my breath, my tongue stumbling over the syllables, as if preventing me from committing the name to memory, the name of the woman I’ve been hired to murder.

I glance towards the bar. A final swallow of ale is all that remains before me. No doubt I’ll need something stronger if I’m to have any chance of finding rest tonight.

***

The entrance to Lord and Lady Drummond’s townhouse is like so many others that it takes a moment for any of the details to leave an impression. There is marble beneath my feet and a chandelier dripping in crystals above me and the sickly smell of hothouse flowers pervading everything. There is something in the architecture attempting to put itself forward as a bastion of great antiquity, and yet I’m certain this particular row of houses wasn’t built until only a decade or so earlier. A false front, as one would say. An introduction, no doubt, to much of what I will have to endure this evening.

I shuffle along with the rest of the crowd, the scent of pomades and perfumes and too many perspiring bodies nearly strong enough to overwhelm the flowers, and my head begins to throb as my senses are inundated.

The conversations rise and fall around me, like the babbling of a brook over rocks not yet worn smooth. A few more steps forward, another round of bows and curtseys and chins dropped towards chests, and my hosts for the evening are before me.

Lord and Lady Drummond.

I smile as I approach, and I imagine my teeth shining with a dazzling gleam, my eyes catching the light of a hundred candles as I reach out to take the hand of the woman who will no doubt be dead two… oh, let’s be generous and say three hours from this, our first meeting.

“Lady Drummond,” I say. And listen to my voice! All charm and grace, as if there were not a monster lurking beneath my skin, scrabbling for some measure of release. “Allow me to offer my gratitude for inviting me to your beautiful home.”

There is a set to her jaw that sends a frisson of fear through me. No doubt she sees through my ruse, can see with a blink of blue eyes and a tilt of her lovely head that I am nothing like the character that has been put forward to them. Mr. Callum Muir, I am. And that is the one honest thing I bring beneath this roof. Here I stand, posing as a Scottish merchant and businessman. Nothing of the gentry about me, of course. But the gossip about London—so kindly spread around like shovelfuls of offal by the magnanimous Edwards—is that I possess the means to purchase half of the street on which this townhouse resides.

A fallacy of the grossest proportions, seeing as how even the fine suit currently hanging from my shoulders is on loan from none other than Edwards himself. The clothes arrived as a last-minute parcel to my rooms this very afternoon, tucked inside the folds of brown paper along with a note that I should not take it upon myself to believe that the articles will remain in my possession once this evening is over. Heaven forfend, then, if I should splatter any part of it with blood during the task set before me.  

A quick kiss to the air above Lady Drummond’s slender, bejeweled hand, and I turn towards her husband.

“Mr. Muir!” Lord Drummond greets me as if I am the oldest and dearest of acquaintances, though I’ve never made eye contact with the gentleman before this night. He is tall—perhaps a full inch or two taller than myself—though he carries his height with a severity I could never begin to emulate. He is a man made of edges, all jaw and shoulders and a forehead that appears to be capable of slicing into an envelope. He takes my hand after I have given up his wife’s fingers, one swift pump and then a squeeze intended to mash my joints together, but I smile at his greeting and pick up the threads trailing from his performance.

“Your lordship, how kind of you to permit me to visit you during my stay in London. Tonight will be a flurry of activity for you, I’m sure, but perhaps tomorrow or the next day, a discussion of business matters…”

I let my words fade out, giving him all opportunity to finish the sentence however he likes. For tomorrow I hope to be gone from London, hopefully drowning away all memories of tonight’s actions in a vat of cheap whiskey. And Lord Drummond… Well, won’t he be occupied with the task of burying his wife?

A few more words, and then the line pushes me forward, and I am chivvied into the ballroom, nearly decanted into the space and left to follow the flow of jewels and polished boots and trimmed moustaches that twitch above mouths speaking too loud in an effort to be heard. Because there is nothing but noise all around me. I am drowning in it, and so I tip my head back, breathing deep as if I’m about to be submerged entirely.

Yet I cannot do too much to draw attention to myself. I work my way around the room, speaking with those who care to strike up a dialogue, a few people already aware of my name, of the false identity created a few days before. But they talk to me as if they’ve heard of me for months already, as if they’re aware of my purported business acumen, this man who has slipped into their midst by way of money and trading and—the most harrowing of all—work.

The stream of bodies continues its course around the room, and I cling to it, dragged along like so much detritus. There’s little call for me to do much more than flirt with a few young ladies and fetch a cup of lemonade. All of this, while I follow Lady Drummond’s progress into the ballroom once she’s relieved of her duties in the receiving line.

She is the quintessential hostess, doing nothing to outshine her guests. There are other women in the room with greater beauty, finer gowns, hair twisted and pinned into more elaborate styles, but it is only her I watch. And after several minutes pass, I have to push away the suspicion that I would watch her even if she was not the one I’d been sent here to kill.

It’s almost midnight when I notice her leave the ballroom, slipping away after a footman comes and whispers in her ear. I follow the gold of her gown, my gaze clinging to the gleam of silk as it picks out the play of shadow and light from one room to the next. The corridors, bless them, carry their own amount of traffic. Lady Drummond ignores them all, her head bowed as she leaves behind the portions of the house set aside for her guests and ascends a narrow staircase that twists upwards, her hands grabbing at the folds of her skirt so that I see a pair of slippers, a glimpse of stockings as she moves swiftly to the next floor.

Approaching her here may be my single opportunity. And so I begin to close the distance between us, making as little sound as possible on the narrow strip of rug that ends as she heads for another set of stairs.

We are fully ensconced in the family quarters now, and it is not until she opens a door at the end of the corridor and disappears inside that I realize she has stepped into the nursery.

There is not an abundance of hiding places to let, and so I can do little more than slink into a corner, while sending up a prayer that the shadows and the black of my own hair and clothing will leave me to blend in with the dark panelling of the wall behind me.

“How is he?” Lady Drummond’s words reaches me, the first I’ve heard her voice this evening.

“He keeps asking for you. The fever’s broken, but as he’s slept so much the last few days, he simply cannot rest.”

“Of course, of course.” Footsteps, a swish of skirts, and more words, this time spoken on a hushed note not intended for ears such as mine. “I’ll be back as quickly as I can, love. Another hour, maybe two, and then I’ll plead a headache and come up to read to you. How does that sound, hmm?”

A child’s whisper replies to her, a voice choked with subdued tears. I press my head back against the wall, shutting my eyes as if the shadowed corridor has suddenly become too bright for my sight to bear. This is not the time to allow sentimentality to cloud my original purpose for being here. And so I tense myself, my weight shifting forward onto the balls of my feet while I wait for Lady Drummond to exit the nursery.

But it’s another set of footsteps that forces me to retreat again into the corner, the heaviness of a man’s tread, and then Lord Drummond strides down the hall, his chin jutted forward in a way that makes me realize his posture isn’t merely put on for the audience below.

“Ariadne?” He makes no attempt at whispering. He stops just outside the nursery, his hands propped on his hips, his jaw still tensed in such a way that I have to tamp down on the urge to step out and strike him.

“John! What is it?” Lady Drummond appears in the doorway, the gold of her gown seeming to draw what little light there is in the corridor and reflect it from the silken threads.

“We have guests, and you’re up here? Coddling that boy?”

She exhales, and even in the dim light from the nursery behind her, I see her shoulders round forward, her chin drop as her eyes flutter closed. I expect a reply, but she stands there, as if her husband’s words are washing over her to puddle on the floor at her feet.

“He’s out of danger,” Lord Drummond goes on. “He’ll never regain his strength if you continue to treat him like a fragile thing. Now come downstairs before your absence is remarked upon.”

He takes two steps away from her, back towards the stairs, before he hesitates. A simple glance over his shoulder, and his wife falls in behind him, her head still bowed, her hands fisting in the folds of her skirt.

I don’t move immediately. The door to the nursery isn’t fully closed, and I need to think about my next step now that I’ve gone and missed the opportunity to deal with Lady Drummond away from the hubbub of the ballroom. I count to sixty once, twice, and then a third time before I leave my corner, tip-toeing swiftly towards the stairs. I pause at the top, my head turned to better listen for the echo of footsteps below me. It won’t be until much later that I will berate myself for being so foolish, for not looking back once more. The pain that stabs into my thigh is sharp, and searing hot, as if my very flesh is burned from the inside. But before I can cry out, before I can even take one last breath, a hand clamps over my mouth, and I inhale a sickly sweet smell that dulls my senses and pulls me under.

***

I am not certain which pain earns the moniker of ‘most unbearable.’ The pounding in my head is enough to make me think I may vomit. Judging by the tart, acrid taste in the back of my mouth and on my tongue, perhaps I already have. But then a shift, an attempt to lean forward, and the burning in my thigh flares to life again, as if I am being stabbed over and over again with every attempt at movement.

Somewhere behind me, a little to the left, I think, there is a heavy metallic sound, almost a thudding that lends no favors to my headache. Swinging my head round, I peer through the haze of poor light and whatever tendrils of chloroform still dull my vision to see the edge of a skirt, dun in color, before the entire figure of Lady Drummond steps into view.

The gold silk is gone, replaced with something that looks more suited for a member of the working classes. No frills or flounces or lace, and as my gaze travels higher, there are no jewels either, her throat and ears bare beneath hair pulled back in a simple knot at the nape of her neck.

Also missing are the two versions of Lady Drummond I bore witness to at the ball. The welcoming hostess and the subdued wife have both been swept away to reveal a calm woman who stands before me, her hands clasped in front of her abdomen, eyes narrowed in such a manner I could bring myself to believe she possesses the power to strip my flesh and bone away and see directly into the mess of soul and spirit left behind.

“Mr. Muir,” she says. And then she smiles. And I begin to wonder if she will kill me now.

“My lady,” I reply. Or attempt to reply, though my tongue feels thick in my mouth and my voice rasps along the back of my throat like a handful of rusted nails. “Could I trouble you for something to drink?”

As she paces to the side of the room, I blink away some of the bleariness from my eyes and survey my surroundings. The ceiling is low and timbered, the floor either hard-packed dirt or unswept stone, and even the lamp set on the table beside the unadorned wall gives off a weak, pitiful light. But Lady Drummond opens a bottle of… something I cannot decipher from this distance, pours what appears to be an equal amount of liquid into two tin cups, and brings one of them over to me.

It’s not until she places the rim of it to my lips that I identify another ache that grips my shoulders and culminates in a biting pain around my wrists. My arms are twisted behind me, my hands secured inside a pair of cuffs that dig deep into my skin.

She holds the cup to my mouth, but I pull my head away, tipping my chin as far back as the pounding in my head will allow in order to better meet her gaze. “And how do I know you’ve not poisoned it?”

Her eyebrows twitch, but the slight smile does not falter. “If I wanted you dead, it would be your corpse propped against that chair. And besides,” she says, again touching the cup to my bottom lip. “I don’t care to use poison.”

I open my mouth. Wine flows over my tongue, so dry that I nearly choke. But I swallow it down, one sip and then another, until I nudge the cup away, a few drops spilling on the floor between us.

Now that she’s seen to my needs, she drinks from her own cup, a tentative sip at first before she downs the rest of it in one long gulp. “Not the best vintage.” She licks her lips, returns her empty cup to the table. “But it will do for the time being.” When she comes back to me, she again proffers the cup. I take another drink, draining the last of its contents, an action I immediately regret as the liquid settles in the bottom of my stomach. An empty stomach still reeling from the effects of what this woman has done to me.

“Do I need to fetch the pail again?”

My head drops forward between my legs, or as far as the cuffs and the chain linking them to the chair will permit. When my vision clears, I raise my head and slowly, carefully lean back against the unyielding slats of the wooden seat to which I’ve been so unceremoniously trussed.

“How long have I been here?” I choose not to bother with such trivialities as where precisely “here” might be. I feel I should be grateful I’m still counted among the living, so my current whereabouts will have to wait.

“A few hours. Four at the most. I’ve been waiting for you to wake. I did not like to leave you here alone.”

“Such benevolence.” I close my eyes, wishing I could grind my knuckles into the sockets until the ability to see straight makes a return. “A shame you were not so thoughtful before you ran your knife into my leg.”

“Oh, come now.” She folds her arms over her chest. Still she stands before me, and I suspect she must derive some enjoyment from lording this reversal in height over me. “You arrive in my home for the sole purpose of committing murder beneath its roof, and you’re grousing like a lion with a thorn in his paw?” A click of her tongue against the back of her teeth, and she fetches a chair from its place beside the table, lifting it easily before she sets it down several paces in front of me.

Very elegant she is, smoothing her hands down the front of her skirt, settling herself in the rickety chair as if it were a throne set up before all of parliament, crossing her ankles and tucking her feet just out of sight. And then her hands clasp and find a resting place on her lap, for all the world as if we are here to trade bon mots and gossip over tea.

But there is no tea, only the cloying taste of the wine and chloroform still lingering on the back of my tongue. Without delicacy, I clear my throat and spit over my shoulder. I did not expect her to flinch, and she does not disappoint. A twitch of her gaze to the spot on the floor where I’ve aimed my mess, and a tightening at the corners of her mouth is all the reaction I will receive.

“I find that we are at a bit of an impasse,” she begins, her fingers flexing and relaxing again in her lap. “There are questions I would like to ask you, but there is a difficulty in that I cannot trust a single word to come out of your mouth.”

I bow my head, though the gesture sets off another flash of pain behind my temples. “Likewise, my lady.”

The honorific elicits something in her, a spark in her eye before she blinks and—there!—it’s already gone. “So I think we’ll attempt a different approach, shall we?” A slight shift towards me, the chair creaking in response. Her hands unclasp and slide forward until they’ve cupped her knees. “How were you planning to kill me?”

With an absence of ceremony, I shrug, tipping my head to one side. “However the opportunity chose to present itself.”

“Poison?”

I lift one eyebrow.

“I searched your pockets, you know. You arrived with very little on your person. Not even a knife stashed away. Would you have garroted me then? Or perhaps taken to strangling me with your bare hands?”

My fingers twitch. They hurt, which acts as a promising reminder that at least they still exist, tied as they are behind the back of the chair.

“Or would you have prowled around the nooks and recesses of my home for another week, waiting for the return of the full moon to transform you into a weapon yourself?”

Just the barest hitch in my breath to let her know that she has hit her mark, and I look away. Is it so obvious, this affliction of mine? I wonder sometimes, if in the same way my own senses have undergone a change, a heightening of sorts, if there is something about my smell or appearance that makes one look at me differently, creating an “otherness” that picks me out from the crowd no matter how well I might try to hide among them.

Or perhaps I am overthinking it all, and she has merely done her research. No doubt anyone who takes the trouble to dig deeply enough into my past would discover too many anomalies to ignore.

“You should know,” she says. “I wish you no ill.”

Tied to a chair in some subterranean chamber, my trousers adhered to a seeping wound in my thigh, I cannot help but laugh. My muscles shake from the effort to hold myself upright when what I want most is to tip myself onto my side and press my cheek against the chill, damp floor. But the air continues to bubble up and out of my mouth, and then there is even a tear at the corner of my eye, one that I cannot wipe away due to the present condition of my arms. “I would not wish to see how you confer with those you mean to injure.”

She nods, though her expression indicates that she is not impressed by my attempt at levity. “If you really wanted me dead, Mr. Muir, then you would not have managed such a botched job of it.” Her hands slide back from her knees, to pluck at a loose thread in the weave of her skirt. “You have no hate in your heart for me—”

“Perhaps I didn’t… before you stabbed me, drugged me, and tied me to a chair in what I  assume is some back room behind your cellar.”

“—and I suspect,” she soldiers on despite my interruption, “that you are nothing more than a paid lackey.” She leans forward, her elbows resting on her knees as she studies me. “Though considering what you are, and how little you probably want such knowledge to be a widespread thing, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some manner of… manipulation is behind your arrival in my home last night. Blackmail, I assume?”

Oh, listen to her! The woman could go on for days. And here I am, her captive audience, forced to listen while the wound in my thigh threatens to become infected and I wonder if I’ll be able to keep my leg.

“Does your husband know I’m down here?”

That, I notice, seals her lips together.

“Will the great Lord Drummond be joining us later? Shall we discuss weather and politics over another cup of sour wine?”

She lowers her head until I am left to stare at the part in her hair, the glint of a few pins beginning to slip out of the twist holding her hair up from her neck. “Goodnight, Mr. Muir.” And as she speaks, she stands up, the legs of her chair scraping on the floor before she turns and picks up the lamp from the table. A flutter of panic settles somewhere behind my sternum as I realize she is leaving me. And in darkness, no less. But wonder of wonders, she has left me alive.

***

A hand on my cheek. That is what wakes me. Or rather what succeeds in dragging me from a restless slumber fraught with dark terrors. I jerk away from the touch and crack open one eye, only to find myself blinded by a flicker of flame held quite close to my face.

“Mr. Muir?”

I twist my head around, away from the light, but I can still discern the outline of her, the leftover aroma of some soap or perfume applied hours before, clinging to her skin.

“My lady.”

From somewhere beyond her, beyond this room and the building in which it resides, I sense that it is night again, no matter that not a single window or gap allows me to know whether it is the sun or the stars providing most of the light at the moment.

Lady Drummond sets the lamp on the floor beside her, then crouches down until she is a little bit below eye level with me. “How were you going to kill me?”

She doesn’t remove her eyes from me, and yet there is an agitation fueling her, a desperation that pulls her nearer, until her hand finds its way again to my face, tipping up my chin.

“I don’t know. I confess I didn’t really think that far ahead.”

A brief nod is all she gives me. And then she is up again, flitting out of my range of sight. She moves behind me, and I bite my tongue to keep from crying out as she jostles my arms, my wrists, a grating of metal against metal the singular overture before the bite of the cuffs is gone and the blood races towards my fingertips, a feeling like shards of broken glass scraping along the underside of my skin.

She removes the bonds that held my ankles fastened to the legs of the chair, and then she is again standing in front of me, the lamp in her right hand, and no visible weapon in her left.

“What are you doing?” I ask.

Her gaze leaps towards mine, but flicks away.

“I could kill you now, you know. I suspect that wherever this room is, no one would be alerted to your struggles. No one would find you for days, if ever.”

I watch the shadows shift on her face, while the flame from the lamp reflects off the surface of her eyes. And there I see a half dozen words and questions surveyed and summarily discarded before she settles on what she says next.

“Who sent you to my home?” She steps closer. “Who hired you to see me dead?”

And now it is my turn to glance away, my befuddled brain searching every corner of this situation for evidence of it being a trap.

“Did he call himself Edwards?” she presses.

I close my eyes. A trap indeed. Yet a suspicion stirs to life at the edges of my thoughts that I am not the only one meant to be caught in it.

My reaction must be confirmation enough, because she moves on as if I’d already answered, gathering a multitude of items from the table and the pockets sewn into her own skirt. The wine is still there, I see, the cork shoved into the opening at an angle.

“Something to drink?” I ask, and she hesitates, more I think because I’ve caught her off guard with my request than because she does not want to help me.

A slight shake of her head, as if jostling herself into action, and she returns to me with the bottle and the same scratched and dented tin cup as before. But I ignore the cup, reaching for the bottle instead. She’s already removed the cork, and so I have only to lift it to my mouth, to tip it up and drink, the alcohol burning its way down my raw throat and settling warmly, uncomfortably in my stomach.

Infused with a false sense of my own strength, no doubt due to the wine, I make an attempt at standing up. Without a word, Lady Drummond offers her arm, a help I gladly accept as the pain in my leg redoubles and my head rocks along with my inability to see straight.

“Can you stand?” she asks, but she does not pull her arm away, no matter that I might be holding on tightly enough to bruise her skin.

“I’ve endured worse than this,” I assure her. “Allow me a minute, and I’ll trust myself to walk.”

She gives me more than the requested minute, and then I pull away from her, though she drifts towards me as my fingers leave her arm, as if worried I might tumble into a heap on my own.

“Well, come along,” she says, and again gathers her handfuls of items from the table. She comes back bearing a few folded banknotes, a pocketknife, and a flask, all of which she begins to stuff into my various pockets without waiting for a hint of permission from me. “Drink what’s in the flask before you next go to bed,” she tells me, patting at my chest and the outside of my coat to make certain everything is securely stashed away. “It’s medicinal, and should help to stave off infection. Of course, you’ll need to clean the wound as well, but there’s no time for that now.”

A tug at my wrist, and she leads me towards a door I hadn’t seen before. Up a narrow flight of stairs that forces me to turn sideways to avoid brushing my shoulders against the walls, and we clatter into a room no larger than a closet. Perhaps it even is a closet, judging by the amount of dusty jars and crockery stacked on shelves that line every wall.

The second door she draws me towards now is indistinguishable from the wall, a mass of wood and iron and seemingly so immovable that I wonder should she attempt to push it open, the entire edifice may come crumbling down around us. But she works it open, a few inches at a time, until the gap is wide enough to fit a full-grown man shimmying sideways.

“Go,” she says. A single syllable, and a wave of her hand towards the door and the dark alley beyond.

I move towards the opening, towards my freedom, but something causes me to pause with my foot on the threshold. I look back, and there she stands, the light from the lamp she still holds casting half of her face in shadow.

“Why are you doing this?” The question tumbles out, when I know all she must want is for me to be gone from her sight.

And then she smiles. In her plain gown, her dark hair tied back as if she were preparing for bed and I stole her from her chance at rest, something in her face transforms, and I’m given a glimpse at what I hope is the real Lady Drummond, bereft of all the other masks I’ve seen her wear.

“Five days ago,” she says, “Edwards came to see me. He told me I would have a guest in my home, a Mr. Callum Muir from Scotland. He also told me that for the safety of crown and country, I wasn’t to let you leave this house alive.”

Edwards. Well, then.

This was my folly, to assume I was the only pawn in play. “What will you do when he finds out? He threatened me. What does he hold over you?”

“One of us will get to him first, before you need ever find out.” She steps forward, places her hand on my arm and rises onto the balls of her feet in order to reach up and adjust the collar of my coat, turning it up against the chill already seeping in from outside. “Goodbye, Mr. Muir,” she says, and resumes her former position, a single pace away from me. “I am sorry about the leg.”

Before I can speak, before I can even think of what I would say in reply to that, she pushes the door closed, shutting me out into the street, into the cold, and with only the murky light from the streetlamps to light my way.

I flex my fingers, a curse from my lips the only farewell towards a pair of gloves I’d had when I arrived, but that are no longer present on my person. And my hat, a loss that makes itself known as I step out from beneath the eaves of the house, as a light drizzle soaks the ends of my hair and promises a cold that will try its best to settle into my very bones.  

It is an image of home that teases my thoughts as I stroll forwards, away from the house and the mews and anything to do with Lady Drummond. My pathetic little attic room, the sagging bed tucked in the corner, my poorly laundered socks draped over the back of a spindly chair to dry. But my bed—cold, lumpy thing that it is—will have to wait. For it is Edwards who deserves my attentions first, and I would not wish to leave him feeling deprived of my company.

 

***

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