“Oh, dear. Your poor face. Will you be permanently disfigured?”
“Hello, Aunt,” I said, forcing my irritation aside. “No, I shouldn’t suffer any long-lasting damage. Thank you for your concern.”
She grasped my hands and air kissed my injured cheek.
I pulled away and indicated the tea service already set up and waiting for us. “Won’t you please have a seat?”
She swept past me into the room. Outside, rain pelted the windows and fog crept, thick and soupy, through the streets. Water droplets fell from her shawl as she pulled it free from her shoulders. She paced to the fire, gave the shawl a good shake over the hearth, and then hung it from the edge of the mantle to dry off.
Finally, she turned to me. A delicate series of wrinkles appeared on her forehead when she frowned. Her hair, more blonde than red, was pulled up in an intricate knot, but her eyes were the same green as my mine, and her brows arched in the same beautiful line that her sister’s had. Sometimes it was hard to look at her without seeing my mother.
“Such a dreary day,” she said.
I nodded. “English spring at its finest.”
Her frown deepened. “Sarcasm ill befits a woman of your rank.”
Do not roll your eyes at her. Do not roll your eyes at her.
“Yes, Aunt,” I said, joining her by the fire.
Though she resembled my mother, their personalities couldn’t have been more different, and where not even my father’s cruelty had dimmed my mother’s brilliance, Aunt Jane had always appeared dull in comparison.
We were in the same downstairs study that I had received Mrs. Ainsley in. Yesterday had been bright and beautiful, the westerly breeze blowing the worst of the smog from the city. I should have realized it was too good to last, and that the wind was but the opening volley of the coming storm. This morning had dawned cold and gray, and after sharing breakfast with John and Henry, I found myself craving the small, easily heated space of this room.
A flash of light momentarily blinded me. I barely had a chance to be properly startled before thunder cracked like a whip outside the windows.
Aunt Jane jumped, clutching at her chest. “Lord, it must be right on top of us.”
I pulled my chair a bit closer to the fire and took my seat. “Hopefully it moves through before tonight.”
She stared down at me. “You don’t still plan to attend Rutherford’s gala?”
“No. I simply meant that I’m a light sleeper, and it would keep me up.”
She let out a sound of relief and took her seat. The small table between us was laden down. The tea service sat in the center, surrounded by tempting fare. Lunch was still a few hours away, and Mrs. Marston had seen fit to offer us a bevy of snacks to slack our hunger with. There were biscuits, small cakes, finger sandwiches, fruit, and clotted cream.
Aunt Jane eyed it speculatively before pouring us tea. “Expecting more callers?”
I shook my head. “I denied all but you.”
Her cheeks pinked a little in pleasure as she added sugar and cream to her cup. After we took our first sips, she lifted her gaze back to my cheek. This time her frown looked more like sympathy than censure. She set her tea down and reached out to clasp my hand. “What really happened? The papers can’t seem to agree, and the articles…” she shook her head, “…they’re so dreadful.”
I squeezed her hand and then let her go. After a fortifying sip of tea, I prepared myself to tell her story John and I had agreed upon. Aunt Jane was the worst sort of chinwag. One who hid their voracious thirst for gossip behind kind smiles and placating words like the ones she’d just spoken. Not even the fact that I was family would keep her from spreading what I was about to say across every drawing room in London.
“It started after my visit with Marcus,” I told her.
“How is your brother? I feel like I barely see your twin these days.”
I didn’t want to talk about him. Not with her. I tolerated Aunt Jane because she was a relative, but it was thanks to people like this woman that knowledge of my brother’s proclivities had first come to light. The very same knowledge my father would weaponize if given half the chance.
“He’s quite well,” I lied. “Though I wish he’d chosen his lodgings with a little more care.”
“Was his apartment ransacked during the uproar?”
I shook my head. “The riot broke out several blocks away.”
“But the papers said -”
“The papers were wrong.” I took a deep breath, wrangling my tone back to civil. “I’m sorry, I’m still…”
“Recovering from your ordeal,” she finished in a soft tone that belied the excited gleam in her eyes. “It must have been terrifying.”
“It was,” I told her. And then I took another deep breath and launched into a harrowing tale that turned Des Jardins’ enemy troops into common street thugs. Instead of slaughtering them wholesale, my guard became brave defenders, who beat them back just in time for me to make my escape. I left out the fact that I had helped kill a man, though I did tell her that one tried to take me. She gasped at that, and before she could smother me in false platitudes, I went on to tell her how angry the commoners were and how lucky I was to have escaped with my life.
Part of what I told her was pure fabrication, but I slipped in enough of the truth that details of my story could be corroborated by other bystanders if ever there was a need. John said that was critical to making the accompanying lies believable.
Aunt Jane ate the story up like it was a pastry smothered in honey. I could see the wheels of her mind turning as she listened. No doubt she was marking parts of the tale that she could further inflate and exaggerate. By tomorrow, my daring escape would be turned into an epic befitting the likes of Homer.
She stayed far longer than would normally be considered polite, and though she hid her innumerable questions behind the guise of matronly concern, I knew an interrogation when I saw one. Halfway through I considered passing her name to McNaught. She could give the spy a run for his money in the sheer amount of details she demanded. Perhaps they might hit it off and she could become the protégé he so longed for instead of me.
I fought back a smile at the thought of that and hid my amusement by taking a long sip of my second cup of tea. At this rate, I would need to start pacing myself, or I’d be bouncing off the walls this afternoon.
When she had lingered long enough to decide that she had wrung as much information from me as she would get, she glanced to the clock on the mantle, let out a dramatic gasp, and rose from her seat. “My goodness, is that the time?”
Do not roll your eyes at her!
I stood. “Do you need to leave already?”
This time she missed the sarcasm in my tone. “Yes. I’m sorry. I have another engagement that I’d almost entirely forgotten about.”
“You’ll call again soon though?” I asked, forcing a note of desperation into my tone. Though I loathed it, I needed to play the part of the victim right now.
Her face softened, and she reached out and placed a gentle hand on my uninjured cheek. “Oh, dear. Of course. You need your family right now.”
And with that, she left me.
I turned from the door and retreated to the fire, hands held out toward the flames. How easily I had manipulated her. I was as bad as John, using a person’s emotions against them. I felt a small spark of remorse trying to take hold, but I smothered it before it could catch. Remorse. Regret. What would these things do for me besides muddle my mind and make me question myself?
A knock came from the door.
“Come in,” I called.
It swung open and Haydar crowded in, having to duck beneath the lintel. Sherman was right behind him. Both of the men looked concerned.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Your father is here,” Sherman answered.
It felt like the floor dropped out from under my feet. “Where?”
“In the duke’s study.”
“Is the duke with him?” John had planned to make an afternoon appearance at his office. If he’d already left, that meant that Father was alone in his study, with plenty of time to rifle through his papers or try to pry open locked drawers. I hated the thought of that, but what was worse was the thought that John might be in there with him.
“He is,” Sherman answered.
I hitched up my skirts and ran out the door. “How long have they been in there alone together?”
Haydar was right on my heels, and it was him who ground out an answer as Sherman fell behind. “An hour. They’re not alone. Henry is with them.”
“Why wasn’t I immediately informed?”
Haydar merely shrugged.
I growled in frustration and stopped at the foot of the stairs. Sherman caught up with us a moment later.
“He asked to see the duke, Your Grace,” he said.
I took a deep breath and counted to ten. Of course. To Sherman, a father wanting to speak to the husband of his daughter must seem completely normal. Why would he think anything strange of it?
Amongst the staff, only Harriet knew what my father truly was. It was she who dressed me. I’d told her the truth about my scars my first night in this house, because what plausible lie could I have come up with? Who else would dare to whip a young lady of the ton and expect to get away with it besides a male relative of the woman? Anyone else would be hanged. Harriet had kept the knowledge to herself, and so, while the rest of our household knew that me and John didn’t like my father, they didn’t know enough to bar his entry or come fetch me if the men were ever left alone together.
Pray God Henry was able to keep John from doing anything too rash. Yes, I wanted my father gone from this world, but I didn’t want him murdered beneath our roof. That death would be a bit hard to explain to a magistrate.
“Is anyone standing watch outside the door?” I asked.
Sherman nodded. “One of our new footmen is.”
“Can you please have Adnan meet me upstairs?”
“Of course,” he said.
Haydar loomed closer, eyeing me. “Why?”
Pity the person who looked at him and assumed that his overwhelming brawn meant that he could never possess an equally capable mind. He managed to put more meaning into a one-word question than other people could in an entire speech.
“Not here,” I told him.
Together, we climbed the stairs. We paused halfway down the second-floor corridor, in between guards who stood just far apart enough to miss our words.
“My father is an utter bastard,” I told Haydar. “He has an explosive temper and is prone to fits of violence, but can also be sly like a fox.”
Haydar frowned and glanced toward the study door, as if he was already two steps ahead.
“What if…” I paused to take a steadying breath. “What if we’ve been expecting and preparing for an army, but really we should have been anticipating a stealth attack? A man like my father would be the perfect person to carry one out.”
“Why’s that?” Adnan asked, joining us.
I caught him up on the fact that my father was evil incarnate before carrying on. “Both my brother and myself have stood up to him recently, which must have enraged him. It wouldn’t take much else to push him over the edge. A word here. An insinuation there. For all we know, he’s been turned against us by our enemy and should now be considered one of their agents.”
Adnan frowned. “And what? They’ve lobbed him over our fortifications like some sort of plague-bearing cadaver?”
I blinked. “Ah, yes.”
“How much of a threat do you think he poses?”
God, what a loaded question.
I didn’t have time to answer. Adnan caught something in my expression before I could form a proper response. “That bad, huh?”
He glanced up at Haydar. “Code words?”
The big man growled out an ascent.
“Right,” Adnan said, turning back to me. “We’re going to accompany you to the door. Don’t worry, we’ll stand on either side so he can’t see us. You English seem to love talking about the weather, so we’ll stick with easy words you can believably slip into a greeting. If you step in and there doesn’t seem to be an immediate threat, find some way to say the word “clear”. If there’s a threat that we can safely mitigate, say the word “sun”. And if there’s a threat that we can’t mitigate without risking someone other than your father, say the word “storm”.”
“Clear. Sunshine. Storm. Got it. What happens if I say one of the first two?”
“We join you inside,” he answered.
“And if it’s storm?”
His expression darkened. “We’re forced to wait out here. You have your knife?”
He started unbuttoning his left sleeve. “I want you to wear this, too.” He rolled his cuff back, revealing the complicated brace strapped to his arm. A knife sheath sat nestled within it near his wrist, but the part that lay closest to his elbows looked…mechanized.
“What on earth is that?” I asked.
“Just your average knife sheath.”
“Uh-huh, and does this average knife sheath have a name?”
He looked me dead in the eye and said, “Bertha.”
Haydar chuckled somewhere overhead.
“Can you take nothing serious?” I said, exasperated. “For all we know, my husband is about a heartbeat away from murdering my father in cold blood.”
Adnan shrugged and freed the brace from his arm. “So?”
“So, the last think we need right now is another scandal.”
“Who says there would be a scandal?” he countered. Then he looked up, and all humor had fled from his face. “It’s easy enough to dispose of a body in this city. Even the body of a nobleman.”
I nearly took a step back. He sounded like he spoke from experience. This would teach me to demand he be serious. I would take jovial Adnan any day over this version of him.
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” I said. “Now what is this device?”
He strapped it onto my arm and taught me the mechanics of the thing. For all intents and purposes, it was a miniaturized catapult. When I flicked my hand backwards, the base of my wrist hit a switch that released a loaded spring that would shoot the knife from its sheath. Ideally, into my hand. The trouble was, the trigger was fast. The knife flew forward like a canon blast when I tested it out, the hilt thudding against Haydar’s meaty thigh before clattering harmlessly to the floor.
The three of us stared down at it for a moment.
Adnan put his hands on his hips and sighed.
“Sorry about that,” I said, leaning down to snatch it up.
It took me three more attempts before I was able to catch it in time. Though I loathed the delay, Adnan made me practice for several minutes before he gained any confidence in my ability to wield it. At least we didn’t hear shouting from the nearby study during that time. That had to be a good sign.
I put the knife back in place, turned the small winch that set the trigger, and then pulled the sleeve of my dress down to hide the contraption.
“If he snaps, go for the wrist knife, not the one in your pocket,” Adnan said.
“I will. But…what if I miss?”
He grinned. “He’ll be so busy wondering where the hell the flying knife came from that you’ll have plenty of time to stab him with the other one.”
Dear God, don’t let it come to that.
“You’ll listen by the door if I’m forced to go in alone?” I asked.
The men nodded.
“Just yell,” Adnan said, thumbing toward Haydar. “And the big man will break down the door.”
“All right. I think I’m ready.”
A heartbeat later, I was knocking on the study door. “John?”
“Come in,” my father called.
I shared a look with the Janissaries. It couldn’t bode well that John wasn’t the one to answer. They took up position on either side of the door, and I pushed it open.
John and Henry sat beside each other in tall wooden chairs. Their backs were to me. While I couldn’t see their expressions, I could see their hands, which were bound behind them.
My father sat in an armchair facing them, his face flushed with arrogance. He held a gun in one hand and a piece of paper in the other. “Get in.”
I glanced down at the paper and saw that hideous caricature of me, John, and Henry scrawled across it.
No, no, no…
Without glancing left or right to give away the presence of my guards, I stepped into the room and said, “And here I thought the storm was outside the house.”
He pointed the gun at me. “Shut your whore mouth and lock the door behind you.”
Copyright © 2020 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.