My bastard of a father was not going to ruin my brother. I left Marcus’ apartment before saying more on that matter because the less he knew about what I planned, the better.
But what exactly was my plan? I knew what I wanted the outcome to be: nothing short of the complete destruction of the man who had sired me. Yet it was a struggle to school my thoughts into some sort of coherent strategy as I climbed into my carriage. Heartache beckoned, and part of me wanted to wallow in self-pity. Another part of me was so angry at everything that was happening. To me, and to those I loved.
Focus, I told myself as I took my seat.
I scooted all the way over, to make room for Adnan beside me. Haydar’s large form occupied almost the entire cushion across from us.
I turned away from the sight of him and tried to corral my thoughts. There had to be some way to ensure Father didn’t disinherit my twin. John could use the threat of ruin to force my father into keeping Marcus as his heir. But would it work? My father was cruel, vindictive, and, unfortunately, quite cunning. He might outwardly cave to John’s demands but seek to rid himself of my brother via another avenue.
How far would he go? Like John, I feared that there was no limit to what my father might do. He knew about Marcus’ preference for men. He could have my twin abducted and thrown in prison for being a sodomite, like so many others were. Even worse, he could have Marcus entombed in that hellhole of an asylum known as Bedlam. From everything I’d heard, if you weren’t truly mad when you were admitted, it would only be a matter of time until you were driven to it.
With Marcus in either prison or Bedlam, it would be easy for Father to sue him out of his inheritance. The threat of ruining my father might not be enough to save Marcus, and I wasn’t willing to risk it not working. The cost of failure was too high. So what could we do to finally put an end to the hold Father had over me and my brother once and for all? How far would we need to go to stop him?
I drummed my fingers on the windowsill as the carriage lurched into motion. Marcus lived in a less reputable section of town than I did. Like many bachelors, his lodgings were in a central location. To the north was the theatre his lover performed in, to the south, the gentlemen’s club he belonged to, and to the east, the park where he often took his horse, Sable, riding.
While the building he lodged in was in good repair and housed several other young men from noble bloodlines, the surrounding structures were less well maintained. The streets were narrow and cramped. The sun wasn’t due to set for another hour or so, but artificial twilight had already fallen on the rabbit warren we rode through.
My driver was forced to slow the horses to a walk. Around us, people clogged the avenue. Men passed each other in a long line, headed toward and away from a nearby factory, where a shift must be changing over. Street vendors hawked their wares, voices raised to drown out their competitive neighbors. Women with baskets on their arms browsed their goods, shopping for ingredients to toss in tonight’s cookpot. Underfoot everyone, street youths postured and preened, jostled each other, and darted between passing carriages like bedraggled daredevils. One or two of the braver boys took advantage of distracted vendors to pilfer small trinkets and foodstuffs from their stands.
It was a poor but lively district, full to bursting with what my Irish mother would have called craic. I understood why Marcus chose to make his home here; this neighborhood suited him.
Haydar and Adnan appeared less taken in by its charms. They sat with their heads turned toward the windows, watching the streets like a pair of falcons perched on high. Both sat stiffly in their seats, as if they expected trouble and were readying themselves for the fight to come.
I didn’t understand why, at first. It was clear that Marcus’ note hadn’t been a ruse concocted by our enemy. But then it occurred to me that this heightened state of readiness was something I should have anticipated. I hadn’t been the only one who’d spent the last few days waiting for our enemy to make their move. Out in the streets like this, I was exposed, vulnerable. It would be the perfect time to stage an ambush.
The carriage slowed and then came to a complete standstill – not an uncommon occurrence on a busy street. I reminded myself of this as my nerves began to rise. Then one minute passed into two and then three, and still we remained unmoving.
Adnan pulled aside the curtain and tried to peer out of the window.
“Can you see anything?” I asked him.
He shook his head.
Another minute passed.
The mountain seated across from us shifted, and the carriage swayed a little with his movement. He said something to Adnan in the language the Janissaries shared, and, with a nod, Adnan opened the door and slipped from the carriage.
Haydar and I waited in silence for him to return. We didn’t have to wait long. The carriage door jerked open a scant minute later. I was so wound up with nerves that I jumped. Adnan shot me a look and climbed back in, expression troubled as he retook his seat.
“What is it?” Haydar asked. The words were as garbled as ever, but I had since grown used to his cadence, and they were becoming easier for me to pick out.
“A boy tried to thieve a loaf of bread,” Adnan answered. “The vendor caught his arm, was pulled forward, and upended the entire stand. They’re cleaning it up now, but we may be here for a while longer.”
“And the youth?” I asked.
“A couple of men caught him,” he answered.
Poor lad. The boy could lose his hand for this if he was brought before one of the more unforgiving magistrates.
Another few minutes passed before sounds began to penetrate the confines of the carriage. I canted my head sideways and listened. “What is that? Are people yelling?”
Adnan slipped from the carriage again, quick as a fox after a hare. He reappeared almost immediately, one of McNaught’s “footmen” at his back. The man was nearly as large as Henry, only with ruddy brown hair, a nose that had obviously been broken before, and sharp, dark eyes.
“We need to go, Your Grace,” the footman said.
“Why?” I asked. “What’s happening?”
“The men tried to haul the youth away, but the lad’s father appeared before they could,” he said. “A fight has broken out and a crowd is forming. They appear divided on whether or not the boy should face justice, and its turning ugly.” He reached in for my hand. “There have been riots in this neighborhood recently, and we don’t want to be caught up in another. A fancy brougham like this would make a good target for their rage.”
I slipped my hand into his and let him help me down. The other “footman” was nearly as large, and once Haydar joined us, I was surrounded by an impenetrable wall of flesh. Though I couldn’t see what was happening in the street beyond, I could hear it. Shouts echoed off the brick facades of the buildings. Voices cried out in anger. Beneath it all, a low, angry hum was beginning to build, like a hive of bees had been kicked over and a swarm was forming.
Riots had become increasingly common in the city. With such a burgeoning population, housing was scarce, food was expensive, and access to clean water was limited. It was said the French Revolution was started because of the price of bread, and though that was an oversimplification of what had happened, it was the skyrocketing price of it that acted as the last drop of water needed to overrun the floodgates. If we weren’t careful, our own monarchy might be at risk of toppling for the same reason. People needed the basic necessities for life: food, water, shelter. Already there were programs being developed within Parliament to see to it that the poor had better access to these things. But would they be implemented in time?
Adnan shifted to the right, and I caught a glimpse of angry faces in the gap that opened up between him and Haydar. The craic-filled crowd I had glimpsed just a few moments earlier was gone.
I frowned, thinking back. Perhaps I had been too distracted by my thoughts and hadn’t looked close enough at their faces. Perhaps this hadn’t been a lively, welcoming street at all. The vendors may have been yelling at each other instead of over. The women who haggled with them might have appeared harangued. The men moving to and from the factory exhausted and embittered. No wonder Adnan and Haydar had been on high alert since we’d left my brother’s.
I stood on my tiptoes and shouted over the rising noise. “O’Brien!”
“Yes, Your Grace?” came the answer from my coachman.
“If they come for the carriage, don’t try to save it! Abandon it and save yourself instead!”
“What about the horses, Your Grace?”
“We can buy new ones!”
“Yes, Your Grace,” he called back.
Pray God the man actually followed my order.
“We need to move,” Adnan said, turning to glance at me over his shoulder.
I nodded and lifted my skirts up out of the muck of the street. My shoes would be ruined. Already, I could feel wetness seeping through the flimsy fabric of them, and I studiously kept myself from wondering how much of it was rainwater and how much horse piss. I cared not that they wouldn’t survive our flight from here unstained, only that they held together.
Damn my past self for choosing footwear that was pretty to look at instead of being functional. It was a mistake I wouldn’t make again.
Haydar formed our vanguard as we started out, pushing past the carriage and away from the worst of the crowd. More people were streaming toward the growing unrest from surrounding homes and alleyways, but the street behind us was more open than the one ahead, and so that was the direction we went.
“We can turn left down the next lane and hail a handsome cab from there!” the footman who had helped me down from the carriage yelled.
I nodded up at him, lifting the hem of my dress higher. My stockinged ankles were now on full display. It was damned improper, but the men were setting a quick pace, and my skirts were too narrow for me to keep up otherwise. I comforted myself with the knowledge that it was unlikely anyone could even see, let alone identify me, surrounded as I was, but even if they did, I doubted I’d be judged too harshly for showing a bit of ankle as I fled from an angry mob.
A roar sounded from behind us, like many voices raised as one, and then an echoing crash. Haydar glanced over his shoulder, frowning. No doubt he could see clear to the far end of the street from way up there, and if his expression was anything to go by, he didn’t like what he saw.
Adnan turned to follow his gaze. His face was just as troubled. “There are men egging the crowd on.”
“Isn’t that how most riots are started?” I asked.
The footman who had helped me from the carriage glanced behind us and shook his head. “Those men are large and brutal looking and too well dressed to be from this area.”
“What is your name, sir?” I asked him. If these men were to risk their lives for me, I should damn well know their names.
“George,” he answered. Likely named after our monarch, as so many men were.
“And yours?” I asked the other.
“Isaac, Your Grace,” he said.
“What is the significance of those men?” I asked George. “Do you think them enemy agents or common rabble rousers?” Newspapers and politicians both were known to employ men like that to enflame crowds and stir up trouble just to make a profit off of it or use it to make a political point.
“There’s no way to tell.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Adnan said. “We need to get away from here. Now.”
I saw what he meant. I’d been stealing glances at our surroundings through the gaps between the men. More people were streaming toward the fracas, and they were stealing glances at me too. The street was becoming clogged with humanity, and though they couldn’t yet know what was taking place ahead of them, they saw me, in my finery, surrounded by a large guard, and wondered.
I could see it in their expressions. Did I have something to do with what was happening? Did it even matter if I did? A lady like myself made an even better target than a carriage. I must have money on me. Maybe even jewels.
A few of the passing men eyed Haydar. No one would be foolish enough to take him on by themselves, let alone my three other guards. But a gang of men banded together might be able to, and we needed to be gone before that thought could occur to someone else and was acted upon.
The narrow lane between buildings we were aiming for looked blessedly free of people. Perhaps if we weren’t in such a hurry or so distracted, that absence of people would have struck one of us as strange. Especially when a steady stream of humanity seemed to pour from every other door and alleyway in our vicinity.
It was only as we rounded the corner and found it full of men that we realized our folly. They were dressed in dark clothes, large and mean looking, like the ones George had said were acting as instigators in the crowd. Were these the rest of their brethren? Had we been driven here on purpose? Or was this nothing but a street gang taking advantage of an ugly situation to prey on those who were fleeing from it?
Two men stepped apart near the middle of the group to reveal a man of average height and startling beauty. Not even McNaught compared. Though the lane was narrow and dark, it looked as though the sun had broken through to shine down upon him. He was dressed in the height of fashion, with a fitted, short-fronted tailcoat buttoned over a white linen shirt. His cravat, also white, was tied in a way that even our paragon, Beau Brummel, would have been impressed by. It was pinned in place by the largest emerald I had ever seen. The tight-fitting pantaloons he wore were off white, tucked into gleaming hessian boots. While the current trend for men’s hair was veering toward a shorter, more militaristic type of cut, this man wore his longer, and for good reason. It was gold. Not blonde, or light brown with highlights. Gold. It shone like captured sunlight in the dim alley.
The sight of such a man surrounded by so much dirt and decay was jarring, and it stopped me in my tracks. My guard stopped too, but I had a feeling it had more to do with the men we now faced than with the single one I was preoccupied by.
“Well met, Your Grace,” he said with a bow. His voice was lower than I expected it to be, and so smooth it wrapped around me like silk. It was also accented in a manner I had heard many times before. This man was French.
And he knew who I was.
I schooled my features as best I could and stood in the gap between Haydar and George so that I could face him. I might be terrified, but I’d be damned if I let these men know it. I’d read enough histories to learn that an entire army could break if their general did, and though I was no military officer, I refused to be the first to succumb to my fear.
Haydar glanced down and then moved to block me again, but I put a staying hand on his arm. If this man was French and knew who I was, then it could be assumed that he was an agent of our enemy. It might have been Napoleon targeting us after all. Or it could be nothing but a ruse. His accent could be affected.
I needed to find out more. And to do that, I needed to speak to this man.
“You have me at a disadvantage, sir,” I called back. “Clearly you know me. Might I inquire as to whom it is that I address in return?”
He smiled, and though it elevated his beauty even further, I noticed that it didn’t touch his eyes. “My name is Alexandre Phillipe Des Jardins.”
“And what is it you want, Monsieur Des Jardins?”
He spread his hands in a placating gesture. “Only to talk.”
“Lie,” Adnan said from beside me, so low that it wouldn’t carry.
He didn’t need to say anything else. The men instigating the riot were Des Jardins’. Of that, I had no doubt. Likely even the thieving youth and his father had been planted by him to block the road and stir up trouble. The riot was being started to drive us back, to this, the first avenue of escape that would be available to us.
All of that had taken planning. Which meant Des Jardins had known where I was and had time to act upon that intelligence. No one would go through all this trouble just to “talk”. Was he an agent of our enemy and learned of my location from the spy in my household? I didn’t want to make assumptions, but at this point it appeared more and more likely that this was the case.
“What would you like to speak of, sir?” I called.
He took a step forward, so that he stood just in front of the goons who guarded him. “Your friend, McNaught. He has something of mine.”
What on earth is he speaking of? I wondered. John was the one being targeted, through me, in order to push Addington from office. And now this man staged an intricate ambush to pester me about McNaught?
The enemy agent McNaught had tortured.
“If you’re speaking of the man we abducted from Glover’s, I’m sorry to say that I don’t know his whereabouts.” Nor his current state of…existence, but he didn’t need to know that.
Des Jardins stopped smiling then, and it was like the sun had been snuffed out by the dead of night. That otherness, that emptiness I’d glimpsed in his eyes took over his entire expression, and I realized then that this man wouldn’t lose a wink of sleep if he killed me and left my body to rot right here in this alley.
“Where is she?” he demanded.
“She?” I asked, startled.
“You know damned well who I speak of. McNaught took her from me and I want her back. He must be holding her somewhere against her will. Otherwise she would have already returned to me.”
I had no way of knowing, then, how disturbing his declaration truly was. And though I sensed that this man was dangerous, I would have to learn the hard way just how much of a threat he posed to everything I held dear.
“Who do you speak of, Monsieur?” I asked.
Had McNaught abducted a woman agent and was holding her captive like Des Jardins claimed? Was it one of the many secrets the spy still kept from us?
In answer, Des Jardins turned to glance over his shoulder at his men. “Take her.”
With those two, simple words, the alleyway erupted into a sudden, brutal violence that would haunt my nightmares for years to come.
Copyright © 2020 by Navessa Allen
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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.