Gossip columns couldn’t always be trusted. The men who ran them typically chose three avenues to acquire their information. Firstly, they paid for it. Servants disloyal to their employers could make a pretty profit by selling the secrets of the men and women they served. The papers with tighter purse strings favored a different route. Chiefly, blackmail. A third set of London publishers opted for an even more seditious source of scandal: their own imaginations. They printed outright fabrications, some of them wildly salacious, with little consequence to them and sometimes great consequence to those they slandered.
The gossip rag I held now was one of the more reputable ones in print. Commoners would read it and take its word on the latest affair of the King’s brother for gospel. The ton would skip over that article – we already knew all about the antics of the King’s siblings – and move on to the next. No doubt they would wonder at the vague and cryptic entry they found there.
“Every member of the ton that likes to think themselves a patron of the arts turned out for Drury Lane’s closing night of Romeo and Juliet,” I read aloud to John. “Even the dour Duchess of H____ was there, with her merry twin brother Lord R_____. Though she seemed to greatly enjoy the first half of the performance, the latter half was another story, and one can’t help but wonder what happened during intermission to sour her mood.”
I tossed the paper onto John’s desk so he could read it for himself.
“Is this the only mention of us?” he asked, his eyes skimming over the sheet.
“The only one I’ve managed to find so far,” I told him. “I sent Harriet out an hour ago to acquire the papers we’re not subscribed to, along with the more notorious gossip rags.”
As a point of principle, I didn’t read them. They were the broadsides most likely to publish lies. But they were also cheap, which meant that commoners could easily afford them. If we were to be blackmailed into doing what our tormentors wanted, they would need insurance for their threats, a way to follow through on them. If ruin of our good name was their goal, we would need to be tried in the court of public opinion. It would behoove our enemy to start swaying the masses now. This entry about us in The Times was cryptic, as if meant to goad us, serve as a reminder that we were being watched. Closely.
I worried what else I would discover when Harriet returned.
John set the paper aside and stood from his chair. “You’ll alert me if you find more?”
I nodded, my gaze falling to where he adjusted the cuff of his jacket sleeve. My cheeks flushed with remembered heat, and my desire, banked by this latest threat against us, rekindled at the simple sight of him straightening his hem. Last night, I’d seen those fingers wrapped around Henry’s girth. I watched him take his lover with his mouth and his body. Had pleasured myself in front of them with voyeuristic abandon.
John caught sight of my expression and came out from behind the desk. When he reached me, he lifted his hand and brushed the back of his fingers over my cheek. “How prettily you blush.”
I grabbed his wrist before he could pull away. “Is it always like this? So intense? So…distracting?” I’d been borderline useless the entire morning. Even now I wanted to kiss him. Strip him of his finery and beg him to have his way with me right here on the floor of his study.
He stared down at me, his eyes multifaceted in the light of day. A small smile lifted one side of his lips. “I don’t think anything quite rivals one’s first sexual experiences. At least not in regards to the sheer intensity of the emotions and sensations. It’s called an awakening for a reason.” His smile widened, and he stepped into me, dropping his lips to my ear. “Just wait until we’re inside you.”
And then he was gone, moving past me toward the door.
I swayed where I stood.
“I’m needed in town,” he said from behind me. “I should be home for dinner before we leave for Glover’s ball.”
I turned and nodded at him, rendered mute by lust.
He chuckled and slipped out the door. Clearly, John was learning how to unbalance me just as I was learning how to unbalance him, and from all appearances, he took great pleasure from this new knowledge.
I grinned, brushing my fingertips over my lips. How easily I’d been distracted away from my fear and worry over what I’d found in the paper. How quickly he’d turned my thoughts. I would have found a way to thank him for that if he had lingered. Perhaps I could still convince him to.
Today was most definitely a day to dawdle inside. So far, our spring had been nothing more than a continuation of winter. The air was cold and damp this morning, resulting in an uncomfortable, pervasive chill that somehow managed to seep beneath all my layers and settle into my very bones. Like us, most of the city continued to burn coal and wood by the bucketload, and the fogs that coated London in an acrid mist throughout the winter plagued us still.
Outside the study window, the sky was dirty and green, a real “pea souper” as it was commonly called. I didn’t envy John’s drive into the heart of the city, where it would be worse than it was here on the outskirts. Nor did I envy Henry, who was there already, salvaging what he could from the wreck of his apartment before he sought more secure lodgings elsewhere. He’d taken Adnan with him. Doruk would accompany John. And I, in my lingering bliss, had conceded to keeping Haydar with me.
A knock sounded from the door.
“Yes?” I called, turning toward it.
Haydar pushed it open with one hand. He filled the entire entryway, blocking my sight of the hallway beyond. Good Lord, he was massive. I kept forgetting just how large he was. As though every time he was gone from my sight, I convinced myself that his size was an impossibility. I had to gird myself now to stay where I was. To not take a reflexive step backwards, away from him.
He’s not Father, I reminded myself. He was here to protect me; not to harm me. In fact, he was here, in London, because of his refusal to harm women and children even when ordered to by a commanding officer. That had to mean something.
“Why is it that you don’t speak?” I asked him.
He shrugged one massive shoulder. It was like watching a hillside grind to life. “My voice. It disturbs.”
I stood ramrod straight, knees locked against the instinct to flee. Yes, his voice did disturb. Low, guttural, and spoken in a sibilant accent, it punched through the room. It was also slightly garbled. Because, from what I’d glimpsed between his teeth while he spoke, half of his tongue was missing. Yea gods.
I forced my own voice to hold fast against betraying my fear. “Does it pain you to speak?”
He shook his head.
“Well then, please don’t hesitate to on my account. I assure you, I won’t shriek if caught off guard by it. I’m made of sturdier stuff than that.”
He only nodded in response.
“Was there something you needed?” I asked.
He nodded again and stepped aside, revealing my maid.
Harriet stood in the hallway, clutching a stack of papers in her arms and staring up at the Janissary in a way that made me fear she wasn’t past the threat of screaming herself. Her face was drained of color. She appeared rooted to the spot, like a hare that had seen a fox and froze instead of fleeing.
“Harriet,” I said, hoping to break her out of her spell.
She jerked at the sound of her name. Her gaze flicked to me and back to Haydar. He raised a hand toward me as if gesturing her into the room. Still staring at him, she slid a foot toward the door and shuffled sideways past, holding the papers out as though brandishing a shield at him. Haydar frowned at her. She shuffled faster.
“Thank you, Haydar,” I said when she was safely inside.
He gave her one last look and shut the door.
Harriet stared at it, wide-eyed, breathing like she’d narrowly escaped death.
I reached out and gripped her shoulders, turning her toward me. “I thought you said you could stomach being around him.”
“That was before I heard him speak, Your Grace. The man sounds like a demon.”
I couldn’t argue with that. He certainly had an unforgettable voice. Like something conjured from a hellish nightmare. “He can’t help how he sounds,” I told her. And myself. “You heard him; he doesn’t speak because he knows it upsets people. Your reaction must be common. I imagine it hurt his feelings to scare you just by speaking.”
“Hurt his feelings?” she asked, gaze skirting back to the door. “Are you sure he has feelings, Your Grace? These new footmen the duke hired…they make the rest of the staff nervous.”
Yes, I imagined they would. “They are flesh and blood, just as us,” I said. “Able to be hurt both physically and emotionally. Don’t spurn them just because they’re different.”
She shook her head. “We don’t spurn them because they’re different, Your Grace. We avoid them because they’re dangerous.”
I would need to speak with John about asking the men to attempt to blend in better. “Well,” I said. “Appearances can sometimes be deceiving.”
I could tell from the look on her face that she thought that in this case, they weren’t. Harriet saw too much. Just like myself, and Marcus, and apparently half of the household. There was no way I could win her over to Haydar’s side right now. Maybe not ever. He would have to do that himself. Somehow.
“Thank you for retrieving the papers,” I said. “Did you have any trouble acquiring them all?”
She handed them over, nodding. “One or two were sold out at the vendors I visited.”
I nearly snorted. Of course they were. I might not read the rag sheets, and though many of my peers claimed they didn’t either, the fact that they were sold out in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city spoke volumes.
“Send one of the male servants after them,” I said.
She sketched a quick curtsy. “Will that be all, Your Grace?” Her voice warbled as her gaze flicked toward the door, like she wasn’t yet ready to face the Janissary again.
“Actually, I could use your help with these,” I said.
She perked up at that.
Every member of our staff knew how to read. John had seen to that years before we’d married. Harriet was no exception. Together, we spread the papers out over the small table in John’s study and poured over them in search of anything that might relate to myself or my husband.
We found nothing explicit. There was, however, a disturbing caricature in The Londoner. These stylized depictions of the tons’ exploits could be found in almost every newspaper nowadays. They were bold, brash, and wildly inappropriate at times. This was one of those times.
It depicted the Prince Regent in a room full of what the artist clearly meant to be his sycophants. The Prince was seated at a card table, squandering more of his inheritance. Around him, noblemen diced, whored, drank, and debauched themselves in a hundred other ways. It was so crowded that I nearly missed it at first, but there, in the very back corner of the room, two heads were bent far too close together. One was blonde and curly, the other large and dark. They could have been trying to be heard over the clamor of the room, but something in the way the artist drew them was…suggestive. The slight hint of a smile, the gleam of the eyes, the way the larger man’s hand rested possessively on the shoulder of the smaller’s – it all hinted at something much more intimate than idle conversation.
I tucked it beneath the stack in front of me before Harriet could see. I had told her I was looking for mention of John and I, but I didn’t tell her why, and I certainly didn’t mention Henry. I might trust the girl, but I couldn’t tell her about our blackmailers. She was smart enough that if she saw the image, she might recognize it for what it was and guess at why it was there. In her ignorance of the danger we faced, she might even discuss what she had seen with another member of the staff. It was foolish of me to ask her to help. A risk at exposing her to damning knowledge I shouldn’t have taken. A mistake I wouldn’t make again.
I stood from my chair. “My eyes are beginning to cross. The rest can wait until later.”
Together, we gathered the unread papers and set them in a tidy pile on the table. I saw Harriet to the door, so that she wouldn’t have to face the Janissary alone, and once she was gone, I hid the papers behind a row of books on one of John’s bookshelves. Only when I was sure they couldn’t be glimpsed from the room did I leave.
Haydar followed me down the hallway. Unlike McNaught, I heard him there. The sheer weight of the man meant he would never be able to silence his footfalls. Perhaps it was being able to hear him, or perhaps it was because he had never threatened me, or perhaps it was some deep-seated instinct, but it didn’t unnerve me to have him there like it did McNaught.
I had spoken honestly to Harriet earlier. A voice like Haydar’s could be used as a weapon to strike fear into people. Someone like my father would have employed it to great effect. Someone like McNaught might have too. John definitely would have. The fact that Haydar purposely didn’t speak hinted at a desire not to frighten people, or at least women he knew were already terrified of him. That last look he’d given Harriet before he’d shut the door earlier had been shuttered, but after a lifetime of being hyperaware my father’s mercurial moods and two years of unraveling John’s expressions, I saw what Haydar tried to keep hidden. He had been upset to see her fear of him.
I slowed my steps and moved to the side of the hall so that he could pull even with me. He did so with reserve, careful to keep distance between us. His far shoulder nearly brushed the wall.
It didn’t feel right knowing so little about him. Not when he might be forced to fight for me. The Ottoman Empire had a habit of rounding up the men in their domain, converting them to Islam, and enlisting them in their armies. This practice had earned them many enemies outside of their borders, especially on British soil, which was both ironic and incredibly hypocritical since we did much the same within our own empire, only with Christianity. Haydar’s skin was the fairest of the Janissaries, and his facial features were painted with broader brushstrokes. To my eyes, he didn’t look as though he were from the heart of the Ottoman Empire, but somewhere on the northern edge of its current border.
“What was your birth nation?” I asked, bracing myself to hear the sound of his voice again.
“Wallachia, I’m told,” he answered.
I frowned. “Told? You don’t remember?”
He shook his head. “I was a young boy when taken.”
Taken? I wanted to ask, but I didn’t. There was a hesitancy to his answer, as though he didn’t like thinking on it. And who could blame him? His story was his to tell, and if it began like that, I could only imagine how it continued. I understood all too well what memories could do to a person. I wouldn’t press him any further, despite the fact that I was incredibly curious about him now. If he didn’t remember his homeland, what were his first memories of? How many battles had he fought in? What had his training been like? How long had he known Adnan and Doruk? When and where had he met McNaught?
Instead of searching out fraught answers, I settled on something safer. “What were you reading the other night?”
He frowned down at me in question.
“Before you caught that candlestick out of the air,” I prompted. Another question I wanted to ask: how the devil had he caught it out of the air?
“William Blake,” he said.
I nearly stumbled. The most dangerous man I had ever met read poetry. “Which is your favorite passage?”
“The Tyger,” he answered without hesitation.
“Tyger Tyger, burning bright. In the forests of the night,” I quoted. It was one of my favorites too. I could recite it entirely by heart. “Can I ask why you favor that above the others?”
He glanced down at me and then away again. “I saw one once. While escorting a delegation east. It killed four of our porters.”
It took me a moment to process his words, impacted as they were by his accent and the missing half of his tongue. “I’ve only ever seen one in a menagerie, from a safe distance,” I said. “The way it stalked around the bars of its cage, staring at those who looked in upon it was a thing of terrifying beauty. I can only imagine what it would be like in the wild.”
His expression darkened. “To see one in the wild is to know the true horror of caging such a creature.”
“Do you read The Lamb in conjunction with The Tyger?”
He nodded. “Pairing a poem of innocence with one of primeval, savage ferocity. Blake must be brave, asking his fellow man to look upon the duality of their own natures.”
“Or heretical, since instead of making it about good and evil, God and the devil, he turns it into contraries within ourselves.”
Haydar glanced down at me. “It’s an uncomfortable thing, being forced to account for your own behavior. Much easier to blame your actions on an evil spirit.”
I let the conversation fall away there. Debating poetry and philosophy and the human soul with an Ottoman soldier the size of a small mountain. How strange my life had become lately. I should have kept Harriet with me, so she could have heard the conversation for herself and realized how much more there was to this Janissary than his intimidating stature and nightmarish voice. Perhaps the next time I had the two in close proximity to each other I could spark up a similar dialogue with the man.
We reached our destination a few scant minutes later, and Haydar stood guard outside the storeroom while I sequestered Mrs. Marston inside. After last night, I wanted John and Henry more than ever. I had no idea when I might join them – John might prolong it as long as possible just to drive me mad with lust first. Mrs. Marston, as a former wise woman, was my best bet for acquiring the herbs and tonics I would need to take to prevent a child.
“You’re sure it’s Rue you’re wanting, Your Grace?” she asked me, canting her head sideways. Her graying curls fell away from her face, and her dark eyes flashed with knowledge in the dim light of the basement room.
“Yes. And Pennyroyal if you have any.”
Her gaze sharpened. “Your Grace, if I may speak plainly?”
“Is it prevention of pregnancy or an end to one you’re after?” she asked.
So much for trying to remain circumspect in my quest. “Prevention.”
“Pennyroyal will give you fierce stomach cramps if you’re not careful. And if you take it every day, it could eventually kill you.”
I leaned back in shock. Apparently the information Marcus had acquired about birth prevention wasn’t entirely accurate. “What do you suggest then?”
She turned away from me and began rummaging around her shelves, much as she had before dressing my wounds. “That depends on how steadfast you are in preventing a babe.”
“As steadfast as one can get,” I told her.
She didn’t question me as to why. And there was no judgement in her voice when she began giving me my instruction. “First you’ll need to soak cotton in lemon juice.” She placed both items on the small table in the center of the room. With quick hands, she sliced the lemon in half and squeezed it out over the cotton. Then she bunched the cotton into a tight ball and held it aloft. “This you’ll insert deep inside yourself before intercourse.”
She placed more bottles onto the table, and pointed out two. “To ease your man’s way inside you, mix olive oil and cedar resin – I’ll write you the amounts.”
“Why those two?” I asked.
“Combined, they can slow and even kill his seed.”
“Should he wear a French Letter?” I asked, speaking of the thin membranes men sometimes wore over their members to prevent the spread of disease and unwanted pregnancies.
She nodded. “One made of skin and not cotton. And he should still pull out of you before completion, just to be safe. Afterward, you’ll take out the cotton and clean yourself with this,” she said, poking at another bottle on the table. The amber liquid inside it sloshed, less viscous than the oil but thicker than water. “It may sting a little, but it’ll do you no lasting harm. Be sure to relieve yourself afterward.” She turned and grabbed another bottle, this one filled with dark specks. “The next morning, you’ll need to take a tea made of ground Queen Anne’s Lace seeds. I warn you, it tastes vile.”
“I’ll bear it,” I said.
She planted her hands on the table and looked at me. “This may still not be enough.”
“I can’t have a child,” I said, unable to keep the fear from my voice.
Her face softened. “God willing, you won’t. But you’ll need to keep strict track of your cycles, and come to me the moment you think you’ve missed one. If the preventatives don’t work and you want to rid yourself of a babe, the earlier, the better. Understood, Your Grace?”
“Yes. Thank you. For your help, and your discretion.”
She sent me a strange look. “You’re welcome, Your Grace. And you don’t need to tell me to keep my trap shut. I know what ill talk can bring.”
I left her a few minutes later, feeling chastised by the reminder of what she’d endured at the hands of gossip, rumor, and malice. That night, I would learn firsthand the kind of havoc they could wreak on my own life.
Copyright © 2019 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.