Ghosts of Albion: Accursed / Chapter Eleven

Chapter Eleven


Loading...

John Haversham rose far earlier than was his wont. He was scheduled to make an appearance later in the morning, at the Algernon Club, and the prospect had given him a fitful night's sleep.

Despite his exhaustion, however, he could not force himself to return to slumber, no matter how he tried. Nor did he wish to pass the hours within the confines of his home. So he roused his driver early, and set out for Covent Garden just after eight o'clock.

By the time he arrived, the frenzy of the vegetable market had faded entirely. Only once, several years earlier, had John visited the market early enough to witness the spectacle that took place there each morning. The sellers called to one another and to the throngs of people who arrived to buy their wares, and the customers wandered among literal walls of vegetation, piles of turnips, cauliflowers, and cabbages that towered a dozen feet from the ground, choosing what they wished for their shops and kitchens. The bustle of the crowds had been extraordinary, and John recalled with perfect clarity how magical it seemed, watching the towers of vegetables melt away, finally to vanish altogether. There had been fruit, as well, during that summer visit, and carts overflowing with flowers.

John had always intended to return, to witness that wild scene once more. But this time, his goal was quite different.

He stepped down out of the carriage and instructed his driver to retrieve him at half past one from his favorite pub in Piccadilly. He had far too much pent-up energy, and he needed to release it through a morning of brisk walking, to be followed by a quick bite at the pub. By then, he would know what, precisely, the director of the Algernon Club expected of him.

For now, though, he didn't want to think about the club. He had other things to occupy his thoughts.

As the carriage rattled away, he turned to survey the aftermath of that morning's market. The carts were gone, even the debris of cabbage leaves and rotten vegetables had been removed. This early in the year, there were far fewer flower girls on the street, but as John began his stroll through Covent Garden, moving briskly to burn off his anxiety, he spotted a petite Irish lass, her red hair shining even in sunlight. She looked freshly scrubbed, perhaps ten years old, and she had two large baskets of flowers, most of them arranged in pretty buttonhole bouquets.

Perched on the stairway of the church, she spotted him right away and stood, lifting a basket and tromping down to the foot of the stone steps.

"Flowers, sir?" she said.

John smiled as he strode toward her. There were others in the square, an elderly couple walking arm in arm, two costermongers with red faces who seemed engaged in a quiet argument, and any number of household cooks and other servants sent to purchase fruits and vegetables for their employers' larders. They were all moving in and out of the shops. Yet the girl had focused on him.

"Why, good morning, my dear. I must look like an easy mark," he said brightly, crouching in front of her to examine her basket.

"Violets from the South of France, sir! Brought over by steamship," the girl said, resplendent despite the plainness of her blue dress. She wore a matching bow in her hair. Her pale, freckled cheeks flushed red as candied apples with the chilly breeze, and he thought she might also be combating a natural shyness. "And the prettiest of roses from-"

"You're the prettiest of roses, young lady," John said, flashing her his most charming smile. He shook his head sadly, then. "If only you were a decade older, I might buy you such a lovely bouquet. But alas, I haven't a lady to whom I could present them at the moment."

She flushed even more furiously scarlet, but he could see that his flattery hadn't been enough to overcome her disappointment that he would not buy her flowers. So John reached into his jacket pocket and removed a small leather purse, from which he extracted two shillings.

"For the flower of Covent Garden," he said, shooting his cuffs and then taking her hand, placing the coins in her palm, and closing her fingers around them.

Her eyes were wide as saucers. "Thank . . . thank you, sir." The lovely little lass actually gave him a small curtsy. "Thank you so very much."

John returned the purse to his pocket and stood up, then tugged on his lapels, straightening his jacket. The stiff collar of his shirt was rough against his neck, and he twisted his head to try to give himself a bit more room to breathe.

"Entirely my pleasure to have made your acquaintance, miss," he replied. There was a young couple, newly married from the look of them, just wandering through from the other side of the square, and he gestured toward them. "Now get on with you. There's a lad who won't be able to resist a bouquet for his lady love. She won't let him, I daresay."

The girl giggled, ran back to the steps to get her other basket, then hurried toward the couple.

He wandered Covent Garden, at a more relaxed pace now, strolling into one after another of the small, enclosed squares on either side of the main avenue. His stomach growled to remind him that he had avoided breakfast, but that was, indeed, what had prompted him to have the driver leave him off here.

There were barrels of deep red American apples, winter pears from France, grapes from Hamburg, and boxes upon boxes of oranges. John sampled each, relishing the sweetness of the best fruit that could be had in all London. Soon his fingers and chin were sticky with their juices, no matter how meticulous he tried to be.

From one seller he procured a cup of water and a cloth that was only slightly soiled, and managed to clean himself up, laughing at the way the vendor rolled his eyes. How vain I must look to this fellow, he mused. To complete his breakfast, he bought a small bag of nuts, which he slipped into his pocket to eat as he walked.

When he emerged from the alley where he had procured the nuts, passing a small cluster of women shelling walnuts, John saw that the fruiterers and costermongers had begun to arrive for the sale that would begin at ten o'clock. Auctioneers had set up boxes on the street, from which they would hawk their wares. The prices for some of the fruit would be extravagant, and watching the bidding would have been entertaining, but he had planned a long walk before his meeting this morning and he wanted to enjoy himself, to take in the sights of the Strand and St. James Square at his leisure.

Clouds began to gather, and the sky became grayer, but still no rain fell. The wind was blowing toward the river, so rather than the stink of the Thames there was the odor of chimney smoke, which John had always been fond of, as long as it wasn't chokingly thick. A bit more sun would have been appreciated, but still the morning was altogether pleasant.

He walked southwest along the Strand, enjoying the leisurely pace that prevailed here. All across the city, pedestrians wore expressions of determination and purpose as they went rushing about their daily duties. Though it had a reputation that drew many visitors to its shops, the Strand was spectacularly unlovely. The architecture along the street was ordinary, and the wares hawked in the various storefronts were hardly worth the trouble. Nearly everything that could be found along the Strand could be found elsewhere in London. John knew that many people, particularly those in the upper classes, could not understand the lure of the street, but to him it was painfully obvious.

It was the walk itself. There was a bohemian air about the place, perhaps born of the presence of Booksellers' Row, or the many theaters that stood along the way. To wander down the street gazing in shop windows and admiring the marquees of the Adelphi and the Lyceum and the Gaiety, to take a moment to admire the church of St. Mary le Strand . . . it was peaceful, in its way. Relaxing. That was the problem. When the effete, snobbish nobility sniffed and turned up their noses at the Strand, it was simply that they were appalled by the relaxed environment of the place.

He loved it.

With carriages trundling past him, and men and women bustling by, he took his time walking all the way to St. James's Park. It was small in comparison with some of the great, sprawling, green spaces of London. Little more than an enclosed garden, really, but he enjoyed lingering there nonetheless. Admiring the ladies he saw strolling the Mall, he nearly stepped into a pile of dung left behind by the mounts of the Horse Guards. Their parade grounds were located in the park, and he had only just missed their morning outing.

There were few gardens blooming yet in the city, but he caught a sweet scent on the air. Turning, he spotted the line of stalls in front of Carlton House terrace, where vendors sold fresh gingerbread and sweetstuffs, and where fresh milk could be had, right from the cow. Several of the stalls had the beasts tethered there in front. It brought a smile to his face. After his visit to Covent Garden, he wasn't hungry at all, but the scent of gingerbread was tempting.

"Perhaps later," he muttered to himself, retrieving his pocket watch and opening it. He had only a handful of minutes before he was to appear at the Algernon Club.

Time to go, then.

The easiness of spirit he had so carefully cultivated all morning evaporated as he left the park and turned north onto St. James Street. John dropped into a demeanor that was now just as purposeful and businesslike as any of the society wretches he had been mentally condemning only minutes earlier, but there was nothing to be done for it. His stomach began to knot and his anxiety returned as he passed White's and made his way to the unassuming, featureless façade of the club.

With a glance around at the ordinary London street, he took a breath and rapped on the door. A moment passed, then it opened, revealing a gray-faced servant wearing black jacket and tie. He was broad-shouldered, and his nose looked as though it had been broken at least once. As an aficionado of pugilism, John would have thought the man a former boxer, but the way he stood ramrod-straight, almost at attention, bespoke instead a soldier.

"Yes, sir?"

John produced his card, which the man glanced at for a moment before nodding and stepping back. "Very good, Mr. Haversham. You are expected. Please do come in, and welcome back to the Algernon Club."

John smiled weakly in return, but the servant never noticed. Rather, he turned his back and started down a hall that led deeper into the building.

"This way, please," the former soldier said over his shoulder.

They passed several large drawing rooms where men of varying ages-though all of them were older than John himself-smoked and chatted and argued. There was a room where a small group was gathered around a lad no more than twenty, who seemed to be doing card tricks. The older gentlemen gazed on, obviously attempting to disguise their level of interest, acting unimpressed but putting on a poor show of it, John thought.

Soon, the fellow who had answered the door pulled back a velvet rope to allow John access to a quieter corridor that branched off, running, he thought, along the back of the house. Then came a narrow set of stairs, but John followed his guide to the second floor, and then up to the third, without incident.

They halted halfway down the third-floor hallway, at a thick wooden door with finishes carved in intricate detail, and the servant paused to knock.

"Come!" called a voice from within.

"He awaits you, sir," the servant said to John. The man nodded once, then turned on his heel and retreated the way they had come.

John found himself alone in a section of the Algernon Club he knew was reserved for its inner circle, perhaps only the board themselves. It was quiet here, uncannily so. His neck itched, and he slid a finger into his collar, trying again to give himself some air.

Part of him wanted to flee this place, but he knew it was best not to keep his host waiting.

John reached out and turned the knob. The heavy door swung open easily.

The room inside was cast in a strangely crimson gloom. There were red drapes at each window, tied back to allow the gray noon light into the chamber. A ray of sunlight briefly broke through, and dust motes swirled like mist in the air. Then it was gone. There was a fireplace, of course, but no fire had been laid. The chimney was cold and dark.

There were many shelves of books in the room, though he wouldn't have called it a library. A writing desk stood against one wall, and at the other there was a single low table with two high-backed leather chairs. In one of them sat an elegantly dressed gentleman with a graying beard. He clutched a pipe in one hand, a plume of richly redolent smoke rising from its bowl.

"Good morning, Lord Blackheath," John said.

"It is several minutes past noon, Mr. Haversham," the older man said, his words heavy with the weight of admonition. "The morning is gone."

"Yes." John nodded. "My apologies for not being more punctual. Good afternoon, then."

"Good afternoon."

The moment became awkward. John thought Lord Blackheath might want him to sit in the other chair, but the director offered no word or gesture, no indication whatsoever, so he stood and waited. Almost a full minute ticked by as the man puffed upon his pipe, so that when he spoke, John was startled by the sound of his voice.

"You spent a good deal of time with Tamara Swift last evening."

It wasn't a question.

"Yes," John admitted.

"And what is your opinion of the young lady?" Lord Blackheath asked.

A shiver went through him. John remembered the grief he had seen in Tamara's eyes, but even more he recalled the heat of her body pressed against his, and the hunger in her when she had thought he was making advances. The memory of her lips and tongue upon his fingers, her mouth on him, ignited a fire in his gut that he knew must also have enflamed his cheeks. He hoped Lord Blackheath would not notice in the gloom.

"She is a charming young woman," he managed at last.

"Do you plan to court her?"

John frowned deeply. "Of course not. My life at present is occupied by other pursuits, as you well know."

"Indeed." The gentleman inclined his head. "But, you see, it would suit my needs-the needs of the Algernon Club-were you to see her again."

"I'm afraid I don't understand, sir."

Lord Blackheath's brows knitted in response. "You are not required to understand, Mr. Haversham. Only to perform the duties that are requested of you."

"Of course," John said quietly, lowering his gaze.

The older man took a long pull on his pipe, and then exhaled smoke through his nose. "I believe that William Swift has inherited the mantle of Protector of Albion."

John smiled. "William? You must be joking. Sir Ludlow wouldn't have chosen him. My cousin Sophia is quite taken with William, but he's far too stiff and unimaginative to be . . . well, he isn't the sort, is he?"

"Ah. And aside from having met Ludlow Swift a handful of times in passing and having seen him on the stage, what in your vast experience provides you with the insight to know who is and is not 'the sort' of man to become Protector?"

Lord Blackheath smiled, but there was nothing amiable in it. John pulled himself up, to stand straighter.

"Nothing, sir. I misspoke. Perhaps you're right."

The gentleman tapped the stem of the pipe against his chin.

"Perhaps. Yes, perhaps. I am not certain, as I said. William Swift will be making an appearance here at the club tonight. You've done well, thus far, insinuating yourself with the sister. But she may not even be aware of the truth about her grandfather, of the Protectorship. And I grow impatient. You'll join us this evening, and we shall determine whether or not William has inherited Sir Ludlow's position. That is your charge, then, Mr. Haversham. Their father hasn't been seen in months, you understand, and so it may be that Henry Swift is the Protector, and has gone into hiding for some reason.

"Or it may be that the power has passed out of the family entirely. I believe not. I believe it has fallen to William. But I want to know. And you will find out."

John's throat felt dry, and his heart beat too rapidly, but he sensed that he would be free to leave. The thought of getting out of there, and heading straight to the pub, gave him a mighty lift in spirits.

"Yes, sir. Of course, sir."

IN HER ROOMS at Woburn Abbey, the duchess of Bedford fussed over preparations for afternoon tea. She had sent invitations around to a good many of the wives of the members of Parliament, and the ladies were to arrive for tea at five o'clock precisely. There were hours to go, but already Anna Wickham was at her wit's end.

"What have you done to me, Petersham? What, indeed?"

Petersham was the handsome young man her husband, the duke of Bedford and marquis of Tavistock, had engaged only two weeks earlier, after the passing of their previous man. Now the butler dropped his gaze to the floor. His features were etched with remorse, and when he spoke, he seemed properly chastised.

"I beg your pardon, madam. I cannot fathom how such a thing might have occurred."

So despondent did he seem that the duchess was tempted to forgive him. But when she thought of the guests who were due to arrive in less than four hours, her ire was further stoked.

"My brother, the viscount Stanhope, is an aficionado of teas, Petersham. One might even call him an expert. His wife is going to be among the ladies in attendance this afternoon. Don't you think she will know if we promised her China tea, only to serve her India tea, or China for India? Perhaps I cannot tell the difference, even if the kitchen was to brew me a pot of each and I consumed them in their entirety. But that's not my concern, is it? How could you have allowed the two to become confused?"

Petersham hesitated, then ventured forth.

"I'm told the tea caddy is meant to keep them separate, but with my predecessor's . . . departure, no one can recall whether it was China on the right and India on the left, or India on the-"

The duchess threw up her hands. "Enough! Sort it out, Petersham. I don't care how you do it. I don't care if you have to send to Calcutta and Shanghai this very moment for more, so long as by five o'clock we are able to confidently tell our guests which varieties of tea they are being offered."

They stood on the landing of the second floor. The duchess knew that other servants would undoubtedly be listening, hungry for fuel that would feed their gossip and set their tongues wagging. But she did not care a whit.

"I shall attend to it, madam."

"See that you do. And will you please take the cook aside, and remind him that the crumpets should be slightly underdone. It's the only way to avoid having them burned. The man simply cannot-"

At that she stopped. She hadn't yet run out of vituperative energy, but she was distracted by voices from below.

Anna frowned and moved away from Petersham, descending several steps toward the first floor. She paused when two men came into view, one of them the duke's personal secretary, Richard Mills. The other was unknown to her, but by his attire she saw that he was a clergyman.

"I must see the duke immediately," rasped the man in rough, gravelly tones.

"Yes, Your Grace," said Richard. "Of course. But I am afraid he is resting at the moment. He's feeling poorly, and has instructed that no one disturb him."

The bishop's face reddened.

"Damn his instructions, sir. There is a crisis at hand. It can't be helped. He simply must be interrupted. Take me to him, Mr. Mills, or I think you shall find your services dismissed by nightfall."

This was enough to embolden the duchess. She did not take kindly to having others issue commands to her servants, or members of her husband's staff, clergy or not. Even as Richard kowtowed to the bishop, beginning to lead the man up the stairs, she continued downward and blocked their progress.

"Pardon me, Your Grace, but I could not help overhearing. I am Anna, the duchess of Bedford. As Richard has politely informed you, my husband has taken ill. I'm afraid I shall have to ask you to respect his wishes, regardless of the circumstances."

A look of disdain passed over the bishop's face, but he paused and gathered himself. He stood there on the stairs, peering up at her.

"The circumstances, as you call them, are beyond your conception, Duchess. Quite beyond, I'm afraid. I am the bishop of Manchester. Perhaps word has reached you, through your husband, of the horror that befell the earl of Claridge at my home several days past?"

Anna paled. She had indeed heard the tale, though she had found it impossible to believe entirely. "I . . . I thought it merely fancy, or an exaggeration. How could such a thing-"

"It happened, my dear," the bishop replied, more calmly now. There was even a spark of sympathy in his eyes. "And there was no exaggeration. I have never seen the like, and have prayed never to see it again. That prayer fell on deaf ears, I'm afraid, for it has happened again, this very morning. Sir Charles Ibbetson has been taken by this terrible malady, his mind driven to madness, his body twisted into a hideous parody of a man. Indeed, he has been given the face and form of a demon."

The clergyman reached out then, and took her hand. "Madam, the prime minister has summoned the members of Parliament. All are required to attend. But we must do this quietly. Secrecy is of the utmost importance, in order to avoid panic or scandal. I have been sent to retrieve the duke."

Her hands fluttered toward her face almost of their own volition. The duchess covered her mouth with her delicate fingers, and then nodded. "Yes. Yes, of course. Richard, please follow me. I shall ask you, Your Grace, to wait in the study while I rouse my husband. If you'd like anything, Petersham will remain here, at your service."

The bishop inclined his head in agreement, and the two of them hurried up the steps. Petersham had followed the entire exchange. Now he stepped quickly out of the way, waiting in silence in case he should be needed in this moment of urgency.

"Richard, come along," said the duchess.

She heard Petersham quietly offer to fetch the bishop a cup of tea. A mad, errant thought went through her mind as she wondered what would happen if the man stated a preference between China tea and India tea.

Such concerns seemed ridiculous at the moment. Some terrible infection had come to London, and if the bishop was correct, it was spreading. Her hands trembled, and she clasped them together, wringing them as she strode along the hall. The portraits upon the walls seemed to blur at the edges of her vision. Never since her husband had first become a member of the House of Lords had Parliament been summoned in such a clandestine fashion. It was entirely out of the ordinary, and that frightened her terribly.

At the door to the master bedroom, she paused. She glanced at Richard, who hesitated in an uncertain fashion.

"Would you like me to . . . ?" he began.

"No, no," she replied, managing a wan smile. How foolish it was to have hesitated. Her husband had demanded that he not be disturbed, but this was a summons from Parliament. There was a crisis at hand. It had already tainted two members of the House of Lords, and as such it had to be dealt with straightaway.

So Anna opened the door and went in, with Richard following behind her.

"Husband, Richard is with me," she began, crossing the darkened room to draw back the curtains. "The bishop of Manchester is here, and he demands to see you. I know that you are poorly, and am terribly sorry to wake you, but . . ."

Her voice trailed off, for her husband had not stirred. The duchess went to another window, nearer the bed, and pulled those curtains aside, as well. Before she could turn, she heard Richard gasp.

"Lord and savior."

Then there came a hiss from the bed. Trembling, her own breath ragged in her throat, she turned to see.

The duke lay on his side, the bedclothes in complete disarray, twisted around him as though he had been thrashing in his sleep.

His flesh was tinged green and yellow, and there were strange diamond patterns on that rough, scaly skin, like some exotic serpent. His hair had fallen out in clumps, and lay strewn across his pillow. His hands were oddly twisted, his face malformed . . . he looked nothing like himself.

The face and form of a demon, the bishop had said.

The duchess shook her head slowly, staggering back until she collided with the window frame and could retreat no farther. A loud rushing filled her ears, like the sound of a great waterfall. Richard was shouting something, but she could not tell what it was. Darkness seemed to float at the edges of her vision.

She could not breathe.

A long, forked tongue slid out from between the demon's lips.

Then the monstrous thing that had once been her husband opened gleaming, sickly yellow eyes, and it looked at her.

And Anna Wickham began to scream.

WILLIAM AROSE FAR later than he had planned, for after the events of the previous day, he had found it difficult to get to sleep.

Whatever had really happened with Haversham, he felt the weight of the blame upon his own shoulders. His sister was grieving, yet he had convinced her to see Haversham simply to further the ends of their investigation. So as late as it was, he was determined to allow her to sleep to nearly noon.

Upon Tamara's waking, William learned of her odd exchange with Oblis. As slim as it was, it was still a lead in their investigation.

As she recounted the information the demon had provided, Tamara seemed ill at ease. William found it odd that Oblis would offer anything that might aid them, yet his sister seemed determined to pursue this line of inquiry. William could only take this to mean that Tamara had given Oblis something in return. Yet she offered no clue as to what it might have been.

The more he thought about it, the more the idea haunted him. What had she sacrificed? What little piece of his sister might have been offered up to the monster?

William dared not ask her. There had been enough tension between them of late, and he felt guilty for that. She had chosen the high road this morning and behaved as though all was well between them. He had no desire to disrupt that peace.

And what vengeance could he take on Oblis, after all? He could not murder his own father, and even if he did, it would not destroy the demon, only free it to torture some other innocent, and seek new victims.

No, he decided instead to focus on the crisis that was developing in London. To that end, the Swift siblings retreated early in the afternoon to their grandfather's rooms to search Sir Ludlow's records and journals for references to the Protector of Bharath.

Queen Bodicea had returned with news that she had "inadvertently" killed David Carstairs . . . or at least the monster Carstairs had become. William had hoped Carstairs might still provide some further lead in their investigation, so he had been angry at first. But as the circumstances of Carstairs's death came to light, he could not find fault with what Bodicea had done.

Lord Nelson's inquiries in the spirit world had produced news that the curse was, in fact, spreading at an alarming rate among the poverty-stricken lower classes in Shadwell, and Wapping in the East End, near the Thames. Indian immigrants, lost in the secrecy of their shared culture and ignored by even the other residents of those dingy districts, had been among the first afflicted by these horrors. But because of the closed, secretive nature of the immigrant subculture, word had been slow to spread, and had in fact been suppressed by the few who were aware. The plague had been hidden even from the eyes of the ghosts.

The evil festering in London town had remained unknown until it touched the upper classes, until it reached a party at the bishop of Manchester's home and transformed the earl of Claridge. Even the Protectors of Albion had been in the dark until Frederick Martin's visit. How many had been twisted by this evil curse? For curse was what William felt certain it was. How many women had been split open by the darkness yearning to be born, by the iniquity bursting from their wombs? How many men had been robbed of their humanity, infected with malevolence, and turned into monsters?

"How many could we have saved?" William whispered under his breath.

He started as he realized he had spoken aloud. In the gray late-afternoon light that filtered in through the windows of their grandfather's room, he glanced around to find Tamara seated at the writing desk, the same desk at which she sat to put pen to paper for her lurid penny-dreadful tales. There were journals stacked to her left, and she had one open before her as she scratched notes on a separate sheet of paper.

At the sound of his voice, however, she turned, frowning, to look at him.

"William, are you quite all right?"

A hollow bravado filled him and he sat up straight in his chair. "Of course I am. I'm just . . ." With a sigh, he hung his head. "No. The truth is, I'm not all right at all. Too little sleep, I suppose."

He glanced at the papers strewn on the table in front of him. It wasn't a proper table, of course, but the Egyptian sarcophagus that Ludlow had so often used in his stage magic. The old man would have himself locked into the dreadful thing, and then when his assistant opened it, he would have disappeared. Audiences had loved the trick. How much more amazed would they have been to learn that it was real magic, translocation at work, and not some conjurer's game?

William shook his head and looked up at Tamara again. His back hurt from having spent more than two hours straight bent over the sarcophagus. The French mahogany chair he had dragged over beside it was elegant, but hardly comfortable for such a long stretch.

"What is it?" Tamara asked.

"I can't escape the feeling that Colonel Dunstan was correct, and we've been terribly remiss. It's all of Albion we're supposed to protect, not only the nobility. The aristocrats hardly need our help at all, in any case. It's those who cannot help themselves who need us the most, and they seem to have remained almost beneath our notice."

His sister set her pen down and turned in the chair to face him, smoothing her skirts. "That's a bit harsh, don't you think? Dunstan is a ghost, and has not the duties of the living. He has focused only on those who are his concern. After all, he might've come to us when he first learned that something was amiss there. And we hadn't heard of the trouble in Limehouse-"

"Not Limehouse. Wapping and Shadwell."

Tamara nodded. "All right. But the point is, we can't be expected to solve a problem that we don't know exists, to fight a threat that has snuck in under our noses."

"But it shouldn't have been possible, Tam, don't you see that?" William rapped his knuckles on the sarcophagus. "We're taking these artifacts from museums and private collectors . . . from cultural thieves, to be honest. Most of the things were smuggled out of India illegally. But from the sound of it, this curse has been spreading among the Indians who live in the filthiest areas, and it has been for as long as two weeks, yet we had no idea. Aren't we supposed to sense these things?

"We've got a small army of ghosts out there, acting as our eyes and ears, on the watch for supernatural threats, but either they did not know about the infestation, or they did not think it was the sort of threat they ought to bring to our attention. The impression Nelson got from Dunstan was that they thought we simply would not care."

Tamara stood, and strode toward the nearest window. She slid it open a few inches before turning to regard him thoughtfully. "I've no idea why they would think such a thing, unless, perhaps . . ."

"What, Tam? Unless what?"

"I shouldn't like to think it of him, but the only reason for the ghosts to presume we wouldn't care is if they'd come to expect it through experience."

William knitted his brow. "Experience with Grandfather, you mean? You're suggesting he might have ignored some evil prowling London if it confined itself to the slums?"

Tamara shivered. "Otherwise it means the ghosts have judged us as uncaring, Will, and I don't think we've given them any reason. How else are we to interpret this?"

"I prefer to think the wandering spirits were simply unaware of this new horror until now."

Tamara nodded. "As do I," she said, but her eyes were distant, her mind preoccupied now, likely with thoughts of their grandfather, and the duties they had inherited from him.

"Even so, I believe the responsibility lies with us, not with the ghosts," William said. "If we don't care enough-"

"We would have cared, William. We'll make that clear to them. We do care. I applaud your sentiment, I truly do. Frankly, I'm pleased to see you thinking so much about the poorer classes. But we would be trying to unravel this mystery regardless of who had been touched by this dark magic. The earl of Claridge is no more a human being than a beggar in the street, and no less. We are to protect Albion from evil, no matter where it strikes."

William felt a fist of ice clenching in his gut. "Then why didn't we know, Tam?"

"For Heaven's sake, we can't be everywhere," Tamara said, hands on her hips. "I feel as horrible as you that so many have suffered already. And we must get to the bottom of it as quickly as possible. But we cannot defend the whole of England at every instant."

"No," William agreed. "Only the places we bother to look."

A long silence descended upon the room. Tamara took a deep breath and reached up to push a stray lock of hair behind her ear. That sweet, lopsided smile appeared on her face, but there was a sadness to it, as well.

William pushed back the torturous French mahogany chair and stood up, both hands on his lower back as he stretched. His bones popped loudly, and some of the stiffness departed.

"Right, then," he said. "Have you found anything useful?"

Tamara began to pace the room. How often she had lingered here as a child, listening to their grandfather's wild stories and trying to learn his magic tricks. She hadn't had the dexterity for it, though. How ironic, William thought, that she had become so adept instead at the true magic they had inherited from the man.

"It is all connected," she said. "That much is obvious. The common thread is that each person possessed stolen artifacts from India. And those afflicted in the East End are almost exclusively Indian. The demons sighted are Rakshasa, also from Indian folklore. The one idol we've been able to identify represents the image of Kali. Or one of the goddess's facets. Even the mysterious girl mentioned by Colonel Dunstan appears to be Indian."

William threw up his hands. "Ye-yes-the more we gather these pieces of the puzzle, the more it's clear that they share an Indian origin. But we still can't seem to find the connection that linked the idols with the plague in the slums. We are wasting our time with these journals. We need to go to the East End, where all of this started. I believe that is where we'll find the connection we seek. It's also where this mysterious girl has been sighted. I've no idea what role she plays in all this, but I doubt her sudden appearance is coincidental. So we'll visit the East End and-"

"Yes," Tamara interrupted, pursing her lips and arching an eyebrow. "But not yet."

She strode back to the writing desk and picked up the paper she had been scribbling upon. "Bharath is, I've discovered, the soul of India, just as Albion is the soul of England. According to his journals, Grandfather came into contact with the Protector of Bharath several times. His name is Tipu Gupta."

Her skin flushed crimson and she glanced downward, unwilling to meet his eyes. "Whatever our feelings about Oblis, his clue seems to have been genuine, if maddeningly vague. Before we delve any farther into this horror, we'd be well advised to seek out the expertise of a man intimately familiar with the culture and magic of India." Tamara crossed her arms. "We must find the Protector of Bharath, and win him to our cause."

William nodded. He cast a quick glance at the books that lay upon the sarcophagus, glad to be shed of them and to be taking action at last. "Very well. Is there any hint as to where we ought to begin?"

Tamara smiled. "Nigel was still Grandfather's apprentice when last the Protectors of Albion and Bharath met. If anyone would know how to find Tipu Gupta, it would be our Mr. Townsend."

"Our . . . well, he's not my Mr. Townsend," William sniffed.

His sister didn't reply. Instead she just folded the paper upon which she had written her notes and slipped it inside her sleeve. Then she took William's hand.

"Shall we?"

He took a deep breath and nodded. Translocation always made his stomach hurt. Nevertheless, he clutched her fingers, and together they recited the spell that had become almost second nature to them.

"Under the same sky, under the same moon, like a fallen leaf, let the spirit wind carry me to my destination."

Prev Next
Loading...