Ghosts of Albion: Accursed / Chapter One

Chapter One


It was a rare day in Highgate. The sky above was a brilliant blue, and the sun lured from the landscape vivid colors that were seen so infrequently as to achieve near-mythic status.

Ordinarily Ludlow House seemed to loom upon the hill, gazing balefully across the lawns that surrounded it. The gardens were vibrant and beautiful, but the façade of the house was almost monastic in its plainness, a grim visage of window and stone with a thorny crown of gables and chimneys. Yet on this day, the Swift family home managed an elegant nobility. Though the sprawling manse cast long shadows eastward, they did not engender the sense of foreboding that had so often been their companion.

There was a southwesterly view from the rear of Ludlow House. The elevation of the hill was such that High Street was visible in the distance, and on a day as clear as this, those of keen eyesight or imagination might see the spire of the chapel at Highgate Cemetery. Yet it was neither the view nor the rare brilliance of the spring day that had prompted Tamara Swift to host afternoon tea in the observatory, rather than within the house proper.

Inside the house, even in the front parlor, her guests might have heard the mad howling that came from the second floor, the screams of her father. Or, more accurately, of the thing that lived within him.

Much had changed in the months subsequent to the death of her grandfather, Sir Ludlow Swift. Tamara and her brother, William, had inherited a host of responsibilities they could never have imagined, and the loss of her beloved grandfather, combined with her father's affliction, had cast the bleakest of shadows across her heart.

Yet she felt a sense of purpose now that she never had before. No matter how frightful her current circumstances, she knew she would not have willingly erased the events of the past several months. Once her greatest concerns had been the attentions of young men and the scribblings she authored under the pseudonym T. L. Fleet, stories published in pamphlets they called penny dreadfuls on the street. Once upon a time, her taste for the macabre had been mere musing. Now her writings leaned toward those of reporter, rather than tale-weaver.

But the darkness could be suffocating. For too long in recent months, she had chosen to ignore invitations and gentle inquiries from friends. Now she had at last determined that it would be prudent to escape into the trivial from time to time.

This afternoon's tea was attended by four young ladies of North London whom she counted as her friends and, unfortunately, Miss Sophia Winchell, whom William was courting. Absent from the gathering was Marjorie Winterton, who was attending to the needs of an ailing dowager aunt. Marjorie had sent her regrets, and Tamara shared the sentiment. Sophia was a poor substitute.

This tea was meant to signify Tamara's return to society, and the throwing aside of the shroud that had cloaked her spirit so much of late. And she found now that the gathering was indeed fulfilling its purpose. The sunshine and the flowers that were blossoming so fully, ripe with color, out across the grounds, had lifted her spirits. But nothing healed her so much as the company of her friends.

A titter of naughty laughter rippled through the observatory. One of the girls had no doubt said something scandalous-no surprise in this group-but Tamara had been lost in thought, and she had missed it. She feigned amusement politely, but she couldn't entirely escape the weight of the dark truths she had learned in the wake of Sir Ludlow's savage murder.

At times she wondered if she should share her burden with one or more of her closest friends, yet she knew there was no way she would dare to do so. Ignorance of the evil that hid in England's shadows was indeed a gift, and it was one she would give them freely. No, she would keep her own counsel. In those moments when she could not bear the weight of the dreadful truth, she would seek solace in her brother's calming voice. In his reason.

Or she would rely upon the kindness of ghosts.

But she would not place the burden of knowledge upon her friends. That would be too cruel.

And the truth of it was that part of her conviction sprang from selfishness. Simply being in their presence eased her mind, let her become once again, albeit briefly, a part of the mundane world. She hadn't realized it until today, but in their ordinary concerns and their gossip and their laughter she found respite. For the first time in months she wasn't dwelling upon the certainty that night would fall once more; that they would depart and the light of whimsy would be extinguished.

No, while they were here, she would be as she had been. Just another girl-no, just another high-born lady of London town.

She took a sip of lukewarm tea-she didn't dare try to use magic to warm it in the presence of her friends-and turned her gaze toward the windows. Tamara had always found it peaceful here in the observatory, if a trifle chilly. The gardens of Ludlow House were renowned, arranged as they were with an almost architectural precision. Tamara's grandfather had entertained many a guest here, to exploit the glorious view of the prize tea rose garden.

Tamara still missed the grizzled old man terribly, but time had begun to scar over her tender wounds. They would never heal altogether; the thought that they would was a myth. Yet, brushing away the momentary pain, she turned her attention back to the conversation in progress.

"-I truly believe that if I were ever to find myself in the company of our Mr. T. L. Fleet, I would just expire," said Victoria Markham, her face so flushed as to make her cheeks nearly as red as her hair. "I would be just that-for lack of a better word-stimulated."

Tamara almost laughed, but managed to hold herself in check by pretending to cough into her silk handkerchief. She perched on the edge of the soft red velveteen settee, blue eyes wide with curiosity. Somehow, while she was lost in reverie, the topic of conversation had come around to her own writings. How odd it was to be privy to gossip that was, however indirectly, about her.

Victoria dramatically raised a hand to cover her mouth, as though she had been scandalized by her own ribald insinuation, her mischievous, pixielike features doing little to make her pretense convincing.

Tamara so treasured the girl. In the aftermath of Sir Ludlow's death, Victoria had continued to make overtures of friendship, long after everyone else had ceased trying. She had stubbornly refused to let Tamara surrender completely to grief, and had finally called at Ludlow House-uninvited-the week before, hoping to coax Tamara back into society.

It was entirely due to her urging that Tamara had promised to sponsor a tea for their friends this afternoon.

Victoria lowered her hand and continued. "My cousin Roderick swears that T. L. spends his evenings with that bawdy actress Lucille Hammond. Can you believe that an author of his accomplishments would even call on someone so base?"

There was a pause and then Helena Martin looked up from her sketchpad, a dusty piece of charcoal clutched between her thumb and forefinger. "Well, I must confess that Stained Scarlet gave me goose bumps."

Tamara smiled, the compliment giving her goose bumps.

"I couldn't put it down, not until the very last word," Helena continued, a small, self-conscious smile blossoming upon her face. "I was so terrified." At that, she quickly returned to her sketching, a rather faithful rendering of a nearby vase of roses.

Helena wiped a strand of chestnut hair out of her eyes, leaving a dark smudge across her high cheekbone. Tamara had known her since they were toddlers, and didn't think she had ever seen the young woman without her sketchbook in hand.

"It was suspenseful," Victoria agreed. "He raises the penny dreadful to high art. And I'll wager he's even more handsome than his characters."

"Honestly, is there no other more suitable subject for conversation, or are you all so obsessed with this bawdy fantasy?" Suzanne Hastings muttered.

Once she had been Tamara's dearest friend, but they had found little opportunity to enjoy each other's company in recent years. The dark-eyed, Rubenesque girl had married two summers before, and spent much of her time at her husband's estate in Cornwall.

"How absolutely dull of you," Victoria said with a sigh. "Now that you're a married woman, I think you're simply coveting the freedom the rest of us have. You'd be thrusting out your bosom and batting your eyelashes with abandon at our T. L. if you weren't saddled with that old nanny goat of a husband."

Tamara was surprised at the intensity of Victoria's fascination with the mysterious author, though she supposed that if she were unaware of the author's true identity she, too, might find herself enamored of the "adventurous scribe." Then it struck her that the very thought was laden with devastating hubris, and she brushed it away.

The barb hit home, and Suzanne's face flushed scarlet with suppressed rage. But she took a deep breath and shot her friend a sly smile.

"Victoria, my darling, perhaps one day you will learn that simply because a thought pops into your pretty head, that doesn't mean you ought to put voice to it. For example, just because we all know that you couldn't snare a husband even with that embarrassingly large Markham fortune of yours, that doesn't mean we need to comment on the fact."

Victoria stiffened, and Tamara thought for a moment that she might throw her tea in Suzanne's face. But instead she began to laugh.

"Touche, Suzanne. You always did have a way with words. I cannot even begin to compete."

Suzanne took her win graciously. "My dear Vic, were I this gruesome scribbler you so fancy, I have no doubt I would find you irresistible."

The irony of it all was as frustrating as it was delicious. It was all Tamara could do not to reveal herself. And I don't spend my time loitering outside music halls, lusting after round-heeled actresses! she would have declared.

As much as she wanted to tell her friends the truth, her brother, William, had made her swear upon pain of death never to reveal her literary identity. He was worried that public knowledge of her career might do irreparable harm to their good name, which she found amusing in light of what outcry might arise were the public to become aware of the other avocation that was increasingly drawing their attention and time.

Once again she glanced around at the friends she had gathered in the observatory and felt perfectly at ease, allowing a smile to play at the corners of her mouth.

Her pleasant musing was shattered by a tight, supercilious voice that came from outside their circle. "I cannot believe that any young lady from a proper family would dare read such trash."

Sophia Winchell stood by the windows, mouth twisted up in disapproval that tainted her otherwise beautiful face. She was one of the most stunning women Tamara had ever known. Suzanne and Victoria looked like charwomen in comparison. Tamara could see why her brother was taken with Miss Winchell, despite her personality.

Victoria rolled her eyes. She had been upset at first when she had learned that Tamara had invited Sophia to come to tea. It seemed that no one, aside from her brother, was fond of the girl. Tamara had made an earnest effort to like the young lady who was the object of William's fancy, but subsequently she had found that she would rather eat soap than spend an afternoon alone with her.

When Tamara had invited Sophia, she had felt certain the girl would find some excuse to decline, but to her surprise William announced that she was thrilled to be included. Tamara was sure that the word thrilled had been an embellishment on his part, as Sophia had barely spoken since her arrival.

Now she gazed at Tamara, a challenge filling her eyes. If Tamara hadn't known better, she would have thought the girl knew something.

"I'm sure a little harmless amusement won't be the death of anyone," Tamara said, forcing a pleasant smile.

Sophia pursed her lips, but did not reply.

Tamara continued, "Don't you agree, Sophia?"

Sophia shook her head. "I do not, Miss Swift. Nor do I think the author of such drivel should be complimented or admired for such hideous imagery as he foists upon the public. It is the lowest form of entertainment, not art but filth, and a base appeal to the ugliest facets of human nature."

Victoria seemed even more startled and offended than Tamara. "Miss Winchell, one should never condemn what one has not read-"

Sophia raised an eyebrow and interrupted. "Oh, but I have," she began, the sarcasm palpable in her voice. "I have had the pleasure of reading this trash, this Stained Scarlet, and find it not only offensive, but very poorly written, at that."

Tamara stood and crossed the room, striding toward Sophia. "That's enough."

At first, the other girl stood her ground, but as Tamara got closer, she stepped back against the window, placing her hand on the warm dark wood of the sill. She may have been intimidated, but she never took her eyes away from Tamara's.

Keeping her voice even, Tamara said, "Miss Winchell, if you must disdain our amusements, and our company, you might at least have the good taste not to do so when you are in our company. Your rudeness knows no bounds."

Sophia met her gaze evenly. "You don't frighten me, Tamara Swift. I know exactly what you are."

Tamara nodded. "And what is that, may I ask?"

Sophia bit the inside of her lip, her hazel eyes slitted as she glared at the woman who stood before her. She put a small, pale hand to her hair, unconsciously smoothing it.

"I shall tell William how wicked all of you are," Sophia said shrilly. She glanced quickly at the other girls, as if memorizing their faces for some subsequent vengeance. Then her features softened and Tamara almost thought she saw regret in her eyes.

But the moment passed, and Suzanne laughed harshly. "You may tell him whatever you like. I've known William Swift most of my life, and I daresay all you will elicit from him is a furious blush and a bit of an embarrassed cough. And after all, he's husband to none of us, dear. Not yet, at least."

Sophia set her teacup down on a side table and started for the door. As she did so, she turned and peered over her shoulder. "Good day, Miss Swift. I hope you realize that I only accepted this invitation because William pleaded with me to do so."

As she opened the door, Tamara called out, "And you should know that it was only extended under the same duress."

Sophia didn't stop to reply. The resounding slam of the door was more than answer enough.

Tamara let out a loud sigh, then plopped back down on the settee. Whatever shall I tell William?

AS THE AFTERNOON light waned, William Swift shifted in his chair so that his shadow did not fall across the papers on his desk. The wind had conspired on this day to brush aside much of the grime and chimney spew that so often stained the sky above the city. Yet he had been unable to take any pleasure in the weather, trapped, as he was, in his tomb of an office within the walls of Swift's of London. He shared little in common with Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, but nevertheless the bank had become his own albatross. His father had truly enjoyed this work, but William had never been able to force himself to take a genuine interest in it.

Yet now it was his duty. Swift's of London had been controlled by the family for generations, and he would be damned before he would allow it to crumble under his stewardship.

So he tried to focus upon his work, but found himself staring blankly at the sheet of numbers that sat on his desk. He knew he was supposed to review the documents, and then put his signature on the paper agreeing to a merger of some sort, but somehow all he could do was stare at the page.

It wasn't actually the figures themselves that interested him, but the way they were arranged on the paper. He couldn't help but compare them to the architectural structure they suggested: that of an Egyptian pyramid. It reminded him of his avocation previous to his father's incapacitation. William had been an apprentice architect, and that was still where his interests lay.

Not here.

Anywhere but here.

William blinked, clearing his mind. He ran his hands through his thick black hair and reached for his fountain pen, which he had set down near the edge of the desk. He took the dropper from a small bottle of ink that sat next to the blotter and began to fill the pen.

There was a knock on the door, and the pen slipped from William's grasp, spilling ink on the desk before it fell to the floor. He thought briefly about compelling the flood of ink back into the bottle with magic, but there was another insistent hammering on the opposite side of the door.

"Damn it!" He slid down off his chair to retrieve the pen and barked at the door. "Enter!"

Hinges squeaked as the door swung wide to allow entrance to his assistant, Harold Ramsey. He was only a year younger than William, but Harold's baby face and pale blond hair often led strangers to think he was still a schoolboy.

"Pardon me, Will," Harold said. Then he noticed the pool of ink on William's desk. "How in the world-" he began, but his sharp eyes instantly alighted on something they found of more interest. He nodded to himself, bemused.

"You're still having a go at those?" he said, pointing to the drafting paper covered in William's spidery scrawl. William immediately shoved the architectural sketches underneath a prospectus and glared at Harold.

"Not a word," William warned.

Harold took a step back, hands raised in mock supplication. "Wouldn't dream of it. Though I haven't any idea why you should be so concerned. It's no secret that you'd much rather return to your apprenticeship than preside over Swift's."

William laughed softly. "Dante said it is better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven. I'd argue the point."

He and Harold had been at Cambridge together, which accounted for the easy familiarity between them. In fact, when Henry Swift had become ill the year before, and William had taken over the family business, he had purposely sought Harold out. If he was to captain a vessel as massive as Swift's of London, he wanted someone he could trust at his side.

"You don't fool me," Harold told him. "You don't despise every moment you spend here."

William arched an eyebrow. "Yes, there's lunchtime." He grinned. "But as you say, old friend. I'll allow that the people who toil here at Swift's make the days bearable. And there is some pleasure to the challenge of the responsibility that's been thrust upon me. But you know I have other ambitions, and they call to me."

Harold nodded. "I know. And I hope you can return to them one day. At the moment, however, you might want to attend to Miss Winchell."

"Sophia? What of her?"

"She's downstairs."

William frowned. "Sophia's meant to be at Ludlow House today, for tea. This doesn't bode well."

"Shall I bring her up?" Harold asked.

William gestured at the spill of ink on the desk. "I'm afraid I've made a mess here."

"I don't think she'll care. She seemed rather upset, actually."

William sighed. "Oh, Tamara, what have you done?"

"What shall I tell her?" the younger man asked, straightening his jacket and stepping farther into the office. He glanced over his shoulder, and William could see past him into the main hall of the bank, with its etched-glass tellers' windows, oil lamps at each station, and the column-encircled atrium at the center with glass above to let in the daylight. It was the most elegant building on Threadneedle Street.

"Where is she now?" William asked.

"I left her at the manager's desk but her maid, Elvira, is having quite the time keeping her there. She tried to follow me, but the old woman wouldn't hear of it. Muttered something about a lady of 'breeding.' "

Harold looked as if he was amused by the memory.

Indeed, the idea of Sophia behaving improperly put a smile on William's face. So much of his time was spent worrying about propriety that he often found himself thrilled by Sophia's boldness.

Today would no doubt be an exception.

"Send her up, Harold. Putting her off would only delay the inevitable."

After Harold left, William tried as best he could to clean up the spilled ink, but only managed to smear more of it across the wooden surface. When he straightened up again, he found Sophia standing in the doorway, watching him.

She was so exquisite that it seemed as if his memory could never quite hold the fullness of her beauty for long, so that each time he saw her he experienced the realization of her anew. Her dark hair hung in ringlets that framed her face, draped across high cheekbones, and culminated in a loose chignon at the back of her neck. Her pale skin was ivory smooth and in deep contrast to the burgundy of her dress. William thrilled at her tiny waist and the way her delicate fingers peeked out from her lace cuffs.

As he studied the face beneath her burgundy bonnet, he registered the flash of anger in her hazel eyes. Then she smiled, and the anger drained away, leaving only alert intelligence in its wake.

"Hello, William." Her voice was warm, and sweet as honey.

The hair on the back of his neck stood up. He tried to swallow, but found that his throat had gone dry.

"What brings you here this afternoon, my dear?"

Sophia stepped over the threshold. Bypassing the armchair in the corner, she moved to the desk and crossed behind it. There she pressed her hands atop the desk and hoisted herself up, sliding her bottom across the wood and yet somehow managing to maintain a certain elegant decorum. She was, of course, careful to avoid the pool of spilled ink.

William felt a small tremor go through him. Sophia was sitting facing him, her right thigh resting on the desk inches from his hand. If he had wanted to, he could've reached out and rested it on her waist or her knee. Just the nearness of her flesh, even covered as it was by burgundy silk, drove William to distraction. His pulse quickened and abruptly all his hesitation began to evaporate. An almost predatory desire rose in him.

Sophia gazed at him intently, as if studying him. She had to have seen the effect her nearness and her decidedly unladylike perch had produced, and yet she only smiled thinly, one eyebrow arching again.

He stood and walked over to the door.

"I would hate for anyone to walk by and see you sitting so near and . . . and mistake my assuaging your frustration with . . . I mean to say, misinterpret my intentions." He closed the door and paused to take a breath before turning to face her again.

Sophia shook her head in fond humor. "And what about my intentions? In any case, William, I hardly think that my sitting on your desk would be any more scandalous than the fact that the two of us are behind closed doors, in your place of business."

His eyes widened. He'd been in such a hurry to afford them some privacy that he hadn't even considered-

Sophia laughed, the sound ushering from deep inside her throat. "You are so incredibly proper, William Swift. You needn't worry. My Elvira can certainly be counted upon for her discretion. And as for your employees, why, they are your employees, aren't they? They rely upon you for their livelihood. I shouldn't think you would have to worry overmuch that their tongues might be wagging."

She slid her own tongue out over her lips. "Mine, however . . ."

William cleared his throat.

"Perhaps we ought to quit this dreary place, my dear. The Hotel Edison has a lovely tearoom. Have I taken you there? I think not. We can't stay here, really. I've spilled ink all over the place and I wouldn't want you to ruin your dress." The words escaped his mouth before he could reel them back in. He felt like such a fool, babbling on like that. And now images flashed through his mind of the sort of activities that might cause Sophia to ruin her dress due to the ink on the desk. Her dress . . . spread across the desk.

Part of him was terrified of being alone with Sophia Winchell. She was like one of Odysseus's sirens: mesmerizing and exotic, completely foreign to his experience. Yet because she was so entrancing, he knew he wouldn't have the strength to resist her siren song. He would gladly dash himself upon the rocks to reach her.

"A little ink won't hurt anyone, darling William," she said, beckoning him toward her.

His eyes locked on hers. Warily, he returned to his desk, but did not sit down. The way she sat there on the edge of the desk, her dress had risen enough that he could see her ankles and calves, the smooth curve of muscle. His breath caught in his throat.

"Harold said that you seemed upset," he said, forcing his gaze away from her legs.

Sophia took his hand and laced her fingers with his, then drew him toward her and leaned her head upon his shoulder. "I was upset. Then I saw you, and everything else seemed insignificant."

"Well, I'm pleased to have such an effect upon you."

"It is far from the only effect you have on me."

Sophia's words echoed inside him. William could scarcely breathe now. Blood rushed through him, embers stoked into open flame. With his free hand, he began to stroke the small of her back. He could feel the hardness of her corset underneath his fingers.

"William," she said. "I do have something important to tell you."

The smell of her hair, lavender and vanilla, made him tremble with desire. He found himself having a hard time concentrating on her words.

"What is it, my love?"

"I'm concerned for Tamara. Her friends are vulgar girls of low character, and her very association with them impugns her. With your father incapacitated, I know there is a great burden on you to be master of Ludlow House, and yet you have indulged your sister with love and patience. I wonder if this has instilled in her too much independence."

"Sophia, you must understand that Tamara is . . . difficult. She has a mind of her own. She always has. I could importune her to be more thoughtful about her choice of companions, but-"

A look of irritation swept across her features. "She was unconscionably rude to me. She had the gall to tell me that the only reason I had been invited this afternoon was because you had asked her to."

William blanched. "Sophia, I . . ."

Sophia shook her head. "Your sister and I have never seen eye-to-eye, and we both know why. She is intolerably jealous of your love for me."

There was some truth to what Sophia said, but William knew it was only a half-truth. Sophia was accusing Tamara of being stubborn and willful, and less than demure. But you are more alike than either of you cares to admit, William thought wryly. If only they realized how much more could be accomplished if they put their differences aside.

"I shall speak to Tamara tonight, my dear. I will let her know that such rudeness will not be tolerated."

This seemed to satisfy Sophia.

"Thank you." She gave him a quick peck on the cheek. "Shall I see you tonight? At the Wintertons' dinner party?"

He nodded.

"Then, tonight, my William," she whispered as she slid from the desk and straightened her skirts.

She offered him her hand and he took it, slowly leading her to the door. As he reached for the knob Sophia reached up for him, her soft lips pressing wantonly against his own. He was so surprised that at first he kept his mouth closed, but as the kiss continued, he opened his lips to her, feeling their soft fullness, enjoying the gentle play of tongue and lip.

He wrapped his arms around her thin shoulders and she melted into him, her soft body pressing against his own. He was sure he could feel her heart beating between them. After a few moments, he broke off the kiss and stared down into her eyes.

"You are the loveliest creature I have ever seen," he rasped. She smiled shyly up at him, and then abruptly reached out and opened the door.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Swift," she murmured.

Then she was gone, across the lobby and into the shawl her maid Elvira held waiting for her. She waved at William as he stood watching her from the doorway of his office.

"She truly is a woman to be reckoned with," Harold said as he came from behind the tellers' counter to stand beside his employer.

William could only nod. Every time they parted, it was only in the wake of her departure that he would realize she had stolen another piece of his heart.

"This just arrived for you," Harold said as he handed William a sealed envelope.

"From whom?" William inquired.

Harold gave him a perplexed shrug. "That I cannot tell you. One moment my desk was clear, the next there was this envelope, addressed to you."

William ran his fingers over the textured paper. Heavy, expensive stock. Interesting, he thought as he split the seal with his finger and opened it.

The Algernon Club cordially invites you to a dinner in honor of Sir Darius Strong . . .

William's interest was instantly piqued. the Algernon Club was a very private, very secret gentlemen's club whose members were all magicians, some of the stagecraft variety and others dabblers in actual spellcraft. His grandfather Ludlow Swift had been a member. Until recently, he had assumed that his grandfather had been a member because he enjoyed the company of other stage magicians. But then he had learned that Ludlow was the Protector of Albion, the mystical defender of England. Upon their grandfather's death, William and Tamara had inherited the magical power and the duties of the office.

And now William wondered . . . old Ludlow had been in a different class not only from the stage magicians but also from the amateur spellcasters who belonged to that club. So what did his grandfather benefit from being a member?

Could it be as simple as companionship? he wondered. Was it merely that he had friends there?

He frowned as a darker thought capered across his mind. Friends, and perhaps enemies, too. It was possible that Ludlow had participated in the activities of the Algernon Club to keep an eye on those magical dabblers. If so, it was something William and Tamara ought to be doing, as well. And if some of the stage magicians there were old friends of his grandfather's, well, it would be disrespectful of him not to accept their invitation.

He finished reading the invitation and sighed. It requested that he come alone.

This was not going to sit well with Tamara.

THE EARLY-EVENING sky was turning from purple to gray and a chill was descending as the old man wound his way through the dirty labyrinthine streets of London's East End. His path had taken him south from Fleet Street, nearly to Blackfriars Bridge, and then east along the Thames by Earl Street. The river was so thick with the repugnant outflow of the city's sewers and the offal that spilled from fisheries and canneries upon its banks that the stink of it was staggering. The old man covered his mouth and nose with a scarf and breathed through it out of necessity, and even then through thinly parted lips, only sipping the filthy air.

If the wind was right, he had heard, the stench of the Thames could drive a man to his knees.

Soon he turned slightly northward once more and immersed himself in the crooked lanes making up the slums that had spilled over from the docks, not far away. Cargo was never left behind on those docks, but humans often were. Sailors with nowhere left to go, unable to find a ship that would hire them. Who would choose to live in this filth and stink, after all? Only those with no choice at all.

He wrapped his threadbare overcoat around gaunt shoulders, hoping to keep the worst of the cold away from his bones. Laughter erupted from a night-house, one of the taverns where only thieves and water rats dared to congregate. He kept his eyes pointed forward and walked on, his gait confident though his joints ached from too many years of overuse. It had been a lovely day, an unusual one in this gray, smoke-choked city, and the sun had brought warmth to the early spring. But now that night was falling, the echo of the waning winter only increased his pain.

He tried to imagine the warm sun of Calcutta shining on his face and arms, scalding him with warmth. The old man narrowed his eyes to slits; for a moment, it worked, then his foot caught on a raised cobblestone and he fell forward, only stopping himself from injury by catching hold of a man who had appeared suddenly beside him.

The man bent under his weight, but did not fall. When he began to offer his thanks, he saw that his savior wore the twist of dementia on his leathery face, and carried in his eyes such madness that he ought to have been at Bedlam Hospital. But the stink of alcohol and rot on the man suggested that he might not live long enough for it to matter whether or not he received treatment.

This was the duality of life, this idiot who knew nothing of the help he had given. It reminded the old man of the siva ardha-nari-the Shiva Half Female-who was the divine representation of the interconnection between the gods and humanity. The ultimate duality.

He sighed, wishing now more than ever that he were back home, released from the terrible burden that was his alone to bear. But such was not to be. The nightmare was his alone to prevent. So he tried not to breathe, and followed the snaking path his senses guided him along, deeper into a twisted knot of alleys where the streets were coated with filth and the structures seemed only moments away from crumbling in upon themselves.

Yet when he found the small building, a two-story structure only slightly less dilapidated than the rest, he knew immediately that this was the place. Magic emanated from it with such power that he could feel it, and he could see a corona of bruised purple light limning the doorway. What magic there was inside was darker than the night and filthier than the streets. His stomach churned with nausea, and bile burned up the back of his throat as he went up to the front of the place.

He put his hand to the door and pushed it open.

Inside, the smell of fear and death was palpable, overriding even the stench of the river. As he walked down a dark, garbage-strewn hallway, tired eyes gazed at him from half-open doorways, which led into shadowy flats. Some of the faces he saw were curious, others dull, and still others cruel. The aroma of spices from his homeland drifted from one open door, but he ignored this distraction and followed the other smell, the corrupt scent of death. At the end of the hallway there was a final door.

He found it locked. Without a word, he closed his eyes and lifted his right hand. A spark of green flame flew forward and the door crashed open, nearly tearing from its hinges.

The old man stepped through the doorway and out into a large courtyard. It was open to the night sky above, but there was no fresh air to be found here, not in the bowels of London town.

The courtyard had been turned into a makeshift hospital. Under a large tarpaulin were row upon row of cots, each one occupied by a horribly suffering man or woman. In the slums of the East End, death lingered constantly in the night, keeping a constant vigil, waiting to carry away the souls of those whose flesh had surrendered.

A woman's cry cut through the moans of the afflicted, so piteous that the old man found himself inexorably drawn to her. His feet made no sound as he walked across the dirt. He found her resting on a small cot in the middle of the filthy courtyard. She had once been pretty, with aquiline features that would have rendered most men speechless. Now her face was taut with pain, her features gaunt, her lips drawn back in a grimace revealing brown, semi-rotten teeth.

When she saw the old man, she reached out toward him with one thin brown arm that was almost cadaverous. He could detect almost no flesh at all beneath the parchment skin. She moaned something, but her mouth was so dry that no true words passed between her lips.

He took the woman's hand in his and squeezed, ever so gently. She tried to speak again, but he shook his head.

"I understand, my child, there is no need to explain," he said in Hindi.

She was so weak that when she began to cry, the tears merely leaked from the corners of her eyes. The old man bent painfully over her and placed his other hand on her distended belly. She didn't flinch, allowing him to rest his palm there without complaint.

He bowed his head and began to chant. The words were soft and unintelligible. As his lips moved in time with the words, the woman's features began to soften.

She looked up at him, her brown eyes clear for the first time, and smiled. Thank you, she mouthed. Then her eyes closed and her breathing slowed. Finally, it stopped altogether.

The old man watched the woman's abdomen deflate, her belly shrinking until it was as it had once been.

"What are you doing?" demanded a voice from behind him.

The old man turned slowly, one hand on his back where the muscles were complaining that he had bent so low. A young Indian man stood there glaring at him, demand etched across his face. A doctor, perhaps, or a man of some medical knowledge, administering to the poor and the lost.

"I come in the glorious name of Vishnu, the creator, to give what help I can," answered the old man.

This seemed to calm the young doctor. He nodded and beckoned the old man to come with him, to the far side of the courtyard. There, the doctor turned and sighed.

"It's safer here, and there's a bit of a breeze. The air is cleaner. You can feel it when you breathe," the doctor said.

The old man nodded. The air was still filthy, stinking of the city's viscera, but the smell of fear and death was not as strong here.

"Was that woman a relative of yours?" the doctor asked.

The old man shook his head. "I came to help those who are beyond your expertise." His Hindi words punctuated with emphasis, like a chisel on stone.

The doctor cleared his throat, and he eyed the old man carefully. "You are a fakir-"

"No," the old man said strongly. "I am only a humble servant of the gods. Nothing more."

"But I saw what you did in there, with that woman-"

Once again the old man cut him off, this time laying a hand on the young doctor's shoulder. "I did nothing."

The doctor's eyelids fluttered drowsily and his flesh took on a jaundiced hue. When he focused on the old man again, his eyes were glazed with a white film, a sticky veneer that would dissipate in moments. As he spoke, he began to smile, as though he had just learned a wonderful secret.

"Of course," the doctor said. "And we are grateful for your aid."

The old man nodded gravely. "Tell me what you can of this plague, Doctor, this strange sickness."

It took the doctor a moment to register what the old man was saying, then he smiled again. "I was a doctor in India. Here I am nothing but a friend to these unfortunates. My brother was a sailor for the East India Company, but they said he was difficult, that he did not follow orders, and so they hired more crewmen here, and left him behind. He wrote our family to tell us of the squalor so many of our people are living in, some by choice and others because they have no alternative. I came to do what I could to help.

"I have never seen the like of this hideous plague before," he continued. "The women become bloated. There are boils and sores, odd chafing to the skin. And when the sickness subsides they are filled inside with foul creatures that burst forth and escape into the night. It's nothing natural, I am certain of that. This is not so much plague as curse. Many men are stricken, too, but their illness does not subside. They are either killed by it or they become . . ."

The old man frowned at this last part.

"Become?" he said.

"Let me show you," the doctor whispered as he led the old man past a curtained partition and into a tent.

Within the tent were many young men, all of them suffering. The old man laid a hand here and there as he walked, and gradually the din of agonized murmurings subsided. The doctor stopped at a random cot and drew back the sheet that was covering the body that rested there.

The young patient had hard features, the hands of a worker, and the scars of a fighter. These were human qualities, and yet his basic humanity was surrendering to something else. Calluses had given way to an almost reptilian skin. Sleek scales ran down the sides of his face in diamond cascade patterns that continued onto his throat and chest. His dark hair had begun to fall away, revealing a smooth, gleaming head. And all of his flesh was tinged with a dark, sickly green.

"They become. I cannot explain it any further than that," the doctor said sadly. "I saw the first of them two weeks past. Two more last week. Yesterday there were four. Today, seven more."

The old man looked at the patient, who began to shake.

His eyes-strange, yellow, reptile eyes-went wide, and he opened his mouth in a cry that began as a low hiss and grew in volume as he shook his head from side to side. The cry became a scream and the patient arched his back, straining at his bonds, madness in his eyes.

Then he went still, breathing raggedly. His flesh seemed darker, and the rough area of scales had spread farther across his chest and abdomen. For a moment the old man thought that he had fallen asleep, but then the patient lolled his head to one side and gazed at him. His eyes were no longer mad. Instead his gaze was full of fear, and it seemed as though he looked out from within some cage of horrid flesh.

The afflicted man wept silently.

"This is powerful tantrika. Your medicine is no match," said the old man.

The doctor shivered, then tore his gaze away from his patient. He scowled. "We have no medicine here. There is no money. We can only give comfort to the suffering. We have asked the Crown for help, but to no avail. We are just the poor bastard children of England's empire."

"The governor general, Eden, he is not a bad man-"

A look of hatred crossed the young doctor's face. "They are all bad, old man. The English have stolen our country. They steal our people and send them far away to help them steal other people's lands."

But the old man was not swayed.

"It is not our place to judge."

The doctor snorted derisively. "Why do you think this plague has come? It is to punish us for being cowards. It may have started with us, but it will continue until even the ignorant English themselves feel the gods' wrath."

This time the old man did not reply. He knew that no matter what he said to the young physician, it would fall on deaf ears.

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