Ghosts of Albion: Accursed / Chapter Two

Chapter Two


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The lovely spring day had given way to a cool, dark evening. Each gust of wind carried a reminder that the year was still young and that winter had departed reluctantly. The warmer weather had arrived, to be certain, but hints of its less appealing past lingered, reminding Tamara of many of the more interesting men she had met.

The curtains in her bedroom danced languorously with the breeze, and the imperfections in the glass that covered her lamps warped the light that came from the flames within. Lights and shadows danced around the walls. Alone in her room, trying to decide what to wear to the Wintertons' dinner party, it all felt like a strange bit of theater to her. The setting, at least, was dramatic, even if her own activities were rather mundane.

With the gentle breeze caressing her, she stood naked before the chest in which she kept her undergarments. She was holding a beige silk chemise in her left hand, but it took her a moment to find the drawers to match. Martha had put her things away, of course, but Tamara had dismissed the aging maid for the evening. The encounter with Sophia had left her in a foul mood, and she hadn't wanted Martha to have to suffer her presence. The idea that she would have to endure the presence of Sophia Winchell at the Wintertons' this evening kept her outlook bleak.

No, she did not have the heart to summon Martha after having already left her at liberty for the night. Thus she determined to dress herself. In truth, this was the best choice. Once upon a time, Tamara had not liked to be alone, but as she grew older and found that she and William had different interests, she had come to appreciate her privacy. There was an intimacy in loneliness that was fantastically bittersweet. And a sense of discovery, as well.

She found the drawers she was looking for, and, with her undergarments in her hands, Tamara crossed the chamber to the mirror. She stood before it and regarded herself. Her auburn hair was loose and hung wild around her shoulders. In the flickering lamplight, the shadows fell across her body in a way that caused her breath to catch in her throat. The curtains rustled once more, fluttering, and the cold touch of the night wind hardened the dark nubs that tipped her pale breasts.

Tamara felt her cheeks flush with warmth and she shifted her weight deliciously from one foot to the other, slowly, relishing the feeling of her legs sliding together.

"Silly girl," she whispered. "Better get dressed, or you'll never make it to the party."

She slipped the chemise on, the silk whispering over her skin. With her drawers still clutched in one hand, she turned away from the mirror and went to the bed. Though Martha had gratefully accepted release from her duties for the evening, she had still set out a dress for Tamara to wear, along with a corset and petticoats. Putting on the corset would prove to be problematic without help, but Tamara could enlist her brother to tighten the thing. William would blush, no doubt, just as he had been doing ever since she had begun to blossom into a fitting shape for a young woman. But he would assist her.

Even before their father had become incapacitated, she had enlisted him for such tasks from time to time. That was the result of living without their mother to look after them.

Tamara shifted the petticoat and corset aside to look at the dress Martha had chosen for her. The bodice had a basque, giving it the appearance of a jacket, and was open over a chemisette of white muslin with a lace frill of broderie anglaise. It had a pointed waist that she liked, but it was the color that appealed to her the most, an emerald green that would set off her hair nicely. Though Tamara had shown no eye for suitors in the nearly half a year since her grandfather's death, it was always possible that there were some fit young men who would have an eye for her.

She raised the dress off the bed and returned to the mirror, still wearing only her chemise. The chill breeze felt wonderful. She draped the dress across her body and studied the effect.

The green was sumptuous, really, and though the dome of the skirt was a bit wider than she liked-the styles were beginning to change-she thought Martha had made a wise choice. Tamara turned slightly, first to the left, and then to the right, the mirror image shifting with her.

"Oh, no. Please, anything but that. You might as well join the convent."

It was a man's voice. Tamara spun, holding the dress in front of her in a hopeless attempt at modesty. Her first instinct was to flee from the bedchamber into her sitting room and out into the corridors of Ludlow House. But even as she turned, her heart quickening, she recognized the voice.

The room, of course, was empty.

Tamara planted her feet, the dress still pressed against her, and raised an eyebrow. Shadows danced in lamplight, but none was deep enough to hide an intruder.

"How long have you been here?" she demanded, glancing about the room.

The voice returned. "Long enough to sample the delights of your garden, my dear. Spring brings the loveliest flowers, and the breeze carries only their sweetest scents."

She narrowed her eyes. "Why spy on me? It's nothing you haven't seen before."

"I honestly hadn't intended to spy. I arrived to find you flushed with self-regard, and was so lost in my admiration that it never occurred to me to make my presence known until it became clear you intended to wear that awful, stuffy, old woman's gown to your soiree this evening."

Tamara frowned. "It's a lovely dress, and perfectly proper."

The lamplight seemed to freeze in place, the flames pausing in unnatural hesitation. Between her bed and the door that led out of her chamber there appeared suddenly the spectral form of a man, a roguish phantom with dark, curly hair and a boyish charm to his features. His eyes danced with playfulness, though he crossed his arms and gazed at her with affected disapproval. His sudden materialization was accompanied by a crackling noise, as of damp wood blazing in the hearth.

"Proper?" the specter cried in alarm. He shook his head disapprovingly. "My dear Tamara, how is it we have been acquainted so long, had so many late-night conversations in this very room, and you are still capable of uttering the word proper as though it were a quality to be admired? I accept that you are not yet prepared to indulge in full-fledged decadence, but surely there is something in your wardrobe that would be more appropriate for an evening out. Something that accentuates your loveliness, rather than hiding it away."

Tamara could not prevent the smirk that lifted one corner of her mouth. "By loveliness, you mean, of course, my breasts."

"Every inch of you is lovely, dear Tamara, but I hardly think I might convince you to attend the party in a state that would reveal your perfection in its entirety."

"Oh, yes, wouldn't that be a sight?"

"It is," the ghost replied. "Trust me."

"Nothing like scandal to destroy the family name completely. It isn't as if William and I aren't having trouble enough deflecting the less savory suggestions about the nature of our father's illness."

The translucence of the ghost flickered, and for a moment there was only a suggestion of a form, shimmering in the lamplight. Then the spirit solidified further, so that if she hadn't been peering directly at him, it might have seemed as if he were a being of flesh and blood. Standing there in his wide white collar and the red velvet Italian coat he always wore, the only thing about him that would have drawn undue attention was the anachronism of his fashion.

"I don't know," he said, mischief still twinkling in his eyes. "William could use a bit of scandal. And it's true, you know, that modesty retires after six o'clock."

For a long moment she gazed at the specter, at the ghost of the poet. Then she smiled. "Now that you mention it, I do have something new. Something with a bodice that . . . plunges a bit more."

The ghost uttered a high, childish giggle. "There's my girl. Oh, yes, we'll make a bohemian of you yet."

Tamara smiled even more broadly. Brazen, she crossed to the bed and laid the dress out neatly. "I can't wear this chemise, however," she said, fingering the neckline on the undergarment. It was too high for the bodice she had in mind.

Without bothering to acknowledge that she wasn't alone in the room, she drew the chemise over her head and tossed it on the bed beside the matching drawers. Entirely nude, she paraded back to the chest on the far side of the room and withdrew a fresh white chemise and the drawers to match it. The specter watched her all the while. He had been a scoundrel in life, she knew, his appetites as decadent as one could imagine. Yet in death he had become her friend and confidant, and though he had neither flesh nor blood, he was the only man to have seen her unclothed since her childhood.

A sad state of affairs, that.

Tamara pulled on the white chemise.

"Oh, that's much better," he said. "It's practically indecent."

She smiled, basking in his approval.

As she stepped into her drawers, there came a soft knock on the bedroom door. Tamara frowned and glanced at the ghost. She had dismissed Martha for the evening and the butler, Farris, would not have entered her sitting room without first knocking on that outer door.

It could only be William.

"Yes?" she called.

"Tamara? It's me. Can I come in?"

"You'll have to come back later!" the ghost replied. "She's not entirely dressed. Wouldn't want to offend your tender sensibilities."

Tamara held a hand to her mouth and laughed softly.

"Is that Byron in there?" William barked from the sitting room. "Tamara, really!"

"Oh, just a moment, William! I swear, you have the patience of a princess."

"And the sense of decorum," Byron muttered.

Tamara could not help laughing aloud at that.

"Now, see here!" William shouted.

She could imagine her brother's bluster as he protested helplessly. With a sigh, Tamara took a robe from its hook and slipped it on. She glanced at the ghost of Lord Byron, who gazed at her curiously from beneath those dark curls.

"I'm certain I know what this is all about," she whispered.

"I'll leave you to it, then," the poet said, and he began to fade away once more, his body becoming ever more transparent, seeming to flicker with the lamplight until at last he was gone.

Tamara firmly tied the sash of her robe and pulled open the door that led to her sitting room. Her brother was already dressed for the dinner party, looking smart in a dark jacket, with a red-and-gray-patterned waistcoat beneath. He stood by the window and gazed out at the night, trying as best he could to make it seem as if he hadn't been shouting at the closed door to her bedroom only moments ago.

"William," she said.

He took a long breath, then turned to face her. His expression was serious, but the gravity of it did not reach his eyes, which held a certain sadness. That was ever the way he slipped past her defenses. Much as they might argue, it was his eyes that always gave away the truth of what he was feeling, and reminded her that he was the brother she loved.

Though she knew he had come to chastise her, she saw that he hated having to do so for the sake of his affections for Sophia.

Tamara disliked the girl all the more for it. She spoke to break the silence.

"If you don't allow me to finish dressing, we shall arrive in Mayfair at an hour the Wintertons will no doubt consider unconscionably rude."

William nodded. "Well, it's helpful, I'm sure, to have a ghostly valet to help you choose your attire. Has Martha taken ill?"

"I gave her the evening's liberty. I thought you might help me with my corset."

Once more he nodded, his gaze searching the room for anything else he might study instead of her face. At last he looked upon her again.

"Sophia visited Threadneedle Street today. She tells me that you were less than polite at tea this afternoon," William said. "Had I known you would behave so churlishly, I might have suggested she spend her time at some East End tavern. At least there she would have known to expect harsh treatment and loose talk."

Tamara only stared at him as he spoke. When he finished, he waited for her response, and she let half a minute go by as they glared at each other.

"Are you through playing the lovestruck fool for a moment, then?" she asked.

William stood up straighter, his back rigid. "Excuse me?"

"I will not!" Tamara snapped. She brushed her hair out of her eyes, and then tightened her robe. "You are in love with the girl, Will. In light of that I allow for a certain amount of idiocy. It comes with the territory. But I won't have you treating me like the villain when it's your sweet Sophia whom you ought to be admonishing. She was distant at best upon her arrival for tea. I might go so far as to say petulant. She made no effort to be pleasant to my friends, then proceeded to insult each and every one of them, calling them nothing short of whores, and myself chief among them, apparently."

William raised an eyebrow, considering her words. "I've overheard a conversation or two that you've shared with Victoria and the rest of that crowd. Not very ladylike, at times."

"And that's to our credit, I'd think. We have minds of our own, and if we care to exercise them, whether with social debate or a bit of naughty humor, you should be thrilled that we do so among ourselves, behind closed doors, and not in public."

His mouth opened in a little O of surprise. "You wouldn't dare."

"Perhaps. Perhaps not."

William sighed. "You'll apologize, of course."

Tamara crossed her arms. "I'll do no such thing. Sophia is the one who owes an apology."

He frowned deeply, and when he spoke again his voice had lowered an octave. "Perhaps you ought to stay home this evening, then. Without a chaperone, it might not be proper for you to attend, in any case. I'll make your excuses to the Wintertons."

"You'll do no such thing," she said, laughing derisively. "And how dare you?"

"There's a simple solution to this. Just promise that you'll apologize."

"I will not. And you will push this conversation no farther, or I might have to take this party as the perfect opportunity to declare the true identity of T. L. Fleet. I'm certain the Wintertons and their guests would be thrilled to discover that they have a celebrated man of letters in their midst."

That brought him up short. William was used to his sister's independent thinking, and even her stubbornness, but Tamara knew that the revelation of her writing career would embarrass him unendingly. Not that William himself disapproved of her authorial efforts, but there were far too many who would. If she were to write something that might be considered more appropriate for her sex, it might still send tongues wagging, but she would be thought of as merely eccentric, rather than altogether scandalous.

"Tamara, just . . . please," William said, waving one hand in the air. "Try to get along with Sophia. For my sake?"

For several moments she only looked at him. Finally, she nodded slowly. "All right. But you'll need to have the same chat with her, if you want my efforts to bear fruit. Now go on, and leave me to dress. You'll have Farris bring the carriage 'round?"

"Twenty minutes?" William asked.

Tamara considered her unruly hair and how quickly she could tame it. "Best make it thirty. We don't want to offend our hosts, but I'd like to look in on Father before we go."

William hesitated as though he had more to say, then seemed to think better of it.

"Thirty minutes, then."

AFTER HER FRUSTRATING argument with William, Tamara had been even more determined to follow Byron's suggestion. As promised, she wore her most daring dress, a deep saffron with a bodice that cut low across her bosom such that her every breath might draw the eye. It was a lovely dress. Tamara had purchased it while shopping with Victoria Markham one afternoon the previous year, but she had never had the temerity to wear it. Now that she had at last put it on, she found it a bit heavy, the domed skirt spreading broadly around her. It certainly had not been created for comfort.

Much as she loved her brother, there had always been a certain friction between them. By his very nature he was cautious, relying too much upon logic and too little on instinct. Tamara was his opposite in so many ways. Like her grandfather, she had many passions and loved to indulge her imagination. In the absence of a mother-for theirs had died quite young-William had taken it upon himself to watch over his younger sister, and she had bristled with his every attempt to subject her to his own claustrophobic sense of propriety. He was a kind and decent man and a good brother, but Tamara knew that they would never quite understand each other.

The house was disturbingly silent now as she made her way up the stairs to the third floor. There were only three rooms on this floor: the music room, the nursery, and the bedroom that had once belonged to the governess who had looked after William and Tamara when they were very young.

Until the previous fall, all three of the rooms had been empty for years. Now a constant din arose from the nursery-the one farthest from the main hall of the household. Mad screams could be heard echoing through Ludlow House at all hours of the day and evening.

Her boot heels scuffed the stairs as she trod upward, a bowl of cold soup in her hands, her reticule dangling from her left wrist. A pair of lamps were mounted in sconces on the wall at the top of the steps, but they offered only a very little light. In truth, the darkness always seemed deeper up here, as though no matter how brightly the fire might burn it could push the shadows back only so far.

Each time she strode down this hallway she felt ice form along her spine, and her throat went dry. Her eyes burned with tears she would not allow herself to shed. They would be wasted should she allow them to fall, and Tamara was stronger than that.

There would come another time for tears, of that she was certain. For now, however, there was life to be lived and a war to be fought. A war against the darkness. And if she could not yet win the battle against the fiend that was locked in the room there at the top of the house, well, she had not surrendered hope.

Nor would she ever, as long as she drew breath.

In the gloom of the hallway she had to narrow her eyes to see the figure standing in front of the door of the nursery. Only as Tamara grew nearer could she make out the image, more like the suggestion of a presence. If she turned her head slightly the form would disappear, but from a certain angle the image of the specter was clear.

Had she still been of flesh and blood, the ghost would have been the tallest woman Tamara had ever seen, taller even than most men she had known. Her red hair was a wild tangle that fell down around her shoulders all the way to her perfectly rounded breasts. Sigils of magic and warfare were painted on her naked form, and she clutched a spear that was taller than she was. The shadows seemed to cling to her, but rather than lend her a modesty she did not possess, they instead made the sight of her all the more sensual.

Yet the sight of her was also a reminder of the pain she had endured while she lived. A fierce warrior-the queen of a savage tribe and a fearsome army-she had fought to drive the invading Roman soldiers away from the shores of Albion in a time so long ago that to most she was merely a legend. There had been sorcerers among the Roman forces, and they had allied themselves with demons. The queen's two daughters had been raped and murdered by one such creature, a demon-beast called Oblis. She had turned to magic herself, to spellcraft that required those symbols to be painted on her flesh. They had been painted in blood.

And while she was naked, in the midst of performing the ritual, the Romans had caught her off guard. She had died that way, unclothed, and so she remained in the afterlife, though by choice. Her nudity caused William to look away, but Tamara admired the ghost for her stubbornness. Queen Bodicea would never allow herself to appear vulnerable, whether covered in armor or bare to any blade that might cut her.

Though none would do so, ever again.

"Good evening, Tamara," said the spectral queen.

"And to you, Bodicea. He's been awfully quiet, hasn't he?"

The ghost shimmered, there in the half-light of the corridor. The substance of her form glowed darkly within, as though some night-black flame burned inside her. And perhaps it did, a fire of hatred. Bodicea glanced over her shoulder at the door, and then focused once more on Tamara.

"If he is quiet, it is only that he is thinking. He has interrupted his torment of the household to consider other ways in which he might cause anguish. The demon does not rest, Tamara. I know you realize that it is not your father inside this room, but it is difficult to see a human face and not ascribe to it at least some human qualities. Shed from your heart any tenderness you carry, for Oblis will recognize it, and exploit it."

Tamara nodded once. The demon had been trapped here long enough that she did not need Bodicea's warning, but she knew the specter could not resist the urge to offer it. Just as William and Tamara were haunted every moment by their father's fate, so was the ancient queen seared by the memory of the defilement and murder of her daughters. It was cruel irony that the two tragedies would be so entwined.

There was always a guard for the room at the top of Ludlow House. Some of the other ghosts would go inside, to stand sentry over Tamara's father, as would the Swifts' friend Nigel Townsend, when he took his turn. But Bodicea never entered that room, and perhaps that was for the best.

Otherwise Tamara might fear for her father's life.

The soup bowl felt suddenly heavy in her hands. She took a deep breath and met the ghost's gaze straight on, unnerved as always by the translucence of Bodicea's eyes. Tamara always felt that, if she could only catch a glimpse of those eyes without their transparency, their dark glow might provide a window onto eternal night, into the afterlife. Into eternity.

Then she glanced away. If such a sight were possible, she was far from certain she would welcome it.

"I'll be wary," she promised. "But if he is up to something, I want to know what it is."

The ethereal flesh of the ghost seemed to churn, and rather than stepping away from the door, she flowed.

Tamara balanced the cold soup bowl in one hand and with the other reached for the doorknob. Bodicea whispered her name, and she glanced back at the specter.

"You look lovely," said the queen, her voice another sort of ghost, as if the observation pained her. Her faded eyes spoke of loss.

"Thank you," Tamara replied.

But as she opened the door and stepped into the darkened room-with only the dim moonglow to light her way-she felt vaguely absurd. Coming here, dressed this way. She knew now that she ought to have looked in on Father before dressing for the party. The very idea of a party, of any kind of celebration, seemed somehow wrong now.

She shut the door behind her.

"Tamara, is that you?"

The voice floated on the darkness, shuddery with doubt and weakness. Henry Swift had been prone to headaches and a general malaise, not a malingerer but a gentle soul who could not abide conflict in any way. The loss of his wife had only exacerbated the fragility of his spirit, and had made Tamara quite protective of her father, despite the fact that she had little in common with him. He'd been a man of little passion and even less imagination.

He is, she corrected herself. That sort of thinking made her prey to the very voice that had just issued from the shadows.

She gestured at an elegant lamp that sat atop the chest of drawers that stood in the corner. "Accendo," she commanded, and the wick ignited with flame, soaking up oil, sending a flickering light out across the room.

In a high-backed chair, next to an empty bed, Henry Swift sat with his arms chained behind his back. The bonds were attached to the legs of the chair. Where her father had once been a jovially rounded man, now his features were thin, almost cadaverous. Dark circles stained the skin that sagged beneath his eyes. The moment the room brightened he looked up at her, with an expression that seemed helpless and lost.

"Tamara?" he offered again in that same querulous voice.

It would have been tempting for her to think a miracle had happened, hearing that voice, seeing the pleading look in his eyes. But she had learned painful lessons in the past about unfounded hope.

"Oblis," she replied darkly. She proferred the bowl of soup. "I brought you something to eat. I am quite rushed, so I'm afraid I won't be able to endure your usual chatter this evening."

"You don't have to stay at all, daughter," the demon said, still in her father's voice. Yet now the trembling was gone, and a malign spark flickered clearly behind his eyes. "I'm quite capable of feeding myself."

Tamara sniffed. Next he would suggest that she unchain him. There were magical bonds in place throughout the room, as well, but she wouldn't even entertain the idea of setting his hands free. It was a game he played, and she had tired of it months ago.

"You've been terribly quiet since my guests departed," she said, bringing a spoonful of the cold soup to his lips. Tamara fed the demon so her father's body would not die, and Oblis ate for the same reason.

"It was rude of you not to bring your friends inside to see your dear father," he said. "I've known some of those young ladies their entire lives."

"My father knows them. You do not." Tamara fed him another spoonful of soup. "What are you scheming so silently up here, Oblis?"

He gazed salaciously at her, running his tongue lewdly around his mouth as though to relish the sight of her, rather than the flavor of his meal. "How I might split you in two, lovely daughter, how it will feel to fuck you till you bleed."

Tamara gaped at him in revulsion, and for a moment she was frozen with her disgust. Oblis brought his knee up beneath the bowl and the cold, clotting soup splashed up at her. With a sneer Tamara raised her right hand and instantly the air crackled with bright green light, magical energy that formed a shield, keeping the contents of the bowl from ruining her dress.

The bowl fell and shattered on the ground. Cold soup dripped from the air onto the wooden floor. With a hushed sound the magic evaporated, and Tamara lowered her hand.

"I think that's all for your dinner this evening," she said.

"You asked a question," the demon replied. "I simply answered."

Tamara pushed aside her disgust just enough to produce a taunting smirk. "You are a Vapor, Oblis, nothing more. Without my father's flesh, you're chimney smoke with a rotten child's temper. And you haven't the tumescence, I'm afraid, to live up to your imaginings."

Her father's upper lip curled back and the demon fumed.

"Enjoy the party, Tamara. You'll need me soon enough."

This was the voice of Oblis, now, like a capricious child in timbre, but with a rough, graveled edge. It brought her up short as she was about to leave the room. Already, William would have grown impatient awaiting her. But there was something in those words, that tone. This wasn't merely empty bluster.

Frowning, she turned to face him again. "Why would I ever need you?"

"You both shall, and soon," Oblis sneered in that hellish voice. "You wanted to know how I spent my afternoon, once your whorish friends departed? My throat was ragged and parched. I paused for a breath. And then, rather than making all that noise, I decided that I would listen."

"Listen to what?" Tamara asked.

Oblis only smiled.

THOUGH IT WAS only a few doors farther along St. James Street from White's Club, the Algernon Club had little in common with its neighbor.

From its earliest years to the days when Beau Brummel sat by the vast bow window at the front of the building, holding court and casting judgment upon passersby, White's had always been about being noticed. White's Club was conspicuous.

The very nature of the Algernon Club was to be inconspicuous. To the unknowing public strolling past on the street, it was simply another address along St. James. There was no bow window, nor in fact any window at all that offered outsiders a view of what lay within. The gentlemen at the Algernon had no interest in putting the duke of Argyll on display, even if they had been willing to allow such a buffoon to darken their doorstep.

Otherwise, the differences between the Algernon and other gentlemen's clubs were less evident. In the many rooms of the first floor, members gathered in small groups, some standing in darkened corners and others seated comfortably around low tables. The air was redolent with the smell of burning pipe tobacco, and the servants wore black knee breeches not unlike those worn by the employees of Boodle's. The dining room was always in use, it seemed, with the kitchen acceding to all demands. Glasses clinked as gentlemen toasted one another's health, or that of their families or fortunes.

There was a card room, but it wasn't common for games of chance to be played at the Algernon Club. Where cards were employed, it was far more likely to be in an example of prestidigitation, a new pass that the amateur magicians of the club wished to teach or to learn. The professionals were another matter entirely. They shared nothing with the other members, unwilling as they were to reveal their techniques to anyone who might one day become a competitor.

Yet from time to time-ordinarily in the rooms upstairs where only the club's directors were allowed-other sorts of magic were addressed.

Tonight, however, a more mundane task had presented itself. Each month the directors gathered in the Board Room to consider applications for membership. The room bespoke the wealth of the club's early-eighteenth-century founders. The ceiling boasted a series of hand-painted and hand-carved medallions, and the intricacy of the crown molding and the woodwork that framed the hearth was stunningly artful. A grandfather clock stood at one end of the chamber, and at the other were two separate doors, one through which the directors had entered and the other for servants.

Both were presently locked.

A tablet stained with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics hung above the fireplace; an enormous portrait of the queen, only recently commissioned, had been placed beside the clock. Above each door was a long, horizontal seascape, showing dark silhouettes of double-masted ships riding high on storm-wrought waves. The two pieces seemed to be halves of a larger painting, though one revealed the dark heart of the storm, and the other showed a break in the clouds, with just a hint of clear sky.

Lord Blackheath loved the seascapes that hung above the doors. Since the first time he had entered this room-the day after he had been named a director of the Algernon Club-he had tried to discover their origin, but to no avail. Nowhere in the club's records was there any mention of the founders acquiring those paintings. It seemed as if they had always been there, as though they themselves were a bit of magic.

A mystery. Lord Blackheath had a fondness for mysteries, small and large.

"Now then, gentlemen," he said, "have you any further candidates for membership this evening?"

Lord Blackheath studied the faces of the men who had gathered around the table, the youngest of them perhaps forty and the eldest, Sir Horace, eighty-seven. They glanced at one another, a susurrus of low conversation ensuing, and after several moments determined that they were through. Thirty-two new members had been considered tonight, and only three had been admitted. the Algernon Club differed from other gentlemen's clubs in the criteria it utilized to judge applicants, but its members were no less discriminatory. More so, in fact.

"Very well," Lord Blackheath said. He settled into his dark leather chair and steepled his fingers beneath his graying beard. "There is one final candidate I would like to bring to your attention. I have taken the liberty-as director of the Algernon Club-of inviting him to attend Sir Darius's birthday gala, so that you may all have a chance to evaluate him."

Sir Horace cleared his throat. His back was so bent that he seemed always about to pitch forward onto the table, and when he turned to focus on Lord Blackheath it was painful to watch him shift his body. His flesh and bone were mutineers, unwilling to obey his commands, and so he had to force them to do so. Yet his eyes were alight with clarity and intelligence.

"You have that right, Blackheath, but it's damned unusual for you to exercise it. Who is this man?"

"Sir Ludlow's grandson, William Swift."

The reaction was immediate. Sir Horace's face darkened and he sputtered. Several of the others began speaking all at once, and all of them protesting. Lord Blackheath only waited for the torrent to subside.

Sir Horace rapped his knuckles on the table and the room fell silent. The ancient man stared at Lord Blackheath.

"We've discussed the boy before, Blackheath. Ludlow was always clear about him. William Swift could not perform the simplest coin pass or card trick if I showed it to him with my own two hands. He's got no interest in magic. To admit him simply because his family has a legacy with this club . . . that's the sort of thing you find at White's and Boodle's, but the Algernon Club simply does not work that way."

Lord Blackheath nodded. "I'm bloody well aware of that. But I believe we must take a closer look at William Swift. You must admit that now that Ludlow's dead, he bears watching."

Sir Horace sneered. "You think that boy is the new Protector? Ridiculous!"

Blackheath narrowed his gaze. "Someone prevented Balberith from rising several months back."

From a shadowed corner of the room came the sound of a man clearing his throat. Lord Blackheath knitted his brows and glanced at the figure in the corner.

"My lord Melbourne?" he said.

The directors of the Algernon Club had never formally admitted Melbourne as a member. Politically, it would have been unseemly for the prime minister to be associated with the club. And though he had an interest in the mystical, he had no skill with magic, neither stagecraft nor spellcraft. Thus, he was usually a silent observer.

Not so, this evening.

"We should not presume that the Protectorship passed to a member of the Swift family. Ludlow may not even have chosen a successor. If he did not, Albion might have chosen anyone. If it is a Swift, however, it seems more likely to be Ludlow's son, Henry, who has not been seen outside the walls of his home since his father's death. Word is that he is ill, but that may be merely obfuscation. From all that we have heard of William Swift, he hardly seems up to the task."

Lord Blackheath nodded slowly. Melbourne had pulled the center of power in the room away from him, and now he used silence to draw it back. One by one the directors gave him their full attention as they awaited his response, the pause lengthening and growing awkward.

At last, Blackheath glanced around the table once more and spoke. "There are many possibilities, but I am certain we can all agree that not enough effort has been expended attempting to discover the identity of the new Protector. Not knowing his identity could be dangerous for us all. I say that William Swift bears watching. Sir Horace pointed out that William has never shown any interest in magic. About that he is certainly correct.

"But it may be that magic has an interest in him."

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