Ghosts of Albion: Accursed / Epilogue

Epilogue


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Colonel Dunstan bore witness to it all.

William Swift had bound his spirit to that spot in front of the gates of Buckingham Palace, and thus captured he could only watch as the Children of Kali were destroyed by the ghosts of Albion, could only stare in abject despair as Priya Gupta's grand plan unraveled.

He had lived his life as a faithful subject of the British Crown, largely ignoring his Indian heritage. After his death he had come to realize the injustice done to his mother's people, not merely as a minority in British society, but as a conquered nation under the rule of British generals.

His soul had seethed with the injustice, and when he had learned of Priya's dark deeds he had sworn allegiance to her cause. He had loved his father and he loved England, had served her in war . . . but he felt with all his heart that something had to be done to make the people see that British imperialism was unjust.

Instead he watched in astonishment as Priya Gupta was transformed, as something emerged from within her. The colonel understood that the thing was a representation of some facet of Kali, but not one he recognized. Yet how it had come about was a mystery to him. Priya had claimed to serve the goddess, but he had not given much thought to that.

Then, the moment the dark goddess killed the Protector of Bharath, it all came crashing to a halt.

The Children of Kali crumbled to dust. The last of the Rakshasa had been destroyed. The ghosts of Albion rallied around the Protectors and tore the goddess apart . . .

And so it ended, leaving Colonel Dunstan a prisoner of war, years after his own death.

Hours passed, the horizon began to lighten, and by then the Protectors had done their work all too well. The corpse of Tipu Gupta was removed, the ashen remains of the Children of Kali were scattered on the breeze, and the dead Rakshasa were burned with magical flame that reduced the monsters to little more than char upon the ground. Only the buckled street remained, as a mystery that would never be solved.

By the time the sun rose on a spectacular spring day, there was no trace of the war that had taken place overnight. No trace, save for the ghost held captive at the gates of Buckingham Palace.

For hours, Dunstan watched people come and go at the palace, saw couples strolling through St. James's Park, and watched carriages rattling by. But of course, they could not see him. Colonel Dunstan was a silent phantom, sentenced to the anguish of watching the very people he had betrayed, unaware that anything at all had happened, unaware that they were party to prejudice and oppression.

He was in Hell.

All that long day, he was left to suffer in defeat. It was just after dark when he sensed the presence of another ghost, and turned to find the specter of Admiral Nelson staring at him with his one good eye.

"Oh, let me guess," Dunstan's ghost said, each word filled with bitterness. "You're here to tell me that I'm a traitor to Albion and the queen, that I'm a disgrace, that as a military man you're appalled by my behavior, and if I weren't already dead-"

Nelson raised his chin, back straight. "Actually, no."

The colonel faltered. He felt the weight of the magic that bound him, and a strange tiredness that he knew must be of the soul, since he had flesh no longer. He stared at Nelson expectantly.

"Go on, then," he said finally.

"You are a disgrace to the uniform you wore in life," Nelson said, his tone matter-of-fact. "There's no doubt of that. And aside from all else, you betrayed me, Colonel. I'd thought us friends. Perhaps, though, it will surprise you to learn that I don't believe you were entirely wrong. It may be that our control of India is oppressive. And I'll allow that if the Protectors had been more vigilant they might have learned of the plague spreading through the East End sooner.

"But I have watched them, sir. They are learning, and meanwhile, they struggle to do their best. As for the empire . . . well, that is a war for others to fight now. For the living. I can only hope that those representing our interests abroad behave honorably. If they do not, they bring shame upon us all."

Dunstan had no reply to that. He was indeed surprised to hear a patriot like Nelson speak so, but he would not give the admiral the satisfaction of admitting it.

"And now?" he asked. "What's to become of me?"

Nelson floated toward him so that only a few inches separated the two ghosts. His expression was grave. "Now, Colonel, you will be given your fondest wish. You will no longer have to suffer the cruelties of Albion. In fact, you will no longer be welcome here at all. You were a son of Albion, Dunstan, and you spat in her face. There were other ways to accomplish your ends, and you chose the vilest path imaginable. A few minutes from now, William Swift shall be along to free you from your bonds, and to cast the appropriate spell to banish you from this place forever."

"Banished?" the colonel asked, his spectral essence recoiling at the word.

"From the only home you have ever known," Horatio confirmed. "Yes. Forever. I haven't the magic to do it myself, but I wanted to make sure that I delivered the news to you personally.

"Goodbye, Colonel. May your soul wander for eternity without rest."

Then the ghost of Admiral Nelson shimmered and was gone.

When a carriage arrived with the Swifts' man Farris on its high seat, and William stepped out onto the road, Colonel Dunstan did not say a word. He only glared at them until the spell had been cast, and then his essence was shunted into the spirit world and he felt himself dragged away . . . away from Albion . . . until he was deposited out in the ether somewhere, to find his own way.

SEVERAL NIGHTS LATER, Tamara Swift stood alone just outside the door of the observatory, looking out over the grounds of Ludlow House and listening to the breeze rustling through the gardens. The darkness was alive with the songs of night birds and redolent with the scents of the thousands of flowers that had bloomed in the past few weeks. Spring had brought rebirth, as it always did, the seasons turning around again.

It had been a chilly spring thus far but tonight, for the first time, it was warm. Even the breeze carried with it a comfortable warmth. And yet still she shuddered out there alone in the dark, cold on the inside.

The memory of the recent tragedies in London-the plague, the madness of Priya Gupta, and the murder of the girl's father-was too fresh in her mind for the warmth to reach her. From what she and William had been able to discover through gossip and through the spying of their ghosts, there was no trace of the plague remaining. Hundreds had died and were being mourned, but even the members of Parliament who had succumbed were said to have died of "sudden illness" or "accident."

Tamara was torn.

It was best, she agreed, not to panic the populace over a plague that no longer existed, that could no longer hurt them. And certainly she had no interest in attempting to convince them of the existence of the supernatural. Yet there were lessons to be taken from the horror that Priya had perpetrated, not the least of which came from the fact that had David Carstairs not smuggled stolen cultural artifacts into England, and had other men not knowingly purchased them, the curse would not have spread so quickly among the upper classes.

The events of the previous weeks ought to have inspired a great deal of thought. Instead they had been quickly erased.

"Pardon me, miss."

She turned to find Farris standing just inside the observatory, holding the door open. He had been quite pale when she had first released him from the temporal freeze in which she had trapped him with John Haversham.

Had the transformation been completed, there would have been no saving John. For once, however, fate had been kind.

Though she had already gone far too long without sleep, they had hurried back to Nigel's with him. Despite his own ordeal, Farris had even driven the carriage. And there, in the darkened flat of the vampire and after the extraordinary night they had just endured, they had spent most of the day attempting dozens of spells to reverse the curse upon the poor man's flesh.

Tamara was still exhausted. Though she'd had ample sleep in the days since, little of it had been restful. Her sleep was disturbed by unpleasant dreams. Often she would wake with a start, staring around in the darkness or at the windows, the tormented cries of the accursed echoing in her ears.

But now, at the sight of Farris, she smiled. It was genuine and lent her a warmth the spring night could not achieve.

"Farris. I presume dinner is ready?"

The butler inclined his head. "Indeed."

"You really ought to be joining us at the table this evening. You fought gallantly and well. It doesn't seem right-"

"Now, miss, we've been over this," Farris replied sternly. "It's my job, isn't it? Leave me a bit of dignity in my profession, won't you? It wouldn't do at all. Not at all."

Tamara was about to argue, but Farris stood straighter and cleared his throat.

"Now then, the first course is about to be served, and Mr. Haversham has asked me to announce him. He's just arrived."

Her smile faltered. John had been drained by the black magic that had tainted him. The curse had been lifted from him, but it had left him barely able to stand. Shortly after she and William had cast the spell to return him to normal, John's valet had been summoned to take him home, and as far as any of them knew that was where he had spent his time since.

Tamara had learned all of what had taken place at the Algernon Club, and though she did her best to hide it, she had been pleased to know that William had revised his estimation of the man.

For Tamara had also revised her own estimation of John Haversham. He had explained his behavior and had fought by her side. With his family and their society friends, he played the role of scoundrel so that none would ever suspect he was something else entirely. A novice magician, and an agent of the Algernon Club.

The memory of her own actions in the back of the carriage still caused her cheeks to burn with embarrassment, yet she was curious, as well. Now that she knew the truth of his identity, and the secret behind his motivations, how would John conduct himself in her presence?

She took a deep breath, relishing the fragrance of the gardens, and then strode to the door. Farris stood aside to allow her to pass, then closed the door behind her.

"Let's not keep the man waiting," she said firmly.

The butler followed her as she went through the observatory and along the corridor. John Haversham had not gone into the dining room with the others. He was waiting for her in the hall, and he studied her face when she approached, as though searching for a clue as to how he might be received. When he smiled, it was tentative, but full of promise.

"Mr. Haversham," she said. "We're pleased you could attend."

John bowed and kissed her hand. "Miss Swift, how could I refuse such an invitation? A celebratory dinner is certainly in order." He stood and regarded her. "Might I say that you are stunning?"

Tamara had taken a great deal of time in her boudoir, and had chosen a bone-white crinoline dress with pale green lace and ribbons. She had never been fond of ribbons and bows, but thought this particular dress to be understated enough. Apparently John agreed.

"You may," she replied.

He laughed softly.

"You're looking rather well yourself," Tamara told him. "Feeling better, I trust?"

"Back to normal entirely. Save an odd craving for flies."

Tamara astonished herself by uttering a girlish laugh that was just shy of a giggle, and she raised a hand to cover her mouth as though she might stifle it. When she had taken a deep breath and regained her composure, she regarded him steadily.

"I'm afraid I must ask, John. Are you here on the club's behalf, or your own?"

His expression grew serious, his gaze intense. "My own, I assure you. You and William are members of the ruling board of the Algernon Club now, a distinction I do not share. If there are things Lord Blackheath wishes to learn about the Swift family, he can certainly inquire for himself."

A mischievous light flickered in his eyes. "Though I must confess, I would love to be at the first meeting you attend. It will be quite entertaining to see how those rather rigid gentlemen respond to the presence of a woman in their inner sanctum."

He offered her his arm. After a moment, and with pleasure, Tamara took it. They entered the dining room together, to find an immaculate display of white linen, silver, flowers, and candlelight waiting for them.

It was a relatively small convocation. Nigel had been invited, but he stood in a far corner, deep in conversation with Byron. Nelson and Bodicea were there, as well, almost imperceptible in the flickering glow of candles from the sideboard beneath a portrait of Ludlow's great-uncle Maurice. There were only five places set at the table, however: the ghosts, of course, could not eat, and Farris had declined to join them. It would be Nigel, Tamara, John, William, and Sophia for dinner.

"Ah, Tamara, excellent," William said as she entered. "And you've found John on the way. Now we can begin. Why don't we all sit?"

Something was wrong. He was absurdly happy, almost giddy, in a way she had never seen him. If she hadn't known better, she would have thought him thoroughly inebriated. A terrible dread crept into Tamara's stomach, and curled up there.

Greetings were exchanged all around, as well as congratulations and compliments. Each time Farris entered the room, he was roundly praised for his efforts, though he seemed more embarrassed by the moment. The ghosts remained for the company, if not the meal, and an easy camaraderie was formed among the dinner companions. Even Sophia seemed at ease, and far more convivial than Tamara had ever seen her.

It was as two new servants-young men hired by Farris-began to bring trays into the dining room and to the sideboard that William stood and cleared his throat. He glanced down at Sophia and placed his hand upon her shoulder, and she gazed up at him so lovingly that Tamara could not bear to see it. She could barely breathe, for she understood, now, why William was so happy.

"My friends," her brother began, glancing around the table, "before we begin, I want to say how grateful I am to all of you, and how fortunate Tamara and I feel to have such staunch allies. We have endured dark days of late . . ."

William smiled at Tamara and she stared at him, wondering if he could really be so blind that he could not see how troubled she was. Of course he cannot see it, she chided herself. He's in love. He sees nothing but love tonight.

"But there are brighter days ahead," William went on. He squeezed Sophia's shoulder and gazed at her again. "Earlier this evening, I at last summoned the courage to propose marriage to Sophia. She has given me my heart's greatest wish by accepting that proposal."

Voices were raised in hearty congratulations. Toasts were made. Tamara found herself rising and walking around the table to embrace her brother and to grasp the hands of the woman who would be his wife. She kissed Sophia's cheek and smiled and said something about welcoming her to the family . . . and yet it was all a blur to her, like something in a dream, where she moved and spoke as though some divine puppeteer were guiding her.

Dinner was a happy affair. Even the dead were ecstatic to have something to celebrate. Tamara managed to make it through until dessert, after which she excused herself. Though they rarely stood on tradition in Ludlow House, it would not be long before she and Sophia were expected to retire together for the drawing room, albeit briefly, before the men joined them.

That, she could simply not abide.

Out in the hall, she found herself walking without truly realizing where she was going. Only when she was taking the last few steps to the third floor did she understand. After all, whom else did she have to speak to now? She did not know John well enough to confide in him, and the ghosts expected so much more of her. She could not face them with this.

The door to the old nursery was unguarded. The magical defenses had held the demon when no one had been there to watch over him, and so it had seemed safe to leave him untended during dinner.

Tamara opened the door and stepped inside.

Oblis's eyes gleamed in the dim glow of a single lamp, turned down low. He seemed to have been staring at her before she even entered the room. As though he had watched her approach through the door. It was impossible, of course. Yet now he gazed at her expectantly.

"Oh, this is rich," the demon whispered, one corner of her father's mouth lifting in a smile. "A portent of things to come, perhaps?"

She glared at him. "Let me speak with my father."

Oblis raised both eyebrows. "And what do I receive in return?"

Tamara felt her face flush, and her throat tightened with emotion. "What would you demand?"

"I do so enjoy your humiliation," the demon replied in a rasp that seemed a cruel parody of her father's voice. "Swear to tell me whatever I wish to know, and I will let dear Henry see through his own eyes, speak with his own voice, have control of his own flesh for one hour."

She hesitated, but only for a moment. "I will tell you nothing that could interfere with our duties as Protectors."

Oblis nodded slowly. "Agreed."

"Agreed."

The change was instantaneous. All cruelty and mischief vanished from his features. He blinked several times as though emerging from darkness into daylight, and then her father, Henry Swift, looked at her with such relief and happiness that she began to weep.

"Tamara? Oh, my dear girl. It is so wonderful to see you. Sometimes . . . sometimes he lets me hear things, but never what I would like to hear."

She gazed at him. "You . . . you truly do know what's happened to you, then?"

Henry sighed deeply. "I never should have doubted your grandfather. I was a fool."

"Oh, Father, no," she began, but he waved her away.

"We haven't time for such things. An hour is not nearly enough time. Just enough to break my poor heart again. But we shall have to make do. Now speak to me, darling girl."

She told him everything. About Ludlow's death and their duties as Protectors of Albion. About William courting Sophia, and the death of the girl's father. About their recent victory and the engagement just announced. It took far less time to tell than she imagined, less than forty minutes, during which he interrupted only to clarify certain details. He gazed at her with more love than she had ever felt from her father before. It seemed the predations of the demon had given him a new appreciation for life and for family.

Or perhaps, she thought, she was the one with a new appreciation for him.

"Is she really so terrible, this Sophia? Do you hate her that much?" her father asked. "That doesn't sound like you, daughter."

Tamara let her gaze fall. "I . . . no. I don't hate her. Sophia isn't very good at dealing with people, and she thinks far too much of herself. But I haven't made any effort to befriend her, either. It's only that I'm . . ."

Henry reached out and took her hand. "You're frightened, dear. I can see that. But I do not understand it. What is it you fear from this girl?"

She shook her head, biting her lip to keep from sobbing. Her tears had dried minutes after she had begun her tale, and she refused to let them return. The corners of her eyes burned with the temptation, but she would not cry again.

"Isn't it obvious?" she asked bitterly. "I barely remember my mother. Grandfather is dead. You are . . . a prisoner."

He squeezed her hand. Tamara gazed at him in sorrow.

"William is all the family I have left. Without him-"

Her father frowned. "No, Tamara, don't think that way. Your brother loves you. All your life he has been your greatest champion. Even in love, he will never abandon you. This Sophia may become his wife, but she will not replace you in his heart. He will always be your brother."

Tamara knew that this was the truth. Had always known it. But even now she could not quiet the voice of doubt that lingered in the back of her mind, telling her that Sophia was going to take William away, and that she would be alone.

"Come here," Henry said.

She let him take her in his arms, and she pressed herself against him just as she had done as a little girl. Her father held her tight. She let out a long, shuddering breath, and just for a moment she allowed herself to believe that one day, he would be free of the demon, and that William would never ignore her, married or not. In her father's embrace, she was able to believe just for a moment that everything would be all right.

"DON'T WORRY, my dear. Don't worry," the demon said, grinning, enjoying the feel of her pressed against him. He patted the back of her head, gently, thrilling at the smell of her. "Nothing to worry about at all. It will work out in the end.

"Trust me."

IN A DRAWING room in Buckingham Palace-thoroughly unremarkable in comparison with even the least of the other rooms that lay within those walls-three people sat together in private conference. The very ordinariness of the room was symbolic of what transpired therein. Other than the preservation of hierarchy, no protocol or convention was followed, and no thought was left unuttered.

This was a room without diplomacy or secrecy . . . and yet it was entirely secret. Only a small handful of people in the world were even aware that it existed.

The table was round.

"They performed quite well, did they not?" Queen Victoria inquired.

The nineteen-year-old monarch studied the two men she had summoned to the table in that private room. The prime minister, Lord Melbourne, was four decades her senior and her closest adviser. Though publicly he was far more powerful than the queen herself, Victoria did not begrudge him that power. The Crown was far more involved with the affairs of the empire than the world knew. And she quite liked it that way.

"They did indeed," Lord Melbourne replied. "I had my doubts, I confess. Untried and unprepared . . . Ludlow might as well have thrown them to the wolves. Even now, having endured trial after trial, there is so much they do not know. As the situation with the Algernon Club has proven."

The young queen concurred. "But you agree they seem well suited for their duties?"

Lord Melbourne bowed his head. "I do."

"Excellent," Queen Victoria said. "And what of the guard?"

"Withdrawn the moment that infernal fog began to spread, as you instructed. Buckingham Palace suffered no casualties, Majesty."

The queen narrowed her gaze. "There were many deaths in London last night, Lord Melbourne. We look upon each of them as a casualty."

"Of course," the prime minister replied.

Victoria turned her attention upon the third person in the room. "Now, as to the Protectors. You will keep us apprised of their progress, we trust?"

"Of course, Majesty," said Lord Blackheath. "Though I had thought that after this episode, you might wish to meet them, so that you might evaluate them yourself."

Victoria mused on that a moment, then shook her head.

"I think not. The Protectors operate best in shadows. Most of their work involves enemies that attack from the sewers and sepulchers. We shall leave them to their own devices.

"For now."

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