Excerpt--The Lost Soul of Lord Badewyn
I watch the heavens by night because they both instruct and bewilder me. When a star streaks across the sky, hurled to earth in a flaming death, it makes one wonder what sin a ball of fire could possibly commit to earn such a devastating fall.
~ from the journal of Samuel Templeton, Lord Badewyn
Meg Anthony stood tiptoe on the top of the chimney, the highest point above the gambrel roof of the Duke of Camden’s town house. She leaned on the iron weathercock. More than four stories down, people and carriages moved up and down the broad Mayfair street. They seemed like child’s toys. No one glanced up at her.
Well, they wouldn’t, would they?
She spread her arms and took a flying leap.
The ground rushed to meet her, but before she could crash headlong into His Grace’s miniscule front garden, Meg willed herself to slow and come to a complete stop above the hydrangea, heavy with blooms. For a blink, she hovered, wishing she could detect scents in her spirit form. Then she floated upward, light as a soap bubble and as free of care.
It was always like this when she exercised her gift. The abandon, the exhilaration, the sense that anything she could think, she could do—flying free of her body was the closest thing to heaven she could imagine. Unfortunately, she always had to be mindful that while her spirit soared during these times, her empty body died a little as it waited for her essence to return. She needed to be quick.
Especially since this was an unsanctioned use of her Finding ability. If the duke discovered she’d done it, he’d pitch a fit. Of course, it might be considered disrespectful to think of such an important person as His Grace doing something as common as pitching a fit, so she set that idea aside. Besides, more than she feared his anger, she feared he might wash his hands of her entirely and ban her from the Order.
It would be the worst that could happen.
She’d never felt she belonged anywhere until His Grace brought her into his household to join his band of psychic operatives. But she wasn’t wellborn like the other members of the Order of the M.U.S.E. Honestly, sometimes the business of learning to read, and the even harder task of learning to carry herself like a lady, ground her down to a nub. Meg needed a few moments to refresh herself. Nothing was better than flitting above the streets of London. She reveled in a God’s eye view of its residents, darting about with the speed of thought and passing through bricks and mortar as if they were water.
Since Meg didn’t have anything in particular she was seeking during this Finding session, she decided to pop into the neighbor’s house to have a look about. The family who’d occupied that residence during the Season had left London the week before, escaping to the country as the full heat of late summer and the Thames’ low tides turned the city into a miasma of foul smells and even fouler tempers. When that happened, Meg was grateful that she couldn’t sense smells while she was disembodied.
All the furniture in the front parlor was draped with sheets to guard against dust. Even the paintings had been hung with linen, but the maids had neglected to cover the large mirror at the base of the stairs in the foyer. Meg drifted by it.
No one had ever claimed to have seen her when she was in this state, but she could see herself in mirrors. Not clearly, of course. Her image was translucent, as if she’d been scraped thin enough to allow light to shine through her. She grinned at her spectral reflection. When she was like this, with the glory of pure spirit radiating from every bit of her, she wasn’t as plain as she thought.
Then she heard repeated thumps coming from above her. She shot upward through the painted ceiling and floor joists to the first floor. Meg was glad that she could make no sound in her present form, because what she saw made her want to scream.
Meg shivered. She thought she’d left them behind when she had run away and hid herself in the city, taking a position as a lady’s maid. Then when her psychic gift had brought her to the Duke of Camden’s attention, she’d felt doubly safe from her past. But it couldn’t be a coincidence that Rowney and Oswald were trying to burgle the house next to the one she’d called home for all these months. They were looking for her. She floated closer to listen.
“You sure this is worth the trouble?” Oswald grunted with effort as he leaned his considerable bulk on the crowbar. The safe didn’t budge.
“I’m tellin’ you, I was walking out with Mrs. Tesh, the cook what worked here till the family moved away and she swore his lordship left any number of things behind in the safe on account of them not havin’ one at the country house.” Rowney crossed his arms over his chest, content to watch the younger man do all the work.
Some things never change, Meg thought.
Oswald adjusted the angle of the bar and tried again. “What kind of things?”
“His mistress’ jewels, for instance. Don’t do to let the wife stumble across those, do it? And a bit of blunt for emergencies. A good bit, I’m told,” Rowney said. “According to Mrs. Tesh, his lordship don’t exactly trust banks.”
“And why should we trust Mrs. Tesh? Peaching on your employer is never a good idea.”
“She’s got no call to be loyal. His Nibs gave her the sack when they left. Said they already had a cook at their place in Sussex. Couldn’t be bothered to keep two on. He gave her a reference, but since she can’t read, she’s afraid to use the blasted thing. Who knows what lies Quality folk might take into their heads to write about them what work for a livin’? Ain’t one of ‘em worth spit.”
The Quality folk Meg had fallen in with were worth a good deal more than spit. Lady Easton, the Duke of Camden’s sister, had worked tirelessly with her, trying to educate her well enough to pass as a lady. And if there was a single soul in the world whom Meg wanted to make proud of her, it was the duke himself.
“This’d be a lot easier if we still had Meggie with us. She’d be able to poke in there and tell us for sure was it worth me bustin’ my spleen over.” Oswald reared back and brought the crook of the crowbar down on the hinges with all his strength. The steel was unforgiving and the shock seemed to reverberate up his arms. Spouting a long string of profanity, Oswald threw the bar across the room. Wood splintered under the sheeting when it struck the covered highboy.
Meg shuddered. Even though she knew her cousin couldn’t see her, his nearness made her feel prickly all over.
“Never you fret over that, my boy,” Rowney said. “I’ve had my eye on the high and mighty ‘Miss Anthony’ for weeks now. She’s close. Right next door, in fact. The Duke of Camden has her cozied up in his place. She don’t venture out lest she’s in some pretty high-toned company, but she’ll get lazy about it one of these days. And then we’ll pinch her right off the street.”
Panic gripped her with both hands and squeezed. Rowney was right. If they nabbed her, her uncle and cousin would force her back into their life of drawing latches and picking pockets. She had to be extra careful every day to stay free. They only had to get lucky once.
“You and Meggie will be tyin’ the knot before you know it,” Rowney went on.
She couldn’t listen to more. The thought of marrying Oswald made her want to start shrieking and never stop. But she couldn’t so long as she floated outside of her body.
So long… How long has it been?
Another kind of panic seized her. What if she’d stayed away too long? Quick as thought, she zipped through the walls shared by this town house and His Grace’s and then up another story to the chamber that had been assigned to her.
Her body was slumped in the comfortable wing chair near her cold fireplace, but a candle burned on the low table before her. She preferred to have someone lay their hands on her shoulders to help anchor her to earth during a Finding. Failing that, she’d discovered that the light of a candle also served to ease her re-entry into her house of flesh.
But her body wasn’t alone. Gaston LeGrand was standing over her still form, a frown on his face. He reached a hand toward her shoulder and then drew it back, clearly undecided about whether touching her would help or hinder her return at this point since he hadn’t been with her from the beginning of her dash into the spirit realm.
Meg hovered over her body. She almost didn’t recognize herself.
It was as if that body in the chair belonged to someone else. The waxy pallor, the dead stillness, the chained-to-earth heaviness—how could it house something as light and heaven-born as her breathless essence? But she slipped back into it, anchoring her spirit to the body that became hers once more.
A deep lungful of air hissed over her teeth. Her heart lurched from its nearly stopped state into a galloping rhythm. Meg tingled all over as her freshly animated skin sent frantic messages to her brain. She was suddenly aware of the scratchy lace on her petticoat beneath her muslin gown and the feel of old leather on the arms of the chair beneath her fingertips. As if she were a hedgehog waking after its long winter sleep, her eyelids fluttered open. She looked up into LeGrand’s scowling face.
“His Grace, he will not be amused.” And neither was LeGrand. When it came to Meg’s safety, he was like the disapproving older brother she’d never had. “What is so important that you would risk his noble wrath?”
She hadn’t intended to tell. In truth, she wanted to forget that Rowney and Oswald were only a few walls away, but she had to give LeGrand something. The duke was deeply concerned about the risk she ran each time she used her gift to Find objects or people who had gone missing. If she admitted that she just wanted to lark about without her skin for a while, it would upset His Grace out of all knowing. So she let the fact that the neighbor’s empty house was being burgled spill out of her.
“Should we send for a Runner?” she asked. His Grace had a number of Bow Street Runners in his pay who could be relied upon to clean up any criminal activity the Order of the M.U.S.E. stumbled upon in the course of their work.
“If the thieves, they are there now, they will be gone by the time Runners arrive,” the wiry Frenchman said. “Some of the servants I will take and make to apprehend these miscreants.”
As he turned to go, Meg grasped his arm. “Be careful. They’re dangerous.”
“And you will be knowing this, how?”
She could have kicked herself, but LeGrand needed the warning. “Because I know them.”
That evening, the Duke of Camden summoned the members of the Order of the M.U.S.E. to his study. M.U.S.E. stood for Metaphysical Union of Sensory Extraordinaires. Never mind knowing what it meant, Meg could barely pronounce it when His Grace had first discovered her unusual ability to Find and brought her into his psychic fold. She was the only Finder in the group.
But the others had gifts of their own. For example, Garret Sterling, Lord Stanstead, possessed the ability to Send a thought into another’s mind so thoroughly, they believed the Sending more than their own senses. Pierce Langdon, Lord Westfall, had been his psychic opposite, being able to hear the thoughts rolling around in the heads around him. After he suffered a clout on his head during a recent mission for the Order, the voices of other minds had been silent for a while. Then before he left for an extended honeymoon in Scotland with his non-Extraordinaire bride, the voices had returned. Only now, Westfall was able to control which voice he chose to listen to so that they only intruded into his head one at a time.
There were three elementals in the Order—magical persons with an affinity for one of the four ancient elements. Gaston LeGrand was a water mage, able to bend liquid of any sort to his will. Lady Stanstead, née Cassandra Darkin, was a fire mage, as was Vesta LaMotte, a witty courtesan who often provided the Order with an entrée into the Prince Regent’s intimate circle. This was useful since the express purpose of the group was to protect the royal family from psychically-charged objects intended to harm them. The Duke of Camden blamed himself for King George III’s occasional bouts with madness. His Grace was convinced that something malignant had slipped through his gauntlet and was playing fast and loose with His Majesty’s mind.
“Well, Miss Anthony,” the duke said as he paced the perimeter of the chamber. “What have you to say for yourself?”
“I’m most terribly sorry, I’m sure.” She was. Terribly. Especially when she glanced at the mottled bruise blooming around LeGrand’s left eye.
Uncle Rowney and Cousin Oswald’s burglary had been thwarted. According to the Frenchman, the older fellow was limping when the thieves tore down the back alley behind the row of town houses, but the pair got in a few good licks before they ran off. In addition to LeGrand’s black eye, His Grace’s handsome footman James was missing one of his front teeth. This was a disaster of biblical proportions for one in his position because above average height and a pleasing face were the foremost qualifications for a footman. In any other establishment, James might have been given the sack since his looks had been spoiled, but the duke had promised that as long as James’ work continued to be excellent, a lost tooth was of no consequence to the dignity of the Camden table.
He seemed to be less forgiving of Meg. “Being sorry does not change matters.”
“Oh, Camden, stop it. You’re frightening the girl,” Vesta said. She was the only one of the group who dared reprimand His Grace. And she excelled at it through constant practice.
“She should be frightened. She disobeyed a direct order. I expressly forbade her to use her gift until we are assured she may exercise it safely,” Camden said to Vesta before turning back to Meg. “Do you not understand that the use of your Finding ability could result in your death?”
No one knew that better than she, but Meg decided silence was the best course. She nodded mutely.
“In a way, it’s a good thing she disobeyed,” Lady Stanstead said. “Otherwise we’d never have known her uncle and cousin were so close and that they still plan to abduct her.”
“What’s this?” Camden demanded.
When LeGrand had given his account of the afternoon’s events to the duke, he’d tactfully left out Meg’s connection with the thieves. Evidently, he’d felt no need to do so when he shared his exploits with the rest of the Order.
“We thought you were aware of the threat, Your Grace.” Lady Stanstead sent Meg an apologetic grimace. “You’d better tell him, Miss Anthony.”
Meg sighed. The members of the Order knew she’d been engaged in some shady dealings before she became a lady’s maid because her skills as a pickpocket had been put to good use once or twice. When she tried to teach Lady Stanstead some sleight of hand, she’d confided in her about her horrible family.
Meg launched into the sorry tale for everyone’s ears now.
Her Uncle Rowney wanted her back under his thumb, she explained, so he could use her ability to Find as they roamed from town to town “looking for the main chance.” The gang’s usual plan was to discover somebody who’d lost someone or something of value and then convince them that Meg could retrieve the item or loved one…for a price. She didn’t mind Finding objects so much. But it was gut-wrenching to watch people give all they had for the least bit of news about a missing person. Often, the person was either dead or had abandoned their family willingly. Meg hated delivering either of those outcomes. It was part of why she’d run away.
The other part was Rowney’s plan to marry her to Oswald. She had to admit it was the best way to assure her compliance. She’d have no choice but to be obedient and outwardly grateful to the men who held power over her. As a married woman, she’d be considered little better than a child or an imbecile by the courts and have no say in where she went or what she was forced to do.
No matter what that might be.
It was hard to keep secrets in a group of psychics, but Meg had managed it. His Grace would be understandably upset. After she finished with her story, Meg folded her hands on her lap to hide their tremble as she waited for the duke’s anger to fall on her. Why hadn’t she trusted him with everything from the beginning?
The duke didn’t say anything for the space of several heartbeats. Then he sank into his wing chair and crossed his legs. “Well, this alters matters.”
Meg’s heart sank to the pit of her stomach. It was just as she’d feared. He was going to ban her from the Order. She knew it.
He considered her through half-lowered lids for a moment, and then looked away.
“Is Lord Badewyn still in residence at Faencaern?” His Grace directed this query to his steward, Mr. Bernard, who was busy taking scrupulous notes of the Order’s business. Meg released the breath she’d been holding. The duke was moving on to other issues. A small candle of hope fluttered to life within her.
“I should think so. His lordship didn’t come by his reputation as a recluse dishonestly. London hasn’t seen Lord Badewyn in years,” Mr. Bernard said with a shake of his head that set his ponderous jowls a quiver. “He’ll not have left the castle, I’ll be bound.”
“Good. Pack your bags, Miss Anthony.”
“What?” That small candle of hope guttered completely. He was giving her the boot after all. “Please, Your Grace, give me another chance. I’ll not keep anything from you ever again. Don’t make me leave the Order.”
“Leave the Order? Of course not. You are merely leaving London. You’re bound for Wales on the morrow.”
“Wales? But it’s so wild and lonely there,” Lady Easton said with dismay. She was the one member of the Order who possessed no psychic ability of any kind, but her sense of refinement and social niceties smoothed the way for the others as they moved through the ton. “Well, I suppose it can’t be helped. It’s certainly remote enough for our purposes. Miss Anthony will be safe there. I shall have my abigail begin packing immediately.”
“No, sister, you will not be accompanying her,” Camden said.
“But this is wholly unacceptable.” Lady Easton set her mouth in a prim line. “Lord Badewyn is an unmarried gentleman. If Miss Anthony is to stay at Faencaern Castle, she must have a chaperone. Otherwise her reputation will be ruined before she makes her first appearance in society.”
“She’d only need a chaperone if anyone knew she was there. I intend that no one shall discover her whereabouts. As far as Polite Society is concerned, Miss Anthony is about to disappear,” the duke rose and began his habitual prowling of the room. “Her nefarious relatives have evidently been watching the comings and goings of this house. They expect her to be surrounded by my associates, so she certainly cannot be seen in your company, sister. To further confound her uncle and cousin, she will not be traveling in my carriage. Miss Anthony will go by public coach instead.”
Meg hated to interrupt His Grace, especially when he was on a tear with new plans, but there was no help for it. “But…I don’t know the way to Wales.”
“Of course you don’t,” Camden said agreeably. “Especially not to the part of Wales to which I’ll send you. Few civilized people do. Mr. Bernard, however, is one of those few. He will accompany you to Faencaern Castle.”
“Very good, Your Grace,” the steward said, as unflappably as if the duke had asked him to ring for tea instead of set off across the country with a fugitive Finder in tow. “With Miss Anthony’s permission, I will pose as her grandfather for the duration of our travels.”
Meg sent the steward a tremulous smile. With all her heart, she wished that the kindly fellow was her grandfather in truth, but only the good were gifted with family like that. She supposed Rowney and Oswald were no more than she deserved.
“Capital suggestion, Bernard. Off with you now, Miss Anthony, and see that you pack lightly. You’ll have to manage your own luggage for this trip,” the duke said. “And nothing fashionable, if you wish to pass as Mr. Bernard’s granddaughter. Plain leaves no lasting impression.”
“You’re being unkind to the girl, Camden. Miss Anthony has a number of lovely gowns and it would be a shame for her to have to wear the same thing day and day out. Even in Wales.” Vesta sent Meg a conspiratorial smile. “I’ll make sure he sends the rest of your wardrobe later.”
Meg nodded her thanks to Vesta and rose, grateful that she was still counted one of His Grace’s Extraordinaires. But being whisked off to Wales still felt very much like banishment. “What if something happens and the Order needs me to Find something?”
“In that unlikely event, be assured I will send for you post haste,” the duke said. “However, there is nothing pressing at the moment. There seems to be a psychic lull. I’ve detected no malevolent objects making their way toward the royals. Perhaps during this respite, I can study the problem of how to make the use of your gift less dangerous.”
“Thank you, Your Grace,” Meg said with a deferential nod. “But when will I be able to return?”
“When we are certain your relations no longer pose a threat,” he said kindly. Then his expression turned stern. “And when you have learned to obey a direct order. No more Finding on your own. Not until we have discovered a way for you to do it in safety.”
“Yes, Your Grace.” She’d have agreed to travel to Wales on her knees if it meant she was still part of the duke’s Order. Dropping a low curtsy, Meg turned to go. On her way to the door, she overheard Mr. Bernard ask if he should send word to Lord Badewyn in Wales that he was about to receive visitors.
“No need,” Camden said. “He’ll know you’re on your way before you leave London.”