This Crumbling Pageant – Sample Chapters
HE’D BEEN WORKING on his swagger again, the cocksure walk of the village louts who held power in their brawny shoulders and sometimes coin in their pockets. There was a time when he’d thought the swagger would make him more like them, make him one of them.
It had done him no good, for they’d taunted him still, the bone-thin bastard with a grand name beyond his station, Vespasian Wyltt.
He’d gone back to slinking in the shadows, watching from dark corners, fashioning wands from various tree branches in an effort to find the one that would work for him, that would give him the power those lads were too stupid to conjure, even in their dreams.
They’d all ended as kindling.
As would the oafs who mocked him, who overpowered him with their numbers, whose taunts had turned into beatings when the first strands of white showed up in his dirty black hair on the very morn he’d awakened to find his first seed-spilling dream had soiled him.
They would all be kindling to the fire of his ambition, and he would glory in their burning.
But now, upon entering Oxford for the first time, he pulled that swagger back around him, hoping to meld into the tangle of newly arriving students without drawing suspicious glances at his shabby dress. Even amongst the others like him, lining up at the kitchen door to Pendragon College, awaiting interviews for positions as servants in order to fund their own studies, he sensed the others drawing away from him, as if he carried the stench of a sty instead of clean clothes and tight shoes he’d stolen this very morning from an Ordinary family’s cottage in Coventry and kept hidden until safely back amongst the Magi.
Watching arrogant young gentlemen select obsequious young scouts made resentment sour in him like curdled milk.
This could not be the path to the future his goddess had promised him before sinking back into the icy deep lake in the shadows of Wales. These pustulent, primping peacocks could not be the glorious future of the Magi she had foretold. None amongst them could possibly be worthy of his fealty.
None could be the True King.
And then, the hair rose on his neck, on his arms, and awareness tingled uncomfortably like sparks of electricity on a winter’s day.
He squinted through the tangled locks of his hair, the better to observe without being observed, and saw a perfumed young gent strolling past, trailing Shadows behind him.
And Vespasian knew, as he knew his own worth, that the promised path was finally opening before him.
He abandoned the queue at Pendragon and followed after, slinking instead of swaggering, watching from the darkness between the buildings, simmering with schemes and dreams.
I know not your name, he thought, but I hold your destiny in my hands.
For the goddess had laid this destiny upon him.
SHE WAS PINNED like a moth to a velvet backing, pinned against her brother’s pillow. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move, and yet the tutor had not touched her, but held her frozen with his black, black eyes.
“Out of bed and make haste about it,” he hissed.
Mister Jones’s rough hands yanked her from the bed.
She stood wavering, fighting free of the mists that tried to cloud her mind.
“Dress.” His voice was harsh and fear pulsed through her for something was wrong. This was not at all what she had expected.
But she could do this. She must. She turned away and pulled her brother’s breeches up over his nightshirt and then tugged on a pair of boots he’d outgrown. She hoped—prayed—that her disguise wouldn’t be discovered before she learned enough to put an end to the presence of the despicable Mister Jones as her brothers’ tutor.
He would never hurt Dardanus again.
She tugged a cap over the knot of hair on the back of her head and shrugged on the heavy jacket she’d chosen because she could hide her narrow shoulders in its voluminous depths.
“Hurry, we haven’t got all night.” He pushed her to the window and the moonlight.
Gods. The moonlight! She shrank back into the shadows, but he shoved her through the open window with a growl.
She grabbed the heavy limb and hauled herself up into the oak tree that spanned the moat below. With a light grasp on higher branches, she crossed the limb that had provided a convenient exit to generations of Fury sons and fell back against the trunk. Nervously, she watched Mister Jones follow her steps, as nimble as she.
She slid down the steep bank with Mister Jones close behind. When they reached the deeper shadows of the sunken garden, she found Hades, a sturdy black gelding, tied to the gate. Only then did she allow herself to breathe, to realize with a sick clench of her stomach that she’d done it. The deception was working.
Tonight, she, Persephone Fury, would discover why her beloved Dardanus three times had lied to her about injuries, had eyes bruised with shadows on the day following the full moon. When she had demanded answers the month before he’d slid his gaze to his tutor, who stared at her over his templed fingers, his lips curled in a taunting sneer.
She would discover what happened on full moon nights and, finally, her father would have to listen to her and stop dismissing it all as schoolboy antics.
“Put this on your back.” Mister Jones thrust a small pack at her. “I’ll bespell you to stay stuck.”
She snorted her disdain as she saw the magical pillion saddle. As if she’d fall from a horse. But she felt a twinge of pity for poor Dardanus, whose seat on horseback was always precarious at best. She remembered the bruises he’d sported the month before and now suspected he’d fallen from behind Mister Jones. But what humiliation, to put him on a magical saddle created for children and women incapable of riding their own mounts!
She smoldered with anger at having to ride the demeaning thing herself but had no choice. He dragged her up behind him, and she felt the sharp tug of the binding spell as she settled into the curve of leather. She would be unable to free herself, should she try.
The horse moved forward with its steady gait and, once onto the road, was prodded into a fast canter. At least as a boy, she could ride astride. She clutched her cap to her head with one hand, clinging to the edge of the saddle with the other. No wonder Dardanus had been so terror-stricken that morning when she’d coaxed him from bed and he’d claimed to have no memory of the night before. How could he have such bruises and not know why? What had he been hiding?
Never before had she experienced the world at midnight; strange shapes etched with silver moonlight. The heavy fragrance of wisteria in the damp night air heralded the bank of tangled vines at the curve in the road. The bleat of new-born lambs and the odor of sheep dung, the rise in the road and sudden gloom of overhanging trees—all were as familiar as her own land, but not at night.
If she weren’t so tense in anticipation of being discovered—and of course her trickery would eventually be discovered—she’d have been exhilarated. The rhythm of the horse beneath her was music thrumming through her, and where there was music, she needed no extra magic to hold her steady.
A rabbit darted across the road.
Pride fled. She clutched the saddle and fought for balance as Mister Jones pulled the gelding under control.
Heart pounding, she sucked great gasps of chilly air into her lungs and found herself leaning forward against the tutor’s scarecrow back.
“Rutting hell! There’s no way that little brat would have stayed astride—” With movements surprisingly powerful for such a shabby excuse for a man, he reined the horse in and swung down from the saddle. He pulled her off so abruptly that she fell into the road in an ignominious pile.
Hades shied sideways, hooves kicking up a spray of dirt and rock, but before Persephone could respond to the gelding’s distress, Mister Jones quieted the beast with a guttural command more effective than any she’d ever witnessed from groom or even her own father. He seized the reins in one hand and yanked Persephone’s cap from her head with the other. He grabbed her chin with hard fingers and angled her face up to the moonlight. “You!”
She jerked away. She’d despised him for almost as long as she’d known him, but never had she actually feared him until now, vulnerable and alone as she was in the middle of the road, in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere. His features were malevolent contours of light and shadow. She pulled herself to her feet and stood straight with her chin high. “When I tell my Papa, you’ll never teach in a decent home—in any home—again!”
“Indeed.” He scoffed, the sound bitter and arrogant in the darkness. “You think I am the one with everything to lose? Must I remind you, at thirteen years of age, you’re old enough to create a scandal yourself, caught out with your brothers’ tutor in the middle of the night. A scandal that won’t just touch you, but your sister as well.”
Electra. Persephone’s blood ran cold.
“About to be presented at Court. On the brink of her first Season, and by all accounts likely to be the Incomparable. Are you truly willing to bring such disgrace to your family?”
“But—but you’re the one who—”
“I won’t miss being tutor to spoiled children overmuch. Your sister’s chances, however, will be ruined.”
He dropped the horse’s reins and circled her slowly, his boots crunching on loose rocks. When he’d made a complete circuit, he sniffed through his long, arrogant nose. “Should you co-operate and fulfill your brother’s role in this night’s business, I shall return you to your home safely with not a soul knowing the tale, just as I’ve always done with your brother. That is—if you think you’re up to the task.”
“Well?” His tone was bored, as if her decision meant little to him.
This was exactly what she wanted, to go along with the wretched man, discover his secrets, and finally be able to protect her brother.
She dusted off her breeches and gave a small shrug. “There is nothing Dardanus can do that I cannot.”
“You’d best be right.” He mounted the horse, then jerked her up behind him.
“Where are we going?”
“London,” he replied, as the horse lunged forward with a powerful ground-eating stride.
They flew through the night once more.
Pain throbbed low in her abdomen. Clutching the edge of the pillion and holding herself erect—even with magic—became an act of will and strain, but she was determined to not touch that man. She was now grudgingly grateful for that magical cushion of air that protected her from the worst of the jolts and, if she fought hard enough, saved her from the indignity of clutching him for balance as Hades’ magical hooves barely touched the surface of the road.
Her mind rang with the things she wanted to call the man. Beast, blackguard—and a word that she had never dared utter. She wasn’t even quite sure what it meant, but it tasted delicious and powerful on her tongue so she whispered it. “Bastard!” She forced her eyes closed against the vision of starry sky and bushes and trees flying past at dizzying speed. She focused instead on staying astride and keeping the pain at bay as stringy, white-streaked hair, unfashionably long and loose from its ribbon, whipped into her face, stung her eyes and invaded her mouth.
When they finally slowed to a canter, she opened her eyes to see a mist-choked grove of trees with long, overhanging limbs. Hades stepped amongst them with a sure-footedness that indicated he knew this path well. Mister Jones muttered words she could not hear, and then they burst from the mist into in a churchyard crowded with headstones in various states of decay. The air felt different somehow. Dirtier.
They moved on, this time with hooves pounding against dirt and stone. With her eyes closed and body tensed, it was her nose that first recognized the smells—the putrid, disgusting smells, the sour stench of rot and filth that squelched beneath Hades’s hooves—
Her eyes flew open. Buildings crushed against one other, looming oppressively overhead, and she realized where he had brought her.
She fisted her hands and slammed them into Mister Jones’s back with all the force she could muster. “Stop!” she demanded. “Stop this instant!”
“Bloody, buggering hell!” He reined Hades harshly, and then they were stopped in the middle of the narrow road, the miasma of London hanging in the air around them.
“This—” she gasped. “This isn’t Magi London!”
“What extraordinary intellect. We are in Ordinary London.” His soft voice menaced, perfectly distinct even above the harsh, labored breathing of the gelding. “You will be my son, if anyone should ask. You will do as I say.”
Panic set in. She fought the magical bespellment that held her on the pillion. But he grabbed her by the arm and almost yanked it free of its socket. He leaned close to her ear. “You’ll not escape and you’ll not cause trouble, is that clear?”
All she could do was stare at the moving shadows that resolved into a scrawny, ill-dressed man slamming a filthy girl against the rough wall of a building, one hand tearing at her skirt, fisting it and pulling it higher as his other hand fondled his own rigid dandilolly. Persephone flushed at the innocent nursery word, for that thing in his hand was nothing like her brother’s private parts, though she hadn’t actually seen it since they were both small.
Panic rose in her throat. She tried to look away, but her eyes betrayed her. They wouldn’t close, wouldn’t shift, wouldn’t allow her to stop watching as the young girl spread her fat thighs and the man drove into her with a grunt.
Persephone had seen horses and pigs and dogs and cats and even fowl copulating, but never had she seen anything as horrific and animalistic as these Ordinary folk mating on a public street. She jerked her head away.
“And that’s what will happen to you if you dare try to escape me, that or worse!”
“Worse?” she choked.
“Girls have been disappearing in Ordinary London, girls like you. Virgins,” he hissed into her ear, “disappearing, never to be seen again. And you will join them if you don’t co-operate with me this night.”
Before she could respond or react, he released her and straightened in the saddle. They trotted through the dark streets until they approached a dirty market square ringed by large buildings, a church at one end.
He leapt from Hades’ back, snatched her from the pillion saddle, the release of magic a whisper of sharp, chill breeze. He dropped her to the street with as little care as if she were a sack of grain.
She waited impatiently for him to secure Hades, noting the church’s four thick, Greek columns so similar to those at the Magi Temple of Terpsikhore near their home that they attended on rare occasions.
She was less approving of the dirty beggar on the church steps, his tattered red coat clearly the mark of a soldier. He had only one leg, and the hand holding out a tin cup was missing three fingers. “Pennies for his majesty’s fallen?” the young man called to her, catching her watching. “Fell fighting Boney on the Peninsula. I has a mum and wee ones at home to feed.”
A hand closed over her shoulder and yanked her away. Mister Jones was back, his dark cape billowing, and he bent low, staring into her eyes with fierce concentration. “You will do as I say. And when this night is over, you will forget—”
Something was wrong, terrifyingly wrong.
It was the same feeling she’d had when he’d first awakened her in the night, the same helplessness. She was trapped and unable to breathe, mists swirling within her head.
He was invading her mind with magic!
She fought for air, for life itself, or so it felt, and wrenched herself free.
And this time when she looked into his eyes, she saw his shock.
“You—you can’t block me out!”
She fought him with flailing fists. His hand connected with her mouth and she tasted blood, but he was the one who drew back with a yelp and a curse. “If you value your life, stupid little Fury, you’ll not do that again.”
Contrôle de l’esprit? This was why Dardanus never could tell her what had happened to him?
Dardanus hadn’t been hiding his shame from her. He didn’t remember it.
Mister Jones had attempted to use some sort of magical power on her mind and had failed, but he clearly had succeeded with Dardanus. And what about her older brothers? Cosmo and Lysander? Had he used this power on them, as well?
“You’re using contrôle de l’esprit!” And then, despite herself, she had to ask, “It’s real? It really exists?”
“And isn’t that sheer perfection, the stupid little Fury embracing French affectations?” He glared down his long nose, his hair tangled from the wind.
“You prefer the term potentia phasma?” She felt a thrill of pride.
“Latin? A dead language for a power that reeks of life? Your airs disgust me.”
Her cheeks burned. “Draíocht intinne, then.”
He turned his back to her and began digging in a saddlebag.
It was her turn to sneer. “Or do you not recognize the term espoused by Sir Aengus in An History of Irish Magic?”
“If you are quite finished with your pitiful exhibit of knowledge of tomes of dubious scholarship,” he snapped, “please tell me, Miss Persephone, whether or not you share your family’s musical talent?”
“It is no mere talent. It is a Gift, bestowed upon our ancestors by Apollo himself, and if you had ever lowered yourself to teach me, you would not ask that question.” She rose to her full height, despite the fact that such displays sent her mother into fits of despair. “Yes. I make music.”
“Then I pray thee…” He whirled and handed her a battered fiddle and bow. “Prove it.”
He grasped her wrist and dragged her into the midst of the stinking crowd of people—Ordinary people, for Magi did not stink—and thrust her toward the base of a broken column left over from Roman rule, now less than a yard high and almost as wide. He tossed a cap at the foot of it, leaving it gaping wide toward the night sky.
“Gods be damned—the theatre’s patrons are already leaving. Play!”
She hesitated, the desire to refuse strong. But then what? Who would rescue her here? Who would come to her aid if he attacked her, or worse, what would she do if he abandoned her?
He had threatened to expose her in such a way that the Beau Monde would not only recoil from her, but from Electra, as well. Even now, her home was bustling with preparations for the musicale, the first Fury musicale, when they would use their Gift to remind Society who the Furys were and what they had been and what they would be again—and when they would secure her sister’s place amongst this Season’s beauties.
As he watched from between the buildings, she scrambled up the broken column until she balanced on its uneven surface, bracing her weight on her forward foot. It was a most unladylike position, but in trousers it hardly mattered.
Her hands caressed the fiddle’s battered and scarred surface until she felt its soul beneath her fingertips, longing to release its voice. It had never been a grand instrument, but it had once known joy. It had once played airs for dancing and now was barely able to hold a tune, she feared, its pegs hardly able to keep its strings taut.
No matter to a Fury. She was quite certain that Dardanus had brought forth sweet music from its depths, because, despite the planet-struck nature of his birth, being a Fury, he could do no less.
A small smile quirked the corners of her lips.
It had never been played by Persephone Fury.
She raised it to her chin and drew her bow across the strings, releasing one long, quivering note into the night.
Deep in her breast, a long, quivering sigh responded.
She met those black eyes across the crowd, and a bolt of fear shot through her.
She closed her eyes, inhaled deeply of filth and all that was Ordinary, tilted her ear to listen, and began.
THE MUSIC SPRANG from her bow in a burst of liquid pain that shot straight into his gut.
Fear had flashed her eyelids before she averted her gaze, as well it should, the insolent chit. But then she’d drawn her bow across the strings. All of Covent Garden stilled under the spell of her haunting, terrifying music. Theatre patrons stopped in the act of entering carriages; cabbage sellers formerly sleeping in their booths now rose to their feet; nobs and harlots all reacted with confused attention to that first quivering sound.
On the road, she hadn’t submitted to him. She’d been immune to his powers. The strongest of Magi couldn’t obstruct his ability. How had she?
And now, a mere touch of her bow to the instrument and magic sang. Yes, the Furys had a magical Gift, but this was beyond anything he’d witnessed from any of her brothers.
She was the one?
This scrawny, yammering girl? The knowledge—and the fear that knowledge sparked—clogged his throat with a broken howl of rage.
And the music, the hells-cursed music. She leaned into it, poured herself into it, and held every soul present in the palm of her hand.
Under her touch, Llwyn Onn, a song from his childhood, turned itself inside out. A tune made for dancing emerged from her fingertips in a sinister minor key. Her fear and sorrow soared into the air, infecting all present.
Rutting hell, she’d woven a trance, and around him, people wept unabashedly.
People who wept didn’t pay.
He dragged a coin from his pocket and with a flip sent it sailing in a high, spinning arc to land perfectly in the cap at her feet.
“Ysbryd y Myrddin!” He closed the distance between them. “Cease the bloody dirge and play something else if you ever want to see your brother again!”
She allowed a single note to draw out long and tense between them. His eyes met hers and a jolt of power surged from deep within him, and he saw that she felt it, too. Her eyes were wide and dilated and even as that note—exquisite in its pain and beauty—stretched between them, so did this force that was his own peculiar power, yet stronger than any he’d experienced before.
Finally he’d broken through.
He possessed her.
He tasted triumph.
The world flew into a dizzying spin, and all that held her erect was the power of his piercing eyes as he attempted yet again to control her.
The bow in her hand vibrated. Her arm quivered with the power. The music in her heart wept.
He was winning.
She was drawn into the dizzying, undulating Shadows that pulsed in his eyes. Shadows that whispered dark and delicious promises. Shadows that called her name in soft whispers. Shadows that tantalized with sweet seduction…
Her heart hammered in her chest. Shadow magic. He was using Shadow magic.
The words he’d spat at her, ysbryd y Myrrdin, echoed in her ears. He’d called on the ghost of Myrrdin to use against her? She would scorn him for his Earthborn superstitions, if the power he raised didn’t fill her with such terror. She tried frantically to summon protection from the Fireborn gods, but she drifted more deeply….
“If you ever want to see your brother again.”
He had been her warmth and strength since they’d shared a womb. Just his name brought her strength. For him, she could—she must—prevail. “Dardanus,” she whispered. “Dardanus.”
In a blinding pain, the spell that bound her ended.
Gasping, she yanked her bow away from the instrument and the music stopped, leaving her aching and empty where it had filled her. But one look at the startled face of her enemy—a sinister contrast of dark and light in the flickering lantern’s glow—brought the taste of victory to her lips.
She fought for air. She would escape him. She would escape him. And lest he mistake her moment of victory for anything else, she flashed him an insolent smile. Oh, she did know how to be insolent, as any in the Fury household would attest.
He wanted the dirge to cease? She shifted her posture and the opening notes of Tom Scarlett floated across the night, a simple melody line, a feather on a puff of air.
Around her, tension melted under the rise and fall of her music. She felt as well as heard the softly released communal breath of relief as her toe began tapping against the broken column. Here and there, other feet tapped. Heads nodded and hands clapped as she sent the rhythmic pulse of her magic into the night.
When she began the second verse, a second tune lilted around the melody, circling it as if two fiddles played, one taking the straight road and a second a circuitous counterpoint that flirted as lightly and gaily as if terror hadn’t danced in her veins only moments before.
A man in dirty homespun made a graceless bow to a young girl and she curtsied. Their boisterous dance across the cobblestones brought laughter and ribald comments, but as he passed, he tossed an Ordinary coin she didn’t know at Persephone’s feet. And then another joined it from another hand, and another. More than she could keep up with.
So this was why she played? To make him money? This was his use of Dardanus, as well, to exploit the Fury Gift to line his pockets?
Angry, she attacked the music and the notes rippled until the sharp night air filled with the sound of three fiddles, now four, each spinning its own web and ensnaring all who heard. Her heart swelled with it.
On this night, she spun magic that could hardly go undetected amongst these Ordinary folk. Thus far, all who listened were too caught under her spell to notice. But the risk, by the gods’ blood, the risk.
But she could no more stop than she could stop breathing. She sensed Mister Jones’s unease and gloried in it. Let him be afraid of getting caught. Wasn’t it his greed that had brought them there?
More bystanders followed the lead of the first couple, and soon an uneven line of a country dance formed. Those who didn’t join it watched, their expressions rapt.
And still, more coins—a syncopated clink of coins, one with the music.
A heavy sound, not like the earlier ones.
Gold. Another piece of gold.
Two well-dressed gentlemen had been drawn into the glow of her spell by the women on their arms. Were these women an example of Ordinary ladies? The garish shades of the women’s gowns, the paint they wore on their faces, the plump breasts barely contained—she’d never seen such horrid displays. Perhaps these weren’t ladies in even an Ordinary sense.
One, her hair a mass of yellow curls that must be a wig of some sort, broke away and drew closer. The woman stared at the violin, then closely at Persephone’s face, and then dragged one finger across her downy cheek.
Persephone yanked back with a snarl.
“You won’t get nowhere on your looks, laddie-me-boy.” With a peal of coarse laughter, she cast a coquettish glance over her shoulder at her male companion.
Persephone ducked her head and played as if the woman didn’t exist.
The woman raised her skirts too high for decency, exposing plump calves clad in white silk, and her feet in her orange slippers began a complicated dance as she flung her head back and laughed giddily.
Until she tripped on what seemed like nothing—
And landed on her knees with a curse.
Persephone bit back a grin and closed her eyes and continued to play,
She knew the power she wielded over these Ordinary folk. She reveled in it.
And now, she knew how to make it work for her. The street before her filled with more people overcome by an almost drunken joy. Mister Jones and his loathsome scowl appeared and disappeared as dancers moved between them. Persephone glanced away, the music buzzing from her fingertips as she worked the crowd to a frenzy, watched it swell and thicken around her.
And then she paused long enough let out a sharp whistle.
Before the trance could break, she played again.
Her whistle pierced the night air. She was up to something.
He fought his way between dancing fools. He threw an elbow into the hard shoulder of a cabbage-seller and dodged the return punch with ease. He was nearly close enough to grasp her when he heard the cries, the fierce hooves striking stone.
The horse appeared, and the twice-cursed girl had a foot in the stirrup and was leaping onto its back.
He lunged, reached to grab her, to stop her.
She tossed the fiddle into his outstretched hand, tossed back her head, and with a high, taunting laugh, took off in a crisp canter across Covent Garden’s market square, sending people who had so recently danced to her tune diving from her temper.
How did she think she could return to the Magi without him as escort?
He snatched up the cap of coins and took off after her.
She was the power he’d sought since he’d reached his majority, since the prophecy had first been laid upon him, thirteen years before.
She’d been under his nose for eight years, and he’d recognized her, because he’d been looking for one of her brothers to share the weight of Myrddin’s legacy.
Chest heaving, lungs screaming for air, he ran, heedless of anything in his path as the voice in his head raged. He’d poured knowledge into their spoiled, lazy minds; he’d suffered through miserable years in their household looking for the sign, the proof he needed that the time of prophecy was truly nigh.
He’d refused her demands for knowledge, refused to even look at her puling writings, and now the truth rose with the bile in his throat as he collapsed against a crumbling waddle wall, unable to run another step.
He knew this now, when his bridges back to the Fury family were truly and ruttingly burnt.
She stood in the stirrups to escape the pain of Hades’ jolting trot, of hooves striking cobblestones with jarring force. She’d bested him. Savage joy coursed through her veins.
“Take me home, my darling,” she crooned. “I don’t know the way. You must take me home.” Surely loyal Hades could return to the portal that led back to her own world.
The rhythm beneath her became a single pounding word repeated again and again—bastard bastard bastard—feeding the darkest corners of her soul.
She’d bested him.
And she’d be making offerings to the gods that the bastard Vespasian Jones would find his way into torment, and soon.
There were few others on the road once they left that horrid marketplace behind. Within minutes, Hades had slowed to a gentle walk and she had neither the heart nor the energy to urge him faster again. They rode along an immense brick wall to the right, a wall that must encompass acres. Was this the way they’d entered the city? She didn’t know; she couldn’t remember. She fought down the panic and sank into the saddle. As they passed a pair of gates she glimpsed a sign in the moonlight and scowled. Foundlings Hospital. So this was what the Ordinary folk did with their foundlings? Imprison them behind high walls?
What had that magic been, that strange exultation of power unlike any she’d ever experienced? Never had she ached so. Never had she known such exhaustion. A teeth-rattling chill swept down her spine, and she shrank even deeper into Dardanus’s coat.
Mister Jones would never dare come within reach of a Fury again, once she exposed him to her father and mother. Finally, she’d be vindicated.
But behind every brave word lurked the memory of black eyes burning with hatred.
Behind every brave vow leered the memory of thin lips twisted in a snarl.
Behind every brave threat lingered the memory of Shadows, and falling, and terror.
Her hands trembling on the reins and her thighs quivering with fatigue, she caught the scent and sound of water. She allowed Hades his head to wade into the shallows of the small, flowing river and drink. Tenderly, she stroked his mane and withers, murmuring soft words of praise. The splay of black tree foliage against star-spun night stretched overhead in a familiar pattern. He’d brought her within sight of safety—the church looming on the other side of the bridge, and the fog-shrouded cemetery hugging its eastern walls.
Before Hades could drink too much and risk colic, she reined him up. She forced him back onto the road, and they clattered across the bridge. And then the odd awareness broke through the weight of her exhaustion. Fog. Not on the river, but high on the banks at the church?
Her pulse jumped as she felt the change around her, the quiver in the air. The foggy mist shrouded the portal like a beacon.
“You darling boy, you’ve done it.” She clicked her tongue and urged him forward, growing impatient when—having brought her this far—Hades suddenly shied. The sideways lurch of his body almost unseated her. She was too exhausted for this, too drained to fight with him, but she refused to spend a single moment more in this place of smells and danger. And so she dug her heels sharply into his flanks and urged him forward with her seat.
With a burst of strength, he sprang forward, into the mist—
And her body exploded with pain.
The road stretched silver before Robin Fitzwilliam in the light of the almost full moon. He allowed his mount her head to cover the ground, trusting her familiarity on these roads. His mind roiled with confusion. On his left hand, the signet ring he’d never dreamed of wearing, never wanted to wear, weighed heavy as stone.
But wear it he did, and all that it symbolized, including the weight of the small holding of Aubrey.
Images spun before him, of his uncle, his cousin, first living and then—clods of dirt hitting coffins with hollow menace—dead.
It was with relief that he felt his mare’s gait shift beneath him as the beast snorted and quivered, grateful to focus more sharply on the road and the tendrils of mist floating over it.
Mist? The night was clear, the moonlight bright and sharp as diamond.
The mare spooked. He fought to control her as the mist grew heavier and a weight settled in his gut. He was in the act of turning back when he glimpsed a dark horse grazing in the deepness of an overhanging oak, a figure slumped over its back.
A slight figure.
Why would a child be out alone in the middle of the night?
He forced his horse forward despite her arched neck, aware this might be a trap.
When he’d drawn as near as was practical, he dismounted and secured his irritated mount with a wrap of reins around a low-hanging limb and a practiced tracing of a magical sigil in the air to keep it still.
The black horse seemed less inclined to accept his dominance. Every time Robin took a step forward the horse took two back. And yet it seemed more nervous than defensive, its movement gentle, or else the youth on its back would be on the ground by now.
“Easy,” he murmured, and when he was certain the horse wouldn’t panic, he again whisked his hand in the calming sigil and finally chanced the most extreme method of control by running his hand from forelock to muzzle, down its unfortunate Roman profile that arched where his own thoroughbred was elegantly straight. The horse calmed. Robin slid the slender youth’s body from the expensive saddle and staggered backward, not from the weight, for in truth, the boy weighed little, but from the reek of Shadows.
It was a miracle the gelding hadn’t tossed the stripling to rid himself of the Darkness on its back.
He eased the boy onto the ground, heaving in great gulps of fresh air as he frantically ripped removed his glove from his right hand. He knelt and touched the slender throat—there it was, beneath his fingertips—a strong, steady pulse. He let out a sigh of relief.
But the boy’s body was limp and his skin was hot and damp with sweat. Robin fumbled with the boy’s heavy jacket and grabbed the lapels to yank it open.
Thin fingers closed around his wrists. With a snarl, the boy heaved himself up and delivered a smart punch to Robin’s jaw, knocking him back on his heels in shock.
“Don’t touch me!” the boy rasped fiercely.
“You’re overheated. Let’s get that coat off—”
Two sharp-knuckled fists smacked into him at the same time, leaving both his cheeks stinging.
“Keep your hands off my coat!” The boy scrambled to his feet and leapt against the horse, attempting to mount.
“Gods damn it,” Robin spat, “you’re drowning in Shadows, boy, we need to—”
A foot caught him in the chest and he staggered back, then hurled himself forward, grabbed the boy by the collar, and yanked.
They both fell tumbling into the dirt. “You’d best pray it’s the Darkness that has driven you mad, boy, because if it’s not, you’ll pay for these bruises with some of your own!” He pinned the boy to the ground with one hand braced on a shoulder and continued, “I’m not going to hurt you. Just calm down and let’s see if we can relieve you.”
The boy relaxed, calming except for his heaving chest as he fought for air.
Robin’s mind raced through his options, coming up blank.
“Cat-mint…” the boy muttered. “Tincture of angelica. Blue chalcedony, jet, bronzite, amber—do you have any on you?”
“No,” Robin said, surprised.
The boy moaned. “Trifolium, then. There’s—there’s bound to be trifolium…” The boy’s head fell back into the dirt.
“Trifolium. I don’t know.”
“Clover,” the boy ordered, scorn dripping from his voice. “I’m speaking of clover.”
Robin paced along the road looking for a clump of clover, unsure whether to laugh or snarl.
“Do you at least know your Greek sigils?” the boy muttered weakly. “The banishing sigil performed with clover…”
Greek, he thought resentfully rubbing his jaw. “I know sigils,” he said, amending silently, if I can remember the Greek ones from the schoolroom. If he got the scamp past this spell of poisoning, he was going to thrash him.
And where had he got into such Darkness in the first place?
He found a large clump that looked in the moonlight like it might be clover—trifolium, he thought with a sigh. He yanked it up by the roots and sniffed, then paced quickly back to the boy, whose breathing was sounding more and more labored. Robin was beginning to have real concerns for his safety. “I found your clover.”
“Good,” the boy sighed. “Scrape the Greek sigil for banning in the dirt and then trace it with the trifolium seven times….”
Robin did as instructed, his boot heel making a harsh sound in the night as he prayed silently to Diana, protector of children, that he was doing it correctly, or if not, near enough.
“How long has it been since you were cleansed?”
Impertinent little brat. “My soul is not overburdened.”
“You evaded my question, which is answer enough, may the gods deliver me,” the boy retorted with equal venom. “Well, I can’t tell that it makes a difference, despite what the priests say. If you’d please… promise an offering to Nemesis. I’ll make it myself once I’m home.”
Nemesis? The boy wanted vengeance? Something sinister had definitely happened, and Robin was at once alert and protective. At the moment, he just needed to come up with an acceptable prayer. He held his hands over the boy’s body and called, “Away, away, from your feet and from all your limbs… erm… Shadows and every muscular pain!” he finished with a wince.
“Did you just use the prayer to rid me of gout?” the boy asked incredulously.
“I said Shadows,” Robin muttered.
The boy let out a disgusted sigh. “I’m doomed.”
“Listen, lad, I’m no priest.”
“No scholar, either,” the scamp said weakly.
Frustrated, Robin offered a silent prayer to both goddesses, promising offerings, and finally closed off the sigil.
His energy pulsed within him—amazing—skimming throughout his body and then settling onto his left hand, the hand that wore—
The amber signet.
“Boy,” Robin said, hesitantly. “If you had amber, what would you do with it?
PERSEPHONE GLARED UP at the man, seething. “All this time you’ve been wearing an amber ring and you didn’t bother to—”
“Enough,” he ordered.
The amber surface of the ring caught a glint of moonlight, beckoning.
She reached. Touched.
And a zing like lightning sparked between them, fingertip to ring.
He yanked his hand back, stunned.
For one frozen moment, neither of them moved.
She felt… bright.
She looked down and saw no difference from before, but it was unmistakable, the change, a feeling of bright, molten strength. Like… like amber.
Then it was gone.
She was drained, desperate to feel it again, to feel more.
And terrified. The amber should have cleansed her, not done whatever it had done. First the music, now this. She stumbled to her feet, and mumbled, “Thank you.” Before the man could gather his wits, she leapt to the top of a smooth rock, thrust her foot into the stirrup, and swung her leg over Hades’s back. She had to get away before something else happened that she could neither explain nor control.
The man grabbed the bridle. “What in Apollo’s name just happened?”
“Release me! I have to be home before dawn.”
“Or you’ll get the much-deserved thrashing of your life?”
“It’s just…” She shifted in discomfort, her hand over her abdomen. “I don’t want to vex them today of all days.”
He studied her with concern. “You’re sure you can make such a ride?”
She tossed her head. “Of course.”
“How far are you riding?” the man asked maddeningly.
She didn’t know where she was, much less how to get home. But Hades would get her home. Hadn’t he got her this far? Yet this man had been kindness itself, despite everything. And Hades clearly trusted him. “My horse needs water.”
“I crossed a stream not far back, and I’ve a flask of watered wine if you think you can tolerate a sip or two…”
Tolerate? As if she were a mere child?
As they rode she gulped from the flask until he reached across and pulled it away from her lips. Finally she sat stiffly, as both horses drank from the gurgling stream.
She felt the man watching her.
“What’s your name, lad?” he finally asked.
“Dardanus,” she answered without hesitation.
“And your surname?”
“Not for one who doesn’t bother to offer his own name.”
He laughed. It was warm and comforting and golden, that laugh. A laugh that, at the moment, made her want to weep with exhaustion and fear and pain. She gave her head a shake, trying to clear it.
“Robin—” He broke off abruptly, then said, “Sir Robert Fitzwilliam.”
“You have a title!”
“You don’t have sisters to marry off, do you? That sounded positively scheming.”
“One,” Persephone replied, and then quickly, “Well, two, actually, I have a twin sister, but she’s hardly ready for marriage.”
“Still at seminary, then?”
She froze, forced her voice to be scornful. “No, she doesn’t need seminary. She can learn more at home than she could ever learn in a place where all they care about is social graces.” That much was true. But so was the shame, the fear that outsiders would learn of her difference and refuse to join their bloodlines with a family that could produce such as she. She repeated lamely, “She has no need for seminary, Sir Robert.”
“Call me Robin. Nobody has ever called me ‘Sir’ in my life.” Then, as if in explanation, “I wasn’t a Sir until yesterday. I’m a poor and lowly baronet, I fear, not a plum ready to be picked by a miss in the marriage mart. My family is too old and respected to snub but too lowly to respect. If your sister has high aspirations, she’ll not be for the likes of me.”
“There’s no telling how high she might marry. She is astoundingly lovely.”
“How fortunate I’m not looking for a wife. My heart won’t be shattered on the shoals of her beauty.” Robin laughed.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with being a baronet. I rather like the simplicity of ‘Sir Robin.’ Like a knight of the round table.”
“A knight out on the midnight road, rescuing damsels–”
She froze. Damsel?
“Or rather, lads—in distress.”
Heart pounding, Persephone blurted, “I rescued myself, thank you very much!” And now she sounded positively missish! She guided Hades back up toward the road, holding her breath, praying silently, then felt relief as the horse took the lead and headed west. “Home, boy,” she leaned forward and murmured. “Home…”
But blister him! In no time, Sir Robin was beside her again. “What brings you out on such a fine night?” Sir Robin asked, firm. “And how did you end up drowning in Shadow?”
She attempted to mimic Cosmo’s air of nonchalance. “Adventuring.”
“More adventure than you counted on, I take it.”
Persephone snorted. “You might say that.”
“I won’t let you ride alone and must tell your father about your brush with Shadows.”
“I’ll tell him, and you needn’t think I won’t,” she said with a tendril of unease, grateful that he had no suspicion that the Shadows he sensed dwelled within her.
“Would it be presumptuous of me to ask what happened to you?”
Again, she hesitated. Cosmo, she thought fiercely, determined to carry it through. Cosmo. Finally she said in a tone that was near boasting, “I was abducted.”
“But I escaped—” now she was boasting “—and left the bas—blackguard stranded in Ordinary London, and we’ll just see if he perpetrates such an offence again on my… on me.”
“You—you were taken into the Ordinary world?”
“Hades got me out, bless his withers and fetlocks. However,” she said thoughtfully, “I think it must have been the passage from the Ordinary world to this one that caused me injury. That’s the last I remember, forcing Hades through because I didn’t know the words that Mister—the man said, and then pain, and then…” She turned to Sir Robin, wishing she could see his face, his eyes. “You.”
“There are portals, of course, but what happened to you could only happen if the portal itself was Shadowed. You say you had to force your horse through?”
“It didn’t hurt him, though. It didn’t hurt my horse… I think he was trying to protect me,” she said softly and knew that he was now truly her horse, brave, solid Hades, inelegant as he might be.
Robin shifted in his saddle. “I’ve heard of such. My mother used to make offerings on this road to Elen of the Ways, ‘to smooth passage on roads both seen and unseen.’”
“But that’s the old gods, the Dark ones,” Persephone said dismissively. “It’s not as if anybody follows them now.” She froze. “Your mother did so?”
He cleared his throat, his unease evident. “So she said.”
She had to put more distance between herself and this place of Dark portals and offerings. “I can find my way. My family will be horrid if they’ve discovered my absence, and you don’t want to be caught up in that,” she said desperately.
“And that family would be?”
What name to give him? Surely not her own. And yet he was a baronet. He was kind and even rather funny, and it wasn’t as if her family wouldn’t find out. “How old are you?” she demanded.
“Six and twenty,” he said with a startled laugh.
Not too terribly old then. “Fury,” she said. “The Furys of Erinyes Manor.”
“Not Cosmo Fury’s brother?”
Persephone swelled with pride. “You know him?”
“Who doesn’t know of that young rake? Well, then, that settles it. I’ll not have you lost or worse. I wouldn’t want to have to answer to Cosmo for that one.”
The sun still lingered below the horizon, but the sky was already turning shades of rose and lilac and gold as the goddess Eos opened the gates of heaven to show her brother the way home.
She heard Sir Robin’s in-drawn breath and let a smile curl her lips.
The lane swung to the east and then dipped down into the small warded valley that protected her family home.
He reined in and looked out over the vista spread below them. “It’s… beautiful.”
What he lacked in eloquence he more than made up for in tone. And who was she to fault him for being awestruck? The land spread below them was green as emeralds, the manor itself a moated jewel of Tudor prosperity, still as grand as it had been the day it had been completed.
“Bardán Fury requested Roslyn Manor from King Henry VIII as a boon,” she said proudly. “He was an Irish poet, a musician, a bard, and a soldier. Henry rewarded him for his assistance in routing out the rebel Kildares.”
“I learned the history in the schoolroom, of course, but was too young to notice the subtleties. An interesting trait in an Irishman, to be more loyal to an English king than one’s own lord?”
“Never doubt a Fury’s loyalty.” She smirked. “Or our knack for choosing well where our loyalties should lie. Henry seized Roslyn Manor, a stronghold of Catholics, and bestowed it on my ancestor.”
Robin lifted his eyebrows. “A member of the Magi who would have been burned for witchcraft, had but Henry been aware.”
Persephone glowed with pride. “And having been in Henry’s court and noting how quickly the king’s fevers flared against his own fellow Christians, Bardán Fury convinced the Magi to withdraw from the Ordinary world. He saw the burning times coming.”
“He was a Seer?”
“He was canny.”
Sir Robin’s smile was wry. “It’s odd. Not many traversed the warp and weave of royal politics so gracefully, in two different Courts. But after—no Furys are numbered among the Lords, amongst the nobility. For a kingmaker, he had little ambition.”
“The Furys need no titles from kings,” Persephone retorted. “We have Gifts from the Gods.”
“Oho!” Sir Robin laughed uproariously.
She chafed at his amusement. She tilted her chin proudly. “Our people were dancing in the temples and pleasing the gods with song at the beginning of time.”
“None can trace back that far,” he challenged.
“I don’t need records to confirm what I know in my soul.”
“You’re as precocious as you are exasperatingly clever,” Robin proclaimed. “Now I understand the old adage about Furys pleasing kings.”
“In England ‘tis said that the Furys have the gift of pleasing kings.” She recited the old verse for him, grinning. “In Ireland, ‘tis said, never trust a Fury.” But she kept the third line to herself, as Furys always did.
The glow that had begun as the sun slowly cresting the distant hills became alive within her. Never had she felt so free, with no one admonishing her to restrain herself in front of company, to keep her thoughts appropriate and proper.
Was this what her life would have been had she been a boy?
Or was it this man, this Sir Robin Fitzwilliam, who treated her with such dignity and equality, as if she weren’t thirteen years old, as if she weren’t beneath his notice, or more, as if she were intelligent and interesting?
She could hardly breathe with the pain of it. This moment of being accepted was like lightning, brilliant and brief, and already fading, because below them lay her home and her family, and she might never see this man again.
She turned her eyes to him, to drink in what the new sun revealed to remember always, and at that moment—
The new sun’s rays graced his head and his shoulders, and from shadow to light, he became the brilliance. His hair was rich auburn, glinting with bronze and red in the ethereal light of dawn. His eyes were green as moss and his skin warm and golden, and his smile, oh dear merciful gods and goddesses, his smile melted her.
His broad shoulders and strong hands and—so much to remember, and yet it was all blurring, because her eyes were filling with tears, and—and—she never cried. She couldn’t cry. Only a girl would cry!
She dug her heels into Hades’ flanks. He flew down the road, his hooves scarcely touching the ground. She leaned over his neck, fighting back the tears, forcing them down, down deep, deep where she ached and where they would be swallowed up with the rest of her inappropriate behaviors and magics and—
They thundered through the gatehouse, beneath the razor-edged portcullis, across the heavy plank drawbridge that spanned the moat. Finally, they were in the safety of the cobbled courtyard, surrounded on all four sides by Erinyes Manor, with Sir Robin right behind her. But it was all right now, because she was home, and she wouldn’t weep, and she wouldn’t reveal her masquerade and shame her family and bring scandal to Electra, and she was home….
And then she glanced down and saw blood where her legs spread over the saddle.
Her menarche? Of all days, today was to be her menarche?
She bit back a wail of horror. The pains in her abdomen became clear to her. Electra’s complaints of aches hadn’t been mere maidenly weakness. And now it was her plight, as well!
The first to hear the commotion in the courtyard was, praise the gods, Lysander, who came out of the manor and stood silent and still, his black Fury hair hanging over his brow, his cunning gaze darting from her to Robin and back again, one eyebrow arching in question. And yet, she couldn’t speak, couldn’t form words.
“I fear I found your scamp of a brother in a bit of a bother.” She heard the smile in Sir Robin’s voice, though she didn’t allow herself to look back at him.
She couldn’t tear her gaze away from Lysander, poised beyond his seventeen years as he relaxed into his usual slouch.
“My dear brother Dardanus,” he chided. “Whatever are we going to do with you? And look at that horse.”
Hades tossed his head and pulled at the reins in an effort to turn back to the stables, fighting as hard as if he weren’t drenched in sweat and dirt and pushed to the point of exhaustion. Her heart swelled with guilt that she hadn’t taken him there first.
“Get down so one of the stable boys can—”
No, she begged with her eyes.
He strolled closer and his gaze froze on the bloody source of her terror, froze with understanding that would have humiliated her under any other circumstance, but now relieved her, because he knew, and he would save her.
“On second thought, take him to the stable yourself. You got him in this state. It’s your job to care for him.”
But before she could move, Electra arrived at the doorway, her hair a tousle of ebony waves and eyes the darkest grey, her skin porcelain and her dressing gown hastily tied around her slender waist.
Sir Robin Fitzwilliam’s gaze fixed on her like she was a vision of a goddess.
As, after all, she was.
And Persephone’s heart rent in two. He had been hers, hers, and for one night it had made no difference that she was only thirteen and he thought her a boy and she would never be beautiful.
For one night, he had been hers.
And now, he wasn’t.
Her mother and the downstairs maid appeared behind Electra. Persephone knew she had to leave immediately. Hades shifted restlessly beneath her, then snorted. Her magic was distressing him, threatening to erupt again in public with servants and Sir Robin as witnesses.
With her blood, her magic, flowing from her, she rode back out of the courtyard, through the gatehouse and to the stables, before her shame and her curse were revealed to the world.
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